Fear is one of humanity’s oldest emotions. Tales of the macabre and monstrous have littered the pages of folklore and literature for centuries, and in the early days of film, the Universal Studios monsters reigned supreme. At its core, the genre of #horror is intended to evoke feelings of fear, shock and repulsion in its audience. Often, the methods of achieving this rely on the cultural anxieties of a given people in a given time period, and throughout the decades, American filmmakers turned to the #LGBTQ+ community for that purpose. As such, an overview of horror cinema reveals a complicated relationship between the genre and queer representation.
Horror is, arguably, a genre that naturally lends itself to queer discourse. Every new slasher and psychological thriller attempts to push the envelope in some way. Lauren Vachon, Assistant Professor of LGBTQ Studies at #Kent State, says in an interview, “I think that, actually, there’s sort of something queer about horror, even if it isn’t specifically queer horror. So I find that it’s always sort of pushing a boundary or living at an edge.”
However, as The Current points out, while horror reveals unique themes regarding societal fears, it can also “show us flawed ways of thinking in the discourse surrounding queer identity.” Some of these so-called “flawed ways of thinking” continue to influence societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people today — so what happened?
To start from the beginning, in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code — also known more popularly as the Hays Code — was introduced as the first attempt at film censorship in the United States. Spearheaded by a moralist movement aghast at the rampant promiscuity of 1920s Hollywood, the code established a set of guidelines films had to abide by at the risk of being banned. The Hays Code infamously suppressed all forms of queer representation in film except those that depicted LGBTQ+ people in a pathetic or villainous light.
“You could have homosexual representation if they were the bad guy,” Molly Merryman, Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at Kent State, says in an interview. Horror, then, became the home of LGBTQ+ representation in cinema for many years to come.
In his video essay “Monsters in the Closet — A History of LGBT Representation in Horror Cinema,” James Somerton claims that the Universal monsters are among Hollywood’s first examples of queer representation. During the 1920s to the ’50s, Universal Studios produced countless horror films that came to be known as the Universal Classic Monsters, the first instance of a shared universe within film. These monsters — including Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and the Invisible Man — are often depicted as unhappy, lonely and unnatural, which Somerton argues is a reflection of societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people during that time period.
He describes it as “a sense of hiding, being rejected and doomed to never know true love. A being looked at as a monster in the eyes of the public, even if you had never done anything to hurt them. The monster coming for your children, the mad scientist going against nature, the beast unable to control its own urges, the creature born against God’s will. That’s what being gay was and, to some extent, still is. And so we identified with the monsters — not so much the heroes.”
Within the Universal Classic Monsters, some films portrayed more blatant queer coding than others. According to Syfy Wire, queer coding is “a process by which characters in a piece of fictional media seem — or code — queer,” and older films hampered by the Hays Code relied on queer coding to circumvent its strict guidelines. The film “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936), directed by Lambert Hillyer, features a female antagonist, Countess Marya Zaleska, that relies on the predatory lesbian trope. This trope, which depicts an older, supposedly lesbian woman obsessed with a younger, often heterosexual woman, was first introduced in the 1872 novel “Carmilla,” while “Dracula’s Daughter” became the first instance of the trope appearing in film. Universal Studios heavily altered the script to remove some of the more direct lesbian coding, but the countess pursues multiple young women in a manner akin to sexual desire, and there is even a scene in which Zaleska attempts to cure her vampirism, a thinly-veiled reference to conversion therapy.
In the wake of World War II, Somerton says, fears of communist states and the civil rights movements of the United States influenced a new wave of science fiction horror. Stories of alien invaders were particularly common, and the anxieties of the Cold War and the consequences of nuclear warfare were on full display on the silver screen. This is generally considered a time when LGBTQ+ representation was not visible in Hollywood.
However, Merryman claims that the Red Scare and subsequent Lavender Scare — a period during the 1950s and ’60s in which LGBTQ+ people were purged from government positions on the unfounded basis of being communist spies — also had an effect on queer representation in horror. She notes that as the moral panic infiltrated Hollywood, LGBTQ+ people in the industry suspected of communist ties were driven into low-budget B movies, most of which were science fiction due to the belief that the genre would never generate a profit. Hints of homoeroticism pepper these films, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that LGBTQ+ people became more prominent in horror films again.
