Heroines Locked in the Erotic Gothic Universe of David Lynch
The gothic and the erotic go hand-in-skeletal-hand. When people think of gothic romance, first thoughts often run to authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Victoria Holt, but the genre is much larger than these titans. In fact, one of today’s most famous gothics often isn’t discussed as a gothic at all. Musician, writer, film and television maker, David Lynch’s work is chock full of delicious gothic eroticism and romance. In Lynch’s stories, gorgeous heroines are constantly thrust into the romantic, moneyed darkness of someone else’s realm—a hotel, a spaceship, a movie set—forced to navigate literal secret passages even as they explore their own internal ones. “Gothic” as a style is characterized by the grim, the extravagant, the grotesque, the violent, the darkly romantic, the mysterious—a style that drenches Lynch’s work.
In Baltimore, the erotic twists and edges of this style are also celebrated in Lynch’s work through an annual David Lynch Fest. At this festival, a diverse line-up musicians and burlesque performers come together to strip, sing, and dance to various interpretations of Lynch’s creepiest, sexiest stories. As a Baltimorean—and a lover of all things gothic-erotic—I want to share some of this annual celebration with you by highlighting just a few of Lynch’s sexiest, most powerful, and most gothic heroines. (Disclaimer: some spoilers lie beyond.)
Who can forget Audrey Horn from Twin Peaks? Even the ultimate cinnamon roll hero, Special Agent Dale Cooper, couldn’t help but fall under her thrall for a time.
Twin Peaks is constantly indulging in and poking fun at the romance genre and especially its gothic tropes. From the idea of “tainted innocence” (read: young girls coming into their sexual identity under dangerous circumstances) to doppelgangers to murderous/lecherous family members to ghosts. Audrey Horn epitomizes so many of these gothic tropes, but perhaps most obviously that of the “tainted innocent”: a high schooler who feigns experience and jadedness yet yearns for fairy-tale love (e.g. her relationship with Agent Cooper); the ghostly pale skin; the dark hair; the blatant sexuality (e.g. her decision to break into Agent Cooper’s hotel room and wait for him, naked, in bed); and the shadowy fortress owned by her pervy father (aka The Great Northern Hotel), which is, of course, riddled with secret passages and peepholes. Audrey Horn is one of many romantic gothic heroines in Twin Peaks, coming into her sense of self as well as her sexuality in the wake of a classmate’s brutal murder, discovering the countless ghosts, trapdoors, and Black (and White) Lodges within her town and within herself.
Mullholland Drive is a delicious example of Lynch’s unique brand of Hollywood Gothic, and the main characters—the lovers, Betty and Rita—are dripping with eroticism.
In the very beginning, Betty’s “innocent” dream of becoming a Hollywood star is juxtaposed with Rita fleeing a mysterious car crash, as if fate had slammed them into each other—a pair of shooting stars, shot straight into each other’s hearts. Set in Hollywood, lush gothic threads run all throughout this film: the winding hallways of the mysterious Aunt Ruth’s house, the haunted theater where Betty and Rita hear the ghostly rendition of “Llorando,” the sexually-charged search for identity that both Betty and Rita tumble into together, the shadowy film sets where Betty discovers darker and darker tunnels within herself, on and on and on. This film is all about the haunted house of the mind built within the desirous, hungry package of the body.
I know most David Lynch fans would rather his film adaptation of Dune be left unmentioned, but there’s no denying the gothic-erotic influences running riot through this space opera, and just because it’s not a great film doesn’t mean there aren’t moments and characters that aren’t sexy as hell.
As Tor.com is quick to point out in their break-down of why the film doesn’t work, this movie is aesthetically dark. Every cathedral-esque spaceship, castle, and cavern is packed with shadows, all but begging for some Phantom of the Opera-style candelabras. And while this maybe isn’t the best way to build up a vast scifi universe, it’s a great way to make the entire film feel as though it took place inside Vincent Price’s sexy little grin. Filled with scheming royals and estranged family members, with grotesque villains and flashing daggers, it’s no wonder that even Lady Jessica, a side-character and the mother of our hero, is turned into an erotic figure in this setting. I say “even” Lady Jessica because, in some ways, it’s positively radical that Lynch would take a middle-aged mother character and give her so much sex appeal, her own journey through this tale being one of tortured love for her murdered husband as she carries their secret baby (another classic gothic trope) to term.
Wild at Heart
And speaking of tortured love… Lynch takes the idea of a road-trip movie to a whole new level with the lovers, Lula and Sailor, who flee a band of assassins that Lula’s mother Marietta has hired to kill Sailor. The film’s gothic elements may shine darkest in the grotesque violence of Marietta’s desire to strip her daughter of all sexual power and freedom, but they can also be seen in the shape of Marietta’s slow-emerging madness that only Lula and Sailor seem to fully understand: the literal Wicked Witch of the West.
Lula’s character is another example of the “tainted innocent”: she’s charged with sexuality and power, especially (and ironically) due to her mother’s violent desire to see these powers contained, even as she is also a bit childish and naïve. Haunted, a runaway, abused as a child (and as an adult), adrift in a sea of violence, Lula fights to take what she wants out of life and retains a fairly healthy sexual identity through it all. A classic gothic heroine.
I’ll never forget seeing a Blue Velvet-inspired burlesque performance wherein a dancer wearing gasmasks over her face and breasts slowly revealed more and more gasmasks that she’d managed to hide on (and in) her body. For many, Blue Velvet is nothing but disturbing. But as disturbing as certain elements are—the violence, the constant taunting shadows, the gasmasks—there’s no denying the eroticism of a young hero exploring a stranger’s house in search of clues only to duck into a closet and end up spying on her.
The secret passage is a beloved plot device in gothic tales because it so often finds a heroine in a dangerous situation and gives her fresh power, fresh control, while also acknowledging that she herself is riddled with secrets and hidden depths. In Blue Velvet, we see this dynamic inverted with our young hero finding momentary safety within the heroine’s closet, watching her undress and drape herself in blue velvet, only to be discovered and dragged into the light. Our heroine in this story doesn’t need to lurk in the dark to find her power…or to allude to her hidden depths. She grabs a knife and forces him out of the closet herself, demanding that now he will undress for her.
The truth is, the gothic is often disturbing. It is often dark and uncomfortable and taboo. This is also why it’s so undeniably sexy. The forbidden. The dangerous. The fantasy. What’s important is making sure that the fantasy is handled by an artist who understands the live wire they’ve just taken hold of, someone who understands how these tropes and devices have been used in the past to cause harm and knows how to circumvent, challenge, and subvert these harmful possibilities. For danger to be sexy, there must also be great trust—perhaps not between the characters, but between artist and audience.
Chloe Robbins is a writer and editor living in Baltimore with her delicious husband and various taxidermied creatures. She’s currently at work on her paranormal romance novel, A Stony Heart, and has short fiction forthcoming with Circlet Press’s Dressed in Black anthology, inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.