To have a woman who is both monstrous and a bride is too unnatural, even for Dr. Frankenstein.
Tell her to swear an oath by all the gods
that she will not plot further harm for you—
or while you have your clothes off, she may hurt you,
Why female monsters in fiction are always single — and what it says about how society views unattached women
She lives deep in the woods of the human subconscious, or on the jagged rocks far out to sea. She haunts the attics of old mansions and the bottoms of murky lakes. She’s old and ugly with lined, sallow skin, or she’s beautiful beyond all reckoning, or she has serpents twining in her hair and to look upon her would be death.
Whoever she is, she’s probably single.
Monsters have, since time immemorial, expressed our most human anxieties. Dragons are going to gobble us up, like the soft, meaty mammals we are. Dead things are going to come back to drink our blood, or civilized men are going to turn into flesh-tearing wolves. Scientists are going to go too far with their science, or serial killers are going to invade our safe suburban neighborhoods, or an atomic bomb is going to drop on our cities with all the force of a giant, destructive lizard.
For lady monsters, though, the anxiety is nearly always the same: she’s a woman without a man.
From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they’re single and sexual, but too sexual, and they’re going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they’re going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they’re sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it’s that they’re living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.
We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have “failed” to “find a man” still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they’ve managed to survive for the last several thousand years.
Let’s go back to the beginning — the Greek classics: Medusa was once beautiful, or so the story goes, and of all her beauties, none was more admired than her hair. But, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god Poseidon caught sight of her beauty, and raped her in the temple of Athena. The goddess Athena then punished Medusa by turning her into a gorgon, with her curls transformed to twisting snakes.
Ovid gets some (very minor) credit in that he doesn’t blame Medusa for her own assault. The verb he uses means “to violate,” “injure,” or “defile,” and Poseidon violently injures her. But this “defilement” still makes Medusa unclean and therefore unmarriageable, and she is turned into a snake-haired monster as a result of her own assault. Even her petrifying gaze doesn’t protect her from men, because Medusa is later murdered by Perseus for being generally ugly and living alone in a cave.
Greek Mythology is full of woman monsters. The beautiful sirens lure men to their deaths at sea with their seductive song, the cruel harpies swoop down from the sky to snatch food and punish wrongdoers, the grotesque Lamia devours children out of grief for losing her own. In The Odyssey, the sorceress Circe lives alone on an island and turns men into pigs. Odysseus (with some generous help from the gods) overpowers Circe and becomes her lover, but he is warned that she may do something horrific with his manhood if he doesn’t carefully control her every move:
The Odyssey is a common ancestor to the whole of Western literature, and it’s riddled with male fear of unattached women. Athena is an independent force of nature, sure, but Circe must be threatened and conquered before it’s safe to sleep with her. Odysseus’ other lover, Calypso, entraps him on her island against his will. When Zeus demands she let him go, she complains that goddesses are held to a much stricter standard than gods when it comes to taking lovers.
Even the hideous sea monster Scylla and the all-consuming whirlpool Charybdis are referred to by female pronouns. As Emily Wilson put it in an interview with Bustle about her recent translation of Homer’s epic, “There’s Charybdis, the whirlpool, that is going to engulf, going to eat up the men — there’s a fear of femininity that’s going to devour you… but also they’re presented in ways that are powerful and very attractive and seductive.”
The uncontrolled woman is terrifying, gross, and enticing all at once. And the Greeks are far from alone in their anxiety.
In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, there’s the villain Grendel’s Mother, who might be the first recorded instance of society demonizing single mothers. She’s somewhere between a troll and a river monster, a hideous warrior woman who seeks revenge for her murdered son, and must naturally be killed by our brave hero. She’s played by a damp, nude Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film adaptation, trading in one stereotype of female monstrosity for another.
Then, of course, there’s the classic, Macbeth-style witch, bent over her bubbling cauldron, old and not nearly feminine enough, and perhaps interested in the company of other woman (the “singleness” of these witches is, of course, defined under heterosexual norms). She has a broom, but instead of using it to clean for her husband, she uses it to fly around and create mayhem. She leads men astray and copulates with the devil himself.
She also has cousins in folklore all across the world: the child-eating Dzunuḵ̓wa from the Kwakwaka’wakw group of Indigenous nations in Canada, the Slavic Baba Yaga flying about in a pestle and wielding a mortar, the kalku witch from Chile who kills babies and sterilizes their fathers, the fetus-eating manananggal from the Philippines, to name just a few. The ugly old Yama Uba from Japan will pose as a pretty young woman to lure people in, and then turn into an ugly hag and eat them in a deeply satisfying subversion of that sexist “take her swimming” meme.
It seems to be a nearly universal fear that if a woman lives alone, she’ll inevitably want to devour men, to destroy the natural order by killing children, and to use household utensils in an unconventional manner.
But of course, fear of baby-eating she-demons and lady whirlpools have become a little subtler over the years.
In the world of English literature, the witch or monstrous woman eventually begins to take on a slightly more “realistic” appearance. Instead of the snake-haired gorgon in her secluded liar, we have Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens’ wealthy spinster who was jilted at the altar. She still wears her rotting wedding dress from all those years ago, holed up in her ruined mansion as she plots her revenge on the young men of the world. She’s described as “the witch of the place.”
Instead of a murderess cannibal demon, we have Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre. She was a beautiful Creole woman from Jamaica who married Mr. Rochester, began showing symptoms of mental illness, and was subsequently locked up in the attic for the rest of her life. As an ex-wife and “madwoman,” she has no place in society, and the conventional love story cannot move forward until she is killed.
Neither woman is responsible for her respective failed marriage, but both are hidden away in fetid rooms until they’re eventually burned to death, because both have failed to become adequate wives.
Victorian literature also brings us the more inhuman, monstrous creations of mad scientists. The more medical science advanced, the more the general public began to worry that technology had gone to far, that dissections and electricity were going to give us reanimated corpses and animal-human hybrids.
The lady creations of these scientists tend to be destroyed by their own creators, rather than allowing them to wreak their unnatural havoc on society. In the novel Frankenstein, the titular doctor goes as far as constructing a bride for his monster, before he chickens out and dumps her dismembered body into the sea.
To have a woman who is both monstrous and a bride is too unnatural, even for Dr. Frankenstein.
World Fantasy Award–winning novelist Theodora Goss is well versed in the subject of Victorian monster women; her novels The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman explore the “monstrous gentlewoman” who so rarely get equal billing with their male counterparts. Here we meet the feminine creations of Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, and the other mad scientists of literature, whose stories go on even without their famous “fathers.”
In these books, single female monsters find sisterhood and support in each other. But when it comes to gendered monsters in general, Goss sees two fundamental differences in how women are treated. “The first is that male monsters are allowed to be ugly,” Goss tells Bustle. “Frankenstein’s monster is the paradigmatic example: he is hideous to everyone who sees him. Mr. Hyde is unattractive in the book and usually hideous in the movies. Dracula, in the book, is neither sexy nor a romantic hero, although Frank Langella made him one on screen. But female monsters are often beautiful; their beauty and sensuality are part of the danger they pose.”
Part of the fear with female monsters is that men will be enticed by their beauty — until it’s too late. “Carmilla, Countess Karnstein and Beatrice Rappaccini are both beautiful,” says Goss, “You don’t realize, until you are already involved with them, that they are, in Carmilla’s case, a vampire, and in Beatrice’s, poisonous.”
The second difference is that female monsters, particularly in the Victorian Era, keep their mouths shut. Female monsters are usually silenced, “Whereas male monsters get to speak. In Frankenstein, it’s the male monster who gets to tell his story — the female monster is destroyed before she has a story to tell. In Interview with a Vampire, it’s Louis who is interviewed — the girl vampire Claudia does not get her own narrative, and she is eventually destroyed,” says Goss. “Female monsters are almost always destroyed, often in graphic, gruesome ways. Helen Vaughan from The Great God Pan is forced to hang herself, for example, and we get a detailed description of how her body transforms, crossing gender and species boundaries, before she dies.”
A creature who is both beautiful and deadly, who looks like an alluring woman but wields power like a man, crosses far too many boundaries already. “For example, Frankenstein says he destroys his female monster because, first, she might prefer human males to the male monster he created, since they’re just so much prettier,” says Goss, “And second, she might mate with the male monster and produce superhuman offspring who would outcompete mankind.” The very idea of her having a choice in her sexual partners is too horrific to be considered.
The vampire Carmilla can turn human women into vampires, “Which means they will be as strong and deadly as she is,” says Goss. “You think, there’s the loveliest, daintiest girl I’ve ever seen, and the next thing you know, she’s sucking your blood. But there’s something more—Vampire Lucy in Dracula is killed because she poses a sort of existential threat to the idea of womanhood. She feeds off children, instead of feeding children as good Victorian mothers should. Victorian wives are supposed to make a home, but her home is a tomb. And yet, she is even more beautiful and alluring than she was when alive. Basically, she challenges the boundaries and definition of the feminine. And so, of course, she has to die.”
A pretty, bloodsucking lady poses a threat to the men she might seduce. But moreover, she is an unmarried and therefore uncontained woman. “In Victorian literature, especially, marriage is supposed to domesticate a woman,” says Goss. “That said, Helen Vaughan does marry, and her husband dies of something Victorian — fright, horror, the corruption of his soul, something of that sort. When the female monster is associated with marriage, she corrupts that marriage in some way.” The vampire Lucy is also said to “marry” her victims, but in “marrying” more than one man she is, again, swinging a blood-soaked wrecking ball through the institution of Victorian marriage.
