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Hannah Neurotica Talks Women in Horror Month

As many of our loyal readers already know, February is Women in Horror Recognition Month, an initiative started by writer, commentator, activist, and horror aficionado Hannah Forman (aka Hannah Neurotica), publisher of the feminist horror zine Ax Wound.  In partnership with the inimitable Viscera Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to helping promote and publicize the work of female genre artists and filmmakers, WiHM is enjoying its fourth bloody year in 2013.  Keep an eye out for WiHM-approved events, products, and initiatives, all of which bear their catchy hot-pink Seal of Approval.

What follows is a repartee with Hannah conducted via email – between her stints on the radio, online, and editing her zine, she’s one busy lady these days. Diabolique picked her brain (only figuratively, of course) about her favorite subjects: women, horror, and the undeniable overlap between the two.  Here’s what Hannah had to say…

DIABOLIQUE: You started Women in Horror Month to address the fact that women are institutionally marginalized in genre work, and in the film industry in general.  What results have you seen come out of this initiative, as you head into another year?

NEUROTICA: I have witnessed so many successes that were fostered and born out of the Women in Horror Month (WiHM) initiative. It truly has become a movement bigger then I have been able to comprehend. Jen and Sylvia Soska are an excellent example of the power we have to get movies by women the attention they deserve. Prior to 2009, Jen and Sylvia were trying to get their first feature, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, screened, but the title caused people to be turned off without even taking the time to watch it. During WiHM, people from all over the world create homegrown film festivals featuring the work of women directors, writers, and producers. It was those grassroots festivals that screened Dead Hooker in a Trunk. The rest is history. They have now written and directed American Mary, which was released by Universal. This was all because the fans supported the work of these amazing women, when originally they weren’t being given the attention they deserved.

Most recently, I got an email from a female filmmaker in Serbia named Jovana Dimitrijevic. She expressed reaching a point of giving up hope that she would find other women making horror films. She wrote about the immense struggles that go along with being a female filmmaker in Serbia. I interviewed her for the first episode of the new WiHM Podcast and she spoke about how discovering Women in Horror Month empowered her to really seek out women in her area, and start an event to showcase the work of women in the horror arts. She has started an initiative called Girls Can Do Horror, and has an entire weeklong event happening in Belgrade this February. That is pretty amazing, and those are only two examples. There is a lot of work to be done, but we are making bloody red waves all over the place.

DIABOLIQUE: Do you consider WiHM a feminist venture?  What does the term mean to you, and what do you want others to have it mean to them?  Is feminist horror possible?

NEUROTICA: Women in Horror Month is about as feminist as it gets. Every bit of what we stand for is embedded in a mission born out of feminism. What feminism means to one person is often different than what it means to another. Some feminists are very anti-pornography, while other third wave “sex positive” feminists are all about empowerment through exploring and expressing themselves in regards to sexuality. The same can be said for the horror genre. Even though WiHM is a feminist movement, some people who identify as feminist might find horror films to be incredibly offensive, and wouldn’t get what we are all about at first glace, if at all. The most important thing to remember, regardless of ones feelings about horror films is that if women get more respect and higher level positions in the horror industry that will inevitably bleed over into other areas of the arts and entertainment industry and beyond. It’s a domino affect. Only good can come of it.

Is feminist horror possible? Absolutely! It’s all about intention and perspective. WiHM is a living, breathing example of how many feminist horror fans and artists are out there. Horror is a great medium for women to explore so many critical themes relevant to our lives.

DIABOLIQUE: Who are some of the women you’ve gotten to know through WiHM and what are some of their organizations/films you’d love more horror fans to know about?

NEUROTICA: Prior to Women in Horror Month, I was lucky to already be in touch with many women, due to my feminist horror zine, Ax Wound. WiHM helped us form an even deeper bond and solidarity. However if I think back to people I met specifically because of WiHM, well, it’s a big wonderful list. One organization I was so excited to discover this year was La Petite Morgue, a horror theater based organization in New York City. This year, they put on an event called The Bloody Gore-geous Monologues. I don’t know if I would have discovered such a cool organization, if not for WiHM bringing us together.

DIABOLIQUE: What is it about the horror world in particular that’s so unfriendly to women at a professional level?  It’s hard to think of another genre that can be seen in theaters in which women (or, at least, women’s bodies) play such a central role on screen, but are so marginalized in other aspects of creative development and production.  What’s the connection here?

