How many times have you seen this happen? An event focusing on the creative efforts of women is announced online. Suddenly, your social media feed is bloated with bloviating blowhards who complain that such things are unnecessary or that it’s sexist, a claim that’s even more baffling. This kind of reaction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that only the willfully ignorant can ignore; all it does is highlight the sad fact that such events need to exist in the first place. Women who gravitate toward the horror genre—either as fans or creators—often get a double dose of this kind of sexism, as if our interest in horror isn’t valid because we’re women.
“Women in Horror Month is important because we’re still asking the question of why it’s important.”–Alexandra West
Bullshit, I say! Etheria Film Night, an “annual showcase screening of a progressive slate of genre films directed by women” is the brainchild of Heidi Honeycutt and is based in Los Angeles. As its website points out, “women want to make exciting, provocative, entertaining, fantastic, and terrifying films.” It seems obvious, but when you see it stated in such a straightforward fashion, it definitely resonates.
Horror fans in Toronto were lucky enough to experience an Etheria Film Night at The Royal Cinema on February 20 to celebrate Women in Horror Month. Five short films were screened, followed by a panel discussion with three of those filmmakers–Amanda Row, Vivian Lin, and Kat Threlkeld—plus film critic and programmer Richelle Charkot (The MUFF Society), editor Brigitte Rabazo (Hannibal), and producer Laura Perlmutter (Riftworld Chronicles). The panel was moderated by Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West of The Faculty of Horror podcast.
The first short film at Etheria Film Night was Arantxa Echevarria’s “De Noche y De Pronto,” which received the 2015 Etheria Jury Award. The film’s 19-minute run time is ripe with suspense that arises from a seemingly simple situation: a woman’s neighbor knocks on the door, begging to be let in because thieves have locked him out of his apartment. The film plays on the idea of the “nice girl” and the “good neighbor” as well as the idea that we never really know who we can trust.
This is the same kind of scenario that Row, Lin, and Threlkeld think uniquely qualifies women to be more involved in making horror films, not less.
“Being a female is not for the weak.”—Kat Threlkeld
Lin remarks that, “There is a lot of danger and fear that exists in most women’s day-to-day lives which we are only beginning to talk about in society.” Row ponders the idea that, “Imagination is a really important survival tool and it’s pretty damn hard being a girl. If I imagine every possible terrifying scenario, maybe I’ll be more equipped to handle it if it ever happened?”
“Some are lucky enough not to be child brides or prostitutes, or have to experience forced marriage or gender specific war crimes,” asserts Threlkeld, “but we all fear for our safety daily to some capacity and those that do experience innocence stolen and unspeakable crimes have all the more capacity to understand horror on a deeply personal level.”
It’s not just understanding horror, it’s creating it, too, observes Threlkeld: “The lack of acknowledgement that I’m just as or more capable than male colleagues, coupled with the immense amount of violence and disrespect towards women in media, has made me believe that women need to tell their own fantasies of violence as a therapeutic release and as a commentary about female-targeted violence.”
“It’s totally inexcusable in this day to still make horror movies (or movies in general) that don’t even attempt to try and create realistic female characters, and instead use them as props.”—Richelle Charkot
All of the panel guests noted that horror films made by women don’t always focus on women’s issues or have women as the central protagonists, and pointed out that these are stereotypes that continue to proliferate.
Vivian Lin’s “And They Watched” is a perfect example. It’s a gruesome tale that feels like a throwback to Tales from the Dark Side or The Twilight Zone. It focuses on a male custodian who has the unenviable task of cleaning up the electric chair after executions. Boasting some excellent special effects, the film is both chilling and thought-provoking, and straddles the line between grim reality and the nebulous realm of what lies beyond that reality. Lin’s film was inspired by the recent reinstatement of the electric chair in Tennessee, but what inspired her interest in the horror genre? “I think my gateway drug was Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she admits wryly. This is an inspiration to which both women and men can relate.
“Don’t be surprised when I can do the job that I was hired to do. Don’t be surprised that I have intelligent things to say. That type of behaviour is so subtly discouraging; it happens all the time and it drives me crazy.”—Amanda Row
“Mitten,” written and directed by Amanda Row, packs a lot of creepy into its three minutes. A man finds a lost mitten and seeks out its owner. There’s blood and gore, but mostly unsettling humor and incredibly effective music cues. Like Lin’s “And They Watched,” it disregards “women in horror” stereotypes by positioning a man as its central character. It’s also a film that seeks to expand the idea of what “horror” can be, something supported by Row’s claim that she never thought of herself as part of the genre. “I’ve only started calling myself a horror director in the past couple years,” she explains, “and that’s because a friend of mine pointed out that all of the films I’ve made in the past decade have had some creepy, supernatural element.”
