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Credit: DC Comics

Swamp Thing, queerness, and loving the monster

Contributed by
Jun 19, 2019

Monsters abound in genre fiction and take many forms. Werewolves, cyborgs, zombies, and even ice-zombies fill our media, bringing us into contact with the monstrous, the abject, and the horrifying.

And just as often as there are monsters, there are people (generally women) who are attracted to them. From Buffy’s love of vampiric bad boys to the romance between Liz and Hellboy to the erotic encounters between The Shape of Water’s Elisa and the Sexy Fish Man, the women of genre fiction fall for monsters.

Interestingly, there are examples of male characters who are attracted to monsters, too, but they tend to be queer characters. John Constantine dates humans and demons alike, without regard for gender. Deadpool is attracted to men, women, demons, and personified ideas. Shadowhunters’ Alec falls madly in love with Magnus, the bisexual, half-demon warlock. 

The adorable romance between Joel and his zombie partner Sheila on Santa Clarita Diet is the exception that proves the rule. Their relationship runs counter to the predominant monster romance formula — the subversion of which is part of what makes Santa Clarita Diet such a powerful satire.

Generally speaking, if someone who is not a monster is banging or flirting with a monster, they’re a woman, a queer person, or both, which led me to wonder: Why is that so many of us are attracted to monsters? The answer to our desire to do the proverbial monster match may actually lie in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing.

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Credit: John Totleben, cover art for Swamp Thing, Volume 2, Issue #34

Abby Arcane is a powerful witch who comes from a long line of baddies. Unlike the bulk of her family, including her evil uncle Anton, Abby rejects the dark arts, yet still finds herself capable of a host of psychic abilities, which she uses to help other people. Her care for others makes her an awesome, albeit unlikely, companion for Swamp Thing.

The two become closer after Swamp Thing discovers the truth: Swamp Thing is not the man, Alec Holland, but rather, a conscious elemental form connected to the Green. This discovery leads the monster to integrate with the Green, having found somewhere to belong. Swamp Thing literally “roots” into the swamp and is at peace. In fact, it is only when Abby is in need of help that Swamp Thing re-emerges from the Green.

Attempting to find the balance between the human and the natural, Swamp Thing stays in our reality and falls in love with Abby, who reciprocates heartily. When the two decide to get busy for the first time, they run into a problem: How exactly is conscious vegetation supposed to bone? Swamp Thing has just the thing and shares a psychedelic tuber that grew out of his side with Abby. The two go on a sensual, erotic, and delightful hallucinogenic trip through the Green.

Ultimately, the two marry and have a child, but it is their initial attraction that bears interrogating. First off, Abby falls for Swamp Thing because together, they rediscover her love for nature. With Swamp Thing, Abby gets to swim in, explore, and love the swamp in ways she never imagined. She gets to be in touch with her impulses, her body, and her existence. With Swamp Thing, Abby gets to be free, which is completely counter to the controlling familial and romantic relationships she’s accustomed to.

Another interesting aspect of Abby’s attraction to Swamp Thing is that she appears to be straight but then falls in love with a post-gender monster. While the narrative itself doesn’t quite make the reach to read Swamp Thing as nonbinary, the way Swamp Thing themself discusses their identities, makes love, and feels about the man, Alec, all reads pretty damn trans and nonbinary to me.  

Finally, while many fear and even hate Abby because of her occult powers, Swamp Thing is not afraid. There’s nothing she can do and there’s nothing that can happen to her that can make Swamp Thing not love Abby. Not only is she free to love nature and explore her queer attraction, but she’s also free to be powerful without having to be afraid that she might hurt or scare Swamp Thing.

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Art by Eric Powell; textless cover for Swamp Thing Volume 4, Issue #22

One reading of sexual attraction and monsters, first proposed to me by the cult classic TV series Community, is that vampires and others are metaphors for male libido: “Men are monsters who crave young flesh.” Many of the examples in genre fiction lend themselves to this idea especially when an immortal character falls in love with a hot, young woman. Think Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and True Blood, among others. This reading of monster attraction is predicated on the male monster’s desire and his choice to pursue the object of his affections. Of course, given the queer reading of Swamp Thing above, this analysis doesn’t quite work in this application. What, then, does the romance between Abby and Swamp Thing mean?

I’d like to offer another perspective, one which doesn’t focus on the libido of the monster but instead looks at the attraction and libido of the other partner in the pair. The most basic reading is that since wanting to get down with monsters is taboo, an attraction to monsters is a metaphor for other taboo desires. Thus, not only is Abby’s attraction to Swamp Thing forbidden because they’re a monster, but also because Swamp Thing is nonbinary. Suddenly, the term “straight” doesn’t seem to fit Abby and she has to grapple with her attractions, A.K.A. her internalized biphobia. Abby’s attraction is monstrous in part because it is queer.

And, when we take a step back and look at our attraction to monsters as a whole, it also becomes clear that in our imagined worlds, we grapple with asserting feminine, nonbinary, and queer desire, which have long been considered monstrous regardless of the object of our desire. In this reading, then, romantic encounters between humans and monsters are not about male desire, but about the sexual exploration and liberation of women and queer folks.

Flipping the focus from the monster to the person attracted to the monster reclaims these stories that could be incredibly problematic as stories of sexual agency. Abby goes from being a victim in need of Swamp Thing’s rescue to a woman who finds herself and her liberation in a queer relationship with a monster.

Our attraction to monsters, then, is not monstrous, but rather a rejection of the puritanical sexual mores of our society. We are not objects to be consumed by monstrous men, but instead, subjects capable of choosing to bone, kiss, flirt with, and love whoever we love. In the end, we love monsters because we’re trying to love ourselves.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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