When other young girls were asking for Easy Bake Ovens for Christmas, I begged my mom for a Creepy Crawlers kit and gleefully covered our house with neon spiders. I voraciously read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series and every single Goosebumps and Fear Street book in my public library. I’d sneak off to the horror movie aisle at our local video store, enchanted by the covers of Candyman and slasher movies I wasn't allowed to watch. Demons that scared other kids delighted me, but in fifth grade, I made a discovery that was much more alarming to my 11-year-old self than any monster: I had a crush on a girl. Unbeknownst to me then, it would be horror that would help me come to terms with my identity.
Hiding my newfound revelation wasn’t hard, because those feelings weren’t supposed to exist where I grew up. Combined with the natural horrors of entering middle school, I shut down, repressing my feelings and retreating into myself. Around that time, I went over to a friend’s house and saw my first horror movie: The Exorcist, the possessed Regan an unwitting metaphor for the parts of myself I was trying so hard to extinguish. I was hooked, and scary movies became my escape.
The fairy tales that were supposed to guide my understanding of gender and romance had left me without any conception of what a queer, adult relationship would look like.
Like any good horror movie villain, my own demons didn’t stay dead for long. When I was a teenager, the emerging feelings I’d buried as an 11-year-old became undeniable. I came out as queer by suggesting to a friend at summer camp that perhaps kissing a girl would be just as nice as kissing a guy. She agreed, and we held hands and signed our names on a bridge, but the truth was I hadn’t dated anyone of any gender yet and the prospect was terrifying. It was years before YouTube and other social media platforms would give LGBTQIA+ individuals the ability to create their own narratives. My horror movie bestie and I turned to her parents' Netscape web browser to see what we could find out about lesbians, which unearthed the iconic not-actually-gay Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. and forbidden porn sites that we quickly closed out of fear of discovery. I now had many more questions.
It was no coincidence that porn was one of the first places I found representation, since LGBTQIA+ identities are often considered to be “adult” in nature. Most “family” media content, on the other hand, represents and affirms romantic relationships between cisgender, heterosexual princes and princesses — or even animals, such as twitterpated young deer in Bambi. The fairy tales that were supposed to guide my understanding of gender and romance had left me without any conception of what a queer, adult relationship would look like. Fortunately, I discovered an unexpected underworld of sexy vampires that gave me what I'd been missing.
Around 16 and still desperately seeking answers beyond my suburb, I’d take the bus into Boston to visit the now-defunct Hollywood Express video store. It was there, highlighted in one of its special horror movie displays, that I found something that stopped me in my tracks: the 1971 West German-Spanish film Vampyros Lesbos. I spoke neither German nor Spanish, but those two words came through anyway. Lesbian vampires! I paced around the shelf, trying to work up the courage to pick up the box. Looking around to see if anyone would notice me, I finally snatched the DVD before I could lose the nerve. Blushing terribly but trying to look cool, I checked it out and hid it in my messenger bag.
If I’d perused outside the horror movie section, I may have discovered other queer characters in film and television. But with those, I would have also discovered the unfortunate tendency for the characters to suffer or be killed off for dramatic effect. The death of queer and trans characters is often used to further the storyline of a straight character, or for the entertainment and enlightenment of a presumably straight audience. In TV, this has come to be called the “Bury Your Gays” trope, also known as Dead Lesbian Syndrome. Queer women and trans characters are especially likely to be killed off, according to GLAAD’s recent TV report.
When you’re an adult, seeing the tragedies of life reflected through film can be cathartic and beautiful. When you’re a kid, that moral complexity is overwhelming. In dramas, good and evil are not always distinct entities to be defended or fought against, and most characters live somewhere in between the two. Dramas held a reality that I wasn’t yet ready to face as a young person: Adults didn’t have all the answers. Adulthood was complicated, heartbreaking, and at times, utterly unfathomable.
In horror movies, on the other hand, there's a kind of universal fairness. Everyone dies, because that’s just what monsters, zombies, and serial killers do. There are good people and bad demons, and if the people aren’t that good, well, they’ll probably meet their end, too. Women are more commonly the protagonists, slaying the villains that less intuitive characters are convinced don't really exist. Real life was terrifying to me, but campy horror movies came with a set of genre rules that were reliable and comforting.