Inspired by the conservative backlash to the 1960s and ’70s also known as the Reagan Administration, a new subgenre of horror was born — the slasher film. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper, is considered the first, and a slew of slashers came hot and fast on its heels. “Halloween” (1978), “Friday the 13th” (1980) and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) are embedded so deeply in American horror that most know of their bloodthirsty villains without even having seen the films. The slasher subgenre gave rise to many of the stereotypes and movie tropes associated with horror today, including the final girl trope. Among other characteristics, the final girl is always a virgin, as opposed to her friends who engage in premarital sex and may have multiple partners.
While the feminist aspects of this trope are more obvious, there is an inherent queerness to it as well. The slasher subgenre, according to Somerton, coincided with the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay male community, and so the concept of the virginal final girl takes on a new meaning. Now, the message relayed to the audience is that sex kills. Nowhere is this more clear than in “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge” (1985), also known as the gayest horror film ever made.
Unlike the vast majority of slashers, the protagonist of the film is Jesse, a teenage boy pursued by Freddy Kreuger, who wishes to possess his body and kill in the real world. The Current describes this dynamic as a “homoerotic undercurrent … so strong that sometimes the subtext feels as though it has become canon.” Jesse is indeed very gay-coded — in fact, actor Mark Patton is gay himself — and there is even a scene at a leather bar. Throughout the course of the film, Jesse becomes increasingly violent as his homoerotically-coded connection to Kreuger strengthens. This suggests that Jesse’s developing sexuality is violent, aggressive and must be subdued. The Current claims that this “implies some sort of aggression is associated with homosexuality or that gay identity is something to be fought.”
This idea, however, of Jesse’s queer sexuality being dangerous is not new. Throughout the years, several negative tropes of LGBTQ+ people have been kept alive by cultural anxieties. Predominant among those is the trope of the gay killer — and its sister trope, the trans killer — which feeds into the belief that LGBTQ+ people are inherently dangerous to cisgender, heterosexual society.
For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) focuses on two presumably gay men who are sexually aroused by murder. His later film “Psycho” (1960) features the iconic Norman Bates, who is coded as a gay man and is portrayed by gay actor Anthony Perkins. “Cruising” (1980), directed by William Friedkin, is centered around a serial killer that targets sexually active gay men and is in fact a gay man himself. It received public outcry from the community for its depiction of gay men as sex-obsessed, and following its release, Somerton claims several hate crimes were traced back to the film.
More recent films — including Wes Craven’s “Scream” (1996) — perpetuate the gay killer trope as well, which, Vachon claims, is the most enduring of the harmful stereotypes against LGBTQ+ people in film.
“That seems to be the one we can’t shake,” she says.
Mick Brewer, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Lincoln University of Missouri, argues that the horror genre may be perhaps more guilty of playing up cultural anxieties of gender transgression than those of actual sexuality. Gender performance plays a key role in the portrayal of these monstrous depictions of LGBTQ+ people. For example, it is not just the gay man who is the killer, but the femme gay man.
Films such as Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” (1983) embody this concept more clearly. In both movies, the killers are portrayed as transgender women. Brewer points out that it is more often than not the feminine qualities and portrayals that are villainized in horror and that this is somewhat of a reflection of a patriarchal society that is unforgiving towards the feminine.
He says, “It’s not just the gender transgression, but particularly this trope of a male subject taking on the feminine because we are in a society that, unfortunately, privileges masculinity and maleness to such an extent that womanness, femininity, is something that you should never want to take on. … A male taking on a female or feminine subjectivity is a betrayal, not only to one’s gender, but to the system that privileges your gender.”
Not all forms of queer representation in horror have been as negative as the gay killer trope. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) offers a breath of fresh air with openly queer characters and themes embedded into the story. A subversion of the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley — which is itself a feminist, queer work — Vachon finds that the film’s “unapologetic queerness” paints a far less judgmental and negative view of LGBTQ+ people than previous horror films.
