Dressed to kill: the queer appeal to horror

Dressed to kill: the queer appeal to horror

A constant theme in horror, particularly in stories that focus on the monstrous and misunderstood, is the feeling of otherness. Whether it’s because they’re considered ugly, misunderstood, violent, or predatory, someone – or something – is a disruption to society in some way. This portrayal of “the other” in horror has always been a reflection of society’s larger fears, which have, throughout history, included the breaking of societal norms of gender and sexuality. Yet, despite this perceived “threat” of breaking gender and sexuality norms almost always being painted in a villainous light, queer people seem to flock to the genre.  According to an independent poll created for this article: out of 9,113 queer people who answered, 79.4% of queer people said they identify with or enjoy horror (an important side note being that many who answered no stated that they were too squeamish to enjoy horror). While this is not representative of the billions of queer people as a whole, as there are many factors to consider such as age and cultural bias, it does pose a question: why do so many queer people love horror?

Horror has always been driven by a variety of social fears – particularly fears about outsiders. Dracula by Bram Stoker, for example, was written shortly after the infamous Oscar Wilde trials, a series of trials in 1895 that charged Oscar Wilde, a homosexual man, with gross indecency when details of his affair with an aristocrat were revealed. This event publicized queer people in the eyes of European media for the first time and inspired Dracula’s sexual deviancy, shown by Dracula’s vampirism (i.e. his homosexuality) depicted as a violent curse that is spread through predatory relationships. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly has often been identified as a queer story, with the main antagonist having an appearance that frightens the innocent townsfolk, even though all he craves is acceptance and companionship. Frankenstein also goes about building his creation to make the “perfect man”, and is terrified when his creation isn’t what he thought. He then disowns his creation, an experience many queer youths can relate to. In cult classic slasher movies such as Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper), and Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins), the villains often crossdress or wear the skin of women as an act of breaking gender boundaries. In many horror movies where body horror is a focus, such as The Thing (1982, John Carpenter), Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), and Rabid (1977, David Cronenberg), the human body is shown gored, opened up, butchered, and violated, an image that many transphobes use to describe the transgender experience. Laura Westengard said it best in her paper Queer Gothic Literature and Culture, “[horror] represent[s] social anxieties and desires both at once; while readers know the sexually perverse vampire is a threatening monster that will usually be destroyed in the end, in the meantime they are able to eroticize and be thrilled by the vampire’s difference, which can be read as representing sexual, racial, class, ability or any other kind of ‘otherness,’ c or deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy, and the pure can be known.” Queer people are often seen as a disturbance to “the natural order of things,” and shunned for being different. So when inhuman monsters or cross-dressing killers are depicted as perverse, freakish outsiders, queer people can easily empathize with them in a way that most cisgender-heterosexual people can’t. It can be both comforting to find a character that speaks to the isolating experience of being queer, and empowering to see yourself as the foreboding, terrifying villain that society paints you as. 

There is a long history of queer roots that you can trace back to the very beginning of horror, making the genre an inherently queer one. Written by Horace Walpole in 1764, The Castle of Otranto is often attributed by historians to be the first horror story ever published. It’s debated whether Horace Walpole was queer himself – he neither fit the “homosexual” labels of the time nor the “heterosexual” ones. But regardless of what he would label himself as today, his story can undeniably be read through a queer lens. The story centers around Manfred, lord of his house, trying to avoid a family curse by forcing his son into an arranged marriage with another lord’s daughter, Isabella. And when his son has an untimely death, he resorts to forcing Isabella to marry him instead. Isabella is completely unwilling, and she spends the entire book trying to escape Manfred’s grasp. Manfred’s futile attempt at self-preservation ultimately leads to his downfall, when he stabs his own daughter and ends his control over Otranto Castle. Manfred can easily be read as a metaphor for heteronormative society viewing homosexuality as a curse and desperately trying to get youths to conform to his standards. His predatory relationship with Isabella established the sexualized imbalanced power dynamics of future gothic horror novels, while the setting of a haunted castle inspires the medieval catholic symbolism and architecture that is prevalent in today’s horror stories. The Castle of Otranto set the tone for future gothic horror – and, by extension, the rest of horror that branched out from gothic – as a genre that is inherently queer. 

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) kidnapping Jane while she is asleep and sneaking away in the night.

Fast forward to the 1920s, in Weimar, Germany. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine), a silent black and white film famous for its dramatic expressionist sets, is released for the first time.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari features the ominous, ghoulish man, Cesare. Cesare is a somnambulist (a sleepwalker) who can tell the future, and is controlled by the evil Dr. Caligari, who forces Cesare to commit murders during the night. Critics at the time were mixed, but at present the film is often called one of the first true horror films that defined the style of future silent horror films. It was also arguably a product of its time and place; The 1920s in Weimar, Germany, saw a brief period of curiosity, experimentation, and relative acceptance towards society’s outsiders – particularly queer people – resulting in newfound social freedom that was unique to Weimar.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) looking at the camera as Dr. Caligari awakens him to tell the grave future of Alan, who later dies.

While most of this progress was permanently erased by the Nazi party’s rise to power in 1933, it created works of art and study that reflected this enlightenment. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is undoubtedly influenced by this queer environment, leading many critics and historians to a consensus that the movie is queer-coded. Kaz Rowe explains in their video essay, “Cesare is written as an overtly queer coded character for a number of reasons… In the story, he represents a sort of social disruption that reflected German society’s fears as a whole… about the growing visibility of the Queer community. This manifests… pretty strongly in the fact that Cesare – though under Caligari’s influence – kills Alan and steals away both Alan and Francis’ object of romantic affection, Jane, effectively shattering the heterosexual unit twice. This, in combination with his feminized appearance, movements, and actions – by the standards of the era – is a deeply queer coding of Cesare that fits cleanly into the landscape of expressionism when the movie was made.” Whether or not it was intentional, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had a large part in the queer look for future horror movies.

Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) dresses up in front of a mirror and dances around in the movie Silence of the Lambs.

The transgender experience (particularly that of the transgender woman) is uniquely depicted (for better and for worse) in slasher movies. The “cross-dressing killer” trope was started by Alfred Hitchcock in his movie Psycho, where Norman Bates dresses up and “becomes” his mother while committing murders. This trope is then carried on by movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sleepaway Camp (1983, Robert Hiltzik), and Silence of the Lambs, with all films containing killers that express transness or breaking gender boundaries (it is important to note that all films make a point to say that these characters aren’t transgender and that their gender nonconformity is a result of mental illness. Regardless, the transgender aspects of all films are still very clear). This trope was used as a shock factor, and it worked brilliantly. The violent writing of transgender characters in these films was driven by societal fears of transgender identity, mental health, and violence. Being transgender at that time – and frankly, in the present time as well – was considered a mental illness. People with mental illnesses were considered to be inherently violent and feared, with that stigma still pervasive in today’s misconceptions about mental illness. When those two ideologies combine, it results in a society that fears transgender people because they are mentally ill, and thus prone to violence. Watching the films with this in mind makes it easier to see why the killer’s gender is such an important part of the stories, and why it would have made the movies more horrific for the audience watching when the films were released. However, despite the depiction of trans people in these films being a violent one, and having undoubtedly contributed to decades of stigma, many trans people reclaim them as queer cult classics. The villains in slasher films are often the ones that contradict and dismember ideas of normality, decency, safety, and pureness. If you were a young queer, having lived your life ridiculed and shut out, wouldn’t you find bravery in seeing someone like you tearing down the society that hurt you for your inability to conform to their ideas of “normal?”

Frank N Furter (Tim Curry) standing next to Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), left to right.

Perhaps the most famous example of a horror movie that is queer through and through is The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Jim Sharman). It takes all of the themes previously discussed – sexualized villains and power dynamics, cross-dressing and breaking gender roles, tearing down ideals of heteronormative society through violence, gore, and gothic horror – and wraps it up in a movie that perfectly exemplifies and subverts all of those tropes in a 70’s-wackiness satire musical. The movie features the newly-wed couple Janet and Brad seeking shelter from the rain in Dr. Frank N. Furter’s foreboding mansion. Brad and Janet start as a pure, repressed, socially acceptable couple. However, when they encounter Frank N Furter they eventually succumb to their deepest hedonistic desires. Frank N Furter is a hypersexual “sweet transvestite”, a mad

Frank N Furter in his doctor gown, looking at the camera in dramatic shock while his companions surround him.

scientist, cannibalist, space alien, and last but not least a song and dance director.  The film is as ridiculous and campy as it is a profound, provocative statement on the queer stereotypes in the horror genre. As Kendell Cooper says in their article from FSU, “Frank N. Furter is a crazy, hypersexual cross-dresser, Brad and Janet are “victims” of Frank N. Furter and the other flamboyant personalities in his castle, and all the castle residents are quite literally from another planet. But by leaning all the way into these stereotypes, they take on a consciousness that creates an element of subversion. The result of this is a massive queer following that feels seen and heard in a real way despite the outlandish nature of the film.” Many horror movies may hint at and be heavily influenced by society’s views on queerness, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a timeless, unapologetically queer film that directly addresses and celebrates the inherent queerness in horror.

When there is a society full of people who have been outcasts and painted as sadistic violent monsters and deviants, who see any kind of representation of them, they will cling to it. They will make it their own, and they will fill it with love. Horror started as, and will forever be, an inherently queer genre, because of the way it captures and subverts the queer experience. Seeing monstrosities ostracised, killers’ gender identities explored, and sexual deviancy romanticized allows queer people a space to feel seen and validated. Society’s fears are what first drove horror, but it is also what drove queer people to it. Queer people far and wide have found a home in the cracked ribs of the grotesque, and we never want to leave.

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    RomanDec 5, 2023 at 7:05 pm