I wanted my own independent, inspiring protagonists who could transcend gender and sexuality the way I did.
Objectively, Vampyros Lesbos — an erotic horror flick — is not a good film. Anna Biller, acclaimed director of The Love Witch and Viva, resents comparisons to her work, and it's been trashed for its zoom-heavy camerawork, inscrutable plotline, and bizarre performances. It isn't known to have been an LGBTQIA+-inclusive production or to have a feminist gaze, though there were some women behind the camera.
But one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and frankly, it’s for all those strange artistic choices that I fell in love with the ghastly masterpiece that is Vampyros Lesbos. Exploitation films that exist on the fringe of horror lie outside the boundaries of good taste and inspire divisive reactions. Yet whether or not a film is problematic doesn’t always correlate with whether or not it means something to you.
Vampyros Lesbos could rightfully be seen as an offensive portrayal of lesbians, but it found me at a revelatory point in my life. As a queer, genderfluid teenager struggling for acceptance, I already felt like a monstrous outsider. What I was desperate for, more than anything, were my own fairy tales that could provide a metaphor for what I was going through. I wanted my own independent, inspiring protagonists who could transcend gender and sexuality the way I did. Growing up, there weren’t any Disney characters who fit that mold, except maybe the villains. According to The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, fewer than 1% of the top-grossing family films from 2007 to 2017 featured a LGBTQIA+ lead. Yet here, in this obscure cult classic, I finally found a role model my emo teenage self could relate to.
Countess Nadine (Susann Korda) enjoys erotic performance art while wearing fantastic, gothic '70s outfits. She’s living her best life on a remote island, where she seduces tourists such as the beautiful American Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Ströemberg). There’s even something about the graceless soft-core scenes set to the “Sexadelic Dance Party” soundtrack that spoke to my own bumbling first encounters with sex across genders. Nadine also happens to be a vampire, but that’s kind of like having a superpower. Plus, when she meets her fate in the end, it sits a little better with me than when lesbians are killed off for dramatic effect or to further a straight character’s development. Countess Nadine isn’t killed off for being a lesbian, but for being a vampire! And hey, she has plenty of immortal fun before she goes.
Am I saying Vampyros Lesbos and Vampyres are wholesome, positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people? Not particularly. Am I saying when you’re starved for representation, even a vampire can become a role model? Absolutely.
Having built up a little courage, I went back to Hollywood Express with my friend to show her this wonderful discovery I’d made, and this time we found another personal watershed film: the 1974 British erotic horror movie Vampyres. These vampires live in a castle and spend most of their time running through the forest in billowing black capes. Even better, Vampyres follows two bisexual, polyamorous vampires working as a team to seduce both male and female victims into their lair. I had never before seen such fabulous bisexual leads, and to my teenage, horror-loving self, their relationship struck me as vampire #RelationshipGoals.
Am I saying Vampyros Lesbos and Vampyres are wholesome, positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people? Not particularly. Am I saying when you’re starved for representation, even a vampire can become a role model? Absolutely. They're not any worse of an option than those hyper-sexualized, lovestruck female characters featured in more "family-friendly" entertainment. In many ways, we’re all struggling to retrofit outdated models of identity and relationships to our current, intersectional world. We’re trying to use maps of the past to chart our future when really we may just need to rewrite the script.
On the Children of Tendu podcast, screenwriter Javier Grillo-Marxuach refers to floundering first drafts of inclusive content like these films as the “awkward phase of diversity.” It takes time to discover your voice, and as a culture, we’re coming of age, shedding the problematic roles and messaging we grew up with in order to create more authentic stories to tell our children.
It would be a few more years before I’d discover my queer community in Chicago, which would open up a whole world of possibilities for gender expression and sexuality for me. As I stumbled into first kisses and dating different genders, I didn’t have a lot of guidance, but in the meantime, I had my friends, scary movies, and an unlikely role model: Countess Nadine.