Olivia Spicer (she/they)
In times of crisis, I often find myself turning to horror. On the night of the 2020 presidential election, I switched on Ari Aster’s latest film “Midsommar,” a delightfully unsettling and devastating slow-burn about a cult, and watched it from the early hours of 2 to 4:30 a.m. When I experienced a very abrupt and deeply traumatic loss in early 2018, I became utterly obsessed with “Hereditary”-- also an Aster film-- and the seriously wonderful horror podcast Dead Meat, which is coincidentally hosted by two UMich alums. And when the COVID-19 pandemic stripped me of all hope of continuing my life in the direction I had so carefully charted for years, I began consuming all the worst horror films I could find; most recently, that list has seen the addition of “Willy’s Wonderland,” a movie in which a silent Nic Cage beats the ever-loving shit out of numerous possessed children’s entertainment animatronics.
Suffice to say, some of my deepest anxieties, traumas, and insecurities are intrinsically linked to horror despite not really having anything to do with the scares in the movies themselves. Somehow, I find the most comfort from horror of all things. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about exactly why that is. Is it just a me thing? There are plenty of other odd components of my personality, especially concerning my coping mechanisms; does my bizarre relationship with the most gruesome of genres represent an outlier? Is it really worthy of any extra attention?
It’s a question I’ve been kicking around for a minute now. While I haven’t quite reached a definitive conclusion about the cause of my personal horror-related self-soothing, I have begun to take a closer look at horror’s connection to various aspects of social identity. Horror, after all, is a reflection on and magnification of social anxieties. How can we truly understand horror and how it effectively marks its audience without understanding the social fears and cultural contexts informing the creation of said horror? We can’t.
And, of course, because this is a Michigan Gayly article, I wanted to spend time especially examining the correlation between the LGBTQ+ community and horror. How are we represented? Does horror, often touted as a socially critical genre, fairly represent the community? And most importantly, what really constitutes the messaging behind any queer representation within the genre?
The answers I’ve stumbled upon range. For the purpose of keeping this article to the briefest of summaries on horror’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ community, it will largely focus on the identification those within the queer community feel towards the villains in horror. Additionally, this article will be limited to discussions largely pertaining to those belonging to the community because of their sexual orientation. (The relationship horror has with transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is vast, distinct, and deserving of its own article, so please look forward to a part two in this series.) As a final note, due to my personal inexperience with foreign horror films as well as the unique cultures and histories informing the horror produced by each respective society, this article will focus on the relationship between specifically American horror and American LGBTQ+ individuals.
What is queer horror?
To start, we must go to the beginning and establish the exact scope of queerness in horror. What is queer horror? Is it horror that has explicitly queer characters? That is created by LGBTQ+ filmmakers, or that has a plot specific to the experiences of queer individuals? Can a film created by queer artists but lacking queer elements still be queer? Is it about intent, not the personal identities of those creating the art? And, most important of all, what about reclamation and the influence of subtext? Horror, like all genres of film and media, constantly grapples with these questions, and answering any of them quickly becomes a fairly tricky ordeal.
Most notably, horror also shares with its sibling genres a propensity for ignoring marginalized groups and their stories. For the vast majority of the history of filmmaking, the LGBTQ+ community and various other social groups have been relegated to the sidelines of cinema, experiencing very little exposure or authentic representation on screen.
Much of this history stems from the Hays Code, a film censorship system that was aggressively bigoted and banned everything from interracial relationships to nudity to use of the word “pregnant.” As it relates to the LGBTQ+ community, the Hays Code enforced rigid moral standards to protect heterosexual audiences against “sexual perversion, or any inference to it.” Of course, its intention was to completely erase the queer community and their narratives from the collective social space films provide. While the Hays Code eventually was abandoned in favor of the current MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system, its legacy continues, contributing to the difficulties LGBTQ+ stories still have in making it to the big screen.
Regarding horror, the most significant restrictions of the Hays Code came from its General Principles section, outlining the ways in which the system meant to protect audiences from sympathizing with the “side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” As a result, horror, as the genre most likely to include any or all of these elements, was forced to limit itself in terms of an antagonist’s likeability. Villains, especially inhuman monsters, had to go without many redeeming qualities. Similarly, as one might expect, any depiction of LGBTQ+ individuals or themes during the time of the Hays Code either had to be explicitly villainous or entirely implied. Essentially, characters who weren’t written explicitly as villains were reduced to the level of analogusly queer stories and highly stereotypical queer-coded characteristsics.
In essence, LGBTQ+ scholars and fans alike are often forced to turn to subtext when seeking content to identify with in horror. Many beloved horror texts, especially the older ones, contain queer characters only as antagonists, filling only the most vile and unsympathetic roles, or possibly as the occasional queer-coded protagonist, the latter of which remains exceedingly rare in the genre.
As the Hays Code’s influence has begun to slowly die out, the trend of queer representation in horror has largely seen the continuation of queer people as monster-- or, interestingly, monsters as appropriated by queer individuals. Thus, “queer horror” seems to include films that provide both possible identification by queer people with horror monsters or that have authentic queer characters and stories. Still, it must be acknowledged that much of horror also perpetuates the harmful stereotypes that enables queer identification with monsters in the first place.
