Horror Cinema & LGBT

By Lewis Mainwaring (Horror fan, writer & LGBT activist).

Forbidden passion and dark, dangerous desires are often central themes in classic Gothic stories which has gone on to form the groundwork of popular Gothic/Horror cinema.

Therefore it doesn’t take much reasoning to discover why many of the LGBT community, who are often taught that their sexuality is wrong and does not fit society’s view – connect to gothic cinema often on an emotional level; relating and sympathising with the ‘monster’ who has been shunned from society. Whilst harbouring the necessity of secrecy, the persistence of a forbidden passion, and the fear of discovery.

Classic Gothic novels of the 1790’s and early 1800’s have been commented on for clear gay subtext. Popular Gothic writers of the time such as Matthew Lewis, William Thomas Beckford and Francis Lathom were in-fact homosexual.

James Jenkins of Valancourt Books notes that;

“The traditional explanation for the gay/horror connection [at this time in Gothic writings] is that it was impossible for them [authors such as Lewis, Beckford and Lathom] to write openly about gay themes. So they sublimated them and expressed them in more ‘acceptable forms’ using the medium of a transgressive genre”.

Early Gothic novels with clear gay subtext include Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Charles Maturin‘s The Fatal Revenge (1807) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Somewhat later in 1872 the first lesbian Vampire novella Carmilla was written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

When Oscar Wilde released The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890 it shocked readers with its sensuality and overtly homosexual characters – in the same way Carmilla did 18 years previous.  The Picture of Dorian Gray offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding the public morality.

Many have argued that there is even gay subtext in Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897) as the title character warns off the female vampires and claims Jonathan Harker, saying;

“This man belongs to me!”

The erotic metaphor of vampirism, inspired by Carmilla, has resulted in numerous vampire films since the 1970s strongly implying or explicitly portraying lesbianism – but mainly for sexual reasons – a cheap thrill for the predominantly male viewing audience.

James R. Keller writes in his 2000 book ‘Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels‘ that in particular;

“Gay and lesbian readers have been quick to identify with the representation of the vampire, suggesting its experiences parallel those of the sexual outsider”

“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” – Dracula (1897 – Bram Stoker)

Children of the Night” this term has always left an impression on me since the first time I read Dracula as an early teenager. As a 16 year old coming to terms with my own sexuality this quote provoked such a feeling in me that ‘the night’ provided safety, freedom and release!

This feeling resounded in me for many years even linking to my love of Lady Gaga‘s song Marry the Night where she sings;

“I’m gonna marry the night,
I won’t give up on my life,
I’m a warrior queen,
Live passionately tonight.

I’m gonna marry the dark
Gonna make love to the stark
I’m a soldier to my own emptiness
I am a winner”.
This feeling of safety and solace in isolation is often a major theme in the horror/gothic genre.

With the vampire having been a recurring metaphor for same-sex desire Anne Rice‘s ‘The Vampire Chronicles‘ (1976-2014) has reinforced the widely commented on relationship between the vampire and queer culture.

Early horror cinema, made when homosexuality was regarded at best as unspeakable, at worst as an abomination, embraced these sexual deviants as another means to unnerve their audiences. But these portrayals were not always unsympathetic.

Monstrous transformation or terror from society can serve as a metaphor for the isolation many LGBT viewers have felt. Many of these films were made when reference to homosexuality on screen was forbidden, yet shrewd directors and screenwriters were able to dodge the censors through suggestion and metaphor.

Though the Motion Picture Production Code prohibited LGBT characters or themes during its entire existence from 1930 to 1968, certain films pushed the envelope by showing what they could within the guidelines, coding it so that gays and lesbians could see it, but those who chose to ignore it still could.

Here are some of the stand out moments that shows the development of the ‘gay horror’ film and its underpinned themes.

In 1932 less than five years into the ‘talkies’ came The Old Dark House. 

