Written by Marian Phillips
Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History.
When I was thinking about what I was going to write about during the month of October, I considered everything I knew about women and feminism mixed with the horrific, absurd, and surreal. I thought about women I have written about previously (Diablo Cody, Karyn Kusama, and Millicent Patrick), flipped through my horror anthologies, and then I asked myself, “What about the women architects that helped build the genre?” I was drawn to three of my personal favorites that worked with and made space for women in the genre: Paula Maxa, Ida Lupino, and Alice Guy-Blaché. Sadly, they are not alive today, but their impact on the 19th and 20th century has deeply influenced contemporary horror films and literature, making it what it is today.
In 1896, a 23-year-old Alice Guy-Blaché was recognized as the first woman director in history. While her films are not always considered outright horrific for an early 19th century audience, 21st century audiences consider them disturbing. Over the course of her career, Guy-Blaché directed approximately 1,000 films. One of these works includes the first woman directed film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum in 1913. Guy-Blaché is no stranger to firsts. As such a prolific figure in film and horror, she has influenced some of the greats, including Alfred Hitchcock ad Sergei Eisenstein. She has received countless awards posthumously and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2013.
London, England born director, Ida Lupino was one of the only women directors in Hollywood, California during the 1950s. In 1953, she became known as one of the queens of B-movies with her film The Hitchhiker. The psychological horror film was the first done by a woman director. She showed her audiences that jump-scares weren’t necessary to incite fear; it could be achieved through the slow process of building psychological tension and emotion. Her most noteworthy achievement – besides this remarkable first – was her episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Masks.” Lupino is the only woman that directed episodes for the iconic horror and sci-fi series. Undoubtedly, she paved the way for many more women to take on directorial positions in the genre.
Unlike Guy-Blaché and Lupino, the most assassinated woman in history, Paula Maxa performed in horror productions. Having been murdered on stage over 10,000 times, historians note her as the original “scream queen.” She performed at the gore specialized French theatre, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, from 1917 to the 1930s. Every night she was on stage, Maxa was either steamrolled, stabbed, disemboweled, slashed, or some other form of murderous activity. These performances had no deep meaning or critique on society, culture, or politics, but Maxa and her ability to die a unique death every night constructed the most utilized character in horror, the scream queen.
These women may have never been in direct contact with one another, or even enjoyed the media that each of them produced, but they built the pathways for each other and for future women in the horror genre. Guy-Blaché crafted film after film to incite fear and wonder from her audiences that ultimately influenced some of the greatest minds in the genre. Lupino showed the world that women could direct horror just as good as men, if not better. Maxa died 10,000 times so Janet Leigh (today’s most famous scream queen) could scream when Norman Bates peeled back the shower curtain. Their influence is long lasting and their presence in the field paved the way for more great women of horror, such as Shirley Jackson, Karyn Kusama, Leigh Janiak, Millicent Patrick, Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Janet Leigh), and countless others.