By: Mariam Bastani
Unhindered by word count and the natural immediacy of social media, Lezzie Borden caught my attention with critical analysis of horror through a lesbian lens that masters the art of it’s medium: Instagram. Never trite and always entertaining, Lezzie manages to deliver insightful observations and critique. In this interview, we discuss the current state of LGBTQ representations in horror, it’s hits, it’s misses and it’s future.
Please introduce yourself.
I guess it’s time for the inevitable Admin reveal! Part of me has kind of savoured the anonymity, in a way it’s allowed me to haunt over my own account like this Sapphic Spectre, but on the heels of Lesbian Visibility Day, it feels like time to grant myself some sort of formal conjuring. I’m Alex, and I run Lezzie Borden, an Instagram account dedicated to a spectrum of queer women in horror. I am a queer femme identified writer living in Toronto. I’ve spent the last few years contributing to queer literary mags & ‘zines, with spells & poems published in Room Magazine, Dyke Queen along with Toronto’s own Feels Zine. I also have a background in cinema studies, which is where my interest in horror writing and analysis first ignited. My work has always really encompassed themes of queer spectrality, an intersection of abject body horror and queerness; all the different ways a gay girl’s life can feel haunted. There’s such a lineage of gay ghosts in cinema’s basement, and in one’s own life, it feels impossible to stop summoning them all now.
What motivated you to start the lezzie_borden IG? Were there horror projects before this one and are there other horror projects you are involved with now?
This is my inaugural venture into the public horror sphere. I always wanted to return to writing about horror, but needed some time to recover post-academia, and this has become such an excellent way to hold myself accountable to that on a very regular basis. At some point, I’d love to expand some of the micro-essays into something more substantial. I was reading brilliant critical analysis & experiencing this thriving queer horror community, mostly focused through the lens of male subjectivities. It was such a homecoming to witness horror queers fan-ghouling their hearts out but at the same time, I was desperate for the kind of horror analysis that’s so intrinsic to queer women; this lesbian lens to horror. What I found to be kind of lacking was an expansion on the classification of queer horror and specifically lesbian horror. Initially, I wanted to manifest an online archive and for now, this is my urge to protect & bind these gay women of horror within this kind of “digital amber,” while also rendering them more visible through keyboard ouijas. Incidentally, it has become a form of my own self-preservation and archive as well; a way of exploring the self. I began to realize the extent to which my own history and identity are so enmeshed with horror. I’m also hoping to open the account up to guest contributors, maybe through a submission process? I would love to encourage others to engage further with queerness in horror, to expand the conversation and carve out a platform for more discourse on the subject, beyond what’s come before. I’ve also been asked to be on the Cocktail Party Massacre podcast and contribute to a future horror issue of Kate Butch Zine, which is all very exciting!
What has the feedback been like?
It’s been amazing! And absolutely overwhelmingly in the most wildly affirming way. Definitely far beyond anything I imagined back in its initial phase. It’s been such a pleasure experiencing this online coven form in the space I’ve carved for Lezzie Borden, watching this overlapping of online communities take shape: life-affirming horror queers & a strong contingent from Lesbian Instagram, but also a significant number of straight allies & hetero folks from the horror community, all of whom have been so engaging and brilliant. Back in March, I wrote about Clea Duvall in The Grudge (Ju-On) remake, and later, someone reached out to tell me they had rewatched the film after reading the post and it allowed for a completely new experience of Duvall’s character. And just recently a post-secondary professor in New York included Lezzie Borden in a lecture he was giving on queer horror. To think how much I would’ve loved to attend a lecture like that when I was in undergrad! It was such a surreal moment and really validates for me, what I am doing.
I feel like so many come seeking content outside of other well-celebrated areas of LGBTQ+ culture. I’ve had people message me to say that the account has encouraged them to seek out more horror and that it’s helped to shift the way they interact with queerness on screen. I think the presence of lesbian actresses like Clea Duvall, Portia di Rossi, Sarah Paulson & Ellen Page in horror allows for this crossover, where other gay women are consuming these films (Stigmata, The Cured, The Faculty, American Horror Story) from a genre they’re perhaps not as likely to otherwise be drawn to but they’re seeking these films out as a means of consuming queers on screen, and then realizing maybe horror has more to offer than they originally thought.
Where do you source your movies from, how do you hear about them?
