When a Period is More Than Punctuation: Menstruation in Horror Fiction

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CW for this post: discussions of self-harm, body image/eating disorders, weight, incest, sexual assault, child abuse.

I was eleven or twelve at the time of the incident, because I got my period when I was thirteen. Due to a combination of depression, anxiety, and intense ballet lessons, I was reluctant to grow up, my fears focusing on death and puberty. I guess my mom thought I might improve if I had more context, so she sent away for a kit made by Kotex. It contained a little pamphlet with everything a girl should know about her body, a short story that was supposed to make you excited about getting your period, and a sampling of all of their products, sort of like an appetizer sampler at a restaurant. I proceeded to wail hysterically for the next several hours after she gave it to me, screaming that I was never going to get “it”, that “it” was never going to happen to me. Afterwards, I pored in secret of the contents of the kit, smooshing tampons out of their applicators and cutting the pads in half to examine their blue gel insides. 

I could never pinpoint the cause of the fear, exactly, but my main goal for several years was to keep the waifish, boy-like figure of the ballerinas I adored. I lay in bed at night fantasizing about sneaking down to the kitchen and slicing off my barely-there breasts with a kitchen knife, figuring that I could cover the wounds with the blue liquid skin bandage stuff my ballet classmates and I put on our raw and blistered toes. The thought of hitting 100 pounds on the scale made me feel suicidal. And I’m not sure how this misconception came about, but I thought that toxic shock syndrome was the same as ALS. I didn’t want to die like Lou Gehrig, I’d seen The Pride of the Yankees, and I thought that’s what would happen if I wore a tampon for anywhere even close to the allowable eight hours. Growing up meant growing old meant death, and periods were the bloody proof. And reading about a girl who couldn’t wait to get started was the antithesis of what I wanted. I wanted someone to agree that it was possibly the worst thing that could ever happen.

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Periods are, of course, a very normal event in the lives of many, many people. At the same time, it can feel freakish. There is something inherently terrifying about the fact that one day in your adolescence, your body expels blood for one week and then just continues doing that monthly for the rest of your life, bar pregnancies and menopause. (Menopause is apparently so bad that they never even mention it in the sex ed classes that are supposed to prepare you for your period, in case you thought the eventual cessation of blood was going to be some sort of respite.) There’s a reason that contemporary horror has seized on this innate, intimate horror. In Stephen King’s Carrie, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and my debut novel The Unsuitable, periods are major events: gory turning points that also wreak havoc on a girl’s relationship with her mother. Your body is the horror story. You’re a freak.

Carrie, of course, really set the gold standard for horror periods. The book begins with the famous locker room scene, wherein poor, stupid, naive, ugly, unloveable Carrie White stares dumbfounded and terrified by the arrival of her first period. The girls in her gym class begin screaming, chanting, and throwing sanitary napkins and tampons at her, one girl hysterically recalling how Carrie had once used a tampon to blot her lipstick. (I take issue with this detail, Mr. King. I think it would be much more likely that you’d use a pad for your lipstick.) Sue Snell, who turns out to be the sort-of heroine, gets swept up in the frenzy: “You’re bleeding!” Sue yelled suddenly, furiously. “You’re bleeding, you big dumb pudding!” It’s worth noting that the Carrie of the novel is far removed from the waifish, slip-dress-clad Sissy Spacek of the film; even the gym teacher secretly regards her as “a fat, whiny bag of lard.” She is “a frog among swans”, with body acne and sweat stains, compared to both a cow and an ape. The arrival of her period in this hideously public manner, with a jeering crowd, puts the freakish crown on her head before it’s later traded for the crown of the prom queen, and we all know how that went. Both crowns come with blood.

That first period is what sets everything off, most importantly gifting Carrie with the focus she needs to harness her telekinetic powers, and it also gives her mother Margaret the chance she’s been waiting for, to unleash the fullness of her wrath on a child she sees as the product of her own sin. “After the blood, the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.” Margaret is a fanatic of the Old Testament sort, and she’s obsessed with the temptation of Eve as the root of all evil. Thus Eve’s punishment, the period and childbirth, twists itself in Margaret’s mind until any woman who gets their period is guilty of Eve’s sins of lust. “Blood, fresh blood. Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it.”

