By Nate Izzo
The following article appeared in the October 2019 edition of The Campus.
As more people acknowledge that the straight, white, cisgender man is not the everyman, the conversation around representation in the media has grown more prevalent than ever before. Marginalized groups are demanding better representation, and the LGBTQ+ community is amongst them. Now, during the spookiest month of the year, it is valuable to look at how queer people have been portrayed in horror films in the past, and what the future may hold for the subgenre that is Queer Horror.
In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) adopted the Motion Picture Production Code. This was more commonly known as the Hays Code, named after the MPPDA’s president at the time. The Hays Code essentially banned sex, drugs, and other risqué content from films. This meant that most attempts at depicting homosexuality on screen were censored, as homosexuality was seen as a perversion of sex.
This led to conflict between filmmakers and the MPPDA, and the horror genre was no exception. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope, two gay men commit murder just to see if they could get away with it. Hitchcock shot the movie to look like it was done in one long take. Therefore, if the MPPDA tried to censor the film, he could claim that cutting it would damage its artistic value.
In Dracula’s Daughter, sequel to the most famous vampire movie of all time, the titular character is clearly coded as lesbian. So clearly, in fact, that the MPPDA demanded there be changes to the script before production started. The common thread between Rope, Dracula’s Daughter, and other classic horror films featuring queer and queer-coded characters is this: the queer people are the villains.
From Frankenstein, to The Wolf Man, to Psycho, early horror cinema featured villains that were seen as unnatural monsters. The creation gone horribly wrong, the seemingly normal person who gives in to primal urges at night, and the disturbed cross-dresser — these were what LGBTQ+ people were seen as, and this negative representation only amplified that view.
In the 1970s and 80s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic rose in tandem with the slasher movie. This connection was felt in those movies through a common theme: if you have sex, you will be killed. In 1985, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge broke this formula, with the main character, Jesse, being put into the traditionally female role of the movie. Freddy’s Revenge is famous for being loaded with gay subtext; Robert Englund, who played the titular villain, would eventually state that Freddy was meant to be a manifestation of Jesse’s bisexual urges form the start.
While Freddy’s Revenge became a classic among queer people, the 1980 film Cruising lay at the other end of the spectrum. Cruising featured a gay man with schizophrenia serially killing gay men in New York City. The LGBTQ+ community protested the film throughout its production and during its release, as the films portrayal of gay men would be detrimental to the public’s perception of the community, especially in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Following the film’s release, there were numerous attacks on gay men and a shooting at a gay bar. After the toxic response, gay villains became less common. Unfortunately, poor representations of transgender people ended up taking their place. The most famous example being Buffalo Bill in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991). The consequences of such ill-informed depictions of trans people, especially trans women, are still felt today through transphobic bathroom bills, referred to as “Buffalo” bills.
Today, movies like The Babadook (2014) and It (2017)are beloved by the LGBTQ+ community. The former is purely a meme that started with a Netflix categorization mistake, but the latter is much more indicative of the state of modern queer representation in the horror genre and film in general. Characters of ambiguous sexuality are everywhere, from Eddie in It: Chapter Two (2019) to Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. There is just enough subtext for writers to claim it as representation, yet small enough that it can be debated or even completely missed.
However, a crucial question, in the end, refers back to the core root of horror. In a genre known for its bad endings, do we want horror movies where queer people are constantly villains and victims, where those same harmful stereotypes are perpetuated? Or it is it better to have no representation at all, and avoid the risk of creating stereotypes? If queer people continue to appear in horror movies, as they likely will, what should they look like?
Queerness is not the single defining character trait of queer people. The best kind of representation is in characters who are well-rounded and have complete character arcs, and they also happen to be queer. For all the issues it brought, Cruising did actually characterize gay people as real, sympathetic people. This is the key to good LGBTQ+ representation and representation in general. Everyone wants to see themselves on screen, and a collection of stereotypes is not going to make the cut anymore.