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You Fed Us To The Roses coverIn Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing, Isabel Cristina Pinedo states that “The contemporary horror film genre is a combination of feminist and antifeminist elements … It criticizes and endorses hierarchical relations of power. In short, it is a mix of contradictory tendencies. … The slasher film is at heart subversive in its depiction of female agency” (SUNY Press 1997, p. 133). Anyone who’s familiar with slasher films will recognise the contradiction and the subversion, especially in the intersections of sexuality and race and survival. Whole franchises have been built on these particular elements. Some of those franchises are even satirical: they play with expectations and agency, and they assume from the very first that the audience is in on it, that they know these tropes and are comfortable with skewering them. More often than not, however, that subversive depiction is limited. Female agency is conflated, all too often, with simple survival. Slasher films, especially, are competitive. There’s the last girl and her friends (the friends never last) and then there’s the monster, and the mowing down.

The last girl standing, and she’s the winner.

Even if she doesn’t feel like one.

It’s satisfying, in its way. If that sounds like a lukewarm sort of praise, it is. I love horror, but slasher films have never been my favourite part of the genre. I understand the competition, but competition, at heart, is not something I find especially compelling. Imagine my delight, then, to come across You Fed Us to the Roses by Carlie St. George, a short story collection about girls in horror, and what happens to them once the horror is, supposedly, done. My delight is not sarcastic. I love this collection. It’s the best one I’ve read in ages, mostly because the stories start where nightmare ends, with a traumatised girl cut off from everyone around her: the girl who’s won, and the girl who’s lost everything. These stories are about how she builds herself back up, how she finds communities that will support her, and connections that will sustain her and help her back to living again. This is something I tend to find far more feminist and indicative of agency than the learned capacity for brutality, useful and necessary as it sometimes is.

Let me give an example. My favourite of the stories here is the first. In “Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future,” the nameless protagonist, upon surviving a massacre, becomes an outcast. Wherever she goes, more massacres follow, as if she’s stuck in a sequential spiral of slaughter. Her remaining family blame her, every community shuns her. No more than sixteen years old, she runs away to hunt serial killers, and while she’s competent at that, the mechanics of living are beyond her. No one teaches a sixteen-year-old how to exist while homeless, how to get through the day without income or shelter or education. When Mrs. Norwood’s daughter Joey—immediately recognisable as the designated virgin for the next round of butchery—takes this filthy, half-starved creature home, Mrs. Norwood’s maternal instincts are aroused. The little family barely survives the inevitable carnage, and the final girl limps off like the social leper she’s become, but Mrs. Norwood is having none of that bullshit.

She gets you another bottle of water. You tell her she can help pay for your car. She says your car smells like piss and should be sold for parts immediately. You tell her you’re fine. She says you’re full of shit. You tell her you’re dangerous. She says your Aunt Katherine’s full of shit, too, and everyone else from your hometown, blaming a child for monsters in the night. You tell her you’re eighteen, which is a year and three months from the truth. She says you’re a child and retired from this life of chasing killers, at least until you graduate college. You tell her it was your choice to leave, your choice to fight, your choice to live the way you’ve been living. She looks at you real close and asks was it?

You start crying.

She lets you sob on her shoulder. You’re staying, she tells you firmly, and eventually, you swallow and say, okay.

It’s not the end of the killing, of course, but it turns out that a child fighting monsters alone in the night was never the answer, because, working together, a grown woman and her daughters (one biological, one adopted) can do it better. It’s no coincidence that Mrs. Norwood is Black, and that Joey is Black and Filipina. They’ve experienced marginalisation in a different way than the protagonist, and if being a person of colour is generally detrimental in surviving a slasher film, it certainly makes for a clear understanding of other obstacles to survival, and how individualism doesn’t always cut it. This is a different approach to feminism and agency in slasher films, arriving from the prioritisation of community and social responsibility and mutual support.

It’s a theme that resonates, strongly, throughout the collection. In “If We Survive the Night,” the dead girls of slasher films share an afterlife in which they’re hunted down every night, and resurrected each morning, in a purgatory designed to absolve them from sin. What sin, exactly, the girls aren’t sure of, but they discover, over the decades, that what bonds them together is the assignment of blame. They were killed off, each of them, because they had sex, because they weren’t straight … because there was something in their behaviour that meant they’d asked for it, for that hideous death. The murdered boys, the girls learn, have a different fate. They get to spend their afterlife hunting the girls, because deep down it’s the girls’ fault for having tempted those boys to become victims themselves, or to become spree killers in the first place.

