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Featured Women in Horror

The Iconic Final Girl

The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder

It has been said that “women in peril work better in the suspense genre … If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” (Clover; pg. 77) With this statement, we can almost summarize the entirety of the horror genre’s tilt towards what some might call misogyny perpetuated by the film industry’s propensity for being male-dominated. We can also build towards a much more interesting concept—that of the Final Girl.

Throughout the lifespan of horror, we see that a woman in peril is hardly a new trope within the genre—in fact, the evidence of its existence can be seen clearly in literature such as that of Edgar Allan Poe, where he regularly relied upon the formula to create suspense within his works. His perspective, however, that “the death of a beautiful woman is the ‘most poetical topic in the world,’ does little to help us in understanding where this pattern comes from. We know the Final Girl is rarely, if ever, regarded for her evolution from victim to heroine, but what is less clear is why that is such a rarity.

The Villain: Epitomizing the Slasher

The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful ones. Just how essential this victim is to horror is suggested by her historical durability.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 77 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

The argument goes that men are victims but Clover argues that, “… if some victims are men … most are women, and the women are brutalized in ways that come too close to real life for comfort…” (pg. 77). It’s true too, that the genders are each represented in their reflections on the screen and this encourages the impulse to identify the impulse of committing sexual violence with men as well as the victimization in their female counterparts. While that association isn’t necessarily flattering to the emboldened female of the modern age, it’s been a trope for such a long time that it’s hard to deny its root in historical facts. Cross-gender identification can and has been entertained as a possibility, but only in the sense that the females watching can identify more closely with the male roles.

The Male Role in Horror: The Killer or the Failed Hero

These days, more often than not, the male viewer can only identify with two portrayals of himself—the killer or the failed hero—male parts are more marginalized, with few exceptions, their characters tend to be more underdeveloped and without fail they have a tendency to die early within the film. We see males portrayed as “policemen, fathers, and sheriffs,” who, if they don’t end up as a victim, only have enough screen time, “to demonstrate risible incompetence,” and if they’re not portrayed in this manner, they’re being portrayed as the killer.

The killer, the villain, the slasher, the butcher—he’s the one that competes with the first victim for the least amount of screen time. We barely see him during the first half of the film, but when we do finally see him as more than a silhouette or a brief flash across the camera we see a character that is hard to identify with.

Who is the Final Girl?

Gender and the Final Girl

Horror movies, especially slashers, have a tendency to boast large body counts—after all, excess is the name of the game—and as we’ve learned those bodies are usually females and pretty ones to boot. One thing that we also have a tendency to see within these same movies, is that the one character who does live to tell the tale, that is to say, if anyone is alive by the end, is fated to be female. This is the famous Final Girl that, we can reliably pick out of the crowd of horny teenagers based on her advanced character development.

Once picked out of the crowd, we see that her storyline is really the only one that has any attention paid to it—outside of the killer’s that is—unlike the rest of the female characters, she has been bestowed a more reasonable set of characteristics. If she’s not operating on pure luck, she likely impresses us with her intelligent watchful eye and her ability to stay more level-headed when she’s put under pressure. She’s typically the first one to notice anything is wrong, but this is generally chalked up to a “gut feeling” which shows us that her instincts are significantly greater than the characters that are more disposable. She is the only character whose view, or perspective, of the situation most closely matches our own as the audience.

We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades. When she downs the killer, we are triumphant. She is by any measure the slasher film’s hero. This is not to say that our attachment to her is exclusive and unremitting, only that it adds up, and that in the closing sequence it is very close to absolute.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Women in Peril

While women in peril can be found in almost any genre—the damsel in distress is a popular motivation for any male antagonist. However, as Clover points out in her essay on gender within the slasher film, women in peril tend to work better within a genre of suspense. This stems from origins in such serial productions as The Perils of Pauline (1914); the consensus is that if we were to see a male and female wandering around a haunted house (or other precarious situation), we would invariably be more worried for the female than for the male. This perspective is all too accurate, despite the rise in female heroines in action movies and thrillers and has more to do with how much we can identify with gender and less to do with misogynistic perspectives.

