Monstrous Femme

Feminist Horror: The Subgenre You Didn’t Know You Were Already Reading

Feminist Horror: The Subgenre You Didn’t Know You Were Already Reading

The horror genre has been around for centuries, and for most of that time, the genre was dominated by male authors. A majority of horror stories have starred men as main characters, with the women reduced to a much more subdued role. Even when Mary Shelley penned her first story of frights, proving women to be capable horror writers, her main characters were male.

Just as women wanted to participate in writing the genre, they wanted horror stories with multi-faceted female characters, often in character-driven works where women composed most of the main cast.

Enter feminist horror.

Feminist horror has actually been around for quite some time—in short stories such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman from 1892, or novels such as The Awakening by Kate Chopin from 1899—but it’s a subgenre that took a while to gain recognition and a seat at the horror genre’s table.

While women authors rejoice, a lot of confusion exists about what feminist horror is—and what it isn’t. As it stands, many people acknowledge “feminist horror” as horror stories written by women, with themes of fighting oppression and seeking individuality through a male character. But that’s not what the readers of feminist horror want: the character should be female. “Feminist horror, also sometimes called ‘pink horror,’ is a subgenre of horror that primarily features strong, complex female and femme characters and their storylines,” explains Rebecca Cuthbert. “This is so important in a genre that has traditionally been dominated by male storylines.”

Cuthbert is an instructor of creative writing in Western New York. She writes dark fiction and poetry. Her debut poetry collection, In Memory of Exoskeletons, was published by Alien Buddha Press, and her second book, Creep This Way: How to Become a Horror Writer with 24 Tips to Get You Ghouling, was just released by Seamus & Nunzio Productions. She has a hybrid collection, also from ABP, Self-Made Monsters, with an introduction by Laurel Hightower, out this fall.

Using the criteria that feminist horror is written by a female is just one of the misconceptions about the genre. Sadly, many others are out there, often turning off many readers who think it’s something which it isn’t. “One of the misconceptions about feminist horror is that it is just ‘man hating,’ and that it consists only of revenge storylines—though I don’t mind a story about revenge!” Cuthbert explained. “Men are not always the ‘bad guys’ in feminist horror—in fact, a lot of feminist horror doesn’t involve men at all. Female characters are the good guys and the bad guys, the rescuers and the rescued. In other stories, male characters can be allies to the protagonists. Feminist horror is more expansive than many think.”

And while most feminist horror is written by female authors, this is not true for the subgenre as a whole. Many male authors have also tried their hand at feminist horror, and have done quite well with it. “I am never going to be someone who says certain authors aren’t allowed to write certain subjects,” Cuthbert assured. “One pretty rad example of feminist horror is Carrie, and that was written by Stephen King. I am a cis straight white woman. But I have written protagonists who are different from me in all sorts of ways. The crucial thing is to do your homework and get sensitivity readers to make sure you are representing people from other communities with respect and consideration, and allowing them to be fully three dimensional instead of stereotypes.”

Unfortunately, feminist horror has come under attack by certain readers, mostly by those who perceive it incorrectly. Like other marginalized voices, women’s voices must also be heard, and feminist horror is just one other way of achieving this goal. “Feminist horror is an important part of the genre because in the past, many (not all) female characters, even protagonists, were reduced to stereotypes, making them two-dimensional. I also think that because much of feminist horror (again, not all of it) is written by female authors, it helps make room in the genre for voices that are often pushed out.”

Thanks to movies such as Brave, Tangled and Alien, readers of fiction have been exposed to a wide range of feminist characters in non-horror settings. This is also true for many feminist horror novels. “Something I see in contemporary feminist horror (because feminist horror isn’t ‘new,’ and we must give credit to our gothic-storytelling grandmothers) is a wider variation in female characters and protagonists. They are not limited to all being damsels in distress, in complicated gowns they can’t run in; or to being spandex-wearing, kickboxing superheroes. They are allowed to be more like real women—and there is no one mold we all come out of.”

And just as the lead female characters in feminist horror can be diverse, so, too, can the stories. However, Cuthbert noted there are certain caveats of feminist horror which stand out. “Feminist horror should feature interesting, complex female characters who take an active role in deciding their own fates. They can be and do almost anything—but they shouldn’t be completely passive, completely helpless, completely thoughtless. If they are victimized in any way, they do something about it—and that can be, but doesn’t have to be, revenge.”

For anyone interested in reading more books about the genre, Cuthbert recommends books by Rachel Harrison (Cackle was this writer’s favorite so far) as well as Sundown by Catriona Ward and Merciless Waters by Rae Knowles.

Cuthbert also recommends the novel Ink Vine by Elizabeth Broadbent, which she notes is “an excellent example of feminist horror (and contemporary southern gothic horror, and eco horror).” Ink Vine will be released by Undertaker Books in April 2024.

Cuthbert considers it a blessing to be in a position where she can help bring more feminist horror books out into the world, when most debut authors or indie authors face difficulty getting through the gatekeepers at most commercial publishing houses. “I’m so excited about Ink Vine—the narrative voice is spellbinding. Not only do I interpret feminist horror widely, but also horror as a larger genre.”

In some cases, the real-world problems women are constantly facing can itself count as horror. Even today, in the 21st century, women are still fighting for reproductive rights and fair wages. The thing which feminist horror novels do is paint a bigger picture of these problems and portray them in a way in which most readers can realize something is very wrong. Whether it’s by painting a bigger picture of what could ultimately happen if women are continually forced to give birth to unwanted babies or showing why women are an important part of today’s workforce, these novels not only empower female readers searching for a solution but they also show why women should have the same kind of control and rights over their lives and bodies which men take for granted.

Plus, many feminist horror novels are entertaining reads. This writer had the opportunity to review an advance copy of Ink Vine and absolutely loved the story.

“I would like to say don’t knock it until you try it,” Cuthbert said. “A lot of feminist horror is advertised under ‘pink’ imprints, or they feature mostly pink book covers. That can turn off ‘manly men’ or even women who don’t identify as feminists—though both of those prerogatives stump me a bit, to be honest. (A female friend of mine once said she wasn’t a feminist and I asked her why she wore pants, drove a car, had a job, lived alone, and voted. All rights feminists won for us.) But feminist horror should be read by everyone. We can’t change our culture unless we recognize and confront its problems, and one of those is a stifling patriarchy. With Roe v. Wade abolished and women losing rights left and right, feminist horror is a vital part of the larger horror whole.”

Feminist horror has made great strides in the genre and it has empowered many people who have read such books. It is indeed a subgenre which anyone who supports strong female characters as well as feminist ideals in fiction can write. Readers interested in checking out feminist horror novels written by male authors can find it in novels such as The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon and The Third Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders.   While the real world struggles with allowing women to have a level playing field with their male counterparts, the world of fiction is open to making such goals a reality, and seeing just what can go wrong, or very wrong, if this unfair treatment towards women and girls is allowed to continue.