[GUEST POST] David Nickle Looks at Feminism in Horror


David Nickle is an author and journalist living in Toronto, Canada. His most recent novel, The ‘Geisters, is available from ChiZine Publications through this link.

Rosemary’s Daughters

by David Nickle

One evening many years ago, author and playwright Ira Levin paid a visit to his friend Rosemary Clooney. It was during her pregnancy, in the apartment she shared with her husband Jose Ferrer in the Dakota Building in New York City. As legend would have it, Ferrer was a lousy husband, and Levin worried about Rosemary both in the marriage and in that gloomy old building. He went away and set to work on a new novel, about a woman also called Rosemary married to a down-on-his-luck actor in a building very much like the Dakota.

The novel departs from Clooney’s depressingly mundane reality, as Rosemary Woodhouse’s husband Guy sells her uterus to a pack of Satanists living upstairs. And as they wait for their little Dark Lord to gestate, the course of a difficult pregnancy turns into the nightmarish horror show of Rosemary’s Baby — arguably one of the most influential and powerful horror novels of the 20th century.

Reportedly, Levin was dismayed by the most obvious influence of the book, in creating a genre of horror fiction that preyed on what he regarded the superstitious impulses of the reading public. But he ought to have been more pleased with the other big influence: the introduction of feminist themes into horror fiction. In particular, into horror fiction written by men.

It’s an interesting, and interestingly popular, subset of a genre that can be anything but feminist. One of the frequent complaints about modern horror films is that they often treat women as simple victims, lasciviously oppressed and violated, and very often killed. In the original King Kong, Fay Wray is little more than a rape victim. In The Cat People, Simone Simon’s Serbian shape-changer is a creature whose womanly desires and fallibility turn her into a killer. The dead sorority sisters in the endless slasher movies of the 1980s are legion — all implicitly executed for simply enjoying their sexuality.

But Rosemary’s daughters are a different breed. It would be wrong to call them properly feminist — because they’re not really stories informed by the core experience of their authors. Rather, they’re stories written by male novelists, using the tools they’ve got to understand, as best they can, the experience of their sisters and wives and daughters.

They don’t always get it right. But they take an honest stab at it.

In Rosemary’s Baby, Levin asks us to study the vulnerability of women who enter into marriage and embark on a life of child-rearing. As Rosemary’s pregnancy progresses, she finds herself having less and less agency in her own life and care — much as was the case for most women with children in 1960s America. Levin went as far as acknowledging, and illustrating, the horror of that disempowerment. But in the end, the best he could offer was an expression of lurid despair.

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was also concerned with women — in particular, with the anxieties and vulnerabilities that he saw as intrinsic to women-led households in the early 1970s, when Vatican 2 denied the “wisdom” of the old religious patriarchy and a demon might slip in through the gaps to steal away your child. It would be wrong to call a novel feminist, in which that demon finally succumbs at the hand of one of the priests of that Old Time Religion. But as previously stated — they didn’t always get it right.

What they did was observe the changing world of gender roles, with as much empathy and as little condescension as they could.

Stephen King’s debut novel was the story of Carrie White, a young girl whose abuse at the hands of her zealously conservative mother combined with her first menstruation unleashed latent telekinetic powers that literally destroyed the oppressive, patriarchal society around her. King, interestingly, depicted that patriarchy most brutally enforced by the women: specifically, Carrie’s mother, and the mean girls who set up the Prom Night prank that leads to the pyrotechnic conclusion.

King has been an enthusiastic, if imperfect, bearer of the flame in this little sub-category throughout his very prolific career. His novel The Shining takes a powerful look at domestic abuse borne of substance abuse, and ultimately delivers a kind of victory to Wendy Torrance, who escapes both the evils of the Overlook Hotel and the immediate threat of her abusive husband. But it’s a victory delivered by men — the momentary mercy and regret of her husband, the ‘Shining’ powers of her son Danny, the sacrifice of Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s psychic custodian.

But there are others: Rose Madder, Dolores Clayborne, Gerald’s Game… to an extent, It and The Stand. They all take that stab at understanding and illuminating the human condition, as experienced by the double-X chromosome.

