Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:


“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”

“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)

Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018

Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually non-normative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of its apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend, or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.

The horror film, in particular, found its place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.

As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.” So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.

On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.

The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”

The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest, and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray.

In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X starring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.

Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!

All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)

Fay Wray is Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific nonconformists.

The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.

Bela Lugosi looks down upon David Manners in a scene from the film ‘Dracula’, 1931. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film that has no connection to Poe’s story but in the name is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophilia, incest, sadism, satanism, and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all take place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high-contrast lighting.

Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933) with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton, and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.

And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half-naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fantasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!

The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters

Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”

By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”

Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveal similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similar to the self-discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.

There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.

Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff

Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operate with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic, and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.

Mad Doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camaraderie and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.

According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full-grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, a “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”

George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victim’s hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and is unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul, he becomes a monstrous queer.

In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of storytelling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.

In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, which causes him to become sickened.

But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, but rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.

Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, its persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.

Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, within their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientations in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism, and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in the full power of its universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality and the subversion of sexuality.

The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village-type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from domesticity and normalcy.

In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. His motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. In the scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.

MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol, she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.

Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, as not just a rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case, what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as a doctor and his subject Stephen?

Mad Love possesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”

In a similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker’s (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.

Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Montmartre tonight.”

Gogol’s maid Francoise talks to the statue, “Whatever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”

A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.

Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire. Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein

Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine, Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephen’s hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.

On the surface the plot of Mad Love appears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)

In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the original story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.

Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “Each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.

In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves? Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire into Mad Love within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” while the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.

The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)

Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886, and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. At the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations and were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations were ‘not socially sanctioned and shunned.’

It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)

“My darling”…

James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. His picture The Invisible Man (1933) adapted from H.G. Wells’s story and starring Claude Rains, was classified as a horror film by the Code.

Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”

What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for its ‘queer’ humor.

Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933

The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)

Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of James Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”

According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal), ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”

Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)

The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”

Erich von Stroheim starred in The Crime of Doctor. Crespi 1935 portrays a sinister and effeminate villain. Crespi wears a delicate bracelet on his wrist, then shows savageness when he tortures one of the doctors.

Mark of the Vampire (1935) Carroll Borland as Luna Mora is referred to in Berenstein’s Attack of the Leading Ladies, as saying “He’s been doing something mighty queer with Rollo’s body”

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE 1935 predates Dracula’s Daughter WOMAN or VAMPIRE? Beautiful…alluring…hiding behind a dread mask of unearthly terror! The picture you’ll love to shudder at!


Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire, like Dracula’s Daughter, shows a vampiric molestation suffered by Irena (Elizabeth Allan), the heroine whose father dies under mysterious circumstances at the beginning of the film. He is found with two curious puncture wounds on his neck and his body is drained of blood. Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) believes it is the work of vampires. One of the most articulated scenes of lesbian vampirism in early cinema occurs when Irena is enticed silently by the dead, yet erotic gaze, of Luna (Caroll Borland), Irena succumbs with a vacant stare as pliant as a walking willow branch. Irena is led through the garden to the terrace, by Luna. Both glide like two ghosts through the foggy night air.

Luna is the daughter of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) who accompanies the two women on their prelude to forbidden pleasures. Mora watches the convergence of the deathly maidens, like a voyeur. Irena reclines on the chair and plunges into quiet ecstasy before Luna’s vampiric embrace. The kiss is hidden by Luna’s gown. The Production Code Administration was against emphasizing the lesbian subtext of the attack, but ultimately the critics didn’t focus on that not-so-subtle aspect of Mark of the Vampire.


Critic Robin Wood wrote a series of essays in the 1970s, that categorized horror films into three intersectional principles. The first is ‘Normality’ which is represented by heterosexual patriarchy. The second is ‘the other’ which is symbolized by the monster or monstrous. And the third is the shared relationship linking the two. Wood’s thematic variations, were composed of the sexual ‘others’ symbolized by women and homosexuals. In classical Hollywood, the film had to portray the romantic narratives as being hindered or assaulted by the monster or monstrous outside influences.

“As such, many monster movies (and source material that draw upon might be understood as being “about” the eruption of some form of queer sexuality into the midst of a resolutely heterosexual milieu “,

I mean to use the word ‘queer’ both in its everyday connotations “questionable …. suspicious…. strange…. and also as how it has been theorized in recent years within academia and social politics.

This latter”queer” is not only what differs “in some odd way from what is usual or normal”, “but ultimately is what opposes the binary definitions and prescriptions of a patriarchal heterosexism.”(Benshoff)

In classical fantasy and horror films ‘queerness’ disrupts the notions of normal ideas of gender and gender order, which throws everything into the chaos of the “narrative equilibrium and sets in motion a questioning of the status quo and in many cases within fantastic literature, the nature of reality itself.” (Benshoff)

DOCTOR X (1932) “This body has been… it has been!”

A gruesome tale of necrophilia, cannibalism, scientists performing homosocial behavior, and a deviant representation of homosexuality!

“There have been weird mysteries before and there will be weird mysteries again, but here is a thriller that will be remembered for years! A new note in exciting entertainment… An afternoon or evening in another world… An adventure in the realms of mystic romance with lovers fascinatingly different from any you’ve ever known!”

Lionel Atwill manifests another mad scientist Dr. Xavier in director Michael Curtiz’s Dr. X (1932) When a brutal maniac slaughters and devours his victims, the police find a scalpel used by the murderer, that could only belong to one of the professors at Dr. Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research. This points the police in the direction of a murderous physician. Frightened that this shocking, gruesome scandal will ruin his reputation, he begs the police to give him forty-eight hours to uncover which one of his colleagues is the fiend. Xavier plans on recreating one of the murders in his lab, using a controlled experiment by strapping each one down to his equipment and monitoring their reactions. He has been doing research in measuring the way blood influences emotions or the ’emotive composition of blood.’ Preston Foster plays one of the doctors who only has one arm. According to Rhona Berenstein – “Like female performances of fear, male passivity and an aura of homoeroticism are recurrent motifs in Doctor X.”

The most striking clues to homosexual relations occur the night of Rowetz’s murder. Turning restlessly in her bed, Joanna (Xavier’s daughter) awakens suddenly When the knock on her father’s door receives no response, she goes downstairs. There is a cut to a darkened room in which Rowetz’s prone body lies on a stretcher. The sheet that covers him is then lifted by someone who leans mysteriously over the corpse. (Berenstein)

When Xavier’s daughter Joanne (Fay Wray), comes into the frame of the doorway, the heroine screams when she sees the night prowler. What she realizes is that the intruder is actually her father, who immediately pushes himself away from the body. Before she and her father leave, Joanne sees another man lifting the sheet from the body.

Dr. Haines (John Wray) tells them that he wanted “a more thorough investigation of the body.”

Joanne goes back to her bedroom as Haines whispers to Xavier; “Since we retired, this body has been… it’s been!“ and the doctor murmurs to his colleague, “I know, but I don’t want her to know.”

The doctors do not openly talk of the secret violation, it remains unspeakable. We are not told what has been done to the dead man’s body-which only heightens the mystery. This allows us to imagine the worst atrocity perpetrated on a corpse, leaving us repulsed by the possibilities. There is a suggestion of performative and homoerotic qualities to the transgressions introduced to the narrative of Dr. X.

The next day she tells her reporter friend Taylor (Lee Tracy) about her nightmarish encounter, ”I saw my father bending over Rowetz’s body. I saw… oh, it’s a terrible thought.” Joanne does not articulate what she thought she saw, and we are still left wondering if it was her father, Dr. Xavier hovering over the body like a fiend, someone committing cannibalism, or a profane act of necrophilia. What is recognizable is that something perverse befell that dead man, too horrible to speak out loud, and it happened, in the dark of the night, ‘on a bed, and between men.’ (Berenstein)

The scene that distresses Joanne so thoroughly in Doctor X is about homosocial encounters among men. I am using the term homosocial in two ways first as the combination of the social and erotic charges that bind rivalrous men together in narratives and second as a description of the manner in which patriarchy excludes women.

