Cross-posted from Office Hours with Dr. Horror: Horror with a Sociological Twist
Horror is a genre that often feels as though it is not for queer people. When most people think of horror, they imagine big men like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers slicing and dicing young women to literal pieces as the ‘male gaze’ of the camera cuts them into figurative pieces—reducing them into screenshots of ‘tits and ass’ that are meant to sexually titillate a fan base that is presumed (wrongly) to be comprised predominantly of straight men.
When queerness emerges in horror narratives it is often subtextual, and that subtext is frequently very homophobic. As early as the 1970s, gay film critics like Vito Russo noted how the monsters in horror movies were often coded as queer—from the lesbian vampires of films like the unsubtly named Vampyros Lesbos to the use of gender nonconformity to signal psychosis in slashers. The latter is a particularly insidious coding. Perhaps the most (in)famous of examples of it are Norman Bates’ and his embodiment of “Mother” in Psycho and Buffalo Bill’s quest to make a woman skin suit in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. (For an astronomically less high-brow version of this toxic trope, check out the dumpster-fire that is 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, where gay dads and forced gender reassignment by a crazy aunt turn a young child into a vicious murderer. It must be seen to be believed.)
However, this transphobic trope is hardly a thing of the past. For example, the much maligned 2006 Black Christmas remake made the questionable choice of casting a man to play the female killer, Agnes. An even more recent and problematic use of this trope can be found in the polarizing Incident in a Ghostland (2018)—a film which also had a side dose of ableism as the protagonists were raped and tortured by two escaped mental patients (one played by a cisgender man in a dress, the other a man with a developmental disability who likes to play with living ‘dolls’). And it’s not only in trashy exploitation flicks were this trope is found. For example, the otherwise exceptional film, The Clovehitch Killer (2018), included a scene where the killer put on women’s lingerie for no reason other than presumably to ‘shock’ and ‘appall’ the audience. The message in these films is clear—same-gender attraction and (implicitly) transgender bodies are treated as threats to the nuclear family and the American ‘way of life.’
When queerness is more directly included in films, it’s often found, not in fully actualized LGBTQ+ characters, but rather in the casual homophobia of its straight cast. Part of the trials and tribulations of being a LGBTQ+ horror fan is cringing through these moments—from realizing that horror legend Wes Craven thought his straight female characters in Last House on the Left (1972) would be almost as disturbed to be forced to kiss one another as by the brutal rapes they endured later to having to listen to countless ‘F-bombs’ as part of (straight) male homosocial bonding. (The F-word was so ubiquitous the 80s children’s horror film, Monster Squad, that I found the film utterly unwatchable when I tried to view it recently.) However, unlike the continued demonization of trans people, this form of homophobia seems to have fallen off in recent years. For instance, when Kelly Rowland’s character called Freddy a “f****t” in Freddy vs. Jason (2003) it was so controversial that the cast and crew apologized for it in each of the franchises’ definitive documentaries, Never Sleep Again (2010) and Crystal Lake Memories (2013). Still, for LGBTQ+ people, navigating the classics often means dealing with homophobic content that clearly says, “this is not for you.”
The genre has certainly changed enormously over time. 80s slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street and 90s teen horror flicks like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer ultimately gave way to the “torture-porn” period of the early 2000’s (e.g., Saw, Hostel, and anything Rob Zombie directed), which was swiftly dethroned by recent supernatural franchises like Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. Despite these revolutions in the genre, very little has arguably changed for LGBTQ+ fans of studio films. Although contemporary Hollywood horror blockbusters have perhaps seemed less visibly intolerant of LGBTQ+ folks in recent years, they have not truly become inclusive of them. However, things have begun to change within the industry and the broader fandom—and these changes have important implications for queer horror.
Let’s start with the industry. Horror has always had a precarious position in Hollywood. Despite the success of “Universal Monsters” films like Dracula, The Wolfman, and The Mummy, the genre was often a capital-P ‘Problem’ for studios in earlier years. Horror films were a frequent target of censorship in the U.S. Similar trends existed abroad in the UK where the creation of the now notorious 72-film “Video Nasty” list resulted in classic horror films like The Evil Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, and Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy being literally prosecuted and denied circulation in the country. Watch any documentary about horror series made in the 1970s and 1980s, and you get a sense of how viciously ratings boards like the MPAA policed horror—forcing directors to cut violence if they wanted to avoid the dreaded X Rating that would make a film unmarketable anywhere except grimy urban grindhouse theaters and places that screened pornography.
