With its blend of transgressive sexuality and haunting romance, gothic horror—as many scholars have argued—is inherently queer. And that designation can apply to horror stories that don’t take place in crumbling castles where it’s always raining: In a genre where all monsters are metaphors, the monstrous other is an object of both fear and desire, representing other lives and other existences beyond the conventional and mundane. Where horror often reverts to a more conservative worldview is at the end of the story, when the queer-coded monster is defeated and “good” people can go back to their pious, obedient, heteronormative lives.
We see this in Carmilla, one of the foundational texts of gothic horror published in 1872, 25 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In that novella, the title character is a young, innocent-looking female vampire whose fixation on teenage noblewoman Laura is a clear warning to Victorian parents not to let their daughters’ friendships go unchecked, lest they become “unnatural.” Author Sheridan Le Fanu never explicitly states that Carmilla is a lesbian, but he doesn’t need to: In an era where experts in the new field of psychiatry were busy labeling homosexuality as a mental illness, the link between vampirism—a monster whose folklore is tied to wasting diseases like tuberculosis—and the “affliction” of same-sex desire was obvious.
One hundred twenty-five years and several social revolutions later, we begin to see horror stories that transfer the monstrousness off of their LGBTQ+ characters and into other aspects of the story. In the 21st century, queer horror has shifted from subtext into text with films like Knife + Heart, Stranger By The Lake, What Keeps You Alive, and Thelma. Here, the queer characters are the protagonists, not the villains, and while the horrors they face may reflect aspects of their lives as queer people—Stranger By The Lake can be read as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, for example—their sexuality itself is not the monstrous aberration to be feared.
That’s one of the subversions on display in the two very similar, but very different, sapphic horror-romances that debuted on TV in October. Both stories revolve around a long-term lesbian couple whose relationship is haunted by the ghosts of past trauma, and both use the supernatural elements of their stories to explore grief and mental illness (another “aberration” often inflated to monstrous status in horror). They even share the common trait of having one character gender-swapped from male to female at the adaptation stage. But the two shows’ approaches to the horror genre are fundamentally different, as are the nature of the emotions on display.
The longer of these two arcs is in Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor, where the relationship between earnest do-gooder Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) and prickly smart-aleck Jamie (Amelia Eve) is just one of the show’s multiple romantic storylines. Bly Manor is an unquestionably gothic work, updating Henry James’ classic 1898 ghost story The Turn Of The Screw for the 1980s while keeping the gloomy English manor and all the supernatural intrigue. It also has a soap opera streak reminiscent of the late-’60s classic Dark Shadows, upping the melodrama as it delves into the lives and loves of the residents of Bly Manor—both living and otherwise.
The final episode of this nine-part series features an extended epilogue, following Dani and Jamie as they leave England to start a new life together in America. But even after crossing continents, Bly Manor still follows them—specifically, the ghostly lady in the lake, who is eventually revealed to be the spirit of 17th-century noblewoman Viola (Kate Siegel). Dani, who confronted the monster head-on at the beginning of the episode, is especially tormented: Shortly before leaving Bly, she tearfully confesses to Jamie that the phantom still lives inside of her soul. “It’s so quiet, but she’s in here. And this part of her that’s in here, it isn’t peaceful… She’s waiting. At some point, she’s going to take me,” she says.
It’s a classic metaphor seen in many gothic haunted-house stories, where love is forever shadowed by both past traumas and the specter of death. The ghosts that have lingered around the edges of the frame throughout the series have gone from external threats to internal ones. Now, the ghost is carried within Dani’s body, sleeping between her and her true love at night. Jamie’s love brings peace to her troubled soul, but the joyful simplicity of their life together—or at least, the highlights we see as the show jumps forward in time—cannot last.
