A Queer Woman’s Place Is in the Horror Story

Let me set the scene. I’m 15, a sophomore in high school, and I’ve just been assigned to read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” I look at the title: boring. I see when it was published (1948?!): my hopes for a good read are low. I begin reading, expecting a droning story about a Lotto-esque sweepstakes, some commentary on luck and money and maybe the Great Depression–

I am terribly, deliciously wrong.

For those unfamiliar with Jackson’s seminal short story, “The Lottery,” it’s about a community that, every year, chooses one person through a lottery system to be stoned to death. That year’s victim is wife and mother Tessie Hutchinson, who protests the lottery’s unfairness up until that first stone strikes. Its themes are echoed in more recent media, from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games to dystopian film series The Purge. It’s a wild ride masquerading as a simple tale about a farming town’s summer traditions, a seemingly innocuous story that morphs to horror only in its final lines.

To say I was foaming at the mouth after reading “The Lottery” would be dramatic — but not inaccurate. Though I’d loved horror my whole life, starting with the Goosebumps books in kindergarten, I’d never seen a scary story told quite like this. Jackson’s work was my first foray into domestic horror, and it opened the floodgates. And as I continued reading the genre, as I devoured Jackson’s oeuvre and branched out to other authors, as I got older and came to understand my sexuality, I realized, wait a second — domestic horror is gay as hell.

Domestic horror, the way I’m thinking about it, has a broader definition than simply “horror of the home and family.” It’s about unsettled mundanity: everyday, routine events in a world marked by patriarchy and heteronormativity that are laced with a building unease that gives way to ultimate creepiness. We’re talking “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Eyre. (We’re not actually talking about those works today, but both are also very queer. I’m certainly not the first person to say so, but I will talk to you about it at length if you let me.)

Going back to Jackson, she’s pretty much the queen of this genre. The Haunting of Hill House, her thrice-adapted haunted mansion novel, immediately comes to mind. A classic set-up: Four characters meet at the decaying Hill House to participate in an occult scholar’s ghost hunt, and paranormal events begin to consume their lives. The two most important characters, in my opinion, are artist Theodora, who has a “friend with whom she shares an apartment” (read: girlfriend), and reserved, misanthropic Eleanor. The two are drawn together throughout the novel, experiencing various ghostly encounters and a lot of sexual tension. Though the women never have a big kiss or other explicitly gay moment (and it’s sometimes implied that Eleanor is attracted to one or the other men in the novel) there’s no doubt to how their interactions are coded. There’s a moment in the middle of the novel, for example, when Eleanor is lying in Theodora’s bed (!!!!!) and watching the other woman paint her nails. When Theodora paints Eleanor’s own toe nails, Eleanor freaks out, feeling “wicked” and dirty and too visible. Panicking about your sexuality much?

If you are so inclined, you could even read this book as Eleanor’s queer awakening, as she grows attached to Hill House despite its dangers. Yes, the story ends with her sort of kind of losing her mind, forced to leave the house, and driving her car into a tree, which we must assume ends in her death, and of course we love our lesbians alive and kicking. But consider that The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959. Being gay or being a woman left you with pretty bleak prospects in the 50s; being both was even harder. Perhaps Jackson was commenting on what she perceived to be an impossibility for such a queer relationship to exist in the real world, or in this case, outside of a dark and twisted haunted house. We know that Jackson herself was in a largely unhappy marriage with a cheating misogynist, so maybe she herself wished for a Theodora to sweep her off her feet, but was continually faced with the alleged impropriety of such desires.

One small win for the gays, though: Mike Flanagan’s 2018 TV adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, set in contemporary times, gives queer women a moment in the spotlight. Though it takes major liberties with the plot, like making Eleanor and Theodora sisters, the series does portray Theodora as the raging lesbian we queer Jackson readers knew she was all along.

Jackson’s focus on women in terrifying situations is a throughline in all of her work, and while the queerness of her characters is not always immediately obvious, it’s definitely there. Take her final work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, an eerie whodunnit about two sisters with dead parents that one of them may or may not have poisoned. When their male cousin shows up to help them out, the women ultimately reject his presence and find strength in each other. Not explicitly gay, because, like, sisters, but queer in the sense of women refusing a man’s guidance and striking out on their own. Then there’s Hangsaman, which follows Natalie Waite, freshman at a historical women’s college, as she enters a perilous limbo between a fling with her married professor and a quickly intensifying friendship with fellow student Tony. While it’s not a traditional horror text — no ghosts or monsters, no slashers or sadists — Hangsaman is unrelentingly eerie. Natalie and Tony’s relationship snowballs into increasingly dangerous encounters, culminating in a familiar situation for many queer girls: an epic and catastrophic friend breakup. Once again, we see a tortured and complicated woman unwilling, or perhaps unable, to accept her queerness.

