The writerly dream of a cabin in the woods where you can tap away at your laptop on the next great American novel is enticing. But it’s also horror cliché for a reason: Never mind those things that go bump in the night, what’s more nightmarish than being alone with a blank page? That’s the existential angst explored in “Scare Me,” which premiered on Shudder.com on Oct. 1.
Older, frustrated horror writer Fred (played by writer/director Josh Ruben) and successful younger horror writer Fanny (Aya Cash) are strangers, both staying in adjacent cozy cabins in upstate New York for the same purpose — to explore their creative ids and get spooky. They meet while they’re both out for a run in the woods; Fanny is understandably not interested in making small talk with the eager, somewhat creepy Fred. (Behind Fanny’s bluster here is the very real-life fear that women have of jogging alone, much less of doing so the quiet, snowy woods far from home.)
However, Fanny the horror writer just loves being scared when it’s on her own terms and so, for indecipherable reasons of her own — it’s a horror film, after all — she decides to roll the dice on hanging out with a weird dude in a cabin in the woods. After all, there’s little more scary, more actually in-real-life dangerous to women than, well, strange men. So, when the electricity goes out in the area, Fanny appears in Fred’s window, lightning illuminating her large red parka, with an offer he can’t refuse — to see who’s better at telling scary stories in the dark.
“Scare Me,” then, is the kind of self-referential horror movie that hooks more mainstream movie fans, like “Cabin in the Woods” — the so-called “elevated horror” movies that even film critics deign to enjoy. The scariness comes from heightened tensions (made possible by the actors’ face-contorting antics and light and sound design) but there are very few real scares or gore involved.
The dramatic tension is the natural one between a successful younger writer and an older frustrated one, and it’s ratcheted up quite a bit by Fanny’s gender and abrasive confidence (although one informs the other). Fanny is an avatar for anyone who’s marginalized in an industry — though, as a young, traditionally hot white woman, Fanny is still pretty privileged in the horror writing genre and nearly anywhere else. Fred, meanwhile, wants to impress her because of her success and probably to sleep with her because of her gender and attractiveness; he also resents the ways he imagines she’s been handed keys to the horror kingdom that he thinks he deserves and she didn’t earn.
Fanny’s know-it-all attitude is probably in part what’s made her so successful — but she likely had to build up a thick skin to succeed in publishing, especially in a genre like horror that’s met with derision by “real” cinephiles and literary critics on the one hand and gatekept by a very vocal subset of its fan base on the other.
But horror writers, directors and fans aren’t actually a sea of solely white, cisgender straight men; the immediacy of the Internet has made that clearer than ever. Plenty of the rest of us have been obsessively watching the genre since we had to sneak into video stores to rent slasher flicks or obscure, harrowing movies on ratty VHS tapes when we were underage.
Now we’re all on social media, trading recommendations, writing reviews and creating our own media about it. The gates once there to keep have been blown wide open — and, as the visibility of all fans and creators increases, so does the signal to noise ratio of the Freds of the world who are mad that their mediocre talents are no longer in high demand, if they ever were.
One particularly smart decision Ruben made as the writer of “Scare Me” was to address this aspect of the culture head-on by playing Fred in his film; in a way, he’s getting ahead of the scrutiny a male writer faces when writing women. But, even better, he didn’t give Fanny some sort of tragic backstory to explains her edgy interest in writing horror or telling scary stories to strangers in the dead of night.
Enjoying horror as a genre of film or fiction writing doesn’t have to be psychologically meaningful or symbolic (although it can be), and pathologizing women’s interest in the macabre — especially when men’s interest is so rarely treated similarly — is facile and exhausting. Why can’t we just enjoy a good scare?
There are, of course, plenty of reasons why one might turn to terror in our spare time. Personally, I enjoy horror and true crime because it’s a safe way to achieve catharsis, and to release some of the anxiety I have from everyday life, some of which is informed by being a woman. (After all, have you read the news lately?) Other women, such as the female horror directors I’ve interviewed, have their own reasons for enjoying both the genre themselves and delighting in triggering terror in viewers, and plenty of them understandably bristle at being reduced to their gender.
In the end, it’s no accident that Fanny is wearing a red parka when she shows up to challenge Fred. This Little Red Riding Hood isn’t either saved from the werewolf by the huntsman or eaten up by the former at the end of her story; she just laughs at the big bad wolf and defangs him. And, like any great horror writer, Fanny knows just which buttons to push before the denouement.