Like heavy metal or Wall Street, horror can seem like a boys’ club. Men make the movies. Women play the victims.
But then you go to a fan gathering like HorrorHound Weekend in this working-class Cincinnati suburb, as I did last month, and it becomes clear: Do not mess with women who are into gore.
For these fans, devotion runs deep. At the convention, two women debated the John Carpenter catalog. One group of teenagers giddily ranked the final girls in the “Friday the 13th” franchise. A mom brought her young child dressed as a knife-wielding Chucky.
“I come from a long line of pagans,” said Cassandra Weartz, who plans to pursue a career as a special-effects makeup artist. “A dark kind of spirit has always been in my family for generations back. My grandmother, before she passed away, left my mother a Ouija board. It’s been in my family for about a century. I’m adopted, and my birth grandmother used to use it like a telephone, is what I’m told. She describes it like Facebook Messenger: If you message a stranger, you get a couple responses here and there, but after a time you build a friendship.”
Female fan communities thrive on blogs like Ax Wound and Graveyard Shift Sisters, which focuses on women of color. Behind the camera, women are shrewdly pushing boundaries, a real feat in a genre that craves new frontiers of luridness. There’s “Raw,” the buzzed-about cannibal gorefest directed by Julia Ducournau, and the take-no-prisoners mother characters in “Prevenge,” from Alice Lowe, and “xx,” an anthology of tales directed by women. To be a woman who makes horror films today affirms that “women feel violence and anger,” as Ms. Ducournau told Rolling Stone.
A convention organizer said that the event has increasingly attracted female fans and become more family friendly. It’s a change that’s catching up to moviegoing; horror film audiences have been “a 50-50 split, historically” between men and women, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at comScore, which compiles box-office data.
Kimberly Tibbs began to cry as she talked about how “breaking barriers of gender” as a female horror fan made her keenly empathetic when her transgender son came out.
“Growing up, what was instilled in me by my mom was, don’t let anybody tell you that because you’re a girl, you can’t do something,” she said, her voice breaking. “When my son first came out to me, it had just come after a conversation where I told him, I want you to be happy. That was what enabled him, in order to be happy, to say this body that I’m living in is not who I am.”
Sonya Lynch was less sanguine than other attendees about how female horror movie fans are treated in the world at large.
“We are looked at as manic, as psychotic, that we watch these things and we can relate,” she said. “In this atmosphere we are accepted. But as a whole, probably not so much.”
One of the few black faces in a sea of white ones at the convention, Ms. Lynch said race had never come into play when she was with other horror fans.
“I’m not looking at the skin color or the ethnicity,” she said. “I’m looking at, we are a community of women and men who have the same interest. I’ve never felt more like I belonged than right now at HorrorHound.”
A casual observer might have been alarmed to see Falon Marston roaming HorrorHound with a cardboard replica of a television hung around her neck, her 4-year-old daughters Winter (in purple) and Willow (in white) bouncing at her side in nightgowns, clutching blankets. But to the people who kept stopping Ms. Marton to take selfies, the “Poltergeist”-themed looks were evidence not of a deranged mother, but an awesome one.
“There are some neighborhood kids that are having birthdays this weekend,” said Ms. Marston, a stay-at-home mom, whose daughters love “Beetlejuice.” “We chose to come here instead.”
Sasha Mullins, a high school art teacher, said she had a hard time fitting in as a child. Watching Universal horror films with her father changed that.
“I was a chunky little girl who wanted to look like Julia Adams in ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon,’” said Ms. Mullins, who was there with her partner, Frankie. (The two cosplay as a Frankenstein-themed duo, the Glamorsteins.) “I was just fascinated with that character. I wanted to be that kind of woman, that kind of beautiful. My dad always inspired me to be that kind of person as well, to be classic and respectful.”
“I’d rather have this makeup done to my face than some pretty, preppy stuff that makes my eyelashes real big,” said A. J. Kirkendall, a high school junior attending HorrorHound with her mother and friends. As she tells it, for a girl to come out as a horror fan is as horrifying as admitting she’s got her boyfriend’s entrails in her backpack.
