We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
The horror genre has never been kind to women. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unequivocally, the most poetical topic in the world,” wrote Edgar Allen Poe in his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” For years, through slashers, demonic possession tales, and Hollywood torture-porn gore, women have primarily been the killed, not the killers, in horror films. Those final girls who manage to survive earn their place through sexual purity or by acquiring the violence of their trail-sniffing killers, choosing one side or the other of a double-edged sword. Even if our heroine ultimately overcomes the monster before her, we often face her pain with an unavoidable, voyeuristic male gaze.
Horror narratives in which women must fight ghouls, ghosts, or regular, still-living men function as symbolic models for real-world terror. The sexualized, violent aggressions that women experience on a daily basis have been further realized and creatively mutated onscreen, with works of art across decades forming a long fable about the confines of gender. But many of 2016’s most fascinating horror narratives by women, about women, took root not in film but in music. From the way White Lung romanticized serial killers on Paradise to Jenny Hval’s sexy vampires, female musicians this year used timeless horror tropes to investigate universally human questions about romantic intimacy, independence, and the mundanity of the menstruating body. Within these albums, feminine horror can be as disruptive as it is tender, as women make us witnesses to the fantastic potential of their everyday fears and desires.
For White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way, Paradise was a curdled punk-rock fantasy about the terrifying and powerful potential of heterosexual love, reminiscent of film narratives like Natural Born Killers and The Honeymoon Killers. On “Sister,” Barber-Way sings from the perspective of 1990s Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka; she and her husband Paul Bernardo were dubbed the Ken and Barbie Killers. Elsewhere, on “Demented,” Barber-Way stages an imagined fight between another serial-killer couple, Fred and Rosemary West. “You were born to ruin your life,” she wails over the band’s pummeling guitars and Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s manic-aggressive drumming. “And you were sworn into a bad, bad wife.”
Barber-Way, who recently married and moved from Vancouver to Southern California, finds creative freedom in writing from the perspectives of notorious real-life killers and characters. The resultant portrait of marriage and domesticity uses horror to package earnest, real-world fears about starting a life with someone. On Paradise, love is terrifying but irresistible, the center of a grotesque American fairy tale that shines the same spotlight on the furthest, most murderous capabilities of female desire as on standard, accessible depictions of romance. On the record’s titular closer, Barber-Way sings of wanting to run away south with her man. “I’m all about me, you’re all about me too,” she croons in the chorus; it’s a moment of gooey, girlish love that normalizes the gun-toting, bloody fare of the rest of the album.
Bat for Lashes’ The Bride is an album about denying the traditional structures that Paradise embraces. It’s a chilling baroque-pop concept album on which Natasha Khan sings as a blood-red-clad bride whose groom is killed before the betrothal. In the Lost Highway–esque music videos, Khan cruises through the desert in her car, struggling to rebuild her life without a marriage at its center. “I thought, if a bride doesn’t have a groom, how will she go on her honeymoon?” Khan told me earlier this year. “Will she have to go on her own, and who will she fall in love with — herself?”
The Bride, which Khan has performed in churches and with full wedding attire required for the audience, has a lot in common with classic 18th- and 19th-century Gothic horror stories, particularly in its fetishization of the image of the bride. Female characters in the genre are often locked away after marriage (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, the Bluebeard fairy tale) or abandoned at the altar (The Castle of Otranto, A Sicilian Romance). Gothic horror is predicated on the mysterious sensual terrors of screens and barriers, as characters tear away curtains and fling open bolted doors to uncover hidden secrets. Throughout The Bride, Khan subverts the Gothic rendering of the bride, moving outward. She lifts her veil and finds not more to fear but independence and self-love, a refreshingly contemporary twist on a genre steeped in archaic misogyny. Rather than crumble with despair and spend the rest of her life mourning a nonexistent wedding like Dickens’s Miss Havisham, Khan’s Bride finds freedom in being single. “For my love, I will bleed,” she sings on the quiet, string-laden ballad “Land's End.” “Gonna drive till I set myself free.”
