It may have started when writer/producer Debra Hill joined forces with John Carpenter to pen what has, over 30 years, become one of the most recognized and appreciated horror films of all time—one that paved the bloody path for a generation of pseudo-copies—Halloween. Or maybe it was Jamie Lee Curtis’ break-out role as the mousy heroine, Laurie Strode. At some juncture on the road of horror pop-culture—one that for decades men were only thought to have trodden—women began to rise above the bare-breasted, axe-wound victim that they had always been portrayed as in cinematic tales of the macabre.
But the up-rise of women in the horror genre actually happened years before Halloween was released. In 1954, a very scary lady dressed in all black began broadcasting live, haunting airwaves throughout the Los Angeles area—her name, was Vampira. Based on the personalities of silent film actresses Gloria Swanson and Theda Bara, as well as the evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with an image that was inspired by the drawings that Charles Addams had done during his employment with The New Yorker, the show was cancelled after a brief two-year run on television, and Vampira later became the inspiration for Morticia Addams of The Addams FamilyIn 1981, a new horror hostess took over the airwaves. Since, she has become an iconic female figure of all things frightening—Elvira. The real woman under all that black is a singer-performer-actress Cassandra Peterson. She made her big break on to Hollywood screens as the beloved mistress of the macabre, and is still to this very day as popular as ever. She has since produced and starred in two Elvira movies, as well as taking roles in a variety of other films, and transforming the Elvira character into a wo
rld-renowned label, celebrated particularly during the Halloween season.
Not only have women broken conventional genre boundaries (I.E. horror is a “guy thing”) in both films and television, but in literature as well, fiction and non. Anne Rice is basically the mother of great American Goth-horror. Her Vampire Chronicles inspired a few less-than-par screen adaptations during the ‘90s, and countless emulations. So it goes without saying that Rice’s work is of monumental stature in the realm of horror literature. Another Ann has also made tremendously significant contributions to the world of petrifying print—that is, true crime writer Ann Rule.
Rule is a woman of real-life horror that has struggled with sexist oppression. Early in her career, while she was writing for a crime publication, she was advised by her editor to write under a male pseudonym—otherwise her chances of being taken seriously were slim. After many successful stories that earned much of the attention of the publication’s readership, she was allowed to cast aside her pen name, Andy Stacks. How times have changed. Nowadays, women are snagging jobs with all sorts of publications—both print and web—that specialize in the gratuitously gruesome.
Jovanka Vuckovic held the esteemed position of Editor-in-Chief with Canada’s most predominate and professional horror fanzine, Rue Morgue magazine, for six and a half years. She is currently in production with her first film, The Captured Bird, as well as anticipating the upcoming release of her book, Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, and taking a crack at first-time motherhood. She remembers her love of horror developing in-sync with her childhood insomnia.
“It was during those late and lonely nights that I became acquainted with Vincent Price in the Roger Corman [Edgar Allen] Poe adaptations—not to mention the Canadian children’s show he appeared in, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.”
Vuckovic believes that the role of women in horror has really changed for the better over the past decade. “Today, it’s commonplace for women to survive [in] horror films—though I love it when [filmmakers] break that “rule”…like in the French slasher film, À l'intérieur (Inside), where the villain and the victim are both female,” Vuckovic said.
“Just go to the average horror convention and you’ll see more than half of the attendees are women now! It hasn’t always been that way but nerd culture is bigger than ever and it definitely includes women,” Vuckovic said.
Writer/Journalist Heidi Martinuzzi is another woman who has made significant contributions to the horror culture. She runs a genre-fan site called FanGirlTastic.com (formally, Pretty-Scary.net). “I write about what's going on in the genre entertainment world,” she said. “ I'm also a feminist; I like to focus on writing about women making horror movies as much as possible. I'm really disheartened by how few women horror filmmakers have fans the way men do.”
As for the unnecessary gender inequality in the genre, Martinuzzi stands firm on her belief that sex plays no part in character development in movies, using Ridley Scott’s Alien as the perfect example. “Alien created the ultimate horror heroine for the genre; Ripley is a female, but her character is genderless within the context of the film,” Martinuzzi said, “what I mean by that is that she's not affected by her gender as a social construction. She's just "Ripley", and how strong or weak she is has nothing to do with what she's got between her legs.”
Martinuzzi is also the director of the annual Viscera Film Festival is Los Angeles, CA, alongside founder of the festival, Shannon Lark—writer, director, producer, actress and also the official spooksmodel for Fangoria Entertainment magazine. She has also worked on over 30 different independent short films. Lark said that her love of horror stems from a bloody ballet rendition of Romeo and Juliet that her mother took her to as a child. “I was blown away at the blood effect the dancers used at the end,” she said. “From then on I was hooked! I forced my friends into horror marathons and rented anything that that was weird, abstract and horrifying.”
Lark raises the fact that women have been shunned from the film industry since as far back as the 1920s, and that creative filmmaking was just another freedom that women had to fight for. “Women were ostracized from the film industry in the ‘20s when the big banks bought out Hollywood and filmmaking became a ‘legit’ profession,” she said. “From then on, women have had to scale brick walls and financial ruin to secure financing and distribution, on top of raising children and fighting for equal pay and the right to vote. Women are still having a hard time getting work in Hollywood.”
So this February, in honour of all the fabulous women who have put strength, pride and perhaps a little something bittersweet into the horror genre, do a bit of research, make a list of female writers, filmmakers and artists that deserve to be celebrated, get some friends together for a movie night and take a closer look into the beauty of the dark side.
My Movie Recommendations for Women in Horror Month:
-Sleep Away Camp
-the Viscera Festival short films
-I Spit on Your Grave
-Dario Argento's Three Mothers Trilogy (Suspiria, Inferno, Mother of Tears)
-Grindhouse: Death Proof