Michael Varrati: The Queering of Horror Movies

“Why horror?”

It’s a question I’ve asked countless writers, filmmakers, and creators over the course of my career, and it’s one that continues to amaze with the diversity of responses it merits. For some, the connection to genre material is deeply personal, a childhood memory or connection to a loved one who provided an introduction to the world of fright. For others, it’s about broad strokes, an engagement into the taboo and the thrill it provides.

Most often, it’s about catharsis. By putting our real world anxieties into the monsters on screen, we get a measure of release. It’s a level of escapism that subconsciously also allows us to purge our fears by projecting them onto the fantastic. In that way, horror movies are inherently good for us.

…and, quite honestly, deeper context aside, they’re just plain fun.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Few know this more than queer audiences. There’s always been a strong LGBTQ+ draw to the world of fright, and it’s really not difficult to see why. Horror, at its very core, is a genre of “otherness.” Often celebrating, venerating, or putting on display the plight of the outsider, horror creates a narrative that those who exist outside of the mainstream can easily identify. Whether it’s Jamie Lee Curtis as the socially awkward final girl trying to fit in with the popular kids, or Frankenstein’s Monster being misunderstood and ostracized by society, the otherness on display is often in direct contention to a world they are merely just trying to survive.

…and who understands that more than queer people?

Cat People

Cat People

As such, LGBTQ+ folks have always had a strong presence in the world of genre, and the queering of horror content has existed since the very beginning. In the era before movies, Gothic novels such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire thriller Carmilla delved into the Sapphic desires of its lead, and many Grand Guignol plays had a drag theatricality to their presentation.

With the advent of motion pictures, coded homosexual imagery was instilled right into early offerings, including James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as narratives that dared to buck heteronormative views, like Val Lewton’s Cat People.

Often, when the queer history of horror on screen comes up, I invariably encounter people who are shocked to discover that it’s been under their noses this whole time. Of course, if it’s not something you’re looking for, I can see how you might have missed it. However, like queer people themselves, it’s always been there.

For those curating Halloween watch lists this October looking to delve more into the dark side of the rainbow, there’s luckily a pantheon of films within the LGBTQ+ spectrum that ensure you could quite literally make your spooky season the queerest yet.

The Vampire Lovers

The Vampire Lovers

When the fine folks here at Gay Essential asked me to provide some film selections for readers, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to discuss the long history of the genre’s queer interconnectedness. By knowing the relationship between horror’s celebration of “otherness” and our community, I felt it would provide greater context to some of the flicks I’m about to offer up. Each of these movies, in their way, has been essential to a greater “coming out” for horror, and has put on display the power of commentary within the genre.

As noted, early efforts like the Frankenstein movies and Cat People used coded imagery and contexts to represent queerness on screen. For a great many years, this is how queer horror operated, with a sense of duality and hidden messages. In a society that wasn’t quite ready to tackle LGBTQ+ issues, artists still did their best to use the analogies present in these tales of the fantastic to represent the underrepresented.

As the free love ideals and sexual fluidity of the 60s and 70s began to loosen the hold of old mindsets, we started seeing a shift. Characters directly presenting as queer started emerging within genre. In fact, the mother of all midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, still remains a pinnacle moment for this intersection. Audiences were so enraptured by the film’s message of “Don’t Dream It, Be It,” that a literal cult community rose around the movie. People finally had an outlet to wear their outsider status on their sleeve. They could gather together, and in performing along with the movie, were…for a moment…allowed to be their truest selves. Other films of this era, like Hammer Films’ The Vampire Lovers and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses, brought the tale of Carmilla to the screen, allowing her to live vividly, sensually, and openly for audiences who had nary seen a lesbian at the cinema before.

The Hunger

The Hunger

With the 80s, boundaries were pushed even further. The admittedly subdued lesbian vampires of The Vampire Lovers gave way to full on eroticism in Tony Scott’s The Hunger. The decade also gave us the much touted “gayest movie ever,” A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, which ironically never once mentions actual homosexuality on screen, but is so steeped in imagery (leather bars, shower whippings, and shirtless men, oh my) and subtext, its intentions and inclinations were made extremely clear.

In the 90s, David DeCoteau’s Brotherhood movies made the video rental stores a homoerotic hotspot for audiences craving scantily clad men with their devil worship, and the rallying cry of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed made the message clear: “We can’t hide in the shadows anymore.”

Decades of clearly queer horror content pushed the boundaries and defied audiences to see beyond the sense of “other” and acknowledge what was there in front of them. Queer people relate to horror stories because in some ways, they’re our stories. There have been times when we’ve been made out by society to be the monster, and almost always, we’ve been forced to defy circumstance to be the survivor.

The power of genre, when done right, is that it has often used its analogies to provide voice to those who so frequently had none. By hiding the truth in the guise of fiction, horror, in its way, has allowed our community to speak truth to power…and showcase that often the real monsters exist in the world around us.

Rift

Rift (Rökkur)

These days, there has been a remarkable influx of “out and proud” horror content. 2004 saw the release of Paul Etheredge’s Hellbent, a movie that earned the moniker of “the first gay slasher movie” for dropping the subtext and going straight for the jugular. The film not only showcased a cast of fully out gay characters, but also allowed audiences a glimpse of West Hollywood’s historic Halloween celebrations, taking the notion of the “final girl” and dropping it firmly in Boystown.

Filmmakers like Peaches Christ have injected genre with a deadly dose of drag with her touring live shows and feature film All About Evil, and gay relationships have been given a nuanced horror lens with festival faves like Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift and Kris & Lindy Boustedt’s Brides to Be.

L.A. Zombie

L.A. Zombie

More so, as the closet door is left in splinters, filmmakers continue to push boundaries with what queer content can be, ever engaging the sense of taboo we hold so dear. Raconteur Bruce LaBruce frequently has delved into the realm of the pornographic with Otto; or, Up with Dead People and L.A. Zombie, and Salem Kapaski’s Spidarlings deliciously equates the queer experience to the world of punk rock.

In some cases, movies that are inherently and directly queer in presentation, such as the savage French cannibal flick Raw and the sublime occult piece The Blackcoat’s Daughter, are so matter of fact, their inherent relation to the community is just part of the package. Which, honestly, is how it ought to be.

Long story short, queer visibility in horror has grown exponentially, but our presence has always been there. In fact, I’d argue that if not for queer sensibilities, horror wouldn’t even be half as fun.

So, this Halloween, as you’re preparing your spooky movie playlist, make sure you add some queer horror to the mix, whether it be one of the many listed in this piece, or one you discover on your own. After all, these movies came out of the dark so you could relish within it.

Enjoy them, celebrate them, and scream with them.

Happy Halloween!

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Michael Varrati
Michael Varrati is a screenwriter, filmmaker, and host known primarily for his contributions to the horror genre. His credits included the critically acclaimed Tales of Poe, the recent relationship comedy He Drinks, and a number of TV movie projects for networks like Lifetime, Ion, Hallmark, and more. Currently, he serves as the creator and host of Dead for Filth, a podcast devoted to the intersection of queer identity and the horror genre, as well as the on-camera host of History of Fright, a weekly series produced by Skybound (creators of The Walking Dead). He frequently speaks at events like San Diego Comic Con International about queer horror, and his work has been covered by such publications as the Wall Street Journal, MTV News, Out, and more.
Michael Varrati

@MichaelVarrati

Screenwriter of a bunch of indie horror flicks and some made-for-TV movies your mom likes. A little bit Stephen Sondheim, a little bit Stephen King.
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