Perhaps it’s the range of emotional expression that the genders are each allotted within these storylines, where the men are given the macho aggression or displays of force, women are given the displays of “crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, [and] begging for mercy.” In essence, the feminine reaction to violence, killing, or simply-put terrifying situations, is “abject terror”.

The Evolution of Perspective

We see within the beginning of these types of films that we have a more intimate view of the killer’s perspective; a perfect example of this would be the opening scene of Halloween (1978) where we are literally seeing through the eyes of a six-year-old Michael Myers as he watches his sister, who instead of babysitting him as she was supposed to, is getting it on with her boyfriend. We see him intentionally sneak through the house while his sister and her boyfriend are aggressively cuddling upstairs, and watch as he grabs the biggest sharpest knife available to him. While we don’t want to identify with this perspective, even though we are forced to see through this lens, we do experience the waxing anxiety that comes with him padding up the staircase and stabbing his breast-baring sister to death. To be quite frank though, it’s not necessarily the perspective that is really disturbing, it’s the moments where we hear the killer’s breathing or heartbeat.

This forced perspective links us, albeit unwillingly, with the killer during the earliest parts of the film, we know him before we know any other character of importance to the storyline. We know his perspective before we even know what he looks like, or in most cases, who he is and what his story might be. We know him before we know our Final Girl—this is done intentionally. Although in Final Girl (2015) we see the pattern flipped, so we see and know who the Final Girl is before we know who the bad guys are (and oddly almost want to identify with them right before they are taken out by our heroine). Aside from the minor outliers to this pattern, the progression of the film leads our shift of perspectives from the killer to the Final Girl. As Clover cleverly stated, “our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by storyline as well as camera position.”

By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her, watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top, and so on. With her, we become if not the killer of the killer then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film’s course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth, and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Final Thoughts on the Final Girl

Ultimately when it comes to the Final Girl, I don’t see mysogynistic screenplays, instead I see simple tropes in horror that were stumbled upon by writers who ultimately understood the value of a character that everyone could root for. It’s a human condition to thrive off of excess, this is true for, “sex, violence, and emotion [as they] are fundamental elements of the sensation effects of [pornography, horror, and melodrama],”—we grasp for the gratuitously violent, the gratuitously sexual, and the gratuitously depressing because of the effect they have on our bodies (Williams; pg. 3).

If we were to try to label the reason for the existence of these “heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion,” we would have to face the fact that they are there for no other reason except to excite us into reacting. Therefore, when we see this Final Girl and her implicit androgyny, her assumed virginal state, her intelligence, and her eagle-eye for understanding the situation that is unfolding before her and we say, “Yep! That would be me if I were in that situation!” We think to ourselves that we would never be the first one to die, we would run out of the house instead of cornering ourselves upstairs, we would never look back while we were running and would therefore never trip over our own feet—and we would never ever utter the phrase, “I’ll be right back.”

Work Cited

Crow, David, et al. “The 13 Best Final Girls in Horror Movie History.” Den of Geek, 30 Sept. 2020.

Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017.

Lentini, Lori. “5 Horror Movies Where Females Took a Big Bite Out of the Bad Guy.” Puzzle Box Horror, 27 Apr. 2020.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13.

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Legacy of Horror Writer, Lois Duncan

The Legacy of an author like the late Lois Duncan stretches farther than one might think—having been 82 years old when she died of a stroke, she left behind a long prolific career of writing fiction for young adults. Many people read Duncan’s books in their adolescence, so much so her books can be considered a rite of passage. One thing that can be said of Duncan’s writing is that she captures the essence of what it is to go through puberty—the feelings of alienation and the thirst to be accepted by one’s peers—and also the kind of chilling, oft supernatural situations that made her horror and thriller writing so famous.

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

What She’s Known For

I started writing for young adults because I was one.

