Welcome back to the Women Thought Leaders in Horror Series. This series focuses on women who use their talents, creativity, and intelligence to contribute to the horror community and are crafting the narrative of the horror movement right now.
I am grateful to introduce Cynthia Pelayo. Now buckle up.
1. Why horror? What fascinates you about horror and enticed you to write in the genre?
I’ve been watching horror movies since I was about 6-years-old. The first horror movie I saw was A Nightmare on Elm Street while my big brother was babysitting me. From there, I was hooked. Tales From the Dark Side, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Friday the 13th the Series, and so much more.
I grew up in a pretty strict household. I didn’t have many friends. I was bullied relentlessly. I was odd, am odd. I never quite fit in anywhere. I was never allowed to go to birthday parties or leave our house without my parents. I spent my childhood in my bedroom for the most part with books and horror movies. In my loneliness the only friends I had were those monsters; Freddy and the Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein and more.
I grew to become fascinated with good versus evil, especially when there’s that really fine line that separates the two. There are many good people who do very bad things every day, and sometimes I want to understand that, and often I realize there is no understanding real evil.
I also grew up in a very strict Catholic household and I was very involved in the church for a longtime. I was a reader. I passed out the Eucharist and served the wine at mass. Before I left the church I was going to become qualified to give the Eucharist to the sick and dying. So much of that has remained in me, that love of ritual, meditative prayer, and the power of things and imagery.
All of that influences my writing, humans as evil, the possibility of something beyond us and the power of faith. I gravitate towards these subtle elements more so than the explicit or gore.
I want my reader to come away from my writing feeling something. Sometimes that’s loneliness, loss or hope.
2. What is your favorite era of horror and why?
I’m going to keep my favorite secret because I have a project around it right now. So, I will just say that right now I’ve been really into Giallo horror movies. I go through Giallo phases, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the color, or just the atmosphere. Or, maybe it’s just this puzzle we are trying to solve since they are murder mysteries in a way.
3. What are some of your guilty horror films?
I have probably watched The Exorcist more times than the average horror fan. Am I proud of it? Maybe. I just love that whole ‘the devil is everywhere’ era of horror movies – The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby. Some people really believed the devil could possess them if they watched these movies. That’s just wild to believe. I honestly believe that the devil is us…we are that evil thing that we are so scared of.
Anyways, those are all really fun, but then there’s the core of my childhood – A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Child’s Play. I can have any of these on as just background noise because they were so influential and they’re just part of my horror atmosphere.
4. What do you think the genre of horror brings to the world in terms of values, beliefs, impact?
There’s always this constant struggle to tackle this idea that horror is cheap. It’s not. Fear is one of our core emotions. So many things are characterized as anything but horror – when they are indeed horror – in an effort to somehow elevate its artistic status. That’s just arrogance. I think horror writers are brilliant writers and should be praised accordingly because not only do you have to have solid character development, atmosphere, plot, and dialogue, but you also must have the skill to create a physiological and/or emotional effect in your reader – heart racing, heavy breathing, you set the book down because your anxiety level is increasing. That’s incredible that writing horror can do that to someone.
In terms of beliefs, horror also occupies this space that can create a very powerful social commentary. Now, I’m not saying that’s what horror should exclusively be doing. If a writer just wants to write a werewolf story then write the werewolf story. But, a horror writer can write a horror story about the destruction of the human race because of an unknown virus, and within that we can present questions of environmental impact, economic impact, societal impact. I think that’s pretty profound that horror can do that, that we can show these horrible things happened because x, y, and z. Then, we can sit back and wonder, are any of these horrible things possible? Are they happening now?
Even going way back to Mary Shelley, she presented the ghoulish practice of graverobbing, and then she essentially presented arguments of morality within science – is there scientific value in experimentation on the dead? What is the morality behind reanimation? We see today we are able to transplant organs from the dead into the living. How far was Mary Shelley really?
Horror brings our fears front and center and forces us to not only ask questions but give answers.
5. How do you think your writing of horror reflects you as a person or your life overall?
My horror writing is pretty reflective of the person I am. In real life, I’m pretty serious and reserved, so my writing rarely if ever contains a curse word. I never include sex scenes in my books or short stories because I started out writing as a very strict practicing Catholic, and those elements have stayed with me even though I am no longer practicing. It’s important to me that my writing can be read by a 12-year-old to an adult, because I think back to when I was a kid. I was reading and watching horror and if a kid picks up one of my books I want to be comfortable with that.
