Not only during Women In Horror Month, but through the year, women and men try to raise the voices of women horror and dark fiction authors and filmmakers, culminating in more and more support, but inevitably there are always those who still ask why they should read books by women. Condescendingly, they tell us women don’t write good horror. Women, being soft creatures, couldn’t possibly be able to write horror, just as you know, they couldn’t possibly fight in a war on the front lines. It’s just not their nature, so they say.
Let me offer these naysayers something to think about. Some of the strongest members of the human race, or in mythological stories, have been women. Women are warriors and have seen more types of battle than most men combined. In our daily lives we’ve not only endured childbirth, which to me can be horrifying (even though I’ve done it three times), but we’ve seen abuse, rape, neglect, death, and have been the recipients of the most atrocious types of violence and oppression in war-torn nations around the world.
Women can write horror because they have carried or carry the weight of the universe practically on their shoulders. The type of horror many women write delves into a deeper sense of humanity in which they not only relate to each other but to all fellow human beings. According to Psychologenie website, women have a more developed limbic system. The limbic system deals with human aspects such as behavior, emotions and memory. It allows them to feel and express their emotions in a better way and to bond with others easily. Even their characters I’d say.
It’s the ability to feel the emotions and open those doors to the real true horrors of life, and let them flow onto the page, that makes compelling horror. All you have to do is think about Shirley Jackson’s depth of characters (and terribly flawed ones I might add) in The Haunting of Hill House to understand this. And yes, I know there is more to women’s horror than Jackson, but I’ll get there.
Women are the focal point of horror most of the time, whether they are writing it or not. With all the final girls and the true crime victims, women are running for and losing their lives. And we all want a bird’s eye view. How many titles have the word “girl,” “daughter,” “woman” in them, whether written by male or female? Something in our brain makes us want to know what’s happening to them. And so, who better to write about women than women? I enjoy reading books and watching films done by women because we know they are most likely going to get description and emotion right. Channeling emotions and character flaws onto the page is something women seem to do with ease. They have firsthand experience with the horror that is inflicted on women because most likely, if they haven’t experienced it themselves, or had a close person to them, then they are marvels at reaching deep into themselves and relating. Is this genetic from the dawn of time? Maybe. It’s what makes us so in tune to our children, other human beings, animals, and makes us good caregivers. Our curiosity, and empathic and nurturing nature, can makes us walk a mile in a character’s shoes.
I’m generalizing about what I think goes into it for some women who write or direct, but obviously there are women who write good horror from other places inside themselves also. Perhaps from too much pain of abuse or violence or poverty or neglect or loss, in which they form walls and barriers and hatred. It cements in their gut and they pen from that place. They kill and maim and create horrifying scenarios. And it’s in this where I also feel women can write horror, because they have deep pain and grief and they take it out on the page with fervent description. Quite honestly, some work by women writers scares me more than most anything. They are descriptive and visceral in ways that pierce deeply, and it physically hurts sometimes.
I see women as the bearers of life and with that comes great power. Throughout history women have been and are depicted in fertility rituals and mythological stories in which creation or growth is present, whether in childbearing, abundance of crop, or sustaining longevity of tribe. Women are revered in other cultures for their life-giving and nurturing attributes, as well as their ability to grow, make, do, and lead. I enjoy reading stories from present-day tribal culture to ancient civilizations and mythology. I’ve always questioned about creation and life and death and the constant barrage in my mind of why and how. The roles women play in this has always empowered me but also scared me. It sometimes horrifies me even! I can see why men have tried to oppress us for centuries—fear. Rightly so. They should fear us. We are highly mystifying and magical beings. I channel my own fear about being a woman into writing, and the power we possess over life and death, as I am sure other women channel their most conscious and subconscious fears onto the page.
Much of my horror poetry and short stories stem from domestic abuse, murder, sexual assault, and other such horror found in life, but often I also love to infuse other cultures into my stories after learning about a particular aspect of them. For instance, in my short story, “Mia,” found in the October 2019 issue of Outpost 28, I wrote about a lesbian teenager who is judged harshly by her mom. An occurrence transports her to the tribe of Dogon in Africa, who still to this day perform their dancing and rituals as they have for centuries with masks and fire and colorful displays and sometimes sacrifice. In Dogon mythology, the men used nyama, which is the taking of women’s power of fertility and wielding it to their use. My character Mia holds great power for them in this story and she doesn’t even realize it. It’s a horror story as it deals with the undead, but I wrote this horror piece using her pain at being judged by her parents and society and meshed it with the exploration of cultural traditions that focus on birth and re-birth.
