by Billie Walker
Horror is a woman’s genre. Women can be everything in horror that they cannot be in romance, action and drama.
Many horror movies end with a woman’s eerie grin.
Sometimes it’s a serene smile of relief as she realises she has surpassed the danger that terrified (Hush, 2013).
In others this look misleads: the escape was only a deception (The Descent, 2005).
It may be a smile that indicates a realisation of finding one’s place while watching a terrible boyfriend burn alive in a sacrifice ritual (Midsommar, 2019).
Or one that cracks into a hysterical laugh at the death of some murderous in-laws (Ready or Not, 2019).
Often it is a knowing smile, one that can see an end to the nightmare that comes off screen. A woman’s smile so often brackets the start and finish of the genre. Horror typically opens with a happy family, happy home, hopeful love; and comes to a climax at an unlikely survival.
The smile is a bracket as it closes a chapter rather than ends a life. It is a classic finale dating all the way back to Bette Davis’ demented dance on the beach (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962).
Horror is a woman’s genre. Women can be everything in horror that they cannot be in Romance, Action and Drama. They can be bloody, muddy, fearful or terrifying. Across all genres ‘men are seen and heard twice as much as women’, with the exception being horror.
It is no wonder then that so many empathise with the genre and its Scream Queens. Bella Lugosi, best known for his role as Dracula, declared: “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out - and come back for more”.
From this obsession has sparked a new form: the developing genre of the gothic memoir. In In The Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado tells her queer abuse story through genre-twisting narratives, with chapters such as “In the Dream House as Cosmic Horror” and “In the Dream House as Famous Last Words”.
Machado uses genre tropes explicit in sci-fi, gothic, fairy-tale, and more to evoke emotion, demonstrating themes writhing with heteronormative notions that can lead one down a dangerous path. The aim is to shine a light on queer abusive relationships, a reality with few documented accounts.
Darkly by Leila Taylor is a memoir and cultural critique which examines the author’s personal attachment to the gothic genre whilst revealing the racism at the heart of the American Gothic.
Blue Light of the Screen
The newly released Blue Light of the Screen by writer and musician Claire Cronin (Repeater Books, 2020) is already in good company with contemporaries such as these.
Cronin unveils another connection to horror, as her memoir details a personal relationship with Catholicism, depression and intergenerational trauma.
While the previous horror-memoirists feel like disciples of the genre, painting themselves not as believers but as fans, Cronin weaves film with her own experiences of haunting and devout Catholicism.
The book succeeds in chilling and informing the reader as she draws her analysis from critical theorists, priests, film and demonologists. However, it requires a leap of faith I struggled with. Admittedly, I am someone who only sees ghosts on screen and has little experience with the Catholic church other than the camp dramatics of James Wan’s Conjuring Universe.
It reads not just as a bridging of generic love letter and memoir but also as critical theory. Ideas are often dropped on the page, her abstracted form and refusal to further examine or explain leaving us to make our own conclusions. So often I questioned Cronin’s method, wondering where she was leading her reader, as if the piece was intended partly as an academic piece. But what was the hypothesis?
Related: Qanon and Lower Class Horror
As it reached its denouement, I felt I understood Cronin’s air of mystery. Much like the horror genre, Blue Light of the Screen offers no answers: just a smorgasbord of suggestions for the unknown.
I find comfort in horror. Much like Cronin’s interest is partly fuelled by depression, there can be a reassurance in the pain-stricken faces created by the unknown. The shared grief that outpours from Midsommar offered me great catharsis.
Focusing one’s fears on the supernatural intruder or the masked murderer for an hour or two relieves some of that anxiety usually reserved for the world. Under the shadow of a looming second lockdown, my housemates and I have spent many nights crowded into the living room, allowing a Kathy Bates performance, or Michael Myer’s rubber faced silence, to terrify us, rather than the news.
The book is a constant battle between rational and irrational, questioning what belongs in these categories. Is the supernatural rational? Is Cronin’s tie to religious belief irrational, or the path that brings her to truth? Is that gut instinct a primal reaction? Or is it forced into overactivity by past trauma?
We haunt and are haunted by societal conditions even more so than by what lurks in the dark. Career, modernity, media: the rational as usually assumed is conjured as the ghost. In an era as anxiety-inducing as this, horror seems the perfect plaster to patch over the wounds of the world.
Billie Walker is a London-based writer who enjoys Campari-based drinks as bitter as she is. There will always be a horror film on her laptop and feta in the fridge. She devours books as frequently as salty cheeses. See more of her work