“Supernatural” is a word that applies to Kat Threlkeld’s “Seirēn,” which combines lyrical underwater cinematography with stellar practical effects and quite a bit of unexpected comedy. It’s sort of like the dark flipside of Splash, without the romance: a supermodel is bitten by an unknown creature while at the beach and begins the painful process of transforming into a mermaid.
Threlkeld first became interested in horror when she was a teenager obsessed with death and in love with Anne Rice novels, but it’s the transformative qualities of cinema that fascinate her. “I love the way you can walk out of a film and be completely disoriented from reality for a while. It’s a real escape and sometimes it can leave me shaken for days or inspired or find meaning within my own life. I want to do that for other people.”
The final film of the night was Chloe Okuno’s riveting “Slut,” whose arresting title is presented in massive, red, bold-faced type. It’s a grimy yet polished character study that does a lot with diegetic music, subtle acting, and precise production design. Fear not, gorehounds, it has some of that, too.
“I’ve been assumed to be an actress every single time I’ve ever gone to represent my film. The amount of times people assumed I wrote or directed my film is exactly zero.”—Vivian Lin
Although many might believe that just completing a short film will open all of the doors, successful careers for women or those involved in the cultural critique of horror as an art form are never without roadblocks. Both Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West remember the backlash when the event first started seven years ago. Apparently, it’s still a problem.
Says West, “Not one February has passed where I haven’t tried or had to explain the importance of it to a man who was denigrating it or commenting on a woman’s appearance or sexuality due to an increased online presence because of Women in Horror Month. I think it has succeeded in helping to normalize women in the genre, but has revealed some resistance in the community towards progressive ideals.”
“Film can sometimes feel like a boy’s club,” concurs Richelle Charkot, “which is extraordinarily ridiculous because there are so many fantastic female talents in the scene. Sometimes I feel like my opinion isn’t taken as seriously as some of my male colleagues. I can count numerous times where I was talked over or talked at, or worse, made to feel like I should be quiet in some sort of bizarre, internalized misogynistic way. It took a while to cut that habit out. Now, when I’m talked over or talked at, I will make damned sure I’m heard.”
“My advice to anyone in the biz, and especially any marginalized group, is to work hard, be accountable to yourselves only and the right people will find you. That, and fuck the haters.”—Andrea Subissati
Andrea Subissati agrees that this behavior has only spurred on her creativity. “In the end, the idea that there wasn’t space for women in horror only motivated me to work harder to make space for women in horror and drown out the trolls with content that speaks for itself.”
The best way to smash the patriarchy for women involved in the horror genre is to keep doing what you do. “The most valuable thing I’ve learned from women in the horror community,” suggests Andrea Subissati, “is to work to please yourself first. When Alex and I first launched The Faculty of Horror podcast, we met with criticism–“does it always have to be about gender?”–but we ignored it. We stuck to our guns and did it our way and three years later, we’ve found an extraordinary audience who respect and appreciate our approach.”
Alexandra West puts it bluntly: “Create your own work. No one will hand you anything and there’s not always a lot of work to go around, so you have to be on top of your game, organized and resourceful. The women who have mentored me, who I work with, and who I look up to all create out of a lack of something which helps yield unique results and content. Before I do almost anything I research to see if it’s been done before. What will I bring to the table?”
“Girls have to encourage each other no matter what,” emphasizes Amanda Row. “As a young girl who wore a lot of flannel in elementary school and had a pretty solid unibrow, I can tell you that the moments where my fellow ladies complimented me or supported me carried me through some pretty hard times. Don’t compete with each other! Support and encourage each other. It’s the most important thing.”
Vivian Lin singles out Etheria’s Heidi Honeycutt and Shriekfest’s Denise Gossett for praise. “They are tireless champions of women in horror.” She adds: “There has been an incredibly supportive community out there and it’s really been great to connect with other filmmakers, men and women, to see their films and support each other.” Kat Threlkeld recognizes this need to support our fellow women and contends, “We definitely need to stay strong and united as we break open this choke hold society has on us.”
“If I dare be enormously cheesy,” Richelle Charkot laughs, “basically every woman that I’ve met in this scene has motivated me, I feel like we’re all on each other’s sides. The world needs more creative types; that’s definitely what women in horror have taught me.”
For more on Etheria Film Night, visit the event’s website.
Find out about The MUFF Society monthly screening series and community on their website.
The most recent Faculty of Horror Podcast, “Body Rippers: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)” is available to download now.
Look for Alexandra West’s book, Films of the New French Extremity (with a foreword by Andrea Subissati), out in July from McFarland Press.
Top photo: Still from Vivian Lin’s “And They Watched”