Interview: 1000 Women in Horror
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas speaks to us about her new book
Written by Martyn Conterio
Award-winning Australian film scholar and critic, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, is the author of the recently published 1000 Women in Horror (Bear Manor Media, 2020). A doorstop-sized tome, mixing an encyclopaedia of past and present with detailed interviews, it sets to put the record straight on the crucial and invaluable, but greatly underappreciated, role women have played in horror cinema history. Her 7th book to date, Heller-Nicholas discusses the genesis of this epic work, what inspired her and celebrating the vast achievements of women in film.
In your book's intro, you talk about teenage years spent watching horror films. Do you remember the first horror film you ever saw and what impression it left on you?
It’s an indirect answer, but just before my beloved mother passed away, she asked me in hospital, literally on her death bed, very casually, ‘Do you think that your aunty taking you to see The Exorcist when you were 7 weeks old might have been a factor in your interest in horror?’ I nearly fell over. I describe myself as a biological Catholic, so I was not allowed to watch horror films at home, much of my teenage horror viewing was on the sly or at sleepovers. So, this later discovery that I saw The Exorcist when I was 7 weeks old, is now my new, ‘OK, this must be the moment!’ Clearly I wouldn’t have been able to process much about the film with a brain that tiny, but knowing what we do about newborn development now, I can’t help but wonder if something on a sort of primal or sensorial level sunk into my tiny developing brain at that moment.
What inspired you to tackle this topic and frame it as 1000 Women in Horror?
The book was really the intersection of two different strands of coming to what felt like a natural conclusion. I had been writing on cult, horror and exploitation films for many, many years. At the same time, my interest in women’s filmmaking had been flourishing in recent years. I’d also been awarded a research fellowship in late 2016, to focus on Australian women’s film criticism and Australian women's filmmaking of the 1980s and 1990s, which was a huge boom period in this country. This culminated in an online database I built called Generation Starstruck, dedicated to the movies made by women in Australia during this era. I also co-curated the Pioneering Women stream at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival, which championed a selection of films directed by women from this same period.
The book itself began as 100 Women in Horror, then 500 Women in Horror, and then, finally, 1000 Women in Horror. I had to stop there, because while the first two were clearly incapable of even scratching the surface, in practical terms no publisher would consider anything beyond the latter, even though I firmly believe now that even 1000 Women in Horror doesn’t even begin to do the subject justice. But as I state quite explicitly in the book’s introduction, that is sort of the point. I like the idea of people coming in thinking, ‘Wow, 1000 women in horror? Are there really that many?’ and then leaving with the sense that so many women had been left out.
What's your take on film canons? Especially when they always seem to be selected by men and promoting the work of men.
Screen culture has straight up inherited from art history, the idea of the single male genius. If you look at Andrew Sarris’ famous pantheon of great directors, you would be forgiven for believing that women have somehow never made films at all. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water on the ‘canon’ question front, but I do think the gender factor demands we rethink a lot of things we take for granted about film history. I very strongly feel that film canons (and film histories more generally) are as much about who is left out as who is included, and there are very clear factors beyond taste that influence that: distribution, exhibition, media coverage, archival holdings, etc. It’s been far too easy to leave women out of film canons because so little of their work has fallen into view in a historical sense. There are bigger questions of practical access that come into play, when we think about how history has worked against women filmmakers, and how they have been excluded from the dominant narratives of the ‘story’ of film.
You talk about visibility of women being an issue. Why has it been a struggle to achieve visibility, when, as your book points out, women have been so crucial to horror, its development and so many iconic moments?
This is sadly a question about the invisibility of women’s labour across the board. Women’s work is not considered to be as valuable as that of men, even if they are doing the same job. We only need to look at even now still contemporary disparities in pay rates that financially favour men over women, or the statistics on how much labour women do in the home compared to their male counterparts. In a way, horror felt like a good way for me to almost present a little microcosm of this. So many people hear ‘women in horror’ and think huh, because it’s considered such a male-dominated terrain, made by men for me. Which of course is garbage, and it is this in large part which I sought to tackle with a kind of shock and awe approach just through the sheer bulk of these women, from across history and a range of different countries, who have been working in the field from the earliest days of moving image culture.
You mentioned labour and filmmaking when most others would talk mostly about craft or art.
This really was the central thrust of the book. I wanted to take a little bit of the glitz away from the unspoken idea of the near-ethereal horror goddess who floats across the screen in a puff of chiffon and lace and turn that on its head by revealing this as a real, flesh-and-blood woman who had to get up and go to work and shoot that scene. Partially this is one of the reasons why I liked the encyclopaedia idea so much. It allowed a logically democratic way to spell out the different kinds of labour women do in horror, whether it is as performers, cinematographers, editors, stunt women, directors, screenwriters, special effects artists, poster designers, composers, sound technicians, producers, or the stack of other jobs needed to make a film.
If you could go back in time and interview any past female horror director, actor, etc. who would you choose and why?
It sounds weird, but not any of the big names. After publishing the book, a critic called Jim Junot bought to my attention a woman called Mary Fuller who starred in the 1910 Edison Company version of Frankenstein. She isn’t in the book, and absolutely should be. I won’t go into her life story here, but it is an extraordinary read if you have 10 minutes to kill and have access to Wikipedia. It’s these women – these truly forgotten women (even by me!) – who I have a gut feeling have the most to tell us that we need to hear, that we can learn from regarding how not to make the same mistakes again.
1000 Women in Horror is available now from all good stockists. For more on Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, check out her website: www.thebluelenses.com