Lois Duncan in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune 2005

Duncan wanted to create something relatable for readers who were too old for children’s books and too young for adult books–something in between that could bridge the gap between, something that would carry them over and enable them to be lifelong reading enthusiasts. Authors like Lois Duncan are incredibly important, they breed the interest and love for the written word long after our parents stop reading us bedtime stories and well before we lose interest in school-assigned reading. Duncan’s most well-known books to date were written well before young adult fiction had become a popular genre—among these, she had created Down a Dark Hall (1974), Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and Stranger With My Face (1981). These books were all considerably violent in their own right, but when her 1973 novel I Know What You Did Last Summer was adapted to the big screen, Duncan was “utterly horrified.”

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) Movie Poster
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

The movie adaptation, which was released in 1997, horribly skewed her suspenseful thriller—a book about a group of teenagers who were desperate to conceal an accidental killing–into a slasher horror film. She recounted going to see the movie for the first time, “the first time I knew it was a slasher movie was when I bought my popcorn and bought my ticket and excitedly walked into the theater … the heads were dropping and the blood was spurting and I was screaming and the audience was screaming.” Truly it was never her intention for it to be as bloody and shocking as it turned out to be on film and it didn’t ring true with the message she tried to embed in her stories, that what you do in life matters and accepting responsibility for your actions is paramount.

Not all of Duncan’s work lies within the realm of the terrifying and dark, some of it is decidedly light—especially the work that followed after her daughter Kaitlyn—and many of her works have been adapted into film. Like most authors who have had their work adapted into screenplays, Duncan didn’t exactly make her name from audiences knowing who came up with the original idea for them. Instead she made her name through the amazing wealth of novels that she contributed to multiple genres and the awards she received for them.

What the Critics Had to Say

Lois Duncan is regularly given credit by critics and journalists alike for pioneering the genre of young adult fiction—she made most of these strides within the teen suspense and horror genres and was even dubbed as the “queen of teen thrillers.” The Washington Post’s Emily Langer stated that Duncan, “plucked her characters from normalcy and placed them in extraordinary, often dark circumstances,” which for a time when Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier were big names in fiction, was decidedly against the grain of the genre.

What the Fans Have to Say

Even four years after her death, Lois Duncan is still on the minds of the people she inspired to write during their youths—her impact was profound and lasting because she finally gave teens a voice for the dark and dismal forces that play a large part in the imaginations and fantasies of so many of us during a time of chaotic emotions and hormones. She isolated that turmoil and removed it from the internal struggle by creating these dark tales and then illustrated how much worse things could really be beyond our own thoughts, fears, and expectations.

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Featured Horror Books Horror Mystery and Lore Women in Horror

The Morbid Feminist Voice Behind the First Sci-Fi and Dystopian Apocalyptic Horror Novels

Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Why on earth would a delicate woman of your stature write about such awful, disturbing, and blasphemous things?

As the daughter of the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as the reformist writer and philosopher William Godwin, Shelley is famously noted for her 1831 introduction to a reprint of Frankenstein. Her explanation that, “it is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing…” shows exactly how significant they were to her self-image.

The Liberating Feminine Voice of Horror

It is genuinely not surprising that the daughter of the renowned mother of the modern feminist movement was a feminist herself. Mary Shelley’s life reflected by the inspiration she took from her mother’s radically forward-thinking when it came to equality on the basis of sex. Her mother’s best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, lived on through Shelley’s own lifestyle and unstoppable life-force, but how did that translate into her own voice as an author? There is a lot of dialog between scholars as far as interpretations of her motivations behind the wonderfully disturbing work she created in her lifetime. Some suggest that Frankenstein is a horror story of maternity as much as it is about the perils of intellectual hubris.

From the time that Mary ran away with Percy Shelley all through the time she spent writing Frankenstein, Mary was going through maternal horror of her own—she was ceaselessly pregnant, confined, nursing, and then watching her first three children die at young ages. It doesn’t help matters that Shelley’s life was haunted by the fact that her mother died only ten days after Mary was born. Truth be told though, it was unsanitary practices by the attending physician, Dr. Poignand, and not through any fault of Shelley’s. It was Puerperal Fever, caused by doctors moving directly from autopsies to births without any means of sanitation, that took Shelley’s mother from her.