I’m Puerto Rican, but I’m also as Chicago as they come. I grew up and still live in inner-city Chicago and I am this city. Chicago is a character in every single thing I write. I don’t talk about my upbringing much, but girls were pregnant in 7th grade, I have a friend serving life in prison for murder after he shot and killed a rival gang member because that rival gang member simply called his mother a bad name. A kid in my high school graduating class was shot and paralyzed weeks before graduation, and we all saw the results when he showed up to graduation in a wheelchair. Another friend went off to college to play football, and when he came back home one weekend was shot and killed. I worked as a journalist for a long time and quit after I showed up to a suspicious scene where the neighborhood people told me the police had shot and killed a kid. I saw multiple bullet holes in his back.
So, I’ve seen some things. I’ve internalized all of this. I can’t move on from it. Maybe that’s why I’m still here living in this same neighborhood. I can’t exorcise these memories and so I will stay here and continue to live in this city and with these ghosts and maybe I can hopefully write something one day that can help me move on from all of that pain.
So, while not everything I write will include Latin American folklore, everything I write will certainly include Chicago and be based and set in Chicago. This city has me in its hold and I can’t get out.
6. What do you think lies ahead for the genre?
I’m very interested to see what type of works we are going to see in the next two to three years. Horror especially is very influenced by what we are experiencing in society. I think we are going to see a lot of plot lines dealing with tribal disagreements, us versus them is going to probably be a big recurrent. I think we are going to see a lot of destruction and dismantling of societal structures and systems in writing. We may see another quick rise in the zombie or vampire seeing as how when we are in such polarizing times we do see increases in these monsters as they are there simply to consume people. We are probably going to see a lot of Lovecraftian influences, monsters and such.
7. Like many things, women are underrepresented in the horror genre. Why do think this is and why is it critical to have women more represented in horror?
Historically because of the idolization of the nuclear Norman Rockwell family, and the belief that the woman belongs in the house raising children. Women have been controlled from what they are allowed to do with their own bodies to what they are allowed to think, feel or say.
Women are underrepresented in horror for the same reason women are underrepresented in the boardroom in major corporations – because we, society, have not supported women to grow in their careers.
If women are not represented in horror then you just don’t have a full picture of the human experience, because you are limiting which humans are allowed to create and share art.
It just becomes a wheel of the same people creating the same art, congratulating one another. It’s very strange. It’s a very rigged system, and we need to break it.
There’s more than enough opportunity to go around.
A handful of people should not be the exclusive creators of any art form.
8. Any tips for new women writers in the horror genre?
The arts are just a hard industry, period. Don’t take rejections personal. Don’t take it to heart if one person is advancing while you are still trying to figure things out. This industry, like so many, is really dictated by luck – being at the right place at the right time. So, in saying that, don’t stop. Keep writing. Keep creating. Write the stories that you want to read. Don’t follow trends. Write the story that you need to tell.
Also, the horror community is much more accommodating than it was say 10 plus years ago. So, please make friends. Please reach out to people, but don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to be your friend, or if you are getting a lot of rejections for one particular story. Remember, in life no one owes you anything. It sucks to hear that, and I’m not sorry for saying it, because if you know that now you will save yourself a lot of hurt later.
You still have to be bold and be confident.
Know that if one door closes then there’s a whole lot of other doors to keep knocking on. You will find your people and your outlet. Don’t stop. Don’t give up.
Keep practicing your craft. Take writing classes. Read widely.
9. Who are some of your favorite women horror authors to read?
I hate this question because I don’t want to exclude anyone. So, I’m just going to say read all women horror writers. Read all women horror poets. Read widely. Read works by young women horror writers and those who have been writing for decades. Read BIPOC women horror writers.
10. For readers who have never read your work, what should they start with and where can they find more information about you?
Start with my recent short stories. I think those are more reflective of the writer I’ve become over time.
“Come Away, Come Away” in LOCKDOWN
“The Lament of the Vejigante” In BOTH SIDES
“Boricua Obituary” in PA’QUE TU LO SEPAS
“The Red Dress” in InkHeist
You can also follow me on:
Until next time horror community,
I am Sterp
I am Sterp. I write horror fiction and have a very unhealthy obsession with disturbing narratives. I am the author of The Cult Called Freedom House: Sophia Rey Book One. My short story The Lost Tea Cup will be in Issue 26 of The Literary Hatchet in 2020. I am also a painter.
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