From ‘Bly Manor’ to ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’: The Comfort of Quietly Queer Horror

There’s no question that consuming media as a queer viewer can be a scary experience because of the apprehension that so often comes along with it. We constantly find ourselves wondering if the characters we’ve grown attached to will succumb to the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, if the shows we love will get renewed or mercilessly axed after one season, if that relationship they’ve teased will ever fully ‘go there’ or be doomed to existing as mere subtext. When the media in question is situated within the horror genre, our fears tend to increase twofold— and not without reason. Historically rife with depictions of queerness, horror is a genre often populated by monstrous beings condemned for their existence as the ‘Other’. Vampires, witches and more are presented as villains that pose a perceived threat to the normalcy of the world in which they live, with protagonists and audiences alike encouraged to view them through a lens of fear. However, the past few years in particular have seen a significant shift from media that focuses on queerness as horror to media that focuses on queerness in horror. 

A still from 'Fear Street Part 1: 1994'. Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) lays on a bed and glances away, with Deena (Kiana Madeira) laying next to her on her side.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Released a little over a year apart, The Haunting of Bly Manor and the Fear Street trilogy brought their own unique period-set thrills and chills to Netflix in 2020 and 2021 respectively, while A24’s darkly comedic, hyper-contemporary Bodies Bodies Bodies hit cinemas just months ago. Not only are each of these projects situated within specific subgenres of horror, they also feature very queer, very human protagonists. What makes this fact even more notable is the fact that none of them were marketed to audiences on the basis of queer content, instead placing the focus on their genre. So often networks and studios will emphasize the fact that their new show or movie features a queer character, capitalizing on this fact in its promotion regardless of whether or not the inclusion of said character has any actual significance. It feels radical then that these pieces of media quietly subverted expectations, giving queer audiences meaningful representation while also existing as notable works that stand out within the horror genre in their own right.

2020 may have been a bizarre year for the world (as it marked the start of the global pandemic) but it was certainly a great year for queer horror. Not only did it see the release of Bit, a campy and fun vampire flick which I had the chance to review for Flip Screen, it also saw literary-based gothic romance The Haunting of Bly Manor make its debut. With horror maven Mike Flanagan’s widely acclaimed 2018 miniseries The Haunting of Hill House as its predecessor, Bly Manor had a lot to live up to— especially for sapphic audiences. After Hill House introduced viewers to Theo (Kate Siegel), a brooding, empathic psychologist who makes no secret of her sexuality as a queer woman, it was only natural to wonder if Flanagan’s next offering would include another memorable character that sapphic viewers would also  see themselves in. Imagine our surprise and delight when Bly Manor gave us Dani (Victoria Pedretti) and Jamie (Amelia Eve), both of whom play key roles within the show’s narrative, and made their relationship its central romantic pairing.  

Here I’d like to mention that Dani and Jamie’s love story is truly one of my favourite on-screen relationships to be found in any genre or medium, thanks to how it’s crafted in such a beautifully organic way. Set in the 1980s, Bly Manor takes a slow burn approach to the romance between the American au pair and the English gardener, establishing an instant connection between them early on, but allowing their relationship the time and care it deserves to develop over the show’s nine episodes. It’s sympathetic towards Dani’s struggle to embrace her queerness, which is directly linked to her past trauma; in flashbacks, it’s revealed she was engaged to her childhood sweetheart Edmund, and her choosing to leave him coincided with his death. The difference between love and possession is a major theme of Bly Manor, the spectral visions of Edmund that haunt Dani showing he still has a hold on her, as do the ideals of compulsory heterosexuality. When Dani finally chooses to pursue a relationship with Jamie, it’s one characterized by tenderness and reassurance, as both physical affection and emotional intimacy are present within their interactions. And while Jamie’s character is intended to be a direct contrast to Edmund, she’s not at all relegated to being just a love interest. There’s a scene where she opens up to Dani about her own past in a lengthy and emotional monologue — the likes of which are known as a hallmark of Flanagan’s work — leading to one of the most beautiful moments between the two.