“But yes, being single makes one extra monstrous — and not just if one is a female monster,” says Goss. “If you’re single, you don’t have a husband to curtail your movements or opinions, you don’t have childrearing responsibilities—so you have time to do things that are dangerous and subversive, like getting a university education or agitating for the vote!”
The Victorians were bundles of anxiety, living in an increasingly global and technologically advanced society, and it’s reflected in their monsters. “Seriously, if you look at the Victorian literary monsters closely, you realize that they expressed anxieties about (a) the crossing of gender boundaries, (b) the collapse of traditional social classes, (c) threats to the British Empire and the colonial enterprise, (d) the rising power of science and technology, (e) cultural, moral, and physical degeneration… I could go on!” says Goss. “The most important way in which our monsters are different is that we have tamed a lot of them: Cookie Monster, Count Von Count, Shrek.”
Our vampires and creatures from the Black Lagoon are much friendlier (or at least, sexier) than they used to be. Our villains are much more human than ever before. “It’s human cruelty, ignorance, and greed that we distrust—rightly, I think,” says Goss.
But that doesn’t mean that we’ve made our peace with the female monsters of yore. “I’m going to give a shout out to Medusa and Lilith, the great female monsters of fin-de-siècle art and iconography. They were both beautiful and deadly,” says Goss. Lilith was the biblical Adam’s first wife, who was punished by God for wanting to be on top during sex. “In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin: they are both about the destructive power of patriarchy and resistance to it. The Victorian era, in particular, was obsessed with them, but again, they rarely get to speak. It would be interesting to hear more from them, to let them write their own stories.”
Ancient Greek enchantresses and Victorian madwomen are all very well, but if we’ve “tamed” most of our modern monsters, what’s become of our monstrous ladies? We still have wicked witches like, say, the Wicked Witch of the West, who is ugly and mean and (presumably) single. And we have the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked, which gives a more nuanced backstory to Baum’s witch, renamed Elphaba: she’s single, wicked, and widely considered ugly, but she gets to have her own fears and desires, even if she is still the “other woman” in her love affair. It’s step towards making wicked witches into fully realized people.
But we have good witches, too, who are almost always more conventionally attractive. As Glinda reminds us, “only bad witches are ugly.”
The trouble with the “good” witch is that she can still be used to defend the most rigid of social norms. The popular 1960’s and ’70s sitcom Bewitched ,for example, is about a witch, Samantha, who has given up her magic to be an ordinary housewife at the insistence of her human husband, Darrin. Clearly, witches can be acceptable — if they trade in their powers for a man.
Also in the ’70s and ’80s, though, we saw writers like Octavia E. Butler, who devoted much of her career to writing nuanced “monsters”: ancient vampire girls, African shape-shifters, alien “hybrids” who exist between species, race, and gender. Fully formed “monstrous” characters who do not need to settle down in a split-level home in order to be granted full humanity. The tri-gendered, many tentacled Oankali aliens of her book Lilith’s Brood are some of the most understanding “monsters” in literature, despite being feared by most humans for their appearance and unconventional family structure:
“Human beings fear difference,” Lilith had told him once. “Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.”
Living at an intersection of identities, at a time when there weren’t many black women writing sci-fi, Butler understood what it felt like to be Othered. “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider,” as she once put it. Rather than try to bring the monsters into the mainstream, Butler brought us to the monsters, in all their anger and empathy.
And then, of course, we can’t talk about monstrous woman and witches without talking about Hermione Granger.
Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor in Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the co-host of the Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” as well as “Secret Feminist Agenda.”
When it comes to Harry Potter, McGregor sees a departure from the classic old crone. “The archetypal witch is old and ugly and a spinster to distinguish her from the expected norms of femininity, which of course includes heterosexual desirability and reproduction,” McGregor tells Bustle. “The big difference in the world Rowling has created is that the witch goes from being the Other — a social outcast, a threat characterized by her difference and distance from cultural norms — to being ‘just like us.’ Witches in the Harry Potter world are recognizable, relatable, human in all the ways that matter.”
The witches and wizards of Harry Potter are still “Other” in that they’re magical, but most of them are Good Witches, and therefore not ugly. They’re also fairly mainstream when it comes to dating. Hence why we’re stuck with that epilogue to The Deathly Hallows, which neatly marries off our heroes and proves all the witches to be fertile.
“If failure to marry signifies Otherness, difference, danger, then marriage is a comforting sign of normalcy, the status quo,” says McGregor. “In the classical definition of comedies, the story always ends with a wedding or five, because a wedding means the reinstatement of normalcy and order. Happy ending = marriage and babies. The only other option is tragedy!”
That doesn’t mean that J.K. Rowling is entirely retrograde in her treatment of single women—just that they’re still not the norm. “I actually think, for the most part, the books make room for childless and unmarried women as heroic and admirable figures via the women professors, especially Professor McGonagall,” says McGregor. “These are women defined by their jobs and their power, and they aren’t scary or dangerous. There’s a great scene that furthers this in The Cursed Child where Harry tells McGonagall she wouldn’t understand what it’s like to be a parent, and it’s obviously written to make us see that Harry is being cruel and unreasonable.”
Cursed Child also gives us a “Sliding Doors” glimpse of Hermione’s life without Ron… and it’s none too pretty. “That said, in the same play, Hermione’s spinsterhood is synonymous with her life being a failure, so there’s that. The books ultimately support a dominant social script in which marriage and reproduction are the highest goods, to the point that they literally save the world from literal evil,” says McGregor. “To go back to the witch-as-ugly-spinster—well, her job isn’t to return the world to order, it’s to question and undermine the status quo. Where would she fit in a happy-ever-after narrative?”
The overwhelming popularity of Rowling’s witches, and Hermione’s status as a feminist icon have done a lot to shift the archetype of witch as an old, ugly, spinster, but that’s not uniformly a good thing. “I think we lose something when we make witches sympathetic by simply bringing them more in line with acceptable cultural norms of femininity. If every woman needs to be sexually desirable and reproductively viable in order to count, then we’ve failed to learn what the witch has to teach us.”
McGregor names McGonagall as one of her all-time favorite literary spinsters, up there with The Hairpin’s take on Baba Yaga and the (somewhat less literary) social-norm-destroying Ursula from The Little Mermiad. “I love McGonagall because she’s not young, she’s not (stereotypically) sexy, she’s not a mother, and yet she has an important role in the community of Hogwarts,” says McGregor. “I want to see more witch stories that think in serious ways about the lessons witches, crones, and spinsters have to teach us by refusing the status quo.”
“I think we lose something when we make witches sympathetic by simply bringing them more in line with acceptable cultural norms of femininity. If every woman needs to be sexually desirable and reproductively viable in order to count, then we’ve failed to learn what the witch has to teach us.”
That’s the problem with witches, and with gorgons and sirens and attic-dwelling madwomen. We’ve seen them re-shaped and re-booted to be “just like us,” to neatly fit our cultural norms. We have Hermione and Elphaba and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. But we have fewer mainstream stories that invite us to step outside of our comfort zone, to celebrate the crone and her power without giving her a more palatable makeover.
Those stories are out there, the stories that give us single, monstrous women in all their Otherness, in their uncontrolled sexuality or their ugliness or both at the very same time. We have some lady monsters beginning to turn the tide, from Butler’s aliens to Professor McGonagall to the reinvented creations of dead male scientists. It’s a sign of changing times that these stories are being written at all.
But if we’re even going to truly accept the spinster witch in her hut, deep in the darkest part of the woods, we need to write a whole lot more.
Nordic novels in the 21st Century are filled with female detectives, gothic heroines and monsters. While the female protagonist in male authored narratives is often transformed into a destructive monster, female authors tend to draw upon supernatural features in order to thematise the female protagonist’s self-realisation and liberation from both the dominant gender contract and traditional family configurations. Leonora Christina Skov, Olga Ravn, Majgull Axelsson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are among some of the main exponents of the gothic novel.
Issues pertaining to gender, sexuality, and identity construction claim centre stage in 21st century Nordic literature, not least in suspense fiction. Humans as victims of their gender and past events is a recurring theme in the numerous Nordic horror stories and Gothic novels with supernatural elements published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Nordic authors are genre aware and norm breaking. While their works are metafictional and obviously referencing international bestsellers, there is also tendency to display a playful attitude towards genre conventions. For example, there is a frequent presence of complex female monsters, and the menacing and the monstrous is bestowed with sexual ambiguity. Thus, the Nordic authors modify the genre in order to question or change the established gender order, while concomitantly associating the Nordic landscape and regional folklore with horror.
The Gender-Coded Gothic Landscape
The Gothic authors from the turn of the Millennium are clearly situated within an established Nordic tradition, where the monster and the monstrous assume gender-transgressive and female-coded attributes due to the central role of nature. This is particularly true of the male authors and directors. Several of these works depict a move from the city and the protagonists’ unpleasant experiences in a new rural environment. In Michael Hjort’s film, Det okända (2000; The Unknown), which is in part a pastiche of the American cult film, The Blair Witch Project, five young biologists travel to the wilderness in order to study a fire-ravaged area in northern Scandinavia. In Anders Banke’s vampire film, Frostbiten (2006; Frostbite), a female physician and her daughter move to a small town to the north of the Arctic Circle. In both cases, the protagonists move to a nightmarish world where modern rationality and scientific explanations do not suffice.