NEUROTICA: The percentage of women in top positions within any industry is staggeringly low. In that sense I don’t know that horror is much different than any other sect of the business world. As you say, women are central on screen, but marginalized in other respects. This could be said for anything, sadly. Marketing firms spend millions of dollars to utilize and manipulate how we see women’s bodies – “sex appeal” to sell products, beverages, cars, films, etc. The men behind the corporate curtain, sitting in top positions, depend on the usage of women’s bodies as a tool for visual stimulation, in hope of increasing monetary flow. My hope has been that as we recognize the contributions of women to the horror genre, we will expand opportunities in all arenas of the art world. It’s a domino effect. Women need to stop ripping each other apart and find some sort of unity, or else we will never congeal into a blob of revolution. Sorry, I love using cheesy horror references!

DIABOLIQUE: It seems like the concept of female bodies being central to horror narratives is something of a truism; if the horror of a film isn’t something terrible being done to a female body, then it’s a result of a female body doing something terrifying on its own.  Mainstream horror still seems to be stuck back in the Dark Ages of early Freud; the woman’s body is the “dark continent” that is inherently unknowable, and always harbors unspeakable horrors.  Do you think that this horror of women themselves is part of the reason why their own narratives have a difficult time making it into the mainstream horror pantheon?  Do we only want to look at women, and not hear what they have to say?

NEUROTICA: The female body as a “site of horror” has been a constant in all film and print media, but certainly horror and pornography are embedded in the transgressive, so we see it in different ways then we would in a romantic comedy. In fact, I believe romantic comedies are way more damaging and insidious than a horror film could ever be. Romcoms are mainstream, bullshit interpretations of manufactured femininity. They perpetuate the idea that women only like “chick flicks” about Hugh Grant or Richard Gere and Sex and the City must be the definition of American women, that we must all really value the designer who made our high heels. It’s just all these fake ideals and expectations about what girls are supposed to aspire to. Which brings me back to horror… Horror doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.

The thing I love most about horror is the potential to explore really serious social and political issues in a way that manifests in monstrosity. It’s like therapy, whether you are the viewer or the producer.

Sex sells. Women’s bodies are marketing tools. No doubt about that. Which makes the very concept of women’s bodies as a site of horror very powerful, and pertinent for the horror genre. But to really examine the way women’s bodies have been utilized in horror films over time, I’d also have to break it down by subgenre. When the average person thinks of “horror movies,” the tendency is to picture the most popular images from films like Friday the 13thNightmare on Elm Street, etc., but that is not the only type of horror film. Not by a long shot. I mean, even though women’s bodies may be “doing something terrifying,” that doesn’t mean that has to be a negative thing. David Cronenberg’s The Brood is a great example of using the body as a tool for telling a story that isn’t pandering to the lowest common denominator. Body horror is actually my favorite. Frank Henelotter works in this theme all the time as well. Our bodies turn against us; we get disease and die. Humans are so paralyzed when faced with their own mortality. This makes horror an excellent place to explore our fear of death and the decay of the body.

As with anything, there is always going to be those who aim to exploit women, and those who have a real story to tell. Those who only want to see tits are gonna only want to see tits, and that in that sense there will always be those who have no interest in viewing women as human beings with brains and thoughts and ideas.The critical piece here is education – learning how to be a critical consumer of media, promoting media literacy and creating better characters for women in film.

DIABOLIQUE: What do you think today’s horror films reflect about our broader cultural narratives about women?  There seems to be some sort of connection between the prevalence of films that center on spectacles of physically degrading women and the bizarre political rhetoric about women and rape that came out of the most recent election cycle. As the conservative political agenda becomes more vehemently anti-woman, do you think there is a connection, somehow, between this line of political thinking and the often severely degrading representation of women in mainstream horror films?  And what do you think it’s in response to?