A still from 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'. Dani (VIctoria Pedretti) and Jamie (Amelia Eve) hold one another and share a passionate kiss, surrounded by foliage.
Image courtesy of Netflix

“It’s where all its beauty lies, you know,” Jamie remarks, while telling Dani about the rare circumstances under which moonflowers are able to bloom. “In the mortality of the thing.” While the beauty Jamie speaks of also foreshadows the limited time she and Dani ultimately find themselves left with, the love they share is no less significant, even with the spectre of death looming. “One day at a time,” Jamie gently reminds her throughout the final episode. While Dani is eventually unable to stave off her ‘beast in the jungle’ — as she describes the entity that haunts her — for any longer, I don’t consider her a victim of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope. Not only does Bly Manor establish that Dani and Jamie spent over a decade of their lives together, it also feels unfair to blame Dani’s death on her queerness rather than acknowledging it as a tragic but inevitable consequence of the narrative itself. The inclusion of meaningful queer representation within Flanagan’s shows is an inevitable component of their DNA, as also evidenced by Midnight Mass and The Midnight Club; while the latter may be lighter on the scares, it contains a truly moving queer story arc.

Less than a full year after Bly Manor’s unexpectedly beautiful sapphic romance packaged as period piece horror first resonated with queer viewers, Netflix once again surprised audiences. Written and directed by Leigh Janiak, the Fear Street movies were the streaming platform’s big event of the summer, with a new instalment released for three subsequent weeks. While each movie was set in a different era, they were connected through recurring characters and an overarching story. Part 1: 1994 kicked things off at the beginning of July, promising a fun and campy return to the slasher genre and plenty of screams along the way. What audiences weren’t counting on, however, was that Fear Street would become one of the most significant LGBTQ+ horror franchises, earning the nickname “Queer Street” because of the representation it offered, as Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) became the newest sapphic horror couple to root for. While tensions between the two are initially high at the start of 1994, with harsh notes written and cutting remarks made, they quickly soften. That’s because it becomes evident there are much bigger things for the ex-girlfriends to worry about— such as surviving the night in Shadyside, where supernaturally possessed killers are on the loose thanks to a curse said to have been placed on the town by witch Sarah Fier centuries ago. 

It’s only when their lives are on the line that Deena and Sam realize just how much they mean to one another, which leads to them rekindling their relationship. “You make me feel… like me,” Sam tells Deena during a particularly vulnerable scene. By the end of the first movie, there’s no question that they’re back on again, and the cliffhanger ending makes it clear that their relationship is going to be at the center of the trilogy. Yet, Fear Street goes even further with its exploration of queerness. While Part 2: 1978 places the least focus on Deena and Sam, instead telling the story of a summer camp massacre that happened decades ago, many fans of the franchise have acknowledged the subtextually queer dynamic between campers Cindy (Emily Rudd) and Alice (Ryan Simpkins). However, Fear Street’s final instalment, Part 3: 1666, is what really makes the trilogy stick the landing as it takes a fearless approach to its storytelling. The movie catapults Deena back in time to the settlement of Union, which would later secede into rival towns Shadyside and Sunnyvale, allowing her to experience events from Sarah Fier’s perspective. This reframing of events gives Deena new insight into the truth as it’s revealed that Sarah herself was queer— not a witch at all, but instead a young girl in love with the pastor’s daughter, Hannah Miller (Welch). 

A still from 'Fear Street Part 3: 1666'. Hannah (Olivia Scott Welch) and Sarah (Kiana Madeira) are seen in profile view smiling at one another, dressed in period clothes.
Image courtesy of Netflix

