Blood & Glitter: Queerness in Horror
The LGBTQIA+ community and horror have been an iconic duo ever since the dawn of spooky stories, predating Hollywood’s love for queer coding villains by literal centuries, long before we saw a Divine-inspired Ursula scaring small straight children (whilst the rest of us sat there and wondered, “What’s the big deal? She’s fabulous.”)
Queers have always found ourselves strangely comforted by the macabre, and even those of us who are less tempted by the dark side still find ourselves thriving during the Halloween season, any excuse to dress up and let out a part of us that we might be too afraid to show in the light of the day.
Even if horror has never been your particular niche, our history has been intertwined with all things creepy, and this has shown itself in many different forms in mainstream media throughout the decades.
Black & White & Rainbow
Before Anne Rice ever got her fundamentalist little paws on homoerotic blood lovers, before Bram Stoker dreamt up the premise for the iconic Dracula, there was a far more delectable Victorian dark romance by the name of ‘Carmilla’.
These days we often associate vampires with masculine characters, but in 1872 Sheridan le Fanu wrote ‘Carmilla’, one of the earliest pieces of vampire fiction.
Written from a first-person narrative, it features the young Laura who has had visions since childhood of being visited in the night by a beautiful stranger and punctured upon her breast, only to have these dreams come true in the form of an enigmatic and secretive young lady by the name of ‘Carmilla’ coming to live with her family.
This early history of queer vampire fiction feels sadly fitting with later tales as vampirism often became synonymous with tragic conditions such as Tuberculosis and Syphilis, but then, later, HIV. Even in less explicitly queer tales such as Dracula, the portrayal of feasting on one’s blood has always carried with it the rush of sexual thrill, including between men.
Though somewhat dated for its terminology, you can read more on this from Sex, Blood and (Un)Death: The Queer Vampire and HIV by Carlen Lavigne.
Before the likes of Carmilla, in 1818 an 18-year-old disaster bisexual was writing a Gothic story of humanity that crossed the intersection of horror and science fiction, though her name wouldn’t be publicly attributed to it until a second edition was published in 1821, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.’
Although not explicitly queer itself, Frankenstein covers themes that the LGBTQIA+ community can relate to with isolation, alienation, being villainised, the tentative exploration of fragility and sensitivity in a masculine form, and Mary’s other works would carry many queer undertones.
Mary Shelley herself was an absolute Gothic icon. She lost her virginity to her then-later husband, Percy Shelley, on her Mother’s grave. There are suggestions that both she and Percy had a naughty throuple with their BFF Lord Byron. When Percy passed, Mary wrote in letters about how she had sex with other women, and she professed great love for Jane Williams, a woman her husband had also loved. She even had a trans masc friend, the writer Sholto Dod.
Later, fiction reached a new exciting peak with cinema, and horror thrived in this new medium, and Shelley’s Frankenstein received a new level of queer passion through its treatment by the openly gay director James Whale in 1931.
James Whale gave not only The Monster the kind of sensitive treatment that only a queer person can provide (as well as his experiences of classism), but he also directed several other iconic horror classics such as The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein (the latter of which is famous for its gay undertones). It was almost unheard of for someone in Hollywood to be openly gay in the 30s, and he directed films for every single year of the decade.
The 20s and 30s brought us iconic monsters and the fabulous artists who played them, many of whom have left a lasting impact on queer culture and the idea that if we are to be painted as monsters, we might as well be as charismatic and melodramatic as those who portrayed real monsters in the past, and this continued well into the 60s under Universal Studios. Boris Karloff, Béla Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr are icons not only in horror cinema but in horror Drag culture as well.
Horror continued to thrive with cinema and each decade brought its own fads that would come and go (I could talk about the genius of Rosemary’s Baby for hours), but it was the 80s and 90s that really embraced campness (with notable exceptions such as 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Hammer Horror’s attempt at adapting Carmilla with ‘The Vampire Lovers’ in 1970).
There are more gay-coded (and gay explicit) films than I can list during this period, but what really left a lasting impact on many young LGBTQIA+ people is the mainstream seemingly heteronormative movies and franchises that were gushing at the edges with queer undertones (and overtones).
A classic example of this is 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. This sequel took one girl’s literal nightmares and turned them into a more allegorical tale of the nightmare that is brought on by being trapped in the closet with repressed homosexuality. Instead of a ‘Final Girl,’ we get Jesse, a frustrated and panicked (and usually shirtless) teen who Freddy Kreuger taunts with increasingly queer imagery.
