During the summer of 1987, a strange urban legend made its way across America, a story that said an unnamed young woman cooked herself in a tanning bed from overuse. Urban legends are adaptable stories that pop up all over and act as a warning whilst also revealing the morals and values of the society that tells them. The tanning bed death is only ever the fate of young women, what does that tell us about the representation and role of a woman during the late 80s, but also why did it pop up in horror during the early 2000s such as Final Destination 3? These films are morality tales against chasing beauty and vanity, and the woman in the pursuit becomes burnt, rotten, and abject.
Even though tanning technology has been around in some shape or form since 1920, the tanning bed urban legend only popped up in the summer of 1987. This is when indoor tanning beds became more available and more common, tanning beds could be found in gyms, hotels, and salons. Sunbeds were mostly used by young women to get a healthy tan, but what if it is anything but?
The story goes: a woman wants to get a glowing tan before her wedding day but leaves it too late. A day before her wedding, she books sessions at multiple salons to get past the daily limit and finishes the day with a beautiful tan. On her wedding day, there is a smell she cannot get rid of, even after washing and brushing her teeth, the rotten smell clings to her body. When she is having her wedding photos blood comes from her mouth and she faints. After being taken to the hospital, she is told she has cooked her organs and they are beginning to rot. The story had many variations depending on location, such as a different social event where a woman would need to look beautiful, in some, she doesn’t die, but goes blind or has one of her arms amputated. This urban legend falls into the category of new technology being misused, such as the old woman drying her poodle off in a microwave, which shows anxiety and moral panic surrounding new technology.
The story became part of the cultural psyche and made an appearance in many horror films and during the late 80s, two films used it as a method of death. In the slasher Killer Workout (1987) women are killed one by one in Rhonda gym. The film opens with Rhonda’s twin sister Valarie (both played by Marcia Karr) who works as a model, going to the tanning salon after hearing she’s had a big career break the following day. the machine malfunctions and she is set alight leading the audience to believe she is dead. We later find out that Rhonda was Valarie the entire time, and she was responsible for the deaths at the gym, she killed out of jealousy of the other women’s beauty, as she is disfigured having to wear a wig and long clothing to cover her scars. A woman is made to kill because she is not able to achieve the standards of beauty she is told she must.
Another trashy film is Death Spa (1989) also known as Witch Bitch, where the machines in a cool LA gym malfunction, killing the patrons. The gym owner Micheal (William Bumiller) is haunted by his wife’s suicide and feels guilty that he is now dating someone else. The wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck) has come back from the dead through technology and possessed her hacker twin, to get Micheal to kill himself too. In the climax of the film, the girlfriend is tied to a tanning bed bathed in pink light. Catherine lets him know that working on her tan, “one click of the Button and she’s fried chicken.” He manages to save her from the tanning bed, however, the fire engulfs the gym leaving Catherine and her husband burnt to a crisp and covered in blood.
Final destination 3 (2006) by James Wong, is what people mention when you think of tanning bed deaths. The film follows multiple young people celebrating graduation at a funfair, but they survive a roller coaster crash after Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has a premonition and cheats death. However they all die one by one in the order they were destined to die in, the first two survivors to die are best friends Ashlyn Halperin (Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe) and Ashley Freund (Chelan Simmons). They are presented as two imaged obsessed popular girls, shown throughout to be unintelligent ‘bimbos’ with beauty as their only goal.
On the day of graduation, the two Ashleys (ASH-ley) go to their local tanning salon and in a very claustrophobic scene, they are both trapped in the machines as they malfunction. Their bodies blister and burn. The blame has been placed on themselves along with the supernatural element, they bring in a large drink after being asked not to, turning up the heat, leading to the machines to spark and break, they do not see the warnings in front of them, and make their tanning beds their coffin.
During the fairground opening sequence, we are introduced to the two friends, one of the male character’s Kevin (Ryan Merriman) points at them, as we see their thongs poking out from their velour tracksuits. This sequence is followed by Frankie Cheeks (Sam Easton), pointing a camera down their tops. They are constantly being observed, sexualised, and objectified, can we blame them for their pursuit of beauty, after being told they are “smoking hot” we know they only have one destiny for the ditzy girls, and that’s trapped in their pursuit for beauty.
A very similar death scene occurs in the straight-to-DVD film Urban Legend 3: Bloody Mary (2005) that converts the expectations and the fate befalls a man. Roger (Brandon Sacks) is the first victim of Bloody Mary, he falls into the jock category, the only few times we see him before his death, he is working out at the gym whilst chatting about girls. He tells the other jocks that he uses a tanning salon to impress girls and get the attention of Betsy (Ann Poll) the girl at the tanning salon with ‘big tits’ who is almost identical to the two Ashleys, in a velour tracksuit, obsessed with their phone, repeatedly saying “Yass” and “totally.”
Roger takes drugs and conveys a very masculine appearance despite being on the same quest for beauty as the women. He is not blamed for the death, the machine malfunctions without his wrongdoing and the supernatural is completely to blame, however, it is caused by him and his friend’s mistreatment of women. in Urban legend: Bloody Mary, they do not show the death, but show the smoking abject corpse, only recognisable as him from the glasses and the shorts he entered the electric tomb.
The tanning bed death shows the anxieties of the era surrounding women and beauty and the dangers of vanity. It also demonstrates the fear of skin cancer and new technology and the very real dangers that cosmetic tans bring. The most effective death of a woman on-screen destroys her beauty. The audience takes pleasure in the girl’s beauty being transformed into the abject, by not seeing Roger’s, it shows us that the same thing doesn’t happen through masculine characters.
by Catherine Jablonski
Catherine is a film graduate from Manchester School of Art, she is a horror filmmaker and photographer, who spends her spare time watching and writing about trashy horror, and is sad to admit has seen all 10 Hellraisers. Her favourite films include Carnival of Souls, Nosferatu the Vampyre (the 1979 version) and An American Werewolf in London.