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Incest, the Final Frontier

Posted by on Jan. 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM
  • 57 Replies

Did you read Flowers in The Attic as a child? Would you allow your own tweens/teens to read it? Will you be watching the Lifetime Show?

*contains adult language and situations, back away now if you're offended*

America’s Incest Obsession: “Flowers in the Attic” is Back, as are the Memories

Ahead of the new Lifetime movie adaptation of V.C. Andrews 1979 cult classic, we explore why incest plot lines are so enduring in popular culture

Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic, the movie adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ sordid and soapy tale of family dysfunction, will air tomorrow night, and for millions of American women in their 30s and 40s, it’s sure to be mandatory viewing.

The 1979 novel is remembered as the book that was passed beneath desks and read under covers—the raunchiest pages frayed, dog-eared, even highlighted by countless teenage girls.

Though 1987’s campy, unfaithfully rendered film version was generally considered a bust, Lifetime’s reboot is promising fealty to even the dirtiest details. And with a glittering cast of Kiernan Shipka, Heather Graham and Ellen Bursytn, the network is clearly banking on living-room premiere parties, replete with wine spritzers and butter-free popcorn. In fact, Lifetime is so confident, that it’s already announced a sequel.


The plot of Flowers in the Attic is itself is a delicious assault on family morals, with details considered so lurid and depraved that a Vocativ employee, in her girlhood, recalls furtively reading it piecemeal in the magazine aisle as her mother shopped for groceries.

Flowers In The Attic 04


Thematically, one could argue that it’s a story about child abuse and its devastating effects. Four children are locked away in the attic of their puritanical grandma’s mansion where they are tortured and abandoned—but that’s not why a generation of 14-year-old girls went gaga over it. The giddiness, as most remember, was all about the incest.

Yes, the elder two siblings, Cathy and Chris, develop feelings for one another and eventually, [SPOILER ALERT!] have sex. The mutual deflowering itself is described in this notorious paragraph that some teenage girls would recite like the canon:

*Deleted for CM, available at link to article*

Sure, it’s quite explicit for girls still in throes of pubescent soul-searching (it makes Judy Blume’s much-banned Forever seem like a Golden Book), but the allure of something as forbidden and morally reprehensible as incest was, and still is, hard to resist. It’s the reason why storytellers of every medium have employed the taboo for centuries, and why writers (especially those in primetime television) are still heavily exploiting it today.

Flowers In The Attic 02


A survey of incest plot lines in popular culture over the past few years alone includes Game of Thrones (sister and brother, Cersei and Jaime);Boardwalk Empire (mother and son, Gillian and Jimmy); Dexter (adopted sister and brother, Deb and Dexter); Bored to Death (half-sister and brother, Jonathan and Rose); Bates Motel (mother and son, Norma and Norman; and Top of the Lake (half-sister and brother, Robin and Johnno, though was only a scare)—not to mention, Brothers and Sisters,SupernaturalNip/TuckLost, Veronica Mars, CalifornicationSix Feet Under and the upcoming mini-series The Spoils of Babylon, which stars Toby Maguire and Kristen Wiig as romantically-involved, adopted siblings.

So what, you might be wondering, is wrong with us?

“It’s one of the few things along with cannibalism that we don’t have any interest in doing, but we have a great interest in reading about it or watching it onscreen,” says Professor James B. Twitchell, author of Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture. “The titillation of getting close to it is very powerful.”


It's more than Primetime: According to Google Trends, even searches for "incest porn" have shot up in the last 10 years.

Like rubbernecking at car accidents, incest’s entertainment value is yet another product of the fact that deep-down we’re all a little bit more twisted than we’d like to think we are. As one Goodreads reviewer describes her relationship with Flowers in the Attic:

“This book made me feel literally sick to my stomach at times and, yet, I couldn’t get enough! I loved every minute of it. There really isn’t much that is redeeming about this book, and it may have warped my sexuality in ways I’ll never understand, but I have a soft spot for it.”

As a taboo, incest is unique in that it is seemingly eternal and relatively universal. Apart from cases involving royal bloodlines or marriage outside of immediate family members (which was still common even in the last century), nearly every culture and time period has associated the act with scandal. And though it can be seen in stories as far back as Ancient Greek mythology, it wasn’t until the advent of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century that the alluring tabloid subject realized its lucrative powers.

As an entertainment device, incest’s appeal is multifaceted, arousing the viewer by way of both horror and sex. On the terror front, “it seems to generate a literal physiological response,” says Twitchell. “It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand.” The source of such fear can range from simple revulsion to moral corruption, to a deep-seated phobia of genetic retaliation, but it never fails to elicit at least some kind of hair-raising reaction.

Flowers In The Attic 03

The new, more scintillating book cover.

The sexual allure of incest, however detestable, is pretty straight-forward. Dr. Gloria Brame, the author of Sex for Grownups and a sexologist whospecializes in fetishes, calls the incest predilection “one of the oldest in the world.” She points to popular forms of role-playing such as “Daddy-Girl” or “Mommy-Boy,” as evidence that, at least in fantasy mode, it’s actually more acceptable than people think. “Part of the fascination comes from the fact that we never talk about it because it is such a shameful subject, “ she says. “And that makes people very curious.”

