Skeletons In The Closet: A Century Of LGBT Representation In Horror - Matt Butler
Horror has its own gay sub-culture and the genre as we know it was practically built on the back of the LGBT community. Scream, Chucky and Candyman are just some of the franchises created by people who identify as LGBT. There is simply no denying the influence that queer individuals have had on this genre. But all good relationships should go both ways, and I wanted to look at what horror has given back to the LGBT community.
I decided to go back through decades worth of horror and consider how we have been represented. Were we locked away in the basement? Or did horror embrace us, the way that we had embraced it?
Gothic Literature and the early 1900’s – A DICK PIC OF DORIAN GRAY
I started by looking at early gothic literature, which is often considered to be the birth of western horror. Even as far back as the 1800’s it is not all that difficult to find queer characters in these stories. It can even be argued that some of the classics are heavily influenced by the LGBT culture and the stigma our community faced during this era. For example, Count Dracula craves forbidden flesh and fears the church; mild mannered Dr Jekyll breaks free from the rules of society and social norms when he becomes Mr Hyde; and Dr Frankenstein practically ignores his sister-turned-fiancée so he can build a man in his laboratory for ‘science’ – okay I might be reaching a little with that last one, but you can see how easy it is to draw comparisons to these infamous characters and the hushed nature of the LGBT culture of this time period.
One of the best examples of this is Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray' – a character who is often stylised as bisexual in modern retellings. This book tells the story of a narcissistic young man who begins a hedonistic lifestyle and desperately clings to his youth and beauty – basically every guy I have ever met off Grindr.
At the time of publication, it was not legal for Wilde to write about homosexual relationships and it would remain illegal in the UK until the 1950’s. However, gothic horror was already pushing these moral boundaries, portraying a more violent and sexual nature than any other literature at the time. Prominent authors such as Oscar Wilde, Matthew Lewis and arguably Bram Stoker were homosexual, or had alleged homosexual relationships. This genre gave these writers the outlet to channel LGBT themes into a more socially acceptable form and hide the context beneath the surface of their work: enough to find, if you knew what you were looking for, but subtle enough that they could argue that it didn’t even exist.
Hollywood tried to write the queer culture out of these classic stories, but some clues were simply too coded into the narrative. When these stories were adapted into films in the early 1900’s; the homosexual connotations could not be written out entirely, so instead they were covered up; Dracula fell in love with a woman, but he was still persecuted by the townsfolk and feared God; Mr Hyde would always be the antithesis to the rule-abiding and socially accepted Dr Jekyll; and Victor Frankenstein was still building a man, but now paid a lot more attention to the woman in his life whilst doing so.
This was not as easily done with Mr Gray – no, not THAT Mr Gray - who simply could never love a woman more than he loved himself. Despite having a love interest in his story, it was her talent as an actress, and not her beauty, that drew him to her. He was simply more in love with himself, taking significant care of his own appearance – a behaviour that was considered effeminate at the time. His sexuality, along with that of Wilde’s, became a topic of debate and continued to be when the story was adapted by Hollywood.
It was enough for an LGBT audience to feel seen. They could relate to the problems suffered by these otherwise ‘straight’ characters, but lurking below the surface, Gothic Horror was - and still is - gay as fuck.
The 40’, 50’s and 60’s - INVASION OF THE WIG SNATCHERS
This era saw an influx of sci-fi and other worldly horrors. Whilst I won’t go into the specifics of Godzilla’s sex life, I do find this era of horror interesting. Monster movies dominated this time in Hollywood horror history, with films such as ‘The Blob’, ‘Invasion of The Body Snatchers’ and ‘It Came from Beneath the Sea’. It is often stated that these films represented a fear of communism, particularly in American pictures. These monsters represented a disruption to the normal, wholesome way of life – the same way a lot of people at the time perceived the deviant, but oh so fun, act of homosexuality. It was considered unnatural, a lot like these monsters. Whilst there were films that dealt with homosexuality as a theme, most of these were crime driven dramas about the seedy underbelly of society or the inner workings of prisons.
Known for making an audience uncomfortable, it is no surprise that horror legend Alfred Hitchcock utilised America’s fear of homosexuality and added this subtext to his films. ‘Psycho’, ‘Strangers on a Train’ and ‘Rebecca’ are just some of Hitchcock’s work that researchers have suggested contain homosexual undertones. However, the most obvious example is 1948’s ‘Rope’.
