She’s Got Agenda
Women in Horror Month is a good opportunity to praise horrible women. My appreciation for dreadful femmes has grown over time, and they have become frequent companions in the creative process. I don’t just enjoy reading or writing about them. For six weeks every year, I get to be one of them.
I am a scare actor during the Halloween season. I played bad people in haunted attractions for about ten years before I started writing horror. (Prior to that, I wrote about my teaching experiences and spiritual fantasy.) Something shifted during those seasons I spent made-up as something wicked, waiting for the next group of guests to stray past my shadowy corner. During the lulls between scares, I began writing short pieces of horror fiction in my head. It was inevitable, I suppose, that the first ones revolved around terrible ways to die. Mental images of the big dust storms of the 1930s, for example, eventually became a story that asked: What if dust had a malevolent will? What if it ebbed and flowed and rippled across your parched land, and crashed in filthy tsunamis against your house?
In time, my stories moved from horrible deaths to horrible women, inspired by the characters I portrayed each Septober: a mole rat woman at a toxic dump, a spider woman protecting her egg sacs, and a variety of ill-tempered hags. The horrible women on the written page were not necessarily the same ones lurking at the spooky attraction, but I found myself channeling a certain energy when the Halloween season ended, and I resumed writing. The stories not only included dangerous ladies; they often skewed into insane agendas.
In a haunt, an actor has anywhere from thirty seconds to a couple of minutes to make an impression on her “guests.” Costume and makeup help but they will not carry the scare any more than good cover art will sustain the book. I am an older woman who can be physically imposing up to a point. If I’m going to make you scream, however, I’m going to do it by being disturbing, and setting every expectation of what a matronly woman should be on its ass. My most successful characters have pursued the insane agenda--motives that are never fully explained but hint that something unusually horrifying is about to happen. Guests will always pose questions: “Are you a witch? Are you a vampire?” They want to identify my character with something they already know, something that is less scary because it is familiar. I won’t give them an answer. I’ll make insect clicks or animal noises or croak nonsense. I will silently pursue.
It turns out the haunt minute is not far removed from a piece of horror flash fiction. The insane agenda became an intrinsic part of many of my fictional females, quickly sketched out in my head, then expanded on paper. (In my collection Erring on the Side of Calamity, “Dämon Tanze”, “Tiny Spider Love”, “Yum-yum, Bite-bite”, “Evicted” and “Babies” were hatched over long hours spent in a creepy locale.) Certainly, male characters have crazy motives, too. But I believe our ancient expectations of the feminine imbues dysfunctional, infanticidal, despotic and cruel women with a peculiar and appalling flavor.
What makes a character a truly horrible woman with an insane agenda? Francisca in The Eyes of My Mother is one of my favorite examples. For my purposes, she needs something beyond a hunger to feed on hapless victims or to carry out acts of violent retribution. I’d like to think she might have been a goddess, displaced by new gods, unceremoniously dumped into a lower order of being. At one time, she might have lashed out against her humiliators, and the devotees who turned their backs on her. Five millennia later, she no longer feels any rage. Her compulsion to inflict pain and death is now merely ritual. She neither knows nor cares how to answer her victims’ cries for reason or release.
Perhaps she is a more maternal sort. She thought she had a loving spouse until Daddy did something awful to her children. But Mommy is benevolent. She’s not interested in punishment. She believes it’s more important to teach Daddy how to be a good father—no matter what it takes, or how long Daddy needs to be schooled.
Or, maybe she is not the matriarch she used to be. Long ago and with good reason, her children abandoned her. She is more obsessed with feeding others than in satiating herself. She is a harpy with a bared breast, and the teat she offers lets down a black, viscous, toxic milk. Woe to the unattended babe in the cradle.
She could be young, newly independent and inquisitive about the world around her. She opens one Pandora’s box after another, just to see what happens. But it’s not actually a box; it’s someone’s skull or abdomen. Flies gather, the stench is horrible, and the plaything begs for death. She is not bothered by that. Her curiosity is detached and fathomless. She takes a last look at her handiwork and moves on to the next surprise.
Some of these horrible women popped into my head during the most recent haunt season, others later, but it is a process that continues through the year—story ideas alongside potential haunt characters for next fall. I don’t know which ones will be acted and which will be written. But this is how I keep Halloween going all year, with horrible women as my co-celebrants.
Read the first 60 pages of Bonebelly, about a hell dweller fascinated by a local haunt, at this link: