Lesbian Representation in Modern Horror Films: The Good, The Bad, and the High Tension

Lesbians and horror have been together a long time. At least since 1872 when Sheridan Le Faun penned the novella Carmilla – which in turn has spawned decades of lesbian vampire films. And a list of lesbian vampire films from someone whose username is Lesbian Vampire which one assumes is expertly curated from personal experience.

Historically, queer characters have often been depicted as villains preying on innocent heterosexual victims. Depicting LGBTQ characters this way helped to reinforce heteronormativity. But as social mores shift to be far more accepting if not at least tolerant of queer characters, how is that represented in a genre who has created films like Vampyros Lesbos?

We’ve at least gotten to the point where not all lesbian characters are villains in horror films. But they often aren’t exactly good either – at most we tend to get “problematic but somewhat sympathetic.” 

Although there have been many lists of “recommended” or “good” lesbian horror movies – even the ones I’ve read by other queer women tend to focus on blindly listing horror films with even the most minor insinuation that a female character is gay versus finding movies with positive and/or decent representation. Or the movie has a great lesbian character but is otherwise a badly made film. We don’t have to settle. Although rare, you can get you a film that can do both.

Here they are: the good, the bad, and the High Tensions of queer women in horror:


Good:

Lyle

A lesbian mother’s grief over the death of her toddler leads to horror.

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Horror fan confession: I’ve never been a big fan of Rosemary’s Baby. This is pertinent because Lyle is a modern lesbian retelling of Rosemary’s Baby. I could probably create an entire post about my loathing of pregnant lesbian storylines but I really can’t fault this movie given I knew that would be a critical component of the plot.

This movie is directed by a female director (Stewart Thorndike) and queer sexuality is treated sincerely. It’s also a bit understated which helps keep the focus tight on the psychological unraveling of the main character.

Although it seems to be taking longer than anticipated, Lyle is the first of three female-centric horror films Thorndike is trying to create. Her next is supposed to feature a haunted TED Talk which has sold me on watching it.


May 

A lonely young woman starts to unravel after her desperate attempts to connect with the people around her fail repeatedly.  

The movie is weird – the kind that delights in making you confused as to whether you should laugh or cringe.

Anna Faris of Scary Movie fame plays Polly – a flirtatious lesbian coworker of Angela Bettis’s protagonist May. This movie has given us one of the best lesbian pickup lines in film history: “Do you like pussy…cats?”

Beyond how fun it is to see a relatively well-known actress in this movie and that role, Polly is a decent part of the storyline, and althought she is clearly interested in May she isn’t obsessed with her (in fact she sort of rebuffs May at one point – a far cry from how that dynamic typically plays out in mainstream movies). 

My ultimate case in point why you should check this film out: even Roger Ebert gave it four stars.


All Cheerleaders Die  

A rebel girl signs up a group of cheerleaders to help her take down the captain of their high school football team, but a supernatural turn of events thrusts the girls into a different battle.

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All Cheerleaders Die is a bit of a lovable mess…it’s a horror comedy that’s inhaled way too many Pumpkin Spice Lattes and tries to do way too much too quickly. But it is a refreshing take on queer women in horror. I don’t know any other films in general which feature a love triangle between three women.

In this film our main protagonist Maddy joins the cheerleading squad in order to enact revenge against the school’s football captain for unknown reasons. This in part involves an opportunity she takes to seduce his girlfriend and fellow cheerleader Tracy at a school party while Maddy’s ex-girlfriend Leena jealously watches the seduction; still clearly heartbroken over Maddy.

This movie revels in its own silliness and is best enjoyed with a few drinks and a desire to laugh.

(Interestingly enough May and All Cheerleaders Die were both written and directed by Lucky McKee – a cisgender straight man. Although I commend his depiction of queer women in these two films, I really disliked his episode of Masters of Horror (”Sick Girl”). If you want to see an example on how not to do a lesbian storyline in horror there you have it).


Proxy

A pregnant woman is attacked on the way home from her latest obstetrician/gynecologist visit. When she joins a grieving support group she encounters another woman who she quickly becomes friends with – but realizes this new friend is harboring dark secrets. 

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Proxy involves an unreliable and a pretty unlikable queer protagonist. But I include it on a list of good lesbian horror films in part because her madness is mirrored by the other characters. But most importantly this movie features a secondary lesbian character who is also a terrible person but also sort of a lovable dumbass. 