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Olympia Binewski McGurk has a very different relationship to her period. The main character of Geek Love is a hunchbacked albino dwarf, the fourth of five (living) children born to a circus couple who took extreme measures to ensure that their pregnancies resulted in babies with abnormalities that would further the family’s carnival success. Olympia also has conjoined twin sisters, Iphy and Elly, whose own first period is calamitous on a scale tantamount to Carrie’s, and locking themselves in the carnival’s toilet trailer in the middle of a windstorm sets off a chain of events that results in a head injury for their mother. The twins had been led to believe that their conjoined nature would probably give them a pass on the whole thing, but still, like Carrie, “they thought they were dying.” To which a fellow carnival employee says in exasperation, “For Christ’s sake, girl, why make so much of a fuss?… It happens to every female.” I’ve never really found that very comforting, the knowledge that half the population is also suffering with cramps and PMS. 

Olympia at last gets her own period, and I think she took it much the way I did, equating the event to something even more momentous and sinister. “…that week I had become a fully-fledged bleeder and was still absorbed by the first change in myself that I had ever noticed. The click and buzz of my synapses kept making the same connection. If you can change, you can also end.” Not exactly the girl in the Kotex pamphlet who can’t wait to become a woman. Periods in Geek Love lead to two babies: the monstrous Mumpo, the result of the twins’ rape who eventually leads to the destruction of the bulk of the Binewski family, and the physically perfect (if you don’t count her curly pig’s tail) specimen Miranda, daughter of Olympia and her brother Arturo, via their brother Chick performing telekinetic insemination. (If you haven’t read Geek Love  yet, I would like to highly encourage you to do so immediately.) But it’s the day of that first period for the twins that sets their mother, Crystal Lil, into a long, slow decline, and by the time Miranda is born, Lil is so doped up on pills as to be entirely vacant. 

In my novel, The Unsuitable, we witness what happens when the Victorian woman suffers the sort of incident made famous by myriad teen letter writers to YM magazine in the 90s, when she gets her period in the middle of a dinner party arranged to meet the family of a man she is not sure she wants to marry. She has nervously consumed too much wine, and is in no state to spirit herself away from the dining table without drawing attention to the blood on her chair; in fact, her attempts at secrecy only guarantee everyone’s attention. Iseult’s mother, Beatrice, died in childbirth, but is an ever-present voice inside of Iseult’s head (whether real or imagined is a bone of contention). As soon as Iseult grasps the situation (“And then she felt something else. An unmistakable something else…It was the thing.”), her mother begins to berate her: “you have humiliated your father for the last time little bitch little changeling you are no daughter of mine.” Instead of being a cringe-worthy story giggled at by horrified teen girls, the appearance of your period at a Victorian dinner party (especially if, as Iseult was, you are already considered an aging spinster with possible mental health problems), would spell societal banishment. Ironically, this is what Iseult longs for anyway, but for the fury of parents both living and dead. In typical Iseult fashion, she compounds the awfulness of the situation by shouting out loud at the mother in her head, and vomiting red wine. The episode turns out to only hasten the series of events that Iseult was resisting, and her arranged marriage is moved up, leaving her with an ever-shrinking set of options, and an ending that has seemed inevitable since the start. 

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I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that at the end of each of these novels, the dead outnumber the living. At the center of each we have a girl/woman considered an outcast by society. Olympia is visually unacceptable, even repulsive, to the ‘norms’ that her family are so derisive of, Carrie falls afoul of the popular crowd almost for her ignorance of her lowly position, as if her gawkiness is somehow an affront to them, and Iseult commits the cardinal sin of not fitting into Victorian society, and of not even wanting to. Girlhood was difficult and isolating for each of them, but womanhood is a new and frightening ballgame, and with mothers who flip flop between criminally negligent and criminally cruel, none are prepared for what comes with their biological ticket to adulthood. Is it then the transition to adulthood or maternal abandonment that is the instigator for destruction? Near the end of Geek Love, Olympia expresses something that I think could also have come from either Carrie or Iseult as well: “I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself.” 

Books are full of lonely girls and women in unrequited love, for lovers, mothers, or friends. The three in these books do not get what they have been striving for since childhood. But they each find an unknown power within themselves, and like a bad period, it leaves everything stained with blood. As a kid (and honestly, still as a woman) who felt consistently wrong in her body, these weird, outcast women might have soothed me. Whether you want it to or not, a period changes you. And it’s okay to feel like it’s a horror story sometimes, like you’re living the scene from The Shining when the blood explodes out of the elevator. You of course do not need to destroy the town with a rain of hellfire or murder the woman who plans to divest your daughter of her pig’s tail, or… I won’t tell you what happens at the end of The Unsuitable. But cozying up with one of these books during that week might help.

And while we’re on the topic of hellish periods, there’s a fantastic organization in the UK called Bloody Good Period, whose mission it is to provide cost-free period supplies for refugees and asylum seekers. You can make your own period a little less hellish with a horror novel, and improve someone else’s with a donation.


Order The Unsuitable now:
Apple | Bookshop.org | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound


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