Maybe Doctor X channels his desires toward men. The advertisement reinforces the suggestion that men may be his social and erotic destiny, since four of his colleagues glare at him from the upper left side of the notice (poster). The hero and the heroine staring at Doctor X with expressions of fear on their faces and the paragraph that accompanies the image speaks of unusual desires.-(Berenstein)

The first meaning is articulated by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Homosocial is a word… that usually describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism obviously formed by analogy with homosexual and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from homosexual. To draw the homosocial back into the orbit of desire then is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual. Homosocial desire social bonds underscored by an erotic thrust—is a significant narrative attribute in the majority of 1930s mad doctor movies.-(Between Men: Sedgwick)

ARE WE NOT MEN?: Erle C. Kentons’ Isle of Lost Souls (1932) adapted from H.G. Wells’ THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is dumped on a secluded island, where he encounters the grandiose Dr. Moreau. (Charles Laughton) who with his theatrical stage presence, astutely brings to life, the cinematic existence of a singularly remarkable character. He expresses Moreau’s intrinsic nature of megalomania which oozes from his unsoiled wrinkled linen suit and his harsh little mustache atop his vaguely sadistic smile. Moreau wields a whip that he uses to subdue the locals, yet he asserts his power with a ‘queer’ melding of languorous movement, dewy tone, and vane dynamism. Parker is introduced to the sensual Lota (Kathleen Burke), but what he doesn’t know as yet, is that she is Moreau’s most ideal creation, and the only woman on the island. Parker at this point is unaware that Moreau is a maniacal geneticist, whose work is a violation of nature. There is also the suggestion of bestiality and interspecies mating.

Moreau, “Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?”

Moreau’s subversive defiance of the laws of nature throws Parker and Lota together in order to see if she has “a woman’s emotional impulses.” He watches them, as a voyeur, studying her sexual responses with a profane exhilaration. But there is the possibility that the object of his gaze is actually Parker and not the subject of his exotic female work of art, ‘the panther woman.’

Moreau devilishly, “Did you see that, Montgomery? She was tender like a woman. Oh, how that little scene spurs the scientific imagination onward.”

Moreau, wants Parker to stay on the island with him. He uses Lota as an enticement to keep the young man close. The character of Moreau also offers up cues and gestures of an impish, effete-coded homosexual, who does not exhibit any physical longing for his creation, she is merely part of his scientific curiosity. She is also, reminiscent of the monsters created by Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius who also played with the evolution of men conquering nature and giving birth without the sexual consummation with women.

Erle C Kenton’s film Island of Lost Souls utilizes a female-coded monster, (she is not a woman born of natural means), to disguise the mad doctor’s desire for men. Although more direct in its depiction of male victimization, the film uses female fear as a mask for male desire. In an interesting historical coincidence, H. G. Wells both acknowledges and disavows his novel’s relationship to homosexuality in the preface to his collected works. He notes that Oscar Wilde’s trial for homosexuality which took place in 1895 the same year Moreau was published, had an impact on the author.

As a case study in the censorship of the horror film, the fate of Island of Lost Souls well illustrates the contrast between the laxness of Pre-Code regulation and the rigor of Breen Office monitoring. In 1932, Jason Joyof the Studio Relations Committee alerted Paramount chief B. P. Schulberg to the danger of ‘injecting the idead of crossing animals with humans’ and warned that the project ‘should be abandoned , for I am sure you would never be allowed to suggest that sort of thing on screen.’ Schulberg knew the threat was toothless and the studio went ahead as planned with the experiment in horror. In 1935, under the Production Code Administration, Paramount applied for a Code seal in order to reissue the film. Joseph Breen flatly rejected the appeal. in 1941 an extensively reedited Island of Lost Souls finally passed muster after complying with Breen’s demands to “eliminate from the picture the suggestion that Moreau considers himself on par with God as creator, and reduce him to the status of a scientist conducting bio-anthropological experiments: remove any suggestion that Moreau attempts to mate the beast girl with a human being and remove any suggestion that he encourages the mating of a beast man with a human being.” -Thomas Doherty: Pre-Code Hollywood, Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934



Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Directed by James Whale Shown: Ernest Thesiger

The Old Dark House (1932)Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm & Dr. Pretorius in the Bride of Frankenstein

The Old Dark House is based on writer J.B. Priestly’s novel. James Whale brought to the screen some of the most beloved and iconic figures during the reign of classical Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s. Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Invisible Man (1933). And he knew how to populate his films with the most superb actors who have eternally owned their roles. Like many films in Whale’s collection of horror films, (he is not quite credited for other films he directed outside the genre), they all possess a level of ‘queerness’. Whale celebrates shattering the myth of traditional masculinity, and chooses actors who can straddle both heteronormativity and sexual ambiguity.

Whale himself gay, imbued his films with an intuitively queer eye, a lens sharply focused on the ‘outsider’ trope. His films are dark comedies, with a deviant satire that created unique horror that was both chilling and humorous simultaneously. The Old Dark House is a perverse tale about five strangers thrown together one ominous night when they are forced off the road by an avalanche and a raging storm that sends them to seek refuge in an isolated mansion. This film has become a subgenre of horror films, centered around the ‘old dark house’ mystery. In 1927 the silent horror The Cat and the Canary directed by Paul Leni, started the trend, but the remake wasn’t filmed until 1937, and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) directed by Jean Epstein. Whales The Old Dark House (1932) is an atmospheric, gloomy tale of terror, pandemonium, and madness.

Thesiger as Horace Femm, a spectral raptor dressed in black with an air of the reaper about him.

James Whale had a stroke of genius in casting his brilliant friend, British actor Ernest Thesiger, whose love of needlepoint and flamboyant style, ushered in an edgy mouthful of campy humor to the picture. In all of Thesiger’s work, he is manifestly effeminate. Thesiger brought to life one of the most memorable classical horror figures as one of the siblings, Horace Femm, “Have a Potato.” This line is one of my favorite quotes, partly because of Thesiger’s delivery. Horace Femm is an affected, sardonic oddball living in isolation with the rest of his deranged family of outrageous and grotesque characters. The Femm’s have secrets to hide. Whale is so adept at injecting his films with sexual deviance, suggested queer coding, an unquestionable delineation of androgyny and perversity. The Old Dark House, uses a telling surname Femm, which reflects Whale’s gender play. When we first meet Thesiger as Horace Femm, he ascends the staircase like Norma Desmond, and introduces himself, “My name is Femm. Horace Femm.”

The effete Colin Clive accomplished actor from the London stage was cast by Whale, to play the role of Henry Frankenstein, in Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Owen Gleiberman refers to him as “seethingly neurotic” and Leonard Wolf attributes this to him – “whiny Performance.” Clive brings the same effeteness to his role as his Orlac the pianist who loses his hands in Karl Freund’s Mad Love, another character with ambiguous sexuality.

As Stephen Bourne points out in his book Brief Encounters, Femm may appear as the ‘asexual sissy comic stereotype of gay men’ in that time period of filmmaking, there is something rather ominous and cruel about Femm’s personality. As shown when he tells the uninvited guests how his sister is in the middle of arranging a certain bouquet of flowers then tosses them into the fire. Picking up a bunch of flowers- “My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers.” He tosses them into the fire.

“It’s unquestionably Thesiger’s best role, and I’m not forgetting his colourful Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. There’s just the right mixture of fear, pride potential insanity and mordant sense of humour. While the camerawork and specific angles stress his thin, bird-like body and features as he walks into the camera, his contempt for the characters surrounding him seems to extend to the film crew and theatre audience as well!… However, none of his marvelous lines match the combination of contempt, miserliness and distrust that he manages to inject into the simple line, “Have a potato”, as he hosts his uninvited guests to a singularly frugal meal.” Stephen Bourne Brief Encounters: Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema

The Old Dark House (1932) Directed by James Whale Shown from left: Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger

During this night filled with terror and manic vivacity, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) is calm and unfazed by all the erratic goings on, a silly and strange nightmare the five share with the quirky Femms surrounding them. Penderal strikes up a romance with Gladys (Lillian Bond) while he shares witty dialogue with Horace, which is loaded with queer-coded innuendo. At one point Femm toasts Penderal with gin, celebrating ‘illusion’, with his arrogant air he slips it past Penerel thinking it will go over his head. But Penderal catches the in-joke and responds by saying he is, “precisely the right age for that toast.” The use of ‘illusion’ symbolizes that both men are pretending to be something they are not. Horace-“It’s only gin, you know. Only gin. I like gin.”

At the conclusion, Horace Femm waves goodbye at the door as the travelers exit their outlandishly weird night with the Femms. Thesiger as Femm waving “Goodbye” haughtily exclaims, … So happy to have met you.”

