Natalie Zina Walschots on Slasher Films

A Conversation on Writing, Horror, and Genre Subversion

Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer and bailed academic based in Toronto. She writes everything from reviews of science fiction novels and interviews with heavy metal musicians to to in-depth feminist games criticism and pieces of long-form journalism. She’s recently written about her time working as a content creator for an Internet pornography company, the years-long catfishing deception behind popular Gamergate figurehead Alison Prime, and the most misandrist metal records of 2015. She is the author of two books of poetry, and is presently finishing a novel about super villainy and henchpeople, exploring the poetic potential of the notes engine in the video game Bloodborne, and writing a collection of polyamorous fairytales. She also plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction.

Visit Natalie online at http://www.nataliezed.ca or tweet to her at @NatalieZed.

… And buy her books! I recommend her excellent DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains!

The Conversation

(Less of an interview and more of a conversation, as you can see from my first question — I just popped Natalie an email the other day, and this a cleaned up version of what eventually unfolded.)

Hey, you like horror films, right? What are you favourite slasher films? And why do you like them?

I love horror movies. I always have. As a little kid I was fascinated by them — I read a lot of ghost stories and SpecFic and tales of the supernatural kind of stuff, and was just starting to explore some classic horror when I had a pretty intense traumatic experience: my father took me to see Se7en in the theatres when it came out, I was I think 11. He made me sit through the whole thing, a 10 p.m. showing, even though I was so scared that I entirely froze. I remember not sleeping for days and after that the prospect of frightening films was off the table for a really long time. I would still read horror novels, and read the backs of VHS tapes and DVDs longingly, but I was too freaked out to attempt much.

It was in my very early 20s that I started to really explore the genre again. It was William Neil Scott who helped me through it. I explained my problem, that I adored horror narratives but had a trauma thing that I was having a hard time getting over, and so we improvised a course of exposure therapy. Over the course of a couple of years we watched a ton of movies together, starting with classic ’70s slashers (which were more funny than scary, but still foundational) during the day, and gradually ramped up until we watched The Exorcist late at night. That was the moment I felt like I could watch everything I was interested in. Torture porn is still something I can’t handle, the Saw movies are fine but Hostel and anything like that is completely off the table. 

I have a soft spot for slashers because they were the first step in my horror recovery. I like the archetypal nature of them, the fairytale-thick symbolism. Every character is an allegory, every move symbolic. They may as well be the fucking Faerie Queene. Within the very tight bonds of the genre restrictions there’s a lot of creativity and variation, and I enjoy watching all the different ways that the steps play out. There’s both the satisfaction of having expectations met and also the novelty of it changing.

All horror is deeply cathartic for me, but it’s also an issue of relateability. No other genre more accurately reproduces my lived experience about what the world is like. Not in that there are ghosts or whatever, but that things are scary, and challenging, and sometimes straight-up want to maim or rape or kill you. It presents a model for fighting back, for winning, for emerging bloody but unbowed. Horror is also a genre that acknowledges that trauma has consequences, that it makes monsters, it leaves people harder and weirder than they were before, but victory is still possible. The stories are stranger. 

My favourite slasher film is unquestionably Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It’s a slasher deconstruction that is super funny and brilliant. It creates a world in which slasher monsters are real, but also allows a bunch of peeks behind the curtain, taking them from supernatural to manufactured. It acknowledges and plays with the archetypes brilliantly. Leslie Vernon, the horror monster in question, is deeply likeable while also being profoundly threatening. Plus the action sequences are genuinely intense. I adore it.

How do you feel about horror films, especially slasher films, as a feminist? What works or doesn’t work for you in horror, from a critical perspective — and is it the same or different from what works for you as a fan?

My feelings about horror as a feminist and as a fan are inextricably bound together, and I don’t (usually) find it helpful to separate them. What works for me, in the context of horror, is that they represent, with an accuracy that no other genre approaches, exactly how harrowing, frightening and dangerous the world can be. It’s the only place I see the fear reinforced as real and valid rather than something to dismiss or ridicule.

In particular, the fears of women (and children) are shown to be real and valid, and those who dismiss them do so at their extreme peril. There are monsters, they are trying to get you, and ignoring that gets you dead. Only fighting back and treating those fears as real leads to survival, and the sooner you get with that program, the better your chances of living will be. Women are not only cast as believable characters and reliable narrators, but also tend to be the most resilient characters (the Final Girl trope is an excellent example of this).

What I struggle with, as a feminist and a fan, are places where the genre conventions are still kind of sexist and shitty — like purity myths, the equation of sexual abstinence with virtue, and the likelihood that being sexually active will get you killed off first. The characters tend to be very archetypal, which is great in some circumstances and problematic in others. I also struggle with certain kinds of violence, but I can also find it very cathartic. It’s complicated!