The tragedy of her mother’s death so early on in her life influenced Shelley greatly and losing three of her own children just compounded upon her morbidity. She used this mindset to her advantage though and translated her message of what it felt like to be born without a right to history—for, “what is woman but man without a history…” as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar stated in The Madwoman in the Attic. We can see Mary Shelley in Frankenstein’s monster, as a creature born without a history, or at least without an unalterable or supported history. Both Shelley and Frankenstein’s creation shared the feeling of being born without a soul, “as a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex,”—for being a woman in the time that Mary Shelley lived was to be a second-class human being.

A Symbol for Early Equality

Shelley can be considered a symbol for both feminism and equality of sexual orientation; a less discussed topic than anything else of her life, there is evidence that shows that Mary sought the company of women after her husband’s death. This is an important topic to mention, as it is signifies the very secretive intimate history of homosexuality and how big of a part it actually played during the Romantic era.

Life From the Bed of a Grave

Writer Sandra Gilbert insists, that Mary Shelley’s, “only real mother was a tombstone,” but she didn’t mean it figuratively—when Mary was a child, her father brought her to the churchyard where her mother was buried and she would continue to visit on her own after that. This became especially true when her father married their next-door-neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman who could never replace her own mother and who made Shelley’s home life unbearable. In her earliest years, Shelley used, “reading … [as] an act of resurrection,” due to feeling excluded from her father’s household after his marriage. In a sense, it is said that she “read,” or knew her family then determined her sense of self through her mother and father’s literary works. She would endlessly study her mother’s works during her younger years while sitting at her mother’s graveside.

The burden of this type of childhood was also expressed through Mary’s first work when she included a scene wherein Victor Frankenstein visits the cemetery where his father, brother, and bride were buried before leaving Geneva to search for the monstrosity that he had created. “As night approached, I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery … I entered it and approached the tomb which marked their graves … The spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but seen not, around the head of the mourner,” where Victor ultimately calls for revenge against his creation, “O Night, and by the spirits that preside over thee, I swear to pursue the daemon … And I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on the wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work.” Godwin passed on his idealization of books being a sort of host for the dead, that to read a book by a departed author would be to know them entirely. Then again, Godwin was also fiercely interested in communicating with the dead, another trait that he passed to his daughter through that fateful visit to her mother’s grave.

[The dead] still have their place, where we may visit them, and where, if we dwell in a composed and a quiet spirit, we shall not fail to be conscious of their presence.

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, And the Work of Necromanticism

Necromantic Preoccupations of Her Father

Like father, like daughter; Shelley picked up her father’s proclivity for intrigue in the dead. Godwin often tried to connect his readers to the dead by encouraging the placement of illustrious graves. In his eyes, such a grave would honor them in their place of rest and give both the deceased and their mourners a way to stay on speaking terms, of sorts. He even expressed his desire to do so himself in quite an illustrated manner, when he said, “[he] would have [the dead] … around [his] path, and around [his] bed, and not allow [himself] to hold a more frequent intercourse with the living, than with the good departed.” He meant this of course as a means of conveying his desire to communicate with the dear ones he had lost in his lifetime and not in a sexual context.

The Morbidity of Her Truest Love

Mary may have strayed from that viewpoint in a way, after she was introduced to an impassioned devotee of her father’s, Percy Shelley. The two spent much of their time together at the grave of Mary’s mother, where her father likely believed they were conversing about their reformist ideals. The truth lay a bit beyond that, however, as it was by her mother’s grave that she lost her virginity and pledged herself at sixteen to a twenty-year-old Percy. While it may seem creepy, to Mary the cemetery was more than just a resting place for the dead, she saw it as a place where all of life converged for her.

Learning all of this about Shelley definitely brings us some clarity on how she possessed the wit and imagination to create two new genres within literature—that of Science-Fiction horror, along with the brilliance of the first Apocalyptic Dystopian styles.

