Women have always had an integral, if not somewhat cubbyholed role to play in the horror genre. In the earliest days of the genre on stage and screen they became either the damsel in distress to be rescued by the heroic male lead or they were some villainous monstress, a concubine of Satan sent to steer that same male hero into disaster. Even with the emergence of women’s rights and changing views of sex and sexuality in society, the most you could ever hope for was still some hysterical tart or maybe a Scream Queen struggling to just survive the terror in a man’s world. Even the most modern scary movies struggle to break away from these time honored and overused archetypes and plots.
But the last fifteen years in filmmaking have seen a gradual change to these old notions. Some of the most ingenious recent productions changing the face of the horror genre have been created by women within the industry. With starring roles that break free of the classic stereotypes and insightful writing and visionary direction and cinematography that, women have been redefining the horror genre in ways radical and thorough. The best example of this would be the Soska Sisters whose work as writers, filmmakers, and actresses in such stories as American Mary and Hellevator have been leading the way. But don’t think for a minute that they’re alone. There’s a whole army of women filmmakers taking over movie theaters and streaming services.
In fact, the only thing that we haven’t really seen yet is some sort of celebration honoring these gruesome gals for all of their pioneering work they’ve been doing. Well, that was before the Women in Horror Film Festival. In a single, understated line from the WiHFF home page, the event is described as “A unique festival, dedicated to showcasing independent female writers and filmmakers who have dedicated their craft to this genre.” The festival is the brainchild of filmmakers Samantha Kolesnik and Vanessa Ionta Wright. Recently I had a chance to talk to Sam about Women in Horror.
Dan: What inspired you to get into the horror genre when you started your career?
SK: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. My inspirations are from traumas – mine, those of people I know, and those that I observe via media. I tend to write about the real monsters.
Dan: A well worn trope in the genre has seen filmmakers rely on gore and hyper sexualized images to shore up weak plots through the years. Do you feel this sexualization has made it more difficult for women to enter the horror genre in the past?
SK: Well, there are huge gender disparities in top creative roles in filmmaking, period. If you look at the bulk of horror cinema, there has never been a shortage of women in front of the camera. I’d say horror, almost more than any other genre, relies on women. I’m not sure sex and nudity are the problem. I think it’s only a problem in a society that holds the sexes to two different standards when it comes to sex and nudity on camera, which the American society does. Then it becomes a matter of exploitation and sometimes, degradation. A naked woman in a film is not really the crux of the problem. It’s the cultural perception and reception that paints the meaning onto her. Women, now, more than ever, are taking the paintbrush for themselves, so to speak, and writing their own stories. It’s exhilarating to be part of a new wave of genre filmmakers.
Dan: As an independent filmmaker, what are some of the struggles you face when taking your project from script to screen?
SK: Resources – time, money, and people. I write constantly, and there are always at least a dozen projects I want to helm at any one time. But that is impossible. It’s a challenge to have to be selective about which projects you pull the trigger on, but no independent filmmaker has the resources to pursue all projects she wants to.
Dan: Female characters have seen a major shift in recent years, going from helpless damsels to badass monster killers. How would you account for this shift in characterization?
SK: Some have, but a lot haven’t. Not all women are badasses, and therefore not all women should be represented as such in film. (The same idea holds true for men.) When you consciously go for too much of an on-the-nose inversion of gender roles, the plot can become hokey, in my opinion. I prefer not to think about gender roles when I write. I write people as people and try to forget the tidy boxes of stereotype. There is room in the world for damsels and badasses, and there’s a lot more room for those who fall in the massive gray area in-between.
Dan: What about the role of women as screenwriters and filmmakers? How do you feel this has changed over the years and what do you think the future holds as more women get behind the lens?
SK: More stories will be told. If you have a narrow group of individuals controlling the storytelling, then you are cutting yourself off from a huge portion of humanity.
Dan: Can you offer a quick synopsis of the Women in Horror Film Festival for readers?
SK: Women in Horror Film Festival is a celebration and showcase of women in horror, and of the diverse teams they work with. We honor women in key creative roles in horror filmmaking and writing, as well as the teams they create with.
Dan: What was your biggest influence in bringing this festival to life?
SK: We started noticing the lack of women in genre filmmaking and at genre film festivals. We want to help change that.
Dan: There’s an impressive array of women in horror joining the festival as judges and guests including the Soska Sisters, Amanda Wyss, and Lynn Lowry. Can you share your thoughts and feelings on their involvement in the festival?
SK: All of our guests have been tremendously supportive of the festival and we are honored to have them.
Dan: What are you hoping to achieve in hosting this very first Women in Horror Film Festival?
SK: We want to encourage women to write more, create more, and just go for it. And we want to encourage men to work with these amazing women filmmakers. There is so much talent. We want to help facilitate more creation.
Dan: What is the most important thing that fans and film goers are going to take away from this festival?
SK: First and foremost, I want fans and film goers to have fun and enjoy the lineup!
While I know you can’t talk a lot about the films that have been submitted to the festival, can you say anything about the variety and film styles that fans are going to experience?
We have a lot of variety in our first year lineup, which is great. There are comedies, there’s gore, there’s psychological horror, there’s animation, there’s a little sci fi… it’s all over the place, and we love it.
The first annual Women in Horror Film Festival in is happening September 21-24 in Peachtree City, Georgia just outside of Atlanta. Tickets are still available but time is running out so you’d better get yours soon before it’s too late. With special guests like the Soska Sisters and a special screening of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, you won’t want to miss it.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.