Book Review:

Willful Monstrosity: Gender and

Race in 21st-Century Horror, by Natalie Wilson 

Reviewed by Whitney S. May

Texas State University & the University of Texas

Review of Natalie Wilson’s Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st-Century Horror, McFarland, 2020. 285 pp. Paperback (ISBN-13: ‎978-1476673448). Kindle (ASIN: B084M8QT93). 

Right from its introduction—right from its title—Natalie Wilson’s Willful Monstrosity announces itself as in direct conversation with Sarah Ahmed’s 2014 book Willful Subjects. In Willful Monstrosity, Wilson respectfully enters through the door opened when Ahmed connected “the promise of monstrosity” and “the promise of willfulness” (Ahmed 161). Into that scintillating conversation, Wilson ushers a whole host of monstrous new discussants.

At its core, Willful Monstrosity champions the subjects in 21st-century monster narratives who refuse to stay in their physical and/or conceptual place: “This ‘willing not’ is the crux of the willing monstrosity that [Wilson] seek[s] to valorize—a monstrosity that resists assimilation, exploitation, and annihilation” (12). Wilson reads these factors as particularly salient in and for our post-millennial sociopolitical climate, which leaves the monstrous dimensions of contemporary horror fertile terrain for interrogation. Whether our willful monsters shamble, stalk, or soar by broomstick, Wilson celebrates “their rebellious, messy, rage-fueled, killjoy glory” (15) as indicative of a global society both on the brink of transfiguration and receptive to fresh (flesh?) perspectives.

Wilson organizes the book around four willful-monstrous categories, devoting chapters to zombies, vampires, witches, and monstrous women. Of greatest significance to the focus of this special issue on Jordan Peele is the first chapter, which charts the trajectory of recent zombie narratives from White Zombie (1932) right through The Walking Dead (2010-2022), paying special attention to Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) as demonstrations of the narrative power of “post-racial” zombies that at once reconfigure the monster’s Haitian roots and respond to historically white-supremacist takes on the same. Ultimately, Wilson determines that Get Out “provides a corrective to the sentiment proffered in early twentieth-century zombie films that ‘pure’ white women were threatened by dark forces attempting to zombify them” (36), a myth that Wilson explores in detail earlier in the chapter. Representing a progressive shift from the likes of White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which “each nod towards the horrors of being a zombie” while simultaneously “replacing the horror of slavery with the specter of white female zombies” (25), Wilson maintains that Peele’s films, especially Get Out, unflinchingly locate the legacy of these preoccupations in the often-excused, often-ignored threat of white womanhood to Black bodies.

While this is certainly a rich and necessary conversation, this reviewer was struck by a surprising absence of Black women here and throughout Willful Monstrosity. While Wilson discusses white men and women and Black men at length (at times worryingly positioning the latter two as similarly oppressed), Black women remain curiously missing, even in the discussions of Get Out’s Georgina (31, 33-35) and Us’s Red (38-42). Further, although the book cites Kinitra D. Brooks’s essential Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, it does so only twice and only cursorily, in introduction/conclusion literature reviews of recent scholarly works on “redemptive readings” (10) and “horror’s subversive abilities” (184), respectively. 

This is surprising, as bringing Brooks’s work on folkloric horror as “a critical framework that highlights the authority black women take to articulate intersections of African ontologies and epistemologies as well as gender, culture, and the supernatural” (Brooks 129) to bear on these films would complicate Wilson’s discussions of Black revolution against white supremacy in important ways. Moreover, attentive inclusion of Black women into this analysis, particularly in the section on Us, would greatly enrich an otherwise lukewarm (and inescapably synopsis-heavy) argument, ostensibly about the theme of revolt as a loose, “on-screen echo of the uprising in Haiti” (36).

It is unfortunate that the chapter most relevant to this special issue is also the weakest in an otherwise fruitful book. Indeed, Wilson’s conceptualizations of “post-traumatic vampire disorder” and “ethical vampirism,” two focuses of the second chapter, are fascinating lenses through which to consider the intersecting histories of capitalism and folklore as they are (re)animated in popular culture. Of note, readers of Wilson’s previous book, Seduced By Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (McFarland, 2011), will recognize in this chapter a meaningful update to that work.

The chapter on witches is interesting but a bit fragmented around a central argument that is too briefly laid out in its first few pages. This chapter lacks the theoretical grounding of the vampire chapter, consequently leaving the barrage of its various (nineteen, to be exact) microanalyses less coherent. While the chapter rousingly concludes that witches help us “imagine a post-patriarchy” in which women “hold the power to recast the world into something more magical” (179), a more durable analytical framework would help cast this imagined future in sharper relief.

Now, the final chapter on “monstrous women” is worth the price of the book on its own. Owing to the more ambiguous nature of its presiding monstrous category, as well as to clearer reiterations of the argument’s connective tissues throughout its artifacts, this chapter successfully delivers a bountiful, cogent analysis that sticks the book’s landing. Of particular note is the well-organized section on the Medusa figure, post-millennial iterations of which, Wilson observes, “reclaim monstrous feminine figures (and their powerful gaze) to castigate systemic sexism” (227). While Willful Monstrosity predates the infamous Medusa-tattoo debates on popular social media platforms (primarily TikTok) in 2021, the focus of this particular section certainly—remarkably—anticipates them.

While later sections of the book (especially the third chapter) take up intersectional discussions that peripherally include Black women, a more sustained and inclusive discussion of Black women throughout, and in particular in the chapter on zombies and its sections on Peele’s films, would augment the reach of the book’s argument and the utility of “willful monstrosity” as an analytical category, particularly in a book that reframes the historically “monstrous” as heroic. At the practical level, there are many spelling errors throughout the book, and at some point in production, repeated use of “blacks” should have been corrected. At its heart, though, the book usefully delivers on its hope to contribute to not just Ahmed’s theory, but to the “fascinating, ever-mutating, monstrous conversation” (4) of horror scholarship writ large, by putting an impressively expansive cast of willful monsters into rich conversation with one another—and by extension, with us, as well.

-28 July 2022