The female experience of fear, and an un-quiet revolution in horror
The female experience of fear is a unique and insidious one, founded on the experiences, encounters and realities many women face on a day to day basis. Bram Stoker Award-nominated author Gemma Amor examines the complexities of female fear, charts the impact of these collective experiences in relation to the horror genre, and explores the unquiet revolution playing out on both screen and page...
‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’
– Margaret Atwood.
The above quote has experienced something of a revival of late, perhaps partly due to the success of the television adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian feminist saga The Handmaid’s Tale, which uses it directly in a rather fourth-wall conquering, meta-referential manner during Season Two, episode eight. The character of June muses, during a voiceover: ‘Someone once said, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ We should have known better.’
It is an arresting concept: that a woman’s fears are based on the simple, raw principle of survival, whereas a man’s fears are wrapped up in self-worth and esteem. Interesting, but not entirely fair to the original context in which Atwood made this comparison, which was reportedly during a lecture she was giving in 1982 at the University of Waterloo – a lecture, incidentally, called Writing the Male Character. The quote we see today apparently blossomed from a longer discourse where Atwood was fishing for a deeper understanding of the male psyche by questioning a friend of hers as to what frightened him about women, specifically. Atwood’s position was that ‘men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better’. She, like many of us, may have wondered why a person with such natural advantages gifted to them from birth might then go on to be intimidated by a woman without those advantages.
Her friend replied: ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them.’
When Atwood went on to question a group of female students about what frightened them, they replied: ‘We’re afraid of being killed.’
And thus the origins of the quote were born – although it is surprisingly difficult to find many sources that corroborate this fully. Provenance aside, it is interesting and a little ironic to see that what began as a definition of male fear has subsequently, in a highly condensed form, become a very deft way of succinctly encapsulating the female experience of fear by stint of comparison alone. ‘Don’t laugh at me’, versus ‘Don’t kill me,’ if you will.
Now, I’m aware that this path can lead to generalisations and sweeping assumptions as most gendered, comparative topics of discussion do. It is hardly a nuanced stance and does not account for the vast breadth and depth of human experience and diversity. But for me, as a genre writer, it is inevitable and important that these comparisons are still made, because I feel that fear is the crux of horror, fear is the glowing heart of the horror genre, the pulsing pool of molten lava at the core of the earth. Fear is the thing that fuels our imaginations, feeds our creativity and desire to express ourselves. Fear is a platform upon which we build our defence mechanisms, opinions, and behaviours. Fear is incredibly important, especially when openly and honestly acknowledged and voiced – a huge part of why I have always been so drawn to horror. The degree of emotional awareness it takes to lay your fears out on a silver platter for others to feast upon will never not be appealing to me. Take my deepest, darkest terrors and glut thyself upon them, dear readers, because your appetites are nothing if not reassuring – another person’s consumption of my particular brand of fear lends me hope, perversely. It means I am not alone in the things I am afraid of, and I cannot think of another place where the concept and practice of sharing things that scare the living shits out of us is done more comprehensively than within the horror space.
Which leads me to ask:
What frightens you?
Really frightens you, I mean. To the point where sleep becomes a slippery eel, impossible to grasp. To the point where your skin, otherwise a smooth country, grows stippled, rashed with tiny mounds of fear. To the point where your behaviour changes in response to the thing that feeds on your anxieties – perhaps you sleep with a light on, or the windows locked. Perhaps you don’t like looking at yourself too closely in the bathroom cabinet mirror in case a ghostly figure appears in the reflection. Perhaps you’re too superstitious to say ‘bloody Mary’ three times in a row, or play with an Ouija board, or own a black cat.
Is it the Boogeyman?
Monsters under the bed?
A strange and eldritch terror lurking beneath the surface of the sea? A man covered in pins, promising exquisite pleasure and pain and eternal damnation? A rabid dog, hell-bent on ripping you to shreds? A shrivelled, dismembered monkey’s paw? Maybe it’s a golden beetle or the reanimated, anguished, sentient form of fragments of different corpses stitched together.
Or maybe, if you’re like me, those fears can feel rather pedestrian (in fact, if you examine those works more closely, you’ll probably find each of those things to be symptoms of a simpler fear, rather than the fear itself). Ghosts and ghoulies can offer a means of escape, the Boogeyman a distraction from the hum-drum banalities of life.
Maybe, if you’re like me, the things you really fear are more prosaic and immediate, and indelicate.
Perhaps, like me, you experience what I am sadly aware of as the female version of fear.
Like worrying about whether or not you’ll be attacked on your evening run again.
Or if it’s safe to get into that taxi alone.
Or wondering if you can actually list that piece of furniture or clothing on Facebook marketplace without exposing yourself to an unnecessarily high level of risk.
Or if that one-to-one meeting with your colleague is going to happen in a place you feel comfortable sitting in for an extended period of time.
Or if you should get into the elevator with that single other person.
Or call the repairman or let tradespeople into your house if you live alone.
Or go on that date.
Or take that partially-lit route home.
Or live in a ground-floor apartment.
Or attend that convention without a group of trusted friends by your side.
