If you’re even a casual fan of horror, chances are that you’ve noticed a recurring theme. Horror, as of late, has presented a wealth of lesbian characters and relationships, with representation ranging from good to…not so good. But why is that, and what does it say about the audience, also known as, well, us?
In honor of National Girlfriend’s Day, let’s explore the phenomenon of the lesbian in horror through three contemporary classics.
American Horror Story (Asylum and Hotel)
American Horror Story is nowhere near new to LGBT characters. Yet their lesbian characters seem to be hit or miss as far as the relationship between their sexuality and the storyline.
In the Asylum season, the main character’s, Lana Winters, lesbian relationship is exactly what gets her admitted to the asylum she sought to investigate.
While she lives inside its horrific walls, she is violently “treated” by staff, seemingly with no escape. Her partner is similarly punished, killed by a psychotic asylum worker, Dr. Oliver, and violated beyond belief. Winters also experience extensive abuse at the hands of Dr. Oliver.
It seems that every punishment that WInters suffers through has a link to her lesbianism; it’s what put her in the asylum, what was painfully “treated,” and what eventually killed her partner and made her a target of the asylum doctor.
The Hotel season, by contrast, features what could be considered a lesbian relationship only in passing.
Elizabeth Starr, a vampire and the countess of the evil hotel, is solely driven by reuniting with her old flames, Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova, old film stars that made her into a vampire.
However, when both are resurrected, Elizabeth realizes that she only wants Rudolph, and subsequently kills Natacha to become the sole object of his affection.
In this way, she merely puts up with her relationship with Natacha to get close to Rudolph, making their relationship a temporary means to an end.
The lesbian relationship is thus killed off, if it was ever real in the first place.
The main character, Nurse Mildred Ratched, falls in love with the governor’s aid, Gwendolyn Briggs, but refuses her feelings for much of the series.
Ratched is unquestionably a villain, but a villain with the motivation to protect the ones she loves, making the waters murky for the viewer throughout the series.
It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the movie Lizzie, which twists the story of ax-murderer Lizzie Borden. LGBTQ publication The Current describes the relationship between main character Borden and Bridget Sullivan as “not played up only for the audience’s pleasure, but also adds an additional element to the story: Lizzie is a killer not because her sexuality has driven her to madness, but because the people she killed threatened to hurt and had hurt her lover.”
Ratched isn’t initially driven to protect Briggs, but her adopted brother, but the similarity stands.
The show makes a point to highlight how lesbianism was pathologized in 1947, around the time the series was set, when Ratched helps free two lesbian patients at the psychiatric hospital that she works at in Northern California.
The show doesn’t necessarily link her relationship with her villainous acts, but it does show the turmoil she experiences due to her lesbianism.
To make matters harder to work out, Briggs reveals her cancer diagnosis just as the two are finally allowed to be together, making it eerily resemble the “bury your gays” pattern that it, at first, seemed to subvert by making Ratched the killer.
What does her motivation say? What does the postponement of her romance, and its eventual downfall, say?
Fear Street was hailed as appropriate representation for a lesbian relationship and is the most current of the three series mentioned here. Neither Deena nor Sam, the main characters trying to work out their failed relationship, died because they were gay, so to speak.
The story begins with the two towns, Shadyside and Sunnyvale, and the witch that perpetually curses Shadyside to harbor mass murderers. Once Sam accidentally touches the grave of the witch, the undead murderers of Shadyside pursue her relentlessly, after her blood.
As Deena, Sam, and their friends try to outrun and outwit the monsters, their broken relationship begins to mend as the madness brings them together.
As the series runs through its three parts, 1994, 1978, and 1667, it does historically link being gay with punishment. Like Ratched, the violence that loomed over gay people from the 1600s into the 1990s (and into today, but the show only covered the specified era) haunts the characters, adding another layer of danger to their already precarious situation. However, this is historically accurate and doesn’t seem blown up for the sake of entertainment.
The revelation of the series, however, quite possibly makes a statement on the demonization of lesbian relationships.
The witch that haunts Shadyside, Sarah Fier, turns out to never have been a witch at all. Rather, she was unjustly hanged for her relationship with the pastor’s daughter in the 1600s, and framed for the pestilence that plagued their settlement. Upon touching her remains, she shared her tragic story with Sam, making her a target for the actual puppet master behind the murderous Shadysiders and causing them to pursue her. This realization is meant to free her from the belief that she terrorizes the town of Shadyside, and paints her as an innocent victim of persecution for her sexuality.
So is this merely decent representation with a surprisingly pro-LGBT moral? Possibly.
Fear Street doesn’t fall into the “bury your gays” trope that other horror franchises do, and they center a love story not often seen in such popular horror shows without it ending tragically.
Fear Street, however imperfect, might set a precedent for series and films that follow, horror or otherwise.
What does this say about society’s perception of lesbian relationships?
The honest answer is I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll know until there’s a broad enough spectrum of media with queer characters and relationships that we’ll be able to pick up a pattern.
The “bury your gays” trope continues to be subverted by all kinds of movies and TV. Specifically, films like The Retreat, centered on a lesbian couple as they navigate the countryside while trying to stay safe as a queer, traveling couple in the face of aggressive outsiders.
Fear Street arguably does the same, allowing the couple to survive and placing its moral center in a refreshingly pro-LGBTQ stance. The series has improved upon narratives that we’ve seen even recently, in American Horror Story as I’ve referenced.
But what does the tie between lesbian romance and horror, which appears to only be growing stronger, mean as a reflection of our society?
One could argue that the link is meant to illustrate the “horror” that society considers LGBTQ relationships, or that they reflect society’s desire to literally bury the gays in favor of a heteronormative world.
Then again, the horror genre can be seen as inherently queer or other, and thus a perfect fit for romances that are also perceived as other. The horror genre has recently been utilized to represent the “other” and the social issues linked with marginalized groups, as in the case of Jordan Peele and his film Get Out. An ABC News review of The Retreat pokes at this as well: “The Retreat” inverts another trope for LGBTQ characters in the genre: the evil gay antagonist. The villains in “The Retreat” are the white, straight, camouflage-wearing locals who are intended to be representative of the real-life “alt-right extremists” that have been consistently making national headlines.”
So while series like American Horror Story and Ratched might have attempted to show and criticize the LGBTQ bigotry of the past, newer anthologies like Fear Street and The Retreat could have shifted to the present, critiquing the current state of anti-LGBTQ through the ever imaginative and metaphorical genre of horror.