The following article was written for, and published in, an Encyclopedia of Gender Studies, which can be found here: https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781119429128
Many film historians have suggested that the horror genre did not come into being until the beginning of the 1930s, when Universal began their cycle of classic horror movies. Roy Kinnard has stated that, before Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931), the horror movie as we know it today simply didn’t exist, despite there being many films which were both frightening to audiences and contained horror elements (Kinnard, 1995). Likewise, Kim Newman suggests that the German expressionist films, grotesque Lon Chaney melodramas, and films based on theatrical chillers were not viewed as horror movies by either producers or audiences (Newman, 1996). These long-held beliefs have started to be challenged in recent years, most notably since the digitization of newspapers, fan magazines, and trade publications have given historians a comprehensive overview never before possible of how films were produced, marketed, and consumed in the first decades of the 20th century. Tybjerg wrote in 2004 that those rejecting the idea that the horror genre existed before the 1930s were putting forward the notion that it could only exist if named and recognized by those watching the films, and those making them (Tybjerg, 2004). Either way, the horror film (or the antecedents of it) can be traced to the very beginning of the cinematic medium. This article gives a brief overview of the genre in relation to both queer readings of some key films and the presence of LGBTQ characters within them.
Robin Wood suggests the formula for the horror film is a basic one: normality threatened by a monster (Wood, 1978). This is clearly a simplification of the horror movie but, by and large, still holds true to this day. The very notion of “normality” being threatened by a monster suggests that the monster itself can be read as “abnormal,” or, one could argue, “queer.” Using the films of the 1930s as a starting point, there are two types of queer monster at play in the horror films of classical Hollywood. The first of these attempts to disrupt a heterosexual coupling in order to allow a union for the monster with the male in most cases, and the female in the relatively few examples where the monster itself is female. This type of queer monster seems to be found more commonly in horror movies that are not wholly supernatural affairs, such as White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin, 1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932). The second type of queer monster is that which appears to be attempting to spread homosexuality among the masses as some form of contagion—although, once again, this is suggested implicitly rather than explicitly within the texts. Here, we are entering a world of werewolves and vampires as found in films such as Nosferatu (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1922) and Dracula (dir. Tod Browning, 1931). Unsurprisingly, there are moments when these two types of monsters cross over, such as in The Mask of Fu Manchu (dir. Charles Brabin, 1932), in which the title character not only plans to come between the heterosexual couple at the heart of the film, but also to have control over the male and become ruler of the masses.
The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932) tells the story of Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a renowned big game hunter, who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island. The only house on the island belongs to a Russian, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who offers Rainsford his hospitality until a way can be found to get him off the island. Zaroff already has two other guests, Eve and Martin Trowbridge, a brother and sister, who have also been shipwrecked. However, Zaroff is also a hunter, but of the “most dangerous game”—humans. He provides his own entertainment by luring sailors to his island through altering the markings of the shipping channels, and thus causing shipwrecks, and then hunting them down and keeping them as trophies. Rainsford refuses to join him on his sadistic hunts, and so he and Eve become the hunted, and are given a 12-hour head start. They will be free to leave the island if they can survive the night in the jungle without being caught by Zaroff. Robert Lang writes that Zaroff’s request of Rainsford is perverse, and implies a sadistic homosexuality, which is present in both the film and its literary source, but always coded rather than explicit (Lang, 2002). The character of Eve in the film is clearly an attempt by Hollywood to at least partially heterosexualize the narrative. It gives Rainsford a love interest, something he does not have in the short story. Likewise, Rainsford is clothed when he arrives at Zaroff’s house in the film, but completely naked in the story—but that doesn’t stop him from losing his clothes during the hunt sequence that makes up the final third of the film. Slowly but surely, as he and Eve make their way through the jungle chased by Zaroff and his hounds, clothes are torn and removed. He may not be doing it physically, but Zaroff is effectively undressing Rainsford as he hunts him.
Zaroff is literally an (albeit human) monster who hunts men with what appears to be an explicit desire for them. The same is true of the title character in The Mask of Fu Manchu, played by Boris Karloff. The film is both sadistic and homoerotic in the extreme, as Karloff subjects his victims to various dastardly tortures, some of them surprisingly fetishistic for the time, including one in which the character of Terry Granville, played by Charles Starrett, is strapped to a table whilst nearly naked and injected with a serum which forces him to do anything which Karloff asks of him. The sexual connotations of such a scene (a sub/dom relationship or encounter, with one controlling the other), particularly given the (lack of) costumes, are likely to have been intentional in a film which seemingly lacks any form of restraint with regards to content or taste. Fu Manchu even takes delight in informing us how the victim of one of the tortures will soil his own clothes.