Or post that picture of your face to Instagram.
Or geo-tag yourself in any post, for that matter, on any social platform (as a plea from me: don’t, not until you’ve left, at any rate.).
Or if, and this is the most insidious fear of them all, you should say ‘no.’
Regular, every day, commonplace concerns.
Fear, around the clock.
Like a second skin, a skin that grows heavier by the day.
A skin that nevertheless keeps us alive.
Perhaps your fears are grander in scale but no less consuming in nature.
Perhaps you fear giving birth, you fear the savage rearrangement of your entire physical being as you quite literally push a whole human out of you, in many, many cases in a life-threatening manner, and hope for the best. Or maybe you’re afraid of something happening to that small, vulnerable, wholly dependent human now that you are entirely responsible for its wellbeing (at this point it is important to point out that I do not believe this to be a solely ‘female’ concern, but it is a prevalent one amongst females. Chemically, it looks like many of us might not even have a choice in that area – studies carried out on mother’s brains when they hear a baby cry indicate that certain regions of the brain are activated and stimulated accordingly, not to mention the dynamic neuro-biological changes that also appear to happen in the brains of new mothers, particularly as regards hormone levels…something I have first-hand experience of).
Maybe you fear being caged, figuratively, literally, whatever, by inequality. By tradition. By the natural and inherent privilege of a presiding group of people who seem to have access to greater liberties and successes than you do, by default of birth or circumstance or gender. Maybe you’re afraid of being passed over, or under-compensated, or having your achievements falsely attributed to someone else, or not even being attributed at all. Or maybe you’re afraid of being typecast as an ‘angry feminist’ or, in its more simplistic form, a ‘bitch’ because you dare to speak about issues that affect you.
Perhaps you fear being invisible.
Or worse: too visible, but only in a certain way – not for your merits, or even lack thereof, but because of your packaging. ‘People only think she is funny because she has tits,’ an anonymous Facebooker once commented on a tweet of mine that had the temerity to go viral. This is along the same lines as the trolls who say such things as: ‘You’re only being asked to contribute to this project to help fill a diversity quota,’ and ‘Who did she have to shag to get that gig?’ And so on, and so on.
This is what I mean by ‘the female experience of fear.’
It’s a lot, isn’t it?
Now, having laid all this out, I need to explain that this, in case it isn’t obvious, is my own personal interpretation of an issue I hold close to my heart. I don’t for one second assume every woman on the earth feels the same way I do. I speak largely from an anecdotal position because that is all I can do – observe the world around me and make assumptions based on what I see.
Gosh, look at me, preemptively apologising for having an opinion. How does one commute this into text-speak? Oh, right, yeah.
And I would also hate to create the impression that I am cowering in the corner of my bedroom, unable to engage with the world and its multitude of glories because of my fears. Because I’m not. I have a good quality of life, despite having direct experience of several things that continue to haunt my nightmares – I have been violently assaulted, I have experienced a highly traumatic birth, I have been dismissed unfairly (and groped by) male employees and passed over for many a career opportunity because I had a child and needed to work part-time. I’ve experienced all these things, and yet I’m still here, plugging away. I don’t want to lend any credence to the idea that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ because that is bullshit and apologist and I would much rather not have any direct experiences of any of those things at all, thank you very much.
Nevertheless, she persists.
And without wishing to get into a competitive ‘we have it worse’ type discourse, knowing that suffering-based one-upmanship never really helps anyone, I think it is safe to say, without generalising too much (although generalising does sometimes have its uses), that women (and I am aware that this descriptor encompasses a varied range of female identities and also non-binary ones – let’s not even get into the heightened levels of abuse and violence and discrimination our trans friends have to put up with day in, day out), experience a specific and wholly unique brand of fear that is hugely formative and becoming increasingly more influential in the horror space as more and more women begin to tell their stories.
Grist for the mill, as they say.
It can sometimes be difficult to get this concept across- that our existences are more filled with fear because of the bodies we are born in. Let’s return to that Margaret Atwood quote: ‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’
It is insanely important to me in my own work to get the message across that this is not, in any way, shape or form, hyperbolic.
It is a vast and very real nightmare, female fear.
And it is directly responsible for what I call a ‘quiet revolution’ in the horror genre.
Or actually, not even a quiet revolution. Because it is hard to be quiet when rebelling against societal restraints.
Let’s take, for example, the concept of the female gaze in horror movies. I’m not talking about movies made exclusively by women, because I don’t believe women alone can and should portray our own fears, but I am talking about expeditions in female narrative along the lines of Carrie (1976), The Descent (2005), Baise Moi (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009), Hereditary (2018) and it’s sunny sister Midsommar (2019), Cujo (1983) The Babadook (2014), Scare Me (2020), Host (2020), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Others (2001), Revenge (2017), Prevenge (2016), I Spit On Your Grave (1978 and 2010), It Follows (2014), Red Road (2006) The Exorcist (1973)…I could go on. I should go on! But I would be here all day if I did, and so would you.