In my short story, “Lifegiver of the Nile,” which is in my dark poetry and short story collection Breathe. Breathe. (published through Unnerving), a girl wakes up kidnapped, bound, and weak and is delivered to the goddess Anuket, a protective goddess of the Nile and of childbirth. The protagonist is taken through a cycle of rebirth here too. Women are created time and again in my stories, even through death, as they continue to complete the circle that is needed for the universe to remain in balance. It’s a horror story, as it’s a reoccurring nightmare no one would want to be in. In both of these stories, a woman’s power is drained for use by others. This is one of my fears and something I grapple with and it comes out in my own writing.
In work by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, whether in the Bram Stoker nominated Mayan Blue or in their book Twin Lakes, their women protagonists are on the forefront of ancient curses and rituals and they, whether coming to it unknowingly or not, raise to save the day. I love the empowerment these stories bring.
In popular horror fiction, we see women characters showcased in horrifying ways. We can look at Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin for instance. While written by a man, the woman’s body is removed from our view as vessel of life and innocence and is shown as being an entity carrying evil. But what about when women aren’t the victims? When women pen flawed female characters? In the Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews, the grandmother is an evil person who locks away children in the attic causing a lifetime of pain, abuse, and domestic horrors which trickle into next generations.
There are women such as in the newly released True Crime debut novel by Samantha Kolesnik, one of whom is a young woman having to grow up too fast due to living in a cycle of abuse. This is an example of some depraved dealings done by a mother’s hand that create murderous rampages without moral conscience – or is it for survival? Kolesnik is a stone-cold writer and delivers it no holds barred and cinematically. I would like any man to say women can’t write horror after reading the raw knife-blade prose and emotion in this book.
As well, in reading a short story called “Stick Figure Family” by Sonora Taylor, within her collection Little Paranoias, I was aghast at the level of wickedness and how it made me feel inside. This story takes my thoughts I’ve shared above on fertility and nurturing and life and death and turned it all up end. I still can’t stop thinking about it and I want to very badly. It hit me in my gut so hard as a mom. The twist at the end of this story was far more horrifying to me than any man wielding an axe.
Then there are women who are just creating good horror stories for the love of writing survival and creature feature horror. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant takes us on a terrifying journey of sight and sound with beastly terror from the most fearsome of females—deadly mermaids. Creating dread and claustrophobia, this woman writes without holding back on violence. This proves without a doubt that women can write action-packed oceanic horror when previously tales of the sea seemed to be historically written by men.
In The Hunger by Alma Katsu, she tells us a ghastly tale of The Donner Party and their cannibalism, and in doing so, pens a novel that received such high acclaim it catapulted her to being one of the most successful women writing in horror today. Taking a fact-based historical story and bringing it to life can be one of the most terrifying things a writer can do, and she pulls it off fearlessly.
Women who write horror no longer need or want to create sanitized versions of The Grimm Fairytales. They want a Cinderella who has her revenge by slicing open the evil stepmother’s stomach till her innards fall out the day after she marries her prince. They aren’t afraid of some blood and guts. And they aren’t afraid to let you know it.
All I’ve stated is not meant to box in or stereotype any sort of woman writer or to stereotype women as a whole. They can identify however they like in their writing and in life. Or they can just say it’s simply writing, no gender needed. I’m just offering a bit of a foundation as to why I feel women write good horror and for so many various reasons. We all have thoughts and opinions based on our own life experiences and identities, which I guess is exactly why women write good horror fiction in almost every sub-genre there is—women have been through it ALL.
Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi is a writer, editor, and PR Professional with degrees in English, Journalism, and History. Though she’s been writing for decades, Breathe. Breathe., published by Unnerving, was her debut collection of dark poetry and short stories and was an Amazon #2 best-selling paid title in women’s poetry, behind NYT best-seller Rupi Kaur, and has hovered in top five in horror short stories several times since its publication. Her work has been called raw, honest, evocative, and beautiful.
She has poems and stories featured in several anthologies and magazines, including the recent 7 Deadly Sins of the Apocalypse which was an Amazon #1 paid best-seller in horror anthologies upon release, was the co-curating editor in 2018 for the gothic anthology Haunted are these Houses, and is the editor of the 2020 anthology Survive with Me. As an editor and publicist/PR Professional, she has been assisting publishers and authors in the horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and historical genres for over nine years with her Hook of a Book business and has worked on and with many award-winning and nominated titles for the Bram Stoker Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and more.
Besides working in her field in different areas for 27 years doing editing, marketing, public relations, and more, she has also worked as a reference librarian, a bookseller for a successful children’s and YA publisher, and ran her own program in which she raised money for books for children in need.
She received an Ashland County Women of Achievement award and has been Business and Professional Women’s Ohio Young Careerist of the Year representative. She served on non-profit boards for over 15 years, the last two as board chair of her local mental health center and rape crisis domestic violence shelter and is a huge activist for the rights and support of women.
She is currently completing two poetry collections and a short fiction collection with more in the works. Find more about Erin at www.hookofabook.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter (@erinalmehairi).