Often, the horrors are associated with Nordic folktales and notions of supernatural creatures of nature. In Tommy Wiklund’s film, Vittra (2012; Wither), and Alexander L. Nordaas’ Thale (2012), the protagonists’ visit to an abandoned cabin in the woods turns into a life-and-death struggle. In both films, the horror originates from a female creature in the basement of the cabin. In Vittra, the mythical female creature of nature appears to the film’s partying youths as a bloodthirsty combination of vampire and zombie. To the two male forensic scientists in Thale, the tailed female being appears as a hybrid being, coupling human and troll. Both films are based on Nordic folklore tales of demonic female creatures of nature who challenge the protagonists’ general understanding of what constitutes the human in general and the female in particular.
The depiction of the gradual transformation of the beloved woman who finally befalls nature from the perspective of the male protagonist is a characteristic of many male authors’ and directors’ horror stories. At the end of Wiklund’s film, the male protagonist witnesses his girlfriend’s transformation into a bloodthirsty wight. Thus, in the context of modern Western horror films, the film presents a reverse gender order where the monster is not male but female, and the traditional figure of the pursued innocent female is transformed into the modern man under attack. However, unlike the ‘final girl’ in horror films, the man does not become a monster killer who internalizes the monster’s attributes and methods in order to defeat it. And contrary to the female heroine, the male hero maintains his human nature. He remains, to a large extent, unaffected by ‘the other’ – the female monster.
This reversal of gender roles is also present in several literary narratives in ways, which reinforce the polarization between male and female, between human and nature. In Kristoffer Leandoer’s (b. 1962) story, Svarta svanar (1994; Black Swans), the husband witnesses his wife’s union with the black swans breeding in the garden. In Johan Theorin’s (b. 1963) Gothic crime novel, Nattfåk (2008; The Darkest Room, 2009), the wife and children soon become part of the eerie tale about the lighthouse keeper’s home. When the wife is subsequently found drowned, she initially appears to have fallen victim to the mysterious forces and the history, which envelops the site. In both cases, the woman is not merely absorbed by nature but also by the dark history of the area.
In the novels where the male protagonist is attacked by supernatural forces, the landscape and nature are portrayed as a destructive mother goddess or Magna Mater. One of the most striking examples is Andreas Marklund’s Skördedrottningen (2007; The Harvest Queen). This novel weaves several stories and timelines together, all narrating male encounters with a lethal supernatural being in a snow-covered winterscape. All the narratives in the book describe the horror from the man’s perspective, and each and every one of his encounters with the “lady of winter” or the “woman in the tempest” leaves him in a subordinate position, as the ‘son’ or ‘child’ each and every time. The reverse gender order or power relation is also indicated by the man’s consignment to the wintry goddess of death by a closely-related woman – always a friend, family member, or colleague.
A frightening reality of nature mysticism dominated by an ancient natural force representing two aspects of nature, one life-giving and one lethal, is a recurring element in novels by female authors. In Frida Arwen Rosesund’s Förvriden (2012; Deranged) and Att de i tid må väckas (2013; That They May Be Awakened in Time), a number of young people disappear in the deep forests of northern Scandinavia. The novel recounts, from the perspective of the victims, their meeting, seduction, and violation by the folkloric creatures of nature, and their subsequent subjugation and enslavement by these creatures, subordinates of the so-called Goddess or her masculine aspect.
Förvriden describes, from the perspective of the victim, a destructive fertility ritual where young men are raped by a female monster, whose fertilization drains them of life, leaving them weak and starving to death. In Att de i tid må väckas, a male creature resembling Neck, the prehistoric evil water sprite, does indeed rape and impregnate young women. However, it is once more ultimately a female being, who represents evil and death. Both novels depict a negative matriarchy where young people are subjected to a female force of nature and a primordial force in order to spawn new life. The first novel in particular presents a reverse gender order where young men are reduced to genitals, sperm producers, and reproductive machines.
Among female authors, nature and the landscape take on a social and gender-polarised funktion, rather than a biological one. In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s (b. 1963) Gothic crime novels, the landscape and notions of nature mysticism constitute a central aspect of the crime and subsequent investigation. This is particularly evident in Auðnin (2008; The Day Is Dark, 2011), where a lawyer, Þóra Guðmundsdóttir, and a group of her colleagues turn up in a sparsely populated coastal area of Greenland in order to investigate the disappearance of three people in connection with the exploratory drilling of a mining company. Mysterious circumstances related to the site and its history complicate the crime investigation. Finally, it transpires that gender-related conflicts and the bullying of a homosexual man are the root causes for the disappearances. Biological sex, social expectations, and a precarious patriarchal power structure constitute an integral part of the crime and the mystery of the site.
Wild Witches in Crossover Literature
The positioning of the millennial Gothic authors within the established Nordic tradition becomes particularly clear in crossover literature – literature for young adults, particularly girls. In this genre, the Gothic castle is replaced by the Nordic wilderness and the monster represents unbridled nature. Folklore and mythical creatures of nature are accorded particular importance, while various kinds of witches and notions of witchcraft are pivotal to the plot.
The Nordic crossover stories often relate how pubescent girls develop exceptional capabilities, which carries them into a magical world. The fairy tales of the Gothic fantasy world emphasise moral conflicts and explicate the life choices the protagonist must face in order to become an adult woman. The novels depict the girls’ upbringing and transition to adulthood according to a traditional aesthetics of care, describing how the heroine must learn to take care of other living beings and live in harmony with nature. However, the stories also reassess the traditional female virtues, as it is precisely these female traits, which are prerequisites for saving the world from evil and destruction.
Mats Strandberg (b. 1976) and Sara Bergmark Elfgren’s (b. 1980) Engelsfors Trilogy – Cirkeln (2011; The Circle, 2012), Eld (2012; Fire, 2013), and Nyckeln (2013; The Key, 2015) – and Caroline L. Jensen’s (b. 1978) Vargsläkte (2011; Wolf Kindred) emphasize the value of women’s collective cooperation. In the Engelsfors Trilogy, six teenage girls discover that they have developed supernatural abilities, and have therefore been chosen to battle against the evil demons, which are taking over the woodlands surrounding the small village of Engelsfors. In Vargsläkte, Vera discovers that her grandmother and her friends are witches and that she has inherited her grandmother’s ability to assume the shape of other creatures thereby gaining access to new, powerful forces of nature. As in many other witch novels for young readers, such as Lene Kaaberbøl’s (b. 1960) Vildheks (Wild Witch) series (2010–), the good witches in the Engelsfors Trilogy and in Vargsläkte must learn to be responsible and compassionate women capable of cooperation and the suspension of their own interest for the good of others.
The presence of good and evil is a hallmark of the crossover literature where the protagonists must learn to distinguish between the two and their respective attributes. In many cases, such as Kaaberbøl’s Vildheks series and Jensen’s Vargsläkte, there is an emphasis on the guidance of older women. On the one hand, this implies that the heroine is raised to adopt traditional female virtues such as empathy, responsible cooperation, and taking an interest in the welfare of all living beings. On the other hand, the genre describes a decidedly positive matriarchal world where women are in charge and set the rules. These female coming-of-age novels thus advocate an anti-patriarchal power structure founded in ancient traditions and a strong connection to nature and the regional landscape. The genre proposes a distinct counter-vision to the individualistic lifestyles many young people are encouraged to adopt in the competitive urban societies of the new millennium.
The Gothic Romance Novel and the Monstrous
The horror is not always rooted in the uncontrollable wilderness and its creatures. Rather, many female authors situate the source of horror in the home, the family, and everyday life. Ghosts, crimes, and family secrets form a recurring constellation in the female Gothic romance novel, with well-known international predecessors such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). Nordic authors such as Selma Lagerlöf, Karen Blixen, and Herbjørg Wassmo join this tradition with their guilt-ridden female protagonists possessing transgressive attributes and a clear gender-political message.
Today, authors such as Majgull Axelsson (b. 1947), Olga Ravn (b. 1986), and Leonora Christina Skov (b. 1976) are writing in this Gothic tradition. Like their predecessors’ works, their stories are characterised by the complete absence of the conventional nuclear family. Rather, the protagonists are haunted by the absence of family, family history, and close biological relations. The female protagonists, what with their divided and fragmented self-images, are found lacking from the very beginning. Thus, unlike traditional horror stories, it is not a case of women’s bodies being threatened, assaulted, and transformed but rather their inner selves, their psyches, which lack a clear identity. Hence, they appear not merely with varying identities but also in various shapes and forms.
In Axelsson’s novel, Aprilhäxan (1997; April Witch, 2003), Desirée, ‘the April witch’, is both monstrous and supernatural from the very beginning. The paralysed and dying woman, in her quest for truth and vindication, moves around by taking residence in other living creatures. First, she assumes the shape of an animal in order to find and get back at her three foster sisters because her biological mother abandoned her at birth in order to care for the three ‘normal’ girls. The balance of power between Desirée and her sisters shifts, thereby also altering the Gothic romance novel’s relationship between monster and victim. While the April witch’s mission and actions do lead to revenge and devastation, her behaviour also unveils conditions that facilitate her own redemption and affords her intended victims the opportunity to admit their guilt and receive forgiveness or reconciliation.
