Horror has a rocky track record with queer representation, particularly in terms of portraying “deviant” identities as monstrous. Films such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and High Tension (2002) portray gay characters as predatory figures who seek to kidnap and kill; in these films, their sexuality is what drives them to such violence. The horror films of the 1980s and 1990s try to deal with the fear of AIDS with films about the body in pain. And then of course there is the rampant amount of queer subtext that fills the genre, either written in by filmmakers or found with the horror community. Horror films are often seen as a genre for deviants, a place to find comfort and power within monstrous identity. This is a queer genre, through and through.
With all of that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some of horror’s best LGBTQIA+ films with more explicit, and mostly positive, representation.
The Haunting (1963), dir. Robert Wise
Robert Wise’s 1963 film is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Many of us fell in love with the Netflix series of the same name, but Wise was the first to adapt the story for the screen. The Haunting makes its way onto this list with its openly lesbian character, Theodora, or Theo (Claire Bloom). Importantly, Theo’s sexuality is never used against her or used to make her the film’s villain. This is especially impressive due to the film’s reception as absolutely terrifying upon its initial release. Theo plays a psychic who is called to investigate the paranormal activity at Hill House. She, along with Eleanor Lance, head to the haunted house to figure out what is causing such violent occurrences.
Theo’s character can also be seen in the 1999 remake of The Haunting, as well as in the Netflix series. Her sexuality is maintained in all three versions of this story, making sure to preserve one of the few examples of positive lesbian representation in horror.
Hellbent (2004), dir. Paul Etheredge
It took until 2004 for the release of a gay-centered slasher film and that film was Hellbent. Set in West Hollywood, the film’s killer is stalking and killing gay men on the days leading up to Halloween. In most slasher films, there is little to no gay representation. If there is a gay character, he is the token best friend who serves as “sassy” comedic relief. But in Hellbent, all of its characters are gay, meaning there is more room for character development. It also unabashedly shows gay sexuality. While it is a slippery slope to show the relentless killing of gay men, Hellbent shows that there is a place in the horror genre to display gayness in the same ways that heterosexuality is so often flaunted in slasher films.
The Hunger (1983), dir. Tony Scott
A vampire film featuring sex with Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie sounds like my ideal movie. Vampires are already known for oozing sexuality, seducing anyone who they’ve deemed as their next meal. In The Hunger, vampire lovers Miriam (Deneuve) and Jack (Bowie) are living in New York City, feasting on human blood and trying to stave off the aging process despite their eternal life. Enter Sarah (Sarandon), who becomes entangled in this vampiric couple’s lives. The Hunger oozes big, gay, vampire energy.
Jennifer’s Body (2011), dir. Karyn Kusama
Karyn Kusama said bisexual rights with iconic killer girl film, Jennifer’s Body. Megan Fox plays high school hottie-turned succubus who feasts on stupid boys to keep herself strong, beautiful, and sexy. But while she’s munching on boys, her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) suspects something bad has happened to Jennifer. There is very obvious sexual tension between Jennifer and Needy, which speaks to all of us teenage girls who weren’t sure what we were feeling during those sleepovers with our girlfriends.
Knife+Heart (2018), dir. Yann Gonzalez
Yann Gonzalez’s queer slasher Knife+Heart is the big gay horror experience I’ve been waiting for. Every character in this film is gay. There are trans characters. It’s gorgeously shot and a couple splashes of giallo lighting for color. There is a dildo knife. It is a bizarre, wholly unique horror film that will sear its way into your mind.
There is a killer on the loose in 1979 Paris. They’re killing off porn stars from Anna’s (Vanessa Paradis) studio that pumps out a variety of gay porn. While dealing with the deaths of her stars, Anna is also going through a breakup with her girlfriend and editor, Lois. Knife+Heart is unapologetically queer, from its characters to its settings to its killer. It is the perfect horror film to end your Pride month.
Let the Right One In (2008), dir. Tomas Alfredson
Unlike The Hunger, Let the Right One In is a much less sexual vampire film that still addresses queerness, this time in much younger characters. Oskar is a young boy who is constantly bullied in school. He’s a loner until he meets new neighbor Eli, a strange girl who doesn’t mind the Swedish winter cold. It is soon revealed that Eli is a vampire and her “father” is actually her caretaker who brings her blood. It also revealed that Eli is not actually a girl; she was actually castrated hundreds of years ago.
While Eli’s gender and sexuality is more explicitly dealt with in the novel, this film still works to showcase that Eli’s gender doesn’t matter. What does matter is Oskar’s dedication to Eli. Love and loyalty crosses societal constraints of gender, and Let the Right One In revels in love over everything.
Lyle (2014), dir. Stewart Thorndike
Picture this: lesbian Rosemary’s Baby. Sound good? Great, then check out Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle, where Gaby Hoffman plays Leah, a pregnant lesbian housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. While caring for her toddler and taking care of her home, her wife June works long hours as a music producer. But, tragedy befalls the family as their toddler dies in an accident. In the throes of grief, Leah believes that something sinister is happening in her apartment building.
The typical narrative structure previously reserved for heterosexual couples is used for a lesbian couple; lesbians are real people, too! Leah and June’s sexuality is not something that is overly addressed or exaggerated, but rather just a part of the plot and characters.
Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), dir. Jack Sholder
Final Girl who? The second installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise instead features a Final Boy, a closeted gay teenage boy named Jesse (Mark Patton). This is the only film on this list that doesn’t explicitly address its main character’s sexuality but I’ve included it for the power its had on the genre since 1985. Robert Englund, who plays the iconic Freddy Krueger, said in an interview, “the second Nightmare on Elm Street is obviously intended as a bisexual themed film. It was early ’80s, pre-AIDS paranoia. Jesse’s wrestling with whether to come out or not and his own sexual desires was manifested by Freddy.”
Stranger By the Lake (2014), dir. Alain Guiraudie
When you’re lonely, you sometimes fall in love with a killer. Stranger By the Lake follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a man who often visits a nude beach and its surrounding woods looking for love. Well, he finds it in Michel (Christophe Paou), a dark and mysterious stranger who may have some murderous tendencies. Stranger By the Lake is a sexy thriller about finding love in quite a strange and hopeless place.
What Keeps You Alive (2018), dir. Colin Minihan
What Keeps You Alive is if High Tension was done without the whole “lesbian sexuality is evil” aspect. It is a lesbian slasher film without using sexuality as an excuse for violence. Rather, the killer just happens to be a lesbian. While it’s great to have lesbian characters on the “good” side of a horror movie, it is also fascinating to a see a queer killer that isn’t a Buffalo Bill.
Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are heading to Jackie’s family cabin to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary. Jules expects a weekend of wine, peace, and quiet. But her wife has other plans; she’s gunning for that life insurance policy. She tries to kill Jules to make it look like an accident, but it doesn’t go exactly according to plan. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse, but Jackie does not always have the upper hand. It’s a unique subversion and experiment in the slasher genre, both in format and character types.
Many of these films, and more, are currently streaming on Shudder.