Index of Sources

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Tormented and Tortured, Troublemaker—Shirley Jackson

Early Life

Born December 14, 1916, in San Francisco, California–Shirley spent most of her childhood in North Burlingame, California. Shirley’s maternal grandmother, a Christian Science faith healer lived with the Jacksons during Shirley’s childhood—later she would bitterly recall a time when her little brother broke his arm and instead of taking him to the hospital, her grandmother only prayed over his broken arm. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school when her family was uprooted, due to an abrupt transfer of her father’s job to Rochester, New York. Initially, she cited hating the Northeast and missing the avocados and pomegranates (two for a nickel, according to her recollection) that were so readily available in California. Despite her fond memories of growing up in California, she only wrote one novel set within California, which drew upon the memories of her childhood in Burlingame, The Road Through The Wall (1948).

Education & Young Adulthood

Despite growing up in California, Jackson is more often associated with New England writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne being one of them, who is considered her American Gothic predecessor. Shirley attended the University of Rochester, but she was kicked out after her sophomore year, having spent more time hanging out in cafes with her best friend at the time—a French exchange student—instead of studying. There is evidence that she suffered from severe depression and ultimately took a year off before she finished her education in 1940 at Syracuse University, where she would meet her future husband. During her time at Syracuse University, she acted as the fiction editor of the humor magazine on campus–which could be considered where she began her career within the literary community.

Along with the beginning of her creative endeavors, Shirley married the American literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Unfortunately, neither Shirley nor Stanley’s parents attended their wedding. For Stanley’s part, despite declaring himself a “militant atheist,” as a teenager, was actually brought up in a very traditional Jewish household and his family did not approve of interfaith marriage. In Shirley’s case, she simply didn’t tell her parents until after they were wed, knowing that they were more than a little anti-Semitic and would never accept him as their son-in-law. Despite all of this, they had settled in North Bennington, Vermont by 1945. She remained there for most of her adult life; many speculate that she even used it as the setting for her most famous story, The Lottery (1948).

Her Work & Career

After graduating from university, Jackson moved her entire life to New York City and began to write professionally. Her work began to appear in publications such as The New Yorker, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Ladies’ Home Journal. It wasn’t until 1948 when she finally was able to publish her first novel entitled The Road Through The Wall. During the same year, Jackson’s most famous work, by far, was published in The New Yorker and it was a short story by the name of The Lottery (1948).

During her early career, Jackson actually struggled to get published, for every successful publication, she had suffered through several rejections. Even though The New Yorker published eight of her stories between 1943 and 1944, they rejected everything until her 1948 submission of The Lottery. This wasn’t incredibly unheard of, J.D. Salinger’s early submissions were also all rejected by The New Yorker. Each rejection, however, caused Shirley to suffer another bout of depression, her husband Stanley requested that her agent only tell her when her work was accepted—leading to Stanley having to occasionally break the news to her that she had been otherwise rejected.

The Lottery

Among one of her earlier published works, The Lottery (1948), a tale that despite its overwhelming popularity was highly controversial for its time. The story starts off as seemingly benign, a banal festival where children gleefully galavant around the town square until all of the adults of the small three-hundred-person community have convened to take part in an annual ritual. While no one outwardly states their objections to such a ritual, it is clear half-way through her story that every person in attendance is silently anxious. Her story, published within The New Yorker, garnered the most attention and mail correspondence in the history of the magazine. Shirley received several hundred letters from subscribers to the magazine, which she said all consisted primarily of “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” An alarming amount of the letters wanted to know where such ritual lotteries were still held and if they would be able to watch such a ritual. These days it might seem strange that so many readers believed that the story was true, but at that time the magazine didn’t label articles as fact or fiction. Despite the controversy stirred by a simple, yet disturbing story, it has remained one of the most significant sort stories of its time.

It’s funny how many myths surround her writing The Lottery, but what is even better is knowing that Shirley actually spread a lot of them herself. In a lecture she gave about her creation of the story, she said that The New Yorker had asked her to change the date on which the lottery was held and that as a result, the magazine published the story just a few weeks after she submitted it—these were both untrue. One well-known rumor that has been said to have truth to it, was that Shirley was out getting groceries one day when she got the idea for the story, she went home and wrote the entire thing that morning while her two-year-old daughter kept busy in her playpen, she finished just in time for her son to come home from kindergarten for lunch.