Ravn’s Celestine (2015) presents more of an interior psychological drama. Here, the female narrator is possessed by a ghost named Celestine, who – legend has it – was immured alive in the castle after disobeying her father by refusing his choice of spouse for her. By means of poetic language and an unreliable narrative perspective, the narrator is gradually transformed into the ghost, replicating the destiny of Celestine by increasingly avoiding close relationships. Being buried assumes a new significance and the father’s punishment of Celestine is set against the emotional alienation experienced by the narrator as a child. The ghost story is thus deployed to uncover the isolation experienced by a child whose parents engage in new relationships and priorities their new families. The story about the ghost and its link to the narrator’s family history twists the perspective, demonizing contemporary life rather than the ghost story.
Skov, too, modifies the family constellations and gender themes of the Gothic genre in her metafictional novel, Silhuet af en synder (2010; Silhouette of a Sinner), which consists of multiple timelines and several female protagonists. All the women share a connection to Liljenholm Castle in South Zealand, Denmark, and its dysfunctional family tree. In the beginning of the novel, the heiress, Nella, arrives with her partner Agnes (von) Kruse(nstjerna), a wannabe author, who is documenting and writing a novel about the history of the family and the stately home. Her writing project encompasses an exploration of her own family background and the secrets surrounding her origins.
In accordance with Gothic genre conventions, the structure of Skov’s novel is complex, with stories set within the story and unreliable narrators. Initially, the novel appears to be a plot variation of the Gothic romance novel where the heroine is seemingly in peril because of the master of the castle and his secret. Eventually, however, other revelations are made and the adversary and real monster turns out to be the female mistress of the castle, a maternal figure attempting to eliminate the younger rival. Thus, the classic Gothic romance novel is presented as a territorial and power struggle between a younger and an older woman, which finally sees the younger woman emerge victorious as mistress of the castle and the man.
However, in Skov’s novel, the heterosexual gender norms and power relations of the Gothic are eliminated. The text is a postmodern variant of the Gothic romance novel, where the female heroine and narrator leaves behind the subordinate position of victimhood in her search for knowledge. Her goal is not to win a husband but to discover her family ties and construct an identity. The conflict with the older woman, the mistress of the estate, does not revolve around marrying the man or heir of the estate. Instead, the maternal figure is tasked with protecting her charge from uncomfortable truths and male oppression. In Skov’s novel, the female Gothic monster has thus been replaced with a ‘helicopter mum’ and the virgin protagonist with a goal-oriented and gender-transgressive heroine. The latter also proves herself adept in revealing and handling the truth.
Nordic Noir and Gothic Childhood Traumas
The Gothic novel’s identity theme, rich ambience, and uncertain narrators and points-of-view are also a characteristic of many Nordic crime stories, i.e. Nordic noir. While detectives and murderers in classic detective fiction are characterised by logical thinking and shrewd planning, the crimes of the new millennium are emotional acts caused by emotional trauma in the perpetrator’s past. “A childhood memory comes to me” – this is how the story of the female killer begins in Karin Fossum’s (b. 1954) Djevelen holder lyset (1998; When the Devil Holds the Candle, 2007). Capturing a criminal whose deviance is driven by childhood memories and family tragedies does not primarily require rational understanding but rather an intuitive gut feeling and the ability to place oneself in the killer’s position. Just like in the Gothic novel, the detective hero must simulate the emotional state of the criminal or the monster in order to capture and defeat the perpetrator.
In detective fiction written by female authors, crime is often linked to painful personal experiences. The link between the crime and the detective’s personal history is particularly obvious in cases investigated by a woman. Furthermore, many of the female detectives are closely connected to the site of the crime; the crime often leads the female detective back to her own past. The crime investigation thus becomes an exploration of her repressed memories. Åsa Larsson’s (b. 1966) and Camilla Läckberg’s (b. 1974) series of crime novels both begin with the return of the female detective to the site of her childhood, where she is immediately drawn into a crime investigation related to her own personal history.
The change in focus from investigation of the crime to the exploration of the detective’s personal secrets leads to a transformation of the investigation of the crime into an internal drama, which brings to mind the Gothic novel and its uncertain relationships between outer and inner reality, protagonist and monster. The depiction of the crime investigation must yield to other stories, namely those of the detective, the criminal, and the victim, and the question driving the plot is less of a ‘whodunit’ and more concerned with the murderer’s motives for doing so. This is never more so than in novels where the crime is connected to sexual abuse, gender-related violence, and childhood traumas, such as Unni Lindell’s (b. 1957) detective novel, Rødhette (2004; Little Red Riding Hood).
Violence against women and its consequences also constitute an unequivocal theme in the Nordic noir crime story par excellence – Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy about journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. The books – Män som hatar kvinnor (2005; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2008), Flickan som lekte med elden (2006; The Girl Who Played with Fire, 2009), and Luftslottet som sprängdes (2007; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, 2010) – unmask fault lines in the democratic, Nordic welfare systems. Salander is portrayed as one part possessed Gothic heroine and two parts victim of childhood abuse and monster of the horror story whose quest for revenge sees her imbued with almost supernatural abilities. Ultimately, the Millennium Trilogy thus describes the ‘men who hate women’ and the ubiquitous forms of violence against women, which society is unable to address sufficiently.
Salander’s dual role as victim and investigator of crime, as criminal and crime buster, reinforces the moral ambiguity of the Millennium Trilogy. Protected by the anonymity of the world online, Salander fights against the patriarchy in the democratic welfare state, the family, and the world of finance by assuming multiple identities. Throughout the Millennium Trilogy, her roles as vulnerable victim, professional researcher, and relentless avenger see her strike back in response to her lost childhood. In her quest for justice, she avoids, like many other female detectives, close sexual relationships and family ties. She takes the law into her own hands in her fight for justice and gender equality, thereby acting beyond the confines of social communities and the realms of society.
Lisbeth Salander may be a damaged criminal and remorseless avenger but her struggle for justice uncovers significant shortcomings of the Nordic welfare state: political conflicts, economic corruption, abuse of power and authority, and the absence of due care and protection of children by the social services. The childhood violations experienced by Salander, within her family as well as the public welfare system, fuel her desire for revenge. Furthermore, her personal story reveals the hidden gender structures, the sexual vulnerability of women in all social relations, and the democratic state’s inability to resolve this. In order to achieve justice by putting an end to the men who hate women, women must resort to unconventional methods and physical violence.
In the Millennium Trilogy, the story, which frames fictional events and characters with actual characters and stories from real life, unfolds in tandem with the discourse on gender politics. The novels continuously refer to well-known detective stories by writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Elisabeth George, as well as spy novels and male action heroes such as James Bond, Superman, and Batman. From the very beginning, there are even more direct associations with the universe of Astrid Lindgren’s (1907-2002) children’s books. In the first chapter, Mikael Blomkvist is called Kalle Blomkvist, the original Swedish name of Lindgren’s kid detective, Bill Bergson. Similarly, the reader is frequently reminded of the similarity between Lisbeth Salander and Lindgren’s girl heroine, Pippi Longstocking, thus reinforcing Salander’s non-human and fictional powers as a super heroine. She increasingly appears as a monstrous adult version of Pippi.
This gradual alienation of Salander clearly places her in the Gothic genre. Her theatrical appearance, dark punk style, amoral behaviour, and superhuman attributes reference the notion of the Gothic monster. Like the monster, she is a fusion of ordinarily incompatible attributes. Her body is lithe and girlish yet she is also portrayed as a skilled boxer. She is socially inept, displays autistic traits, but is remarkably skilled at predicting the reactions of other people. She enacts the post-structuralist concept of gender and identity as continuous performance and dissimulation. At the same time, she is – like the monster in horror stories – driven by self-interest and her assiduous fighting spirit is quite notable. After being seemingly dead and buried by her enemies, her own father and half-brother, she is resurrected from the grave, like Stephen King’s girl monster in Carrie, in order to resume her mission of revenge and her fight for justice.
The Transgressive Female Monsters of the New Millennium
The female detectives, Gothic heroines, and monsters of the new millennium are transgressive creatures, whether portrayed, like Lisbeth Salander, as playful metafictional creations referencing other fictional super heroines or depicted as mythical creatures from Nordic folklore like Axelsson’s April witch. The association of the female protagonist with the physical landscape and nature in crossover literature and the Gothic novel imbues her with superhuman attributes, enabling her to transgress social conventions and physical boundaries. While the female protagonist is transformed into a destructive female monster in the works of many male authors, the works of female authors often establishes an association between the female protagonist and the local landscape and history, which proves pivotal for her understanding of self and her future life.
The development of the female protagonist’s personal liberation in crossover literature, the postmodern Gothic novel, and detective fiction is not merely concerned with self-realisation and identity construction; more than anything, it enables her to create room for maneuver in order to deal successfully with gender-based limitations and oppression. To this end, a strikingly large number of millennial monster heroines have to uncover secrets and do away with their origins and family history, not merely to achieve professional success but in order to create a future beyond the limitations of the dominant gender contract and traditional family constellations.
I love monsters. All sorts of monsters: Frankenstein’s monster and Cookie Monster, Dracula and Count Chocula, werewolves and mummies and creatures from the Black Lagoon, oh my! That’s probably why I wrote my PhD dissertation on classic monsters from the late nineteenth century, which brought us a renewed interest in vampires, doubles, and all sorts of mysterious, vaguely horrifying phenomena. The emblem of the era could be Dorian Gray looking at himself in the mirror, realizing he is not quite what he seems.