James Whale and his queer luminary close the film with delicious flare.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN-To a new world of gods and monsters!

in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein Whale directs the best of the three series of the iconic Frankenstein trilogy. Thesiger has a very pronounced role as Dr. Septimus Pretorius, who seduces the reluctant yet passionately curious Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) into going back to his laboratory and revisiting his aspirations. To resurrect life from the dead, to create a mate for his monster. Ernest Thesiger’s performance as the flamboyantly droll Pretorious, with his tongue-in-cheek campy temperament, is undeniably one of the queerest characters in the mid-30s even after the Code was enforced. Any reference to deviant sexuality was explicitly banned from scripts and the end product, but Whale prevailed in screening his ‘queer’ aesthetic. Pretorius’ menacing ‘odd’ personality, is acknowledged by the maid Una O’Connor- “He’s a very queer-looking old gentleman, sire…”

Ironically, it’s the monster, who becomes the hero of the narrative, people identified with him, as the more ‘normal’ rather than the supposed perverse protagonist of the film.

As Benshoff writes in Monsters in the Closet, “Many eschewed the ‘normal’ couple all together and instead focused solely on their queer protagonists, suggesting, as will the horror films of later decades, that it is the monster queer whom the audience really comes to see and identify with, and not the heterosexual heroes and heroines.”

The latter examples disguise the horrors of homoeroticism and male to male homosocial rapports behind a female coded body, behind a monstrous woman. That body however is not so much a corrective to male bonding as a vehicle for its expression.-Benshoff

These films… shift the terms of human interaction from heterosexual intercourse to scientific and homoerotic discourse.Even those films centered on female monsters, such as Island of Lost souls 1933 and Bride of Frankenstein 1935 are built on relationships between men. Their transgressions are hidden behind the central focus which is the heroine. THE INTERPRETATIONS OF SCREAMS: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN- Rhona Berenstein

The male transgressions of conventional gender roles are let loose upon the screen and disguise the homo-eroticism of the mad scientist and the homosocial transgressions, are hidden behind the heroine who appears to be the one who suffers.

Dr. Petorious makes Elizabeth’s (Valeria Hobson) world become a nightmare, and he invades her and Henry’s bedroom, a monstrous competitor for Henry’s (Colin Clive) affections. In this way, heterosexuality is under threat by the queer monster. Though Henry and Elizabeth appear to perform heteronormatively, he is only truly fulfilled when he is ‘constructing’ men. Bride of Frankenstein has been considered a blatant narrative of forbidden ‘queer’ desire. Henry’s masculinity and heterosexuality are challenged by unrestrained latent homosexuality, while he immerses himself in homosocial behavior which takes on the form of Henry’s monster.

Bride of Frankenstein has been dubbed a gay parable created under the new watchful eye of the Hays Code constraining Hollywood’s creative output and content. And Ernest Thesiger with his flamboyant style brought an obvious element of the macabre queen. Whales had full control over his script writing to the end and Thesiger had the go-ahead to act out as much as he desired. In The Old Dark House, as Richard Barrios called him in his informative book Screened Out, he was an “emaciated neurotic priss.”

David Skal writes in his book The Monster Show that 19th-century literature by Shelley, and many including myself agree that her iconic novel is a feminist work and that Frankenstein delved into a feminist subtext. He states, “The old horror films do have a certain resonance for gay people… Monster movies are about sexual repression, among other things. And homosexuality is one form of sexuality that has traditionally been repressed.”

There’s also much discussion as to whether the director injected a gay sensibility into his work because he was an openly gay man, or if it was an unselfconscious product of his creative vision. The only thing that can we can surmise for sure is that his limited genre of classical horror definitely celebrated flair for camp. Whale was mistakenly pigeonholed as a master of classical horror pictures, when in fact he was quite versatile and though his significant contribution to horror is evident in the few unforgettable films he’s recognized for, Whale was quite prolific and worked for years in various other genres.

“Most film critics and Whale’s contemporaries focus on the aura-centered intentional gay reading to either dismiss a homosexual interpretation as a revisionist view of the film that wants a movie shot in 1935 to transmit moral values or they clearly state that it was impossible for such a sophisticated” director as James Whale not to be aware of all the film’s evidence of a gay sensibility” -Sequart Organization -A homosexual reading of James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein.

Christopher Bram notes that British actor Thesiger is the ‘centerpiece” playing Dr. Pretorious is clearly an old queen. When Henry Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) wife Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) walks in and intrudes on them, Pretorious puts his nose up in the air and “he turns away” from the heterosexual couple.

Pretorious does interrupt the evening of Frankenstein’s wedding night when he asks Henry to come and create life again. Which invades Henry’s chance to consummate his marriage. Valerie Hobson is left by herself while the two men go off together. Pretorious intercedes in Elizabeth’s need to bare Henry’s child as Pretorius has ‘nurtured’ Henry’s ability to create life with him instead. “Stifling the female’s necessity inherent in the process.” Skal says “There is an overriding fantasy of male male procreation”

David Skal says of the bitchy and aging homosexual – by seducing Frankenstein he acts as if he were a gay ‘Mephistopheles’“He also acts as the voice against society and religion. In some way, he stands for a homosexual pride that in some cases converts into arrogance.”

Pretorius’ arrogant perspective, “if we’d all be better off being devils, and no-nonsense about angels”, mocks morality and heralds queerness as the ultimate choice and his manner of superiority condescends about life and women in particular. For example, as he opens the coffin, “Pretty little thing…” and “I hope her bones are firm.”

The black humor and social commentary of Whale’s parable whether you read it with a gay subtext or not, one thing is certain, all heterosexual relationships are doomed, even the monster and his bride.

If we look at the film as a metaphor for queer persecution, then look at the monster as an iconic gay figure who is being chased by an angry mob with torches, because they cannot comprehend what this thing is. He is different, like gay people and it frightens them.

MARTIN KOSLECK – The Nazi Monster

Kosleck in his time, played characters who were often linked to the Nazi threat. There was a period of time in Hollywood during and post WWII when Nazis and homosexuals were fused visions of dangerous, degenerate influences. Kosleck portrayed Luftwaffe Maj. von Streicherplayed in Bomber’s Moon (1943) and Joseph Goebbels in The Hitler Gang (1944) and in Hitler (1962)

Martin Kosleck plays sculptor Marcel de Lange, in House of Horrors (1946) where there is an explicit comparison between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Coded into his artistic style is a contrast between the normal male artist who paints recognizable art, while Kosleck has a distorted vision of his subjects. He creates modernist representations of masculinity by sculpting his brutish friend’s features.

Virginia Grey and Martin Kosleck in House of Horrors (1946)

Kosleck and Hatton in House of Horrors (1946)

Rondo Hatton and Virginia Grey in House of Horrors (1946) Stars Martin Kosleck who objectifies and exploits Hatton for his murderous purposes.

In House of Horrors, 1946 Kosleck is a fey, cat-loving artist living in Greenwich Village who submerges himself into a clandestine relationship with a ‘grotesquely’ deformed murderer, whom he fishes out of the river after escaping from the police. Rondo Hatton (in real life suffered from acromegaly) The Creeper as he is called, is responsible for a series of strangulations. Kosleck takes him into his artist’s studio and hides him. After Marcel is rejected by the art establishment, he sends The Creeper out to take revenge on those who snubbed him.

Martin Kosleck in Hitler (1962)

Kosleck and Elena Verdugo in The Frozen Ghost: all photos above

Martin Kosleck’s roles all seemed to be tinged by the depiction of Nazis or ‘outsiders’ with a ‘queer’ aura. He appeared in The Mad Doctor 1940, The Mummy’s Curse 1944 with Lon Chaney Jr. and Virginia Christine, The Spider 1945, and The Frozen Ghost 1946 with Lon Chaney Jr. In The Flesh Eater 1964, he plays Professor Peter Bartell, who through flashback is shown as a Nazi who weaponizes an insidious organism. And in 1966, Kosleck appeared in Agent for H.A.R.M.

His onscreen persona was always slightly effeminate and his German accent either suggested a lurking evil, or a sexual perversion, attributed to coded homosexual traits.