Later Works and Movies

Shirley’s later works included novels such as The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), as well as Life Among the Savages (1953), the latter of which was an embellished memoir about her experiences as a housewife and mother. Her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a Netflix original series in 2018, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was adapted to film in 2018. Most of her work relied on supernatural themes and provocative topics that metaphorically explored how people dealt with differences.

Here’s how not to be taken seriously as a woman writer: Use demons and ghosts and other gothic paraphernalia in your fiction. Describe yourself publicly as “a practicing amateur witch” and boast about the hexes you have placed on prominent publishers. Contribute comic essays to women’s magazines about your hectic life as a housewife and mother.

The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson by Zoë Heller in The New Yorker October 10, 2016

The Role of Witchcraft

In her earliest years of college, Shirley became interested in witchcraft, her assertion of Christian Scientist as her religion notwithstanding. She continued to study the craft for the rest of her life which aided to her historical perspective and references within many of her books, including Life Among the Savages, which cited historical witchcraft grimoires. She amassed an enormous library of books on the topic, read Tarot cards for friends and family, and was described as “… the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.” While that might not still be the case today, it’s interesting to see her having joked about her skill in witchcraft. She even spread the rumor that she had cursed Alfred A. Knopf—a publisher who was involved in a contract dispute with her husband—causing him to break his leg while skiing in Vermont. Surprisingly, considering her interest in witchcraft and the occult, Shirley reported having never experienced anything supernatural. Her most famous ghost story The Haunting of Hill House was based on the accounts of haunted houses that others had experienced, as well as the pictures she collected of haunted locations.

Death

It was fairly well-known that Shirley suffered from severe agoraphobia in her later years, so severe that she was often unable to even leave her house. She had made a full recovery and had just completed a reading tour of several college campuses, where she would read from two separate works that were in progress, the first was a novel called Come Along with Me and a children’s fantasy called The Fair Land of Far. Shirley tragically passed away before either of them were finished, at the height of her creative career, and just before her forty-ninth birthday, on August 8, 1965 in North Bennington, Vermont. The cause was said to be heart failure. As to her direct legacy, her two children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt became the editors of her unpublished works, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which was released in August 2015 to help mark the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Index of Sources

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of Lois Duncan

We’re starting off July with a bang—and honoring one of Horror’s great women writers! Although she was best known for her work in young-adult novels, she is considered a pioneering figure in the development of the genre, specializing in the sub-genres of horror, thriller, and suspense. Lois Duncan, an author that throughout her life dealt with innumerable travesties and tragic turmoil that most of us only have nightmares about was a figure to be reckoned with. Despite all of the trials that Duncan faced during her lifetime, she somehow made it through as a celebrated author of young adult fiction and horror.

The Early Years of Lois Duncan

Born Lois Duncan Steinmetz on April 28, 1934, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Lois Duncan and Joseph Janney Steinmetz—she grew up with one younger brother, and parents who were professional photographers who worked for magazines taking pictures for the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as publications such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, as well as Town & Country. Growing up with photographers for parents, found her as the focus of their work on regular occasions, including when she appeared on the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1949.

Duncan knew at an early age that she wanted to be a writer and ended up submitting her first story to a magazine at the age of ten. When she was thirteen, ger first acceptance letter came, she had finally made her first sale to a magazine called Calling All Girls; this early accomplishment for Duncan inspired and motivated the young writer to continue on with her passion. To quote Duncan herself, “[she] could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling [herself] at the typewriter.” After spending much of her early years in Pennsylvania, she relocated to Sarasota, Florida later in her childhood where she spent her time amongst circus performers which influenced her picture books that she would write later in her career

A self-described “shy, fat little girl,” as well as a “bookworm and dreamer,” Duncan dreamed of being a writer for a living throughout found herself at home as a child playing in the woods. It makes sense that she, like most writers, would feel some type of insignificance during childhood and end up using it to fuel her passions throughout her life. She would graduate from the Sarasota High School in 1952 then enroll at Duke University that same year before she ended up dropping out in 1953 when she started a family with, Joseph Cardozo, a fellow student at the university.