While I was writing my dissertation, something started bothering me: these texts focused primarily on male monsters, but there were texts about female monsters as well. They looked different from their male counterparts: they were usually beautiful, and they were dangerous specifically because they could seduce you to your own destruction. The vampire Carmilla from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Helen in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, Queen Tera in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars . . . You’ve heard of them, right? Probably not. The female monsters aren’t as well-known as Mr. Hyde. I also noticed that many of the texts about male monsters had female monsters in them, but they didn’t get their own stories—usually, they didn’t even get to speak. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the mad vivisectionist creates a woman out of a puma whose sole purpose in the narrative is to kill Moreau. Female monsters: deadly but marginal. That’s what I noticed, and that’s why I wanted to write about them.
There’s a particular moment that crystalized all of the above for me, like a precipitate coming out of solution. In Frankenstein, still the most important monster text, Victor’s resurrected creature tells him to create a female monster. She can be my mate, he tells his creator. Create her, or I will kill the rest of your family. And Victor tries—he starts to create a female monster, but can’t bring himself to do it because the two monsters together would threaten mankind. So what does he do? He takes her already-assembled body apart and disassembles it, packs the parts in a basket (as though he were going on a picnic!), then throws that basket into the sea. When I read that, I thought, That’s not fair. What did she ever do to you?
That’s the why of my book The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the reason I wrote it: I thought these female monsters deserved to speak, and I personally wanted to hear them speak. I thought they might have interesting thing to say. So I started letting them talk through me. (Honestly, it felt like that sometimes, as though they were telling me their own stories.) And what did they tell me? Things from the important to the trivial: Catherine, the Puma Woman, told me that she wasn’t destroyed on Moreau’s island. She escaped to London and later worked as a circus performer. Justine Frankenstein told me she wasn’t disassembled after all. She’s very strong, so she’s also very gentle, and she likes to paint. Beatrice Rappaccini, the poisonous girl created by Dr. Rappaccini in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” told me she is a trained botanist who can make medicines out of foxglove and deadly nightshade.
Women in fiction inhabit many roles, from heroes to villains. What happens when they’re monsters? Here are 15 of the most interesting female monsters ever.
We don’t need women to always be perfect angels. Sometimes, it’s just as important to see female characters behaving badly as it is to see honorable role models. In the words of Margaret Atwood: “I’m not making a case for evil behavior, but unless you have some women characters portrayed as evil characters, you’re not playing with a full range.”
And what better use of that range than the female monster?
What does it mean to be a monster? And what does it mean to be a woman as a monster, a seemingly vicious beast whose body and motivations are specifically coded as feminine?
These monsters are women alone. And, no matter how they have been used and the kinds of wrongs they have committed, it’s hard not to be fiercely proud of them. So many societies throughout the world ask — or tell — women to be quiet. To speak up, to be different is to be evil. The witch lives alone in the woods and works with a different set of gods, and so becomes a monster.
Sometimes, the female side of things becomes so fragmented that it splits into two and fights itself. Look at Ellen Ripley and the alien queen in Aliens. The rough and tumble, yet ultimately approved womanhood represented by Ripley (a badass in her own right) has to fight the more vicious side of the same coin.
The monstrous woman
Female monsters have a very different road to walk compared to their male and non-gendered counterparts. They have often been used to explore deviant and threatening sexualities.
A fair number of these movies end with at least one of the monster meeting their doom. It’s often a sad end, as monster movies often dip into tragedy. It’s their way to generate some gravitas between all of the makeup and out-there concepts. But, when you add the extra layer of a female monster, it all gets more complicated.
Monsters, in general, are punished by these sad endings. They are different and, for “normal” people, frightening. The only way for them to be reconciled with the greater world is to die or disappear. Unless, of course, they’re in a movie helmed by Guillermo del Toro, who loves monsters enough to put them on center stage and give them their own romances and adventures. Think Hellboy or the more recent The Shape of Water — that story about a god-like fish-man and a mute janitor falling in love was so good that it earned del Toro two Oscars.
However, del Toro is an exception. Most of the time, the monsters are too inconvenient or strange for this world. When it’s a female monster, with all of her baggage centered on sexuality and beauty, her demise becomes an urge to conform. Thankfully, more modern attitudes are helping to change that. Ursula, for example, had to go in 1989’s The Little Mermaid, but she’s become a fairly beloved figure in fandom since. And more modern offerings in this list are increasingly self-aware and critical of conventions.
What does the figure of the monster mean to you? And what does it mean if the monster also represents some aspect of femininity or womanhood, however frightening or inconvenient it may be? Let’s dive in.
Oh, you thought mermaids were all about creature sidekicks and wistful songs about the world beyond their shores? Then you’re missing out on some of the creepier aspects of being an otherworldly sea creature.
For a new perspective, read Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s take on The Little Mermaid in the short story “The Daughter Cells.” There, our precious little mermaid is thoroughly alien to us humans. Her body doesn’t necessarily correspond with the Disney version. Why would it, when she lives in an underwater world very different from our own? Quite frankly, she is disgusted with our horrible, lonely society and the dry air of our land. Unlike in the Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale, Ortberg’s mermaid has a far darker bent and no desire for a soul.
There’s something similar going on with the mermaid sisters in Lure. They do indulge in some standard tropes, like falling in love with a feckless land-dweller. The film moves firmly into horror territory when one of the sisters, Golden, realizes that humans make a decent meal. She goes about this discovery in explicit, bloody fashion.
It’s clear that these mermaids are not sparkling fairy tale creatures. Golden and Silver have aquatic forms that are just a little too realistic, too much like a deep-sea creature with strong muscles and sharp teeth.
During their sojourn in the human world, the sisters join a cabaret and begin working as burlesque dancers. It’s an especially interesting twist on the sensuous mermaid theme — remember all of those images you have seen or mermaids sitting on rocks and giving sailors a very direct “come hither” look. The horror of these monsters, if you want to see them as such, is often tied up in their alien sexuality. Those sailors typically can’t resist the winsome mermaid, but their advances are quickly met by a strong embrace and deep dive into the ocean, never to return.
Poor Silver can’t help but ruin herself over the love of a man, however. She even goes so far as to give up her tail and her voice for a musician who ultimately abandons her. Good thing that Golden is there to provide some necessary revenge by the end of the film.
14. Evil dolls
On the surface of it, a doll seems like a pretty lame horror movie monster. Really, if you can move fast enough and put all of the sharp things in a high cabinet, you’re solid. But horror movies aren’t exactly realistic. They work like a delightfully bad dream. They’re like a nightmare that keeps going on without regard to standard logic. Instead, they operate on their own rules. In a world like that, you can easily be defeated by a child’s doll named Chucky.
Well, except Chucky isn’t invincible. He meets his match in Tiffany, his very own doll-sized girlfriend.
In life, Chucky was not exactly great boyfriend material. As a human, he was a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray. As a soul trapped in a child’s doll, he’s not much better.
Somehow, though, his girlfriend Tiffany (played by Jennifer Tilly) gets it in her head that she needs to take his remains, left over from Child’s Play 3. She engages in a magic ritual that reanimates her evil boyfriend. She hopes they’ll pick up right where they left off: an impending engagement. Never mind that Ray stole the diamond ring from a victim and never actually intended to pop the question.
Tiffany doesn’t take it well. Neither does Chucky, who is consigned to a playpen by a disappointed Tiffany. He dispatches his old girlfriend and then inexplicably consigns her soul to a nearby bride doll. Chucky means to make her feel what he’s been going through, but this just seems like a recipe for disaster.
It is for the pair, anyway. Of course, things end in ridiculous fashion and Tiffany bites it. But at least we get to see a truly weird and interesting female monster in the form of an evil doll.
13. Hungry vampires
Monsters in a film don’t always have to feel bad about their state. Some monsters are unapologetic and instead choose to revel in their lives and bodies. Of course, this being the world of horror and monsters, this particular form of self-acceptance does not benefit all.
It’s a weird state of being for female monsters in particular. All will become very apparent, they are often vilified for being overly sexual, or else for using their sexual “wiles” in threatening ways.
That’s certainly the case with Santanico Pandemonium, the queen vampire played most memorably by Salma Hayek. She’s also portrayed by Ara Celi and Eiza Gonzalez in other films in the From Dusk Till Dawn series. But it’s Hayek who stands out the most, largely because of her highly sensual dance in the first film.
One of the most interesting things about female monsters is the way they often switch from sensuality to outright horror. As beautiful as Santanico Pandemonium may look in some scenes, she can also turn into a true beast. In the 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, she enraptures the central characters, then turns into a sharp-fanged, yellow-eyed lizard monster.
Santanico began life as a daughter of a vampire and a mysterious hangman in 19th century Mexico, so this monstrousness is in her heritage. And even though she is rudely dispatched by some bikers in her own establishment, at least she is not ashamed. Yes, we’re probably supposed to be repulsed by her methods and animalistic transformation, but you can’t really fault her for her confidence and business acumen. She manages to extract a 30% cover charge for her bar, which doesn’t stop the protagonists from entering the establishment. Now, if only she had been better at dodging chandeliers.
12. The Witch
Throughout film history, the figure of the witch has proven to be a rich figure. Her presence has become grounds for plenty of pearl-clutching and vehement arguments. In many respects, the figure of the witch represents a woman dangerously removed from traditional society. Think about it: a witch often lives on her own in these stories, perhaps in a cottage or cabin deep in the woods. She participates in rituals not exactly sanctioned by the majority of her fellow humans (at least, not if she’s situated in a culture focused on “traditional” values outlined in western societies). She doesn’t especially care if the local priest is horrified by her moonlight rituals.