Streaming services like Netflix, Shudder & Kanopy, like Instagram, are providing newly accessible ways to consume & preserve queer content. But also, the programming happening at local rep cinemas has really instilled this renewed cult thrill of movie watching that can only be experienced in a theatre setting. They’re showcasing old films in new contexts, and allowing films like Bride of Chucky, The Craft & The Birds to be re-experienced on the big screen in a very queer way. There’s also been a huge new crop of queer horror podcasts that have brought a heightened interest to films that I normally wouldn’t know to watch. Overall, I think it’s such an exciting time for fans of queer horror because of all of these burgeoning resources.
One of the challenges, I’ve found though, in locating films off the radar is due to streaming services like Netflix neglecting to categorize films with lesbian & bi protagonists under their LGBTQ marker. I was discovering so many queer films by surprise because of their failure to be labelled as such. Films like The Taking of Deborah Logan, Proxy & Contracted, all centring queer women protagonists, were failing to be considered queer enough to be canonized or acknowledged as such which is so symptomatic of the way horror has always been eschewed from what is deemed “respectable” cinema. I think this stigmatization is really a refusal to embrace certain monstrosities that LGBTQ culture has worked so hard to exorcise and refine. But queer horror is queer cinema! It opens up questions like what films are seen as worthy and what films are being dismissed as “pollutants”? This erasure not only stigmatizes horror and the queer archive of representation but also limits the narrative possibilities of what queer cinema could look like.
Do you find that horror is now interacting with Queerness in a new way? Is it positive or negative?
There have definitely been notable shifts within the last few years, where queerness in horror is being visibly centred, beyond the homoerotic shroud of subtext, beyond archetypes and tropes. But at the same time, it felt like the same handful of well-loved films were being regurgitated on loop. To some extent, there was this stasis in discourse that felt stuck lauding the same queer films as holy canon with no room for anything new. And I found myself feeling this urgency for others’ visibility in the same way I have felt for myself in the past.
This new batch of horror is allowing cinematic language to evolve into something more palpable and the way in which the queer viewer consumes horror is changing. How we consume our representation has always been such a shared and sacred ritual, often as a form of survival & preservation, like we’ve evolved to possess this translator app 3rd eye for dissecting queerness on screen. But these new films are now challenging this way of consumption because the representation is so overt, so overt, in fact, that the effect is almost like a jump scare itself, it’s such a visceral experience to now see lesbians on screen without their sexuality being the crux of terror. These are characters that are complex and nuanced in their depictions of gayness. Films like What Keeps You Alive & Thelma refuse to allow their queers to be closeted further by damaging tropes or subtext, and instead provide them with more complex subjectivities. It’s also interesting to see these subjectivities delve beyond expectations of queerness into something that traverses this almost neutral terrain, like an anti-queer flagging of sorts. This feels less like erasure and more refreshing in the depth of verisimilitude. In many instances, these characters are allowed to forge past the closet & have carved out space for themselves somewhere between the “It Gets Better” of a fulfilling, gay future and the very real horror so many LGBTQ+ people still encounter daily.
How do you think modern horror understands visibility and representation? Not just with LGBTQ characters, but within multiple intersections?
There’s this dire resistance to erasure being foregrounded now, and this long-awaited desire to confront all of the ghosts of a problematic past. We’re seeing a return to sites of monstrosities in horror; as retribution and as exorcism for all of these collective and societal traumas. Marginalized voices and narratives can no longer be contained as quietly, so a surfacing is happening where films like Get Out, Assassination Nation, The Misandrists, Us, and The First Purge are exploring the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in ways mainstream films within other genres are failing to. Perhaps it’s because horror is like this niche microcosm, suitable for exploring issues of identity in ways other genres aren’t equipped to and because so much horror resonates so profoundly within the eclipse of marginalized experiences. Places of deep historic violence hold this potential for expanding the genre, so we’re seeing new terrifying landscapes opening up & genre cinema gets to navigate them. I still think there needs to be some kind of shift in reframing critical questions on identity, a way to forge through well-worn theories towards these new themes of representation because as depictions of queer and racialized characters shift and evolve so might horrors capabilities for catharsis and the ways we process them.
What do you think are some of the biggest missteps and biggest triumphs in LGBTQ representation in horror? Past and present, what are some examples and some “almosts’?