A Full Career

Magazine Publications

After getting her first magazine publication at the age of thirteen, and dropping out of Duke University during the early, she continued to write and publish articles in magazines—eventually publishing over three hundred such articles in a variety of different magazines. In 1958, she ended up writing an incredibly successful short story in Seventeen magazine, titled Love Song for Joyce under the pen name of Lois Kerry—she nearly didn’t win the contest it was meant for because an underage boy was drinking a beer and it was considered inappropriate. When Seventeen asked her to change it to a Coke, she obliged and took home a thousand dollar prize. This helped her to secure her first young adult writing contract, from which she produced Debutante Hill in 1959.

After divorcing her first husband, Duncan moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1962 with her children and supported herself and her children by writing greeting cards and fictional confessionals for pulp magazines. Four years after relocating she published the novel Ransom, for which she earned herself the Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination, which also marked her transition from romance fiction to more suspense-oriented works.

Teaching Work

During the early 1970s, Duncan was hired to teach journalism at the University of New Mexico, which she later confessed was a mistake on the part of the person who hired her—having been a friend—having overlooked the fact that she did not have a degree when she was chosen as a replacement, due to her extensive experience writing for magazines. To remedy the situation, Duncan earned her B.A. degree in English in 1977 while simultaneously teaching journalism.

Suspense and Horror Novels

Duncan had a personal interest in supernatural and speculative fiction, which inspired her to write a variety of suspense and horror novels that were aimed for teenagers, some of which were adapted for the big screen. In 1978, her novel Summer of Fear was adapted to film by Wes Craven, but her most famous example, by far, was the 1997 film I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was adapted from her 1973 novel of the same name. It’s possible that much of the slasher horror craze was derived from Duncan’s novels, wherein she broke major ground by creating novels that didn’t capitalize on sex, drugs, and the bad-boy image of its characters, but more so on the ability of teenagers to be nasty and twist anything to justify their own means.

After the death of her youngest daughter in 1989 Duncan only wrote one more horror novel, titled Gallows Hill in 1997—since her daughter’s death marked a complete shift in her writing. In 1992 she penned a non-fiction account that detailed her daughter’s unsolved murder titled Who Killed My Daughter? but otherwise stuck to less dark material. Due to the own impact it had on her life, Duncan also founded a research center that was designed to help investigated cold cases, it would eventually evolve into a nonprofit Resource Center for Victims of Violent Deaths—this was in an effort to help anyone who had to deal with the trauma that she herself went through.

The Death of Her Daughter

July 16, 1989 marked a terrible day in the life of Lois Duncan—her eighteen-year-old daughter Kaitlyn Arquette was driving her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shot twice in the head. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting and she died the next day without ever waking up. The police investigation that ensued concluded that the death of Kaitlyn was the result of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three men ended up being charged in the case of her death, but the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Duncan was never satisfied with the result of her daughter’s case—she ended up investigating on her own and discovered that her daughter’s boyfriend was involved in an insurance scam. She believed that her daughter had somehow uncovered the scam and ended up being the target of someone who had been involved—not necessarily by her daughter’s boyfriend, but by one of his associates—with someone who didn’t want her daughter to blow the whistle on their organized criminal activity.

The police stopped investigating the death of Kaitlyn and the crime was never solved, but in 1992 she finally published Who Killed My Daughter? She confessed that it was the most difficult book that she ever had to write, but being that it was a non-fiction book and about her own daughter’s murder, it’s no mystery as to why it would have been. Kaitlyn’s family continued to pursue the investigation of her death and new information continued to surface long after the case was closed. The case and subsequent book were regularly featured, with the hopes that it would help improve the situation, on shows like Good Morning America, Larry King Live, Unsolved Mysteries, Inside Edition, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Lois and her husband Don Arquette created an maintained the Real Crimes website in order to help other families who were experiencing similar situations. Lois would interview families of homicide victims whose cases were believed to have been improperly handled by law enforcement and Don would back any allegations to actual documentation that was released to the public, such as police reports, autopsy records, as well as crime scene photographs.

At the End…

Duncan passed away on June 15, 2016, as the result of a stroke and left behind a small army of devastated fans and people whose lives she had touched. Lois was survived by her husband Don Arquette, her four remaining children and six grandchildren.