How much this fictional picture relates to historical reality is debated. However, fiction and folklore have their own power, even for real people. Many have found the witch to be a strong, defiant figure to be emulated.
But, in the world of horror movies, the witch can be a monster just as often as a rebel. Whether you think that’s deserved or not, it makes for a good movie monster. And “monster” can be a deserved title. The Wicked Witch in Snow White physically transforms in a frightening animated sequence. The Blair Witch lurks in the rural Maryland woods. She is all the more frightening because we do not see her. Instead, her presence is felt and seen by the terrified would-be documentarians in The Blair Witch Project.
We do see the witch in Black Sunday: Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele). She is unapologetically evil, even when she is about the be burned at the stake by her own brother. Vajda is so angry about it, though, that she establishes a curse that is still strong centuries after her apparent death. In an interesting development, she drains a young woman’s life force and tries to convince everyone that the dried-out husk is, in fact, Vajda. Poor Vajda — for all her evilness, she still has to deal with unfair cultural themes about women and aging.
11. Carmilla and other sad vampires
Ultimately, most vampire stories are tragedies. For many of them, it only takes a few years to realize that they’ve been dealt a pretty raw deal. Wouldn’t you get pretty gloomy if you could never see the sun or eat normal food ever again? Immortality apparently gets less and less attractive to many of the walking undead, no matter how glittery your skin gets.
Female vampires are especially interesting figures. They’ve got the standard issues afforded to most vampires, but with the extra baggage of gender on top. There are already plenty of unfortunate and harmful stereotypes that paint women as life-draining bloodsuckers. Undeserved as that is, it’s been a prominent trope for well over a century. Think about the succubi, a whole class of life-draining female demons that have been the subject of horror for at least a thousand years.
And if that female vampire’s victim is also a woman? Things get even more complicated. See, over their history as fictional characters, vampires have also become metaphors for sexual deviance. From a conservative perspective, that makes it bad enough when it’s a vampire of one gender preying on another. But if vampire and victim are of the same gender? Time to clutch your pearls.
Those are certainly the undercurrents in Carmilla. The story began life as a gothic novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, published serially in 1871-1872. It follows a young woman named Laura, growing up in a remote and mostly empty castle with her father. She longs for a friend and, wouldn’t you know it, a carriage accident happens nearby and brings her that friend — Carmilla.
This new young woman is familiar, however. Laura has been having dreams about a mysterious nighttime visitor who intimately bites her, and who looks just like their new visitor. In Le Fanu’s book, Carmilla is eventually dispatched in gory fashion. However, she fares better in modern times. In a web series and its later film adaptation, Carmilla and Laura enter into a consensual romantic relationship.
10. The mad scientist
For all that horror movies love a mad scientist, very few are women. Certainly, in the world of B-horror, those odds go even lower. And, if you find yourself in the very particular subset of 1950s and 1960s B-horror, you might as well be looking for a solid gold unicorn.
But, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And, if you’re really determined and have a high tolerance for pseudo-scientific silliness, there’s always The Wasp Woman.
Be prepared for some casual but pervasive sexism, however. That makes The Wasp Woman an interesting topic for conversation (seriously), but not a great role model for, well, anyone.
It all starts when Janice Starling, the founder and owner of a cosmetics company, begins to age. Far from accepting it as a natural part of being human, she starts to freak out. It appears that her visible aging (the horror!) is causing her company’s value to drop precipitously. She teams up with scientist Eric Zinthrop and offers herself up as a test subject. Starling hopes that the royal jelly from a queen wasp will help her de-age.
The horror of beauty
Unbelievably, the process works. However, it’s too slow for Starling, who starts to ingest the royal jelly serum at astonishing rates. She drops years off her age but also starts to transform into a murderous wasp creature. You know, just like any anti-aging serum from the drugstore if you go too hard with it.
Of course, the people around Starling decide that she is too dangerous. Zinthrop throws a bunch of carbolic acid in her face, followed by her fall from a high window. It’s significant that it’s her face that is damaged. Even more significant is the fact that the monstrous woman at the heart of The Wasp Woman suffered most from the societal pressure to be young and attractive. From her cosmetics company to her growing anxiety about her looks, Starling is a female monster that is more to be pitied than reviled.
Janice Starling, for all that we might feel bad for her, was ultimately the cause of her own downfall. Yes, the societal pressures that pushed her into that situation were considerable. Janice deserves some sympathy, even though she turned into an insectoid monster with a penchant for murdering. At the end of the day, though, she could have done some soul-searching and decided that she was more than her culture’s expectations.
What about monsters that can’t help themselves? That’s where the real tragedy lies. If you’re born with your monstrousness as part of you, then there’s little you can do to help it. And if the people around you are scared of you? If they are viscerally unnerved and disgusted by the entire truth of you? Then, what could be worse?
Reserve your greatest pity, then, for Irena Dubrovna. In 1942’s Cat People, she is a Serbian fashion designer with a handsome, loving husband and a terrible secret. Long ago, the people from her home village supposedly turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved. When a king comes to liberate them, he is disgusted by their practices and tries to kill them all. A few — “the wisest and the most wicked” — escape.
Irena’s husband laughs at the legend. However, Irena really believes that she is descended from these evil shapeshifters. Even worse, it’s all tied up in her sexuality. Irena believes that anything more than the most innocent contact with her husband will turn her into a dangerous beast.
Her husband still laughs, but maybe he shouldn’t be so sure of himself. As much as horror movies and even real-life people like to dismiss “hysterical” women, it soon becomes clear that Irena has more animalistic power than he would like to admit.
8. The Gorgon
The whole genesis of the Medusa myth is rooted in some pretty awful sexism. Though the myth varies from place to place, it generally follows as such: Medusa is a beautiful human woman. Poseidon sees her, is entranced by her beauty and, as ancient gods were wont to do, sexually assaults her. This takes place in a temple dedicated to Athena. Instead of protecting the victim, however, Athena decides to punish her. She transforms Medusa into a gorgon, a frightening monster with snakes for hair and the ability to turn people to stone with her gaze.
So, while Medusa’s appearance in films like Clash of the Titans is clearly meant only as a kind of final boss battle, it’s undercut by yet more tragedy. Medusa didn’t ask to have her world and her body violated by two different gods. Probably, if you asked her, she would prefer to have normal hair and the ability to look at people without turning them into statuary, either. She definitely would have wanted Perseus to mind his own business and leave her alone. That’s better than being murdered by a so-called “hero.”
Besides Greek myth, Medusa and her fellow gorgons (like some monsters, she works well on a team) have appeared throughout other stories. There’s the rather cheesy 1964 Hammer horror film, The Gorgon.
In that film, set in 1910 Germany, seven different victims have been turned into stone. The local leaders know what’s up, more or less. If nothing else, they know that the local spooky legends of phantoms really don’t need to be investigated. At least, not if the investigators want to remain made out of flesh and bone.
Turns out that the “phantom” in question is one of the last remaining gorgons. She’s defeated, naturally, which may be a mercy given that her snakes have already taken on an immovable, plastic-like form. Still, despite all of the murdering and terrifying appearances, you can’t help but feel a little bad for the Gorgon.
What happened to all of her sisters? How does she feel about being stuck in rural Germany with World War I looming on the horizon? The lot of the monster, especially more-or-less immortal ones, is often loneliness. It’s not an envious fate.
7. The sea witch
You might be wondering if Disney’s The Little Mermaid can rightfully take a place on this list. That is, besides the horrifying elements of a young girl giving up her voice and autonomy to chase after a man she’s just met.
But, believe it or not, Prince Eric and the other humans aren’t the ostensible villains. Despite their seemingly insatiable hunger for sea life like Ariel’s friend Sebastian, she’s still cool with the land folk. Instead, we’re told to be afraid of the sea witch, Ursula.
Ursula is an interesting figure, not least because she combines quite a few tropes in her brief film appearance. She’s a witch, to start, and one that carries quite a bit of the cultural baggage of the evil, hermit-like sorcerer despite living under the sea. Ursula has all of the spooky accouterments of a witch, too. There’s the hallway of creepy things (in this case, the soul trapped in kelp monsters, natch). There are the two menacing sidekicks (Flotsam and Jetsam, the moray eels).
First and foremost, however, is Ursula’s unapologetic love of herself. That’s really something, given that she’s a large-bodied woman with a loud voice full of vocal fry and cackling laughter. Sure, we get it: we’re not supposed to like her. She’s too loud, the movie is trying to tell us. She takes up too much space, physically and mentally.
Even before Ursula formally takes Ariel’s voice, she does so just by pure dint of talking and singing. Ursula barely lets the titular little mermaid get a word in edgewise.
Despite all of the obvious narrative leanings towards hating the monstrous Ursula, many fans have come to love her. If it weren’t for the not-cool moves of stealing Prince Eric and trying to usurp an entire kingdom, we could unabashedly love her. Though, honestly, if Prince Eric is such an easily compelled guy, Ariel could do a lot better.
We’ve already touched somewhat on women who turn into beasts. There’s Irena from Cat People, who is none too happy about what appears to be a rare genetic condition. In The Wasp Woman, Janice Starling brings her own B-horror style transformation on herself, though you can’t help but feel at least a little pity for her.
And then there’s fate. In Ginger Snaps (2000), Ginger and her sister Brigitte have to deal with a particularly cruel and strange twist of fate. They’re already outcasts, having creeped out the other teens with their morbid fascination with death. But, in the midst of a strange series of dog attacks, Ginger gets her period. That’s essentially a giant, flashing neon sign that we are about to enter a horror tale centering on pubescent young women.
