When I was sixteen, my friend Emily was summarily dumped by her long-distance boyfriend. Emily decided the best way to deal with her angst was to burn all his letters, pictures, valentines, and notes. In an age before the internet, this amounted to quite a lot. It was so decided that I, as her trusty sidekick, would accompany her to a local park, at night, alone, with a bag of sentimentally charged paper products and burn them in the barbeque pit, and Emily’s grief and anger would be released back into the night sky. It was going to be beautiful.
We pulled into the bottleneck parking lot (important to note for later…) and parked at the far end near the barbeque pit. For close to thirty minutes, we burned letter after letter, Emily cried, danced, and celebrated the symbolic uncoupling of her relationship. And if I had been able to let go of the crippling fear of being arrested by park security, it would have been beautiful.
At one point, a truck pulls into the lot, I watch it slowly approach, park near our car, and sit. Emily is unconcerned. What do you think they’re doing, I ask. Do teddy bears burn she replies? They sit, minutes pass. Eventually, Emily also cannot ignore the growing discomfort that is spreading through the park like an invisible fog. We turn and watch the truck, feeling the sets of eyes watching us watching them. Okay, I say, no biggie, time to go, we’ll just walk back slowly, drive off, no worries.
We still have a lot of worries.
I pour water over our ceremonial altar, and we walk as normally as you can when icy terror is racing down your spine. At one point, still fifty feet or so from our car, we both break into a run.
The truck takes off, directly toward us. By some miracle of time and space, we make it to the car and Emily manages to start the engine and throw it into gear. The truck swings wide as it sees us in motion, it races to the bottleneck opening of the lot. Emily hits the gas and we futilely try to overtake the truck, which has a considerable head start.
We lose. The truck blocks the exit to the street.
Emily screeches to a halt. We stare blindly at the truck blocking our way for what feels to be eternity. We didn’t scream, we didn’t cry. It was a cold, hard silence that filled the space between us, each imagining what the occupants of the truck were planning to do to us.
Hold on. Emily whispers, her voice barely audible. She revs the engine of her tiny compact car, and then hits the gas. For a moment, I think she’s planning on ramming the truck, until she swerves at the last moment, jumps the curb and flies onto the grass of the park. The car is screaming in protest as she plunges forward over grass, through a rubber floored play yard and directly through a decorative wooden fence. She jumps another curb, sending the car momentarily airborne before it hits the thankfully empty street. She blows through a red light and doesn’t stop driving until we hit a brightly lit grocery store parking lot about a mile away.
Did the truck chase us as we cut across the park? Were they on our tail all the way to the safety of the neon lights? I have no idea. I stopped breathing in those minutes and decided that whatever came of it, it was better than being gutted and left by the barbeque grill in the park at night.
So why are women such a steadily growing force in horror? Why do so very many women write horror and dark fantasy? Why are over 70% of the reviews of true crime on Amazon and Goodreads attributed to women?*
I have a theory, and it lies in conversations we are just starting to really have about the state of the world, and a woman’s place in it. Women have always been taught to look in the shadows, to seek out the subliminal threat in a seemingly innocent offer of a walk home, a ride, a drink. We have been taught to lean into our fear, to act with suspicion and when we do not, when we trust too openly, we are called foolish. There is a presupposition that if we are not constantly guarding ourselves from the worst possible outcome, then we invited it to come to the light.
The truth is, that horror comes naturally to me, because I, like so many others, was taught to expect it.
I never told my mother about what happened in the park, I never told anyone about it until I was an adult and far removed from the paralyzing potential of that night. The reason was that I knew what the reaction would be. We were in the park, alone, at night. Of course we were inviting harm. If we’d been murdered, there would have been an underlying caveat that well, they were kind of asking for it, weren’t they? Out there like that…what did they think was going to happen?
So, why do I write horror? I can only say that I don’t have a choice. It’s what comes out when I sit down to write. It’s what I see in my mind’s eye when I’m imagining a story. It’s the meandering path I wander down mentally when I see the art, dance, a symphony performance, a guy with a guitar on 3rd Street Promenade. Ever since I could string words together, I have been imagining the darkest and weirdest backstory, outcome and consequence.
I am surrounded by female horror writers. From the minute I joined the Horror Writers Association, I was befriended and mentored by the likes of Kaaron Waaren, Lee Murray, Denise Hamilton, Lisa Morton, Kate Jonez. There are so many more names to list, it’s impossible. As I wandered into the world of published works, there was no shortage of women who also had no choice in what they saw in the shadows and what they imagined lay behind seemingly innocuous gestures and words. I imagine we all have stories that we never told our mothers, and still haunt the back of our stories and poems. For me, it is my way of understanding the world, preparing for it, explaining to myself what I have seen. And to read the work of other women writers, is to see the landscape as they have walked it, and all the hidden horrors that lie in our everyday existence.
*thanks to NYTimes Book Review 2019 for stats on women in horror and true crime
Kathleen Kaufman is a native Coloradan and long-time resident of Los Angeles. Her prose has been praised by Kirkus Reviews as “crisp, elegant” and “genuinely chilling” by Booklist. She is the author of The Tree Museum, The Lairdbalor, soon to be a feature film with Echo Lake Studios and director Nicholas Verso, Hag, and Diabhal due out in October 2019. Kathleen is a monster enthusiast, Olympic-level insomniac and aficionado of all things unsettling. When not writing, she can be found teaching literature and composition at Santa Monica College or hanging out with a good book. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, terrier and a pack of cats.