Another classic horror film that dealt with Nazis is King of the Zombies (1941). A film that does an interesting job of linking Nazis and ‘queer’ monsters, is Return of the Vampire (1943) starring Bela Lugosi as vampire Armand Tesla, who is directly connected to the threat of Nazism during WWII. And a subversive 60s trashy Nazi horror film starring Dana Andrews as a Nazi scientist, The Frozen Dead (1966).


Roger Corman“The keynote of his art lies, I believe, in his uncanny ability to embody and project the effects of mental aberration. He is rightly noted for his speaking voice and suave, polished presence through which he can convey eerie gradations of a sinister motivating force.”

Queers started to appear with more frequency in Gothic melodrama and film noir, as egomaniacal fops, sexual deviants, and murderers. The presence of Vincent Price on screen makes one think of ‘grandiose’, refinement, and at times, ‘camp’. But Price took all these acting projects deadly serious, though he was known to joke around once the shoot was finished, he had a wonderful sense of humor. And there is nothing short of Shakespearean, and over-the-top hysteria in his acting style, especially in the earlier Corman/Poe configurations, House of Usher, The Tomb of Ligeia, Masque of the Red Death, and The Pit and The Pendulum. And while his characters were tragic figures who longed after women, there was still a sense of homo-erotic angsty androgyny in his manner of suffering. As he got further into his collaborations with Corman and in 70s horror films, his art of camp became dialed up to a whole new level, in both The Abominable Dr. Phibes 1971, Cry of the Banshee 1970 and Theater of Death 1973.

During the 1940s Price’s slightly effeminate presence and mellifluous voice often coded him as queer, in his radio performance and his films like The Invisible Man Returns 1940 The House of the Seven Gables 1940, Laura 1944, Shock 1946, Dragonwyck 1946 and The Mad Magician (1954)

Vincent Price Shock (1948)

Price as Rodrick Usher in Corman’s House of Usher (1960)

Later on, he would appear in The Mad Magician 1954, Corman’s Poe Gothic pageantry pieces, and his more flaming incarnations, Lionheart in Theater of Blood and flamboyant Dr. Phibes. He was urbane and enigmatic, harboring a secret life and a queer divergence from masculinity. Price’s rather “schmaltzy versions of high-toned sissy types. (Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, gay critic Parker Tyler.) Price’s daughter Victoria has confirmed that her father had had relationships with men in his life, and considered himself bisexual. He was very active in gay rights and one of the first celebrities to publically talk about the AIDS crisis.

…One raise of his eyebrow and you knew you were about to be thrilled by a debonair, evil, yet sympathetic villain…I can’t imagine these films without Vincent Price in them. He was just a fine actor, never pretentious. The audiences that went to see him were all-inclusive, from the poorest people to the richest. Nobody disliked him. Vincent Price was classless even though he was classy, an exaggerated gentleman. He gave upscale a good name, and he was always handsome, dignified, charming, and a little bit sinister... TCM Star of the Month

Yet it is a tendency reiterated throughout the horror films of Vincent Price that his characters reamin childless; outside of the Poe series….{…} Why there are no more children present is never definietly stated, but the emphasis is on an alternative sexuality, such as sadomasochism. Jonathan Malcom Lampley’s Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price, suggests that Price’s characters do not practice conventional sex. And the only gaze he has of the women in these stories is his vision of his ‘ideal’, but his desire, cannot not be consummated. “The absence of children suggest the ‘queer’ nature of Price’s characters, either in the sexual sense or in the broader sense of being and ‘unsuccesful’ heterosexual male.” (Lampley)

Vincent Price as the flamboyant, and campy Edward Lionheart and Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Price as Nicholas Medina in Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Vincent Price as the evil Prince Prospero in Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Another type cast villain in non-monster horror films was Laird Cregar, a nuanced effeminate and always playing the ‘heavy.’

“I realized that I would have to find my own parts. I am, after all a grotesque. That is, an actor who doesn’t fit readily into parts. I needed special parts. I am too big, too tall, too heavy. I don’t look like an actor. If I wanted to act, I would have to find plays I could act.” -Laird Cregar.


Laird Cregar had come to Hollywood’s attention after starring in a local stage production of Oscar Wilde. And was by most accounts a troubled homosexual himself. Most of his short career between 1940 and 1945 were roles that demonstrated menacing dark souls. He was bulky in frame yet effeminate and polished.

A man who yearned for leading man stardom yet realized that his physical presence and personal life would probably never allow such a thing. Not wanting to play the fiend once again, he railed against being cast in Hangover Square but was put on suspension by Zanuck. Cregar dieted so drastically that he wound up in the hospital, suffering from a weakened heart and two attacks. He passed away at the age of thirty-one always longing to be known as a beautiful leading man and tragically he never saw the release of Hangover Square, and we’ll never know what other astounding performances he had in him.

Hangover Square 1945 takes place in the early 1900s London. Linda Darnell plays long-legged chanteuse, Netta, who sings coquettishly in a seedy music hall, for drunken men. Netta is ambitious and uses her seductive influence to persuade unstable composer George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) to lift her out of the seedy environment where she performs, by being his muse.

In the tagline it reads Terror… in the depths of strange emotion. Bone is writing a piano concerto and suffers from blackouts, during that time, horrible murders are committed — Netta manipulates Bone to write songs for her, and he mistakenly interprets her predatory attentions as romantic.

Even actors like Laird Cregar who possessed an imposing frame, at times projected a gay aesthetic. And though he threw often, an air of solitary superiority he was also emotionally breakable. For instance, in Hangover Square (1945) there is a queerness to George Harvey Bone. His obsession with Linda Darnell, the beautiful dance hall girl, is peculiar. He aestheticizes Netta in a non-heteronormative way.

One of his first screen roles is the flamboyant bullfighting aficionado Curro in Blood and Sand 1941, “a gay iguana, gaudy in his sunbonnet” who has a barely concealed sexual response to Tyrone Power’s studly matador.

When Tyrone Power triumphs in the bull ring, Curro shouts wildly, “I tell you he is the greatest of the great! The first man of the world!”

He also plays a Nazi in Joan of Paris 1942 and a nefarious fifth columnist ‘heavy’ in This Gun for Hire 1942. Cregar even portrayed the Devil himself in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait 1943. He had also been considered for Vincent Price’s role in Dragonwyck, and the role of Waldo Lydecker in Laura 1944, another famous queer movie murderer of the era.

In films such as The Lodger 1944, Hangover Square 1944 and I Wake Up Screaming 1941, Laird Cregar played “sexual psychopaths”, human monsters that predate the sexually confused killers of the 1980s slasher film. In I Wake Up Screaming, for example, Cregar’s corrupt police inspector is called a “ghoul” by the film’s heroine and the mise-en-scene continually figures him (ironically) as “a gay dog” (Benshoff) The Lodger based on the history of Jack the Ripper, also barely conceals a homosexual subtext: Cregar’s psychopath waxes rhapsodically over a portrait of his dead brother, calling it “something more beautiful than a beautiful woman.”

In I Wake Up Screaming (1941) a gripping noir entry was directed by Bruce Humberstone. Creger play Inspector Ed Cornell a sexual psychopath who murders Carole Landis, a model named Vicky Lynn because he is jealous. He then tries to frame the murderer of sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature). The noir staple, the mechanism of the flashback is employed for Frankie to tell his story to the cops who are interrogating him. Frankie met Vicky while she was a waitress, but the smooth operator that Frankie is decides to exploit Vicky’s beauty and glamourize her by introducing her to high society. His scheme works and she is on her way to Hollywood, leaving him behind when she is murdered. Someone snuffs out her beauty for good. Frankie senses that Cornell is trying to frame the murder on him, and winds up getting help from Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable).

Cornell, is yet another noir fantastist who aesthetizes the object of his desire, all the time struggling with his ambiguous sexuality. Creger is enigmatic when he hides within the dark, like a latent print waiting to be lifted. He menacingly pursues Vicky while she’s still a waitress, thwarted by her disinterest in his, he is left an impotent ‘queer’ brand of psychopath who must kill the thing that forces him to face his true desires.

