Fantasy writer and banned books blogger Shannon Barnsley and I chatted by way of email interview. We talked about girls and the YA horror genre. Quotes from Shannon’s responses will be appear in my “Girls’ Guide to Horror” article along with input from Brunswick librarians and teenagers. The story will be published in The Brunswick Citizen newspaper this coming Thursday.
The Full, Unadulterated Shannon Barnsley Talks About Girls in YA Horror Interview is featured below!
Barnsley’s work is published in Redhead Magazine. She also writes about the politics of banned comics, books and movies for Bound and Gagged.
HADFIELD: How would you define the horror genre?
BARNSLEY: Oh, man, this is a tough one. We often think of horror as a more modern genre, but we’ve been telling stories that frighten us around the fire since we’ve had a fire to keep the things that scare us at bay. There are elements of horror in all sorts of things we wouldn’t classify that way and often probably shouldn’t.
Horror is one of those genres that bleeds into others. I’ve seen and read a lot of sci-fi that leaves me terrified and was meant to do exactly that, yet I wouldn’t classify, say, Moon as horror, even if the soundtrack alone can make my skin crawl. Similarly, I think it’s often totally arbitrary what gets classified as horror, supernatural/paranormal, or urban/contemporary fantasy. You could say that there is a difference in tone or intent, but a lot of paranormal/supernatural or urban fantasy strays into horror or slaloms in and out.
It’s like in Harry Potter, how there’s Diagon Alley and its fantastic and magical and inviting, but take one wrong turn and you find yourself in Knockturn Alley with its cursed Dark Arts paraphernalia, sinister bluebloods, and seedy Victorian setting. I think all urban fantasy is one turn down a dark alleyway away from horror. I had a writing class in college where we had to write a fantasy scene and then rewrite it as horror. It was an interesting exercise that made us think a lot about tone, audience, and genre conventions.
And then there’s plenty of humorous things that riff or rework the horror genre or its tropes but aren’t all that bone-chilling. They seem like they should be horror since that’s the foundation they’re building off of or deconstructing, but they don’t always fit common horror definitions. At the end of the day, I think the difference is more a matter of marketing and canon than content.
HADFIELD: Do/did you read or write horror?
BARNSLEY: I always thought horror wasn’t my cup of tea, but then I realized how much of what I loved was actually horror without my realizing, the way a lot of people enjoy things that are sci-fi or fantasy without classifying them as such and then insist that they don’t care for the genre. For example, I love werewolves, but they seem to have migrated from horror to fantasy in recent years.
In addition to other genre fiction, I became interested in horror from an academic angle in college. In part a Religion & Mythology major, I studied a lot of archetypal figures in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, many of which linger on in the horror genre. Like I said, I found the figure of the werewolf fascinating, whether it was in ancient Irish epics, Eastern European folktales, The Wolfman, or Harry Potter. A paper I did on the werewolf in Irish literature led to an interest in how the figure has changed in literature and cinema and how fiction and movies are a double-edged sword, both canonizing and standardizing once diverse traditions while adding new layers to the mythos. The werewolf and the vampire are great examples of what horror can tell us about ourselves and our society.
Horror tells us what we fear, not just because of the monsters but what shape they take. For example, Dracula shows the tensions around exogamy and the fear that foreigners might seduce our women. The old rule that vampires can’t harm you or enter your house unless you invite them in or accept an invitation to their home drives home the sexual predator aspect and fears of who we might accidentally let in. Dracula and many other vampire stories have also been used to sneak sex or sexual content past the censors, which may be why the horror genre has had an off again/on again relationship with romance and erotica and a complicated relationship with women.
Meanwhile werewolves have been used to represent everything from mental illness to sexual deviancy to sexual predators to drug addiction to PTSD to epileptics to outlaws to those who disobey the Church. Our sudden obsession with zombies reflects all sorts of societal anxieties today, be it fear of disease, the apocalypse, the mindless masses, or the inability to trust those outside or even inside our supposedly safe spaces.
Horror, like mythology, can tell us far more about a people and a time than many historical records can. So, yes, I suppose I do read horror and a lot of academic and not-so-academic things about horror. My writing has also wandered more towards horror in recent years, though I would not consider myself a horror writer.