Sure enough, that mysterious dog attacks Ginger. Brigitte is unscathed. Instead of going to the hospital, however, Ginger decides to just go home. Her wounds are healing incredibly fast, after all.
Soon, it becomes clear that Ginger wasn’t bitten by any ordinary dog. She starts sprouting hair from her wounds and gets aggressive, both socially and sexually. Ginger even grows a tail. It’s all pretty serious imagery centered on that strange, sometimes frightening passage into adulthood: puberty. Normally, we all have to deal with odd and seemingly sudden changes to our bodies during this time. In Ginger Snaps, that anxiety is ratcheted to an extreme, but perhaps one that is all too familiar.
Like many other monsters here, Ginger becomes too much to handle. Even Brigitte, her closest friend, can’t tame the beast that has taken her sister’s place. It’s another tragic end for a female monster that turned too strong and too dangerous for the rest of us.
5. The alien
For the majority of this list, the monsters in questions are unwilling. They don’t want to go about eating other people or wreaking havoc. They simply want to live their lives, whether those lives center on practicing their witchcraft or a free exchange between the undersea and land worlds. Even the Blair Witch probably wanted to be left alone. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if a bunch of teenagers kept stomping around in your part of the woods and shouting?
Then again, there are a few monsters that are helplessly monstrous. They might be totally foreign to our world and not care one whit about our strange “morals.” Even the best efforts of humans to impose their worldview on the monster in question isn’t enough to stop the eventual destruction.
It may not entirely fair to label Sil, from Species, as a “monster.” She’s a half-human, half-alien hybrid created, bafflingly enough, by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project. Guess they hit some sort of government funding windfall that let them secure huge lab space and a staff of geneticists.
Sil is created by those curious scientists and raised in that lab. At first, she seems manageable enough. However, she starts to become more violent. The frightened scientists decide to euthanize her. Sil escapes and, with her reproductive drive in full force, goes about finding a mate in Los Angeles. Scientists follow in pursuit, fearing that her offspring might take over the planet and eliminate the human race.
Sil’s alien form was designed by H.R. Giger, who also designed the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. If you’re at all familiar with Giger’s work, then you know that he often created beings that were viscerally off-putting and overtly sexual at the same time. Sil is no exception.
4. Angry ghosts
Ghosts are already pretty frightening monsters. Yes, it’s true that they don’t have corporeal bodies to speak of. That apparently does little to stop many ghosts, who merrily go about wreaking havoc for the rest of us. They range from annoying — flinging things off shelves, lurking as vaguely human shapes in dark corners — to downright dangerous. It’s not that being a ghost is a bunch of fun, exactly. That said, they’re often more formidable monsters than their wispy forms might suggest.
Vengeful ghosts are all of that and more. Few get more vengeful than Sadako of Ringu fame. She’s got plenty to be mad about, to be sure.
Sadako’s origin story differs somewhat depending on whether you’re reading about her or watching her wrath unfold on screen, but a few key points are the same. She is a dangerous psychic with a tragic past, including a dead mother. She is oftentimes thrown down a well or otherwise dispatched by a frightened person. That’s reminiscent of the Japanese folktales about Okiku, a servant who is bullied and eventually killed by her employer. She returns from the dead to torment her former master for a good, long period of time.
Of course, there’s also that infamous videotape. Sadako (Samara in the American remake) can essentially replicate herself on film. Anyone who views said film has seven days to show it to another person and thus spread the “virus.” And if they don’t? Sadako will come to visit them, with gruesome results.
It’s clear that Sadako was once a flesh and blood human being. However, accidents of genetics and the evil of others around her have turned the girl into a unique and deeply rageful monster.
3. The succubus
What if a monster doesn’t feel especially bad about being one? So far, we’ve encountered plenty of monsters that are inherently tragic. They are uniquely sad about their situations and often ostentatiously so. Some of them practically wallow in their misfortune, if we are to be brutally honest.
A few are simply monstrous. That is, they are who they are. Being a monster is part of their existence and has always been. They may be so alien that it doesn’t occur to them that they are strange or threatening to others. In Species, Sil is only following her own biological programming. So is Irena from Cat People, though she’s certainly more aware of what’s happening. Is either of them really to blame if we can’t handle their unique ways?
But then, there are female monsters that are well aware of their monstrousness. It’s just that they don’t care. Ursula is a good example here, though she’s frankly a gentle introduction to the concept. If you’re ready to take it up to another level, then prepare yourself for Jennifer’s Body.
What happened to Jennifer?
The original Jennifer at the beginning of this 2009 movie doesn’t last very long. She’s a popular cheerleader who is kidnapped and murdered in a dark ritual. Who did it? An indie rock band seeking greater popularity through black magic.
Only those rockers aren’t very good at spellcasting. They inadvertently allow a demon to inhabit Jennifer’s body. Said demon then goes to town on all of the unsuspecting teens. Jennifer’s friend, Anita “Needy” Lesnicki, hits the books and learns that her friend’s form is now the host of a succubus. This particular demon needs to feed in bloody fashion to stay strong and look more or less human.
2. The Bride of Frankenstein
Now, perhaps, for one of the most distinctive monsters on the list. So far, it seems as if it is the ultimate fate of all monsters is to cause destruction. They destroy communities, upend deeply held values, and injure or even kill our apparent heroes.
However, not all monsters share this fate. That doesn’t mean they have the kind of autonomy we’d like to see, at least not outside of a Guillermo del Toro movie. Still, it goes to show that even the most “classic” of stories have plenty of ways to surprise you.
In The Bride of Frankenstein, we aren’t properly introduced to the title monster until the final minutes of the film. That isn’t to say we don’t see her, or at least her constituent parts. Dr. Frankenstein and the very campy Dr. Praetorius spend quite a bit of time collecting various bits and pieces from burials in their neighborhood. It would be kind of cute if Frankenstein weren’t so obviously against the proposition.
A bad first date
At least, he is at first. Eventually, he gets back into the swing of things and is able to create a mate for his previous monster, played by horror icon Boris Karloff. When she finally awakens, the Bride stands, swaying, apparently dazed by the new but strangely familiar world around her. She sees the original monster and screams in animalistic terror.
Do you blame her? It’s not as if anyone asked her if she was ready to go straight from her sort-of birth to dating a complete stranger. They could have given her at least a little time to figure out speaking and table manners first.
The monster doesn’t have any patience, however. He shouts that “we belong dead” and dramatically causes the laboratory to collapse. The Bride is killed, again, and the movie ends.
Too bad, because she is a uniquely interesting monster. The whole film centers on her creation and existence, yet she doesn’t hurt anyone. She’s there as a proposition, a possibility, a puzzling question. What should we do with a creature such as the Bride? If only we had more time to figure it out.
1. Xenomorph Queen
Feeling a little unsatisfied with all of these self-aware monsters? They make for compelling stories, to be sure. However, when presented all at once, the sheer weight of all the sadness and anger dealt to these female monsters can start to get to you. Again, it’s not that anyone reasonably thinks all of the bloodsucking and flesh-rending is okay. It’s just difficult to feel completely absolved of sympathy for a struggling beast.
If you’re looking for something of a break, then, you should definitely look to the Alien Queen. She doesn’t make an appearance in Alien, the 1979 sci-fi horror film that’s since become a classic. Instead, she appears in the follow-up, 1986’s Aliens directed by James Cameron. This sequel is more of an action-adventure ride, but it contains one heck of a good monster.
Essentially, Aliens centers on Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the previous film who has just awoken after 57 years of stasis. Hopefully, she’s well-rested, as the denizens of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation want her to head back out and deal with an alien infestation at LV-426, an exomoon that’s home to a terraforming colony.
Along with some memorable space marines, Ripley kicks lots of alien butts (or whatever the xenomorphs have that can be effectively kicked). However, towards the end of the film, she’s almost defeated by the Alien Queen.
The most famous of Universal Monsters are the Frankenstein Monster, Count Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Horror icons of classic thriller cinema are Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. Modern horror monsters are Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees and Pinhead. It is easy to see that the horror genre is a male dominated field of cinema. Most of the female actresses are given the damsel in distress role or the final girl role: Fay Wray, Julie Adams, Janet Leigh, Barbara Shelly, Hazel Court and Jamie Lee Curtis. From time to time however, audiences were awarded a monster from the fairer sex. With perhaps the exception of the vampire bride, female monsters are a rare breed. Here are a few to consider for you next Halloween feature viewing.
The 30’s and 40’s
While horror is being dominated by Universal Monsters, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the arguably the most famous of all female monsters. Portrayed by Elsa Lanchester wearing brilliant make-up by the legendary Jack P. Pierce, the Bride was introduced in the sequel to Frankenstein, again directed by James Whale. In the story, Doctor (Ernest Thesiger) Pretorius forces Henry (Colin Clive) Frankenstein to create a mate for the Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) Monster. Universal tried to repeat the success with Dracula’s Daughter (1936), starring Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska. Holden together with Carroll Borland as Luna Mora in Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) lay the foundation of the lead female vampire character for years to come. Universal also gives us female versions of the Invisible Man in The Invisible Woman (1940) with Virginia Bruce in the title role and the werewolf in The She-wolf of London (1946) with June Lockhart in the title role.
