Horrors in the Closet

Transgressing All Boundaries

by Marco Lanzagorta

17 September 2008

David Cronenberg and Clive Barker constantly pushed the boundaries of representations of sexual identities, yet their films feel not condemning, paranoid, or xenophobic -- but alluring and fascinating.
Hellraiser (1987) 

Previously, in Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters, we analyzed the literary origins of the four archetypes of horror culture, Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dorian Gray. And in Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating, we discussed the cinematic genre up to the 1960s.  This is the final installment that explores the varied ways in which horror films construct non-heteronormative sexual identities as monstrous.

By the early ‘70s, the lesbian vampire subgenre had already exhausted the sleaze potential of its steamy premise involving evil female bloodsuckers corrupting virginal girls. As previously discussed, these movies had a clear moral agenda, and were very explicit in their presentation of lesbianism as monstrous. But nevertheless, the most disturbing and abject representation of non-heteronormative sexual identities is found in the horror films directed by David Cronenberg during the ‘70s and the ‘80s.

cover art

Men, Women and Chainsaws

Carol J. Clover

Gender in the Modern Horror Film

(Princeton University Press)

Just consider, during these years the oeuvre of Cronenberg is characterized by the showcase of unusual and truly bizarre modes of sexual behavior. Furthermore, Cronenberg constantly presented horror and monstrosity as the results of the mutation, metamorphosis, disease, and decay of the human body. In spite of their transgressive and visceral content, Cronenberg’s flicks proved to be extremely influential. Indeed, such has been the extent of Cronenberg’s influence in the horror genre, that his movies are often considered to be the quintessential image of the “Body Horror” subgenre.

In his debut film, Shivers (1975), Cronenberg envisioned grotesque phallic parasites that produced an uncanny sexually transmitted disease. Quite appropriately, those infected by these parasites feel a relentless and uncontrollable form of sexual desire. In addition, these parasites are able to reproduce and infect other people. The contagion occurs in a rather visceral way: the parasites penetrate their victim through any of the natural orifices found on the human body, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the intended host.

As a consequence of their bizarre physiology, these parasites clearly multiply through bisexual intercourses. As such, Shivers can be read as a metaphor of non-heteronormative sexuality as a terrifying infectious disease. This was a rather remarkable achievement, considering that this film was released years before the emergence of the AIDS crisis that emerged during the ‘80s

After the critical and box office success of Shivers, Cronenberg explored the issue of transsexual horrors and their ensuing gender politics in Rabid (1977) and Videodrome (1982). In Rabid, a radically new medical procedure has the side effect of generating a protruding phallic parasite in the armpit of Rose (played by Marilyn Chambers, the voluptuous porn star). Similarly to the creatures in Shivers, this organism induces an uncontrollable sexual desire in Rose.

Believe it or not, the abnormal sexuality induced by the disease in Rabid is far more explicit, graphic, and ideologically meaningful than the parasites of Shivers. Indeed, during sexual intercourse, Rose’s new appendage grows erect and injects her victims with a poison that produces madness. As Rose infects people, she creates a devastating plague that quickly engulfs the entire city of Montreal. The allegory cannot be more evident: Rose is masculinized, and then she goes on a sexual rampage raping everybody that crosses her way.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg reverses the equation of the transsexual subtext. Here Max (James Woods) is infected with a TV signal that induces a nasty brain tumor that induces violent hallucinations involving torture, sadomasochism, and mutilation. The tumor also produces a vaginal opening in Max’s abdomen. Max is then turned into a programmable killing machine when the creators of Videodrome forcefully insert videocassettes into his newly acquired ‘vagina’. Thus, allegorically, Max’s enfemalement turns him into a victim of rape. 

Videodrome (1982)

Videodrome (1982)

In general, most of Cronenberg’s films tend to portray sexuality, normative and non-normative, as monstrous and nightmarish. But perhaps most important, non-heteronormative sexual identities are always presented as the result of inescapable biological processes, rather than the product of psychological or cultural forces acting on the individual. But then again, perhaps these subtexts are an expected reaction to specific sexual ideologies, social discourses, and gender politics of the era. For instance, in those years a variety of scientific studies were performed to try to determine the genetic and neurophysiologic bases of homosexuality.

Another important film that presents non-heteronormative sexual identities as aberrant, but nevertheless natural biological process, is Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). A timeless classic, Alien aptly exploits male fears of penetration and pregnancy, which can be translated into homosexual and transsexual anxieties respectively. Indeed, the facehugger is a crablike monster that orally rapes Kane (John Hurt) and impregnates him with an even more terrifying creature.

During the ‘80s, artist/writer/director Clive Barker emerged as one of the most important figures in horror culture. Barker’s fame first skyrocketed when Stephen King publicly acclaimed his delight for The Books of Blood (1984), which was Barker’s first published collection of short horror stories. And later on, Hellraiser (1987), Barker’s debut feature as a film director, became an instant classic with a strong cult following from all over the world.

