Fear of the queer; a transformative manifestation of queerness and (homo) phobia in western horror
Written by Claire Santen
Horror has historically always been a transgressive genre, a fictional space where bodies and stories lived outside of social boundaries. Bodies in the horror genre are associated with monstrosity because of their non-normative being, their physical traits and inner desires deviate from the norm and thus become wicked. The traditions of heteropatriarchy are often deviated from in the horror genre, and thus heteronormativity is much less existent within the category. The embodiment of monsters and villains in the horror genre is therefore queer by default and queerness has a significant role and history in this category. Following is an account of how the western horror genre has transformed itself according to queerness throughout the ages. ____________________________________________________________________________________
Queerness in this context doesn’t solely refer to identities that are not cisgender and/or heterosexual. Queerness indicates expressions that lay outside of binaries and normativity, see Isa’s article on the definition of Queer.
The Greek Tragedy
The horror genre is essentially a history of depicted queerness in all forms of media, and this history dates back centuries. Horror can be considered the most direct descendant of Greek tragedy, and is essentially a derivative of the latter. Aristotle claims that the Greek tragedy is characterized by instigating the pity and fear of the audience in relation to the story, something which is vital to the horror genre likewise. Greek theatre, just like Shakespearean theatre, required men to play the female characters, and was thus categorized as “transvestite theatre”. Many characters of Greek theatre are queer-coded, take for instance Dionysos, a god known for its effeminacy. Dionysos challenged binaries of god and beast, and man and woman, the drag displayed in Dionysos and other tragedies at large became adopted and legitimised in dominant ideology and community. Though its gender flexibility is derived from patriarchal ideals and sustains the subordination of the woman, the genre provides a subversive questioning of the fixity of gender. The Dionysiac cult subsequently provides both a challenge and support towards the perpetuating of the normal and normative.
Moving forward to the Middle ages, French literature introduced the character of the medieval werewolf, for instance in Marie de France’s Bisclavret, which was written in the 12th century. Bisclavret, the king in the midst of a happy marriage with his queen, disappears for days into the woods to return “happy and gay”, upon which the discovery is made that he has transformed into a beast, the Bisclavret, that eats men and lives in the woods. The queen's dismay with the king’s new embodiment turns her to a new knight as her lover, who becomes the new king. The new king and the bisclavret start forming a kindred relationship that finally transforms emotionally when the beast transforms physically back to his human form in the bedroom of the new king, where they “share a hundred kisses” and live happily ever after. Despite clear homosexual implications, the Bisclavret and many other “werewolves” of the era embody a queerness that supercedes sexual orientation. He cannot perform masculinity according to society’s standards but likewise cannot accept the role of the beast. Due to both individual or social restraints there is no sexual identity to represent for the medieval werewolf and so non-normative sexual behaviour lies outside of what is considered “humanity”. The inability to accept a gender role or sexuality is what marks the monster in the medieval werewolf body, and the physical transformations from man to wolf to man-wolf, become a hybrid identity that is undifferentiated from the queer sexual identity. In modern times the werewolf has become a distinguished monolith state of being in its hybrid physical form, and thus loses most of its queerness.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the western horror genre as we truly know it became expressed in the gothic novels. Gothic novels were a source of queer escapism, many well-known gothic novels were infact homosexual, such as Matthew Lewis, William Thomas Beckford, and Francis Lathom. It was impossible to write openly about queer themes, expressing them was difficult alike as many terms didn’t exist yet ( homosexual for instance). Queer themes were sublimated to express them in a more acceptable form, for which horror as a transgressive genre was a useful medium. The most well-known character in gothic novels has to be the vampire, which is a queer character of itself, the vampire challenges the binary of life and death and queers both gender and sexuality. A vampire is seductive in its terror, it’s both beautiful and dangerous and inherently sexualized, its sexuality is complexly constructed not fitting into binaries. The physical construction of the vampire makes it a queer being. The mouth acts as a sex organ, both as a means of erotic penetration and to procreate. A vampire’s fangs penetrate a receptive sensual zone, the neck, and a fluid exchange takes place, this erotic action is to be classified as sex, just not according to normative heterosexual terms and thus a methaphoric discussion of sex appears without its mentioning. The vampire both survives and births a new vampire through feeding on blood, and thus the mouth is also the organ of reproduction. The action of feeding as a necessity for survival is ideal for the perpetuating of a dramatizing fear of its, and others’, queerness. The sexual organ is not gendered and therefore the vampire can be considered as an agender or transgender individual, which in turn results in a lack of sexual preference for its “prey”, transcending conceptions of gender and sexuality within the embodiment of the vampire.
