Women in Horror: Interview with Stephanie M. Wytovich
Stephanie M. Wytovich is an award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist. She is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, and a recipient of the Elizabeth Matchett Stover Memorial Award, the 2021 Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant, and the Rocky Wood Memorial Scholarship for nonfiction writing.
Follow her at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram @SWytovich and @thehauntedbookshelf. You can also find her essays, nonfiction, and class offerings on LitReactor.
What inspired you to start writing?
I could answer this question a million different ways—and I have—but I think the simplest way to explain it is that I just needed to. Writing has always been there for me when I needed an outlet, when I needed to escape, when I needed a friend. It’s been my constant companion, the way I process grief, and most importantly, it’s also just been fun. Growing up, my head was (and still is) always in a book, and I knew that I wanted to read and tell stories forever, and so I started practicing and exploring and trying out different approaches and well, I just never stopped!
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
The horror genre has always felt like a safe place to me. It doesn’t sugarcoat things, but at the same time, it also doesn’t judge, and I love that I can explore darkness and be weird and have tough conversations about terrible (and macabre) things and that it’s not only okay, but welcomed and respected. I’ve never felt more like myself than when writing or championing horror, and I love the authenticity and unapologetic nature it radiates.
Horror has been therapy for me. It’s been a hug, a morning cup of coffee. It’s been there for me when I needed to relax, and it’s screamed with me when I’ve been angry and positively devastated. It’s taught me how to survive, how to be compassionate, and most importantly, it’s taught me about humanity and what it means to exist on this planet in one way or another.
I can’t imagine not having it by my side.
Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Absolutely. I’ve always written about madness from the female perspective, but as I’ve continued to work in the genre, I’ve also branched into writing body horror; discussing the archetype of the witch; analyzing female relationships; examining the line between eroticism and violence; and most recently, I’ve been exploring hunger, pregnancy, and postpartum. I also like to reinterpret the definition of “the final girl” and I have a deep interest in and appreciation of the slasher genre, so even though I haven’t explored that head-on yet, it’s always something that’s simmering in my mind when I write.
When it comes to what I hope to portray with my work, my focus usually embraces and seeks empowerment and acceptance of self, but not always with an outcome that gives us a likeable character. I actually quite love unlikeable female characters and villains, and I want my women to be multifaceted, complex. They might be brave and courageous, but other times they might be lost, monstrous, or dealing with the aftereffects of trauma and pain. While we might be compassionate or sympathetic to their struggle, I also want to see unfiltered rage and descent and raw, feral expressions, narratives that make us scream in frustration and tug on our heartstrings. Why? Because women aren’t just one thing, so we need to write them and explore the female gender and identity in lots of different ways to showcase that and start conversations and discourse around that experience and the stigma of it.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
We never know the struggle that someone is dealing with at any given time and it’s so important to always be kind.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I think as a community we’ve been taking a lot of steps in the right direction. We’re holding ourselves accountable in ways that maybe we haven’t done in the past, and collectively, we’re coming together to celebrate diversity, inclusivity, and storytelling of all kinds around the world. Something that I also love is the push to welcome back authors who have gotten lost in time (due to any number of factors) and make sure that the contemporary reading scene and the horror genre knows its history; and yes, that’s a specific shout-out to Valancourt Books, Lisa Kröger, Melanie R. Anderson, Meg Hafdahl, Kelly Florence, Lisa Morton, and Mallory O’Meara. You’ve all done such wonderful scholarship and I’ve learned so much from all of you. Thank you.
Moving forward, I think we’re going to continue to see a push for nonfiction, specifically work that details and examines female contributions to the genre, as well as creative work that tackles issues of bodily autonomy, identity, and power/choice in regard to gender, sexuality, class, and race, and I think (and hope!) that those very same conversations continue to happen in our group and our community as we continue to work to create more seats at the table, more compassion in our interactions, and most importantly, more safety (and fun!) at our events.
How do you feel women have been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Like I said above, I think we’re moving in the right direction, but the playing field is by no means equal yet, especially when it comes to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers. Women have been forgotten, ignored, and not taken seriously in horror since the genre’s creation, and we need to be empathetic and aware of that. Think about your TBR lists, your textbook selections. Consider how often you read new writers. Meditate on who you’re recommending and reviewing when you’re given platforms to speak. It might seem like a small gesture, but it’s such a huge thing and it helps out so many people.
Moving forward, on a personal level, I wanted to start teaching a Women Write Horror class at my university this semester because for the past 5+ years when I’ve asked students who their favorite female horror writers were, their answers were always the same: Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, and Mary Shelley. And sure, they’re all great and we adore them and their contributions to the genre, but there are literal worlds begging to be discovered here. Based on that polling, I used Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction to give a solid foundation of female literary horror history and then I selected contemporary writers and showcased their books so students had and have an idea of what’s happening now in the genre, too. This opens discussion up for tons of book recommendations, podcast sharing (my students are loving She Wore Black and Books in the Freezer at the moment), and scholarship, and I’d love to see more on that happening in schools, especially in higher education.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in horror?
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream is my ultimate scream queen, but a few other female characters I adore are Annie Graham (Toni Collette) in Hereditary, Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) in The Craft, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Witch, Bee (Samara Weaving) in The Babysitter, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) in Midsommar, and Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly) in the Chucky franchise.
With that said, there are also a handful of actresses who have worked in horror (at some point) who impressed me so much that I will now watch anything I see their names in: Janelle Monáe, Sissy Spacek, Kathy Bates, Jamie Lee Curtis, Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci, Barbara Crampton, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, and Jenna Ortega.
Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?
This is always such a hard question, so I’m going to select some authors that I’ve recently read and taught: Mona Awad, Mariana Enríquez, Claire Kohda, Augustina Bazterrica, Cassandra Khaw, T. Kingfisher, Rachel Yoder, Anne Heltzel, V. Castro, Amparo Dávila, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kiersten White, Gaby Triana, Zoje Stage, Sarah Gailey, Kristi DeMeester, Ainslie Hogarth, Rachel Harrison, Meg Hafdahl, Kelly Florence, Lisa Kröger, Melanie R. Anderson, Catherynne M. Valente, Cynthia Pelayo, Seanan McGuire, Patricia Lillie, Karin Tidbeck, and Sue Rainsford.
I also have to do a shout out to “Tiny Little Wounds” by Carlie St. George and “A Girl of Nails and Teeth” by Hannah Yang—two stories that I just read and immediately fell in love with.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Don’t measure yourself against anyone or their productivity. We all work differently, and we all have different lives, responsibilities, insecurities, etc., so it’s important to focus on you and your goals and just write.
And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Be fearless and don’t let people pigeonhole you or tell you what you can write because you’re a woman. Tell the stories you want to tell and tell them how you want to tell them.