We get it! I hear you yelling at your screen. Shirley Jackson writes tragic gay horror! And as much as I think that can never be emphasized enough, I’m not just here to point out every gay moment in Jackson’s body of work. But I do want to continue thinking about domestic horror, and specifically, the inherent, inescapable queerness of the genre.

So let’s talk about Rebecca. I first encountered Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 classic gothic novel through its 1940 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the same name and immediately had to get my hands on the book. Nevermind that I was a relentless horror kid with a penchant for eerie women; this story was bewitching for its exploration of jealousy and grief, as the narrator — an unnamed new wife to a widower whose beautiful first wife died in a sailing accident — contends with the haunting memory of her husband’s dead spouse, Rebecca, and the hatred of Rebecca’s housekeeper and childhood nanny, Mrs. Danvers.

There’s a lot to say about queerness in this novel, not least that du Maurier herself was both confirmed bisexual and possibly trans, having said multiple times throughout her life that she felt like a boy on the inside, a “half-breed” caught between genders. Her own life is something of a queer domestic story, as she played the role of dutiful spouse while falling in love with her publisher’s wife, who made her feel like “a boy of eighteen again.” Similarly, the narrator of Rebecca refers to herself as “a sort of boy” and develops a fascination with the deceased titular character, daydreaming about the other woman’s body and possessions. Mrs. Danvers, too, has long been read as a lesbian, her love for Rebecca veering into romantic obsession. But perhaps the queerest character in the novel is the one who doesn’t exist in its present: Rebecca herself. Later in the novel, it’s revealed that Rebecca’s death wasn’t an accident, that her husband, Maxim, had caused the boat wreck that killed her. Why? Because Rebecca’s role as dignified lady of the house had been a sham, he said. She played the part, but was all the while pursuing pleasure in the city with any number of suitors. Maxim describes her as a woman incapable of love, a woman who was “not even normal.” If that’s not coded language, I don’t know what is. It certainly wouldn’t be a leap to assume that Rebecca was described in this way because some of the subjects of her affection were also women.

Repeated in these older domestic horror novels is the idea that queer women are incompatible with a fully lived life, not because they don’t deserve to exist but because the world of the novels, and of mid-20th century society, couldn’t fathom a reality with them in it. And it’s not just stories of the mid-1900s; contemporary authors are still struggling with this dynamic. I’m thinking about Carmen Maria Machado’s short story that started my obsession with her fiction: “The Husband Stitch.” Its plot is based on “The Green Ribbon,” the equally creepy story from Alvin Schwartz’s book for young readers In a Dark, Dark Room and my personal obsession as a child that, now that I think about it, might have catalyzed my love for horror. In both stories, the main character has a green ribbon around her neck that her husband longs to untie. When he finally does, her head falls off. Machado expands the tale to include other women, all of whom have ribbons tied around some part of their body, and turns a spare spooky story into a haunting meditation on the violating asks (sometimes demands) that men make of the women they’re intimate with and the stories we tell about those women.

An interesting thing about this story, especially amidst the very gay collection it’s part of, is that it’s really quite straight: Machado once described it as “a horror story of heterosexuality.” The narrator enjoys sex with her husband; she genuinely finds him nice. Apart from a briefly mentioned fascination with another woman from her art class, which isn’t explicitly romantic and which she openly shares with her husband, it’s harder to pinpoint sapphic attraction in Machado’s story than in Jackson’s or du Maurier’s. But the queerness of “The Husband Stich,” like those novels, once again lies in its main character’s fragile grasp on life outside of the domestic norms of husband, wife, and child and her attempts to exist beyond them. She spends her married life trying to keep her husband away from her ribbon, only for him to eventually betray her wishes. The patriarchal, heteronormative haze of her society prevents her from keeping anything for herself, just as Eleanor can’t continue a life outside of Hill House, Natalie cannot stay sane in a friendship with Tony, and Rebecca cannot fulfill her “abnormal” desires.

Another woman suffering from the confines of domesticity is Ogechi in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story “Who Will Greet You at Home.” I think this story is gorgeous, and it’s different from the others I’ve introduced because of its distinct absence of male characters. Instead, the world Arimah invites us into is full of women who, in order to have a child, must create baby-shaped creatures out of found objects, have them blessed by their mothers, and keep them alive for a full year before they transform into real human babies. It’s queer in the autonomy of its women, but also, in my opinion, because it explores gender and what it means to be feminine. We find main character Ogechi in the throes of babymaking, scorned by her community for her insistence on making a daughter out of soft, fragile materials. “Bring me a child with edges,” her mother tells her, destroying Ogechi’s attempts made from cotton and paper. When Ogechi makes a child from scraps of hair, something she’s always been warned not to do, its insatiable hunger leads her to a harrowing decision. Here, again, is a story about a woman’s desire, this time for a “pretty and tender” child, and about her child’s desire for, well, human flesh. Both wants are stymied, but this time there are no men involved, no all-consuming patriarchy. Instead, Ogechi, a woman formed from “pedestrian items,” is struggling against her society’s insistence that she make a sturdy child that can handle a difficult life. This, she thinks, is at odds with her want for a child that is “worthy of love,” which, in her estimation, is one built delicately, from feminine materials. A body like hers, rougher and removed from femininity, will not receive care in the same way, even in a world seemingly absent of gender roles. In the space between the child she hopes for and the one she eventually makes out of clay is Ogechi’s reckoning with gender, femininity, and her own perceived lack of loveliness. (You can also read this story as a subtle but effective commentary on class, but that’s for another essay).