Barker literally came out of the closet when he confessed in an interview to The Advocate magazine that he was gay. Such an admission was not a real surprise for those familiar with his work. For instance, the short story In the Hills, the Cities found in The Books of Blood, has a rather explicit gay sex scene. Also, several of his paintings explicitly show male genitalia and other overtly homoerotic situations.

Furthermore, Hellraiser explores a sadomasochistic world of entities dedicated to the search of pleasure beyond any type of sexual or social boundaries. Nevertheless, the most notable gay subtext in Barker’s oeuvre is to be found in Lord of Illusions (1995). This little known movie has a narrative that boils down to a homosexual triangle between a powerful cult leader with enigmatic supernatural powers, and two of his most devoted disciples. Homoerotic scenes of a half naked Scott Bakula just add to the overall homosexual tension portrayed in the film. At this point it’s worth noticing that, in spite of Barker’s sensibilities, all his films and books continue to portray non-heteronormative sexual identities as monstrous.

But nevertheless, considering that a large segment of American society is conservative and homophobic, Barker’s confession of his sexual orientation was a bold move. If you think about it, Barker may well be the first declared gay horror director since James Whale. In addition, perhaps because of their common sexual orientation and interest in the macabre, Barker has often confessed a personal connection with Whale. As a tribute to the former master of horror, in 1998 Barker produced Of Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon), a fictionalization of Whale’s last days. Not exactly a horror flick, this movie placed special emphasis on the suffering that Whale endured in a homophobic society.

It is truly remarkable that, even though Cronenberg and Barker have constantly pushed the boundaries of metaphoric representations of non-heteronormative sexual identities, their films do not feel condemning, paranoid, or xenophobic. If anything, the bizarre visions showcased in these movies feel alluring and fascinating. On the other hand, many slasher flicks that feature gay killers are utterly homophobic.

In this regard it is important to recall that slasher flicks are remarkable because of the unique way in which they engage male heterosexual audiences. Such an issue is discussed to great detail by Carol Clover in his influential analysis of the slasher film: Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). According to Clover, the appeal of slasher films stems not from their misogyny, but from a cross-gender identification with the resourceful “final girl”.

But if you think about it, Glover’s proposition creates a rather perplexing situation when talking about slasher flicks featuring gay killers. Indeed, these flicks present homosexuality as monstrous and evil, and as such they clearly resonate with the homophobia inside conservative male heterosexual viewers. But at the same time, these films require the viewers to be positioned as females and to root for the final girl to survive.

Perhaps because of their intrinsic complexities, a considerable number of distinguished directors have made violent films that portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transvestite killers. Some of the most notable examples of this trend include Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), Deadly Blessing (Wes Craven, 1981), Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1993), Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2006). But arguably, the most disturbing, provocative, and controversial gay serial killer film ever made is Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980).

Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980)

In Cruising, Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a heterosexual rookie cop attempting to catch a gay serial killer who viciously mutilates homosexuals. To hunt the killer, Burn goes undercover into the underworld of gay bars in New York. However, in a rather vague manner, Cruising suggests that there are many killers, and that their murdering rage is some sort of disease that passes from gay to gay. Therefore, Cruising not only presents homosexuality as monstrous, but it also reminds us of Friedrich Nietzsche timeless meditation: “whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster”.

Looking back to those years, Cruising was a ground-breaking and controversial film reminiscent of Friedkin’s two previous films, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). In comparison to other flicks from the ‘70s, Cruising featured an unparalleled amount of sexual situations, graphic violence, and foul language. And even though Cruising did not show any male genitalia on the screen, there were explicit scenes with simulated gay sex, fellatio, and sadomasochism.

As the story goes, in order to avoid a dreaded X rating, many scenes were trimmed and others were optically darkened. Allegedly, nearly 40 minutes were cut from the film to appease the traditional sensibilities of the MPAA and Hollywood executives. Unfortunately, to date, all the censored footage remains lost and unavailable. But nevertheless, even in a censored edition Cruising managed to generate strong public outcries from members of the gay community who charged that homosexuality was being portrayed in a negative way. While the true identity of the killer remains ambiguous, and maybe of supernatural origin, this film indeed portrays homosexuality as a contagious disease linked to malice, murder, and perversion.

From Mary Shelley and James Whale to Clive Barker and David Cronenberg, the horror genre has invariably constructed non-heteronormative sexualities as monstrous and dangerous. At this point we have to remember that horror narratives have a very unique cultural function. That is, horror films and books are partially sanctioned public venues where we can safely discuss, negotiate, and articulate our fascination and/or dread of difference. Therefore, love them or hate them, the monsters that haunt us from inside the closet are plastic entities that ultimately convey our deepest sexual fears and anxieties.

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