Representation matters. But if you’ve been looking for horror with LGBT+ themes in the aftermath of The Haunting of Bly Manor, chances are you’ve found a distinct absence of options. There are some ancient (by pop culture standards), and notorious, films like Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Sleepaway Camp, but more contemporary offerings are hard to find, particularly if you seek openly queer protagonists and positive representation. It’s a sadly empty, highly niche sub-genre.
On the comics front, at least, there’s Devil Within, which puts a lesbian spin on the horror trope of “couple move into a new house, where disturbing things start happening.” The couple in question in Devil Within are Samantha and Michelle, freshly engaged and mad for each other. The question, though, is whether their love can survive the terrifying situation in which they find themselves, as Michelle’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic, and Samantha’s supernatural scepticism kicks in hard.
From publisher Black Mask Studios, Devil Within debuted as a four-issue miniseries in 2018, although the collected edition only released in August this year. A few months down the line, now that we’re mid spooky season, it seems like the perfect time to once more resurrect the book, written by rising star Stephanie Phillips, drawn and inked by Witchblade’s Maan House, and coloured by Dee (Redneck, Crossover) Cunniffe.
At face value, Devil Within works as a simmering tale of paranormal encounters and demonic possession, with some well-timed moments of levity courtesy of smart-mouthed, cynical Samantha. That said, the comic does have definite LGBT flavour. It’s not a simplistic reskinning, or substitution, of a heterosexual couple with a gay one to tick representation boxes.
The interactions between Samantha and Michelle ring true, and authentically demonstrate the type of emotional support synonymous with women-loving-women relationships. Meanwhile, it’s possible to interpret Devil Within as a dark critique of the U-Haul lesbian cliché, where couples rush to commit to one another. The comic quickly establishes that Samantha doesn’t know Michelle as well as she thought she did. With deceit stacking on deceit, you find yourself wondering what troubling revelation will be Samantha’s breaking point?
Devil Within could have benefited from a bit more breathing room. Much like classic horror comics with their disregard for deep-dive detail, the story races along over its four chapters, leaving several unanswered questions and stringing together moments that honestly needed a gap to restore credibility. For example, would you leap into bed with someone who just gave their best spine-snapping Exorcist impression? Then again, “love is the absence of judgement,” as the Dalai Lama has said.
The artwork also breaks the sense of immersion at times. With a strong reputation in the horror comics genre, Maan House’s scratchy, heavily shadowed pages contribute to Devil Within’s ominous atmosphere. Some panels are pure nightmare fuel. However, there is a feeling at times that House leans a little too hard into shadow use to establish ambiguity in the characters’ emotional states. The Uruguayan artist does a great job with the nuances of facial expression so it feels like a bit of a cop-out to continually cast Devil Within’s heroines in complete shadow.
There is also very little visually that conveys Devil Within’s unusual setting: Cebu, in the Philippines. Untranslated Filipino is scattered around the book, and at one point Samantha and Michelle seek out a mananambal traditional healer. Michelle is, in fact, a local woman, and Samantha has moved from the United States. However, while Tula Lotay’s cover for the collected edition (as well Emily Pearson’s Issue 1 variant cover) establishes character ethnicity, the interior artwork does little to convey this point, and local flavour in general. It’s a missed opportunity, given Devil Within’s departure from location norm.
Still, gripes aside, Devil Within is unquestionably an effective horror story. Even as it unfolds at a breathless, breakneck pace, it injects a powerful sense of unease and mounting paranoia. From jump frights to creepy kids and dark memories related through touch, many genre staples are present, but the comic does enough to distinguish itself as its own unique tale of demons, dread and distrust.
Probably the easiest way for readers globally to read Devil Within is via ComiXology.
Last Updated: October 21, 2020