HADFIELD: As a 11-17 year old, did you read horror fiction? Why or why not?
BARNSLEY: Like I said, I didn’t think I liked horror, but I was reading it without really realizing due to my interest in certain genres and mythical creatures. I had grown up on Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and Scary Stories, so I guess I liked horror all along without thinking about it. I read a lot of Poe in middle and high school, some of it assigned in school, some of it not. I started by reading his poetry and it sort of served as a gateway drug to his short stories, where guilt, revenge, and the Spanish Inquisition gripped me in a way that hockey masks and chainsaws had not. That’s not to disparage hockey masks and chainsaws, they just weren’t my thing.
I had a lot of conflicted feelings about society and religion and death at that age, so it was natural that I would gravitate to a genre that had the freedom to explore these topics. And, despite all of the torture and undead cats and murderers, it seemed that what horrified Poe the most was losing the people in his life to consumption. Since I was dealing with a family member’s cancer and its genetic nature made me worried about my own mortality in both middle and high school, I found Poe’s raw fear of death, disease, and loss very cathartic at the time.
I think speculative fiction in general deals with illness and all the feelings that go along with it much better than most fiction dealing directly with medical issues, perhaps because by addressing it indirectly the author has more freedom or because the horror label means they are less likely flinch from the less romanticized bits.
HADFIELD: From your blog, it appears that you have a vested interest in YA fiction. Horror has always been a staple in YA, and now with the popularity of the Twilight series and a resurgence in vampire chic, it’s inescapable. Also, when I scan YA bookshelves, it seems that more horror lit is being written ‘for’ or at least marketed towards girls. Do you think this is true? Thoughts?
BARNSLEY: I end up reviewing a lot of YA on my blog, in part because I do like it but also because YA seems to get banned the most of any genre, except maybe horror, since we’re afraid of what kids these days are reading and what sort of ideas its putting in their heads. Comic books also get a lot of heat and the government crackdown on their immoral, corrupting influence back in the 50s and 60s pretty much killed the horror comic, at least for a good while. Sexual content and the allegedly violent, subversive messages in horror/crime comics were two of the major reasons for the crackdown in the first place.
As for the horror/YA fusion, I remember loving the YA section of my local Borders as a child, in part because it had the classics and books with more complex moralities than the children’s section but also because it had the gateway books to fantasy and sci-fi. That’s where I found Tamora Pierce and Madeleine L’Engle and Phillip Pullman. Near the end of high school though, it seemed to have turned into the Twilight section. It was chocked full of paranormal romance and YA that seemed more bent on apparent edginess than actual complexity or moral ambiguity. Obviously, there are excellent teen paranormal books and great YA novels that deal with sex, drugs, and all the other things that make parents uncomfortable, but the shift in tone and demographic did make me utter a few “in my day” laments.
Obviously, girls were reading Anne Rice long before Twilight came around, but the sub-genre definitely seems to have taken off since the success of Twilight and it seems the vampire (or whatever vampire analogue is used) story has gone from seductive Other horror to much more of a straight romance. The YA and paranormal sections do seem more specifically targeted at girls these days than I recall, but the horror section proper doesn’t seem all that changed, with much of the more Twilight-esque stuff ending up in YA or the newly-minted Teen Paranormal or Paranormal Romance shelves.
The popularity of Supernatural and Teen Wolf have no doubt had a hand in the teen paranormal boom as well. I was surprisingly impressed with Teen Wolf, but Supernatural’s increasingly angsty religious bent turned me off, as did its fanbase. It seems, despite having predominantly female fans, that the Supernatural fandom has a somewhat toxic attitude towards women. I could try to guess as to why, but I think I’ll leave that for another day as my answers are already too long. However, it’s another trend in the genre that should be addressed if we want to discuss the place of women in horror or supernatural/paranormal media.
All that said, horror and YA do make natural bedfellows. Horror can amplify the things YA already deals with, such as your body going through all sorts of freaky changes, the pressure to conform, a mistrust of adults or those in power, sudden sexual feelings or attentions, feeling like the whole world is out to get you, changing attitudes towards the status quo, feeling misunderstood or persecuted, etc.