“I think it’s funny when guys don’t like that stuff, and they’re like, you’re that kind of person,” said Ms. Kirkendall, who was one of many young women at the convention made up to look as if a zombie had just feasted on her face. “It’s like, yeah, I am. What have you got to say about it?”
Anna Rigsby comes from a family of horror fans. She and her father watched “Chiller Theater,” a TV series that specialized in the campier side of horror films. Her mother’s favorite was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” “She would actually cheer when people would get killed,” Ms. Rigsby said. “A little morbid parents, but they were fun.”
A retail security manager, Ms. Rigsby said that she was once a “timid, quiet girl,” but that horror films changed that. “Now I’m a little more aggressive, and my job is a little more aggressive, too,” she said. “I think that makes you feel more empowered.”
A special-effects and costume designer, Celeste Marcus said she “basically ignores” the sexual comments she gets in the real world, when she’s not dressed as a bloody bunny or other characters she cosplays. At HorrorHound, she’s got a more no-nonsense response.
“If it happens here, since I’m already in character, I can just lash out,” she said. “It’s to be expected.”
“Women have a different perception of things,” said Penny Mercer, who was at the convention with her female partner of 10 years, Willie Bridges, and their daughters, Savannah and Emily. “A man sees physical. They see blood, the guts, the gore. A woman is already mentally and emotionally processing the whole thing. They aren’t just seeing the blood, the guts, the gore. They’re feeling the pain. They are processing the mental anguish of everything. It’s not just the fact that they got shot. They are imagining the pain of the bullets hitting them. They are feeling the psychological damage of it.”
Shirley Yount used her day off from work as a mechanic to attend the convention with her daughter and her daughter’s best friend. “If you saw me outside of here at work, I’m covered head to toe in grease,” Ms. Yount said. “I pick up truck tires all day and flip engines.”
Ms. Yount said she found female horror fans to be “more easygoing and open and nonjudgmental” than some of the women she meets on the job. “These people come from all walks of life, from different financial statuses,” she said of fellow conventiongoers. “But when you come here, nobody sees that. It’s like a family.”
Many of the women I spoke with said their fathers had introduced them to the genre.
“We would watch movies together, and right when I got really tense, he would jump and try to scare me,” said Ellie Church, an actress. “I locked myself in the bathroom and told him that I hated him once because he scared me so bad. It’s a really great memory.”
Ms. Church is used to playing “some dumb girl running through the woods naked screaming,” as she put it. She’s at it again, intergalactic-style, in her new testicle-joke-riddled film, “Space Babes From Outer Space.” She’s buoyed by the “equal opportunity nudity” her male co-stars are now willing to display, which “happens a lot more than it used to.”
How do male fans feel about that?
“They’re like, I really didn’t need to see that,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s like, well hey, I would like to see that.”
“I’m very dominant, so I don’t tolerate it,” Cherish Harrell-Brooks said about the catcalls she gets as a female horror cosplayer. “When you’re in costume, unfortunately, anything that seems sweeter — a bunny or something like that — they feel they can just touch you.”
As a frightening clown? Not so much.
“You get into the really scary ones, and they’re a little intimidated.”
Jami Holman, 36, attended HorrorHound with her daughter Isabella, 9.Ms. Holman had praise — and advice — for actresses working in the horror movie industry.
“If it’s sexist, own it, girls,” she said. “If there’s money to be made, make it. There’s an audience for sex and horror movies. Baby, get out there and make that money.”
Isabella, whose favorite horror movie is “Silent Hill,” said she has one friend who shares her love of scary movies. Other classmates are less enthused.
“They’re all into kitties and stuff,” she said. “I’m into skulls and bats.”
Roadblocks for female fans linger. If a woman enjoys horror, “there’s a sense of trespassing,” said Alexandra West, who with Andrea Subissati hosts the podcast Faculty of Horror. “For a girl or woman or teen to pick up a copy of ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ there’s a sense of defiance, of going outside the expected norms.”
“I believe it was a man’s world one time in horror,” said Karie Scroggs. “I do not believe that anymore, especially right now with — I hate to bring up the presidency and everything — but I think females are fighting back so much stronger now. We are grabbing it back.”