One thing I find interesting and perhaps progressive in modern slasher-horror is how it borrows Gothic conventions but transmutes the “woman imperilled by a male monster and saved by a male hero” into “heroic woman imperilled by a male monster.” At the same time, it’s troublesome how these final girls tend to be masculinized or de-feminized.

I go back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as perhaps my favourite of the genre (before it really congealed as a genre) because among other things the final girl is clearly feminine and sexual, not playing into the purity myth you mention (and yet, of zero sexual interest to the male killers!), and in that film more men than women are killed. It also interests me that the male killer, Leatherface, is feminized to some degree, especially when he’s wearing his female face, although Carol Clover has pointed out that this is common.

All of this brings me to another, related question: What do you think of female monsters? When do you find them engaging and perhaps admirable versus ridiculous or offensive?

This is a great question!

I LOVE female monsters, and I think there have been some excellent ones recently. Three of the horror movies that I’ve seen recently that have scared me the most, and that I also adore, are Mama, The Babadook, and Goodnight Mommy. I find monstrous mothers especially fascinating. I think that these monsters tackle very complicated questions of love, attachment, obsession, abuse and vulnerability in very different and eloquent ways.

I don’t think female monsters are inherently more offensive somehow than male monsters, not at all. 

It seems to me like a strain of horror presents female monsters who operate to illustrate cultural fears of women that transgress social roles. I think of the Arthur Machen novella “The Great God Pan,” which was a touchstone for both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King — the monster there is a half-human woman who has a lot of social power and mobility and is seen as a corrupting force, specifically to be corrupting men, and in many ways I think it’s an anti-feminist story about these “horrible” Victorian women that don’t need men.

I feel like women don’t get to be monsters in the same way as men. They represent social fears about women more than being “simply” horrible. Like in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a monster but his male-ness is almost beside the point, except insofar as he relates specifically to Clarice Starling, whereas a female Lecter would be seen as illustrating something about how women move in the world.

Am I generalizing too much? Do you get this same sense that women don’t get to “be monsters” in the same way in horror, where the gender issue is always firmly and primarily in play? 

Oh I disagree — I think a lot of monsters embody “maleness” pretty profoundly. In particular, a lot of male monsters embody the worst aspects of patriarchal violence: they penetrate, destroy, do violence, annihilate agency, violate. I feel like a lot of horror movies actually succeed by putting men in situations that women face regularly: being seen as prey, stalked by a predator, in danger of being injured, raped, kidnapped, destroyed, etc.

I think men and women are transformed into monsters differently. Male monsters are often extreme versions of the violence we see in the world — serial killers transformed into something supernatural, obsessive exes turned into ghosts, etc. Female monsters tend to be vessels that pain has been poured into until they have been transformed and broken into something terrible, or monstrous incarnations of things like motherhood.

That’s an interesting and (from a writer’s perspective) useful distinction. Something I’m working on is trying to produce a novel modelled in some ways on slasher films but with a female monster that is NOT one of these “vessels of pain” — someone completely without weakness, who also doesn’t serve as a cipher for male fears of women (often both get conflated — like in Dracula where Lucy works both as an “evil mother” who is feeding on children at night as the “bloofer lady” and as representing male fears of women’s sexuality).

One of the things I am struggling with is that I wonder if my goal is possible. Will any female monster who isn’t “broken” and a victim just be coded by the reader as representing some fear of women themselves, whether I like it or not, even if I strive to avoid this? Does the culture just fear powerful women so much that the gender issue overrides anything else?

I try to just work and not think too much about things as I work but it’s always a concern in my mind, how things will be “delivered” to the reader, if you know what I mean.

Man, it’s really tough — trying not to at once feed into fears about women (bloodthirsty sirens! witches!) or transform them into monstrous victims (rape ghosts! dead mothers!). The thing is, monsters are monsters for a reason: they tap into something about our culture that scares us. And that usually means playing with stereotypes to some degree. I think the key is just to do is smartly and critically, and make is as weird and complex as possible.

On another note — are you finding yourself in a similar position with your novel-in-progress on the supervillian “hench” figure … how do you handle the weight of the existing ways the genre and gender inside the genre is already coded, and maybe coded against what you’re trying to do?

In Hench, I am embracing every part of the genre in terms of the structure, but in terms of the actual embodiment of that structure, I am blowing up as much as I can. Which means it’s all about comics, of course, but there are no women in refrigerators. On the surface it appears to be about a superhero and supervillain duking it out, but really it’s about female friendship and recovering from trauma.

Thanks for talking, Natalie. This is really helpful.