So at the start of this year-- right in the first week of January in fact, I read my first Historical Romance in a long, long time. I've read historical romance before of course, but this time it was different, this was historical romance, but with thoroughly modern-minded heroines and writing. I read this book on the egging of some friends and down the rabbit hole we all went and never climbed out. Now there's a whole group of us on twitter that get together to discuss our latest reads.
It was interesting to me to note over the year that in this group that adored sweeping romances, there was also a real love for the morbid and macabre. For horror. These were two such seemingly disparate genres. Romance was all about love and goodness and horror was all about the worst parts of humanity. So I wanted to figure out why is it that women are so drawn to these genres, in particular horror. My explanation? Both the Horror and Romance Genre are places where female stories thrive the most.
Romance novels, from historical to contemporaries, allow women to find fulfillment in their careers (even in historicals), discover who they are, explore their inner lives, and find love and happiness. I would argue that the romance landscape in terms of tv and cinema has been less rewarding for me in recent years. The new wave of horror cinema and television is therefore the flip side of romance novels. After the incredible output of female driven horror in 2014-2015 (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, The Babadook, Honeymoon, Under the Skin, Shrew's Nest, It Follows, Crimson Peak.) it is clear that modern horror is exploring the dark and complicated side of being a woman that no other genre is currently doing as well on-screen. This has largely come from the subversion of a woman's usual role of victimhood in horror cinema.
Females are still seen as being vulnerable and weak (mentally, physically etc.) and therefore make for the best victims, the perfect canvas to inflict suffering on (probably why the crime genre is just littered with the bodies of dead women). Horror also traditionally has an unhealthy view on female sexuality. Only sexually chaste women survive the horror. By horror movie rules, women who are sexual die, because sex makes them sinful and impure, and women are meant to be paragons of morality and virtue. We've since moved past this--- at least in horror cinema. In many other genres--- crime, drama, sci-fi, fantasy etc, where characters are supposed to be painted in less extremes than horror, women are still expected to be the voice of morality, or victims to propel the stories of men (every superhero movie ever, Game of Thrones).
Modern horror cinema has seen its heroines turn the rules of horror--- and of society's patriarchal and morality standards for women. Scream (1996) allowed its Final Girl to have sex and survive. Repulsion (1965) altogether explores are much darker and complex side of female sexuality, with its protagonist Carol repulsed by sex in a world where she is objectified by men constantly, while simultaneously craving it. This war with her sexuality is what causes her eventual mental breakdown.
Guillermo Del Toro's latest Crimson Peak, uses sex as something that is liberating for both its heroine and its villainess. For both of them, sex is intimacy, for them to bring them closer to the person they love. Indeed, Gothic Romance, in its traditional form, has always been a veiled commentary about sex and darkness with its innocent heroine desiring to 'experience the world' and the mysterious Byronic hero being the dark pull that exposes her to the darker parts of human nature.
Horror has therefore allowed for a wider (and darker) variety of stories about women to be told, where women are more than their virtue. Where women climb out of the comforts of their homes to experience the dark that comes with the light, struggle against societal expectations, where they discover their shadow selves, fight, and learn to live with it. As Margaret Atwood once said, "she who loses her shadow also loses her soul."
One of the themes unique to women is motherhood. The war against their own darkness and struggles with motherhood is the central conflict in both Possession (1981) and The Babadook (2014). Isabelle Adjani's Anna is fighting against the traditional female roles of both wife and mother as she takes on a (quite literally) monstrous lover and neglects her child in Possession. Amelia in The Babadook struggles with raising her difficult child as well as being unable to let go of the death of her husband. The monster in The Babadook is a metaphor for all her inner demons. Amelia's story perfectly encompasses the Atwood quote mentioned earlier. Her darkness is her grief, her inability to understand and control her child, her fear that she is not a good mother that gives birth to a monster. She fights against this monster for her soul, and for the life of her child, and comes out alive, and with a greater understanding of who she is. The epilogue of the movie summarizes the metaphor: the monster remains alive, but she can now control it. Amelia in this story is allowed to be a less than perfect mother, to love her child but still resent motherhood and her child. These are the types of feelings that most people shy away from and are afraid to confront, fearing that it says something damning about who they are. What people don't realize is that the only way to control darkness is to confront it.