Karen Burrough Hansberry writes in her extremely revealing piece about Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) on her blog shadowsandsatin Fifteen Things you may or may not know about Laura. “According to Vincent Price, Mamoulian told him that Laird Cregar would probably get the role of Waldo Lydecker, but that decision was overruled by Otto Preminger, who’d seen Clifton Webb in a Noel Coward play in Los Angeles. “Laird was personally devastated,” Price said, “and that rejection began a downward personal spiral. Cregar died about a month after Laura was released. Vincent Price delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

Jill Lynn (Betty Grable): “What’s the good of living without hope?”
Ed Cornell (Cregar): “It can be done”

Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature): “You’re a gay dog, Cornell. You make me feel as if I’m driving a hearse!”
Ed Cornell (Cregar): “Oh, I know your type. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t scare you enough to make you commit suicide, but I worry you just the same. And when the day comes they all act different. Some scream, a few faint, some light a cigarette and try a wisecrack. But it sticks in their throats – especially when they’re hung.”

As a threatening presence, was Laird Cregar. His huge bulk overflowed screens too small to hold him in such tales as I Wake Up Screaming (first released in Britain as Hot Spot) This Gun For Hire, The Lodger, in which he played Jack the Ripper, and Hangover Square. Cregar never had a chance to capitalized on his threatening yet soft-voiced and delicately poised presence. Dieting drastically for a role, he died from a heart attack in 1944 at the age of 28.-From Bruce Crowther Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror-


Dracula’s Daughter (1936) directed by Lambert Hillyer is perhaps one of the first horror films with an implicit lesbian subtext. Gloria Holden is the embodiment of perversity, the direct descendant of the original Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Bela Lugosi). On a superficial plain, Dracula’s Daughter is the story of the heterosexual longing of a hapless soul (Gloria Holden) Countess Marya Zaleska, who seeks to exorcise the unnatural desires that have held her captive. Zaleska finds herself drawn to London’s leading psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) who tries to cure her of her foul malady. Countess Zaleska is a pure example of the monstrous feminine, the metaphor that women’s primacy is something to be feared. As Gary Morris refers to Zaleska’s embodiment as a ‘soulless predatory’ and ‘transgressive lesbian power.’

It is pretty explicit, Zaleska’s prowling at night, her thirst for young girls, who succumb to her mesmerizing jeweled ring as phallus. Zaleska possesses the power to hypnotize her victims with her radiant eyes. There is a remote quality to Zaleska, as she wears very androgynous clothes, and appears rather butch chic as she wields her lustful, unnatural power to entrance her female sacrifices. She brings them back to her art studio (a place of decadence) and devours their blood, their life force. The film places her urges on the spectrum as nearly bisexual, as Zaleska triangulates her desire through the ‘heterosexual normality’ of Garth and Janet.

But clearly with the film’s implied lesbianism, she is drawn to beautiful girls, like the diaphanous Lili, who was about to jump off the bridge, The Countess Zaleska delivers Lili from death, only to drain her body of life soon after.

Producer E.M.Asher asserted in his notes, that the questionable sequence with Lili will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya Zaleska or a sexual attack on the young girl. During the sequence, Zaleska asks Lili if she’ll mind ‘taking off your blouse?’ in order for her to do a sketch of her head and shoulders. This was a time in Hollywood when censorship was alert to conflating horror with sex, films must be acceptable to the PCA. The first draft of the film had a heterosexual context, but the final picture revealed itself with lesbian connotations. The Production Code rejected different versions of the script, “very objectionable mixture of sex and horror.” Once the final version of the script was approved, the Breen office insisted that the seduction scene with Zaleska and Lily, “need very careful handling to avoid any questionable flavor…”

Zaleska fights to repress her libidinous, “horrible impulses.” She seeks help from London psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger) and implores him to analyze the source of her compulsion, her “vampirism.” She wants him to utilize the trend of psychoanalysis burgeoning at the time, to cure her ‘otherness’, and ‘coded’ lesbian desire.

Marya Zaleska appeals to Dr. Jeffrey Garth to cure her of her malady. Without revealing her true identity to him until the film’s conclusion she describes her symptoms in veiled terms. Disheartened by Garth’s prognosis and ineffective cure- she is supposed to dig out the evil to which she is most drawn and overcome her desire for it—

Although Zaleska is a ‘queer’ villain, because of her desperation to free herself from her dark drives, we are led in a merciful direction toward her struggle. As the ‘monstrous feminine’ she is oddly transformed into a sympathetic figure with 1930s censorship demanding that she try to atone for her desires.. She herself must drive out her unhealthy sexual desires.

Garth’s misogyny is blaring and he becomes the heterosexual rescuer who will liberate her from her ‘monstrous feminine’ desires, both lesbian and vampiric. The fallen Countess Zaleska, finds that she cannot separate herself from her profane fixation of drinking blood.

She is strangely attracted to Garth and he too, projects a curious sexual gaze centered on her. But Countess Zaleska can never consummate her desire for him, because of their inherent difference. To me, it appears as misinterpreted hero-worship, and the male savior archetype recognized in the plot to appease the censors.

Kruger as Garth doesn’t seem to exude an ounce of enthusiasm in his role as Doctor Garth, so it’s hard to imagine him as the hero/savior of the film. The triangulation of this horror story is between Zaleska, Garth, and his perceptive secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill.) The critics were not clueless about the outer appearance of a heterosexual narrative. In Dracula’s Daughter the schism of ‘normalcy’ and profane appetites, doesn’t represent heterosexuality with a very luring appeal, considering Garth and Janet’s relationship is rather based more on friction and provocation, than genuine affection.

Dracula’s Daughter suggests that it is the first depiction of lesbianism, and the PCA could not curtail that taboo subject. There are two sequences where the subtext of lesbianism emerges from the undertow. First is the scene where Zaleska descends upon the doomed Lili and the final scene where she abducts Garth’s secretary, she threatens to seduce Janet and hovers over Janet salaciously, seductively, while Janetl lies unconscious, and vulnerable on the bed, until the final moments of the film, when Zaleska is killed by her own loyal servant Sandor ( Irving Pichel.)

Both scenes are the most representative of Zaleska’s lesbian desires. The PCA, under Breen’s watchful eye, still failed to remove the implications of lesbianism and the perverse nuances of Dracula’s Daughter.

Considering that conventional monsters theoretically cannot be seen as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual as they are unnatural beings and not human, then reading Zaleska’s transgressions, in the construct of human sexuality does not completely fit the framework of ‘natural’ desire. So the pattern of sexual orientation traverses boundaries, transforms and conflates eroticism and peril, sex and death and sexual identity becomes shadowy and dubiously recognizable.

Classic horror may suggest the prevailing interpretations of sexuality, but the horror genre integrates and distorts conventional notions of human desire with themes of deviance and perversion. In post-Code, Hollywood Zaleska is portrayed as a fragile woman, whose powers of seduction must be thwarted by the end of the picture.

With the presence of Van Helsing, who tries to shed light on vampirism, the narrative is still shifted from the Gothic setting of Eastern Europe to the modern setting in London, where folklore doesn’t factor in, but that era’s craze for psychiatry which plays a larger role in combating Zaleska’s unnatural urges. Garth seeks to cure her through psychiatric methods, to transfer her obsessive impulses for drinking blood, to succumb to patriarchal control.“Like any disease of the mind, it can be cured… through sympathetic treatment.” This means denying your unnatural cravings and relying on your own willpower. Garth tells her, “Meet it {and} fight it”. In order to be free of it, The love that dares not speak its name.

In Dracula’s Daughter, Zaleska’s instinctive sexual desires are integrated with supernatural providence. The Countess herself understands the nature of her desire, “Perhaps there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt about in your psychiatry Dr. Garth.”

Several decades before the lesbian-vampire sagas of erotic pageantry, the horror films from Hammer in the 1970s, Dracula’s Daughter, centered on a sympathetic character, desperate to exorcise her demons, To purge the feverish lust driven by her vampirism which has entrapped her, to roam the night seeking and seducing her victims of both genders. All Zaleska wants is to be free of her malady and live as other ‘normal’ women do.

THE CANNY LESBIAN: “the ghostly presence of lesbianism in classical Hollywood cinema” by Patricia White

Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963)

“at first glance disconcerting alliance between horror and lesbianism that The Haunting exploits so effectively can be traced through the evolution of classical Hollywood cinematic genres in response to problems of representability.” (Patricia White)

Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) was adapted to the screen from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. The lesbian subtext of the story is unique in the way it treats its lesbian character Theodora (Theo). She is not predatory, a deviant, or a dangerous sapphic, looking to undermine the men or seduce Eleanor, who she obviously feels affection for. Theo is one of the central figures of the plot, she is a powerful psychic and not merely a sideline, shoved into the haunted shadows of Hill House. Theo is not even at the cold deadly root of the menacing house, even though she is a coded lesbian.

