ByMatt Marlin, writer at Creators.co
Creator/writer of the film analysis series Framing the Picture. New articles/videos every other Tuesday.
Matt Marlin

Let’s talk about horror films and their use of contemporary sexual anxieties to generate fear.

Since the early days of Universal’s monster movies, horror films have translated societal fears of the time into tangible threats onscreen, adapting what these fears are and the contexts that surround them as society evolves. On this subject of genre elasticity, Lester Friedman explains that genres are “fluid, open-ended, and responsive to social conditions. As such, genres provide a series of renegotiations with societal issues and even cultural foundations.”[1] One such type of fear is that of sex and sexuality, with the horror films of any given time period reflecting or criticizing how society views these subjects. Whether a horror film takes one approach over another depends on the cultural context of the film, whether the film is actively responding to previous films, and the filmmakers’ own input into the subject matter.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Dracula As Queer Villain

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) is one of the earliest examples of horror films’ roles as reflections of society’s sexual norms. The title character’s clothing, mannerisms, and extravagant lifestyle all paint him in a queer-coded manner. The nature of Count Dracula’s attacks, a threat of eternal servitude to the young men who attend his manor as guests, is depicted as one of sexual depravity and endangers protagonist John Harker’s engagement to love interest Mina. The risk Dracula poses to the male characters in the film is shown at the conclusion of the film's prologue. Renfield, the man Dracula makes his slave, is about to be turned by a trio of female vampires, but their attack is eventually broken up by the Count, who bites Renfield himself.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Writing for The Gay & Lesbian Review, Richard S. Primuth analyzes this scene from a queer lens, saying that “gay men of this time... [wear] a ‘heterosexual mask’ and any erotic male contact [is] ‘meditated’ by females, the ‘correct’ gender.” In this regard, Dracula transforms from a surface-level creature feature into a film that reflects the fears of homosexuality in the relatively conservative 1930s.

Role Of Blood In The Thing

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

As an example of how the fears portrayed in Dracula were renegotiated in society, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) serves as a fascinating reconfiguration of sexuality through its use of blood. Here, with the titular creature’s ability to be found out through identifying its tainted blood, the parallels immediately emerge with the AIDS Crisis of the early ‘80s. The men in the film are deathly afraid of any blood that holds differences from their own, and the entirely male cast's hyper-masculinized appearances and posturing throughout reflect how homophobia was more greatly amplified during this time. With The Thing, the fear is rooted in homophobia, taking the form of the real anxieties heterosexual society faced at the time.

Halloween And Punishment For Sex

Compass International Pictures
Compass International Pictures

Another way horror films have dealt with matters of sexuality has been through how characters’ sexuality and promiscuity dictate their fates. Halloween (1978) not only birthed the slasher genre, but also made the “final girl” trope within horror films popular. Protagonist Laurie has no sexual partners the entire film, which is heavily juxtaposed against her friend Lynda, who is killed immediately after having sex.

Here, the characters seem to be either punished for their sexual activity or at an advantage for survival through their lack of sex, replicating the moral panic of society regarding the role sex plays in young adults’ lives. Similarly to how society views the subject, sex is portrayed negatively and directly leads to negative outcomes for the characters.

Genre Commentary In Scream

Halloween created an archetype in its portrayal of characters’ sexual acts and how they correspond to their ultimate fates, one that was not only mimicked in the films that followed, but actively criticized as well. Scream (1996) was one of the first prominent films within the genre to provide direct commentary and poke fun at its forerunners, specifically in this scene, wherein the genre-savvy Randy Meeks outlines how Halloween set the framework for horror.

The Self-Awareness Of The Cabin In The Woods

A similar self-awareness came from the more recent The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which literally defines each of its five main characters by their role within the slasher subgenre.

Lionsgate/whedonversegifs.tumblr.com
Lionsgate/whedonversegifs.tumblr.com

Admittedly, even though these films critique the less-than-stellar ways horror films have painted those sexually active in the past, they still play into and replicate those same tropes without much subversion in their plots’ outcomes. Characters still fall into archetypes, and the structure and outcomes of the films themselves don't stray far from their inspirations.

How It Follows Subverts The Genre

RADiUS-TWC
RADiUS-TWC

But there’s another form of critique the horror film is capable of: personifying its antagonists as the social pressures rather than what society fears. The recent film It Follows (2015) is a prime example of this. David Robert Mitchell leaves the film open-ended as to what the creatures following protagonist Jay symbolize, but a common reading of the film is that they represent the sexual pressures within society. They only appear to Jay after she has slept with someone who can see them, becoming a kind of sexually-transmitted demon that could stand in for the stigmas placed on those who are sexually active, those with STIs, or those who are rape survivors. The fact that they only appear to her and others who have had it transmitted to them add to the interpretation that those facing these pressures directly are the ones who are most aware of these pressures' existence and the harm they pose.

Obviously, this doesn’t cover everything that the horror film can do and all the subjects it can represent, but by covering a single subject and all its permutations, reflections, and criticisms as it’s evolved over the genre’s lifespan, I hope that this gives a solid framework for how these issues can be — as Friedman said —renegotiated with time. With any luck, we’ll continue to see more renegotiations, hopefully as critical of the genre’s past and society at large as some of the most recent offerings.

Along with the sexuality trope, horror movies have also promoted another cliche that remains all too true, even to this day:


[1] "Introduction" from An Introduction to Film Genres by Lester Friedman, David Desser, Sarah Kozloff, Martha P. Nochimson, and Stephen Price.

Watch the analysis as a video essay with accompanying film clips and images.

Framing the Picture is a bi-weekly film analysis series by Matt Marlin, covering everything from the technical details of a single scene to the larger thematic issues across decades of film. Matt's videos are hosted on Vimeo and future articles/videos can be funded through Matt's Patreon. Matt can also be found on Twitter and Tumblr.