What To Read: Sady Doyle watches a lot of horror movies

This week, we interviewed Sady Doyle, a writer and nonfiction author who writes about horror movies on their newsletter, Doyle, S.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

I use horror movies to talk about gender, politics, and everything else in my life.

When did you first realize you were really into horror movies?

Like a lot of people, I got sucked into horror as a teenager. Scream and The Craft both came out around the time I started high school, and they were both huge hits. My friends and I started to have all-night horror marathons. We'd just stay up all night and watch three or four scary movies in a row and play with the Ouija board and freak ourselves out.

To this day, my associations with horror are perversely cheerful. These are the movies I associate with being young and happy and surrounded by love, and they just happen to be about getting chainsawed to death. This month, for Halloween, I'm writing up '90s horror that I loved as a teenager, because it makes me feel warm and safe in a world that really isn't either of those things.

You're a twice-published book author and accomplished writer on topics that have nothing to do with horror. Why did you decide to make your Substack about horror movies specifically?

I started the newsletter while I was writing my second book, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers. That book isn't exclusively about horror – it's about monsters in general – but it does cover a lot of horror movies, and I was watching a different movie every night for research. There were so many things I wanted to talk about, but there wasn't room. It was sheer fannish enthusiasm and the need to connect with other people who were watching The Unborn at two in the morning.

The reason I stayed with horror, though, is that it's an amazingly useful way to talk about life. What I'm most known for writing about is gender politics. Horror movies tend to be about bodies, and violence, and power, all of the same things that feminism is about. A ton of horror movies are about women struggling to survive predatory men. Look at the new Invisible Man with Elizabeth Moss. Horror has along history of addressing social justice, because questions of violence and power are always in the picture – Jordan Peele isn't a lady, but Get Out is really clearly him processing his bodily vulnerability as a black man.

Ultimately, horror is a tool for creating empathy. There is no better way to get to know somebody than to learn what their greatest fears are. When you slip into another person's perspective, and see what's scary about the world through their eyes, you forge a much more intimate connection to their issues than you might by reading a newspaper article or an explainer. I love writing about horror because teasing out those points of empathy, the places where horror teaches us about the world, is endlessly rewarding.

Why do you think people are so into horror as a genre? How does it help us understand ourselves and each other?

Horror is about all the things we consider it impolite or weird to talk about. If you summarize the high points of any given horror movie – like, in the 2018 Suspiria, a ballerina gets folded up by witches until she pees herself, and Tilda Swinton gives someone dreams about eating fistfuls of hair, and the lady from 50 Shades of Gray peels open her giant chest-vagina and makes people's heads explode – you start to think you might be a really unsavory person. Being an adult who watches half-naked ballerinas get mutilated for fun is weird.

But death and sex and violence and pee and vaginas are part of life. We just try not to bring them up at the dinner table. Rage and cruelty are inside everybody, and horror often lets us identify with the monsters as well as their victims; in Suspiria, we really root for the girl making heads explode. All of the things we're repressing have to come out somewhere, and horror movies are like an exorcism. We turn off the lights and let our dark side speak.

When I was working my way toward identifying as non-binary, early this year, I watched a ton of movies about men and manhood – The Lighthouse, The Thing, Ravenous. I was clearly trying to find out what was calling to me about masculinity, what I had in common with men and why it might frighten me to identify with them. I was able to get away with writing deeply personal things by pretending they were about Robert Pattinson. You might not have that exact problem, but you've probably got some stuff buried in your subconscious, too. Sit with the movies that scare you most and ask yourself what they're telling you.

What's an entry-level horror movie you'd suggest for someone who doesn't like horror movies?

It depends on why you don't like horror movies. I find that a lot of people think they don't like horror when actually, what they don't like is gore. I don't like gore for its own sake, either. You might try something more psychological, like the original 1973 Wicker Man, or The Invitation by Karyn Kusama. The scary thing there is how Kusama creates this slowly mounting sense of unease; there's nothing splattery or gratuitous.

If you really do scare easy, you can try something light and silly: A horror-comedy like The Cabin in the Woods, which undercuts the tension with jokes, or an action movie like Aliens, which contains horror elements but mixes them with other genres. That can lighten the impact, rather than just watching The Babadook your first time out and never sleeping for the rest of your life.

Finally, I find that a lot of indie-movie people don't want to watch B-movies with me, but they like art-horror because it's very pretty. If you watch Midsommar or Under the Skin or The VVitch, you won't feel like you're lowering yourself, because everything on screen is gorgeous. Horror is a huge, diverse genre, and you will find something to your taste, I promise. Just start with what you know you like, and work from there.

The dating site OkCupid once suggested that liking or not liking horror movies is a significant predictor of compatibility in a relationship. Do you think there's any truth to that?

I don't know, man. You would think that liking horror movies would be a prerequisite for getting along with me, but every time I've tried to watch something with my husband, he's just made fun of it and pointed out all the plot holes. I got really freaked out recently watching the movie Crawl, which is about killer alligators – large predators are one of my big fears – and all he did was laugh about how often the characters get bitten by alligators and live, which, to be fair, happens a lot in that movie. That's fine. It actually helps me a lot. Every time I realize a movie's going to freak me out, I make him watch it with me so that he can bring me back down to earth. It's not about which movies you like, it's about how the other person improves the experience of watching them.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

One of the best culture writers anywhere, ever, is Emily VanDerWerff, who I've been reading since my baby days on the Internet. I'm now friends with her, which makes me feel very creepy, since I am her superfan. It's like I somehow got Tori Amos to invite me out to coffee and now I'm just staring at her and wondering when she'll play "Silent All These Years."

Emily started off as a TV writer, but recently, her newsletter – while still being about TV a lot of the time – has just sort of effortlessly broadened out to include her whole life. It's always beautiful and perceptive and wildly funny, and she's just so great at using cultural artifacts as jumping-off points to explore the world, in a way I still aspire to. And she writes, like, every day. Please read this, it's so great.

Subscribe to Sady’s newsletter at Doyle, S.