OHIO, April 18 — Like heavy metal or Wall Street, horror can seem like a boys club. Men make the movies. Women play the victims.
But then you go to a fan gathering like HorrorHound Weekend in this working-class Cincinnati suburb, as I did last month, and it becomes clear: Do not mess with women who are into gore. To be a woman who enjoys horror is to swing a hatchet into the face of gender expectations.
For these fans, devotion runs deep. At the convention, two women debated the John Carpenter catalogue. One group of teenagers giddily ranked the final girls in the Friday the 13th franchise. A mum brought her young child dressed as a knife-wielding Chucky.
A convention organiser said that the event has increasingly attracted female fans and become more family friendly. It’s a change that’s catching up to movie-going; horror film audiences have been “a 50-50 split, historically” between men and women, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at comScore, which compiles box-office data.
Female fan communities thrive on blogs like Ax Wound and Graveyard Shift Sisters, which focuses on women of colour. Behind the camera, women are shrewdly pushing boundaries, a real feat in a genre that craves new frontiers of luridness. There’s Raw, the buzzed-about cannibal gore-fest directed by Julia Ducournau, and the take-no-prisoners mother characters in Prevenge, from Alice Lowe, and xx, an anthology of tales directed by women. To be a woman who makes horror films today affirms that “women feel violence and anger,” as Ducournau told Rolling Stone.
But roadblocks for female fans linger. If a woman enjoys horror, “there’s a sense of trespassing”, said Alexandra West, who with Andrea Subissati hosts the podcast Faculty of Horror. “For a girl or woman or teen to pick up a copy of Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s a sense of defiance, of going outside the expected norms.”
None of this is breaking news. Just ask A.J. Kirkendall, a high school junior attending HorrorHound with her mother and friends. As she tells it, for a girl to come out as a horror fan is as horrifying as admitting she’s got her boyfriend’s entrails in her backpack.
“I think it’s funny when guys don’t like that stuff, and they’re like, you’re that kind of person,” said Kirkendall, who was one of many young women at the convention made up to look as if a zombie had just feasted on her face. “It’s like, yeah, I am. What have you got to say about it?”
Many of the women I spoke with said their fathers introduced them to the genre.
“We would watch movies together, and right when I got really tense, he would jump and try to scare me,” said Ellie Church, an actress. “I locked myself in the bathroom and told him that I hated him once because he scared me so bad. It’s a really great memory.”
In interviews with more than 30 women at HorrorHound, a picture of a strong sisterhood emerged, one forged in a shared love of scares. Here are a few snapshots.
Karie Scroggs, 30
Favourite Horror Movie: Frankenstein
“I believe it was a man’s world one time in horror. I do not believe that anymore, especially right now with — I hate to bring up the presidency and everything — but I think females are fighting back so much stronger now. We are grabbing it back.”
Kimberly Tibbs, 46
Hometown: Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Favourite Horror Movie: Phantom of the Opera
Dressed as a she-devil who goes by the name Kookie Sincreme, Tibbs began to cry as she talked about how “breaking barriers of gender” as a female horror fan made her keenly empathetic when her transgender son came out.
“Growing up, what was instilled in me by my mum was, don’t let anybody tell you that because you’re a girl, you can’t do something,” she said, her voice breaking. “When my son first came out to me, it had just come after a conversation where I told him, I want you to be happy. That was what enabled him, in order to be happy, to say this body that I’m living in is not who I am.”
Cassandra Weartz, 17
Favourite Horror Movie: The Shining
“I come from a long line of pagans,” said Weartz, who plans to pursue a career as a special-effects makeup artist. “A dark kind of spirit has always been in my family for generations back. My grandmother, before she passed away, left my mother a Ouija board. It’s been in my family for about a century. I’m adopted, and my birth grandmother used to use it like a telephone, is what I’m told. She describes it like Facebook Messenger: If you message a stranger, you get a couple responses here and there, but after a time you build a friendship.”
Sasha Mullins, 27
Hometown: New Albany, Indiana.
Favourite Horror Movie: Bride of Frankenstein
Mullins, a high school art teacher, said she had a hard time fitting in as a child. Watching Universal horror films with her father changed that.
“I was a chunky little girl who wanted to look like Julia Adams in Creature From the Black Lagoon,” said Mullins, who was there with her partner, Frankie. (The two cosplay as a Frankenstein-themed duo, the Glamorsteins.) “I was just fascinated with that character. I wanted to be that kind of woman, that kind of beautiful. My dad always inspired me to be that kind of person as well, to be classic and respectful.”
Sonya Lynch, 34
Favourite Horror Movie: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Lynch was less sanguine than other attendees about how female horror movie fans are treated in the world at large.
“We are looked at as manic, as psychotic, that we watch these things and we can relate,” she said. “In this atmosphere we are accepted. But as a whole, probably not so much.”
One of the few black faces in a sea of white ones at the convention, Lynch said race had never come into play when she was with other horror fans.
“I’m not looking at the skin colour or the ethnicity,” she said. “I’m looking at, we are a community of women and men who have the same interest. I’ve never felt more like I belonged than right now at HorrorHound.”
Celeste Marcus, 30
Favourite Horror Movie: Freddy vs Jason
A special-effects and costume designer, Marcus said she “basically ignores” the sexual comments she gets in the real world, when she’s not dressed as a bloody bunny or other characters she cosplays. At HorrorHound, she’s got a more no-nonsense response.
“If it happens here, since I’m already in character, I can just lash out,” she said. “It’s to be expected.” — The New York Times