HADFIELD: If you had to make the case to girls about why they should (or shouldn’t) read horror, what would your points be? What does it have going for it as a genre? (or not?)
BARNSLEY:I don’t think anyone shouldn’t read a genre. If the genre is hostile to female readers or writers, that’s all the more reason for them to get in there and shake things up. However, the trend in teen paranormal/paranormal romance books of romanticizing or fetishizing stalking and many of the telltale signs of an abusive relationship do make me feel ill at ease.
A friend of mine once complained about this, saying that a lot of these books are teaching both girls and boys that no means yes, possessive/obsessive behaviour means he loves you, and the odd guy who makes you uncomfortable is a romantic prospect. This wouldn’t keep me from letting anyone read a book by any means, but perhaps we need to bring some of these trends and accompanying issues into the classroom for a bit of objective analysis and debate, and perhaps look at them alongside books like Alex Flinn’s Breathing Underwater.
As for what the genre has going for it, that’s too hard to answer in one go. It’s entertaining, it lets us face our fears in a controlled setting which allows us to master them, it’s anthropologically fascinating, and it resonates with that primal fear of what’s beyond the fire. It also allows us to explore our anxieties, which, in an increasingly anxious time, can be a powerful thing. I’m sure you could ask a hundred readers what they liked about horror and get a hundred different answers.
HADFIELD: Sexism and misogyny in horror. Inherent? Prevalent? Or irrelevant?
BARNSLEY: It’s definitely there. Even people who’ve never picked up a horror novel in their lives know the archetypes of the screaming girl in a slasher flick or the hot chick who gets eaten by the monster in the first five minutes of a SyFy movie. Body horror and crime/horror featuring sadistic sociopaths also seem to have a certain fixation on the female form. Like I said, Dracula shows the fear that OUR women will be taken or seduced or somehow corrupted and stolen from us, which casts women more as passive symbols than characters with agency.
Sometimes it can be hard on a writer not to have problematic elements if they want to stay true to the folklore of various monsters. For example, when I was writing an urban fantasy novel for my senior thesis, I had a scene in which nearby mythical creatures gathered in a local pub. As it was set in London, I wanted mostly creatures from English, Welsh, or Scottish folklore. However, I was hard-pressed to find a female mythic figure from said folk traditions that wasn’t an evil hag or a sexy femme fatale who would seduce and kill you. This became a difficult balancing act of staying true to the traditions while trying to avoid a completely unhealthy attitude towards women slipping into the book.
However, the conventions and mythos of a genre can be built upon or torn down or used as tropes to play with, explore, and comment on the genre and its problems. We can have women chase the monsters, we can have the screaming blonde turn out to be the killer, we can have the beast chasing her not be much of a monster at all.
Genres change. Tropes become dated or overused. So we can subvert them and then subvert those deconstructions. The horror genre is a playground waiting for us to shape and reshape it. It just might be a playground with a creepy little girl on an old rusty swing smiling at you.
For more on women in horror, I advise anyone interested to check out Lightspeed Magazine’s Women Destroy Horror special issue and the story behind it.
HADFIELD: Fear is the engine of horror, the hinges on which it creaks! Fear is the attractive, fascinating and fun part of reading horror. However, I’d like to hear your thoughts about whether horror has a greater proclivity towards sexism, racism or other possibly fear-motivated prejudice than other genre.
BARNSLEY: I don’t know whether horror has more sexism, racism, etc or if it’s just more overt. It’s also a genre that lets us express our fears, whether veiled by symbolism or directly addressed, and a lot of our fears include things like sexuality, society, and the ever-shifting but ever-terrifying Other. Certainly there is a lot of women getting killed or raped or mutilated or chased or eaten or whathaveyou. Then there are witches, wicked women, power hungry queens and goddesses, sorceresses, seductresses, and all manner of “bad girls” whose place in horror began as a politically or religiously motivated smear campaign.
There’s also a lot of issues with foreigners, whether it’s Dracula or countless other works of literature or folklore. Adlet in Inuit folklore are half-dog, half-man monsters who drink blood, but the term ‘adlet’ means foreigner and was used by the Inuit to refer to First Nations tribes in the area. In Anglo-Saxon law an outlaw had the legal status of a wolf and the proper way to kill a wolf was strangulation (in order to keep the pelt intact), which is why criminals were hanged. At one point in Ireland the head of a wolf was worth the same bounty as the head of a Catholic priest.
