There’s Something About Mary Shelley

I was reminded of something last week: I FREAKING LOVE horror.

I absolutely love everything about it. I love feeling terrified; and not being able to sleep with out all (literally all) of the lights on in the house and Disney cartoons on the tv. I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Tales From The Dark Side, and everything Hitchcock. I read Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, Goosebumps, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, along with any collections of ghost stories I could get my hands on. I was also obsessed with urban legends and hauntings. Still am.

I even wrote some pretty fucked up scary stories as a kid. I loved the feeling of being scared and wanted to share that feeling with others. Apparently, 4th grade me was quite successful because one story I wrote, for a creative writing assignment, came back with the comment,“Very disturbing”.  The teacher also pulled me aside and told me that if I didn’t make my horror more tame, she’d have to set up a meeting with my mom. Shortly after, I stopped writing scary stories. Not because the desire to do so diminished, but because I started to feel like it wasn’t ok for me to scare people.

Scaring people isn’t very ladylike, after all. Which might sound silly, but growing up with super sexist/anti-feminist grandparents made me acutely aware of the fact that I was a girl. Girls do not talk about murder or monsters. Girls do not climb trees. Girls do not build badass tracks for hot wheels out of mud. Girls do not go backpacking. Girls do not beat up their boy cousins while reenacting tv shows meant for boys…you get the picture.

For as long as I could, I fought these ideas with ease because, at those young ages, the difference between girls and boys is tiny. Heck, it’s hard to tell them apart if you put them in gender neutral clothes. But, with the threat of puberty drawing closer and closer, it became harder to deny female ‘otherness’. With out prominent adult female figures in horror (or any of the other traditionally ‘masculine’ things I enjoyed), I started to think girls really DON’T talk about murder and monsters.

The thing is, we do!

One of the most influential works of horror was written by, you guessed it, a woman. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is practically embedded in our collective consciousness when it comes to monsters and horror. Her creation is so influential that it’s crossed cultural boundaries, inspiring directors, writers, and artists from many different countries.

Side note: I’m currently reading a manga called Franken Fran by Katsuhisa Kigitsu that is amazing.

However, I realized something truly upsetting after visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home With Monsters exhibit at LACMA last week. When del Toro was talking about his influences, on the info plaques throughout the exhibit, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Alfred Hitchcock, and other male writers/directors/creators were mentioned by name. Shelley, on the other hand, was talked about through her male creations. There was an entire plaque, and portion of the exhibit, dedicated to Frankenstein. The plaque was actually titled “Frankenstein” but Shelley was only referenced once when a direct quote from her book was used.

Mary Shelley is almost always only remembered through the men she created. Victor Frankenstein and his creature are practically considered living entities, separate of Shelley, and are credited with making major impacts in the horror genre. Mary Shelley is lost in the shadows of her male characters.

While Poe, King, Lovecraft, Hitchcock, and many other male creators are almost never remembered exclusively through a character in a way that almost erases their identities.

I do not think this was done consciously or even a little on purpose (at least in terms of the exhibit at LACMA), but I do think this speaks to an issue in our culture and society at large. I didn’t feel like I needed to stop actively loving and participating in horror just because of my crazy grandparents. I realize, now, that I felt pressure from a patriarchal society to conform. Since not conforming leads to a loss of identity or not being recognized for one’s achievements and contributions.

My love for all things scary was reignited after seeing the At Home With Monsters exhibit (if you can get to LACMA before the middle of November, I HIGHLY recommend you go!), but it also got me thinking about the role of women in horror. I found a roundtable discussion on Sexism in Horror held by the Horror Writers Association (horror.org) that  was very interesting, informative, and, at times, a little upsetting.

What it seems to boil down to isn’t that women don’t write horror (and damn good horror at that), but that they genuinely don’t get the publicity when they do. Women also tend to go where they see other women achieving success, which tends to be supernatural romance, urban fantasy, and YA genres. Arguably, many stories published under these genres can be considered horror; but since horror is still so heavily dominated by men it’s harder for women to get the recognition and success they deserve publishing in that genre.

If you want to say sexism isn’t that big of an issue when it comes to this stuff, I present you with this:

  • Many women write using male pen names or simply use their initials.
  • Independent studies have shown that works written by men are reviewed more, and as a result receive more publicity, than works written by women.
  • In 2014, only 17% of horror pieces submitted to a major publishing house were written by women.

When you love something, but don’t see yourself represented it’s difficult to pursue because you end up equating that lack of representation with the idea that it’s not ok for you to do that thing. Do the thing anyway! I’ve decided I’m going to start writing scary stories again because I love it. I also started watching and reading more horror. I even started playing horror video games, which are like my new favorite thing!

Moral of the story: If you love something, DO IT! Even if you feel you can’t, or shouldn’t, or like it will be too hard because there aren’t people like you already doing it. Chances are there actually are people just like  you doing the thing, they just aren’t getting the recognition they deserve for one reason or another. Let’s do the things so well that society at large can’t help but take notice; let’s become the role models we needed when we were kids.

Geek on and be excellent to each other,

~Michelle Renée

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