I want to look at one more work together: queer and nonbinary author Sarah Gailey’s 2021 novel, The Echo Wife. To summarize briefly, narrator and clone scientist Evelyn Caldwell discovers that her husband Nathan is cheating her with Martine, a replica wife made of Evelyn’s own DNA — except more obedient, subservient, and willing to give him a child, which, critically, Evelyn is not. When Martine defies her coding and kills Nathan, the two women are brought together to keep his death a secret by creating a clone of their own. It’s more sci-fi thriller than horror, but very much creepy and decidedly domestic, as Evelyn helps Martine play house to keep up appearances. Already, Martine being a clone of Evelyn carries echoes of queer replication — lesbians who look alike and queers that dress the same — but there is also Evelyn’s fascination with Martine’s physicality as a mirror image of her own. The pair never have a romantic or sexual relationship, though it’s interesting to think about the ethical implications of that — Would it be autoeroticism? Incest? — but at the end of the novel, they do run away to Evelyn’s childhood house, where the three of them (Evelyn, Martine, and Martine’s baby, Violet) become a sort of family unit, hidden from prying eyes. Gailey’s novel is deeply queer from start to finish, if not because of explicit relationships then for Evelyn’s refusal of motherhood, Martine’s murder of her partner and creator, and most of all the distorted domestic partnership the two women form in order to keep each other safe.

Now that I’ve spent a nice long time literarily analyzing the queerness of several works of domestic horror, I have to say I’m not just trying to convince you that these individual novels and stories are gay but wish to point out a pattern in the genre. What it all boils down to is that domestic horror is queer whether or not its plot or characters show explicit queerness. It’s queer, inherently, because of the subject matter it grapples with. The women of this genre yearn for something beyond the confines of home and heterosexual family, and what is more queer than wanting what society says you cannot have? The terrifying parts of these stories are not the women themselves but what their worlds, our world, have defined as a normal life. Traditional domesticity is exposed for the repressive, sometimes dangerous sham we queer people have long known it to be; the characters, regardless of their on-page sexuality, defy the mold just like we do, and often suffer for it just like we have. But more than anything, domestic horror reinforces the idea that the ideal life for queer people, and likely for all people, is incompatible with so-called normal home and family structures. In order to achieve the lives the women in these stories (and some of their authors) cannot, we must reimagine our world, build another in its place whose focus is our collective liberation.


Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.


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Daven McQueen

Daven McQueen grew up outside of Los Angeles, California and graduated from Brown University, where they earned a B.A. in literary arts and economics. When they're not writing, Daven can be found climbing, hanging out with their cat, watching Korean zombie shows, and checking out every queer event in the city. They live in Boston, Massachusetts and are pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Emerson College. Their first novel for young adults, The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones, was published by Wattpad Books and Penguin Random House in 2020.

Daven has written 1 article for us.

2 Comments

  1. A lot of people seem to subscribe to a reading of Hangsaman where Tony is imaginary because she kind of disappears at the end, which is the straightest idea I’ve ever heard.

    Also, anyone else familiar with the musical adaptation of Rebecca? It’s kind of a weird one – there’s never been a full English-language production, though the original German libretto reads a bit as though (occasionally clumsily) translated from English.

    I saw a local production of it (in German) this summer, and, well. It does this baffling thing where it tries to wring a happy hetero story about the redeeming power of love out of the main plot – there’s a whole song about ~the power of a woman in love fighting for her man~, by helping him cover up the murder of his first wife. Incredible. Makes a sort of ugly contrast with how the Danny/Rebecca thing is very clearly gay, but *man* does Danvers steal the show. Worth it just for that. If there ever was a role for taking the most powerful alto or mezzo-soprano you can find and putting her in a scary black dress, this is it, as seen in this bootleg recording from a different production:

    Here she’s asserting Rebecca’s ownership of the house and everything in it and calling for her return, of course. Various versions of this song recur throughout the show.

  2. I’ve had copy of hill house sitting around for years. Time to dig it out for Halloween. Excellent article, the kind that reminds me of the things I used to be passionate about (horror/literature) and need to re-engage with. Thanks for writing!

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