The Haunting is notable for the way it represents a lesbian who is not damaged or doomed. She is the least objectionable of sapphic stereotypes (White) — Theo is sophisticated, and elegant and her clothes are designed by Mary Quant and her vogue hairstyle is outre chic.

And though It is Theodora (Claire Bloom) with her Mary Quant wardrobe and hand on hip, is the implied lesbian, the story centers around the hapless Eleanor, whose sexuality is vague.

To clearly look at The Haunting both female leads, Theo and Eleanor Lance are ‘touched by the supernatural.’ As implied deviant women, they are summoned to observe and contribute their special knowledge of the power that exists in the alternative reality of an old New England estate. They join their host Dr. Markway anthropologist /ghost hunter and Luke the skeptic, who plans on inheriting Hill House one day.

Eleanor and Theo were invited by Markway in the hopes “that the very presence of people like yourselves will help to stimulate the strange forces at work here.”

Dr. Markway ( Richard Johnson ) is an anthropologist with a fascination with parapsychology. He invites several people to participate in an investigation into the allegedly haunted New England estate Hill House, (it was filmed on location in England). Markway informs both Theo and Eleanor that the others, “like themselves… who have had paranormal experiences.”

Theodora is asked to join the group because of her amazing psychic abilities (ESP). Eleanor is invited because at one time she had a brush with the paranormal when stones rained down upon her house without any explanation. And Luke, acting as a counterbalance to the mysterious, is the skeptic who is in line to inherit Hill House and is attending the experiment strictly as a financial investment.

Hill House works as a metaphor for women being as unknowable as the spaces of an ambiguous landscape. The house represents the impenetrable subconscious of women. The labyrinthine expanses of Hill House, the distorted angles as a whole, offer Eleanor a chance to find herself and uncover her true desires. Perhaps it could be read that she learned what Theo termed, knowing what she really wants, and lost herself in the revelation. The veracity of the prevailing theory of feminist scholar’s is that Eleanor discovered her own latent tendencies, the house is the key, she herself was a haunted woman and this destroys her. The Haunting forestalls the heroine’s “entry into a closed space”, and reveals the story of deviant female intuition, and the struggle of her returning home. In her eerie voiceover, “Now I know where I am going. I am disappearing inch by inch into this house.”

The “haunting” of Hill House shifts between homosexuality and homophobia. As a ghost film dramatizes not only the woman’s “deficiency in relation to vision” (as Doane characterizes the female gaze) but a deficiency in relation to visibility or visualization.” (White)

The Haunting recognized as a terrifying, classic ‘ghost story’ is intriguing because we never see the source of what frightens us, yet we are aware of the hints at the ‘coded lesbianism’. There is, “something else” the traditional meaning of lesbians in fantasy/horror cinema, like the “haunting,” remains unseen.

And if Eleanor’s trajectory as heroine and spinster assimilate these two variants, Theo simply grows up-and lives to tell the terrors of Hill House. Theo we might recall the model of spectatorship she offers in the film. Telepathy to lesbians and gay men as actual readers and viewers has always been an alternative to our own mode of paranoiac spectatorship. “Is it really there” The experience of this second sight involves the identification of and with Theo as a Lesbian. (White)

The Haunting is “not a film about lesbians” The deniability posed by mainstream producers of queer-themed films as Vito Russo writes in his seminal The Celluloid Closet ‘pretends to be about something else.’

At one point Markway says, “Don’t ask me to give a name to something which hasn’t got a name”— he refuses to acknowledge or it is a denial of “The love that dares not speak its name.” Instead of categorizing the phenomena as an undisguised haunting, he prefers to describe the house as ‘sick’, diseased’ and deranged’ which is a metaphor for queering Hill House.

From the very beginning, Theo senses the presence of the dark forces of Hill House, Theo clutches herself and cries out, “It wants you, Nell.”

Once the group is all together Eleanor makes a toast “I’d like to drink to companions”, the two women are in the frame together, and as Theo raises her glass, lustful and wily she answers, “to my new companion”. Eleanor breaks the suggestion of Theo’s seduction and informs her “Except I don’t drink.” The visualization of frustrated desire between the two women, is displaced from sexual persuasion and focused once again on the haunting. The first time Theo and Eleanor are visited by the dark forces of Hill House, it brings the two women together in an intimate space, clutching each other. The cinematic framework that separates them now brings the women sleeping in beds pushed together.

In some critical reviews theories, the night of knocking can be seen as a seduction scene with the manifestation separating the men from the two women. (White)

When Eleanor looks up at the turret and suddenly is struck with a feeling of falling, Markway catches hold of her, a male rescuer. After that, she begins to see Theo as a threat. The very forcefulness of this defense supports a reading of the night of knocking as a seduction scene. (White)

After the ghostly battering ram smashes at the bedroom door, Dr. Markway tells Theo and Eleanor to move in together. Eleanor wakes up to uncanny voices and a child crying, then screaming. She grips Theo’s hand tightly. When the frozen moment of fear is broken, Eleanor manages to throw the room into a light, and the camera sweeps over to Theo, giving the impression that she is at the other end of a tunnel as far away from Eleanor as possible. Emphasizing that it wasn’t her hand that Eleanor was holding. Eleanor cringes, “Whose hand was I holding?” and then a shudder of terror.

Robert Wise’s direction and cinematographer Davis Boulting, create an atmosphere of obstruction and detachment for the two women, as we are visually struck by the image of Theo’s bed on the other side of the room. Though there is no question that for Eleanor it was a supernatural attack, the emphasis is on the hand-holding and the physical contact that was rendered unattainable by the camera and the haunting.

As spectators, what bursts forward on the screen implicates Eleanor in a lesbian embrace, which conveys the influences of the female forces (the four female ghosts are relevant, linked to Eleanor’s psychological transitions and journey) of Hill House are closing in on her.


The defense against homosexuality is mirrored on the level of the film’s enunciation; where the supernatural events of the second night bring the women together.

“You’re the monster of Hill House” beginning to close in on her. “Life is full of inconsistancies… you for instance.”

Mrs Markway abruptly shows up and breaks the fatalistic spell, between Theo and Eleanor. Markway’s wife who comes to try and persuade her husband to abandon all the ghost nonsense, shatters Eleanor’s illusions of family and identifies herself as wife.

Luke begins to see the underlying dynamic behind Theo’s sexuality and snidely comments, there’s ‘more than meets the eye’ going on at Hill House.

But it is a ghost film, and The Haunting goes beyond the image of death. After Eleanor dies, the final image is properly the house—the grave as a metaphor for a woman’s desires thwarted. Accompanied by Eleanor’s voice-over echoing these words from the opening narration. We who walk here, walk alone.”


The movie is adept in achieving in the spectator what Dorothy Parker on the book jacket calls ‘quiet, cumulative shudders’ spine-tingling representations of the disruptive force of lesbian desire. Through the alliance of horror with lesbianism may leave one uneasy, it should be pointed out that the horror genre has been claimed by film criticism as a ‘progressive one on several grounds. Concerned with the problem of the normal. In “When the Woman Looks” – Linda Williams has noted a potentially empowering affinity between the woman and the monster in classic horror films, without exploring the trope of the monster as lesbian.

The omission of any mention of lesbian desire is all the more striking given her thesis: ‘it is a truism of the horror genre that sexual interest resides most often in the monster and not the bland ostensible heroes’ (Doane, Mellencamp, Williams ) She continues ‘clearly the monster’s powers is one of sexual difference from normal male.’


Doane devotes in the Gothic two chapters entitled ‘Paranoia and the Spectator’ and “Female Spectatorship and Machines of Projection” offering a compelling analysis of the genre. The relevance of homosexuality to the discussion of paranoia and to the content of film gothic returns as the ‘repressed’ of Doane’s argument. Telepathy to lesbians and gay men as historical readers and viewers has always been an alternative to our own mode of paranoia spectatorship “Is it really there?” The experience of this second sight involves the identification of and with Theo as a lesbian. As for The Haunting, a threatening one.