Myrna Loy, who played Fah Lo See, Fu Manchu’s daughter, is said to have described her character as a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” This appears to be quite an adroit summation of the character, for when Terry Granville is being whipped (shirtless and hanging from the ceiling), Fah Lo See asks her father “he is not entirely unhandsome is he, my Father?” Fu Manchu, who has come into the room to watch the whipping admits: “For a white man, no.” While Fu Manchu has a daughter and has therefore clearly been involved sexually with a woman, he admits here that he can tell a handsome man when he sees one and takes visible delight time and time again when restraining and torturing his victims, all of whom are men and often in complete or partial states of undress. His sexuality is also brought into question by the fact he is often surrounded by half-naked slave boys (Benshoff, 1997), and by his physical appearance. Gregory W. Mank suggests a campness in the way that Karloff’s Fu Manchu is presented, from what he wears to how he speaks (Mank, 1994, p. 69).
White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin, 1932) continues the theme of one man forced to do another’s bidding, except, rather than this being a result of the taking of a serum, this time it is to do with him being turned into a zombie. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a mill owner in Haiti whose entire work force are being controlled as zombies. Meanwhile, a young couple have been lured to the island by an older man, Beaumont, who wants the girl for himself, and plans to do anything to get her before she marries her fiancé. He approaches Legendre, who offers him a liquid that will turn the girl into a zombie, but, once this has happened, Beaumont changes his mind and begs Legendre to bring her back from her zombified state but, instead, Legendre turns him into a zombie, stating as he does so, “I have taken quite a fancy to you, Monsieur.” White Zombie is an eerie, unsettling viewing experience even 80 years after it was made. An independent production, made on a low budget and with leftover sets from Dracula, it manages to be considerably more haunting than that film, aided and abetted by Lugosi’s surprisingly restrained performance (one of his best), the cinematography, and the nods towards German expressionism.
Queer characters and imagery in horror films continued throughout the early 1930s. The Old Dark House (dir. James Whale, 1932), is a distinctive film in the first cycle of Universal horror films. Benshoff writes that incest, necrophilia, homosexuality, androgyny, sadomasochism, and orgiastic behavior are all hinted at within the movie (Benshoff, 1997). The film tells the story of the strange occurrences when a group of people are stranded in a storm and find themselves seeking shelter at the old dark house of the title. Whale’s sense of humor makes an entrance early on, and the director wastes no time in announcing that the travelers have stumbled across the “Femm” family, no less. Horace Femm is played by Ernest Thesiger, who could perhaps be best described as an amalgamation of the sissy prevalent in films of the 1920s and an elderly fop. Thesiger would go on to play a similar role in Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935), a few years later. But Whale does not stop with the repetition of the Femm name and Thesiger’s characterization. Benshoff argues that Whale encourages a queer reading of the film by having actress Elspeth Dudgeon playing the 102-year-old patriarch, Roderick Femm (Benshoff, 1997). Also of note from this period is Dracula’s Daughter (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1936), which not only features an effeminate manservant played by Irving Pichel, but also the titular character’s seduction of a young female model with a fade out which leaves little to the imagination.
Dracula itself was one of three key horror novels that had been written within a 10-year period in the late 19th century when the race was on to invent what we know today as film or cinema, and during the infancy of the new medium. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886, The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in 1890, and Dracula in 1897. All three novels became the basis of a number of early attempts at cinematic horror. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was filmed over half a dozen times between 1910 and 1920, miraculously with at least four adaptations of the story surviving. The Picture of Dorian Gray was also filmed with similar frequency during this period, although only one version is still known to exist—an incomplete print of the Thanhouser version from 1915. Dracula was most famously filmed during the silent era in 1922 in an unofficial adaptation entitled Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau, although Dracula’s Death was produced the previous year in Hungary, directed by Kertész Milhály, who would soon move to America and rechristen himself Michael Curtiz and go on to direct classics such as Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942). All three of these novels contained what can only be described as queer elements, and would continue to be some of the most-adapted novels in cinematic history. All three of these novels dealt with the idea of the protagonists leading a double life, and this common narrative trait has lent itself to queer interpretations that have been exploited across the decades as the number of adaptations increased.
Nosferatu, from 1921, loses much of the homoeroticism of the novel, partly because of changes to the characterizations of both the vampire itself and Harker (here renamed Hutter). Despite this, Murnau still manages to incorporate a sequence that is difficult to interpret in any other way. When Hutter cuts his finger while slicing bread, Orlok (Dracula in the book) moves toward him, wanting to take the finger and insert it into his mouth so he can suck the blood from it. Hutter finally realizes that something is wrong. This is the key queer moment within the film. The insertion of the finger into Orlok’s mouth is symbolic of oral sex, but the film does not stop there. When Hutter awakes the following morning, his shirt has been unbuttoned and he has a bite on his neck. Orlok has literally penetrated Hutter while he was asleep, despite the fact that Hutter is merely mystified rather than horrified at the situation.
