Have you ever rewatched a movie and realized how much it shaped you?
For Halloween, the S.O. and I were looking for a spooky watch. I don’t really like horror in the gory sense, but I am into anything with vampires, werewolves, and monsters of various stripes, especially if there’s some good action involved. While we were zooming through Netflix options, the S.O. mentioned he had never seen Van Helsing. I gasped, grasped my wounded heart, and immediately demanded that we rectify the situation.
For those unfamiliar with the title, Van Helsing is a pulpy, ridiculous, lovely movie that is riddled with issues. It is not a feminist work by any means, despite featuring several named female characters with distinctive personalities. It’s got fridging, and my least favorite trope of sex-in-exchange-for-being-saved. But it remains one of my favorite movies from my teenage years. The S.O. hated it, which I kind of expected. And I, upon watching it as an adult, realized that I had been profoundly influenced as a writer by this film.
There’s a wonderful scene in this movie where Van Helsing is attempting to rescue Anna Valerious from the clutches of Dracula. You know the one – the ball, the dance, the bright red dress. The moment when Anna looks in the mirror and realizes that everyone you see, all the beauty and glitter, is a lie – no one will help her.
I realized that some iteration of that moment happens in one of my books. The red dress, the powerlessness, made it into a scene in Child of Brii. The sense of disorientation I felt in that moment was shocking. Sure, I loved this movie, but that bit of inspiration wasn’t a conscious decision. The red dress, I would have said, was based off of any number of other things. But in that moment I realized that the red dress came from this film.
Recently, I read an article by Kameron Hurley for Locus Magazine, where she said:
I found myself sharing the many real-life stories, anecdotes, experiences, and other things I’d read over the last 30-some years that went into building the worlds and people and concepts for this single piece of fiction. I was fascinated at the reminder that I was the only one who could have written this story in just this way. These were pieces of my life, all bundled up and remixed. It’s this unique blend of experiences that helps make up a writer’s voice.
For better or worse, Van Helsing and every other pulpy, delicious thing that I love is part of my voice. For a long time, I wrestled with feeling ashamed of wanting to write things that weren’t “heavy” enough, that held romance as an element, that featured women in fancy clothes or with female friends – and of writing stories that contained werewolves and demons purely for the delight of them. Maybe getting older has changed my tastes, or maybe I just don’t care as much anymore. Either way, I think the kinds of stories I’m willing and able to tell are becoming more balanced.
I still want to write works that show women as more than just pretty baubles, and I no doubt will. But I don’t think the red dress is a bad decision either. The glitter is worth writing as much as the gore. I need both. So I’ll take to heart this lesson from my old problematic favorite. They say to steal like an artist. I’m happy to steal from the stories that have shaped me, and to make those stories my own.