This is such a tough one! I feel that problematic texts can be so valuable as long as the proper context is not erased, and in many cases entering a dialogue vs dismissing these films altogether feels more useful. I still find so much merit in films like High Tension and Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster, now openly lesbian, but who was closeted at the time, receiving recognition for her role as Clarice Starling back in 1992, was something I do have a vague memory of as a closeted ten-year-old. While that was such a triumph for lesbians in horror, and horror itself, the film also problematized transness. Buffalo Bill becomes this abject vessel of fear. I was too young to remember this, but activist groups Queer Nation & ACT UP actually staged a massive demonstration outside of the Academy Awards that year, for this very reason.
Another example could be 1986’s Aliens, which I love and have such a soft spot for its matriarchal, feminist themes, but also for one of the film’s queerest characters, the butch Latinx Private Vasquez, who was actually a white woman (Jenette Goldstein) in brownface. I didn’t realize this until a few years ago, despite studying the film quite extensively during undergrad (for some reason no mention was ever made of this by my professors, which I find so alarming in itself). Examining these missteps in LGBTQ representation is so necessary for understanding a text, the genre and society in a much larger, meaningful sense. It also enriches one’s relationship to a film, encouraging conversations with the attitudes of the time. It’s so complicated and frustrating because Vasquez is one of only a few butch women in horror, not to mention that for decades many felt empowered by her presence as a strong woman of colour in a genre that rarely embraced the Other as good and meaningful to the plot. Unravelling the uncomfortable along with the parts that resonate is necessary because in the end a much more meaningful intimacy with the text is formed.
What do you make of the reinterpretation of Suspiria and the fact that it’s a big budget film?
Give me all of the Suspiria’s, and I will claim them all to be my favourite! I adore this reimagining, and the experience of seeing it in a theatre was unmatched to maybe any other from last year. And that feels like a gift. It’s also so queer! I know Argento has said that the original is meant to be “vaguely lesbian,” but Luca Guadagnino’s is queer, queer, queer. There’s such a transgressive charge of sexual tension between Susie and Blanc throughout. Susie and Blanc’s hair drape down their backs like connective umbilical cords, and when Blanc snips the tips off of Susie’s mane, it’s like this severance of sexual autonomy is happening. There’s also all of this transference of bodily liquids between women that is so carnal & messy in this queer sex kind of way; the rain (& reign!) from women’s bodies brought on by the movement of other women’s bodies, bodies turning into salty, brine, bodies agape and contorted and leaking. In this way the sound design is really extraordinary, the way it captures the body and it’s very audible language: bodies that gurgle with bile, drip urine, huff and gasp, gush offerings of unholy saline, crackle and distort. You can almost hear the ripple and snap of sinew like licorice when Suzy elongates her back. The body is present.
Which brings to mind Marina Abramović & the issue I have with Luca Guadagnino’s use of “intertextuality,” which really feels more like creative pillaging. Back when the trailer was released there was an immediate uproar over the film’s use of artist Ana Mendieta’s work. One of the images was a copy from a piece titled Rape Scene. This is significant in the way Guadagnino took images from women of colour, queer women (Gina Pane) and nonbinary artists (Claude Cahun) as a form of this unsourced pillaging. All of these women are dead now, some by suicide (Francesca Woodman) or domestic violence (Mendieta) & all were marginalized figures in the art world while alive. In an essay for Senses of Cinema, Alexandra-Heller Nicholas notes there might be some uncredited use of Kathy Acker’s own reimagining of Argento from My Mother: Demonology via the punk, feminist vernacular & Big Dyke Energy Chloë Grace-Moretz’ Patricia exhibits (“my cunt on a plate”). There’s a significant difference between Acker queering Argento’s classic through homage vs Guadagnino’s despite similar intents. All of these artists are removing/queering the male gaze while Guadagnino’s reinsertion of the gaze feels like an aggressive erasure of that. This kind of plays into the question of budget and the power at hand with so much capital behind the project. It also returns to the idea of films exhibiting these missteps while also being so beloved and triumphant in other areas of queer representation.
Horror has always been a genre that explores embodiment, how do you see this playing out in modern horror in relation to LGBTQ bodies? I know this is a very general question with a million nuances, but I was thinking in terms of white cis het preoccupation with LGBTQ bodies, specifically when we are addressing Transmysogyny/noir.
