In 1997, a film scholar named Harry M. Benshoff wrote the seminal book 'Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film'. Benshoff explores the rich and deep-seated connections between homosexuality and horror, dating back to the earliest days of celluloid recording. One of the leading German Expressionists filmmakers, F. W. Murnau, was homosexual. He made film versions of #TheStrangeCaseOfDrJekyllAndMrHyde, #Dracula, and what is now considered an influential masterpiece of cinematic Expressionism, #NosferatuASymphonyOfHorror (1922). Yes, perhaps the most iconic image in all of cinematic history was created by a gay man. I often get asked, ‘What is it about horror that’s queer?’ I often respond, ‘What isn’t queer about horror?’
A Nightmare On Queer Street: The History of 'Queer Horror'
Although queerness existed within the Classical Hollywood era, it was largely subtextual and subdued by restrictions on same-sex representation on screen. Queerness within the horror truly genre blossomed after the demise of the Hollywood Production Code and its restrictions on ‘sex perversion’ i.e., same-sex relations. Films such as Blacula (1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) are examples of Post-Code horror films that contain visibly queer characters. Within these films, the queer characters fall victim to the monster just as often as the straight characters do. However, their ill fates are often coded as ‘deserved’ by the narratives which they populate, largely because of their queer sexualities.
The #vampire film in particular has long been understood as a parable for Otherness and homosexuality, with vampires being seen as a potent metaphor for the HIV/AIDS virus. Exotic, erotic creatures who dwell in the darkest corners of society – beautiful lepers who are sequestered to lonely castles or dank nightclubs… These spaces of Gothic Otherness, and the monsters who live there, are allegorical for the inherent difference of queer people. The transmission of an incurable blood disease (vampirism) through often penetrative sexual acts (the vampire film often couples literal sex with the biting of flesh with fangs) is a symbolic relocating of the horror of HIV/AIDS, often erroneously labelled as a ‘gay disease’. Films such as The Vampire Lovers (1971) and The Hunger (1983) specifically characterise their vampires as homosexual or polysexual. These films are the representative of public fears concerning homosexuals as predatory, unnatural, contagious, and sexually rapacious.
Unhappily Ever After: Lesbian Hauntings in the 1960s
One of the most significant queer horror films, especially in terms of lesbian horror, is Robert Wise’s British horror film #TheHaunting (1963). The 1960s is often cited as a revolutionary epoch for Britain in terms of both cultural and socio-political movements. The 1960s also saw some of the first explicit representations of queerness within cinema, including horror, and as such serves as a salient cinematic landmark for the queer-orientated horror film.
The horror genre has always been subject to its socio-historical circumstances i.e., political ideologies of the time and points of cultural unease. With the 1960s came the liberal anti-establishment causes as well as the so-called sexual revolution, with hegemonic heterosexual monogamy being challenged as the status quo position for young people in Britain at this time. As such, sex and sexuality were prominent themes of the 1960s e.g., Naked as Nature Intended (1961) and Women in Love (1969).
Violence was also another significant thematic concern for the ‘60s, with real life events such as the Manson Family murders mirroring the cinematic penchant for death and depravity. Based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, the film tells the story of a haunted house which is supposedly infused with paranormal properties. Dr. John Markway gathers a team of investigators, who have themselves been exposed to the supernatural in some way.
The two main female characters are Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child, and Theodora ‘Theo’ who possesses psychic abilities. Their relationship throughout the film carries strong lesbian undertones, although the representation of lesbianism is never explicit, keeping in line with both the mysterious nature of the film and the conservative attitudes towards homosexuality during this time. Despite being made in the ‘60s, homosexuality was still a highly taboo subject and the inclusion of out-and-proud homosexuals could have seriously hindered a film’s success both commercially and critically.
There are also queer horror films which are written, produced and/or directed by a queer person, even if the film itself does not contain visibly queer characters. Reading these films as queer is predicated upon the concept of the cinematic auteur, which would suggest that queer filmmakers suffuse some sort of ‘gay sensibility’ into their films. Legendary gay filmmaker #JamesWhale’s horror oeuvre – Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Dracula’s Daughter (1936) alludes to homosexual and queer sexualities, indicative of the auteurism associated with gay and queer filmmakers.
