Queer horror characters are more common now than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it’s all good news. Representation has come far in the brief history of horror film, and we can often find queer characters who reflect ourselves in horror films—even if some of our favorite characters are a little problematic.
In the past, queer subtext was all we had, thanks to the strict Hays code, and even that subtext was often tricky at best. Characters like the murderous Miss Danvers in Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, or the very close girl friends who conspire against their husbands in George Clouzot’s 1955 film Les Diaboliques, or the almost overtly bisexual antagonist of the 1942 classic Cat People are notable examples of this subtext. But, because everything was coded, physical closeness between characters of the same sex was allowed in some instances, as in All About Eve, which hinges on one woman’s clear obsession with the her artistic rival and fellow actress. One could watch All About Eve through a queer lens, savor the moments the two women share, without having to face the burning stigma of a character outed not only as queer, but as monstrous because of that queerness.
In the more recent past of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, queerness continued to creep onto the silver screen. In part because the queer community was more politically visibile and in part because of the rise of B-Horror movie production houses, overtly gay characters would emerge in horror narratives, often only to be either severely punished for “their sins against God,” or to step into the role of the terrifying, inhuman monster. Straight screenwriters and movie producers jumped at the opportunity to craft a new kind of villain, hidden in plain sight: the queer person. Luckily for us, these B-Horror movies also served us camp and allowed for such iconic classics as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was still problematic, of course, but in a fabulous, fun way—and in a way envisioned by an actual queer creator, too.
Rocky Horror will always be a cherished part of queer culture, in part because it allowed us to joke about our poor representation on screen, to take it back and own it, but more because we made Rocky Horror into another reason to gather in person. Its showings were a place to find community and to present outwardly as queer, not only through live performance but even as an audience member. Rocky Horror allowed safe spaces to pop up wherever there was a cinema willing to screen it—something precious for queer people who didn’t yet live in a big hub like San Francisco or New York City.
Despite the respite provided us by camp, in many ways, this sudden appearance of LGBT characters in popular horror movies was almost more painful than the lack of representation—at it core, horror can function as an escape, a cathartic release. These films, for many queer people, only served as a nail in the coffin of their otherness, a carte blanche for straight people to villainize us—often because these were the only representations of queerness a straight audience had access to. The power of representation is double-edged; it is important to see yourself reflected on-screen, but what you see there influences how queer people are seen broadly. It’s a fine line between representation and exploitation, a problem felt by women and people of color in horror movies during this time as well.
But now, queer creators are stepping into the role of writer, into the role of director, and, inspired by the more overt representation of the 80s and 90s, are building out narratives that are meant to feel more authentic, more accurate to the true queer experience. (And, even straight writers are writing more authentic queer representation in horror.)
Films like Jennifer’s Body, about a self-aware bisexual monster, brought to life by an actually bisexual actor, who finds not damnation, but refuge—albeit fleeting—in her queer relationship with her friend, Needy. Plus, it’s fun to watch Megan Fox learning how to take care of her new self—by killing boys, because those responsible for what happened to her were boys—and for a while, at least, succeeding at her new life. You even get B-Horror movies that are more representative—like 2004’s Hellbent, which allows for the briefest of queer, communal joy before descending into your typical slasher fare. But it’s real queer joy that’s depicted, and that’s better than nothing, right? Right?
The issue is some films want to be on the side of queerness without actually doing the work to be on the side of queerness.
The problem with a lot of these new movies bears a strong resemblance to the issues with representation we dealt with in the 80s. It’s a lot more granular, and a lot more akin to the way a gorgeous, amazing film like Alien is a problematic portrayal of femininity. The issue is that these films want to be on the side of queerness without actually doing the work to be on the side of queerness. In Alien, femininity is queen—from the Xenomorphs’ physical biology, to the way the set is designed, to the way it evokes the Cassandra myth (nobody believes Ripley)—and yet, it is still a weakness. It is still a source of monstrosity. It is still just barely able to scrape by. And, as we see the film’s franchise move on, it is still inextricably linked to traditional gender roles, like being a mother.