I’m talking about Butch McGee here: 

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You know the casting director was like “Hey! Get me someone who looks like a REAL lesbian!”

At one point this character (who is fresh out of jail) decides she needs to get revenge for an injustice done to her main boo by finding and torturing the people responsible. Watching her try to piece together this revenge plot is bizarrely amusing and inexplicably endearing given what we know of her character from earlier in the film.


Martyrs

A young woman’s quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity.

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All I knew about Martyrs going in was it was part of the New French Extremism subgenre and it was supposed to be one of the goriest movies of this gory subgenre. I had a feeling with it being a French horror movie and featuring two women on the cover something gay would probably happen between them. Needless to say I was not disappointed on that front.

Though this might be the first time in history this word has been used to describe this movie, it has a subtle moment which confirms Anna is queer and most likely in love with Lucie – an important scene which adds a rich layer to the plot. It would be very difficult if not impossible to imagine Anna reacting the way she does to Lucie’s actions otherwise. It’s a small moment in an otherwise very horrific film, but it really added to my appreciation of it.

I should also note two pieces of information which delight me to no end about this movie:

1) The DVD started with an optional introduction by the director in which he basically apologizes for making it, and explains he won’t mind if you hate it because he’s not entirely sure how he feels about it himself.

2) In an interview in the the extras he mentions that he made it at a time of turmoil in his personal life which contributed greatly to the hyperviolence, but that his goal in making the film was to create a horror film that would leave even the most die hard horror fans guessing at what type of movie they were actually watching. I think he succeeded immensely at that – and though the violence could have been drastically subdued and the film would still have made its point – it is probably one of my favorite horror films of the past 10 years.

Like Proxy, this film is best watched cold with little to no background information.


Hostel II

Three American college students studying abroad are lured to a Slovakian hostel, and discover the grim reality behind it.

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(Beth is on the left; on the right is Axelle who plays the flirtatious siren leading her to her doom)

Hostel II features my favorite lesbian protagonist of any horror film – Beth is a badass final girl. The way in which she defeats the villains in the final act is one of the most immensely satisfying ends to a horror film I’ve ever seen. 

Her and her two female friends get lured to the pay-to-kill business the hostel supports because (just like her straight best friend) she is looking to hook up while on break from college in Europe. Just setting up this dynamic between Whitney (the straight best friend) and Beth normalizes both female and specifically lesbian sexuality in a way most films can’t pull off without being exploitative. Whether the decision to not make it explicitly clear Beth is gay was truly Eli Roth’s vision or pressure from the studio to make the movie palatable for a wide release isn’t completely clear to me – but it works well for the film regardless.

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I’m always a little surprised people don’t give these movies a chance. I wrote a college paper analyzing themes of globalization, capitalism, and anti-American sentiment in Hostel II. There are some layers this and its predecessor. Plus the Mrs. Bathory scene is such a horrifyingly fun nod to lesbian vampires and a powerfully sincere depiction of a female villain. Give it an open-minded chance and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Bonus: this movie also includes Heather Matarazzo playing a straight secondary character. If you are straight you know her as Anne Hathaway’s best friend in The Princess Diaries. If you are gay you know her as Stacy Merkin from The L Word. She even commented in an interview for the movie how she appreciated Eli Roth casting the out lesbian actress as the straight character and a straight actress as the lesbian character.

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Too Close to Call:

The Neon Demon 

When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her incredible beauty and innocence make her a target of jealously and sexual obsession in the superficial and competitive fashion industry.

I could forgive this movie for its artsy pretentiousness. I respect and admire it for its attempt to create a truly empowered and totally villainous lesbian character in Ruby (played perfectly by Jena Malone). What I cannot forgive is one particular scene involving that character which really destroys that sense of evil empowerment and reduces her to a stereotype. 

After our main character Jesse runs away to Ruby’s place, terrified of being assaulted by the sleazy owner of the motel she is staying in while she tries to break into the fashion industry, Ruby finally reveals she is just as much a predator as the male characters. She tries to “seduce” Jesse (I put seduce in quotes because it quickly becomes a sexual assault till she finally heeds Jesse’s request for her to stop). Afterwards she leaves for her job as a make up artist in a morgue. Where she proceeds to have sex with a corpse which looks like Jesse. 