NEUROTICA: Horror films are most often a reflection of current social and cultural anxieties. After 9/11, we saw news story after news story about torture. It is no wonder that films like Hostel and Saw would end up being highly successful box office hits. Even though I loathe the term “torture porn” (a whole other conversation – I think it discredits the genre) we did see a rise in “torture” as a theme in horror that has carried over to today. Granted, torture has always been a theme in certain horror subgenres. Let’s not forget that. But the way it was used in terms of storytelling after 9/11 was a more overt comment on current wartime anxieties. Horror has always at its core dealt with “otherness.” In Hostel, we don’t have the typical city vs. country (city teens going to cabin in the woods) but rather Americans who have assumed privilege going to other countries, and how we assume anything outside of the USA is “hostile,” and we should therefore be afraid of any non-American “others.” In terms of where we are at right now, with the word “rape” all over the political landscape (for the wrong reasons), I haven’t seen a specific rise in horror films that clearly are a response to this. In a decade from now it will be more clear. I believe horror has always dealt heavily with rape (rape-revenge, etc.) and therefore it’s hard to pinpoint a shift without doing a lot of research. My friend Manda (who worked as the editor on the short film I made last year) pointed out how in the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the female hitchhiker pulls a gun out from her vagina and then shoots herself. I think that alone speaks volumes about what is happening right now.

DIABOLIQUE: In recent films such as High Tension and Martyrs, that there is a conflation of female characters’ murderous or violent urges with same-sex desire.  It’s as though mainstream films have a hard time imagining a female character being violent without also piling on a very obvious marker of difference, of Otherness, onto her.  Any discussion of women’s narratives needs to include perspectives that aren’t exclusively heteronormative. What do you think is being said about female desire, and lesbian desire, in contemporary mainstream horror film?

NEUROTICA: I will admit I was a bit baffled by the popularity of High Tension. It was very suspenseful and filled with fantastic imagery, but something was lost in translation for me that I haven’t been able to find yet. Either way, it is a film worth discussing. I don’t know if I actually agree that its using a layer of “otherness” to make it permissible for her to be monstrous. We live during a time when gay rights and marriage equality is all over our political tongue. A ridiculously large number of people still believe that allowing gay people to get married will destroy the nuclear “family values.” That being said, High Tension begins with two college women, Alexia and Marie, and they are heading to Alexia’s home for a school break. Alexia comes from a very traditional family. The concept of “otherness” tagged onto Marie could be a metaphor for the social anxieties of queer rights somehow ruining this faux “traditional family values.” One essay I read a while back spoke about this as well, and even pointed out that Marie kills the family in order of their positions of power in the family structure – her dad being killed first.

Also, when looking at High Tension, I need to remember it is not an American film, and I don’t know how progressive or not progressive the culture is toward gay rights in France, where the film was made. I would need to do some research. This whole question though is very intriguing, and something I’d like to really explore more. Who knows, maybe if I watch it again I might enjoy it more?

The “otherness” of Marie being queer in High Tension doesn’t need to be seen as a negative. It’s all in what lens we are viewing through. When the girls arrive at Alexa’s home, it is clear that this a very nuclear family, and her very “otherness” causing the destruction – not because she is the monster, but because society has the assumption that if gay people could get married, it would somehow destroy our “family values.” And so her taking down the family – patriarch first – would show this social anxiety of what queerness will do to our assumed moral fabric.

DIABOLIQUE: Is there reason for hope?

NEUROTICA: There is always reason for hope. Otherwise, there would be no reason to get out of bed in the morning. We have the power to make change – people need to tell authentic stories, and request and support authentic art by women and men who have real gifts to bring to the genre. Not this shit Hollywood money factory that throws some blood on a pair of tits and calls it good, underestimating the brilliant people who love the genre.  Support indie artists, support the work of female artists, speak out about injustice, and never lose the ability to think critically about what the media is feeding you.

DIABOLIQUE: What are some recent films that you’ve fallen in love with?

NEUROTICA: The Pact was such a nice and creepy surprise. I also am a big fan of Grave Encounters. I was legit freaked out by both films. I will admit I even did the half-cover-your-eyes-but-you-can-still-see thing. And normally I don’t like the found footage subgenre, mainly because I get dizzy and headaches from the shaky camera crap. So I hadn’t thought to even check out Grave Encounters until the cohost of the Women in Horror Month Podcast suggested it to me. It was super entertaining and creepy; my only complaint is it’s about 15 minutes to long. But if you have Netflix streaming, you can see both of these movies. Of course, everyone must also check out American Mary from Jen and Sylvia Soska.

DIABOLIQUE: Give me a parting shot.

NEUROTICA: Thank you, Lita for asking some of the most thought provoking questions! You really made me use my brain. Diabolique is such a fantastic publication and I am honored to be part of it, so thank you! And Happy Women in Horror Month!

– By Lita Robinson

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Lita Robinson

Lita Robinson holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Smith College, and an M.A. in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She currently works in sales and distribution, and consults as a story editor on the side.

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