On television, Penny Dreadful, the Victorian Gothic Horror series from John Logan, one ups the idea that women can be final girls or monsters. A major theme in the series is that women can be heroes and monsters at the same time, which is a revolutionary idea for a lot of men (but also women, apparently, judging from the reaction to Gone Girl). Vanessa Ives, the show's protagonist, is the most complex and extraordinary character. She is daughter, witch, devil's bride, lover, sister, friend, tortured soul, and a heroine. We see her capable of extraordinary power, power that she uses to commit monstrous acts, as well as to defend the people she loves. We see her guarded and cruel, but also see her vulnerability, her caring and funny side. Her dark desires and wicked thoughts are things she has always acknowledged, even relished, but it also overwhelms her. Ultimately though, she always confronts her demons head on, choosing to know who she is, rather than wish to be someone normal that she will never be.
Season 2 of the show introduced Lily, who was a minor character in Season 1 that was resurrected to become the mate for Caliban, Frankenstein's Monster. Lily is child-like from her transformation and gravitates to Victor Frankenstein, her maker. In a twisted version of Pygmalion, Victor cares for Lily, and essentially molds her into his ideal woman who relies and defers to him only, and exists to please and love him. He even dictates her appearance, from her hair color to her clothes. Caliban is no better, behaving like an entitled boyfriend when he sees Lily with other men. Caliban and Victor are both what we call in present day: Nice Guys, believing themselves to be entitled to Lily's body because they treat her well. Lily eventually graduates from being Perpetual Victim, The Monster's Bride to a terrifying and beautiful combination of monster and heroine of her own story as she turns on both Caliban and Victor in a hypnotic, rage-fueled speech where she highlights the oppression of women in a patriarchal society.
While Lily's plot was going on, EX-MACHINA had just rolled out in cinemas. EX-MACHINA belongs to sci-fi, but it can also be classified as horror for its last act, whereby what is truly horrifying is not that Ava kills off both her creator (and father figure) and her love interest (her entitled boyfriend figure). What is truly horrifying as a female viewer was how all the other female robots were treated as nothing more than disposable objects to be used for sex, not far off from our current reality. Of course, what is horrifying for male viewers as I've come to learn while talking about this film with men, is how they view Ava as a conniving monster who killed the poor men. As if BOTH men, even 'the nice one' weren't complicit in trying to control Ava. Ava and Lily's stories run parallel. They are the heroines of their own stories but they are also seen as monsters for the brutality of their actions.
Cynthia Freeland, in her book "Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films" states that 'the fates of women and monsters are often linked' because they exist as a threat to the patriarchal order. Indeed, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--- one of the first sci-fi/horror novels--- touched on the idea that the patriarchy fears womanhood because of their ability to create. If the fates of women and monsters are linked, women should be allowed to be monsters as they are mothers and wives and sisters and heroines. Horror gives women the space to tell the stories of being monsters or heroines or both.
It's notable that The Babadook, Honeymoon and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night were all written and directed by women. These three films deal with the dark side of being a mother, a new wife and a teenage girl. There is an authenticity in the experiences of the women in the film coming from a female writer and director. And while it is likely that horror will never be as female-dominated as the Romance community, there is the hope that more and more women will go on to tell female-driven horror stories, both on screen and in literature. Horror still has a long way to go, along with other genres, there are still far too many stories with piles of dead, faceless women. But at least horror has made strides in allowing women their darkness and complexity.
Lastly, this post was brought to you and inspired partly by the release of the trailer for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which basically fuses together the two things I love best: historical romance and horror. Why would I not want to see Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy fall in love while spilling the guts of zombies?
Postscript: I thank everyone in my book club, especially Sam and Annie who i credit those alliterations in the title to, as well as the other Sam aka Lady Lucille Sharpe for sharing my love of psycho ladies and uptight British people falling in love.