Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles J. Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (IMDB)

Horrors in the Queer Film Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Queer film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Our previous installment of Dread Reckoning, “Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters” describes how, within the context of horror culture, the construction of non-heteronormative sexual identities exhibits a telling duality. That is; because of the impurity and dangerousness commonly associated to the practitioners of “non-normative” sexual habits, a large segment of conservative modern society sees them as monstrous.

Most horror narratives present narratives that neatly conform to the Freudian structure of repression and their monsters have strong homosexual, bisexual, and autosexual connotations. Therefore, those who do not conform to the rules established by traditional heteronormative society are seen as monsters, and fictional monsters encompass traits that challenge the foundations of such heteronormative society.

We also discussed how non-heteronormative sexual identities are constructed around the four most important archetypes in horror culture: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Dorian Gray. A quick look at the literary origins of these fiends revealed strong subtexts dealing with homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. As a consequence, the hundreds of cinematic and literary incarnations of these four timeless archetypical monsters inherently contain, to a greater or lesser degree, a subtext that invariably deals with non-normative sexual behavior.

Within the framework of horror cinema, however, non-heteronormative sexual identities have a wider reach than these four archetypes. In what follows we will continue our exploration of how non-normative sexual behavior is presented in horror films and discuss some of the most representative and appealing representations, real or metaphoric, of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, and transsexual monsters that have haunted the silver screen.

One of the first films to convey a strong homosexual subtext that went far beyond its literary origins was Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). (A rather detailed discussion of why this film was one of the most subversive cinematic statements of the period can be found in “Dread Reckoning: One Wedding and Lots of Funerals“.) Suffice to say that this was accomplished, albeit indirectly and ambiguously to avoid public outcries, by relying on the popular representation of the male homosexual practitioner as a feminized, and seemingly androgynous character.

It is important to note that such narrative device was not unique to Whale’s film. Indeed, up to the early 1940s, gays were strictly stereotyped as effeminate and seemingly androgynous characters. However, such a simple typecasting proved to be inadequate during the years that followed World War II, when it was realized that almost anybody could be a homosexual, keeping private his true sexual orientation throughout most of his life. Naturally, this produced a rather profound cultural shift in the popular representation of gays and lesbians.

But perhaps more dramatic, as a result of this cultural shift the issue of non-heteronormative sexual identities was engulfed into the hysteria and paranoia that overcame America for most of the 1950s. Let us recall that in those days Senator Joseph McCarthy fostered a paranoid, socially oppressive atmosphere across the country that condemned almost any type of political, ideological, racial, or sexual differences that did not conform to perceived traditional American values. In addition, irresponsible newscasts promoted the bogus scientific research performed by Edmund Bergler, who theorized that homosexual behavior was intimately linked to perversity, murder, pedophilia, and communism.

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside American society, whose only goal was to overthrow the federal government in the name of communism. Therefore, non-heteronormative sexual identities became relevant to the xenophobic witch-hunts promoted by Senator McCarthy in his quest to find communist infiltrators.

As a consequence, in 1950 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) declared that “sexual deviates” working in government positions posed a grave security risk that had to be eliminated by any means necessary. Therefore, during the years that followed, very few federal workers were fired for actually being suspects of embracing communist ideologies, but several others lost their job because of their presumed sexual orientation.

During this period of paranoia, a large number of horror films showcased bizarre creatures from outer space landing on American soil with aims of invasion and conquest. Critics and scholars have often considered how these movies work as metaphors that exploited society’s intense fears of communist expansion and infiltration. However, the connection that was established by the HUAAC between homosexuality and subversive political ideologies implies that these popular alien invasion flicks equally function as allegories for phobias and anxieties related to non-heteronormative sexual identities.

Consider, for instance, the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). In this influential film, pods from outer space land in a small American town. These pods contain an alien organism that kills and then replaces the townspeople with look-alike replicas. These creatures may appear human, but lack any type of emotions and individuality. For those who remain human, the destruction of the pod people is just as important as figuring out who is real and who is an alien replica. This timeless classic thus succeeds in creating a complex web of paranoia that resonates with McCarthy’s witch-hunts for communist spies.

However, Invasion of the Body Snatchers also has a telling reading regarding non-heteronormative sexual identities. For one, the film’s paranoia of not knowing who is still human recalls the real life hysteria of undetectable homosexuals living among us, hidden inside a seemingly normal individual. And perhaps more important, the most obvious feature that distinguishes the pod people from humans is their transgressive asexual reproductive system.

It is equally important to observe that several horror and science fiction films of the period present a rigid homosocial structure. Just consider how most of these movies showcase all-male military and scientific establishments as the authority institutions that eventually eradicate whatever alien or atomic monster menaces America. Furthermore, in films such as The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956), Forbidden Planet (Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956), and The Monster that Challenged the World (Arnold Laven, 1957), these male-dominated groups are first threatened by the presence of a woman who disturbs their tightly homosocial organization.