In the Fifties, gothic horror gets trumped by terror from Sci-Fi origins and audiences are rewarded with Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). In this B-movie classic, Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) encounters an alien space-craft and grows to be a 50 foot monster. Toward the end of the decade, horror would rise again in popularity (due in part to the success of Hammer Films) and smaller studios, looking to put a spin on classic tales, would provide another turn at a female Frankenstein and vampire. In Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), the monster is played by Sandra Knight who starts out as a monster-werewolf hybrid before being changed completely into a man-made monster. In a twist to the drive-in features such as I was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula (1957) has a headmistress at an all-girls school hypnotizing one the young students into believing she is a vampire. She not only begins to behave like a vampire but take on the appearance of the creature of the night as well. Ed Wood hires TV horror host Vampira to appear in his z-grade absurd classic Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958).
Hammer Films began making horror films in the late fifties and are a huge influence on the horror genre throughout the decade. Along with a multitude of vampire brides, the company also created some of the more interesting and unique female horror creatures to grace the screen. Among their entries are The Gorgon (1964) where Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee encounter Megaera, one of the three mythological sisters with snakes in their hair who can turn men into to stone with but a glance. Barbara Shelly is cast as the human counter-part , but Prudance Hyman steps in to play the hideous monster. The Reptile (1966) introduces a young lady, Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) Franklyn, suffering from a Malaysian curse that causes her to transform into a snake-woman. Peter Cushing would attempt to create a Bride of Frankenstein of sorts in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), when he transplants the soul of a wronged killer into the dead body of a scarred but beautiful young woman, Christina, played by Susan Denberg. Alongside Hammer’s output, in Italy, Mario Bava cast Barbara Steele as the witch Princess Asa Vajda in Black Sunday (1960) in a variation of the classic Russian horror story, Nikolai Gogol’s Viy (1865).
In the Seventies, Hammer produces a string of vampire stories with strong female vampire leads, known as the Karnstein Trilogy loosely based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella Carmilla: Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). These films make a star out of Ingrid Pitt who also stars in the Hammer film Countess Dracula (1972), based on the story of Countess Bathory who, instead of drinking blood, bathes in the blood of virgins to regain her youth. William Friedkin casts young Linda Blair in the Exorcist (1973) and creates, with the help of effects artist Dick Smith, the most frightening female monster put to screen in the possessed little girl, Regan MacNeil. The film is a box office smash and spawns a barrage of possessed, head-spinning, bile-spitting monsters. Among these monsters is Jessica (Juliet Mills) Barrett in Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Beyond the Door (1974) and Carol Speed as the title character in Abby (1974). Brian De Palma brings Stephen King’s expansion to the theme, Carrie (1976), to the screen with Sissy Spacek as the title character who has psionic powers.
While Friday the 13th series of films is primarily known for the hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees, in the first feature, Friday the 13th (1980), the killer is revealed to be Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees played by Betsy Palmer. By the mid-Eighties, there had been a number of female zombies, but none are as remarkable as Linnea Quigley’s star-making role of Trash in Return of the Living Dead (1985). Grace Jones vamps it up in the vampire feature Vamp (1986) as Queen Katrina, the leader of a blood-drinking undead cult running a nightclub. Even in the sequel to the box-office hit Alien (1979), Sigourney Weaver is provided a female counterpart in the Aliens (1986) with the shocking reveal of the Alien Queen. She is not only the queen of her kind, laying eggs and guarding her young, but she is physically much larger and more threatening than the drone aliens seen before her. In Kevin Tenney’s Night of the Demons (1988), Amelia Kinkade stars as Angela who conjures up a vengeful demon imprisoned in the abandoned house in which she and her friends choose to party . The demon possesses her body and the fun begins.
The 90’s and Beyond
By the end of the nineties and the turn of the century, female monsters are almost common place, mostly in part due to a successful string of Asian horror features known as J-Horror. Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998) introduces the dark haired female ghost with Sadako (Inou Rie) Yamamura, a ghost who rises from the grave to take the lives of anyone who sees the video she created upon her death. Takashi Shimizu’s series of films known as Ju-On (remade as The Grudge in the States) began in 2000 and build on the Japanese Onryo (vengeful ghost) legend. In the series, Takako Fuji stars as Kayako, the ghost of woman brutally murdered by her husband and responsible for spreading her curse. These two films, and their many sequels and remakes, spawn dozens of similarly themed films with similarly designed ghostly and vengeful women. In the states, another Stephen King adaptation brings the killer Annie (Kathy Bates) Wilkes to the screen terrorizing writer Paul (James Caan) Sheldon in Misery (1990). Horror Rock Icon Rob Zombie casts his wife Sherri Moon Zombie in House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) and Devil’s Rejects (2005). As Baby Firefly, a deranged and ruthless killer, she often outshines her male counterparts.
(incomplete) list of female monsters in literature
Antiquity (until fifth century AD)
Amphitrite, an oceanid or nereid and wife of Poseidon
Callirrhoe, an oceanid and wife of Poseidon
Doris, an oceanid and mother of the Nereids
Echidna, half-woman and half-snake
Electra, an oceanid and mother of the Harpies
Eurynome, an oceanid and the third wife of Zeus
The three Gorgon sisters (Medusa, Euryale, and Stheno), with hair made of venomous snakes, turn anyone who looks at them to stone
The Harpies, birds with the heads of women
Lamia, a child-eating, disfigured monster
Metis, an oceanid and first wife of Zeus
The Nereids, Oceanids
Scylla and Charybdis, sea monsters living on opposite sides of a narrow strait
The Sirens, women combined with birds, whose songs lured sailors to wreck their ships
The Sphinx, the head of a woman and the body of a lion, said to have guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes
Styx, an oceanid and wife of Pallas
Beowulf (c. 700–1000): Grendel’s mother, a monster-woman
Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1220): The Valkyries, female creatures (often depicted as winged) of Norse mythology, who choose which fighters live and die in battle
Roman de Mélusine by Jean d’Arras (1392–94): Mélusine, a water spirit of European folklore
Early modern period
Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667): Sin, an allegorical character with the tail of a fish
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818): Female version of the creature created by Victor Frankenstein – he destroys it before it can be brought to life
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (1837): The title character is a mermaid
The Succubus by Honoré de Balzac (1837): A succubus disguised as a woman
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (1871–2): Carmilla, a vampire who preys upon young women
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells (1896): Half-finished puma-woman created by Dr Moreau, who eventually fights and kills him
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (1894): Helen, the child of the character Mary and the Greek god Pan
Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey (1967–2012): Ramoth and Ruth, dragons
Vampirella comic book series, created by Forrest J Ackerman (1969–83): Vampirella, a vampire
Lila the Werewolf by Peter S. Beagle (1974): Lila, a young female werewolf living in New York City
The Belgariad series by David Eddings (1982–4): Dryads, female human-like creatures, bound to oak trees
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984): Fevvers, a circus performer claims to be part-swan
Vampire Princess Miyu by Toshiki Hirano (1989–2002): Miyu, half-human and half-vampire
Tehanu and The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin (1990, 2001): Tehanu, part-human and part-dragon
Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton (1993–present): Many female characters are vampires, shapeshifters, and other creatures. In the later books, Anita Blake becomes a succubus.
Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate and Michael Grant (1996–2001): Rachel and Cassie, can transform into any animal they touch
Aprilhäxan by Majgull Axelsson (1997): Desirée, ‘the April witch’, a shape-shifting monster
Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones (2000): Elda, a griffin
The Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris (2001–13): Sookie Stackhouse, a faerie-human hybrid. Many other female characters are vampires, fae, shapeshifters, etc.
Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch manga series by Michiko Yokote (2002–5): Lucia, Hanon and Rina, mermaid princesses
Emily Windsnap series by Liz Kessler (2003–15): Emily Windsnap, half-human and half-mermaid
The Ingo Chronicles by Helen Dunmore (2005–12): Sapphire, half-human and half-mermaid
Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (2005–8): Several female characters are vampires and one is a werewolf. Bella becomes a vampire in the final book of the series.
The Shifters series by Rachel Vincent (2007–10): Faythe Sanders, a werecat
The Story of GROWL by Judy Horacek (2007): Growl, a young female monster
Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead (2007–10): Lissa, Jill and Rose, vampires
The Host by Stephenie Meyer (2008): Wanderer, a female parasitic alien implanted into the body of a human woman
Faery Rebels series by R. J. Anderson (2009–11): Knife, Linden and Rhosmari (among others), faeries
Fire by Kristin Cashore (2009): Lady Fire, a ‘human monster’
Soul Screamer series by Rachel Vincent (2009–13): Kaylee and Nash, banshees
The Parasol Protectorate and Finishing School series by Gail Carriger (2009–15): Sidheag Maccon, a werewolf
iZOMBIE comic book series by Chris Roberson (2010–12): Gwen, a revenant or zombie
A Centaur’s Life manga series by Kei Murayama (2011–present): Himeno, a centaur
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011): Claire has a second mouth in the back of her head, and the Ymbrynes can shape-shift into birds
Monster Musume manga series by Okayado (2012–present): Many of the female characters are mermaids, centaurs, etc.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (2012): Seraphina, half-dragon, half-human
The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (2014): Melanie, infected with a zombie virus
Talon series by Julie Kagawa (2014): Ember, a dragon hiding in human form
Interviews with Monster Girls manga series by Petos (2015–present): Hikari (a vampire), Kyōko (a dullahan), Yuki (a snow woman), and Sakie (a succubus)
Lorali series by Laura Dockrill (2015–17): Lorali and Aurabel, mermaids