Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discusses her just-published encyclopedia.

By Clark Collis
July 24, 2020 at 12:35 PM EDT
Meredith has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Meredith may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.
Advertisement

The history of the horror genre is routinely told via the careers of male directors such as James Whale, Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' just-published book 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018, takes a very different approach, showcasing the contributions of women directors and actors as well as those who have toiled, often unsung, in other capacities. "When we think of women in horror, we default to Janet Leigh or Texas Chain Saw Massacre, those really iconic images from horror films," says Heller-Nicholas, who has previously written books on Dario Argento's Suspiria and Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45.  "We think of terror as being embodied through women’s bodies — screaming and running. I really wanted to explode that a little bit and say the person at the editing deck might be a woman, the person in the director’s chair might be a woman, the cinematographer might be a woman. If we move outside of the ‘single male genius’ who else is working on this stuff? And it turns out there’s actually some pretty amazing people, and some of them are women. There's a lot more going on that women embody in horror than screaming. Not that there’s anything wrong with screaming. It’s hard work!"

Heller-Nicholas was inspired to have 1895 be the chronological starting point for her collection of mini-biographies after seeing a film from that year titled The Execution of Mary Stuart. "It's a very very early example of special effects," says the writer. "It’s Mary going up to the guillotine and having her head chopped off and her head being picked up, that’s the end of the film. I was first drawn to this because Mary is played by ‘Mrs Robert Thomas.’ I was fascinated by ‘Mrs Robert Thomas.’ Seemingly it’s a woman, but she’s defined through her relationship to a man. But I did some digging around and apparently it was actually played by a man. There was something about it, a little it of playfulness and the idea that gender and identity is slippery even in 1895."

The book includes interviews with genre notables such as actress Debbie Rochon (Tromeo and Juliet) and director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) but Heller-Nicholas also speaks with an array of up-and-coming filmmakers including Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), BJ Colangelo, and Izzy Lee. "I was a little bit cocky perhaps in my selection of interview subjects," says Heller-Nicholas. "I didn’t just want to have a big list of rock star names, I want everybody to look at that list of interviews and say, 'There are names here that I don’t know.' So, I really like the idea of having Debbie Rochon, who's my queen, and Catherine Hardwicke, who’s everybody's queen, and then have them next to people like Mia'Kate Russell, who’s an Australian filmmaker and makeup artist, or Izzy Lee who is going to be massive once she gets the break that she deserves."

Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

Some of the most notable horror films of the last few years have been made by women directors, including Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Karyn Kusama's The Invitation. But female filmmakers are often still regarded as less worthy of discussion by the media than their male peers. The upcoming Candyman remake, for example, has at times been described in the press as "Jordan Peele's Candyman" despite the film actually having been directed by Nia DaCosta. (Peele produced and co-wrote the film).

"Jordan Peele is a genius," says Heller-Nicholas. "I certainly don’t want to diminish at all his role in bringing that film to fruition. But I know people who are film critics who saw 'Jordan Peele's Candyman' so many times they thought he was directing it. It’s a shame because Nia DaCosta is a superb director. It’s not like this is her first film. She’s really earned her stripes. It comes down to this question of visibility. So much about this book for me was about the invisibility of women’s labor and that story feeds explicitly into my concerns. I appreciate that Jordan Peele is a very big name that will get attention, but I don't think it would happen if it was a woman producer with a male director."

The author reveals that her near 600 page-long book could have been much heftier — or at least included many more women. "It could have featured 5,000 women! 10,000 women!" she says, with a laugh. "The book’s just been released and I’m absolutely braced for the, 'Oh my god, I can’t believe you left this person out!' Doing a book on every single woman who’s worked in horror ever, it’s not viable. Imagine doing a book on every single man who’s worked in horror ever. And I don’t think the numbers would be that [different] at the end of the day."

1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 is now available to buy.

Related content:

Comments