In 1920, two American adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made it to cinema screens. The lesser known (and lesser regarded) of the two is that starring Sheldon Lewis and directed by J. Charles Haydon. Differing from the other surviving silent versions of the story, the setting is transplanted to contemporary New York. Unlike the book, there is a female love interest for Dr Jekyll: Bernice. While this is a crudely made film considering the year of production, it suggests a queer subtext in a way that none of the other silent versions do. It was clearly made to cash in on the success of the more prestigious John Barrymore version which had opened a few weeks earlier, but this is far from a carbon copy of that film, and the lack of sheen here allows for an effectively darker atmosphere. The intertitles are key in communicating this, and successfully raise the ante with regards to queer content. One intertitle reads: “In order to better cover his dual nature, Dr Jekyll hires quarters for his other self in the squalid tenement district.” While the reference to Jekyll’s “dual nature” might more obviously suggest his good and bad side, it could also be a reference to his sexuality. Also of interest here is the reference to Hyde living in the “squalid tenement district.” Each of the four silent adaptations that survive have Hyde living in the seedier part of the city (whether London or New York). This contrasts with Jekyll’s own house, which is in a more respectable area, and reflects his upper-class status. Another intertitle in the film refers to “Hyde, the evil genius, harkening to the voice of the Tempter.” Would it be going too far to suggest that the “Tempter” was homosexuality? Possibly not, for by the end of the film not only has Hyde successfully come between Jekyll and his girlfriend, but he has attacked her as well; a symbolic attack on respectable, professional, heterosexual life.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of the most-filmed stories during the years of silent cinema, although nearly all of these versions are lost, and the only one in circulation is just a fragment. The novel received a sumptuous M.G.M adaptation in 1945, with an aloof performance by the enigmatic Hurd Hatfield, whose porcelain features and quiet demeanor gave the film a queer subtext that bubbles below the surface throughout its running time. The queerest adaptation of the story was made 25 years later in 1970, in a European coproduction directed by Massimo Dallamano and starring Helmut Berger. The casting of Berger is key to the queer element of the film, with him being an openly bisexual actor, and already associated with queer roles after his infamous impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in Viconti’s The Damned the previous year. The 1970 modern-day adaptation dares to go places that previous adaptations (and the book) had not, with Dorian’s fluid sexuality explicit throughout the movie. At one point he seems only interested in women, at another he is only interested in men—and what nightclub does he visit to find people who can feed his sexual appetite? The Black Cock. The film has arguably not aged well, and today can be viewed as a rather tacky sexploitation take on the story, but no other adaptation has come close to it with regards to queer content.
However, the 1970 Dorian Gray did not exist in a vacuum. European coproductions of the period seemed to be willing to explore the subject of sex and sexuality (albeit with a somewhat more nuanced approach than Dorian Gray) much more than films from the United Kingdom or America. However, in the United Kingdom, gay or queer characters or concepts were beginning to appear in horror movies, particularly those made by Hammer. Horror of Frankenstein (dir. Jimmy Sangster, 1970) features a surprisingly nonjudgmental representation of a gay man (Benshoff, 1997). Meanwhile, Frankenstein Created Woman (dir. Terence Fisher, 1967) finds Frankenstein taking the soul of a man and transplanting it into the dead body of a woman. Interestingly, in the 1890s, influential sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld built his ideas around the notion of homosexuality being a “third sex” on the notion of a gay man being a woman’s soul in a man’s body, and a lesbian being the reverse. Hammer took this idea further still in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1971), with Jekyll experimenting with the ingesting of female hormones as a way of discovering the elixir of life. Instead of prolonging his life, the hormones result in him turning into an evil female Hyde (who he pretends is his sister), thus allowing both a man and a woman to live within the same body. In 1970 Hammer also made a movie based on the J. Sheridan LeFanu’s novel Carmilla, written in 1872, featuring a lesbian vampire. The Vampire Lovers (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1970) starred Ingrid Pitt, and began a short cycle of lesbian vampire movies at the studio, including Lust for a Vampire (dir. Jimmy Sangster, 1971) and Twins of Evil (dir. John Hough, 1971).
Outside of Hammer, queer characters had started featuring in horror films made elsewhere. The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963), an adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, never explicitly states that the characters played by Julie Harris and Claire Bloon are lesbian, but it is also difficult to come to any other conclusion. Meanwhile one of the vampires in Roman Polanski’s horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is homosexual.