On primetime, such multi-layered material is attention-getting gold. In the cutthroat world of television, incest is truly one of the only monstrous offenses left to be milked dry. “It’s an easy way of showing that your show isn’t just any old television show, but something that is cutting edge and willing to break the rules,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. He points to our tendency to domesticate taboos over time—from girl-on-girl kisses to smoking pot—as the catalyst behind television’s ever-progressing (or regressing?) frontier.

“If what happened on Game of Thrones happened on a 1950’s show, people would have to be revived with smelling salts, ” he says. And though the Cersei-Jaime “twincest” is certainly less shocking today, it’s still icky enough to drawn us in.

Even the publishers of Flowers in the Attic are trying to capitalize on the incest plot line with this year’s latest reprint. Cathy and Chris are featured on the cover front and center, and they are nuzzling, nose-to-nose, like high school lovers. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’d think it was romance novel—though the “romance” however twisted, was half the draw.

One of the biggest complaints with the 1987 movie was that, though it was emotionally scarring in other ways, the incest was toned down. With Lifetime at the helm, the network equivalent of a drugstore novel, one wonders how they’ll flesh out such a hot mess on basic cable. It had better be good. There’s a generation of nostalgic 30- and 40-somethings waiting to get back to that “filthy, smelly stained mattress,” however nefarious.

 Sexy If its unladylike, fattening or fun, I'm in!

by on Jan. 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM
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by René on Jan. 17, 2014 at 8:33 AM
2 moms liked this

I read those books in the early 80s as a teen and devoured them.  Petals in the wind was the first book I ever ran out to buy.  I read them all quickly.

I didnt care for the first movie and I really dont like what they have done to the song Sweet Child Of Mine for the second lol but I will likely watch it.

How far you go in life depends on your being: tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of both the weak and strong.  Because someday in life you would have been one or all of these.  GeorgeWashingtonCarver

by Roma on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:09 AM

I read the entire series, of course the first book "the prequel" being the last book read.   I loved it, although I am sure my tastes today wouldn't be so enamored.

I never censor reading materials for the kids so if they wanted to read these books (and none of mine had any inclination to do so, last books Vicki wanted was a volume of the complete works of Twain, and a book called The Thing Around Your Neck) I would allow it.  

Incest, though......::shudder::

by Ruby Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:15 AM
1 mom liked this
I was horrified when I was at the grocery store couple nights ago and saw this book all over the book isle. I remember when it was really popular amongst my peers and they told me what it was about and I was like eek that's incest! I didn't read it then and I won't read it now and I hope my daughter doesn't want to read it! she's only 7 right now so I don't see her reading it today.
by Bronze Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:18 AM

i have never read the books or seen the movie.. the previews make me want to see the movie

by Platinum Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:19 AM
I read it as a tween. My ds is 11 wouldn't be interested. By the time my 4 yo dd is a tween, it'll depend on her maturity level. I would def require reading the book before seeing any movie about it, though.
by Silver Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:21 AM

 I am so disgusted by incest.  Like... bad.  I've read all the Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them, but I almost put them down forever and walked away when it became clear in the first book that the queen was shagging her brother.  It is not my thing AT ALL and I do not understand the allure.  I do know that in pressurized situations like the one described in this article, it becomes natural and normal to find comfort in one another in such a way.  I know it happens, I know that just because it happens, that doesn't make the people who do it bad people... I am just deeply disturbed by incest and can't imagine getting any kind of sexual gratifcation out of reading about it.  *shudder*  I had nightmares when I read Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse, wherein an estranged brother and sister are reunited, fall in love and live forever "in sin" together.  Mostly because their story was so compelling as a love story that it just added another dimension of gross in my mind lol.

by Silver Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:23 AM

 Oh, and as far as my kids reading it... I don't really think I will censor much of what they read.  When I was 11 and 12 I was reading Terry Goodkind's torture porn novel called Wizard's First Rule.  It didn't do me any good but it didn't do me any harm either lol. 

by on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:25 AM
I saw the movie a long time ago with Victoria Tennant and couldn't believe my eyes. I thought I was imagining.... So I got the book from the Library....and I was kinda disgusted that it really was about incest. I think it was sick. I didn't read any others by VC Andrews. She was one weird woman. My kids never read them,thank goodness. They thought the movie was gross. It was. Ewww.
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by Bronze Member on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:37 AM

That book came out when I was in Jr. High school.  I didn't read it at the time (I probably wasn't allowed), but it seemed like all my friends did.  I finally read it when I was in my 20's or 30's.  I remember the original movie and I remember how twisted the book and movie were.  In Flowers, the incest was perhaps necessary to the story and not put in there for the sole reason to make the book sell better (but it didn't hurt).  I might watch the remake, if only because the book was part of the popular culture of my youth and I'm curious how it will be. 

by Queen K on Jan. 17, 2014 at 9:46 AM

I vaguely remember having this book and trying to read it but it was way above my comprehension level. I'm not sure if I will attempt to re-read it now or watch the movie but the obsession with incest is a very interesting one. But then look at how many types of porn is available. 

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