Horror Film’s Terrifyingly Harmful Use of Queer Tropes

Horror is gay. It’s a genre about, among other things, destroying societal conceptions of heteronormativity and domesticity. Gay horror fans like myself see ourselves in these narratives about monstrosity and “otherness” and take hold of them, making them our own. In his book, Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins, Darren Elliott-Smith says, “…the study of monstrous homosexuality in the horror film has also revealed the celebratory pleasures offered to queer, gay and lesbian viewers’ oppositional identification with the very same monsters that threaten the norm.” Our identities threaten heteronormativity and we cheer on those monsters that do the same. Horror is not only about queerness, but is shaped by queerness, with LGBTQ+ directors, like Clive Barker and Don Manici, creating horror classics such as Hellraiser and Child’s Play, respectively.  

While gay horror directors and fanatics have helped shape horror film, their work is eclipsed by toxic tropes created to “other” LGBTQ+ characters and make them into villains. Horror ultimately reflects societal fears and for much of recent history, society has been afraid of gayness and the threat it poses heteronormative conceptions of family and relationships. While our current cultural context is evolving into a slightly more accepting one, this genre has perpetuated toxic tropes, two of which that I’ll discuss here, that depict LGBTQ+ characters as deviant, horrific monsters.

One of these tropes is the psycho lesbian who becomes so obsessed with another woman that it drives her to kill. TV Tropes describes it as “an unfortunate cocktail of censorship and bigotry rendered all lesbian characters on screen exclusively psychotic and villainous” and that it “carries uncomfortable subtext: go straight or go crazy.” A prime example of this is Alexandre Aja’s subversive slasher flick, High Tension. Set in the French countryside, Marie, played by Cecile de France, tries to rescue her best friend, Alex, played by Maiwenn, from a psychotic killer. However, it is eventually revealed that Alex has been the killer and kidnapper all along, driven to insanity by her love for her best friend.

Cécile de France in Haute tension (2003) © Lions Gate Home Entertainment

As the film begins, Marie is immediately coded as queer. With a short haircut and baggy clothes, she exudes a masculine energy, particularly next to Alex, who is coded as typically feminine. Basically, she looks like the stereotypical representation of a lesbian. Even her actions are seen as masculine – she is rescuing the “damsel in distress” when typically that role is taken by a male protagonist. Marie is “queering” the typical horror hero and fighting back against the killer, rather than falling victim to him. She further “queers” the idea of the typical hero by actually being the story’s villain – she creates a masculine figure to fight back against to prove her love for Alex. 

In Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, Alexandra West says of High Tension, “Unable to cope with her homoerotic desires, Marie manifests a hulking male figure to carry out her secret desires of destroying everything and everyone that could possibly keep her and Alex apart.” Marie’s repression of her sexuality manifests as violence, which becomes “a threat to patriarchal heteronormative family” (West, 121). While her queerness is metaphorically destroying the typical idea of family, Marie also literally destroys Alex’s family, murdering her parents and brother.

High Tension is a phenomenal example of French nihilistic horror and of bending the Final Girl concept into something new, but it still relies upon harmful queer tropes to create its villain. While Aja breaks down many slasher flick tropes in High Tension, he is still depicting societal fears about the LGBTQ+ community and the threats many perceive that they pose to our current hegemony.

Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) © 1991 – MGM

A glaringly harmful horror trope is coding trans bodies as villainous, particularly in Jonathan Demme’s horror classic, The Silence of the Lambs. The film’s antagonist, Buffalo Bill, played by Ted Levine, is a serial killer who abducts, murders, and skins women in order to create a skin suit to complete his transformation into a woman. He is described as a gay man whose mental illness has driven him to murder his romantic partners, and, subsequently, random women.

There is an especially well-known scene where Bill dresses in drag, tucks his penis between his legs and dances in front of a camera; this is not meant to be a comical scene but without fail, whenever I watch this movie with a group, someone cannot restrain their laughter. This scene depicts Bill’s body, and desire to be a woman, as wrong, both in how he is attempting to make this transition and how he physically appears. It is met with fear and laughter because he is rejecting his stronger, more desirable male identity for a weaker, feminine one. He is rejecting societal expectations of identity, treating his gender as skin, something he can remove and replace. And he achieves this through a series of violent murders.

Ted Levine and Darla in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs conflates questioning gender identity with mental illness, which perpetuates these harmful assumptions about trans people and their identities. Trans identities are not monstrous or indicative of serious mental illness, yet Buffalo Bill maintains that idea. But it is still a classic horror film and earned itself five academy awards, something almost unheard of for the genre. It has given us one of horror’s best villain, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but it has also given us one of horror’s most homophobic and transphobic queer character. In a 1993 interview with the New York Times, Demme says that Buffalo Bill “wasn’t a gay character,” and that, “He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be.” However, this denial of how Bill was represented shows a misuse of queerness to create a film’s iconic bad guy.

These are just two of the harmful queer stereotypes often found in mainstream horror films. These tropes make LGBTQ+ sexualities deviant, evil, and scary. In a world where more nuanced gay narratives are becoming increasingly common, I hope it also extends into the mainstream horror genre. Indie horror has begun to include more queer narratives that attempt to avoid these stereotypes, or at least warp them into something new that fits our current cultural context, such as Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Joachim Trier’s Thelma. This isn’t to say mainstream horror must make all narratives gay for the rest of eternity – though that would be nice – but as a queer horror lover, I want a horror film that doesn’t only use queerness to create a villain. In a time where we are already seen as scary by so many, horror should look to break that mold instead of conforming to it. What is horror if not a way to confront and destroy the idea of societal norms?

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