While their sapphic desire is confused for sin and conflated with wickedness by the townspeople, 1666 allows audiences to see Sarah and Hannah’s relationship as Deena does, complete with parallels to her own relationship with Sam. In changing the narrative surrounding the curse’s origins, the film also recontextualizes Sarah’s role within Fear Street’s mythos, positing her as the unfairly maligned victim of a hateful and oppressive society, rather than a terrifying urban legend. “I was not alive before now anyway,” Sarah tells Hannah, as the two share an intimate moment under the cover of nightfall. This makes it all the more devastating when she eventually meets her fate, boldly choosing to confess to her alleged crime of witchcraft in order to spare Hannah’s life. But while Sarah and Hannah’s relationship may have come to a tragic end in 1666, back in 1994, we see that Deena and Sam both manage to survive the horrors of the night. In the final moments of the last Fear Street movie, the two share a passionate kiss surrounded by the red moss growing near Sarah’s burial place, with their love displayed in the light of day— a freedom the likes of which Sarah and Hannah could only dare to dream of.

This past year has seen many notable works emerge within the canon of horror-based media, while continuing the genre’s trend of offering significant queer representation. Though I haven’t watched First Kill myself, it feels remiss not to mention it here; Netflix’s teen lesbian vampire drama has amassed a devoted fanbase, one dedicated to saving the show after its cancellation. 2022 also saw the release of Bodies Bodies Bodies, a wildly original horror comedy directed by Halina Rejn. While it may have flown somewhat under the radar, it has the makings of a future cult classic. Full of memorable, quippy one-liners and hilariously shocking twists, it also offers perhaps the most modern take on queer horror to date. At no point do the characters find their sexuality called into question, with the film completely disinterested in telling a coming out narrative or even acknowledging homophobia as part of its reality. That said, it also has no qualms about establishing just how queer it is from the get-go.

Bodies Bodies Bodies opens with a scene of Bee (Maria Bakalova) and Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) making out, sharing a moment of bliss before the horrifying events that, unbeknownst to them at that time, will occur just hours later. The film’s action takes place over the course of one night, as the two join Sophie’s friend group of rich 20-somethings for a party at a remote mansion during a hurricane. The group indulges in various vices before playing a game of “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” the Mafia-style game that gives the film its title. Emotional tensions run high, the power goes out, and things turn deadly, as it becomes seemingly apparent there’s a killer amongst them when David’s (Pete Davidson) body is found. But even though Bee’s status as a newcomer makes her feel like an outsider within the seemingly tight-knit group, she’s arguably the character the film extends the most empathy towards, positioned as its protagonist. 

Image courtesy of A24

There’s a moment when Bee takes matters into her own hands out of self-defense as the girls confront the suspected murderer, desperate to protect not only herself but Sophie as well. She finds herself literally pushed out of the house as a consequence of this drastic action, shouting her girlfriend’s name and begging to be let back inside. Not only does this scene cause the audience to truly feel bad for Bee, it physically forces her outside of the group, leaving her alone in the pouring rain while the others look on from the window. And while the film suggests Bee’s love for Sophie has been genuine throughout their weeks-long relationship, it also questions the reciprocity of Sophie’s feelings. When one of the girls in the group, Jordan, (Myha’la Herrold) tells Bee that Sophie slept with her earlier on that day, Sophie vehemently denies this despite intimate evidence that appears to corroborate Jordan’s claim. However, the messiness of the sapphic drama between the three mostly serves as subplot, taking a backseat to the higher stakes of genre.

 Survival remains Bee and Sophie’s main focus until it’s down to just the two of them, Bee holding her lover at gunpoint with shaking hands as she demands the truth. Ironically, this confrontation results in them discovering a different truth altogether as they learn how the night’s events began— a hilariously shocking twist revealed in the film’s final moments. While Bee and Sophie’s relationship status is left ambiguous at the end due to the now questionable trust between them, this ultimately matters less than the fact that they both survived. Just like Bly Manor and Fear Street, Bodies Bodies Bodies is an exciting addition to the horror canon that gives us complex queer characters who don’t at all feel tokenized, allowing them to live on until the end. I’m excited to see the impact that works like these will have on future pieces of media, and hope this recent sapphic takeover of the genre will continue for years to come. Maybe then it won’t feel as scary for queer audiences to become as invested in these kinds of stories as it once was, because we’ll feel comforted by knowing that sometimes, we can be final girls too.