The 1001st Woman In Horror: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on disinterring genre’s buried gender

The 1001st Woman In Horror: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on disinterring genre’s buried gender, first published by Little White Lies magazine

“I grew up believing that horror was a boys’ club. Of course, in many ways it still is – both in the industry and in terms of the fandom – but I know for myself and many other women, Carol J. Clover’s [1992] book Men, Women and Chainsaws was a real lightning bolt moment when we realised there were ways into this genre for women spectators and creatives that weren’t necessarily regressive or selling out ‘team woman’. It was hugely liberating, and this book in large part seeks to continue that sense of liberation.”

This is Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, contextualising the gender-corrective approach to genre cinema in her latest book 1000 Women in Horror 1895-2018 (2020), while also, with typical modesty, positioning herself and her work as merely the latest addition to a long tradition: just another woman in horror, among many whose strength and solidarity come in part from their numbers. Though her book redresses the lack of attention and recognition given to women working as directors, writers, actors and crew since horror cinema’s earliest years, Heller-Nicholas herself (@suspirialex on Twitter) will likely be a familiar name to anyone with even a passing interest in genre.  For she is the voice of a thousand Blu-ray commentaries, the doyenne of DVD essays, an academic, a critic, a film historian, an editor, a broadcaster, a programmer for Fantastic Fest in Texas, and a member of the advisory board for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. The author of monographs on Suspiria, Ms. 45 and The Hitcher, she has also co-edited collections of essays on filmmaking couple Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, and on Peter Strickland, and has literally written the book(s) on Rape-Revenge Films (2011), Found Footage Horror Films (2014), Masks in Horror Cinema (2019), and artful mises-en-abyme in Italian thrillers (The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema, [2021]). In other words, in the world of horror, Heller-Nicholas’ name is legion, and her contributions to the discourse of dread are both wide and deep. 

As well as being a prominent voice in horror criticism, Heller-Nicholas is both a woman and a feminist, which is key to her latest book’s intersection of genre and gender. Heller-Nicholas explains: “I find big survey projects like this – I’ve written four other book-length ones – tend to percolate over time. An origin point might be when I started consciously thinking about women’s work in horror in terms of invisible labour, and that really feeds into work I’d already been doing on women’s filmmaking more broadly such as a large research project in 2016/7 on Australian women’s filmmaking of the 1980s and 90s, and co-editing a book on Elaine May. Horror of course was always my central passion, so it was really sparked by these two different research interests coming together.” 

The first thing you notice about this book is the monumental scale of its scope and ambition. Spread over 600 pages are 1000 entries, most offering painstakingly researched biographical and filmographical information on female subjects who range greatly in  age, nationality and renown. So, entries opened at random yield dizzyingly eclectic results: on p,195 there is contemporary Argentinian writer/director/producer Tamae Garateguy; p.342 has Sixties kaiju star Kumi Mizuno; and there is an extensive interview with Belgian critic, actor, writer/director  and Basenji wrangler Axelle Carolyn spread over pp.93-98. The order of these entries is strictly alphabetical, creating a new ABCs of death focused only on the women involved in horror’s execution. Besides making it easy to dip into the book for reference, this organisational principle has a levelling effect, ensuring that equal status is granted to big-name celebrities and more obscure filmmakers. “I never wanted this to be a ranking, to hold some women’s labour as being more significant somehow than that of other, less well known women,” says Heller-Nicholas. “And in practical terms, outside the introduction I do not intend this book to be read cover to cover – I like the idea of people using it as a reference, and accidentally stumbling across women they’d never heard of as they look up women that they already know. For example, I thrill at the idea of a reader looking up Hollywood star Neve Campbell and by sheer proximity reading entries about indie actor and director Tara Cardinal, Australian negative cutter Margaret Cardin, and Wendy Carlos, the transgender woman who created the extraordinary score to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.”

A smaller set of entries is accompanied by lengthy interviews, although here too democratic criteria were applied, as Heller-Nicholas explains: “I was unapologetically determined with my interviews to not just have a list of big famous names; I wanted some to leap out of course, but it was very important to me to use this book as a space to listen to what emerging and indie creatives have to say as much as established figures in the field. There is an ambiguity to words like ‘greatness’ or ‘importance’ –  to me, Lao filmmaker Mattie Do is just as ‘important’ to the genre as Cassandra Petersen (aka Elvira), even though the latter is obviously much closer to being a household name.”

“There are obviously more than 1000 women in horror”, Heller-Nicholas writes in the book’s introduction, where she also claims to be “still looking” for more female filmmakers, in what may be a life quest. At the end of the introduction, there is even a space expressly left for readers to add their own list of names. This is an open book, provisional, in no way pretending to be complete or exhaustive. “In a historiographical sense,” she tells LWLies, “it would not just be arrogant but also professional suicide to try and claim a list of 1000 women in horror who are the most ‘important’ or ‘significant’ – rather, I was more interested in painting a very broad picture that indicates just how large the scale needs to be when we start thinking of women in horror, both in front of and behind the camera.” She adds: “There is an ideological aspect to this: I resist wholesale the idea of the ‘single male genius’ that screen culture has inherited from art history, that grotesque idea of a pantheon of ‘great directors’ where – like art history – ‘greatness’ itself has been systemically rigged to render women and all those who are not white, male, able-bodied, straight men simultaneously invisible.” 

So this book is a counter-history – a distaff riposte to the kind of patriarchal list-making that centres on male auteurs, and effaces everyone else. It is also just one piece of the armature in a new, more gender-inclusive canon under constant revision. “I very much want my book to be part of a conversation that started long before I began work on it and will continue into the future not just about women in horror, but women in the screen industries more broadly,” says Heller-Nicholas. “Things that depress me deeply are the patronising listicles that appear during Women in Horror Month each year of ‘top ten films directed by women you must see’: it’s always the same films, over and over and over again, and more often than not framed by an implied suggestion of “Wow, can you believe women make horror movies today? What a world!”. At the heart of the book are questions of labour and value, and I would like to think that applies not only to women, but to other people in the film industry whose labour has gone unacknowledged for so long – BIPOC creatives, queer artists, those living with disabilities… a whole range of people whose work we often can’t acknowledge simply because we don’t see it.”

At the same time, Heller-Nicholas warns that seeing is not enough in itself to implement real change, even if it is an important preliminary step. “I think there’s a very dangerous and lazy mistake where we often confuse visibility with production – the idea that because more women-directed horror films are hitting our radar, this means more are being made,” she says. “But what is important here is not the amount of women-driven horror projects – or women’s voices in the genre more broadly, be it from within industry, from critics, or from fans themselves – but that we are now increasingly more aware of this being an issue in the first place. We’ve developed a sensitivity to this being something we should be thinking about, and I think that is an enormous step forward.”

 So the next time somebody suggests that horror is a boys-only club, or that women have no place in the genre besides playing victim, this encyclopaedic tome offers an overwhelming counterargument, putting a thousand bullets in the brain of the cockamamie commonplace that horror is a genre by and for men. And as the coup de grâce, there is, at the book’s end, a selected filmography of over 700 feature-length female-directed horror films. If only we acknowledge the contributions made to horror by all these women, pursue their films, spread the word and clamour for more, we will be halfway towards rewriting, even discarding, the horror canon, breaking free of patriarchy’s icy grip, and replacing the male gaze with a much wider perspective on our darkest experiences and emotions.

Anton Bitel