I talk about the problems with Alien because I think there are a lot of similar problems with modern movies that bill themselves as “queer horror.” Take the 2018 movie Lizzie, for instance. Lizzie is a re-telling of the life of infamous murderer Lizzie Borden starring newly minted baby-Shane Kristen Stewart alongside 90s it girl Chloe Sevigny. The film imagines a queer relationship of sorts developing between the two. And we get queerness in that movie, for sure. They full-on have sex in the chicken coop! Come on! But, it’s ultimately unrewarding, because of the parade of sexist, homophobic, rapey, oppressive horrors that the two women must endure throughout the majority of the film.
This is more like torture porn—gratuitious suffering for the sake of titilation—than “queer horror,” in my opinion. Too many of our queer horror movies these days revolve on this very particular axis, focus on the suffering of queer people instead of allowing us to feel the fun catharsis being submerged in a horror. It leaves me feeling betrayed after watching, and honestly tricked into “having to stan,” these self-proclaimed “queer” horror movies/shows. I’m thinking about The Perfection, Black Swan, or even American Horror Story (though in my opinion the Coven season came closest to an enjoyable queer horror experience), and so many others whose queer narratives fall short. What pleasure is there to glean in the continual suffering of queer people, especially these days?
This proliferation of different lived queer experiences, woven into the tapestry of a (sort of) normal life as just a matter of fact, allows for the presence of a really frightening, really complex queer baddie.
I think this is why we sometimes like horror movies with strong queer subtext better than the overt, flawed queerness of “queer horror” movies and shows today. This, besides aesthetic, is why we swoon over The Lost Boys (hello, David and Michael slashfic, anyone?) or The Descent (I still think Sarah and Juno could have worked it out and escaped the cave together, then run off to a local gay bar for a drink). None of these characters are queer, and the film’s creators would likely insist otherwise, but the joy of watching these characters in a queer headcanon overcome obstacles, work together or against each other, just be alive, is what draws us to these movies. Sometimes, there’s still more authenticity, more joy, to be gleaned from a subtextual relationship—and subtextual queerness in horror—than having to sit through a whole movie or show just to process again the overt horror of our own lived experience.
There are really, really great queer villains out there—Killing Eve’s Villanelle, for one. But one big reason Villanelle succeeds as a, well, villain, is because the whole story of Killing Eve is queer. There are many queer characters thorughout the show, with Eve herself being queer (or slowly learning she is). This proliferation of different lived queer experiences, woven into the tapestry of a (sort of) normal life as just a matter of fact, allows for the presence of a really frightening, really complex queer baddie.
My favorite new queer horror movie right now just came out this April. It’s called Bit, and it revolves around an LA coven of vampires with one strict rule: no boys. The protagonist, Laurel, played by trans actress Nicole Maines, is a trans girl (a fact that is never questioned or up for debate). The main baddie, Duke, is wonderfully badass, complex, and fully realized, and it’s honestly fun to watch the final fight scene. This movie, like Killing Eve, has a fully realized and unfaltering queer background, which allows the queer characters within it to breathe (and suck blood).
More of this, I thought while watching. Even though the film is admittedly a little corny, it’s something made for queer people. It doesn’t hurt to watch it. There’s no catch.
I also realized I already knew where to find other horror stories like this. I realized it while listening to the “Sapphic Horror” episode of the Dyking Out podcast—there are plenty of complex, interesting, totally weird, authentic queer horror stories out there. It’s just that right now, they’re (mostly) contained in books. Take Carmen Maria Machado’s award-winning short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, for instance. That book is full of resonant queer horror, horror that is not of the queer experience, but rather from the queer point of view. I think this right here is the real key.
And this goes back forever—the “mother of horror” herself, Mary Shelley, was a known bisexual woman who made a name for herself with a story about a sympathetic monster. Indeed, many of our problematic faves have started off as books, including Carmilla, Hellraiser, The Haunting, and so many more. We have to support and create horror from a queer lens, not about the horrors of being queer. We deserve a beautiful scare, not just a representative one.