Monsters Are Gay?: The Coded and Appropriated Villains
In 2014, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s first feature film, “The Babadook,” hit theaters and enjoyed almost immediate critical acclaim. Called by some the “best horror movie of the century,” “The Babadook” follows the experiences of a depressed widow, Amelia, and her increasingly troubled son, Samuel, as they struggle against a force living in their house. While the film deals primarily with themes of grief, repressed emotions, and the way a family can survive being so horrifically fractured, that’s not what “The Babadook” is really known for-- at least, not amongst the queer community.
Following one Tumblr user’s October 2016 post, which read “Whenever someone says the Babadook isn’t gay it’s like?? Did you even watch the movie???” and one screenshot displaying a Netflix glitch in which the film was categorized as “LGBT,” the queer side of the internet became, as they say, “Babashook.” People dressed in Babadook costumes descended upon various Pride celebrations the following year and a widely popular tag saw The Babadook paired with Pennywise from the “It” duology films. In June 2019, there was even a special edition “LGBTQ Pride Edition” rerelease Blu-ray of the film that had a portion of proceeds donated to the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
With all of this attention and exaltation from the queer community, it begs the obvious question: is the Babadook even gay? Canonically, no. But when asked directly about the whole situation, writer-director Kent admitted to being both confused and “charmed.” The only real guess she could venture to make about why the Babadook has seen such a positive response from the LGBTQ+ community is, “He’s an outsider of sorts.” While perhaps entirely unintentional, Kent may have happened upon the exact perfect reasoning.
As previously discussed, for much of horror film history, queer stories have been marginalized almost as much as queer people themselves. The constant trend of employing coded characters and generally avoiding the inclusion of any authentic or explicit LGBTQ+ stories makes queer fans unlikely to find themselves in these films, unless they seek them out intentionally in subtext. In saying that The Babadook is an “outsider,” Kent is picking up on the exact subtle characteristic that drew the community to him-- aside from all the fun memes.
It’s what Professor of Radio, TV, and Film Dr. Harry M. Benshoff refers to in his book, “Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film,” as “identification.” As he and many other film scholars note, film’s depictions of monsters reflect social fears, and when mixed with characteristics commonly associated with queer viewers, the audience identification queer people feel often differs from those experienecs of straight viewers. In his words:
“While straight participants in such experiences usually return to their day-light worlds, both the monster and the homosexual are permanent residents of shadowy spaces: at worst caves, castles, and closets, and at best a marginalized and oppressed position within the cultural hegemony. Queer viewers are thus more likely than straight ones to experience the monster’s plight in more personal, individualized terms.”
Such terms often include things like being “out” with one’s difference, feeling barred from numerous social spaces, being bullied, and being framed as a threat to heteronormative society. Films in which monsters enact revenge on the “protagonists”-- who often can closely resemble the everyday villains LGBTQ+ individuals face in a homophobic society-- sometimes offer wish fulfillment fantasies, and a unique opportunity to identify with the figure in the position of power.
It’s the reason why so many queer individuals identify with Carrie White when she attacks her high school bullies at prom-- an event many queer individuals know as a huge source of anxiety during high school. It’s the reason why so many seem to identify with Nancy Downs from The Craft, because although she is undeniably monstrous, she’s sympathetic as an outsider and as someone who completely owns the things about her that mark her as different. It’s why the LGBTQ+ community, without fail, pick up on the seemingly most random horror monsters to identify with, re: The Babadook.
Gay People Are Monsters?: The Villainy of Being Coded
Finally, while the tendency of queer viewers to identify with monsters in horror has its fun, it must also be acknowledged that it can be damaging to do so. As queer-coded monsters present a character with which to experience wish-fulfillment or to sympathize with from a similar “outsider” perspective, they also can easily contribute to the phenomenon of villainizing queer identities. As Dr. Darren Elliott-Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Stirling, writes in his book “Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins,” “Notwithstanding the pleasures of queer appropriation, the perpetual revering of queer monstrosity simply reinforces the ‘ongoing monsterization of homosexuality.’”
So, if the queer community lacks many authentic or explicitly LGBTQ+ characters in horror and identifying with the queer-coded, subtextual villains reinforces harmful stereotypes, what other option is there? Well, as with every other genre and social space, the conclusion is always to include more queer filmmakers and authentic queer stories. Still, making these gains has proven difficult for the community; in the meantime, it’s worthwhile to continue examining the media we do have and to consider the worth of our negative representation. As video essayist James Somerton relevantly asks in one of his pieces, “Monsters in the Closet: A History of LGBT Representation in Horror Cinema,” “Is no representation better than bad representation?”
For queer horror fans, representation may be changing for the better with characters like the interracial lesbian couple Serena and Nari in “Unfriended: Dark Web,” an out gay teen named Josh (played by nonbinary actor Misha Osherovich) in “Freaky,” and the lesbian romance between main characters Charlotte and Elizabeth from Netflix’s twisted “The Perfection.” Compared to the more implicit readings of queer-coded villains, newer horror movies appear to be truly fitting the definition of “queer horror”-- or simply to be redefining it for themselves.
With this positive trend of horror becoming more inclusive and continuously transgressive, I personally am sincerely looking forward to all the queer horror I’ll be able to comfort-binge in times of crisis.