James Whale (whom was openly gay), plays with the then fresh (now in 2016 extremely overused) haunted house horror premise. The film sees a couple of newlyweds seek shelter from a storm at the old, dark house of the title, and are confronted with an eccentric man on the run from the police (Ernest Thesiger) and his religious fanatic sister (Eva Moore). Boris Karloff plays the monstrous mute butler, while something wicked lurks in a locked room above.

The results are wonderful, both funny and, at times, genuinely sinister. In a poignant moment at the end of the film, a homosexual relationship is suggested between two unlikely characters, while a key role of an ancient man is played by Elspeth Dudgeon, one of the earliest cinematic example of a woman donning male drag.

Three years later in 1935 James Whale directed The Bride of Frankenstein which was the first sequel to Universal Pictures’ 1931 hit Frankenstein – which was also directed by Whale.

In this sequel Boris Karloff’s creature again finds himself shunned by society for his despised condition, finding solace only in his relationship with a blind hermit. Meanwhile, his creator Dr Henry Frankenstein (Colin Cliveis also enduring a night heavy in gay metaphor. Coaxed away from his wedding night bed by the flamboyant Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Frankenstein is encouraged to create “a new world of gods and monsters” through the creation of a mate for the monster – The Bride (Elsa Lanchester).

In the decades since its release, modern film scholars have noted the possible homosexual reading of the film. Director James Whale was openly gay, and some of the actors in the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were believed to be gay or bisexual. 

Although James Curtis, Whale’s biographer, rejects the notion that Whale would have identified with the Monster from a homosexual perspective, many scholars have identified a gay subtext interlocked through the film, especially a camp sensibility, particularly embodied in the character of Pretorius and his relationship with Henry.

In 1998 a drama film ‘Gods and Monsters‘ that recounts the final days of the life of Whale was released – winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. This film highlights many of the gay overtones that surrounded the making of ‘Bride of Frankenstein’.

In 1936 Dracula’s Daughter was produced by Universal Studios as a sequel to the 1931 film Dracula.

Dracula’s Daughter tells the story of Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), the daughter of Count Dracula and herself a vampire. Following Dracula’s death, she believes that by destroying his body she will be free of his influence and can live as a human. When this fails she begins to pose as ‘human’ and sadly for the Countess the corpses start to pile up.

The metaphor of trying to hide your true self in order to fit in with society’s standards may chime with gay audiences. The countess even seeks psychiatric help.

But it’s the attack on a pretty model (Nan Grey) which film theorists analyse the most, as, entranced by her semi-naked muse, Dracula’s daughter slowly moves in for the kill. Holden’s otherworldly performance is far more subtle than anything Lugosi produced, and all the more chilling for it suggesting something sexual than just the need to feed.

Fast forward seven years to 1943 when The Seventh Victim was released.

Directed by Mark Robson and produced by Val Lewton – who’s horror filmography included Cat People (1942) follows the hunt of a young woman (Kim Hunter) for her sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), but what she unearths is a harrowing story of a woman menaced by devil-worshippers.

Purportedly, homosexual undercurrents run through the film, particularly in Jacqueline’s character and her relationship with Frances (Isabel Jewell); a cult member.

Due to these undertones, the film was featured in Turner Classic Movies Channel’s ‘Screened Out’, which celebrated gay and lesbian themes in classic Hollywood cinema. If these tones throughout the movie are truly there on purpose then this would be an extremely explicit film given the year it was released.

1963 sees Robert Wise directing,  The Haunting shows that creeping dread and keeping the horrors hidden from the audience’s view is a very effective way of scaring the viewer – and preventing your film from dating badly through outmoded special effects.

A paranormal investigator persuades two women to help him explore the haunting of a sinister house – Eleanor (Julie Harris), a timid spinster plagued by guilt, and Theo (Claire Bloom), a hip young woman with psychic ability.

Unusually for its period, Theo’s lesbianism, and attraction to Eleanor, is openly snd sensitively depicted.

