**Editor’s Note: The Long and (Often) Dysfunctional History of Lesbians in Horror Films, Part 3 is a continuation of iHorror Horror Pride Month celebrating the LGBTQ community and their contributions and involvement in the genre.
Welcome back to the third and final chapter in this short series about lesbians portrayal in the horror genre.
Part 1 of the series, dealt with the era of the Hays Code where queer characters could not be called so by name. Rather, they were coded so that you only really found them if you were looking at them, and that coding almost always meant that they were portrayed as villains destined to meet a nasty fate by the end of the film.
Part 2 saw us entering the 70s where lesbians characters emerged from the coded shadows only to find themselves in the middle of exploitative plot points and still generally as villains.
By the end of the 70s, filmmakers had realized that lesbian characters could be used specifically to titillate their growing target demographic of young male audiences. Unfortunately, this meant that lesbians in horror films lost everything except their perceived hyper-sexuality.
Lesbians in horror films specifically seemed to exist in order to make unwanted advances to their straight counterparts, make out with every girl in the room they could, and get naked as often as possible.
And so began a litany of two-dimensional lesbian characters, some of whom weren’t even lesbians but the studios thought it was just so good to throw in some experimentation, once again adding to the titillation factor of their films.
There are so many, and it became such a trope, that I’ve actually decided to skip over them, mostly because it becomes depressing after a while, but if you want examples then Jennifer’s Body, Satanic Panic, Macumba Sexual, Breaking the Girls, Soul Survivors, Modern Vampires, and All Cheerleaders Die would be a tiny, tiny portion of the tip of this particular iceberg.
Instead, in the third part of this series, I wanted to focus on a few of the films, and one special TV series, that began to get it right which means we’ll be skipping the 80s, most of the 90s, and part of the 00s, as well because they just weren’t doing anything new.
1996-2003–Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Now, before you get all mad and point out that this is a TV series, not a film, please refer back to the last paragraph.
I know this isn’t a film, but let’s not pretend that Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara’s (Amber Benson) relationship was’t absolutely ground-breaking in its time. We knew from their first meeting that something special was happening, but I don’t think anyone predicted where it would lead.
Queer viewers were awestruck as we saw a budding relationship find its path while still navigating the dangerous waters of demon and vampire attacks. The fact that the story lines didn’t shy away from the emotional impact of falling in love with someone of the same sex for the first time and figuring out the intricacies and intimacy of sex was even more shocking and for once we saw people really dealing with what it meant to be who we are.
As a gay man, I felt totally embraced in this storytelling so I can only imagine what it was like for lesbian viewers of the series.
Willow and Tara became the couple we could root for, and we did…even when they burst into song.
What an incredible film this was!
Often called a lesbian retelling of Rosemary’s Baby, Lyle is so much more than that.
Gaby Hoffman stars as Leah, a young pregnant mother, who moves into a Brooklyn brownstone with her partner June (Ingrid Jungermann) and their toddler daughter who they unfortunately lose right after their move.
Still, we get wonderful moments as Gaby and June pick out wallpaper, talk about the future, plan for their new arrival, and generally go about their lives even as horrors begin to surround them.
Hoffman’s performance is stunning, and the film gets so much right about what it is to be in a normal, everyday lesbian relationship that one can easily overlook a few missteps.
Lyle is just over an hour long, and totally worth seeing.
2014–The Taking of Deborah Logan
If you’ve followed my work, you know that I loved this 2014 found footage film concerning a woman and her film crew making a documentary about Alzheimer’s only to find themselves confronting something much more sinister.
One of my favorite things about the film, however, is the character of Sarah Logan, played by the talented Anne Ramsay. Sarah is a lesbian who has way too much going on in her life to be too much of a stereotype.
As Sarah is forced to confront the failing health of her mother, Deborah (Jill Larson in a stunning performance), she’s also dealing with a relationship that is quickly failing under the pressures of her necessarily divided attention.
So what if she has a few more drinks than she should? Don’t you think you would in a situation like that?
And that is where the magic really happens in this role, because regardless of who you are, you begin to root for this woman and her desperate desire to save her mother from every bit of hurt that she can.
Writers Adam Robitel and Gavin Heffernan created one of the most beautifully realized lesbians I’ve ever seen in the genre and Ramsay played her with a raw sensitivity that only heightens that reality.
She is not over-sexualized; she is not a caricature. She is real.
The film’s focus may be Deborah, but the film’s heart rests in Sarah’s determination.
So where does that leave the lesbian community and its relationship to the genre?
The couple of entries in this particular portion of our series certainly give us hope, but how much of that hope has already been squandered in the wait?
Buffy debuted over 20 years ago, and even after the example they set there was plenty of exploitation that happened between the era of Willow/Tara and the era that has produced Leah and Sarah.
Certainly and especially in the last couple of decades, there has been an enormous amount of horror novels written by talented lesbian writers who create the more real lesbian characters that queer audiences want to see.
Perhaps it’s time for filmmakers to begin mining those stories and adapting some of them for the screen. Perhaps it’s time, in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp for studios, producers, etc. to realize that exploiting a minority audience for sexual gratification no longer plays well.
And perhaps, it’s time for all members of the queer community to begin to demand honest portrayals of ourselves in the genre films that we love.