Suffice to say, I’m talking about a growing and ever-evolving body of works that present a female pov and go beyond the traditional Slasher concept where fragility as a plot device dominates – as it did for so very long (until Saw (2004) very nicely subverted the whole idea that a series of horror films had to be based purely upon a sorority body count). I’m talking about movies that deal directly with fragility, sure, but also with abuse, assault, grief, loss, rape, revenge, motherhood, infidelity, puberty, exploitation, body trauma and inequality. The complex range of fears that, as said before, often inform our behaviours and lifestyles. Midsommar is one of the sharpest and finest portrayals of emotional abuse and manipulation of a woman I have ever seen portrayed in film. The Babadook is a stark and allegorical examination of the fear a mother has that they might fail their own child by daring to struggle with their own emotions, no matter how valid- in this instance, grief. Prevenge is an interesting take on payback but also loneliness in impending motherhood, and Ginger Snaps takes the concept of transformation and puberty and fuses it with a subversive take on the werewolf myth to highlight the daily difficulties and physical struggles that come part and parcel of being born female (inflicting periods onto a male victim is a stroke of genius I revere to this day). Jennifer’s Body (all hail Karyn Kusama) viscerally plays with the idea of victimisation, female dominance and abuse and perhaps most hauntingly, self-esteem, or lack thereof (Megan Fox, come back to horror, we love you).
Perhaps my favourite of all these, and a fairly recent addition to the growing chorus of voices singing about female fear, is Josh Ruben’s timely, entertaining but dark-as-fuck Scare Me (2020). I’ve already spent two hours raving about it over on this podcast, and for those who haven’t seen it, I’d rather not spoil it, but it taps neatly and directly into a highly specific terror I have surrounding male ego, the depth of rage inspired by rejection, being overlooked or underestimated, and having my entire experience as a professional, free-thinking person seeking to make a name for myself in a traditionally male-dominated environment completely overwhelmed and derailed by coming into contact with someone who physically superior and angrier and meaner than I am. A specific fear, like I said. But yeah. I have that. I have never seen these themes laid out as cleverly and with such resonance as I have in this gem of a movie, and Ruben’s directorial debut has now set the bar for female protagonists I would die for – Fanny 4 Life (I need a shirt with that on, please).
In horror and genre fiction and literature, the aforementioned revolution has been unfolding for some good time. It is no secret that I am an acolyte of Angela Carter, and this is largely why – nearly all of her works of fiction and academic essays – particularly The Sadeian Woman, in which Carter examines the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, pornography and women’s roles in relation to it with enormous wit and enjoyment – examine what it is to be a woman, and that invariably touches on the female experience of fear. This covers everything from the loss of a girl’s virginity, to sexual adventurism and expressiveness, to subverting the traditional notion (see above) that fragility is feminine – in a nutshell, expounding the values that later would be tied to radical feminism.
Go back further in time, and it wouldn’t be a fully rounded article about female fears if I didn’t mention The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – a novelette about postnatal depression and the perils of misdiagnosis by a heavily sexist medical profession.
And of course, there are others, and have been for many, many years. Jackson, Shelley, du Maurier, Christie, Bronte (anyone who says Jane Eyre isn’t horror can bite me). Atwood’s books live in a category of their own, and are worthy of their place in history. Yes, we all know their names, yes, these are the poster ladies for women in horror fiction and yes, there are so many more than I have mentioned here, but what is mentioned here is a good place to start if you’re still coming around to the idea that our definitions of what scare us are different, by default of circumstance, and valid. I suspect, if you are reading this article then this is not the case, but nevertheless. Read these women, read these works, and you’ll understand so much more about female fear, particularly if you consider the added layers of historical and societal misogyny so many of them had to battle with even just to be published (which always makes me wonder – how many worthy women have seen their works consigned to the grave over the centuries because they couldn’t break through the ceilings that smothered? How many incredible books were lost? We’ll never know.)
The good news? Beyond the howl of the pack, beyond the cry of a thousand wolves, hurling their pain and their shared experiences collectively into the night? Beyond the fear, and the relentless, invasive, everyday nature of it?
The good news is that we are legion.
And it is glorious. There are so many of us now, writers willing to place our fears upon the feasting platter, particularly and joyously for me, in the Indie horror space. So many. Rockstars, adventurers, activists, poets, conduits, allies. Women like Laura Purcell, Gwendolyn Kiste, Sara Tantlinger, Tananarive Due, Hailey Piper, Alma Katsu, V Castro, Ellen Datlow, Cina Pelayo, Linda Addison – I can’t list them all, but the Ladies of Horror Fiction have a growing directory. I am proud to be a peer, proud to be part of a movement towards a better understanding, towards deeper shades of equality, proud to be one of the louder voices fighting to be heard, hoping that our fears are better understood. I am proud to be shaping horror in my own unique way, through exploring the things that terrify me. I am not proud or particularly happy that I have to wear this heavy extra skin, cart it around everywhere, a skin that tires me out and weighs me down more often than I would like to admit to, but I am happy that I have an outlet to talk about the heaviness, explore the way I feel about it.
Although I do long for a day when I, too, fear being laughed at…rather than the other thing.