Halloween Haunts: Writing the Female Horror Body by Holly Lyn Walrath
Throughout pop culture, horror, poetry, and literature, we’ve been taught to both hide the female body and see it is horrific. Every October I rewatch some of my favorite horror films, and this year my goal is to watch as many body horror films as I can. As we face a renaissance of feminist horror, I have wondered if the popularity of this genre is tied to empowerment.
By remaking the female body as horrific, women creators regain control over the narrative tied to the very skin and bones we inhabit on a daily basis. We creature the body, other the body, becoming monstrous—and thus powerful. Writing about the true horrors of women’s experience as a woman can create both empathy and fear, and thus, inclusion.
Pregnancy comes to mind. I remember distinctly how horrified I was when as a young woman, I learned about The Husband Stitch. Carmen Maria Machado’s twist on the classic “green ribbon” urban legend popularized by Scary Stories to Read in the Dark dives into the horror of this healthcare trauma that represents just one terrifying aspect of pregnancy. The horror comedy Teeth (2007) further plays on the trope of the “monster below”. Carrie’s first period is described in overly dramatic detail by Stephen King, and for some young women this so-called “rite of passage” can be traumatic, particularly for women dealing with body dysmorphia. And for trans women, the act of undergoing gender reassignment surgery can be a complicated horror in the hands of the wrong healthcare team (and is often depicted as such for “character development” even in non-horror cinema). Yet horror is rife with problematic trans horror tropes like Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs, 1991) or Psycho’s Norman Bates.
Most body horror tropes stem from a real fear that we hold. The trauma associated with what should be natural body experiences comes from the “what if” fear of that situation gone wrong. In a world where our society is only just coming to terms with what it means for women to have a “healthy body image” it’s no wonder that many women, who like myself, grew up with warped perceptions of the female body, are coming to a greater understanding of what it means to move beyond a gendered body.
One way to deal with this is to monster-ify the body. If women are strong, or frightening, then they can’t be harmed. And in fact, when so much of horror’s focus has been on putting women in positions of danger (and still is today), the onus lies on creators to find ways to subvert the tropes. I was delighted to read several dark poetry collections from the SFPA Elgin Award nomination list that do just this: A Collection of Dreamscapes by Christina Sng, A Refuge of Tales by Lynne Sargent, Into the Forest and All the Way Through by Cynthia Pelayo, and interestingly, Monsters I Have Been by Kenji C. Liu, which focuses on the horror and trauma of the male twenty-first century ethos.
As Rebecca Harkins-Cross notes, “Horror films offer a fantasy space for women whose bodies betray them.” If your body is outside of your control, imagining it sharp teeth or horns or claws or fangs is one way to live beyond that space without control.
Or, it could just be that women are finally inhabiting, body and soul, the space that is horror.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Holly Lyn Walrath is giving away a copy of her latest poetry book, The Smallest of Bones (CLASH Books, 2021). Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a writer, editor, and publisher. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Analog, and Flash Fiction Online. She is the author of several books of poetry including Glimmerglass Girl (2018), Numinose Lapidi (2020), and The Smallest of Bones (2021). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the
University of Denver. In 2019, she launched Interstellar Flight Press, an indie SFF publisher dedicated to publishing underrepresented genres and voices.
The Smallest of Bones
A haunting ossuary of tiny poems covering a wide range of topics such as love, romance, relationships, queer sexuality, religion, death, demons, ghosts, bones, gender, and darkness. The Smallest of Bones guides those on an intimate journey of body acceptance, with sparse words dedicated to peeling back skin and diving bone-deep into the self. Raw, honest, and powerful, this collection is an offering to those struggling to find power in the darkness.
”ABSOLUTELY. FRAKKING. STUNNING POETRY.” —Rebecca Crunden, author of These Violent Nights
“Between stars and shards of bone, Holly Lyn Walrath invites the reader to build a skeleton with her words, to get lost between the dark spaces of curved ribs. The Smallest of Bones offers so much within each poem — here, we wander beneath the moon and speak with ghosts; we transform under the night sky and haunt our own minds as the words encourage us to strip back the skin and expose rawness and vulnerability. A beautiful collection!”
—Sara Tantlinger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland