horror films

Why Do Horror Films Have An Issue With Queer Women?

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I watched in awe as the final scene of The Perfection played out. This latest addition to Netflix’s roster of original horror films follows two young cello prodigies. The women are immediately established as rivals, only to become lovers, enemies, and allies once again. Sapphic romances in horror hardly ever meet a happy ending. Women in horror are often punished for their promiscuity of any kind, and “deviant” sexuality is often enough justification for torture. But The Perfection closes in on the two women, who are deeply in love, teaming up against their common abuser.

It's a poetic cinema.

That got me thinking: is it truly that easy to just not kill lesbians in movies? The Dead Lesbian is a trope as old as the medium of film. I decided to take a look back at queer women in film history, with a focus on the horror genre. How did we get to the point where seeing lesbians survive a horror movie is a shocking, novel finale? To find out, we’ll need to take a look back at the old days of Hollywood.

Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Gays?

The Hays Code of the 1930s specifically dealt with censorship in film and cracked down hard on homosexuality. While films of the time were rife with homoerotic subtexts, any blatantly queer characters were treated as villains. More often than not, gay characters of this era flung themselves to their own deaths or retreated into isolation. Essentially, the Hays code was to film what the CCA was for comics. Amongst the horror films of this era, take Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. This 1940 psychothriller ends in a house fire, with one key difference from the book. Mrs. Danvers is the primary antagonist of Rebecca. She’s the housekeeper at odds with the leading lady, who goes unnamed in the text. The reason for the tension between them is Mrs. Danvers’ adoration of the former lady of the house, the recently deceased Rebecca.

Rebecca, Horror Films
Joan Fontaine & Judith Anderson in Rebecca
Credit: United Artists

Multiple scholars interpret Mrs. Danvers’ adoration of Rebecca as romantic, with the film leaning heavily on this reading. Judith Anderson portrays Mrs. Danvers as a woman hopelessly devoted to her beloved Rebecca. At the finale of the book, she packs her bags and leaves quietly. The film, however, in accordance with the Hays Code, punishes Mrs. Danvers for her love. She sets the manor she serves ablaze with herself inside, choosing to perish. This is a fairly common end for queer villains. Their perceived sin consumes them.

Trans Villains In Horror Films

Horror films have an especially egregious body count for transgender women. There’s the obvious, like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Bill is an ultra-violent trans-woman who would kill and mutilate others to get the body she desires. The depiction has been a source of disgust (and inside jokes) in the trans community for decades. Even on the other side of the world, Japanese ero-guro classic Shōjo Tsubaki features a character explicitly referred to as Kanabun The Boy-Girl.

Her insanity is supposed to be emphasized by her body: a feminine child who whips out her penis to freak others out. The list of transgender women made into monsters on film is endless. There’s Angela from Sleepaway Camp, Bobbi in Dressed to Kill, and Norman Bates in Hitchcock classic Psycho. The basis for this lies in the transphobic notion that real trans women are just men seeking some sort of perverted pleasure by presenting themselves as feminine.

All of the above examples directly link being transgender with repression, mental illness, and violence. These films do not exist in a bubble. It’s this sort of presentation of trans women as monsters that allows their murders to go unremarked upon and uninvestigated in real life.

Ain’t No Lie, Bi Bi Bi

On the bisexual end of things, there’s cult classic Jennifer’s Body, in which Megan Fox plays a bisexual succubus. Jennifer’s sexuality is a key aspect of her horror. She’s gorgeous, seductive, and wickedly smart. Of course, her attraction to women is mostly used to titillate the viewer rather than identify her as a character. This is common in (female) bisexual characters, as the male viewer can both imagine himself in a romantic scenario with the woman in question, while also indulging in whatever fetishistic lesbian fantasies he may have.

bisexual horror films
Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body
Credit: 20th Century Fox

While it’s not a conventional horror movie, we can’t leave out The Rocky Horror Picture Show in any discussion of queer films. Rocky Horror spent decades as a queer film, in large part due to its flamboyant cast of antagonists. While Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia all get into some same-sex funsies, the real star of the show is Dr. Frank N. Furter. Tim Curry, who has never heard of phoning in a performance, plays the “sweet transvestite” to perfection.

Dr. Frank is the ultimate camp villain, seducing both the male and female leads, building his perfect man using mad science, and doing it all in a leather corset. Notice that Frank N. Furter, who the film perceives as masculine, has his bisexuality played for laughs. It’s funny for the audience to think of a man sleeping with him, rather than arousing him like it is with bisexual women. Two for the price of one sale on misogyny and transphobia.