‘Rope’ tells the story of two young college students who try to commit the perfect murder. It’s a film about keeping secrets; something these two men, and most LGBT teens, are particularly good at it. The subtext is rampant throughout the film and heavily suggests that the men were more than just roommates. In fact, the two actors portraying them, and the writer of the film were all gay or bisexual. Hitchcock wanted to keep this aspect of the story intact, and very cleverly made the directorial decision to film this story in as little takes as possible. This meant it was significantly harder for the studio to cut anything out that they did not agree with, leaving them unable to rob the film of its artistic integrity.
Although not being portrayed as a literal monster in this film, these men were undeniably still evil. During the film, they strangle a classmate to death and then invite his father, girlfriend and professor over for a dinner party. The arrogant young men are so confident they will get away with the murder, that they stuff the body in a box and use it as the dinner table. They were monsters of a different kind, and it begs the question if this sort of representation was more harmful to the LGBT community than helpful.
At the time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, and this fear was only greater exaggerated by unhinged characters: Norman Bates in Psycho was a killer; Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train was a killer; and Mrs Danvers in Rebecca was a killer – well she tried to kill them, but you get where I am going with this! This was the beginning of a harmful stereotype that would take decades to put an end to.
The 70’s and 80’s - CRUISIN’ FOR A BRUISIN’
Going into the 70’s, the homosexual subtext was dying down, and out and proud characters were beginning to be shown on screen more prominently. However, we were still often depicted as deviants who existed on the edge of normal society.
1975’s ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was slated during its initial release, but quickly gained a cult following in the LGBT community. The film saw a repressed young couple be seduced by a genderfluid mad scientist hellbent on creating the perfect man – sounds oddly familiar, right? But you can’t exist further from normal society than Frank-N-Furter, an eccentric outcast who was literally from another planet. The reason this film has stood the test of time, is because it never shamed anyone for being different. In fact, it was the ‘normal couple’ who were different in their world. It not only featured characters from across the sexuality and gender spectrum but celebrated and liberated them.
The same cannot be said about 1980’s ‘Cruising’ - a gritty noir thriller that saw Al Pacino go undercover in the leather scene to stop a killer targeting gay men. It featured a menagerie of gay characters, all of whom existed in the seedy underbelly of New York. Although some of the representation was positive, with Pacino befriending gay characters, the overall violent tone and graphic murder scenes caused significant damage to the community. The film’s killer is also left open to interpretation, with a young gay man being arrested for the crimes, but the audience left wondering if Pacino himself was the killer all along. This was very problematic as it appeared to be promoting violence against people who identified as LGBT, violence that the film suggests you could get away with.
As we moved further into the 80’s we got a lot more than misguided Pacino films: the birth of the slasher films. Although strictly beginning in the 70’s, it cannot be denied that the slasher subgenre brought us some of the most iconic horror movies to date. ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Halloween’ are just some of the franchises that began in this bodacious time period.
Slasher films were defined by their high body counts, teenage victims and the stereotypical virgin who gets to survive the night. The rules of slashers often dictated that if a character had sex, they were probably about to meet the wrong end of Jason’s machete in the very next scene. This is rather interesting as a lot of these films were released around the same time as the AIDS crisis – where sex could literally be a death sentence for gay men.
I could not talk about the 80’s without bringing up one of the most ‘unintentionally’ gay horror films of all time – ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge’. This film reversed the typical trope and made their final girl into a final boy, one who was questioning his own sexuality. Now I know this is not explicitly stated in the film but watch it again and tell me that Freddy is not a manifestation of Jesse’s attraction to men. Yes, okay, Jesse has a female love interest, but they are constantly kept apart by Freddy – including when the two are about to have sex. There is also a scene that takes place entirely inside a gay leather bar – you really don’t have to look that hard to see the clues in this one.
Freddy uses Jesse’s body to kill in the real world, which feels like an extension of the ‘Killer Queen’ trope that began in the 1950’s. If Jesse succumbs to Freddy (aka his homosexual feelings) he will end up hurting those that he loves most. The screenwriter admitted years later that he deliberately chose to make Jesse bisexual to cash in on homophobia and tap into the psyche of the teenage boy.
The 90’s and the 00’s – KILLER QUEENS AND WANNABE’S
As we entered the 90’s and 00’s, I expected to see an increase in positive representation, as LGBT culture grew and the community became more accepted. I did find examples of gay characters, but most were in supporting roles and were often killed off in the most ridiculous ways – yes, I am looking at you ‘Bride of Chucky’.
