When we think of horror stories, both fictional and true crime, the assumption is that the draw is violence and a fascination with it. While that's no doubt true, author Sady Doyle argues, in her new book "Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power," that the terror is also about gender. Stories about monsters transmit and reinforce fears about women's bodies, women's resistance, and, worst of all, women having power.
But horror isn't wholly sexist. Monster stories are also where women have long gone to explore their own desires to rebel against the patriarchy or to discuss forbidden topics, such as the ubiquity of male violence. Doyle spoke with Salon about the power of monster stories, both to oppress and empower women.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
So this book is about monster stories, which range from classic fairytales and myths to modern-day horror stories and even true crime stories. These stories, you argue, are often and possibly primarily about deeply gendered concerns, almost always touching on anxieties about a woman's place in the patriarchal society. Why do you think that is?
It goes down to the concept of "otherness." One of the fundamental patriarchal myths is not that women are a different kind of human to a cisgender man, but women are something fundamentally less than or different than human men.
And of course, there's all sorts of other othernesses that you can have. Cis people other trans people. White people other people of color all the time. But in some of these really ancient texts, like Aristotle, he was fundamentally concerned and horrified at the fact that not all humans are perfect reproductions of their father's bodies. The presence of any difference whatsoever freaks him out.
I think it was Aquinas, who opens the book, who says that, "Were it not for some power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be an accident of nature, like that of other monsters." The idea of women as misbegotten and defective is there.
Horror is a genre that's all about bodies. It really is just about bodies in the sense of corpses, bodies in the sense of sexuality. Horror is a place where we go with really intense, obsessive concerns about what a body should look like and how it should behave and what makes a body human or inhuman.
So, when we tell monster stories, more often than not, we are returning to those same fundamental concerns about what makes sex safe and appropriate or deviant and scary. What makes a body beautiful or ugly, human or inhuman? So it's absolutely not surprising that we would end up with a bunch of horror movies that somehow seem to mimic these ancient texts about the terror of period blood and how it would give dogs rabies and kill men who touched it.
You have the book broken into categories of daughters, wives, and mothers. In the first section, daughters, you start off with stories about poltergeists and demonic possessions, most notably "The Exorcist." What is the kind of common thread between poltergeist stories and demonic stories?
They both center on a terror of what I'm going to go ahead and call, for our purposes, female puberty. Poltergeists are, in case any of your readers don't know this, they are the ghosts that can throw things around. And in ghost hunting communities, these are thought to be not dead people, but pieces of rage that have somehow gotten so powerful, they have detached from someone's body. It's just that your anger is so big, it's gotten outside of your body and is now wrecking your house.
In ghost hunting lore, in paranormal lore, over and over again, they stress that you are never more likely to have a poltergeist than when you're around a very young girl who's having her first period. There are even some of these books that I've read that are like, "Sometimes there's a poltergeist in an adult person's house, but that's also a woman on the rag." That's what poltergeists are: they're period spirits. And they attend on young and teenage girls in the lore pretty exclusively.
Demon possession has not always been so gendered. The case that "The Exorcist" was based on is called the Roland Doe exorcism, and it was a little boy who stabbed a priest with one of his bedsprings in the middle of the exorcism. And I think William Peter Blatty heard that and thought, "Ooh, that's good."
But when he sat down to make it spooky, he immediately made that a story about a 12-year-old girl. The movie so intensely focuses on her body and all of the things that her body can do, all of the terrible changes her body is undergoing.
They show her masturbating. They show a 12-year-old girl's bloody vagina in that movie, and it's strongly implied that either that crucifix is sharp or that she's just on her period. I still can't believe this is in the movie. Every time I look at it, I'm like, "I don't know how they got that in the movie." One of the biggest shock shots in the movie is a young girl who bleeds.
Those exorcism cases are often about our idea of young women as being suddenly filled up with a new power. The second they step forward into adult womanhood, they stop being children who are under our protection, children who are sweet, who are good, who are safe, and they become these foul-mouthed, cursing, masturbating women, who might potentially get angry and throw a lamp across the room with their minds. We are so scared of girls growing up, of girls obtaining adult power that we've made endless horror stories of it.
Not all stories that make the girl a dehumanized object of terror and disgust. "Carrie" is a very different kind of version of "The Exorcist" story. Carrie is a sympathetic character, I would argue, even if she gets killed in the end.
Well, she's almost victimized by the amount of power she has, you know? And "Carrie" is a dance between her and her mother for who's going to be the victim of the movie and the villain of the movie. Carrie is young, she's just gotten her first period. She's backwards. She's viciously, viciously abused by her mother, who is this female misogynist who believes that women's bodies and sexuality are inherently evil.
For most of this, Mom is the bad guy, right? Mom is the woman who has power in a way that is threatening to us because she's an adult, and she's older, and she has authority. The strange thing, for this woman who's a misogynist, is that she doesn't actually interact with any men at all throughout the movie. She doesn't have a husband. She doesn't ever want to have sex with men. For as religious as she's portrayed as being, she doesn't go to church. She doesn't have a pastor or a priest or a male authority figure. She seems to have written her own Bible. She's like, "Let us pray," and then it's just a whole bunch of stuff that is not in any religious texts. She seems to have formed her own religion of which she is the pope, and its only ceremony is locking your daughter in like a prayer closet with a creepy Jesus that's clearly handmade.