Eventually, Dani’s shadow begins to cloud her vision, moving from the peripheral to the center of her life, much like the onset of an illness. Although it doesn’t delve too deeply into the theme, the show does paint it as such: When Dani tells Jamie she’s started seeing the ghost again, Jamie says, “We can have so many more years together. We’ll keep an eye on it, and it’ll be fine.” Those are the exact words one partner might say to another when they are diagnosed with a terminal condition. And indeed, Dani must die to protect those she loves, her sacrifice echoing through the centuries. This tragic inevitability makes the sorrow of Bly Manor all the more effective, reminding us that even the purest, truest love can only end one way—with death.
The “til death do us part” theme is explored in more complicated—and, one might argue, more realistic—terms in “Plainfield, IL,” the fifth episode of Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland. Released one week before The Haunting Of Bly Manor, “Plainfield, IL” also revolves around a lesbian couple, upper-middle-class lawyers Kate (Taylor Schilling) and Shawn (Roberta Colindrez), who we see out at bar in the opening scene celebrating their 16th anniversary. The show is set in the present day, so unlike Dani and Jamie, Kate and Shawn are legally married; they also have a preteen daughter, who’s away at boarding school when the story begins. But the dynamics of the relationship are similar, in that Kate is haunted—in this case, by bipolar disorder rather than an actual ghost.
A scene set in a misty midnight cemetery aside, Monsterland’s approach to genre is more like a contemporary “elevated horror” film like Hereditary than a 19th-century ghost story. In practical terms, that means that the terror in “Plainfield, IL” largely comes from the harrowing intensity with which it confronts raw, painful emotions; writer Mary Laws and director Logan Kibens take the messiest parts of marriage and translate them into supernatural terms, punctuating them with shocking bursts of grisly body horror. As if to prove its traumatizing bona fides, it even comes with a title card that reads, “The following episode has content that may be extra sensitive for some viewers.”
The warning is presumably tied to the most upsetting theme of “Plainfield, IL”: Kate has attempted to end her life multiple times, and experiences extended periods of suicidal ideation. Shawn tries her best to be a supportive wife, but—although she would never admit it out loud—caring for Kate has gone from a noble sacrifice to a draining burden over the years. Put simply, Shawn is tired, which leads her to do something unspeakable when she finds Kate lying in a bathtub full of blood after an argument late one night: She closes the door and goes back to bed. (Interestingly, both Bly Manor and Monsterland use an overflowing bathtub as a visual metaphor.) Thus, the real monster of the episode is born, as Shawn’s codependency and guilt drive what comes next.
Shawn’s nagging conscience is manifested the next day, when Kate wakes up with blue lips, deep gashes on her arms, and no memory of her own death. Shawn reacts first with relief, then with horror when Kate’s body starts to rot in front of her eyes, her eyeball dropping into the plate of spaghetti Shawn has prepared for dinner. Kate openly pines for eternal sleep, covering herself in dirt and lying under the bed where it’s dark and cool. She even escapes from their suburban home and instinctually runs toward the nearest graveyard; Shawn finds Kate and brings her back home, going from her protector to her jailer in the process. Nevertheless, Shawn cannot let go. Even when Kate has deteriorated into a shambling ghoul desperately trying to dig her own grave, Shawn just sets up a mattress on the dirt floor and tells her zombie wife about her day, pretending that everything is fine.
Both “Plainfield, IL” and The Haunting Of Bly Manor equate love with sacrifice, leading to tragic endings. The more simplistic Bly Manor sees this sacrifice as a noble, morally righteous act, (literally) leaving the door open for reunion and reconciliation. “Plainfield, IL” is more ambivalent on the subject: Shawn’s human weaknesses are sympathetic, but her actions are selfish. She sacrifices everything for love, but she’s prolonging both her and Kate’s suffering by doing so. By contrast, Bly Manor sees love not as a potential inflictor of torment, but as its cure and salvation. In this way, these stories represent two very different sides of what it means to live with and love someone who is haunted—by trauma, by mental illness, by grief. The fact that both of them feature love between women is a happy coincidence.