The spectral presence of lesbianism in this genre on the one hand and in feminist theories of spectatorship on the other can be detected in the defense against homosexuality. Which Freud believes characterizes paranoia. The Haunting the most explicit of these films was produced after the Production Code Administration was permitted in 1961 to consider approving “references to sex aberrations” that “are treated with care, discretion and restraint” Lesbianism is manifested in the character of Claire Bloom rather than in a supernatural manifestation. Yet homosexuality like the haunting itself still does its work implicitly behind the scenes. As the paradigmatic ghost film The Haunting foreground lesbianism as a problem of representability. (Patricia White)

Claire Bloom as Theodora the coded slick city-style lesbian who’s afraid of what she wants, and Eleanor in tweed, who doesn’t know what she wants.

Eleanor – “A toast to my new companion” Theo –“Like sisters?”


*Patricia White

*Mary Ann Doane

*Tania Modleski

*Linda Williams

*Vitto Russo

The film The Uninvited (1944) became a cult film for lesbians during WWII…

Only one aspect of the optical effect appears distinctly and massively, and that is heterosexuality . Homosexuality appears like a ghost only dimly and sometimes not at all. (Monique Wittig)

There are a few notable woman’s Gothic horror stories with a lesbian subtext. Hitchcock’s Rebecca a prime example of the genre, it recalls the heroine’s exploration of a dead woman’s secrets. Yet she faces interference from the malevolent figure of the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson.)

The heroines of Rebecca and The Uninvited swing back and forth between Oedipal desires. Mrs Danvers ultimately sets Manderlay on fire reuniting herself with the ghost of her lost love, Rebecca. As Modleski interprets ‘haunts’ her. Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) works her way up to madness, and sends Stella to Windward House snickering, “It’s all straight now.”

The most significant Hollywood ghost stories — Val Lewton/Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People 1944, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited 1944, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ story, The Innocents 1961 and Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963 all are encircled by the uncanny serendipity with spooky coded lesbianism. Under the guise of Gothic family melodrama what lies beneath these storylines is the indulgence of female sexuality that instigates a supernatural or strangeness, that is let loose.

The Uninvited (1944 Directed by Lewis Allen Shown from left: Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey

Of course the best of Hollywood’s lesbian movies are always in some sense “ghost” movies If the apparitional trope characterizes lesbianism’s paradoxical place in modern culture generally as Terry Castle argues in The Apparitional Lesbian, it operates quite palpably in the visual field of the cinema. Feminist theoretical work on female spectatorships and women’s genres has drawn upon theories of the cinematic apparatus to project an image of felinity defined by lack and negativity. Lesbianism is the ghost in the machine, a sign of the body, desire, the other woman.- Patricia White from Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.

The horror genre possesses an inherent challenge to taboos and is ideologically forward-thinking. Horror films circumvent boundaries and are the embodiment of the unorthodox. Feminist scholar Linda Williams notes a potentially empowering affinity between the female victims and the monster in classic horror films, an identification that gives expression to female transgression. Subsequent work by feminist and queer critics has explored the propensity of horror films to encourage identifications across gender lines and explore perverse sexualities.


Violence, Horror and Classic Gothic Themes

The Gothic horror genre endeavors to cause shivers and make the audience feel uneasy, evoking societal taboos, exploiting primal fears that depend on the resolution of the danger, and ultimately providing catharsis.

Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca (1940), is the Gothic story of a common-born insecure, girl (Joan Fontaine) who is thrown into an uncanny world as an aristocrat’s bride, living in the menacing shadows of his first wife, Rebecca. From the moment she arrives at Manderley, she is haunted by the specter of Maxim de Winter’s (Laurence Olivier) first wife Rebecca, a figure who is never visible on screen, much like an unseen ghost. The second Mrs. de Winter while the center of the film does not have a name, is also persecuted and assailed by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. (Dame Judith Anderson.) Mrs. Danvers might have had a lesbian relationship with the first mistress of the house. Both women, the caretaker of Rebecca’s house and the spirit of Rebecca challenge the patriarchal rule, which is why Danvers and the house which represents the sinful Rebecca, must go up in flames at the end. In this way, not only is this a Gothic horror story with a lesbian subtext but it is also a Patriarchal Cautionary tale. Is Mrs. Danvers and the first Mrs. De Winter a manifestation of female rage toward patriarchy? Does this reveal the angry lesbian, anti-men trope?

Hitchcock not only incorporates gay themes in his films but there are elements of shared misogyny where in the end, women must be punished for living outside the boundaries of social acceptance.

Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA 1940 Is a Gothic horror film that displaces heterosexuality, the penalty of which, provokes the narrative to become a part of the romantic women-in-peril genre.

The plot development in Rebecca emphasizes the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and the dead woman, Rebecca. This gives way to the somber tone of tragic lesbian desire and unattainable love that transcends death. The connotations of lesbianism set Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter up as a specter, an invisible threat, though Rebecca, is not a straight ghost story.

The shivers begin. Enter Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper, who orchestrates an undertaking of impassioned hostility for the new Mrs. de Winter. Danvers does not hide her obsession with the beautiful, elusive Rebecca — and caresses the dead woman’s intimate undergarments, regaling the nights when she would help her mistress undress after parties. Danvers faithfully keeps Rebecca’s bedroom as a shrine, the new Mrs. de Winters is unwelcome in their intimate space. One of the most revealing scenes that display Danver’s sapphic ferocity is when she fondles Rebecca’s lingerie and teases her with Rebecca’s fur, taunting the poor timid girl by stroking it against her cheek. Mrs. Danvers remains one of the great coded queer icons of all time.

Rhoda Berenstein concludes in her critique of Modleski on this point— “In order for queer sexual desires to be removed from the domain of heterosexual identification processes Rebecca’s status as a maternal figure must be separated from her role as an object of female sexual desires”. Berenstein points out that Max’s reference to the ‘unspeakable’ nature of Rebecca’s confession to him draws out the connotations of lesbianism. Not the infidelity. Yet the fact that Rebecca is not envisioned may signify more than homophobic negation. Through its inscription in the narrative, perverse desire itself rather than its object is made representable.

Rebecca figures as insistently in feminist film theory as does Rebecca in the second Mrs de Winter’s psyche—and often the reasons why are similarly misrecognized that Rebecca is a lesbian film. — and invisible as such is the condition of its almost uncanny recurrence in a critical discourse that Berenstein whose, “traverses the edge of queerness, but does not call it by its proper name” (Laura Burns-Class, Gender, and Violence: Bringing Unreliable Femme Fatales from Page to Screen in Rebecca)

In Rebecca, the young bride arrives at Manderley and immediately gets a menacing stare from Mrs Danvers, head housekeeper, and unspoken mistress of the estate. This makes the unnamed heroine (Joan Fontaine) uncomfortable and she drops her gloves. Later in the film, one of the most significant scenes, Danvers “Danny” plays head games and holds a sinister hypnotic persuasion, over the young bride. Danvers comes very close to convincing her to leap (from the window of Rebecca’s room) to her death, below.

From Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchock by Leonard J. Leff “Assuming her role, Hitchcock showed Anderson how her eyes should reveal memoreis of dressing and undressing her mistress “I knew I was in the presence of a master”, Anderson concluded. I had utter trust and faith in him.” THough no on mentioned the underlying lesbiansim of the Rebecca-Danvers relataionship, HItchcock senses it. Esme Percy in Murder! (1930) and Peter Lorre as Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934 had appeared as Fey, perhaps homosexual characters in earlier Hitchcock pictures, according to numerous to numerous observers, sexual aberrance intrigued the director. In Rebecca, the attachment of servant to mistress awaited only his “touch.”

But the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, who called her companion “Danny”, skirted the industry’s censorship dictum against “sex perversion or any inference to it” Joseph I Breen admisitered the Motion Picture Association Production Code’s bluenosed guidelines with zest, fainess and when pressed, flexibility, After reading a synopsis of Rebecca long before production started, the Breen office hailed the novel as “a maginficent subject”;with a few minor changes, Breen siad, its “moral values” would not jeoparidzed the sensibilities of American moviegoers. He had accepted with equaninimity Favell and Rebecca’s liason as a necessary story point, and Selznick had reluctantly agreed to change the murder of Rececca to an accidental death. But “Mrs. Danvers’ description of Rebecca’s physicial attributes, her handling of the various garments particularly the night gown, reddened his Irish Catholic cheeks. In the final cut, Breen told Selznick “there must be no suggestion whatever of a perverted relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. If any possible hint of this creeps into this scene, we will of course not be able to approve the picture.

The trailer for The Uninvited announces “The heart clutching dread of a nameless horror.”