More recent horror films have also played more overtly with LGBTQ+ themes. “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), while panned during its release, has seen a comeback as a campy, queer horror film rife with lesbian coding. While much of the film can be seen as a revenge story against male violence, the protagonist, Anita “Needy” Lesnicki, and the film’s villain, Jennifer, clearly share a messy and co-dependent relationship with one another, muddied by questions of whether their feelings for each other are platonic or romantic. For young queer women, this is an all too familiar situation.
“To me, there’s a very interesting reading of ‘Jennifer’s Body’,” says Somerton. “That queer teenage girls whose sexualities are only starting to bloom can easily become confused about their relationships with other girls.”
Others in the genre take a more nuanced approach to exploring queer discourse. In the film “It Follows” (2015), a curse is transmitted from person to person via sexual encounters and the afflicted person must pass the curse on to another in order to be rid of the demon following them. In his follow-up video essay, “Deep Cuts: Society and Queer Horror,” Somerton argues that “It Follows” can be seen as an interesting play on the final girl trope and a deconstruction of a monogamous, sex-shaming society. Within the context of the film, sexual freedom is the key to survival rather than a character’s downfall.
“The film barely acknowledges that (the protagonist) has any other option but to find new partners, and it’s her hesitance to move beyond a series of monogamous bonds that could ultimately prove to be her downfall,” says Somerton. “Therefore, the film implies that having a sex life is inevitable and always involves a certain level of risk, emotional or physical. But the film also suggests that the danger truly lies in the social attitudes that make sex and promiscuity shameful.”
Progress in queer representation in horror media, however, remains frustratingly slow on many fronts. Portrayals of LGBTQ+ people in film remain largely white, able-bodied and cisgender, and this is no different within horror. Additionally, even the most basic forms of representation can be undermined in films as recent as 2019.
“It: Chapter Two” (2019), directed by Andy Muschietti, begins with a violent attack on a gay couple, one so horrific that, according to Somerton, it effectively awakens the titular It from its slumber. The scene caused controversy, with some pointing out that the violence is a continuation of the ever-present bury your gays trope and comes across as a cheap attempt at shock value. Additionally, the film devotes an entire subplot to a one-sided gay romance between the characters of Eddie and Richie that is once again foiled by bury your gays, as Eddie is brutally murdered by It and Richie, a closeted gay man, is left as the only member of the former Losers Club without a happy ending.
Recent horror films, however, are also changing the game in terms of queer representation. Colin Minihan’s “What Keeps You Alive” (2018) follows a lesbian couple that slowly falls apart as one reveals her true, murderous colors. According to Brewer, the film was initially written with a heterosexual couple in mind, but as the male lead dropped out, Hannah Emily Anderson was brought on with no changes to the script. What makes “What Keeps You Alive” unique, Brewer argues, is that the antagonist is not a monster because of her queerness, but rather someone who is monstrous who just happens to be queer — a far cry from Norman Bates’ unhinged murder rampage fueled almost entirely by his queerness.
The short film “The Quiet Room” (2018), written and directed by Sam Wineman, features a gay Black man, Michael, as its lead, hunted by an aggressive demon while in the hospital following a suicide attempt. While Michael’s identity is central to the plot, it is neither a source of fear and shame, nor one of aggression and violence. It simply is, and it is horror films like “The Quiet Room” and “What Keeps You Alive” that provide hope for the future of queer representation in the genre.
Despite the rocky relationship between queerness and horror, the two are inextricably linked. Horror, itself, is a queer enterprise, and many LGBTQ+ people find themselves drawn to the queer themes, subtext and imagery woven into horror films. Whether it is the experience of being the outsider or the appreciation of explicitly queer characters on the silver screen, there is something about the genre that speaks to LGBTQ+ people in a way that others do not. As we enter an age of film that is slowly opening the doors for marginalized voices to come through, we may yet see LGBTQ+ filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of horror. That is, after all, what the genre seeks, and who better to question our societal norms than Hollywood’s familiar monsters?