The angel who is supervising this orgy of supposed repentance is surprised to learn the girls aren’t repentant at all. Turns out, if you torture a group of people, they don’t have to turn on each other—they can team up and fight back instead, and the shovel used to dig their respective graves can also be used to beat an angel to death.

The angel can bleed, so long as you hit hard enough. He can feel. He can feel pain.

And he didn’t know—

—But Heather does.

Now she does, and now they do too. She can see it on the dead girls’ faces. They know what it means, to feel pain. They know what they have the power to do.

No one is kneeling in the yard anymore.

These are the only two stories explicitly linked to slasher films, but the theme of survival, and of the costs of that survival, continues. Other stories deal with werewolves, with ghosts, with transformation into the monstrous, with the expectations placed on young women and how those expectations both hinder and benefit them in their attempts to survive being young women and keeping their choices, and their emotions, intact.

Those emotions are critical. They’re not weakness, and whether the girls of You Fed Us to the Roses are grieving or vengeful or loving or furious, their emotions, and how they share them, are key to their navigation of trauma. More specifically, it’s their familiarity with the more positive emotions—love and forgiveness and the willingness to stand up for others, and to apologise to them—that consistently saves them.

In “Three May Keep a Secret,” it’s friendship and the acknowledgement of trauma that are the key to mitigating the damage of a haunting, and which allow the trauma experienced by the dead to be expressed in a manner more suited to healing and justice. In “Such Lovely Teeth, Such Big Teeth,” the acknowledgement lies in the shared capacity for monstrosity, the realisation that monstrosity is not destiny, and the freedom monsters have to form friendships, and to assume values in the face of their own horrifying existence. And in “Every Day Is the Full Moon,” it’s the ability to walk away from monsters, and an understanding of love sufficient to know that it can sometimes be used to hurt, and that when it is, love isn’t enough—and also that, when you walk away, there are people who will help you, because they can see the horror, too, and have decided what parts of it they’re willing to share … and what parts they’re not.

It is, I think, the idea of sharing horror that’s the most important part of this collection. In an increasingly documented world, in a world in which trauma is explicitly shared—both with and without permission of the victims—we certainly have greater opportunity to witness other people’s misery. We tend as consumers of media—both fictional and factual—to be observers of trauma, in ways that are increasingly exploitative. I don’t know if I believe that the consumption of fictional trauma impacts on our perceptions of real-life horrors, but I do remember the first time the two collided in a way that made me take notice.

Back in 2002, a video circulated online of a journalist being murdered in a particularly hideous way. I refused to watch it. An acquaintance of mine tried to change my mind. “How will you know how awful it is if you don’t watch?” he said, and I don’t even remember his name now, this acquaintance, but I remember his argument clearly, and it being the moment where any sort of nascent friendship died. Imagination, I might have replied. Empathy. It wouldn’t have made a difference. I could see in his face how much he wanted to watch. He’d found an excuse that made watching respectable, that made it a responsibility, even, and it was a level of self-deception I did not admire. It struck me then, as it does now, that this sort of excused consumption of horror can only be reasoned away by someone who doesn’t take the idea of horror seriously.

I don’t know if that acquaintance saw that journalist as a real person, or if he decided that the real person was somehow a character capable of provoking personal growth in himself. To my mind, the two are different in a very real way. That does not mean that the reverse reach from fiction to reality can’t also be true. We can learn empathy, identification, from horror, especially when the characters feel real—feel messy and terrified and alone, just as we ourselves would feel if hunted by monsters in the dark. Sometimes it’s even possible to learn empathy for the monsters, although that’s more complicated and maybe less admirable. Maybe.

If, as Pinedo argued, the slasher film is subversive in its female agency, then horror itself can I think be subversive in its reader agencies. (Given that many horror readers are women, there’s some crossover I’m sure.) We choose who we have sympathies for. We learn to criticise the structures and hierarchies of those characters’ lives because we have sympathy for them. We watch horror, and read it, for the chance to share that sympathy—because horror, by itself, is limited both in emotion and experience. It doesn’t last.

But the sympathy lasts. And so does the sharing.

 



Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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