(contains some spoilers for Thelma, What Keeps You Alive, and Women Who Kill)
Who deserves to live? Without putting too fine a point on it, that’s more or less what we’re asking ourselves when we watch horror. The genre itself furnishes some traditional answers: girls if they’re virginal and virtuous enough, Final Girl material, and their devoted boyfriends. Sometimes a loyal, one-dimensional best friend. Other people — slutty, or poor or trashy, or Black or brown, the list goes on — are acceptable losses. This is far from a new observation! There’s a rich field of scholarship devoted to the subject. Horror movies function in many ways as our contemporary fairy tales: they teach and reinforce moral codes about what behavior is punishable and what is worthy of reward; the monsters eat the bad kids and are vanquished by the good ones. There are limited roles for women in this economy; if they’re beyond reproach, maybe they survive. But probably not.
Gay women, of course, are used to watching movies with lesbians and hoping against hope that they’ll end up safe and happy; that they’ll at least live. Horror featuring lesbians is an interesting gamble in that it asks straight viewers will feel the same way, that they’ll root for our survival. (With the exception, as pointed out in the recent i-D piece on lesbian horror, of lesbian vampire movies, their own genre.) In recent years, several movies have taken that bet. 2016 gave us Women Who Kill, not technically a horror movie but an exploration of murder and fear steeped in a very gay cinematic universe; in 2017, Joachim Trier’s Thelma brought us an atmospheric, austere Scandinavian supernatural gay love story. 2018 saw What Keeps You Alive, a take on a classic cabin-in-the-woods slasher setup centering a lesbian couple. Wildly different in genre (Women Who Kill is maybe… a serial killer dramedy?), they definitely aren’t the first horror movies with lesbians or bi women — Sarah Logan, the long-haired butch of The Taking of Deborah Logan, for instance, will always have a warm place in my heart. But they represent a fascinating trend where lesbian identity isn’t incidental to the story, where it isn’t just a neat bonus that we get to survive, but central to the plot and to the horror of the film.
Women have been increasingly centered, both behind and in front of the camera, in recent cerebral horror. Horror is women’s genre, really, because so much of our understanding of the world is shaped by fear. We will always understand that experience in a way that men don’t, and movies about it from our perspective open up lots of possibilities. Men’s idea of horror is freak occurrences that make a normal day suddenly horrific: the chainsaw-wielding murderer shows up, the normal family moves into a haunted house. In women’s horror universes, the terror has always been there. In It Follows, the supernatural follower has always been there, has no real beginning or end; in Raw, the horror has been waiting all along, dormant inside Justine’s body. Often in horror centered around women, the real fear isn’t even about what happens to you; it’s about what you’ll do, who you’ll become because of what you’ve experienced. (The Babadook comes to mind.)
These movies hint at something darker and riskier, too — women’s fear not just of something awful happening to them, but of being the something awful. In classic horror, final girls have no need for that kind of self-examination; they know how virtuous they are because the filmmaker does, and so their survival and moral fiber remains assured. Real women — especially those in scary situations, which you know, is most women at one point or another — don’t have that assurance. The fear of becoming a monster is scarier than the monster itself. When horror centers authentically on lesbian experiences, there’s another layer: there’s the fear that comes from self-loathing, the fear not only that we might be capable of something monstrous, but that we are inherently monsters by dint of who and what we are.
Thelma is on its face kind of a modern, gay take on Carrie — Thelma grew up sheltered and quiet, and her weird, controlling dad hovers over her with religious fervor, homophobia and the threat of violence. Thelma has had mysterious powers since she was a little kid, and they let her accomplish her desires even when her desires are bad or selfish, like when she disappears her baby brother into another plane because he’s annoying. So she learns to keep her desires in check — until she meets Anja and can’t anymore. The concept of a repressed woman as horror subject isn’t new, but Thelma’s intense desire for Anja is, as is the particularity of her dad’s lesbophobia. He accuses her of willing Anja to reciprocate her feelings with her powers — of being a predatory psycho lesbian, basically, tricking a straight girl who could never really love her as she is. A unique but discomfitingly familiar amalgam of fears: that you want too much; that you’re controlling someone you care for with your love; that there’s something wrong with you and you are turning her into something bad too. Tangled in with the snake iconography and touches of body horror, those are the real horrors for Thelma, that and the deep-seated fear that everything your abusive parent said about you is true.