As written previously many gothic films wouldn’t exist without the inspiration of the stories of Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu, and his novel Carmilla, a tale of lesbian vampirism that pre-dates Dracula – which has inspired the most adaptations.

Hammer Studios adapted this deadly tale in 1970, casting Ingrid Pitt as a vampire feasting upon big breasted prey – definitely marketed for a straight male viewing audience !!!

The Vampire Lovers is a faithful adaptation of the 1872 novel, with strong performances and some genuinely startling scenes.

It was the first of three Hammer films featuring lesbian vampires which is known as the Karnstein Trilogy. This trilogy includes The Vampire Lovers, Lust for the Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971).

Before production, the script of The Vampire Lovers was sent to the chief censor John Trevelyan, who warned the studio about depictions of lesbianism, pointing out that a previous lesbian film, The Killing of Sister George, had five minutes excised by his office. In response, Hammer replied that the lesbianism was not of their doing but was present in the original story by Le Fanu. Trevelyan backed down.

1972 brings us the wickedly dark humoured Divine in Pink Flamingos. This Black comedy displaying the tagline “An exercise in poor taste” and is notorious for its nudity, profanity, and pursuit of frivolity, scatology, sensationalism and skewed epistemology.

As it features a number of increasingly revolting scenes that centre on exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder and cannibalism, the film is considered a preliminary exponent of abject art – and could easily be taken out of the comedy genre and placed in horror territory if it wasn’t for Divine’s comedic abilities.

Directed, written, produced, filmed and edited by John Waters. It is part of what Waters has labelled the “Trash Trilogy”, which also includes Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977).

Like the underground films from which Waters drew inspiration, which provided a source of community for pre-Stonewall queers, the film has been widely celebrated by the LGBT community. This, coupled with its unanimous popularity among queer theorists, has led to the film being considered “the most important queer film of all time”.

Pink Flamingos is also considered an important precursor of punk culture.

The depiction of Drag and Transvestites is not a new concept in horror but becomes more prominent during and post the 1970s which leads us perfectly to 1975 – I see you shiver with Antici….pation.

1975 brings us two camp cult classics; Thundercrack! & The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Thundercrack! is a pastiche rather than an out-and-out horror, although those who have seen Marion Eaton puking over her wig before fishing it out of the latrine may beg to differ. This wildly off-kilter gothic extravaganza could only have come from the pen of legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar, who weaves a wicked tale of strangers who seek shelter in an old, dark house belonging to Eaton’s deranged spinster.

Kuchar blends comedy with pornography (both gay and straight – but mostly gay) and pitch-perfect parody of creaky horror conventions, from dramatic organ piano chords to ludicrously convoluted revelations.

Released in the same year as the not dissimilar The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it never quite achieved the cult status Richard O’Brien’s film would later enjoy, although Thundercrack! became a popular staple of London’s legendary Scala cinema and has since been known as a cult classic !

The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s cult following has become a world wide phenomenon proving that no one can resist a group of aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania !!!!!! And don’t get me started on Tim Curry‘s legs !!!!!!!!

Now its time for the gayest horror blockbuster ever; as seen from its campy tagline “The Man of Your Dreams is Back”!!!!

It’s the 1985 cult classic A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Jesse (played by now out actor Mark Patton) is not having an easy time of it. When not wrestling semi-naked with his best frenemy Grady (Robert Rusler), he’s dodging the fearsome razor fingers of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).

Unusually for a slasher – especially one from the 80s, all the victims are male – the closeted gym teacher (Marshall Bell) is killed naked in a shower after being brutally spanked with a towel, while poor Grady is sliced up in his boxers after Jesse has failed to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend, for reasons unspecified – which ‘screams’ unresolved sexual issues.

One scene that would have made the gay subtext more apparent, however, was toned down. Krueger was actually meant to insert one of his hand’s knife blades into Jessie’s mouth instead of merely caressing his lips with it as he does in the finished film, but Patton did not feel comfortable with it.

