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INTERVIEW: Alexandra West on Navigating Concepts of Beauty, Worth and Acceptance in “GORE-GEOUS: PERSONAL ESSAYS ON BEAUTY AND HORROR”

Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Exclusive


Is it trauma response, or is it Ozempic?

I couldn’t help but cackle as I read the dark line from Alexandra West’s latest book, GORE-GEOUS: PERSONAL ESSAYS ON BEAUTY AND HORROR, not because I thought it was funny (even though West insists that it is, and I can’t disagree), but because unfortunately, I knew exactly what she meant by it. After reading her vulnerable share about losing weight during the pandemic – weight she hadn’t meant to, and didn’t need to, lose – only to run into an acquaintance on the street who told her how amazing she looked, I was reminded of a medical emergency I almost didn’t make it through some years back and, after coming home from the hospital, getting the same response. It was as if people were saying, sorry you almost died, but you look great. In a way, they were. And as West so succinctly points out, it’s as if they’re saying: Pain looks good on you.

A stranger to no one in the RUE MORGUE community, Alexandra West can be found co-hosting The Faculty of Horror podcast alongside Executive Editor Andrea Subissati, as well as pioneering Sympathy for the Sequel on RUE MORGUE TV. In her third book to date, West hits a chord that I wish wasn’t so resonant. I found myself in those pages more times than I’d like to admit, and each time was an invitation to reflect even deeper on my past experiences and how they’d shaped me in ways I might not have realized. It’s this exact reason why, at approximately 100 pages, West’s offering is poignant, powerful and to the point.

“GORE-GEOUS was completely different for me. The approach I try to take, and it’s something that Andrea and I do on Faculty of Horror, is how do we make this accessibly academic? I always work to make my writing as rigorously analytical as possible, but also readable. So that was my aim with the first two books,  but you’re always just trying to impart knowledge to the reader, and in GORE-GEOUS, I was also trying to impart knowledge to the reader, but in a different way, by utilizing myself as part of the framework.”

After her first two books, 2016’s Films of New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and 2018’s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and New Hollywood Formula, West was approached by a small publisher, Astrophil Press, to send them a pitch, and she recognized the opportunity for what it was – the chance to take a creative risk. “I had been feeling like I was ready for another book, like the wheels are turning on something, and with a smaller publisher, I could take a bigger swing. I didn’t have to pitch something I knew is going to sell in a certain market,” West reflects. “They believed enough in me, so I thought, let’s do something different, because I’ve been in the writing game, the horror critique game, for over a decade and I wanted to keep myself interested. I needed to keep myself engaged.” With that, the deep dive into the films that personally resonated with West began, plunging straight into the murky realms of why she, like so many of us, feel such an irresistible gravitation towards horror.

Horror gives us an outlet to confront the darkness that lies beneath a multitude of glossy surfaces. If the mainstream world is telling us there is one way to be, horror at its best challenges those notions – subverting them and our expectations, daring us to question what we’ve been told to accept.

“By the time the offer came through to pitch them on something, I was going through the early stages of separation that wound up in divorce in my marriage,” West explains. “It was during the pandemic, and it was like I hit this big emotional wall where I realized everything I thought, everything I subscribed to, intentionally or unintentionally, wasn’t serving me, wasn’t doing the things I’d hoped it was going to do for me, so this book, four years later is like, here are some of the things I’ve understood about myself in a deeper way.”

Through raw and riveting pages of vulnerability and insight, West peeled back the layers of the toxic systems that we find ourselves trying to navigate – unachievable standards which promise acceptance – and what happens when we decide that we, ourselves, are not good enough as we are.

We are taught to deprive ourselves in favour of … what? A “perfect” body? A “controlled” personality? We are taught to deprive ourselves in favour of goals couched in the rhetoric of health or some archaic beauty standard. The most malicious of these goals are cloaked in wellness – improve gut health, mental clarity, intolerances – but what they’re actually doing is making us shrink ourselves, our bodies, our identities and blend in with all the other designer legging-wearing followers.

The films that seamlessly connected these dots for West? Black Swan and American Psycho. “When I was doing the New French Extremity book or the 1990s Teen Horror book, I had the films mapped out for me – if I was going to talk about this movement, I had to talk about these films. When I was talking about myself, it was like I had no restrictions. I just needed to pick films that meant something to me and unintentionally, truly, these films that I paired together seemingly randomly in my own head actually overlap in ways that I could never have imagined,” West recalls. “I didn’t pick Black Swan and American Psycho because I was like, ‘Oh, they’re unreliable narrators who do this and this and that and they overlap with each other.’ It was only when I was sitting down to write the first draft after taking notes and watching the films several times in prep for it that I was like, OH, Patrick and Nina are kind of the same character in some ways. Like they’re coded as the same person. They imprinted on me for a reason, and they resurface through the subconscious in some ways.”

There were so many femme leads referenced throughout GORE-GEOUS (including my personal favorite, Samara Weaving for her role in 2019’s Ready or Not), that I wondered what West’s particular view on femme’s in horror was and how these roles spoke to her, outside the realms of perceptions of beauty. Her answer, of course, did not disappoint: “I often find many of the most interesting female characters, non-binary characters, exist within the horror genre. They’re doing different things – they’re fighting back, they’re having sex, they’re bad mothers, they’re complicated figures in their families or their social circles; they’re the most transgressive iterations of women I see on screen,” West beams. “I’m often surprised by the kinds of women I get to see in the genre, even though many of them are largely attractive by the typical patriarchal sense – like white, young, thin, able-bodied – so they are still existing in a certain kind of coded way of being a certain kind of women onscreen and taking up that space, but the narrative trajectories are so different. They’re often quite transgressive and pushing against something, which is what horror does, at its best. It’s challenging our status quo’s and asking why we adhere to them so firmly. I love that for female characters. I’ll watch a more mainstream film – I watch all kinds of films – but often the women are wives, girlfriends, supportive partners, mothers – and they give great performances, and they can still be really interesting characters within a narrative, but I don’t feel challenged by them. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, that’s a new idea. Oh, that’s something I haven’t seen before,’ This [horror] is curious to me,’ and it will kind of stick in my brain for a little bit. That’s what excites me, and that’s one of the many many reasons I keep coming back to the genre.”

A meditation on self-perception, self-worth and self-acceptance, West’s examination of herself through the horror genre is not only powerful and essential, but in a way, can be seen as an act of self-preservation. We’re fed myriad modalities of media, day in, day out. We’re faced with artificial mirrors of what society says we should be, but turning that mirror on society and projecting exactly who we are takes strength, courage and a willingness to create something authentic in the face of a culture that favors anything but. To exist on our own terms is an act of defiance, and that’s exactly what GORE-GEOUS is, in the most relatable and accessible way. My interview with West was more of a conversation than anything, as I found myself unable to resist just talking shop with her about the movies she covered. Book clubs can and should be formed around this book, because these are the conversations we need to be having. This book made me feel seen in ways that made me realize I’d turned a blind eye to myself. This book made me feel less alone in the world, and I know I won’t be the only one who feels this way.

We don’t have to learn to live with our fears, we can push against them, wrestle with them, maybe even overcome them. We can begin to reject what the world around us has taught us to want and start figuring out how we want to live.

Run, don’t walk, to get your copy of GORE-GEOUS.

Jillian Kristina
Jillian Kristina blends her love of horror and magic to facilitate healing from the real horrors in the world. Stephen King's movies and books raised her; magic and the occult molded and healed her. Find her on Instagram @root_down, on Twitter @RootDownTarot, and through her website