Khan’s riffs on Gothic wedding imagery in The Bride have echoes in certain key moments from Beyoncé’s blockbuster Lemonade. For most of the visual album, Beyoncé makes the gnarled grounds of a Southern plantation her setting, populating her screens with weeping willows and a stunning cast of black artists in Victorian attire. It’s a haunted-house aesthetic that draws heavily on the Southern Gothic art tradition, calling to mind works that confront the horrors of American slavery like Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved and Kara Walker’s black-paper silhouette pieces. Throughout the film, Beyoncé showcases the decay and emptiness of abandoned spaces, from the flooded homes of Hurricane Katrina to spookily lit school buses and parking lots. The entire album is set in places of decay as Beyoncé sings from the perspective of a woman being lied to by her husband. “I tried to make a home out of you,” she says, using the words of poet Warsan Shire. “But doors lead to trap doors, a stairway leads to nothing.”
And what do paranoid women do in Gothic horror? They freak out. They’re traditionally hysterics confined to the dark nooks and crannies of the house — forced out of sight by someone who’s more powerful than they are, usually a man, often their own spouse. Yet this is a setting Beyoncé made a point of choosing for herself. “What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?” she asks on the deceptively cheery “Hold Up” as she smashes cars with a baseball bat. Later, on “Love Drought,” she’ll ask her lover, exhausted, if he’s trying to kill her. But isn’t that what being cheated on can feel like? Madness has long been both stylized and appropriated by female artists, from Louise Bourgeois’s “Arch of Hysteria” to country music’s crazy ex-girlfriends à la Miranda Lambert — but the way Lemonade speaks to both problems within a marriage and the broader mood of gaslighting and emotional torture in America’s treatment of black life makes it one of 2016’s most essential statements. What’s worse, staying silent or going crazy? When your life feels like a horror movie, sometimes you have to express it like one.
For Norwegian art-pop musician Jenny Hval, working under capitalism and having the life continually sucked out of you can be terrifying, but it’s also a little funny. After watching a handful of porny, nudity-filled ’70s B-movies with titles like The Female Vampire and Messiah of Evil, Hval was inspired to make her conceptual synth record Blood Bitch, which limns the connection between bleeding, labor, and vampirism. “She’s more like a touring musician. Just stuck,” Hval said in an interview about her album’s gender-swapping protagonist, who was inspired in part by Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando. “Stuck in Groundhog Day, but on tour. Same city every night. It reminds me of a being stuck in capitalist structures.” Through Blood Bitch’s throbbing, gloomy organ and synth-laden songs, Hval tries to find power in her exhausting existence, turning to the collective horror of blood and, in live performances, the rituals of female sensuality. “I have big dreams and blood powers,” Hval intones on “Untamed Region.” “My own art history, my combined failures.” Vampirism becomes a metaphor for the universal labor of living, extended forever.
Feminine horror is strongest when at its most deeply human and complicated, depicting women who don’t earn your empathy just through their comparative innocence to a villain. In recent years, several horror filmmakers have begun to put this idea onscreen: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook turned its lead actress into a monster as a metaphor for a single mother’s grief, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows universalized the terror of a sexual trauma that can’t be killed, and the protagonist of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is forced to retaliate when she looks for love but only finds male sexual violence.
Similarly, the female musicians who explored the aesthetics of horror this year approached it as a means to enhance and complicate their own relationships to tangible, everyday desires and fears. They villainized and reinvented themselves through the voices of Gothic hysterics, serial killers, and vampires who suffer as they stare down eternity, and they don’t just wear their film and literature references like costumes. In a genre that is still breaking women’s roles free from nostalgic tradition, these musicians have drawn far messier lines. In doing so, it’s hard to know where their monstrosity begins and ends — which vulnerabilities lay with the characters, and which are their own. Through these women artists’ gazes, the pain and passion of horror heroines aren’t always so far from lived realities.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Meredith Graves on the year in noise.