Margaret is a vision of female power that's very threatening, and Carrie is a vision of a young girl who's starting to step into adulthood and into power and who experiences that, for most of the movie, as something overwhelming and horrifying and frightening. She gets her period, and she thinks she's dying. She learns she can move things with her mind, and it's not a fun realization for her for most of the movie.
But then eventually, there's this symbolic menarche of her being drenched in pig's blood. She realizes that, if she has powers, she can do what power does, which is make life real hard for everybody who's made life hard for her.
Stephen King has even compared her to a school shooter, like a Columbine guy. For all that it's his book, I don't know that I would agree with that reading. But I think eventually we're meant to see that Carrie's power takes over, and then it voids her of humanity, much the same way that the demon voids Regan of humanity in "The Exorcist" until she's cured.
I was tickled to read that you like "My Favorite Murder." I'm also a fan. True crime mostly has female fans, and we're all expected to feel ashamed for how much interest we have in these gruesome, true-life stories about serial killers and other kinds of murderers. You're a little more sympathetic to women's desire for these stories, so tell me, why do women love stories about true crime so much?
It's such a heavily-feminized genre, and the reaction is so often that it's just like, "Oh, you're some wine mom watching Lifetime movies. You don't have any real problems, and you're just trying to vicariously suck up someone else's pain to get you through the boring day."
I would argue is no, women are really drawn to stories about violence, not just true crime. Women are the primary audience for slashers and torture porn movies, evidently. Women are drawn to this, because our lives are very violent, because we really do live with an epidemic of sexualized and gendered violence that we are trained to fear every moment of our lives.
You walk with your keys between your fingers at night. You make sure that you're not outside of the house at a certain hour. You make sure that, if you go to a party, you have a buddy who's going to keep their eye on your drink. You make sure of all these little things, and at the end of the day, you can still find out that Matt Lauer has a magic button in his office that he can use to lock you in his office to sexually assault you. At the end of the day, still there's going to be a nice, handsome blond guy who wants you to help him with a car problem, and whoops, it's Ted Bundy, and now you're dead.
The ubiquity of that violence and the fact that we have very few socially approved ways of talking about it, ways of thinking about it, is really stifling for a lot of women.
We have more now. We have online feminist communities, and we have social media, and that's made more truth-telling possible. But, for a long time, one of the only ways you could process the amount of fear that you were living with every day was to go to these really spectacular stories of sexual violence and sexual terror.
If your husband is starting to scare you, if that relationship is going dark, it might actually make a lot of sense for you to be obsessively concerned with what happened to Laci Peterson, whose husband killed her.
You might be not sucking up someone else's pain like a vampire. You might be trying to work through what's the worst-case outcome of my situation. Women do that. We get really concerned with the amount of violence in the world, and if we had no external validation, we would feel crazy and alone all the time.
The Laci Peterson/Scott Peterson case held this huge fascination over people in the early 2000s, and less than a decade later, "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn came out. Flynn denies that it was inspired by the Peterson case....
You draw some extremely interesting parallels where it's a retelling of the story, except that the wife lives, and she's actually setting the husband up to be framed for her murder. Women love this book. Why did they go nuts for it?
It's a turning of the tables, isn't it? Amy's rage is so unsanitized in that book. She said some stuff, even, that you might characterize as misogynist, but that kind of adds to it. She is, we're supposed to believe, a sociopath, but she is also a highly educated woman who has worked her whole life to make something of her life, and she married this frat boy who dragged her out to the middle of nowhere and started cheating on her.
The level of just pure raw rage in this woman, that despite everything she's done to build a life, she still winds up stuck in this confined female role of being some guy's bitchy, dragged-down wife in the middle of the Midwest, it's very real. And she's really real about how much she wants to kill him for trapping her in this role.
Just as these movies and stories can provide a venue for us to talk about how we feel victimized, they can also provide a way for us to walk backward into our own scary parts.
For me, it's not "Gone Girl." It's a movie called "Audition," where it's this woman who's a ballerina, and she's been viciously abused by her ballet teacher. This sexist dude sets up a fake audition so he can harass a well-meaning actress into being his girlfriend. He picks the wrong woman to be his girlfriend because the second he starts stepping out on her, she's lopping his limbs off. But I absolutely love that movie because I think that Asami tries to tell him five times, "I've had a rough life," and he's like, "Whatever, let's eat chicken." He doesn't listen.
These movies can provide us with safe places to play out our rage. You're not thinking about framing your husband for murder and sending him to death row. You're just sitting on the beach, reading a book, but maybe he should've been a little bit nicer to you that day. You're kind of creating a safe place for your anger to play out where it doesn't have to wreak havoc on your life.
I appreciated the part in the book where you write about the female audiences for slasher flicks, and how the underestimated part of the appeal of slasher flicks is the way that the final girl at the end kills the monster who's been killing women.