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That gratuitous morgue scene takes an otherwise intriguing depiction of a lesbian villain and spoils it. Ruby is an effective villain because she is so empowered in many regards – but the morgue scene erases that empowerment and reduces her to the tired psych/obsessive lesbian trope. That scene aside I think this movie has some merit although it seems to generate feelings of love or hate – at its Cannes festival premiere some screenings got ovations and others were booed and had walkouts.


Bad:

A bad movie you should watch if you are queer:

High Tension 

Best friends Marie and Alexia decide to spend a quiet weekend at Alexia’s parents’ secluded farmhouse. But on the night of their arrival, the girls’ idyllic getaway turns into an endless night of horror. 

Okay so it’s not that High Tension is a bad film (although I can understand viewers who feel frustrated that it “cheats” in creating its own twist). But it violently and explicitly reinforces many negative lesbian tropes – namely that lesbians are sexually obsessed with their straight best friends. 

It’s a movie I feel lesbians should experience just once if they are interested in horror films – but don’t watch it with your straight friends unless you want to be getting side eye for a few weeks afterwards.


A bad movie no one should watch:

Contracted 

After being drugged and raped at a party, a young woman contracts what she thinks is an STD; but, it’s actually something much worse. 

To me, there is no defense for how lesbia/biphobic this film is. The film’s creators made a conscious decision to make Samantha someone who had just started dating another woman for the first time and repeatedly declares she is now a lesbian as if being a lesbian is like a switch you turn on and off. She then gets roofied and raped at a party. Her ex-girlfriend Nikki is depicted as an emotionally abusive asshole, going through Sam’s mail and not telling her about an important scholarship letter she received for college. She’s also clearly insecure and jealous about Sam’s sexual past – most of Nikki’s conversations with Sam revolve around reaffirming how uninterested in men they are. The climax of the film has Sam attempting to seduce the poster child of “nice guys who feel friend zoned” – once again playing with the idea any queer woman who might be bi or have a romantic history with men is confused and will revert back eventually (especially if someone pursues her enough).

Perhaps what’s most infuriating is how some reviews imply the rape scene was a one night stand where the main character “switched teams” after a fight with her girlfriend. (The latter review also repeatedly mentions how Contracted is somewhat similar to Blue is the Warmest Color so they would make a good double bill …I guess because they both have lesbians? Which is like saying people who enjoy Amélie might also enjoy Irréversible because they are both French films from 2001/2002 and feature straight women). 

I’m sure there are many horror films just as bad as Contracted but this once got popular enough to warrant calling it out on its problematic depiction of queer women. It’s fine to have bad things happen to gay women in films; but this movie clearly delights in reaffirming that queer women are sexually confused and prone to switching teams with enough coaxing. Whether Sam is a lesbian, bisexual, or still figuring herself out doesn’t excuse how her sexuality is treated as exploitative fodder for the plot. 

I feel in a sense High Tension and Contracted are fun house mirrors showing us how certain people see queer women. High Tension shows us what lesbians look like in a straight woman’s worse nightmares. Contracted shows us what a queer woman looks like in a straight man or a lesbian’s worst nightmares. What do both of these carnival mirrors not have? An actual queer woman informing the storytelling decisions. 


So what have we learned?

Gradual improvements are being made. But the bar is still pretty low for queer lady representation.

The fact that a movie like Contracted can be made in 2013 shows there is still a lot of work to be done – and that exploiting queer women’s lives for a sensational story isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The Neon Demon and Proxy both take steps in depicting villainous lesbians without making them one-dimensional man haters or obsessive stalkers. 

Movies like Hostel II and All Cheerleaders Die are especially promising – featuring strong queer protagonists devoid of tired tropes.

Hopefully more female horror directors will help create positive change in the depiction of female sexuality – both queer and otherwise. And films that do feature gay women – villainous or otherwise – will treat their sexuality sincerely. Or…you know…just consult one of us first. We don’t bite (unless we are lesbian vampires of course). 

Let me know what movies I missed or ones I should definitely check out! I hope to update this post with new titles periodically. 

Thanks for reading. 

2 thoughts on “Lesbian Representation in Modern Horror Films: The Good, The Bad, and the High Tension

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