One of the first women in the genre to fall victim to the “Dead Lesbian Syndrome” was the eponymous Carmilla who, back in 1872, embraced her sexual freedom and then had a stake plunged through her buxom chest in Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic. Things haven’t improved that much in the ensuing years, and a troubling plot continues to typify the role and place of queer women in entertainment in 2016. The ratio of lesbian characters that are killed off to their male (regardless of sexual orientation) counterparts is troublingly high. Much like the screaming, elegantly distraught, kohl-and-tears-smeared Final Girl trope that once characterized straight’s women’s place in horror cinema, it is Dead Lesbian Syndrome (or Bury Your Gays) that currently afflicts the Sapphic sisters in popular cultural.
Queer women have had a rough time of it in the last few weeks, both in and outside the horror genre with AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD and the Stephen King adaptation, UNDER THE DOME. Both shows have come under fire because queer female characters have (predictably) succumbed to the Dead Lesbian Syndrome Trope. Until recently, addressing this LGBTQ-specific trope has been the remit of sites like Afterellen, the British print magazine, Diva, and geek-sites with a queer-focus like io9 – all platforms that give LGBTQ-identifying women a much-needed voice/visibility.
In the wake of Denise Cloyd’s death in THE WALKING DEAD, all this has changed. Dead Lesbian Syndrome has been recently acknowledged by internationally accessible and widely-read press-outlets like The Hollywood Reporter and Vanity Fair, insightfully drawing attention to the fact that lesbian and bisexual women have made convenient fodder for scriptwriters for years. Is it any wonder journalists and social justice advocates are concerned there might (whether intentionally or not) be a misogyny/homophobia underpinning some creators’ decisions to employ this tactic with such disturbing regularity?
Put this image under analysis: Denise Cloyd (Meritt Weaver) skewered by an arrow while talking about her relationship with lover Tara. You don’t need to be an academic or film student to interpret this in a way which could be construed as derogatory or what it could signify even at a denotative level. It creates the impression that a queer woman’s life is of little worth. If you doubt this, just check out this exhaustive list of dead lesbian characters (and they didn’t pass away peacefully in their sleep) here.
The only thing worse than being reduced to a trope is a well-rounded character with the capacity for audience identification being reduced to a trope. And when you put this inflammatory issue under the microscope, (and examine the sobering statistics above) you can see how it might inform an LGBTQI collective reading. Of course not all these deaths are directly attributed to sexuality and when a character is navigating within a horror story framework, the possibility of a long and fulfilling life is, to some extent, reduced. However if you’re a queer woman, you’ll be dead long before the credits roll.
Here are a few titles which highlight the use of this device in horror cinema and TV:
Before A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, there was another vampire film with a black and white aesthetic, a languid sensibility and a morally-conflicted female lead: NADJA. Michael Almereyda’s 1994 gothic horror film revolves around Nadja (Elina Lowensohn), an immortal who travels to New York to shake off her vampire-induced existential funk. The lesbian relationship in NADJA is very much in the narrative foreground, which is the kiss of death for undead Nadja, whose fate mirrors that of Carmilla. She is impaled on a phallic object before being unceremoniously beheaded. Luckily her spirit managed to transfer to another body at the eleventh hour…
This is one part of the 2007 Grindhouse double-feature directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL! Meets RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD with Rose McGowan’s perpetually pouty go-go-girl Cherry Darling going head-to-head with a horde of mutant Sickos, the monstrous fall-out from a chemical spill. An example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome in PLANET TERROR is Stacey ‘Fergie’ Ferguson’s lovestruck lesbian devoured by the crazies en route to her adulterous girlfriend Dakota (Marley Shelton). The women in PLANET TERROR are nearly all stereotypical incarnations of a heterosexual man’s fantasy lesbian.
Tony Scott’s 1983 bloodsucker classic THE HUNGER centers on a ménage a trois between vampire duo David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and the young and impressionably wide-eyed vampire-in-waiting, Susan Sarandon. The film featured that infamous and explicit sex scene between the vampiric Deneuve and Sarandon. Scott exploits a number of overlapping tropes in the film: there is the Lesbian Vampire Trope (blame Jean Rollin), the Psycho Lesbian trope (also see HAUTE TENSION and BAISE MOI) and finally the Dead Lesbian Trope.
SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE
The concluding chapter to Park Chan-wook’s ultra-violent and operatic Korean trilogy, LADY VENGEANCE sees convicted child killer Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) hell-bent on revenge after she is released from prison. The girls-in-prison segment features a cannibalistic Top Dog who beats and abuses the weaker women, which finds her on the receiving end of a long-protracted death from poisoning, courtesy of Chan-wook’s bat-shit crazy anti-heroine. It is a deeply unpleasant depiction of female sexual aggression with the girls-in-prison exploitation trope presented in an admirably queasy way.
THE WALKING DEAD
Meritt Weaver was one of the most interesting additions to the cast of THE WALKING DEAD in its 6th season, and it feels like a missed opportunity that her character was given such short shrift. Doctor Denise Cloyd was little more than a plot device to get our main players out of Alexandria during the finale and kneeling in the dirt before Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his barb-wire baseball bat Lucille. A missed opportunity.
BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Another show that received criticism for killing off a beloved gay character was BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) lover Tara (Amber Benson) was killed late in the show’s 6th season which resulted in Willow channelling the forces of darkness, skinning alive Tara’s killer and kicking Buffy’s butt. Queer fandom was understandably outraged.