Horror icon #VincentPrice, known for his distinct air of feyness, is another exemplar of queer auteurism. Whether or not Price was queer is unimportant; his sustained eccentric and effeminate performances allow for a queer reading of his illustrious body of work. Just as the homosexual vampires, ghouls, and freaks are segregated to Gothic spaces of Otherness, as is the connotative and subtextual layers of queerness itself. Queerness becomes a subtle yet undoubtedly present signifier of queerness for villainous or monstrous characters, desiring to be teased out of the shadows by queer spectators.
The Homoerotic Horror of the 1980s: AIDS, Slashers, and the 'Final Boy'
A prime example of the queer auteur theory, and also the subtextual queerness buried beneath layers of heterosexism, is #ANightmareOnElmStreet2: #FreddysRevenge (1985), the first sequel to Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece A Nightmare On Elm Street from the previous year. Often labelled the ‘gayest slasher film of all time’, Freddy’s Revenge was made during the height of the AIDS crisis and has been subject to much academic analysis in relation to its homoerotic subtext and its origin. The film tells the story of Jesse, a sexually confused boy dealing with #FreddyKrueger, a monster who uses Jesse’s body as a vehicle for his killing, leading to one of the most quotable lines in all queer cinema: ‘Something is trying to get inside my body!’
Jesse has been identified as horror cinema’s first ‘male scream queen,’ a prototypically female role which goes hand-in-hand with the film’s homoerotic charge. There is also the homoerotic relationship with Jesse and his frenemy (the often-shirtless pin-up boy) Grady, as well as Jesse’s gay gym teacher who into BDSM and has a partiality for young boys.
The screenwriter, David Chaskin, admitted several decades later that the gay subtext was in fact partly intentional. #MarkPatton, who played Jesse, has suggested that the filmmaking process was an unpleasant one as he himself is a gay man (although he did not come out until years later). He said he became typecast as a gay actor, limiting his creative integrity during the 1980s in America when homosexuality was still constructed as a perversion. Patton has crowdfunded a documentary called #ScreamQueenMyNightmareOnElmStreet, exploring these issues, to be released sometime next year.
Post-millennial Queer Horror: Gay Zombies and the Postmodern Politics of 'Zombie Porn'
In 2008, one of the most radical and subversive zombie movies ever made stumbled its way into the annals of queer horror: #OttoOrUpWithDeadPeople. Directed by transgressive Canadian filmmaker #BruceLaBruce. LaBruce is known for his sexually exploratory and politically provocative films which transgress socio-cultural norms, including Skin Flick (1999) and The Raspberry Reich (2004). The film is a bacchanalia of queer horror (both figuratively and literally, as LaBruce’s film often include hardcore pornographic scenes), one which revolves around a handsome young neo-Goth zombie named Otto and his identity crisis.
After Otto sees an open casting call for a movie about gay zombies, he is then cast in Avant-garde filmmaker Medea Yarn’s radical epic Up With Dead People. As the political-porno-zombie movie progresses, Otto begins to remember details from his past life with his human boyfriend. It becomes clear that Otto’s condition as a zombie may very well be an effect of his very human condition of depression and PTSD.
From the subdued and subtextual to the ‘out-and-proud’ depictions of queerness, queer horror is a strange and complex beast. From Nosferatu to Otto, we can see a very clear progression in terms of identity politics and their operation within the horror genre. As queerness becomes increasingly more accepted within Western society, as does the representation of queerness within horror. From the restrained lesbian relationship in The Haunting to the homoerotic ‘subtext’ of Freddy’s Revenge, all the way down the line to the radical gay zombie porno Otto, queer horror has seen an evolution perhaps more radical than any other genre of film.
However, it should be noted that, due to the conservative and reactionary nature of horror, queerness has had to be teased out from the shadows over many years, meaning that queerness itself still lacks an identity within mainstream horror cinema. With more and more queer horror projects being materialised, one thing is for certain: Queer horror is out of the closet once and for all.
Do you have a favorite 'queer horror'?