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An exploration of sapphics in horror

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

by Yuvthi Misser

A scene from the Fear Street trilogy (2021). From the New York Times.

Part of being who you are and living your truth is to conquer your fears. Personally, this included conquering my fear of horror movies just so I could enjoy some WLW (Woman-loving Woman) stories. Horror is a genre that a person can learn to appreciate and sometimes even find comfort in. It is important to realise the relationship between horror and queerness and its significance for queer audiences.

The relationship between horror and queerness

Most tall tales often have their basis in reality. For example, “Ring Around the Rosie,” a popular nursery rhyme, is said to have originated from London during the time of the Plague. Maleficent, our misunderstood heroine, was initially forced to dance to her death, clad in iron shoes in front of the king and queen. Horror can provide a rationalisation of the fears we face every day or a heightened representation of such.

For example, it is highly unlikely you will come across a dancing clown that will exploit your fears, but you may suffer from coulrophobia, in which case the movie It (2017) will feed into your fear of clowns.

It is the dramatic exaggeration that makes a horror movie more realistic, therefore leaving more of an impact on the viewer. It is even more realistic when the “horrific” things that are visualised aren’t monsters, spirits or anthropomorphic beings but people instead. It is no surprise that when thinking of some of our favourite villains they possess some characteristics from certain marginalised groups over the years.

For example, Gargamel from The Smurfs Cinematic Universe is infamous for being inspired by anti-Semitic caricatures and is portrayed as the main villain in the comics and movies. While these may not have any harmful intent, they are examples of microaggressions and embedded prejudices that have their roots in every factor of society.

What is queer coding?

Have you ever noticed how flamboyant and sarcastic Hades from Hercules (1997) was? How Him from The Power Puff Girls was the embodiment of androgyny and evil? The writers might not have explicitly said that they were queer, however, we can assume such things from all the negative stereotypes about gay and transgender people that we have been taught throughout our lives. While we may not outwardly say that Scar from the Lion King is queer, subconsciously we associate those characters with queerness because of their caricatures. This is known as queer coding. Inadvertently we are taught to associate queerness with antagonism, and this sparks a few problems.

Sapphism, and more importantly lesbianism, has always been viewed as evil, and as a threat. This is mostly because if a woman is a lesbian, she would have no use for a man which is considered a slap in the face for the patriarchy. Also because of the age-old notion that a woman cannot enjoy herself without a man’s presence in her life. Being a lesbian is a specific experience because you experience both misogyny, sexism and homophobia and it can be particularly isolating.

Lesbians are dubbed as “man-haters” and since the patriarchy thrives on power over women, this renders lesbians and other WLW a threat to the overall structure. Therefore, society needs to burn them at the stake, we need to masculinize them and we need to “fix” them so they can be obedient women again.

Fiction does mirror reality, and by portraying an evil queer-coded character against the heroic protagonist we are inadvertently telling people that being queer is wrong and is to be eradicated. For centuries, LGBTQ+ people have been vilified and persecuted for their identities and one could argue that by having these queer-coded threats to goodness or normality, we are contributing to the rippling effects of the decades of oppression. However, with alienation from society comes embracement from the oppressed groups. Queer people often admire and idolise the villains or threats presented because they identify with them. In a world where you are constantly trying to find your place and find a community, an antagonist who is similar to you and as alienated as you will resonate with you – regardless of their moral compass. Seeing characters like Carmilla, a lesbian vampire who had her first literary appearance in the late 19th century, being portrayed in contemporary media in shows like Castlevania and Carmilla (2017) gives me, for lack of better words, a serotonin rush.

If you would like to see some lesbian and sapphic coded film and tv, be sure to read the follow up to this article for some recommendations.

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