Mark Patton, who played Jesse, told Buzzfeed in 2016;
"It just became undeniable. I'm lying in bed and I'm a pietà and the candles are dripping and they're bending like phalluses and white wax is dripping all over."
Sleepaway Camp in 1983 gave us one of Hollywood’s earlier explicit examples of a “bad trans”, with the villain being revealed to be a trans woman. Despite this, a lot of folks have since come forward to defend the film and embrace the character’s gender reveal twist, making it iconic whether you love it or hate it and the transmisogyny of the time.
The homoerotica is just bursting at the seams in 1987’s The Lost Boys, whilst not explicitly gay it features hot vampire boys in crop tops and eyeliner and the main protagonist Michael’s succumbing to the blood-drinking gang’s allures is definitely helped by the charm of Kiefer Sutherland’s David.
You can’t talk about 80s queer horror without mentioning 1987’s Hellraiser, fundamental viewing for anyone that considers themselves to be even remotely kinky. Clive Barker’s cenobites aren’t just villains, they’re representations of all that was considered “evil” about the gay scene to outsiders. They are pain and sex and sin personified, luring in those who seek more than just the mundanity of heteronormative life. One person’s Hell is another person’s Heaven.
The 90s brought with them a new take on gay vampires with Interview With the Vampire in 1994. Sure it’s a tale of one privileged sad dude’s descent into vampirism, but it’s also a story about two gay Dads failing miserably to raise the world’s angriest girl, and Antonio Banderas can’t do a French accent but I’ll never forgive Louis for not giving up everything for Armand. He runs a cute gay little theatre for God’s sake.
We also got 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, which is always a very controversial film to mention if you’re discussing the LGBTQIA community. The film’s biggest problem is not the character of Buffalo Bill himself, who is explicitly described in the film as “not a transsexual”, but rather the horrific transphobia that resulted from an audience deciding that the narrative was irrelevant. They wanted Buffalo Bill to be a representation of transness, and transphobia associated with the role has continued to this day.
1994 gave us Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, based on the real-life Parker-Hulme murder case. Although many consider the relationship between the protagonists to be inherently sapphic in nature, I personally think that it is instead a great jumping-off point for anyone interested in true crime to explore the phenomenon of ‘folie à deux’.
When I think of the 90s, I think of classic slasher franchises, and that brings us to 1996’s Scream. The big reveal of the killers, Stu and Billy, is one of the most strangely homoerotic scenes in an otherwise fairly straight movie. Their “bromance” is dripping with testosterone-fuelled sexual tension, they literally “penetrate” one another with the act of stabbing, and it is undeniably gay as Hell.
Queers of the Future
“Hey Felix, you stopped at the 90s, what about the 2000s and 2010s?”
Look, I was born in the 80s and I still think that was twenty years ago, give me a break.
Since the 90s cinema has brought us many queer-infused classics such as 2004’s Seed of Chucky, 2008’s Let The Right One In, 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, and we have to give an honourable mention to 2015’s The Babadook.
But what really excites me is the path that horror has been taking more recently, as we see queer characters slowly being incorporated into mainstream narratives in a more normalised manner.
There are still many ways that we can take the fears of the queer experience and translate them into horror stories, but what I am keen to see is more of this new wave of LGBTQIA+ characters being incorporated into stories as a completely mundane part of the roster, almost as if we are - gasp - normal people!
I’m not talking about Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s desire to make cis white gay men the most frustratingly annoying characters on the planet, but rather examples like Netflix’s 2021 Fear Street series featuring a queer love story.
2022 gave us Bodies Bodies Bodies which successfully portrays gorgeous BIPOC sapphic intimacy without it feeling like it’s made for a male gaze, combined with modern jokes that feel like they were written with a knowing nod to social media culture, instead of how most movies attempt to make “woke jokes” as though they were written by your old white Dad.
With that entry from Halina Reijn, and 2022’s revival of Hellraiser featuring the beautiful trans actress Jamie Clayton as the terrifyingly hot Pinhead (Hell Priest), I cannot wait to see what modern, diverse and inclusive horror awaits us in the future.
Resources used in writing this article:
55 Essential Queer Horror Films
Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:
33 Essential LGBTQ+ Horror Movies
Monsters in the Closet - A History of LGBT Representation in Horror Cinema by James Somerton
Society and Queer Horror by James Somerton
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
Does The Dog Die to check the content of films before viewing
This article was written by Felix F Fern (He/They). Felix is a disabled, mspec and non-binary transgender activist and co-founder of the grassroots activism team Trans Activism UK.