Indeed, these films have a similar narrative structure that features a woman who works as a secretary or laboratory assistant, and whose presence creates a torrid love triangle with the two alpha males, destroying the apparent harmony of their homosocial world. Later on, the girl is invariable menaced by a monster and saved by the gallant males. Towards the end of these films, however, one of the rivaling males is killed along with the monster, signifying the survival of the heterosexual couple.

Without a doubt, the role of the female character is to diffuse any possible homosexual tensions between the male characters, to prevent them from being perceived as gay. Furthermore, if we subscribe to Freudian theory then we can interpret the monster as repressed sexual desire. Thus, we can argue that the monster is an embodiment of the heterosexual impulses of the lead male. But it is equally valid to suggest that, by becoming a threat to the girl, the monster is disturbing the heterosexual order in an attempt to bring back the original homosocial structure. This reading is reinforced by the fact that most of these movies conclude with the death of both, the monster and the second male lead, and this appears to be the only way to guarantee the dominance of heteronormative sexual identities.

A promotional photograph from Revenge of the Creature proves to be a revealing example of the homosocial anxieties addressed by these films. This picture features the creature attacking an unconscious Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), who is chained to a wall wearing only a swimming suit. In the film, Hayes and Clete Ferguson (John Agar) are competing for the attention of Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson). The evident homoeroticism in this image suggests the monster as an embodiment of barely subdued homosocial desires.

Of course, any type of homosexual tendencies in these films is strictly metaphoric and open to interpretation and analysis. As the 1960s progressed, however, three main factors contributed to a profound transformation of the way non-heteronormative sexual identities were constructed in horror cinema. First of all, the deep paranoia of the McCarthyism era finally began to relax. Second, along with the success of popular civil rights leaders fighting racism and discrimination, these years also witnessed the emergence of militant gay and lesbian movements opposing sexual discrimination and intolerance. Finally, the production code that regulated the sex and violence content of Hollywood productions weakened and eventually collapsed.

As a consequence, during the ’60s and ’70s, a large number of horror films had a rather explicit presentation of issues regarding non-heteronormative sexual identities. In particular, the lesbian vampire subgenre became extremely fashionable in those years. Blatantly inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian vampire novel Camilla (1872), films such as Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1961), The Rape of the Vampire (Jean Rollin, 1967), The Naked Vampire (Jean Rollin, 1969), Vampyros Lesbos (Jesus Franco, 1970), The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1970), Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1971), Daughters of Darkness (Joseph Larraz, 1975), and The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983), featured sensual female bloodsuckers engaged in overt lesbian relationships.

However, in spite of the attributed sexual orientation of the bloodsuckers, these movies were specifically made to satisfy male sexual fantasies. Indeed, gorgeous and feminine young women – the kind who might most appeal to a heterosexual male — invariably portrayed the lesbian characters. It is equally important to note that, by showcasing a number of soft-core steaming sexual situations, these subversive and sleazy films constantly defied distributors, critics, and censors to reevaluate what was acceptable for popular consumption.

In this regard it is perhaps ironic that sexuality and lesbianism appeared to be more acceptable if it was showcased within the context of a supernatural horror narrative. As a consequence, lesbian vampires became an optimal choice for exploitation and low budget filmmakers trying to make a quick buck, while avoiding the nuances of shooting and distributing a porn flick. The success and popularity of these films is undeniable: to date, outside the pornographic genre, lesbian vampires remain the most popular representation of lesbianism in the big screen.

Let us also remark that, in spite of being more explicit in their presentation of non-normative sexual identities, ’60s and ’70s lesbian vampire films had a very rigid moralistic narrative structure. Indeed, most of these movies presented an evil lesbian vampire trying to seduce a young and innocent woman. On the other hand, her noble boyfriend always stood for traditional values and the forces of good. Towards the film’s end, this sexual triangle is invariably resolved with the destruction of the vampire at the hands of the boyfriend. As such, these movies remain extremely conventional in their representation of homosexuality and bisexuality as monstrous.

Interestingly, the lesbian vampire formula was reversed in the ’70s and ’80s when Anne Rice published a series of five books, collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles, that featured the adventures and escapades of Lestat, an overtly gay vampire. The most popular of these, Interview with the Vampire, was adapted to the big screen in 1994 under the directorial helm of Neil Jordan. Quite surprisingly if you think about it, this film starred two of the most hyper-masculine leading men in Hollywood, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, portraying a child-molesting, homosexual couple.

In a similar vein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) was explicit in its presentation of an amiable and sympathetic Doctor Frankenstein (Tim Curry) who is overtly gay and transvestite. Even though Rocky Horror is in the fringe between a comedy, a musical, and a horror flick, it quickly achieved cult status. An enduring film by any means, it continues to have a strong following from all over the world. But nevertheless, as we will see in the next installment of Dread Reckoning, this movie was an exception to the rule, as most horror films continued to present non-heteronormative sexual identities as aberrant, disgusting, dangerous, and monstrous.

* * *

This article was originally published 21 August 2008. Minor updates have been applied.