The harrowing realities of being female in a wicked world have inspired horror, gothic and speculative fiction for centuries.
In late 2018, prominent horror film producer Jason Blum came under fire on Twitter for defending his production company’s failure to hire female directors, saying it was the result of women’s disinterest in exploring horror. Women, it turns out, not only like the dark just fine, they’ve staked it out as their own. Indeed, it’s largely due to women that the horror genre developed as it has. When literature that was gothic, dramatic and shocking was thought to be trash unfit for the highbrow male, women writers and readers flooded the macabre void. Through horror, they began to write the dark side of the female experience: endangered, haunted, preyed upon.
In Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, scholars of the weird Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson trace the genealogy of women who’ve dealt in the unsettling, from the 17th century into the present. This book is inspired not only in the way it explores what the off-kilter, the monstrous and the half-known has meant to women for centuries but also in how it illuminates the often unusual lives of the women who crafted these dark worlds. Amelia Edwards was a swashbuckling explorer who traveled Egypt with her female partners in the Victorian era and wrote stories about mummies. Daphne du Maurier enigmatically referred to herself as a “disembodied spirit” throughout her childhood. Shirley Jackson was whispered to be a witch. As rebels within the male-dictated feminine role, were these women writing themselves as monsters? Or was it the world around them that was malformed, menacing?
Sady Doyle would answer, “Why not both?” The engrossing Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power embarks on a fascinating exploration of the women we make into monsters in film, in literature and in life. (Behind every male serial killer is a bad mother, society would say, as Doyle rolls her eyes.) When a woman steps outside her prescribed role, Doyle argues, suddenly everyone’s a Puritan minister, signing the cross and hissing, “Witch.” What is Lucy Westenra from Dracula if not a woman who consumed as she pleased? What were the protagonists of the film The Craft but disempowered girls who finally stood up? Doyle uses these tales to examine what feminine power can mean to us now.
It’s thought that Mary Shelley wrote her Creature as a metaphor for womanhood—a trod-upon and mistreated thing that famously stated, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!” upon discovering that being nice got it nowhere. Doyle might agree. In an era that seems to reflect renewed violence against women, it might be time to sweetly remind those around us that we are dangerous. Monsters, after all, have claws.