To celebrate Pride month, Bruna is taking an academic look into how homosexuality is portrayed in horror. In this, her third article on the subject, she takes a look at 2011’s The Moth Diaries, and how it explores the intensity of female friendship, and its blurred boundaries with romance and eroticism.
The Moth Diaries (2011) is a film written and directed by Mary Harron and it tells the story of Rebecca, a teenage girl who has been living in a boarding school since her father’s suicide two years ago.
Rebecca’s perfect routine and friendships are ruined with the arrival of Ernessa, a mysterious girl from England. Throughout the course of the film it is revealed that Ernessa is a vampire, who is focused on ruining Rebecca’s life by going after her best friend Lucy.
The film differs from other vampire films, especially the lesbian vampire productions by Hammer in the 1970s, such as Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, John Hough’s Twins of Evil and Jimmy Sangster’s Lust For a Vampire, that gave the subgenre its recognition.
As The Moth Diaries is set in a boarding school for girls, the majority of the characters are women, with the only male character being Mr. Davies — the English teacher who introduces to his students, as well as the audience, the tropes of the Gothic genre and vampire stories in literature.
His role is to fulfil the film’s needs to comment on itself (as it has been suggested that vampire films do) and serves as a mentor for the characters as they set to kill the vampire.
Mr. Davies, however, fails to be that figure for Rebecca, as he dismisses her claims about Ernessa as childish female rivalry and mistakes her need for help with sexual desire, as he inappropriately kisses and touches her.
As a result of lack of male characters, the film creates a female universe, and its own female language. Women fulfil every role in the film and many identities are explored.
In an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos in 2012, director Mary Harron stated that her intentions for The Moth Diaries were to explore the intensity of female friendship and its blurred boundaries with romance and eroticism.
Lucy and Rebecca’s friendship is intense to the point that they plan their days in accordance with each other’s activities, and they become somewhat possessive of each other.
As a result of that, when Ernessa arrives at the school and steals Lucy’s attention Rebecca feels betrayed and jealous. By creating a conflict in Rebecca and Lucy’s relationship, Ernessa plays the part of the lesbian vampire who disrupts normality.
In her book Vampire & Violets: Lesbians in Film, author Andrea Weiss explains that the increase of lesbian vampire films in the 1970s was a backlash from the second wave of feminism, as the figure of the lesbian vampire served as a vessel for men to expose their fears of women’s liberation movement and insecurities towards women’s sexual fluidity.
Traditionally, these films portray a love triangle that ends up with the figure of the lesbian vampire killed, and the heterosexual couple surviving. As Weinstock mentions in his book The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema, the vampire ‘embodies transgressive, tabooed sexuality’ that serves to expose the ‘otherness’ and to be killed by the male character thus, making him the hero.
In The Moth Diaries this setting is portrayed in a different manner. As mentioned above, Rebecca and Lucy’s relationship is in the border between romance and friendship, at times seeming that Rebecca is the one with stronger feelings.
When Ernessa arrives she becomes a figure of admiration for Lucy, as she is very cultured. Ernessa asserts herself as a figure that is gentle and intelligent, but also commanding, excluding Rebecca from Lucy’s life. At first glance, she acts as Rebecca’s shadow, her ‘unrecognized dark half’.
In addition to having many things in common, during one of Rebecca’s dream sequences, her features change until her face matches Ernessa’s. Also, Ernessa has the confidence that lacks in Rebecca to act upon her lesbian desires.
Therefore, at the end of the film, when Rebecca kills Ernessa it could mean that Rebecca was in fact repressing her lesbian desires in order to go back to normality (heteronormativity).
Fortunately, The Moth Diaries bears a deeper meaning. Instead of it being the embodiment of repressed sexual desires, the figure of lesbian vampire is the embodiment of death. Ernessa preys upon Lucy but her intentions are to go after Rebecca. Ernessa has lived a tragic life: unable to cope with her father’s suicide, she ended her life by cutting her wrists. Now, she has come back to help Rebecca to do the same.
At the start of the film, Ernessa is constantly framed next to windows, which bears the connotation of watching without being a part of: she is watching and studying Rebecca, learning the best ways to penetrate her life.
Moreover, it signifies the vampire’s need for invitation in order to enter someone’s life. Once Ernessa has learned about the group’s dynamics, she brings drugs to a party in Charley’s room and compels her to throw a chair through the window, breaking it, and thus, breaking the barrier that was denying Ernessa the entrance to Rebecca’s life.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is continually placed between door frames, suggesting that she is stuck in a place, the border between life and death. With constant thoughts about her father that began to arise from the moment Ernessa arrived, Rebecca starts to fantasise about death and suicide.
Rebecca and Ernessa first meet each other, when the principal of the school knocks on the door to Rebecca’s room to introduce the new student, Ernessa. Her arrival interrupts a romantic moment between Lucy and Rebecca, as Lucy was taking a bath and Rebecca was gazing at her.
As Rebecca opens the door, both her and Ernessa are framed on opposite sides of a doorframe. When the film is alluding to Ernessa’s point of view, at first Rebecca’s smiling face is framed in a wider close-up shot that allows an out of focus Lucy to appear in the background, also between doorframes. The camera cuts away and when it presents Ernessa’s point of view again, Rebecca is seen out of focus and Lucy is perfectly clear in the back.
