You probably know the story of Lord Byron’s house party at Villa Diodati – the one in which he challenged his guests to see who could write the scariest ghost story. Teenage Mary Shelley won his challenge on infamy, if not technicality, when she wrote Frankenstein. Thus the horror genre was invented by a disenfranchised teenage girl.
While it might be more precise to say that Shelley invented science fiction in this moment, her story, a non-religious creationist myth, would upend the rules of literature. Frankenstein has become such an influential examination of the distortion of nature and hubris of man, that it looms larger in the gothic horror genre than any other work of literature.
If you want to acknowledge just how much women have contributed to the horror genre, and how much the genre continues to reflect women and women’s realities back to themselves, Frankenstein is also a useful place to start.
Horror is one of the only genres that allows for a constantly evolving interplay of the factual and fantastical. “When you enter into horror, you’re entering into your own mind, your own anxiety, your own fear, your own darkest spaces,” said American author Carmen Maria Machado, speaking to the Paris Review in 2017. Having won the Shirley Jackson award for her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, Machado went on to use a horror framework to tell her personal story of queer domestic violence in her 2019 memoir, In the Dream House. With gothic tropes and style, Machado replayed physical and emotional abuse within the walls of her mind and the memories of the old house she shared with her partner – now haunted by the past and their relationship. “Horror is an intimate, eerie, terrifying thing, and when it’s done well it can unmake you, the viewer, the reader,” she said.
Horror increasingly slips between the personal and political, the real and surreal. “Black history is Black horror,” author and educator Tananarive Due said in the 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. This greater understanding of the genre to reflect ourselves and our realities has seen a reshaping of horror narratives, particularly those written by women, and even the reconsideration of stories that are traditionally not seen as horror. Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988 – the story of a family of former slaves whose Cincinnati home is haunted by a restless spirit. The trend now is to read Morrison through the horror lens, while also acknowledging, as Due does, that: “Beloved is horrific because of its rendering of the horrors of slavery, as much or more than because of the presence of a ghost.”
Horror can also offer us a collective frame of reference for our fears and experiences. Consider the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light, which was adapted into the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film of the same name, becoming the predominant shorthand to discuss forms of domestic violence and even nefarious politics. And in a post-Trump and post-#MeToo landscape, we’ve used fictional horror tropes and shorthand to better describe our morphing realities.
It is this strange coalescence of the #MeToo movement and behind-the-scenes horrors in the world of film, particularly for child actors, that led to my writing The Monster of Her Age. It’s a YA story about 17-year-old Ellie Marsden, descendant of an infamous fictional family of Tasmanian thespians and granddaughter to Lottie Lovinger, a “scream queen” from 70s and 80s schlock horror cinema. In the novel, Ellie starred opposite her grandmother in an Australian horror movie playing the child monster, but the filming experience was visceral and traumatic – both physically and emotionally, under the thumb of a tyrannical director and unprotected by her fame-hungry grandmother.
Ellie’s family disbelieves or downplays the effect the film and filming had on her, the agony it inflicted. And this is the true horror for Ellie, as it is for many women: the fear of not being believed, of her voice not carrying weight, and help not coming as a result. The only monster Ellie is wrestling with is the one she played as a child actor, but still she admits: “I know better than most that some hurts can haunt you. It doesn’t matter at what age they happened because they find a way to grow with you and around you, like a weed.” What goes on behind the camera, off the page, can be just as horrific as the invented stories we use to understand ourselves and our fears. The horror genre is just the medium for us to try to understand our underlying fears.
Here too we find our way back to the genre’s matriarch, and her monster.
Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein at that house party in Lake Geneva in June 1816 when she was 18 years old, and had finished it by May of the following year. In that time, she had suffered the birth and the death of an infant, and had been outcast and alienated as the 16-year-old mistress of a married man. This is a girl who had learned to read in part by tracing the letters on the gravestone of her mother: writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died giving birth to Mary. In the revised 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley attempted to answer the question: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” How indeed.
• The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks is out now through Hachette