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.
NOW READ THIS
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.
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.
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,Supernatural, Nip/Tuck, Lost, Veronica Mars, Californication, Six 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.”
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.
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.