This particular scene shows how Ernessa came to understand the dynamic between Rebecca and Lucy, but also to give an insight on what the character of Lucy means: light and life.
Lucy is blonde with an angelical face, that helped Rebecca deal with her father’s death. As Rebecca says in a voice-over, “She was so confident and free and normal and she taught me how to be happy again, that’s why I love her so much”.
However, Lucy begins to change once she meets Ernessa and rebels against Rebecca’s clutch who refuses to accept she is changing. For Lucy, Ernessa means an alternative to her ‘boring life’ and is a figure of excitement, instead of the sad and confused Rebecca.
Before her death, Lucy confronts Rebecca as both of them stand in front of a mirror, and because the gaze is offered by Lucy, it conveys what Rebecca means to her. Rebecca is dressed in dark coloured clothes and is in the dark side of the frame, and Lucy, on the other hand, is wearing white clothes and is showered with the light coming from the moon through the window.
To Lucy, Rebecca means sadness and pain, and an anchor that denies her the possibility to change and explore herself.
The use of blood in The Moth Diaries helps convey the ambiguity between life and death. As Weiss explains “the vampire’s thirst for blood and the association of blood with menstruation makes mocking reference to female life-giving capacities, inverting them into life-taking ones”.
Rebecca wakes up in the middle of the night from the pain of her menstrual cramps and peeks into Lucy’s room to find her and Ernessa engaging in sexual intercourse. Rebecca’s sheets and nightgown are stained with blood. The menstrual blood in this scene symbolises the contrast of female’s capacity for creating life and the ritual of sucking one’s blood (taking life).
This ambiguity is further explored in two scenes between Rebecca and Ernessa that happen at the library. In the first scene, Ernessa appears when Rebecca is writing about her father and gives a speech about death (“The moment of death is ecstatic. It is the most joyful sensation. You are being born into a new existence”) before disappearing and leaving a blade behind.
The second scene is almost identical, but it bears more supernatural undertones. Ernessa shows Rebecca the scars she has on her wrists and tells Rebecca that it is time for her to ‘free’ herself. She uses a blade to cut her wrists and blood squirts from her wound and begins to fall from the ceiling.
Ernessa embraces the blood and its meaning with, literally, open arms, while Rebecca screams in horror, transmitting the idea that she is not sure if she wants to choose that path, but she does, however, hold on to the blade.
In both scenes, Rebecca is sitting, without moving, and Ernessa is standing and moving towards Rebecca in an intimidating pose. The camera shoots Ernessa from a low angle showing Rebecca’s point of view and illustrating Ernessa as a superior figure. And in turn, from the high camera angle, almost a point of view shot of Ernessa, Rebecca is shown as a sad and lonely figure who is in need of guidance.
As mentioned above, the film and the character of Ernessa embodies multiple stereotypical characteristics of a lesbian vampire film, such as Gothic imagery, romantic landscapes, and the arrival of a mysterious woman who is portrayed as an exciting and interesting homosexual figure.
However, the film and the character of Ernessa differ from the formula suggested by Weinstock of the lesbian vampire disrupting the norm (heterosexual couple) and being killed by the male hero (patriarchy reinforced).
Firstly, the film creates a female universe where the norm is not the patriarchy and the symbolic is not ruled by the phallus, sealing any possible allure to the on/off screen male gaze. Therefore, any insecurity or threat a man might feel from the lesbian vampire is not supported by the film’s text.
Moreover, The Moth Diaries rejects heteronormativity through the two sex scenes in the film and the relationship between Rebecca and Mr. Davies, whose predatory persual of Rebecca portrays the incessant attempts of men penetrating women.
Lucy and Ernessa’s sex scene is romantic and erotic: it occurs in the bedroom and Lucy’s moaning expresses her pleasure. In turn, Sofia and her boyfriend’s sex scene happens in the woods, in hiding, almost in an animalistic way.
The scene cuts to explicit close-ups of parts of their bodies, conveying a feeling of exploitation and resembling rape when combined with the moaning that is not pleasurable, but painful. These two scenes subvert the idea that sex from a vampire is the prohibited and dangerous one.
More importantly, as explained above, Ernessa’s vampiric figure embodies death rather than repressed sexual desires, therefore when she is killed it is not about Rebecca repressing her lesbian thoughts, but repressing her suicidal thoughts and embracing life.
It is a paradox where the figure of the vampire seems more alive than the living. In Ernessa’s ambiguous figure of life and death, where Lucy sees an exciting alternative from Rebecca’s sadness, Rebecca sees only death.
Finally, Ernessa’s yearning is to help Rebecca commit suicide and have her in death, and not to help strengthen authority upon the girls. In fact, because she despises authority so much, Ernessa kills the head of the school, freeing the girls from any authority that was oppressing them.
In the last scenes of the film, after Rebecca’s successful attempt in killing Ernessa, she walks through the school’s garden and has a vision of Ernessa, who is looking at her from the other side of a closed door.
Ernessa turns away from Rebecca, who also walks away. Thus, closing the door on Rebecca’s suicidal thoughts. Lastly, in the last shot of the film, Rebecca is seen through a window of a moving car, she is literally moving away from the memories of the school that were enabling her dark thoughts.
She asks to open the window and throws away the blade she kept with her throughout the film, symbolising her activeness towards her life, not just gazing through it from a closed window. Rebecca deals with her problems by herself and regains the agency of her life, not allowing other people to make choices for her.
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