Coding

At the less obvious end of the spectrum, we find villains that are not explicitly gay in text, but queer coded. Their films use various storytelling methods and character cues to make a character seem gay without specifically stating it. Many viewers interpreted Freddie Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street 2 as a metaphor for the protagonist’s hidden sexuality. According to many of the people who worked on it, that was the intention.

The main character escapes a date to seek refuge in his best friend’s bed. He goes to an S&M bar in a dazed state. It’s not subtle. The Craft is one of the ultimate horror camp classics. The Craft features incredibly queer performances from the entire main cast, but especially from Fairuza Balk as the gothic Regina George, Nancy Downs.

the craft, horror films
Fairuza Balk in The Craft
Credit: Columbia Pictures

Nancy could be a crash course in queer coding. She rocked an “alternative lifestyle” shag cut long before modern lesbians adopted the undercut. In fact, the link between alternative fashion and LGBT+ lifestyles has always been a strong one. So, her gothy demeanor and fashion sense would not at all be out of place in her school’s GSA.

In addition, Nancy performs feminine behaviors, but in masculine ways. She places heavy value in her female friendships. When a member of her coven is almost raped, Nancy seeks revenge by disguising herself as the victim and attempting to trick the perpetrator into sleeping with her. She doesn’t respond with feminine compassion or wit, but with brute force. Again, the perversion of traditional femininity is seen as horrific. Which, of course, it is, rape is always horrific.

But why is her revenge worse than his original crime?

Horrors Sapphic Victims

Horror films, and films in general, often punish female characters for perceived deviation from traditional womanhood. This includes women who are domineering, independent, or sexually promiscuous. This satisfies masculine castration anxiety, the fear of being literally or symbolically castrated. Through this, we see many queer female protagonists killed off in their films. In the 2006 film adaptation of Silent Hill, Cybil Bennett is about as queer coded as they come. She’s a rough and tumble cop with the cutest butch pixie cut imaginable. Though initially hostile towards protagonist Rose, Cybil forms a close bond with her and dies saving Rose and her daughter Sharon.

silent hill
Laurie Holden and Radha Mitchell in Silent Hill
Credit: Alliance Atlantis Communications

Cybil is an excellent representation of the punishment that female characters typically face when they stray from the norm. She displays traditionally masculine aspects: her physical strength, her confidence, and even her co-parent role with Rose and Sharon. All of this codes her as queer, and thus the narrative must punish her. You’ll notice that the Final Girl is usually an archetypical virgin. She is soft, feminine, and unsuspecting. Horror as a genre touts these aspects of womanhood while shaming deviation.

Queer Women Coming Out On Top

The Perfection is just one in a recent trend of horror films breaking the convention by giving queer characters happy endings. Well, letting them live at least.

the haunting 1963
Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in The Haunting
Credit: MGM

Take, for example, The Haunting. This is the earliest adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. The original 1963 film features Theodora or Theo. She was one of the few queer coded women of the period to go unpunished. Theo is direct, confident, and flirty. She shares a bed with another woman, exchanges cute nicknames, and more. When The Haunting was remade in 1999, Theodora was made explicitly bisexual. While her crush, Eleanor, doesn’t make it out alive, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Theo lives to see the next morning.

Thelma starts as a traditional queer horror, but quickly reveals itself to be something entirely different. Protagonist Thelma starts to discover supernatural powers throughout the film that teleport away from her family, friends, and the girl she’s falling in love with. As the story progresses, she realizes that her powers can also be used to heal, and she brings her mother back to health and her girlfriend back from the other side of reality.

thelma, horror films
Elie Harboe in Thelma
Credit: SF Studios

The outcome is nearly unheard of for lesbians in horror. There’s something extremely powerful about the end of Thelma. Seeing Thelma walk hand in hand with her girlfriend is nearly tear-jerking for women who have grown up seeing themselves tortured by horror narratives.

What’s Next For Queer Women In Horror Films?

There has been a noticeable trend in recent horror movies that don’t feel the need to kill off token queer characters for shock value. In fact, films like The Perfection are able to find strength and power in sapphic love. These are the types of films that queer fans have been demanding for years. There’s a reason why Babadook became a gay icon. Queer audiences relate to the strange and unusual. For decades, LGBT horror lovers have had to look to monsters to find identifiable characters. Isn’t it about time that they found some protagonists to relate to?


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