There was never going to be space for explicitly queer content in studio films that could barely get their violence past these watchdog organizations. Even heterosexual sex only made it in when those engaging in it were suitably punished for doing so and ‘the final girl’ was rewarded for her virtue. And studio films have not gotten much more risk adverse since then; they want to turn a profit, and the industry consensus still seems to be that queer-centered cinema can’t sell to a mainstream audiences—the series of ‘blink and you miss it’ moments of representation in recent non-horror Blockbusters like Beauty & the Beast, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Avengers: Endgame and the Blumhouse horror comedy, Happy Death Day (2017), being the exceptions that prove the rule.
But fortunately, studio films aren’t the only game in town anymore. Independent cinema has exploded in recent years as circulation outside the studio’s wide release system has become increasingly cost-effective. As a result, it’s become more possible to reach (and make money from) audiences like LGBTQ+ people who were previously perceived as too niche to be worthwhile. This contributed to a boom of ‘new queer cinema’ offerings in the arthouse circuit starting in the 1990s, bringing LGBTQ+ life to the silver screen at an unprecedented rate.
The success of independent film has been expedited by the development of online streaming services that have changed the way we think about filmmaking and distribution. An important consequence of this is that filmmakers and screenwriters from underrepresented communities, including LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of color, have received new opportunities to create art that would have been all but impossible under the old studio system. Netflix and Amazon, of course, have been a big driver of this trend, funding and buying the rights to a treasure trove of independent horror movies. In addition to this, Hulu’s Into the Dark series has helped up-and-coming directors from a variety of backgrounds make films. The all-horror streaming service, Shudder, has also made a point to curate catalogs of films by and for communities that are underrepresented in the genre; for example, current collections, include “Queer Horror,” “Horror Noire” (named after their excellent documentary on Black people’s impact on horror), and “A Woman’s Touch.” Innovation in technology has thus contributed to innovation in culture.
All of this has happened on the backdrop changes in the horror fandom itself. As LGBTQ+ communities have become more visible in society, we have become more visible in horror communities as well. Whereas ‘horror fandom’ was once centralized in white straight male-created magazines like Fangoria or websites like Bloody Disgusting, horror criticism has become more democratized in the podcast era. If you want to hear queer takes on horror, there are numerous podcasts you can follow now. (Some of my favorites are Attack of the Queerwolf, Horror Queers, Gaylords of Darkness, and Double A Horror Highway—the first two being amplified and sponsored by Blumhouse and Bloody Disgusting respectively.) Podcasts like these have given LGBTQ+ folks a voice in horror that they previously lacked, providing them with a platform to highlight queer influences in film, read popular films through a queer lens, and defend genre entries that have been often overlooked and maligned by straight audiences.
These new voices have had their critics, of course. We can see some of that backlash in community battles over the future of the genre, as fandom superstars like film critic Joe Bob Briggs have recently come under fire for misogyny, racism, and homophobia. In response, many straight, white, and male fans have reacted negatively to what they perceive as the ‘infiltration of political correctness’ into their media. Still, it’s clear that the voices of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks are now a force to be reckoned with. To paraphrase and reclaim the immortal words of Glenn Close in (the deeply problematic) film Fatal Attraction (1987), “We’re not going to be ignored, Joe Bob!”
In the spirit of not being ignored, and in honor of Pride month, I’ve put together a list of queer horror movies that I think speak to the profound influence of LGBTQ+ people in horror—from older films with queer readings (e.g., Rope, Rebecca, and The Haunting), to accidental gay movies like Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (whose journey to queer cult status was recently explored in the documentary, Scream Queen), to movies made by people you may not have known were gay (e.g., Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Hellraiser, and Teeth), to amazing horror films with well-rounded LGBTQ+ characters (e.g., Daughters of Darkness, The Handmaiden, and The Perfection), to films that have been reclaimed and revaluated by LGBTQ+ people (e.g., Jennifer’s Body), to content that was created specifically for queer people (e.g., Knife + Heart, Lyle, Hellbent, and Killer Unicorn). If you’re interested in learning more about these films and what they’ve contributed to the genre, I’ll be releasing more in-depth overviews throughout the final weeks of June. You can follow me on Twitter @drhorrorphd for updates on these releases.
Happy (and spooky) Pride everyone!
Jaime Hartless received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia in 2019, and is an incoming Assistant Professor at SUNY Farmingdale. When she is not writing for her new blog, Office Hours with Doctor Horror, she studies identity politics and inequality in LGBTQ+ and feminist spaces, including gay bars and social justice organizations.