Claire Legrand’s latest YA novel, Sawkill Girls, follows 16-year-old Marion as she hunts for her missing sister and gets drawn into a terrifying local legend. It’s a feminist tale that subverts common tropes of the horror genre, something Legrand hopes to see more of in the future. Here, she talks about the way horror films turn female characters into objects, and how this phenomenon inspired her to write a frightening tale driven by an empowered teen girl.
We all know the story: A girl is stalked and murdered by a serial killer. Her body is dismembered, assaulted, mutilated. Maybe she’s the “slut” in a group of teens. Maybe her death motivates the male protagonist to seek revenge. It’s quite likely that the camera lingers on her death, glorifying her pain and terror. It’s also likely that, at the moment of her death, she’s half-dressed, or has recently enjoyed having sex. In those final moments, her body is an object. A thing lit and filmed and framed to satisfy the male gaze and then desecrated in the most horrific manner possible.
That paragraph probably called to mind more than a few horror films you’ve seen. This is a genre brimming with sexism. It’s a genre that delights in torturing all its characters, sure, but particularly the female ones. This problem is not exclusive to the horror genre; loads of popular films and television series profit on the pain of women. Innumerable revenge films begin with the rape of a man’s wife/girlfriend/daughter, prompting the man to go on a violent rampage to avenge her. One could argue that Game of Thrones is an equal-opportunity tormentor of its characters, but there’s something particularly cruel and voyeuristic and, to use a clumsy but effective word, rapey about its treatment of women that leaves me frustrated and angry.
It should come as no surprise that many of these projects are led by men. Game of Thrones? Two male showrunners. Taken, a film about a man tracking down his 17-year-old daughter, who has been abducted by sex traffickers? Written and directed by men. In The Exorcist, Regan is tormented by a demon, her body abused and mutilated while her horrified mother (and a horrified audience) watches. The original novel? Written by a man. The film? Written and directed by men. In Rosemary’s Baby, (both novel and film written by men) Rosemary’s body is a tool of the devil.
In 2017, only 18% of people working on horror films were women. It’s even lower for action films (13%). This is a space dominated by men; it’s therefore no surprise that the women in these stories are often no more than receptacles of horror and pain, put on display and served up for consumption via male-engineered horrors. Their bodies are objectified; their sexuality is punished. Their very female-ness is punished.
But not all hope is lost. We’re lucky to have gotten some wonderful female-focused and -created horror films in recent years, like Jennifer’s Body, The Descent, The Babadook, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
And there is incredible work being done in young adult literature by horror writers like Amy Lukavics, Cat Winters, April Genevieve Tucholke, Dawn Kurtagich, Gretchen McNeil, Frances Hardinge, Rin Chupeco, and Danielle Vega. These writers create girl-centric horror novels where the girls may not necessarily emerge unscathed but are certainly the focus of their own stories, not the catalysts of others’. Their pain isn’t glorified, their bodies aren’t objectified, the violence done to them isn’t sexualized. The storyteller isn’t leering at them as they suffer.
It’s encouraging to see more and more female creatives taking up space so long dominated by men. It’s something I thought about frequently while writing my latest novel, Sawkill Girls, which was released last month. I often refer to it as “my angry, queer, feminist YA horror novel,” and while it features monsters and gore and girls being killed in horrible ways, it is also an exploration of that very thing—the pain that girls must suffer from the moment they are born, simply for being girls: the fear of being physically dominated by someone—or something—more powerful than they are, the terrible reality of existing in a world where women are disposable, their beauty criticized and lusted after and commodified, their suffering minimized, diminished, and ignored; and the insidious evils of rape culture, misogyny, and a patriarchal society that idolizes the female body even as it constantly seeks to control and destroy it.
In Sawkill Girls, three very different girls examine these evils from three different points of view. One girl is taken for granted; one is ostracized and bullied; the other is both villain and victim. Only by joining forces are they able to root out and conquer the evil running rampant in their town. Their alliance is messy and fraught. They make mistakes and they cower in fear and they have sex and they fall in love and they sometimes forgive each other—and they sometimes don’t. But I don’t glory in their pain. I know their pain; I live their pain. And through Sawkill Girls, I present a version of the pain that women everywhere understand—and offer a vision of triumph that I hope leaves readers feeling encouraged and empowered.
I also hope to see more such stories suffusing our literary and cinematic canon in years to come—horror literature and films created by women, starring women, about women. I’d like to see more stories where women don’t merely exist to further the growth of male characters or titillate an audience that has been taught to crave violence done to women’s bodies. We’ve had more than enough of those stories.
Instead, let’s center the female experience. Let’s tell stories about women who are not tools, not vessels, not objects, but are instead flawed, messy creatures whose pain, fear, and triumphs deserve their own stories. Let’s lift up the voices and visions of female creators.
And, to my fellow horror writers out there: Let’s continue to take up space, and tell the scary stories our girls deserve to have on their bookshelves.
Claire Legrand is the author of several novels for children and young adults, most notably The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, Some Kind of Happiness, and Winterspell. Claire lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Visit claire-legrand.com.