Whitney Beltrán: Five Things I Learned About Feminine Horror

I co-designed Bluebeard’s Bride, a tabletop horror game, with two other women. The last two and a half years have been a tremendous amount of work, but the Kickstarter is now live [note: 17 days left on the clock — cdw] and I finally have some breathing room to look back on what we created.

The original Bluebeard fairy tale is one of the darkest and most twisted fairy tales out there, which is probably why it has endured for so long. It centers around an aristocrat with a proclivity for murdering his wives and keeping the bodies in a special room. Yet the fairy tale isn’t about how terrible Bluebeard is — it’s about how he sets his wives up to fail, and then punishes them when they do. And it’s still their fault.

In short, the tale is really about the dangers of a woman’s agency. At some point, it was likely meant to be an object lesson for women: beware, or this could be you! But women know that it’s already us. At its core, Bluebeard’s Bride is about examining what it means to be a woman in utterly untenable situations. The game takes the narrative away from the establishment and creates a space for a feminine understanding of what it means to exist in an often-terrifying world. It is, in a word, feminine horror.

Feminine Horror is About What’s Inside You (Sometimes Literally)

There are all kinds of sub-genres in horror. There’s torture porn, campy comedy horror, psychological thrillers, and whatever the hell Tokyo Gore Police is. But feminine horror is an extra kind of special. It’s psychological. It’s biological. It’s surreal. It’s utterly maddening in how it can make you feel like the world is twisting around you and defeating your sense of reality. You can’t escape it. It hems you in. It impregnates you with itself. It conquers you from inside and subverts you. The thing is, it’s not even alien. It creeps through the everyday and twines itself through the most mundane experiences.

The thing that I love most about feminine horror is that it’s about women, not about what is done to women. It shifts the locus of agency. It doesn’t mean that agency is great. In fact, we were very conscientious in the design of Bluebeard’s Bride to not give players too much agency. The idea is to occupy that agency and grapple with it—if you dare.

It’s Cathartic as Hell

Horror as a genre is a means of unpacking the black bag of things that we keep in the unconscious or semiconscious places in ourselves. It’s a way to drag those things into the light, or sometimes, to drag ourselves into the black spaces with them.

I’m honestly not sure why we do this. I just know that I like horror a lot. When we were designing Bluebeard’s Bride we didn’t pull any punches, and many times we’d discuss a certain design element and say to ourselves, “Are we really going to do this? It’s so terrible!” Then we would cackle madly, put our heads down and continue working on it. There was a vindication happening. We were creating a thing we could point to, a container that could hold our many lived experiences of being silenced, undermined, coerced, and cornered. We were making the undefined effable, giving voice to a bodiless thing, and it was a great, great feeling.

It Was Incredibly Easy to Make the Game Too Scary

Bluebeard’s Bride is a horror game with a capital “H.” It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s sensual. It’s viperous. It’s pervasively malevolent. The tempo shifts precariously between subtle menace and inescapable monstrosity. The game doesn’t throw scary things at you, but rather pulls them out of you. As it turns out, this is an incredibly effective way of getting to even the stoniest horror lovers.

We had to make the game dance a very fine line, and that dance took two years to choreograph. In early playtests, we kept running into a problem: by the last third of the game, players were often too freaked out. People loved the roleplay and horror, but it was too much, too inescapable, and without respite. It was a great lesson in understanding the particular challenge of working in the horror genre: we had to learn to balance the terror to evoke more than a single note, while ensuring it remains an enjoyable experience.

Feminine horror is awesome because it’s just so goddamn petrifying. There’s so much in that box, and what’s in there is so rich that we had to actively restrain it through design. Many writers and designers find themselves in a place where they’re thinking, “How do I make this scary?” We never had that problem.

It Opens Doors to Powerful Conversations

Tackling horror through metaphor and fairy tales feels natural to me. Not because it shies away from “real” horror, but precisely because fairy tales capture the true essence of horror so acutely, and metaphor speaks in a language that hits us directly in our center of being. We weren’t looking to create a conversation trigger. We just wanted Bluebeard’s Bride to be authentic. What we discovered was that people who played it were so pricked by the content that they started having conversations almost immediately, without any prompts from us. The game drives fascinating discussions about violence, oppression, society and its structures, why we like being scared—all kinds of really deep stuff. The game gives players a fluency of thought through metaphors which they often feel compelled to unpack. It’s been truly amazing to watch.

We Haven’t Even Scratched the Surface

Feminine horror as a genre is a grand tradition. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Crimson Peak, and books like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, are iconic and celebrated parts of the genre. We were shocked when we took stock of what had been made in tabletop RPGs and realized that this kind of gothic feminine horror had never been done before. Not ever. While Bluebeard’s Bride is indeed pretty awesome, one game cannot represent and carry an entire genre. It’s just not possible with so many cool and different aspects to cover.

Bluebeard’s Bride’s current success on Kickstarter has proven that feminine horror has an audience hungry for more games in the genre. We hope that it will help open the field to even more amazing and diverse perspectives in RPGs that will tap this bountiful well of really, really scary stuff. Personally, I can’t wait to see what other people come up with!

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