Films like Sleepaway Camp, Psycho, Insidious Chapter 2, Incident in a Ghost Land & Cherry Falls really demonise transwomen, positioning them as these terrifying antagonists while their bodies are villainized. They often conflate trans identities with mental illness and abuse, which is degrading and invalidating. In this sense, I think horror has much to make up for in regard to the treatment of its trans characters. All bodies that transgress the cis, hetero, white idea of a normalized body – trans bodies, hairy dyke bodies, fat bodies, limp-wristed fageles, disabled and otherly-abled bodies, Black & Brown bodies – all pose a threat to this patriarchal assimilation that’s often capitalized on in mucky ways. These bodies disturb the complacency of the status quo, they evoke this guttural fear that in a small sense actually wields a level of subversive power; the way horror can aid in trans and nonbinary viewers’ grappling with their own fears of death, harm, violence, becoming a lens for processing death on this very personal scale.
I can think of one recent film that celebrates most of the aforementioned bodies (unfortunately, fat bodies are severely nonexistent) and that film is Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists. The film is maybe the most unapologetically and inclusively lesbian film I’ve seen in years, dispelling biological essentialism as well as the transphobia and anti-sex work ideologies that were so pervasive in second wave feminism. Yet the film still revels in the grotesque & blood splattered; that exacto knife scene! The characters on screen debunk any universal idea of ‘girlhood,’ and these Othered bodies occupy the vast entirety of the diegetic space and sound. The subgenre of body horror, in particular, portrays images of the distorted body in a way that is not so dissimilar to dysmorphia: the contorted, the uncanny, the phantom limbed bodies (Guadagnino’s Madame Markos is a great example of this). Contemporary films like The Lure & Hereditary are being reappropriated as narratives centring body dysmorphia by trans viewers in this very way. I can also see ways possession narratives would resonate in this context, there’s this demonic infiltration, a layering of selves causing dissociation and this highly charged dissonance. The way in which “HELP ME” is carved into the upper pubis of Reagan in The Exorcist, similar to the severing of Silver’s torso in The Lure (a film that can be read as an allegory for gender reassignment surgery.) It also plays into the ways gay conversion therapy is not so unlike an exorcism. Or the religious rhetoric of LGBTQ+ people as contaminated by “evil,” because Satan is Butch Daddy and we’re all going to hell.
Any current people in horror that you are following? Who should we been seeking out and watching?
Caden Mark Gardner & Willow Maclay have an ongoing series online titled “Body Talk,” where they discuss trans representation in cinema, particularly within horror. Maclay’s analysis of Under the Skin is a must read! Monika Estrella Negra, of Audre’s Revenge Film Collective, is a Black queer filmmaker reinventing the genre by centring QPOC characters. She’s currently in production on her latest film, BITTEN, A Tragedy, while her film FLESH has been making the festival circuit. Nay Bever is a co-host for the Blumhouse podcast Attack of the Queerwolf, and is such a fresh voice in the conversation of queerness in horror. Some other podcasts I have been listening to, but are not limited to are: Queer Horror Cult, Gaylords of Darkness, Cocktail Party Massacre, Horror Queers & Girls, Guts, & Giallo. Heather O. Petrocelli’s doctoral work Drag Me to Hell: Horror Film Meets Queer Spectatorship, Fandom & Performance is aiming to forge new paths of scholarship on the LGBTQ+ horror spectator and is something to definitely keep on your radar! She is currently seeking participants for a survey that will help inform this vital research & can be accessed here: (https://mmu.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/queerforfear)
As well, lesbian filmmakers like Tina Romero, Dee Rees & Cheryl Dunye all currently have horror projects in various stages, which is very exciting. Dee Rees and her partner Sarah M Bloom are planning to collaborate with Jason Blum on a feature film that focuses on “black lesbians in rural America who reside in a haunted house and are being told they are unwelcome by their community for being Black and lesbian,” which, needless to say has become one of my most highly anticipated films on the horizon!
Please give us a viewing list!
Confession: I finally watched Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle, starring Gaby Hoffman & Ingrid Jungerman in this queering of Rosemary’s Baby. I am noticing a collection of new horror that’s examining lesbians and motherhood, and this film fits in perfectly. Jungerman also wrote, directed & stars alongside A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s Sheila Vand in Women Who Kill, this lightly macabre & very satirical look at the lesbian community’s sadomasochistic obsession with murderesses. Other films that I adore and think deserve more inclusion in conversations on lesbian horror are: Trash Fire (2016), Symptoms (1976), The Queen of Hollywood Blvd (2018), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), P (2005), Toad Road (2012), Roxanne Benjamin’s short Don’t Fall from the XX anthology (2017) & Sook-Yin Lee’s Octavio Is Dead! (2018).