Arinn Dembo, game and fiction writer, hails from Canada. Today, for Women in Horror Month she talks about a very special house.
Haunting the House
Horror did not just spring up out the Earth like a mushroom. Horror was built by human hands. And I would argue that those hands belonged to women.
Women came to the Lonely Place of Dying and called it home. Isn’t Death always a female realm the world over–ruled by a pretty young queen and her doting husband? There is a reason for that, woven into human flesh and bone. They call it “the maternal mortality bump” for a reason.
Our ancestors dug a foundation deep into black bedrock.
They built the walls from shipwreck timber and hanging trees.
They dug a cellar deep enough to keep wine and potatoes, and to soak up screams.
They hung windows that blankly reflected the bone white sky, and mirrors that reflected your true face.
In the warmth of evening firelight, women would spin thread and pass the time with ancient, bloody tales–the kind that we share when the children have gone to bed.
Men who smile, and flatter, and kiss, and kill.
Unlucky girls who marry a man in black.
Mad women. Mad men. Damned priests and cruel governesses. Girls who said “yes” to the wrong offer of employment. The unwanted…abandoned. The unloved…locked in freezing garrets or hurled bodily down the well.
In the 18th century parlors and the libraries, young women sat and scratched away with busy pens, writing the most popular novels of the age. Ann (Radcliffe) was the reigning champion, of course—the best-paid writer in the English language during her time, just as J.K. Rowling is today.
Ann retold those old stories, gave them winsome young heroines with pretty faces and salted the old meat with a dash of romance. She grew rich on her tales, traveled the world with a pretty husband and fine clothes. And with her wealth she plastered the bare beams and dark walls of the House with new paper, laid carpets in the drawing room, hung curtains to discourage the curious.
The stories of that generation are still being told today, over and over. I can turn to any movie channel and find a dozen stories about women fighting for their lives and their families against the forces of psychopathy and abuse. And those tales are not “thrillers” or “psychological dramas” or what-have-you. They are Horror, grounded in fears that still have teeth. Because women in any generation have to live with the same threats: when passion fades and love sours, women DIE.
Men have walled off those old rooms, of course. The only part of the house that they want to call “Horror” is the part they have appropriated for themselves. And they actually believe they can keep women out! They try to make us unwelcome. (Unless, of course, they need a limp doll to play the Victim in one their pathetic little puppet shows…then our bodies will do.)
But it was Mary (Shelley) who built the new wing that they strut around in today. She lit the first gas lamps, and split the night with the crackle of electricity and the shrieks of rebirth.
Just as Shirley (Jackson) is the reason that stones rain from the sky, that houses eat their owners and knives whistle through the air with no hand to hurl them.
There is no age or era of horror as a genre that you cannot find female excellence. The house of Horror is built from the flesh and bone and blood and sweat and tears of women. Small wonder, then, that women remain loyal to the House, and have never left it…no matter how male dominated and obnoxious the mainstream offerings of Horror have become.
Female readers still buy the books. Female viewers still come to the theatre. They still turn out to honor their great-grandmothers and the old ways. They come to watch the Final Girls run screaming through a Man’s World, and those footfalls echo through eternity.
Because every woman who exists on Earth today is the descendant of a Final Girl, even if her struggle is lost to memory.
Nothing has changed. The women in the stories still emerge alive. Bloodied and traumatized, crippled by loss and cynicism, older and wiser…but alive.
I would argue that the reason that women never abandon Horror is simple: Horror belongs to us.
Because Horror is the story of women’s lives.
Horror is the experience of being female in the world.
Horror is the genre where hypervigilance is a female super power and can be a guarantee of survival. Where Trauma becomes an asset, not a liability.
Horror is the genre where boundaries crossed result in the lethal consequences that women have always longed to see.
Horror is the school where we take night classes in Know Thy Enemy.
Women built this House. And we will always haunt this house.
We still prowl the oldest depths of the ancestral manse, telling stories of the poisons that leach from bad faith and black hearts.
We still kick open the doors that men try to nail shut and shout our stories into the room—even though we are seldom greeted with applause.
And women are still building new wings to this house. Sometimes the sounds that come from those new halls are unearthly, full of pain and terror…but sometimes they are orgiastic. In this brave new age, women are not always shy about pleasure as well as pain.
Women in Horror Month is a time of celebration, but I also see it as a time of truth and reconciliation. And really, if this is the only time of the year that you SEE Women in Horror…it’s because you know exactly Jack and Squat about Horror.
And Jack left town.
Arinn Dembo is a professional writer and game developer living and working in Vancouver BC. She was the lead writer of Fort Zombie, the cult classic indie game which spawned a legion of zombie base-building and defense titles, and has brought a little extra creepiness to many other PC games for her home studio, Kerberos Productions. Her short fiction has appeared in HP Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, F & SF, Mad Scientist Journal, Lamp Light, Deep Magic and a number of horror anthologies, including Gods, Memes and Monsters, She Walks in Shadows, and What October Brings. To sample her short fiction and poetry, you can try her single-author collection, Monsoon and Other Stories, or grab her horror one-shot ICHTHYS.