Written by Susan Calman

In The News

The horror! The horror!

Susan Calman wasn’t always a horror geek. In fact, the genre used to scare her shitless in the bad way. She explains how that all changed.

Michael Myers: a real man, living in Glasgow. According to Susan Calman’s brother anyway.

Michael Myers: a real man, living in Glasgow. According to Susan Calman’s brother anyway.

When I was very young, and I do mean very young, my parents occasionally went out. I have no idea where to; it was the 1970s so I imagine it was a vol-au-vent party or such like. Sometimes, in an example of poor parental judgement, my older brother was asked to babysit me. My lovely older brother who liked Adam and the Ants and girls and making sure his improbably floppy fringe was hair-sprayed to the texture of concrete. Lovely? Yes. Good at looking after me? He most certainly was not.

My brother’s logic in providing appropriate activities to keep me occupied was faultless. Why change his plans just because he was in charge of a nine-year-old? Why not just do exactly what he wanted to regardless of the impressionable mind he was in charge of? And so, at a very young age I was exposed to films that I definitely shouldn’t have been. Jaws, Alien, Halloween. Basically anything that was hugely inappropriate.

Halloween scared the living daylights out of me to the extent that I literally couldn’t go into my garden after dark until I was 16. Of course my brother didn’t help by telling me it was a true story and that Michael Myers had moved to Glasgow. Similarly he used to shout “Shark!” just before I dived into a swimming pool. And even though I was swimming in an indoor facility, in Scotland, where the chances of a Great White were virtually non-existent, I believed him. Because he was my big brother.

The consequence of this childhood trauma is that for many years I avoided horror films because of the genuine fear of fear itself. I slept with the light on and buried all of my dolls in case they came to life in the middle of the night and murdered me. I hated scary movies with a passion.

Then I left home, moved into my own flat and got myself a pretty special gadget. A video recorder! (Younger readers may need to ask their parents about that piece of technology.) In those days there were entire shops dedicated to the rental of VHS tapes and my local Blockbuster opened up a world of excitement. I decided to try to overcome my fears, so every Friday night I would leave work, pick up a stack of titles and settle down to be scared witless.

My ambition was to watch every title in Kim Newman’s virtual encyclopaedia of horror films, marking off my own thoughts next to his. From Night of the Living Dead onwards I methodically worked my way through the genre, finding out what scared me and what didn’t. And I loved every single second. I’m now a true horror lover, attend late-night Fright Fests and share my love with fellow horror geeks.

“I don’t necessarily watch a horror film in the hope it’s some form of polemic on the state of feminism; I watch it to be scared shitless. And I very often am.”

On occasion, when I tell people that I love scary movies, they turn their noses up. Sometimes it’s because of the perceived lack of quality, and there are some low-budget shockers out there (see Birdemic for details). But also because it makes me a bad feminist to openly admit my passion. Many suggest that the horror genre is exploitative nonsense, especially in its portrayal of women. And that’s partly correct – but it’s also true of many genres of movies and television. Of course there are many examples of sudden and inexplicable partial nudity in nightmare movies. Saffron Burrows takes off her wetsuit in Deep Blue Sea ostensibly to provide her with protection from a large electric current. But it also meant there was a shot of her in her bra and pants.

(As a side note at this point I really must recommend a podcast called How Did This Get Made? The episode about Deep Blue Sea is a brilliant dissection of what is one of the stupidest shark movies ever.)

Boobs are a recurring theme for directors. I watched a newish horror yesterday and, apropos of nothing, the camera gently settled on a woman changing her top. For no other reason than the director had clearly decided that she had nice boobs.

But to dismiss all films because of some of the shots would be churlish to me. I don’t necessarily watch a horror film in the hope it’s some form of polemic on the state of feminism; I watch it to be scared shitless. And I very often am.

And to be fair some of the best roles for women in film have come in this much-derided genre. Ripley in the Alien franchise kicks ass in every film, but especially in Aliens where a white-vest-wearing Sigourney Weaver utters the immortal line, “Get away from her, you bitch.” Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil is a zombie-destroyer extraordinaire. Nightmare on Elm Street has many excellent female roles. The Descent is a glorious, gory fright fest. I cheered when Carrie got revenge on her teasing classmates. Scream and its sequels play beautifully on the tropes of the genre. And more recently The Babadook and television shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story have some of the most exciting parts for women to go absolutely bonkers with.

The Descent: totes passes the Bechdel test.

The Descent: totes passes the Bechdel test.

Yes, women are, more often than not, the victims and, yes, some films, such as Hostel, delight in showing us their demise. And yes, often directors portray women as neurotic and insane (see The Others, The Haunting or The Orphanage). But these films aren’t all that’s out there.

OK, so some horror films are utterly awful and only exist to titillate those who enjoy watching women in pain. But I have the ultimate power – I can switch them off. I just watch the good ones. The classics and the soon-to-be classics. And I love them.

I’m writing a horror film just now, as it happens. Maybe you’ll see it one day. I hope it terrifies you.

@SusanCalman

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Written by Susan Calman

Susan is a comedian and writer who sometimes appears on things like the News Quiz and QI.