Our monsters are whatever we want them to be and we often seem to want them to be something that confirms our prejudices. However, that means that they’re constantly evolving, so we’re not bound to the past. And since certain problematic tropes (girl in slasher film, black guy dies first, etc) are so overt and well-known it’s easier to address and subvert them. On the flip side, horror can be a powerful tool against those oppressing or harming people by casting them as the antagonist or monster the way The Twilight Zone, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others have done.
HADFIELD: What would you like to tell girls who are getting into horror YA? Is there anything you think girls should be aware of as they read more horror or are exposed to the presence of the genre in popular culture, movies etc.?
BARNSLEY: I would just tell them not to stick to books or movies from any one time period. See how the genre has evolved. Read all kinds of it. Like with sci-fi and fantasy, don’t listen to anyone who says you shouldn’t like horror or should only like a type of horror they deem socially acceptable for women to read.
I’d also tell girls to look into the lives and backgrounds of the people who write and make horror because it explains a lot and can make you think about their work in a whole new way. And sometimes it’s scarier than anything they put on the page or silver screen. The letter Edgar Allan Poe wrote to his aunt when he was afraid his cousin would marry someone else remains one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read.
HADFIELD: Are there any horror books/ fiction with elements of horror you would recommend to girls in middle school? In high school?
BARNSLEY: I know it’s cliche, but I recommend Poe, especially if you are interested in poetry. I think Stephen King’s Carrie is more relevant than ever, since school shootings and the like have moved from fiction to an increasingly common reality since the book’s publication and bullying is more topical than ever. It’s also just a great read with a lot to say about women, sexuality, and abuse, which could help even out shallower portrayals elsewhere in the genre.
Charles de Lint’s 80s fantasy novel Wolf Moon is a very quick read that has an interesting take on the connection between shapeshifting monsters and puberty/sexual awakening. It is admittedly a bit uncomfortable as far as its portrayal of women goes, largely due to its 80s-ness, but that does make the villain’s date rape/mind control harper magic all the more horrifying. In the less horror related pros, it’s a refreshingly small stakes secondary world fantasy and de Lint is a great worldbuilder with a whole host of books if Wolf Moon makes you want to read more.
There’s a lot of other great fantasy/sci-fi with horror elements, so I’d say to not read strictly on genre lines or stay confined to one section of the bookstore. Read horror comics and graphic novels both new and old. And, while you’re at it, go read myths, read folklore, read ghost stories, read morality tales and fairy tales designed to scare more than most modern horror. Read about haunted buildings and mythic beasts and strange historical figures. Horror, like any genre, is a long line of people building on, borrowing, and engaging with the works of others, so don’t take any one book’s word for it.
Also, I know it’s not a book, but An American Werewolf in London, despite being a spoof, remains one of if not the best werewolf movies to date.
HADFIELD: Is there anything else you’d like to add on the subject of contemporary YA horror, the portrayal of girls and women in horror, or things you’d like girls to be exposed to in conjunction with the horror material in circulation now?
BARNSLEY: I think I’ve covered most of this in the other questions. I know the genre has a lot of problematic cliches and a troubled history when it comes to portraying women and welcoming them into the club, but a lot of horror books that get banned do so because of the fear of what subversive messages they are slipping to “innocent” female readers, so all the more reason for women to read it.
Carrie was banned and challenged throughout the years in the US in part because of the violence and religious content but largely because people didn’t want girls reading it. Guys can read about violence and the supernatural and the geek revenge fantasy, but god forbid girls get the same dangerous notions in their heads. Horror comics got the brunt of the comic book moral panic because they was deemed violent and anti-authoritarian, and in no small part because of sexualized women and sexual content in the comics and their pulp fiction covers.
This can reinforce negative attitudes towards women, but, as many have said of women in fantasy, religion, myths, or fairy tales, those so-called bad girls can sometimes give us a glimpse at transgressive and rebellious women from a time when they were denigrated for taking control, expressing their sexuality, or doing unladylike things. Make like the boys in Supernatural and take it with a grain of salt and you might just find strong women in the place you least expected to find them.