In more recent years, the horror genre has been one of the first (and possibly the first) to include queer characters on a semiregular basis in mainstream films aimed at teenage audiences, even if the characters in question often don’t survive until the end of the movie. Notable examples are Bride of Chucky (dir. Ronny Yu, 1998), Cherry Falls (dir. Geoffrey Wright, 2000), Soul Survivors (dir. Steve Carpenter, 2001), Cursed (dir. Wes Craven, 2005), and Mortuary (dir. Tobe Hooper, 2005). What is perhaps key about these movies is that the gay characters are interwoven into an ensemble cast with little or no emphasis on their sexuality within the script. The gay and lesbian characters are, by and large, accepted by those around them with little fuss—something which seems at odds with Hollywood films of the period in general.
For the queerest of all mainstream horror films, one has to go back to 1984s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (dir. Wes Craven). This sequel, rather unusually, concentrates on a male protagonist, Jesse, who moves into the house featured in the first of the series. The film features Jesse, played by Mark Patton, repeatedly seen wearing nothing but tight white underwear, writhing in bed, covered in sweat, while he has yet another dream about Freddy Kreuger, at one point declaring “he’s inside me!” Added to this, Jesse has a friendship with a jock at school that can easily be read as homosexual, and the school’s football coach is a gay man who visits an S&M bar and meets his end after being dragged to the school showers by unseen hands, having his clothes ripped off, and getting a whipping from a towel. In 2016, the film’s writer stated that he attempted to draw on the homophobia that was present in society at the time the film was being made, and how that was affecting the core audience of teenage boys. (Peitzman, 2016).
In recent years, a series of low-budget horror films have been made that are aimed specifically at a male gay audience. David DeCoteau has been directing films since the mid-1980s, including a number of entries in the Puppet Master series. In 2000, he released Voodoo Academy, a low-budget movie set in a Bible college at which not all is what it seems. DeCoteau’s cast are a group of young male actors with model-like good looks that spend much of the film wearing little (if anything) more than tight white boxer shorts (rather like the protagonist in Freddy’s Revenge, which may well have been DeCoteau’s inspiration). There are no gay characters here, at least not explicitly, but the entire movie is of a homoerotic nature—something which is emphasized above the horror element. The film began a long series of straight-to-DVD movies from the director using what is essentially the same formula—a mild horror narrative with a cast of pretty 20-something males at its core, with plenty of skin being shown throughout thanks to scenes set in dorms, showers, swimming pools, changing rooms, and gyms.
Finally, perhaps inspired by the success of the DeCoteau movies, other independently-made queer horror movies have been made over the last decade and a half. Perhaps the best and most well-known is Hellbent (dir. Paul Etheredge, 2004), a film that is essentially a slasher movie aimed at a gay audience. While still low-budget, production values are higher than in the DeCoteau movies, and the characters are gay rather than just baring skin to titillate a gay audience. This was followed by the likes of In the Blood (dir. Lou Peterson, 2006), Otto; or, Up With the Dead People (dir. Bruce La Bruce, 2008), Vampire Boys (dir. Charlie Vaughn, 2011), Unhappy Birthday (dir. Mike Harriot & Mike Matthews, 2011), Girl House (dir. John Knautz & Trevor Matthews, 2014), and B&B (dir. Joe Ahearne, 2017). Whether there is a future for these kinds of independent movies made by queers for queers is likely to depend on whether Hollywood incorporates more such characters into their mainstream horror films. Television has been leading the way in this regard for some time with horror or horror-related programming (True Blood, Riverdale, The Walking Dead, Teen Wolf), and only time will tell if cinema follows television’s lead in this regard.
Benshoff, H. M. (1997). Monsters in the closet: Homosexuality and the horror film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kinnard, R. (1995). Horror in silent films. A filmography. 1896–1929. Jefferson: McFarland.
Lang, R. (2002). Masculine interests. Homoerotics in Hollywood film. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Mank, G. W. (1994). Hollywood cauldron: Thirteen films from the genre’s golden age. Jefferson: McFarland.
Newman, K. (1996). The BFI companion to horror. London, UK: Cassell.
Peitzman, L. (2016). The nightmare behind the gayest horror film ever made. Buzzfeed. February 21, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/the-nightmare-behind-the-gayest-horror-film-ever-made?utm_term=.eq0NJP5Eob#.fj93EWzNwj
Tybjerg, C. (2004). Shadow-souls and strange adventures. Horror and the supernatural in European silent film. In S. Prince (Ed.), The horror film (pp.15–39). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Wood, R. (1978). Return of the repressed. Film Comment, 14(4), 25–32.