When I was putting together my latest novel, The ‘Geisters, I paid less attention to King, and more to Levin. Initially, my novel of a woman haunted by a poltergeist, and pursued by men with a dangerously carnal interest in that poltergeist, was to be informed by another great Levin feminist-horror novel: The Stepford Wives.

That one’s barely a novel at all — it’s a tiny thing, really a novella. But Levin’s slim tale has become in its way an even more prevalent meme than Rosemary’s Baby: the story of a community of men, irritated by the rising tide of feminism in the early ’70s, who respond with a horrible utopianism: a world in which real women, with their needs and desires and ambitions, are replaced by the servile sexual objects that these men had always desired.

It’s a powerful meme, and like the horror at the heart of Rosemary’s Baby, it’s fundamentally hopeless. From his time and place, that’s how Levin evidently saw the future for women in North American society. To paraphrase George Orwell, the likely future of feminist aspiration is a black-polished Oxford shoe, stomping on a woman’s face — forever.

It’s tempting to dismiss that assessment as dated. But to do so would be naive. Lawmakers in North Carolina and Texas are waging an all-out war of oppression on women as I type this. In Dubai, Norwegian designer Marte Deborah has barely escaped imprisonment for the crime of having sex out of marriage, for simply having reported an allegation that she’d been raped in that country. Patriarchy may sometimes seem to be dissolving into history — but like the monster in a horror novel, it always seems to return, its powers undiminished.

When I wrote about The ‘Geisters on John Scalzi’s blog in June, I described it as Rosemary’s Baby, where the part of Rosemary Woodhouse is played by Carrie White. My protagonist Ann LeSage has to take a lot of shit from some very bad men. But she has within herself the capacity to give it back, with interest.

In that sense, I hope that my addition to this continuum is if not a statement of naive hope, at least something of a battle cry.

11 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] David Nickle Looks at Feminism in Horror”

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and agreed with them as far as they go. But I wonder. . . I understand that as a male writer trying to write horror that genuinely addresses its female characters, you have to draw on the previous male writers doing the same thing. No one expects you to undergo transgender surgery just to get your characters right. But there are a lot of female horror writers out there (albeit, some of them just preaching). Have you been able to take anything from their experience?

  2. Thanks, Michaele. I probably should clarify that the male writers I’ve name-checked in this piece about male-driven feminist perspectives in horror fiction, were not my only influences in writing The ‘Geisters. I’d have to say thatShirley Jackson was a pretty firm influence (her name actually comes up in the novel, particularly her seminal Haunting of Hill House). But I’d say that Daphne du Maurier has left her mark on me, as has Joyce Carol Oates, and Katherine Dunn (not known as a horror writer per se, but try reading past the first page of her transgressive guignol masterpiece Geek Love and tell me that’s not what she is). I don’t know of any women horror writers who are just preaching. I know there are women at work in the field who I’d happily hear a sermon from, though: good folk like Gemma Files and Poppy Brite and Kaaron Warren and Caitlín R. Kiernan… I could go on.

  3. “subset of a genre that can be anything but feminist”

    So do you have any examples of this or is it just a self serving way of saying I’m better then them.

    Lucy Taylor/Christa Faust write whatever they want and most often from a strong woman’s pof but because they are not shy from including Sex into their fiction, They are often considered witless victims of Discrimination instead of Sexually Liberated Women.

    And I have to say Michaele has a great point that couldn’t be hammered home enough. It’s not just what she stated about how one shouldn’t expect men to have sex changes so they understand female characters better. But it goes back to lesson #1 in for every writer in the world.

    Write what you Know!

    I understand what you are writing, But to me there is even a larger context that people so often choose to ignore. That there will always be issues in a free any society and Celebrating our differences means understanding and coming to grips with there being differences.

  4. Well, it’s no wonder I like your writing so much, Mr. Nickle — you have great taste! I feel the same way about Geek Love (one of my all-time favorite books, and one I do consider to be a horror novel of the best kind) and Levin’s work. Rosemary is such an interesting character to me, in terms of how she has such perfectly parallel currents of strength and vulnerability.