The main film that really stood out to me during my research of this era was 2004’s ‘Hellbent’. This was a paint-by-numbers slasher movie about a group of LGBT friends being stalked and killed by a man in a devil mask. Despite being early 00’s, this very much had the feel of an 80’s horror, but it’s hard to tell if this was done purposefully or just due to budget constraints. However, the representation in this movie is surprisingly good: there are multiple gay characters who show a wide range of gay culture. For once, we see more than just leather bars! Also, it arguably did not follow the ‘Killer Queen’ trope, with neither the killer’s sexuality nor identity ever being truly revealed. ‘Hellbent’ is remembered for being the first gay slasher film (despite lesbian-themed slasher ‘High Tension’ being released a year earlier) and sparked a wave of horror films for this audience – although admittedly none of them quite as memorable.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to that we had ‘Silence of The Lambs’. This is a fantastic film (and book!) that was critically received, yet if you look at the representation of gay and trans individuals in this story it is extremely controversial. The film stars Jodie Foster as an FBI agent hunting for serial killer Buffalo Bill. Although it is stated in the film that Bill is not a transsexual woman, the character believes that he is. To this day, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ does damage to the trans community. It created a belief that some trans people were not trans at all, but instead dangerous skin-wearing criminals who believed they were trans due to a mental illness. I suspect that this plot point was added to the story to elevate the horror and use that fear of the unknown – similar to what Hitchcock had done with ‘Rope’ decades earlier.
The 10’s and onwards – QUEER EYE FOR THE DEAD GUY
In a decade where we introduced streaming and cinematic universes, we saw significant change in the way LGBT people were represented across the media. Pop culture engaged with the LGBT community in a seamless way, and what was once niche was fast becoming mainstream.
Out gay characters in horror were finally able to take centre stage, and just like in real life, sexuality stopped being the entire character’s persona. ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ dominated horror on television, and both featured LGBT characters in their ensemble casts. These roles were also no longer considered risky for popular actors and we got fantastic performances in queer-based horror films such as ‘Black Swan’, ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’.
One of my favourite examples of positive representation in this era was Mitch from the animated feature ‘ParaNorman’. I know, it’s not exactly horror, but it’s a horror-themed-movie for children – which is exactly why I love this character so much. Mitch is the ‘dumb jock’ trope, and it’s only in a passing line at the end where he mentions that he has a boyfriend. The character's sexuality is revealed organically, and although the line is meant to be a joke – with Anna Kendrick’s Courtney flirting with Mitch the whole runtime – it still felt very natural and normal. To see this kind of representation in a kids movie, even one about zombies, was really refreshing and I can only imagine the good it could do for a queer kid watching that film.
A more recent example that springs to mind is the 2020 sequel to ‘The Craft’. ‘The Craft: Legacy’ features not only a trans character but also a male bisexual character. These are two of the most misrepresented groups in today’s media. While the bisexual character’s storyline does heavily involve their sexuality, the trans character’s narrative is completely unrelated to the fact she is trans. In fact, I believe it is only mentioned once in the whole film. This was great to see, and though the film was not my personal cup of tea, I applaud the filmmakers for this decision. It becomes even more important when you remember that one of the biggest themes of The Craft is sisterhood and women empowerment.
Horror and the LGBT community have always had a rocky relationship but now things seem to have finally landed on good terms. Societal pressure and wanting to appeal to the largest audience have caused horror to conform to the ‘norm’ and some filmmakers even capitalised on the public’s fear of what they don’t understand. But as we have seen through the decades, films that have challenged this viewpoint have always been embraced by this community. ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ is still being told a century later and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ has the longest theatrical release in cinema history.
There was always some form of representation, but it was not always done in the safest way. Which begs the question; is no representation better than misrepresentation? Perhaps the reason the gay community has always loved the villain is because we grew up identifying more with the queer weirdo who turns out to be the murderer than the strapping young hero who saves the day. We embraced that culture because it was the only time we saw characters like us on screen. With representation becoming more positive and natural, I hope the next generation of horror filmmakers will be inspired to create more films with fair representation, diversity and respect.
Matt Butler is an MA Screenwriting graduate and proud member of the LGBT+ community. Can be found on twitter @mjpbutler