That's what stories do. They allow you to find multiple identification points, right? Because we all want to be the final girl. Women read true crime, especially if there's one woman who figures out a way to survive, because they want to know how to be that woman.
Women are specifically drawn to stories about serial killers because it's a codified way of talking about sexual violence and sexual assault generally. If we accept that, then we also have to accept that most of the girls in that movie aren't the final girl. The rates are pretty high of women being either sexually assaulted. There are epidemic forms of violence everywhere. The more marginalized your identity is, the more likely you're going to fall into them.
We are way more likely to be Rose McGowan getting her head crushed in a garage door than we are to be like Neve Campbell who triumphs over her abusive boyfriend in the end. We are all more likely to be the girl who doesn't make it. And telling her story matters just as much as telling the story of the girl who got away.
There's the girl you want to be and the girl you are. We use stories to process our emotions. It's important to tell both those girls' stories so that you can really feel every inch of fear or grief or horror that you may feel.
Speaking of serial killers, both real and fictional, you have a really interesting piece in this book about the mothers of serial killers. Ed Gein's mother has been blamed for him becoming this body-mutilating serial killer. "Psycho," "Friday the 13th," there's all these fictional versions of Ed Gein's mother. People want to blame the mother when a man does violence like serial killing. Is there any actual reason to believe that mothers cause serial killers?
There's so much that causes a serial killer that's not that person's mother, and the stories that we come up with to say why somebody is a product of their mother, they can be so silly. There are some cases where, yes, someone was viciously abused as a kid.
There's this reality show called "Murderers and their Mothers," and I think I watched a whole season. And one of them was just like, "Daniel Bartlam killed his mother reenacting a scene from a soap opera. How could she have caused this? Could it be that she let him watch horror movies?"
What? What teenage boy has not seen a horror movie? They're not all stabbing their mothers to death.
But we want to believe that it's the moms. We want to believe that there's some simple pattern that you can follow that's going to result in a perfect child, and the reason we want to do that is because moms are easy people to blame. Moms are victims, and we love blaming victims.
What is often the case is that these men are just representing a more of an elevated version of the violence against women that they grew up with. There's a whole society that glorifies violence towards women. There's a whole society that tells men that women are there to be conquered and taken and penetrated and consumed and tossed aside.
I talk about Ed Gein because he's so often blamed on his mother, the idea that he had an abnormally close relationship with his mother, and therefore he killed. But he was a schizophrenic guy who viewed his mother as his only safe person. He only started killing people after she was dead. He decompensated radically because he was very isolated out there on that farm. He had no other family members. But when he decompensated, he became violent.
And what was never, ever mentioned in this telling, never mentioned, never dwelled on, is that his father beat his mother routinely in front of him. His father beat him routinely.
We have created this whole mythology around Ed Gein where it's just like, "Oh, well, maybe he wanted to be a woman or maybe he just loved his mother too much, and he hated all other women because they weren't his mother."
The idea that he just grew up in a really misogynist environment and, when he felt powerless, went out and did some more misogynist things to get his power back, that's not as seductive to us because that puts the blame on us. That suggests that we are creating our monsters, that our society, that our patriarchy is creating violence, and we don't want that. We want violence to be an exception rather than the rule.
I want to talk about witches. People are talking about witches again. Hillary Clinton was accused of being into witchcraft by the Pizzagaters. Covens of witches are hexing Donald Trump publicly, and every time they do this, the religious right loses their goddamn mind. What is the appeal of witches?
A little while ago, they were mad at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They thought she was one of the witches hexing Brett Kavanaugh, which if so, more power to her. It's a very common thing that, when you see a woman with power in the public or political sphere, people will be like, "Oh my god, she's going to blight my crops!"
I love witches. I put them in the back of the book as the key transformative figures because witches have a power that is above and beyond. Witches are people who knowingly go to the outskirts of their society. They knowingly take a look at the narratives and the culture and the values of patriarchy, of the world they live in, and they take a look at all of that, and they say, "Well, no thank you."
So often, in a witchcraft story, the way a woman will become a witch is she has to recite the Lord's Prayer backwards, or she has to sign her name in a book. There's a lot about words, and there's a lot about what book are you in, what story are you in. The idea of taking the most sacred words of your culture and reciting them backwards so that you are casting yourself out of that story into a new one, I love that.
Witches are linked to midwives. A lot of midwives and women who were able to prescribe birth control were killed for being witches. Witches are linked to the exercise of political power, not only because feminists, for some reason, have always loved to dress up as witches or claim to be witches, but because the idea of a woman exercising power over you inevitably calls up the idea of the witch, of the woman who is able to enrich herself or utilize her dark influence. The woman who is wise, the woman who knows things that nobody else knows and can do things nobody else can do.
We are so unused to women having any public or legitimate power whatsoever that the very exercise of power in a woman seems illegitimate. It seems supernatural. It's like, "I can't understand how she's winning this election. It can't be that more people are voting for her. Is it this?"
I love witches because they are not just monsters. A monster is born a monster. A woman decides to be a witch, and she does that by wandering out beyond her world into forbidden places, into places you're not supposed to look at. She goes out there, and she finds out things you're not supposed to know, and that means she can come back with the power to heal her world. And that's why I love them.