    At any rate, well said! I just bought The ‘Geisters, and I’m looking forward to reading it all the more having read your thoughts here.

  5. I see you did not censor my comment, You Sir get 5000 points of respect for that.
    When you mentioned Scalzi’s name I certainly expected the same treatment of Censorship vs Debate as a end solution as long as you are the one with the finger over the delete button.

    I do agree with most of what you stated but I see the dangers of not stepping outside the box and seeing the bigger picture. Something that many tend not to do because there is (Almost) no larger box then the Male/Female viewpoint.

    To me the great question always boils down the the Jesus Fable.
    Who one considers the worst of these.
    The Roman Leader who executed Jesus, The Jewish Leaders who hounded the Romans to take care of this upstart or Judas The so called Brother.

    And of course one could say that Jesus was the worst for conning and putting all of this in motion.

    People today state one cannot say they are better then someone else(racism/Sexism/Regionism ETC) but there is plenty of wiggle room to say one is worse.

    Whether one is right or not, The real issue always becomes one of hypocrisy and if one is critical of who they are enough to understand and allow a context that fits everyone(including themselves) into the same box.

    Yeah, Confusing I know.

    1. Please don’t get me started on how much of the problem (in horror, SF/F, general literature or real life) is the pervasive (and, yes, I admit it, I think destructive) Christian influence/subtext.

      But yes, the key is not committing hypocrisy–a much more difficult task than it sounds. Because truth is rarely absolute and most of us are comfortably unaware of our own lies, games and agendae. (What’s a sub-conscious for, if not to keep all that junk out of sight?) A writer needs to be honest, starting with self-honesty. And as Valery said, “To enter one’s own self, one must go armed to the teeth.”

      1. Totally Agree!!!

        The funny thing is that Horror writers always will be jealous of the bible, as there is nothing that could be more Horrifically Evil then a all Seeing Entity that will condemn you to a Eternity of Pain in Hell without any decent evidence/proof that he/she/it is actually judging you. And at the same time is considered a Fair, Kind and Loving God.

        Hypocrisy is the Great Enemy and it lies in wait in all of us.
        When everyone with half a brain understands and stands for half of the truth, it is paramount to encourage critical self reflection more then defining yourself by perceived enemies.

        There has been a unwinnable war since the dawn between people who know half the truth but view the other half as there opposite.
        Censorship is the curse of Truth with societies that reach our height as it denies opposing opinions.

        And it is precisely those opposing opinions that are often the missing pieces we all need to know the whole truth.

        Yes The Right is Half Wrong, So is the Left, That is why claiming one side is better then the other is a losers game. They both exist because there are some fundamental truths in each and they will continue to fight because there are fundamental flaws in each.

        I guess I’ve overblown enough!

        Best Wishes!

  6. >> Lawmakers in North Carolina and Texas are waging an all-out war of oppression on women as I type this. <<

    Hyperbole much?

  7. David, thanks for writing such a thought-filled article. Thanks for not speaking with White Male Authority Voice(tm) too. I appreciate that quite a bit. Also, I’ve long been a fan of Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Ira Levin. (I’ve read both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.) I like what you’ve said here — including what you said about the lawmakers in NC and TX, and I’ll be buying your book too. Absolutely.

    Quick story involving Rosemary’s Baby which I will tell you because I think you’d get a kick out of it: I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Ft. Worth a couple years ago when my Aunt invited me to play golf with her friends. My Uncle is very well off. I’m not. Also, I’ve purple/blue hair and wear a lot of black. I was expecting the Stepford Wives. In some ways, I wasn’t too far off. But they were very nice to me, even if we were each a bit uncomfortable. Long story short, the whole group gathered at one of the friends’ house for an informal post-golf game party/community meeting. Apparently, one of the friends was leaving an abusive relationship — one to which she’d been drawn back to several times over. “Swear you won’t go back to him,” one of the women said. “Promise me.” And then something amazing happened. She dashed across the immaculately designed room in the very expensive house which had been expertly cleaned by professionals, snapped up a book lying on an end table and held it up in the air. “Swear on this copy of…” She read the cover. “…Rosemary’s Baby that you’ll never go back to him.”

    I’m not making that up.

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