Thelma’s fear, more than anything, is of what she wants — and what it would look like to have it. Despite the comparison to Carrie, when Thelma finally stops holding herself back in the third act of the movie, it isn’t a loss of control; it’s finally taking control.
What Keeps You Alive is a more direct meditation on the psycho lesbian trope in that it features a lesbian who’s literally a sociopathic murderer, a tiptoeing of the line between self-awareness and trope. On what should be a romantic mountain getaway to an old family cabin, it becomes obvious that Jules’ wife Jackie has been keeping secrets (like the fact that she used to go by Megan?) and also that she is planning to kill Jules and make it look like an accident for the insurance money, something she’s done many times before to other women. Does Jackie/Megan evade the trope because the fact that her relationships are with women seems incidental to her black widow tendencies? Or because she and Jules have an intentionally scripted conversation about why Jackie has turned out like this, and Jackie makes it clear it’s just part of her character? Or the fact that the survivor we’re rooting for is a lesbian, too?
In many ways What Keeps You Alive is a classic slasher; the remote location, the blood, the relentless quality of the villain. Breaking from tradition, though, Jules does something I’ve never seen a final girl do, though — when it seems like her psycho killer wife is finally incapacitated, Julie drives away toward freedom, then pulls over onto the side of the road to sob before turning the car around and heading back to try to finish her off. Though it’s established by then that Jackie/Megan is a monster, Jules doesn’t face her with the same resolve as final girls usually do (it’s interesting to compare her to, say, Laurie Strode in the most recent Halloween update). There’s hesitation and real grief — is it because Jules (understandably) hasn’t been able to stop seeing her as her beloved wife, or at least human? Or is it because Jules is afraid of becoming a monster herself? Either way, understanding the wordless transition Jules moves through requires truly seeing how much the marriage and the wife she thought she had meant to her, and what it’s costing her to accept otherwise. The truly scary moments of the film — watching Jackie flip from sobbing and calling out for her wife one second to deadpan sighs of exasperation in the next because she doesn’t realize Jules can see her — are only scary because we believed, as Jules did, in the goodness and loving nature of her wife.
At its core, horror is an affective project, asking us to be afraid of the same things the protagonists are. To feel the delicious vicarious fear we look for in a horror movie, our nervous system has to believe that the scary thing really is dangerous; this makes us jump when the protagonists jump, scream when they scream, breathe a sigh of relief when they do. This isn’t a big ask when the scary thing is a man in a leather mask trying to kill you with a chainsaw; that’s objectively bad! But trusting that the audience (an audience which will inevitably include straight people) will understand and even share Thelma’s terror at the intensity of her feelings for Anja, or Jules’ sick horror at realizing her wife is a predator because contrary to popular horror imagination about lesbians, we assume that her wife is safe and loving, is a bold move.
Maybe the most blatant example of this is in Women Who Kill — again, arguably not horror, but certainly steeped in the dread of not being sure whether you can trust someone you care about and also wondering if maybe she murdered your friends. The general milieu of the film is so deeply gay I’m genuinely curious about how much sense it would make to someone with no touchpoint in gay culture — from the Park Slope co-op drama to the in-joke of a lesbian serial killer who clips fingernails, there’s really no attempt whatsoever to make the world relatable or translatable to straight viewers. And while the ending climax is affecting on its face, the choice it represents for emotionally unavailable yet totally sprung Morgan is something more legible if you’re intimately acquainted with the complex systems of gay attachment and denial it clearly comes out of.
Questions of ‘representation’ often get into conversations about universality, or relatability — will viewers from a dominant culture be able to “get” — where “get” is a euphemism for “care about” — the stories of others if they don’t look exactly like their own? How much work is it worth it to put into drawing the parallels, providing stepping stools for narrative empathy? Not much, seems to be the argument here. The bad things that happen to us — and that we believe about ourselves — are terrifying on a fundamental level, not because they can be likened in some way to more common or generalizable fears. Moreover, the things we do to survive them are justifiable and even praiseworthy; we deserve to be rooted for like we root for Carrie, Laurie Strode, or Sidney Prescott. Like the modern fairy tales they are, horror tells us about not only who we think deserves to live, but what ills are evil enough they deserve to be vanquished. The image of Thelma’s father in flames, screaming and sinking; the final frame of her smiling, hand in hand with a girl she loves.