Queer-Coding and Horror Films
From bloodthirsty monsters to troubled villains, LGBT representation in film has a chilling history
Queer-coding is exactly what it claims to be: “coding” characters as some variation of “not straight,” or implying characters aren’t entirely straight or cisgendered through subtext. Though it’s been practiced in European literature as early as the 1800s, queer-coding wasn’t as frequently or visibly used in America until the 1930s, when the United States attempted to crack down on vulgarity and questionable morals in the entertainment industry.
The Hays Code was the resulting solution that was firmly implemented in 1934: it was a strict set of motion picture guidelines on what was morally acceptable to be shown on film, and what was prohibited. Although LGBT relations weren’t explicitly renounced in the document, the implication of its status as a taboo subject was made clear in the code’s call for upholding “correct standards of life” and “the sanctity of the institution of marriage,” and rejecting films in which “low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”
The implementation of the Hays Code only became more strict when World War II ended and was replaced by the Cold War. The threat of communism in the United States and allegations of sympathizers towards the Soviet Union led to a period of distrust in the country, where anything that was considered subversive or “un-American” was subjected to witch hunts and exile. The Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare were direct actions against potential sympathizers in the entertainment industry and general workplace, as was the lesser-known Lavender Scare: when homosexuality was announced to be as much a rejection of the American way as communism, Queer people were forced into stricter hiding lest they were outed by another merciless products of homophobia.
Of course, that didn’t stop filmmakers! Although “morally reprehensible” acts were forbidden on screen, no amount of censoring could make them disappear from life, and filmmakers were well aware. There were still plenty of suggestions of illegal activities and sexuality, albeit shown through metaphors, double entendres, and actors’ interpretations of their lines. LGBT characters were rarely shown on screen before the Hays Code, but ironically the censors caused an influx of heavily coded Queer characters from its inception—for better or for worse.
If otherness couldn’t be celebrated, or at the very least explored, it was going to have to be portrayed as something to despise, fight against, and aim to destroy.
Enter monster movies and villains, the ultimate in all queer-coded subjects. At face value, there’s a clear Queerness in the stories and motives of even the earliest of interpretations: Frankenstein’s monster was born into a world that inherently despised him for something out of his control; werewolves were usually men who turned into violent, crazed animals at night; and vampires were active, nocturnal beings who seduced and literally preyed on their victims. Male werewolves and vampires in particular could be easily seen as harmful stereotypes of common Gay male archetypes: werewolves are hypermasculine and portrayed as aggressive, literal beasts; vampires are more feminine, pale and slender, and rely on their charm to attract victims; and both were a threat to people if they were unable- or refused -to keep their desire contained. Those monsters who retained their humanity in some way lamented their plight, and desperately sought ways to become “normal” again—common themes of repressed homosexuality and coming out subverted into stories about “evil” creatures who were vilified, and whose destructions were celebrated.
Human villains were a little more complex. Without supernatural elements and hostile animalistic urges to piggyback off of, antagonists tended to be treated with more nuance—mostly in the unfortunate form of mental illness and a corresponding Queerness. This is especially true in a number of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; his dedication to making films look and feel tense and terrifying only enhanced the experience of exploring the minds of his cold, manipulative, frustratingly coded villains.
Mrs. Danvers from his 1940s film, Rebecca, is a famous example of one, and remains one of the most iconic queer-coded characters in film. The doting housekeeper of the aristocratic De Winters, and her obsession with the late Rebecca De Winters, loathing for her widower’s new wife is a wildly unhealthy, but terribly enticing interpretation of a grieving lover. She treats the new Mrs. De Winters with a cold and barely contained hostility for being, in her eyes, an inferior and unwanted replacement; each comparison she makes of the two women only degrades the younger woman, and serves as a reminder to both that nothing could ever take Rebecca’s place.
The late 1960s saw a decline of McCarthyism, which was replaced with massive cultural and societal change. The rise of a number of civil rights movements and the sexual revolution were the result of a call for equality, peace, and freedom of expression. Film and television censors were removed and the rating system was created in its place, allowing for creators to work freely, while viewers were given the option to choose what to watch. As a result, the `70s saw a massive boom of movies with blatantly expressed sexuality, and more explicit suggestions of identities other than cisgendered heterosexuality.
The Haunting was released in 1963, and introduced another classic, heavily queer-coded female character. Theodora is one of four people invited to stay in a supposedly haunted house by a scientist researching the supernatural, and evidence of her Lesbianism is refreshingly different from the representation which preceded her: she’s not a villain. She is witty and caring, along with being a complex character, and most shockingly, is alive at the end of the film. Since practically all coded characters were villains, they were killed at the conclusion of most novels and movies when the protagonists inevitably saved the day. It’s a practice that has continued to this day, which as Queer characters became more mainstream and broke free from horror villain stereotypes, shifted into a tradition of putting LGBT characters into conflicts that are direct consequences of their sexualities. Theodora is a character who is portrayed as a Lesbian simply because she could be, and with a single exception, faces no hardships throughout the film that the other characters don’t. It was a radical decision that led one of the few positive portrayals of a Queer character for decades.
Women in general saw a steady increase of diverse representation in films throughout the later half of the century. Female sexuality had always been a taboo on-screen due to the concept of purity and innocence being aspects of an ideal woman, but shifting perceptions of femininity allowed female characters to become more independent and open on-screen—though often distinctly oversexualized. Their sexuality began to be exploited in films, and moreso as vampires for a very straight male gaze; women loving women was allowed, but mostly for the enjoyment of men.
Despite that, Queer women were still more accepted than Queer men on film. Masculinity was (and still is) so fiercely considered to be represented by aggression and violence that men who displayed anything gentler—emotional vulnerability, lack of hypersexuality—were ridiculed. As a result, emotional relationships between men were uncommon even in the `70s, especially due to the influence of the various wars the United States became involved in; soldiers were expected to be tough and ruthless, and anything less was inexcusable.
As a result of society’s expectations of an ideal man being straight and commanding, Queer men in film were either coded very subtly, or loudly and extravagantly to rebel against that—sometimes at the expense of proper representation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Halloween staple, is probably the biggest celebration of damaging Homosexual and Transgender stereotypes on screen. Though he explicitly calls himself a “sweet transvestite” and actively pursues multiple people regardless of their gender, Dr. Frank N. Furter represents an amalgam of Queer male stereotypes in classic camp horror films with a new, bolder voice. His character is possible because of the many eccentric, queer-coded ones that preceded him.
Interview with the Vampire shows an uncommon family dynamic between two men that is treated with more nuance. From Louis’ decision to follow Lestat after being turned into a vampire to their decision to turn and take in a vampire girl, their relationship could have easily be seen as one of two lovers with an adopted child. Louis searches for an accepting family throughout the film, living with Lestat to acclimate to his new lifestyle, doting on a girl he considers his own daughter, and when his final attempt to be a part of a coven fails disastrously, roams the world empty and lonely.
LGBT representation in media has had a long and difficult history made more complex by the necessity for queer-coding, and the popularization of mostly harmful stereotypes that are still seen to this day. The demonization and censoring of any form of sexuality in the `30s made romance and basest allusions to sex add to the already tense atmosphere of horror films, and added an extra fearful layer to villains who made unwanted advances on heteronormative protagonists. Even now, despite many places having decriminalized and legalized expression of sexual orientation, truly Queer representation is hard to come by, or is not shown to larger audiences. However, today’s culture of acceptance and visibility is changing media, and queer-coding is steadily giving way to true LGBT representation in all genres—as human, complex people, not just tortured monsters.