It should come as no surprise that significant works of vampire fiction often included clear queer characters such as Carmilla and Dracula. Carmilla, released almost 30 years before Dracula, tells the story of a young woman who is preyed upon by a vampire, named Carmilla. Carmilla is a prototype of a familiar character, the lesbian vampire, who expresses romantic desires towards the protagonist. The Lesbian vampire allowed for a lesbian narrative in a fantasy world, which was certainly taboo outside this realm. The sexually transgressive behaviour of the Lesbian Vampire is demonised, which often makes the character a villain. The depiction of the trope is oftentimes predatory in nature and appeared to reinforce heteronormativity, likewise it contributed to a sexualization of queer women that is still in effect today. Predatory lesbians and oversexualized queer women are often presented as a means to attract and make film palatable for a straight male audience. These tropes have roamed vampire and horror movies up until today, and so the sheer representation of queerness has subversive effects on our modern-day media.
The end of the 1920s marked a period which is oftentimes marked as the “golden age” of Hollywood, with many technical and talent breakthroughs. Many Americans visited the cinemas multiple times a week. To monitor what was being shown in cinema’s productions companies united to form the Hays code, a motion picture production code with rules on what was not allowed to be screened. These rules were highly influenced by the Christian church and provided conservative limitations to film, requiring “wholesome” and “moral storylines”. It should be no surprise that this meant no presentations of homosexuality and queerness which were considered sexual perversion, unless put in a negative light. Queer representation became subtextually coded and manifested itself in the horror genre which was subversive in itself, queerness in these films has been historically overlooked because of its necessary subtlety. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, which was made into a movie released in 1940, the main antagonist Mrs. Danvers takes a romantic interest in the protagonist, displayed in a tense 30 second scene between the two women. Queer representation couldn’t be displayed if it wasn’t through villain characters or characters that had to be killed off, for queer audiences it was necessary to headcanon a somewhat ambiguously identifiable visibility of queer characters.
Besides being clear tones of misogyny, the Hays code was also very racist, particularly extremely anti-black. Interracial relations were forbidden on screen and so was white slavery. Black slavery however wasn’t. Marginalized identities, especially those marginalized at multiple intersections of identity like black queer people, thus continued to be underrepresented and put into a bad light by the horror genre (and any other genre). Just like black characters at large, queer black people were increasingly villianized and likely to die first, as is a well-known trope. Many black queer characters existed in relation to their white counterparts, even main characters were almost exclusively accompanied by a white romantic partner.
(The Hays Code)
Modern western Horror
Concludingly, the history of horror can be seen as a history of queer media representation. Due to the queer presence in mostly a bad light in horror, modern-day horror publications adopt a problematic picturing of freakiness in relation to queerness. In Silence of the lambs (1997), the villain Buffalo Bill is a queer-coded serial killer obsessed with wearing the skins of his victims, often dressing like them as well, having kept their clothes. The film perpetuates a problematic representation of transness, a common trope in horror where “cross-dressing” is seen as something to be fearful of. Hellbent (2004) tells the story of four queer men being haunted by a serial killer, each of them emboding classic slasher tropes with different recognizable queer experiences. The movie started a trend of gay-slasher movies, most of which included mostly white cis male characters.
Queer women continue to be sexualized to the entertainment of the wrong audience, the transexperience is appropriated to portray “cross-dressing” characters as freakish villains. If queer characters are not demonized to extreme extents, they are victimized when a queer couple is slaughtered on-screen 5 mins after their introduction. The horror genre as a manifestation of queerness, owes a lot to a community they otherwise represent poorly. It’s time the genre is reclaimed in positive light, with diverse queer representation, more rounded queer characters and queerness that doesn’t always end up six-feet under dirt.