From “The Haunting” to “Thelma”: Lesbian Horror Over the Years

By Jenni Holtz

Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.

Horror and the LGBTQ+ community have a tumultuous relationship. Often, queer-coded characters are presented as villains whose queerness is part of the reason they’re frightening or they’re the first to die, acting as an example for the rest of the characters. Lesbian characters in particular are usually fetishized or demonized like in High Tension (2003) and The Hunger (1983). Some films, on the other hand, break this mold. The Haunting (1963) and Thelma (2017), though released over fifty years apart, both feature lesbian characters that subvert this typical narrative.

Image courtesy of Argyle Enterprises

Robert Wise’s film The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, features a lesbian character named Theodora (Claire Bloom). The film follows Theodora, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), Eleanor (Julie Harris), and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) during an overnight stay in a reportedly haunted mansion. Dr. Markway, a scientist, wants to investigate paranormal happenings at the home following the deaths of multiple people who lived there. Over the course of the stay, Eleanor succumbs to the house and descends into a supernaturally-induced madness. Theodora acts as a source of comfort for Eleanor at times, though she gives snarky comments, too. In spite of this, Eleanor and Theodora form a friendship – something queer characters like Theodora rarely get to have with straight women onscreen.

Theodora’s lesbian identity is fairly subtle in the original text, but the film adaptation addresses it straight on. In one scene, Eleanor asks Theodora about her home life. Theodora mentions living with someone in her apartment in the city that she’s not married to. It’s implied that her housemate is a woman and, though the contextual scene was eliminated, Theodora comes to Hill House following a breakup with her female partner. Theodora’s lesbianism is not extremely explicit due to the time it was created, but her character is not defined by her sexuality. Instead, she is a woman who happens to be a lesbian. She is not treated as lesser than her peers, viewed with disgust or distrust, or villainized for not being heterosexual. 

Image courtesy of Argyle Enterprises

Over fifty years later in Joachim Trier’s Thelma, we see another lesbian character who is not punished for her sexuality. Thelma (Eili Harboe) leaves her highly sheltered childhood life to attend university. There, she begins having seizures that result from her emerging supernatural powers. She also develops feelings for a fellow student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). To uncover the cause of the seizures, Thelma undergoes testing. Through the tests, she comes to terms with her brother’s death and sees the magnitude of her powers. All the while, Thelma’s feelings for Anja grow stronger, making Thelma’s journey to self-acceptance twofold as she navigates her sexuality and newfound powers.

Thelma is an impactful, quietly beautiful thriller that centers the titular character’s sexual coming of age without ostracizing or criticizing her non-heterosexual feelings. Thelma is a complicated character who, in some ways, is the villain of the story but not out of malice, but because she is in the process of learning to wield her power. In a seldom-seen happy ending, Thelma and Anja end up together, subverting the trope of lesbians dying early on or being all-evil. 

Thelma, though very different in plot, carries much of the same sentiment and representation as The Haunting. Both films present lesbian characters in the main cast in a frank, unwavering manner. Theodora and Thelma do not explicitly state their sexuality, but it becomes clear through their actions. Most importantly, neither character is punished for being a lesbian. They’re instead allowed to simply exist, with imperfection and nuance, in the same way straight characters have always existed.