Whether prancing about solo to Fonda Rae’s ‘Touch Me All Night Long’ or screaming at the horror of it all (he does that a lot), Jesse is the Hollywood sissy personified. Which, ironically, makes for a unique hero in the annals of horror – it’s not a good film by any means, but it’s utterly unique and risk-taking.

In a 2010 interview with Attitude magazine, Englund said;

“[…] the second Nightmare on Elm Street is obviously intended as a bisexual themed film. It was early ’80s, pre-AIDS paranoia. Jesse’s wrestling with whether to come out or not and his own sexual desires was manifested by Freddy. His friend is the object of his affection. That’s all there in that film. We did it subtly but the casting of Mark Patton was intentional too, because Mark was out”.

Writer David Chaskin and other filmmakers involved with the production denied that the gay themes were intentional until Chaskin’s interview segment for the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010), admitting that the gay themes were intentional.

Patton also wrote Jesse’s Lost Journal about Jesse’s life after the film and dealing with his homosexuality;

“Jesse’s Lost Journal was conceived as my subtext writings while making the movie. I stay true to the film until late in the game and then bear off in a new direction, bringing Jesse up to date and letting you see he is quite alive and doing just fine”.

For more info head over to Mark’s site.  Check out an interview with Marshall Bell here!!!!!

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, cult film director David DeCoteau began making ‘Horror for Women’ films like Voodoo Academy (1999) and The Brotherhood (2001) often featured attractive men in their underwear in homoerotic situations but never fully gay-themed storylines. These films quickly caught on with gay male audiences, to whom they were more often marketed, but with the safety of ‘Horror for Women’ label so as not to ‘out’ themselves at the local video store.

In 2004 production simultaneously began on two films marketed specifically for gay audiences as “Gay Horror”.

October Moon was directed by Jason Paul Collum and featured a deadly gay love triangle in the vein of Fatal Attraction (1987).

Hellbent was directed by Paul Etheredge and styled itself as a modern slasher film with a story of gay men stalked by a masked killer during a Halloween parade in West Hollywood, California.

Both films were released theatrically in September 2005 – with Hellbent being marketed at ‘The first gay slasher film’.

Since then, gay gothic films have flourished, and continue to break down barriers for instance ParaNorman (2012), was the first children’s film with an openly gay character and is full in gothic horror subtext, albeit with a PG certificate.

The connection of queerness and gothic horror has also crossed over into mainstream television such as Willow (Alyson Hannigan), the geeky lesbian witch from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

Other recent horror related shows with strong LGBT characters include several of the male vampires in True Blood (2008-2014), Audrey Jensen (Bex Taylor-Klaus) the bi-sexual artistic loner/potential murder suspect from MTV‘s SCREAM (2015-present) and a whole host of characters from American Horror Story (2011 – present) including Chad Warwick – Season 1 (portrayed by out actor Zachary Quinto), Lana Winters – Season 2 (portrayed by bisexual actress Sarah Paulson) and The Countess (portrayed by Gay rights activist Lady Gaga).

My final thoughts:-

Watching Buffy as a 11 year old borrowing my Aunties VHS’s (yes I’m showing my age) was my first taste of gothic culture on the screen….. I WAS HOOKED. Mix that with the excellent writing of Joss Whedon & Co, the ‘villains’ who where more like antihero’s and relatable characters (both within and outside the LGBT community). I wasn’t just hooked; it provided a lifeline to me that horror has provided to many in the LGBT community.

The feelings of isolation mixed with a disconnection from society can prove frightening and many of the great gothic horror works written about above, may have potentially been created due to these feelings of isolation, fear, forbidden passion etc.

To paraphrase Bram Stoker; if horror has taught ME anything, it is that we are all children of the night – so next time you feel low…stick on a horror movie and scream, shout and jump around till you are ready to face the world!!!!!!

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Ben started out as a technology blogger before branching out into writing about Film & TV. An obsessive fan of indie film & dark comedies you will probably find him waxing lyrical about the movies of Kevin Smith, The Coen Brothers, Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino.



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