Like Rebecca, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1945) possesses a truly supernatural narrative that centers around the ominous presence of a dead woman, but this time, she is a physical apparition, a ghostly manifestation, and not the essence of a memory. One of the similarities between both Gothic films, is the suggestion of lesbian wish fulfillment, Judith Anderson’s Danvers and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Miss Holloway. The various correlation between both movies are clear, both present a threatening influence over the heroines by dead women. There is a parallel between the Danvers/Rebecca and Holloway/Mary’s implied lesbian relationship. Both films have elements of Oedipal impulses, and both are set at the seaside.

In the later film the heroine’s fascination is directly identified as love, rather than being veiled over as some fantasy of persecution. But the condition of this unveiling is that the object of her attraction becomes literally her mother. (Laura Burns)

Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, and Ruth Hussey in The Uninvited 1945

The plot of The Uninvited centers around Rick ( Ray Milland) a composer, and his sister Pamela ( Ruth Hussey) who travel from London and purchase a mansion on the Cornwall coast for a song and dance. They resist the rumors by the locals that Winward House is haunted. Along comes angelic Gail Russell as Stella, whose grandfather Cmdr. Beech (Donald Crisp) sold Rick and Pam the house. Beech is the former owner of Winward House but now lives in the village. They find Stella in a trance standing by the edge of the cliff by the sea, the same spot where Stella’s mother fell to her death when Stella was a just a baby.

Stella is brought to the house to recuperate from her near fall when she has a vision that the ghostly presence of her mother begins to reach out to her in Winward House. There are conflicting energies acting out in the house, where the spirit is at times gentle, but then turns hostile, the ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad mother’. “She has been waiting for me, Stella says,“In some queer sort of way I always knew it.”

Worried that Stella’s in danger, her grandfather wants her to spend time with her mother’s former ‘companion’ Miss Holloway who runs the Mary Meredith Retreat ( Stella’s mother.) But like Mrs. Danver’s there is a baleful motive to get Stella to kill herself. The mansion is haunted by a wraith who might be Stella’s mother, contemptuous of the living, seeking vengeance for infidelity and the affinity she has for Miss Holloway, her implied lesbian lover.

Yet again the similarities with the film Rebecca. Holloway sends Stella back to Windward House so she can once again stand by the edge of the cliff and jump off. Stella must finally resolve her pathological longing for her mother. “The implication that such excessive love signifies lesbianism is facilitated by the film’s intimations of the adult lesbian desire between Miss Holloway and Mary…Miss Holloway tenderly extols Mary’s beauty and goodness and reminisces about the plans they used to make as if they had been a couple. (The Uninvited – Lesbian Cinephilia by Patricia White)

Miss Hollowway having sent Stella to her death- “The cliffs and the rocks below, that’s where Mary went- that’s where she died-she was such a lonely soul-I’ve don’t what she wanted at last-Haven’t I Mary? – It’s all straight now-there are no frayed edges, no looses ends, all straight, all smooth.”

In The Uninvited, Miss Holloway is possessed of the hypnotic powers to put Stella into a trance-like state which she uses later on in the picture to send her back to the cliffs of Windward House. In the same vein as Rebecca, the ghost of Mary is shown ultimately to be in contrast to the woman people originally thought she was. It turns out that she has abandoned the idea of motherhood, and feels no love for her daughter Stella. But there is a twist that exists behind this story which I won’t give away. Mary also bears a deviant quality to her that is revealed through the reflections by Miss Holloway. We understand through Holloway’s reminiscence that Mary was a lesbian, as Miss Holloway looks longing at the portrait, “They shall never find out my darling.” her ‘sterility’ is represented by the symbolic means of the haunting… the ‘icy rage’ which manifests in the studio as the presence of eerie, bone-chilling cold.

“The heroine’s fascination is directly identified as love,” writes Patricia White in Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, “But the condition of this unveiling is that the object of her (Stella) attraction becomes literally her mother. The film thus dramatizes how the female oedipal narrative functions as a support for another story, a lesbian desire that is both evoked and covered over.”

A classic tale of haunting. A classic tale of gay erasure.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY 1945 —There’s only one way to get rid of temptation, and that’s to yield to it.- Oscar Wilde

“You’ll learn it. You’ll even learn to take great joy in it.”

I suppose in a fortnight or so, we shall be told he’s been seen in San Francisco. It’s an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world. I’m analyzing women at present. The subject is less difficult than I was led to believe. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.-Lord Henry Wotton

Why did women talk about Dorian Gray in whispers?

MGM competed with the period’s propensity for classical horror by producing an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945, which engaged many of the tropes as other WWII films of the genre. This film is one of the most evident hybridizations of horror and homosexuality. Wilde’s novel was “produced under several codes of “acceptability.”

An interest in psychological processes such as guilt and repression and a more humanized depiction of its monsters. Here quite literally the queer amoral dandies Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfiled) and Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders ) Benshoff: Monsters in the Closet

True to the classical Hollywood ingredients that showcase the coded queer monster, Dorian Gray is associated with a vain effeminacy, a perverse and violent character, capable of murder, he calls it, “bestial, sodden and unclean.” In addition, as does many horror films of that period often the horror is conflated with the influences of a foreign nature here, Gray delves into exoticized racial symbolism — The Egyptian cat, interest in Buddhism the writing of Omar Khayyam which leads him to London’s underworld of dark and mysterious spaces.

In short, in The Picture of Dorian Gray- possibly the most overtly queer film of the period-homosexuality is both everywhere and nowhere to be seen. From the beginning the Breen Office was alert to the story’s homosexual content and in a pre-production memo dated Sep 13 1943 insisted that “for obvious reasons, it will be absolutely essential that there will be no possibility of any inference of sex perversion, anywhere in this story.” (MPAA file Margaret Herrick Library) The film makers complied and upon its release the film received its Production Code Seal of Approval.– Benshoff: Monsters in the Closet

Curse of the ‘queer’ magician

In Jacques Tourneur’s signature atmosphere of light and darkness, he excels with his mesmerizing horror film Night of the Demon (1957) adapted from ‘Casting the Runes’ a story by M.R. James. Dana Andrews plays an American psychologist and skeptic Dr. John Holden who comes to England not only to visit his friend Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) but to debunk any evidence of witchcraft and the paranormal. Holden finds that his friend has died in a freak accident, he’s been electrocuted. Harrington had publically denounced a prominent Devil-worshiper Julian Karswell who reigns over faithful yet frightened disciples. He is portrayed by Irish-born actor Niall MacGinnis. MacGinnis’ unique development of his characters, ignites the imagination. Karswell is a fine example of Macginnis’ powers of engagement. Once in England Holden uncovers there had been a conflict between Harrington and the odd Julian Karswell, thus begins a battle of wills between Holden and the ominous magician. Karswell believes he can conjure up a fire demon from hell to exact revenge on those he perceives as disloyal or a threat to his reputation as the powerful leader of his cult of devil-worshippers. Eventually, Holden starts to believe Karswell’s powers, when he becomes the target of Karswell the magician/warlock and his fire demon, after he’s been passed a parchment with the exact day and hour of his death.

Karswell lives with his kindly, obedient, and impressionable mother, the wonderful Athene Sayler, who dotes on her enigmatic son. His mother also bares a tinge of fear when she’s around her son. Karswell is almost effete in his high-toned elocution, mannerisms and his solitary bachelorhood with his peculiar goatee, Karswell with his dominant expression of wicked desires (immoral and nefarious deeds) is himself a monster of a sort. A queer grotesque monster, he controls his collective of devil-worshippers by promising to conjure up the demon if any of them disobey him.

One of the most evocative scenes is when Karswell also a very fine magician, dresses as Doctor Bobo, a farcical clown who entertains at a Halloween party for the village children at his country estate. In order to compel Holden to believe in his powers, he summons up a small wind storm that almost competes with the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, ruining the cake and ice cream and puppies pulled out of top hats.

His mother tells Holden, “He really ought to be married but he’s so fussy.”

Says Julian to Holden while the two men are watching children play with snakes and ladders. “Funny thing, I always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up the ladders.”

Lugosi and Karloff in Edgar Ulmer’s disturbing Maze of debauchery, The Black Cat 1934


Both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff had a quality of exoticism about them, Bela with his swarthy Eastern European looks and Boris with his unusual brand of striking bone structure that circumvents the common prettiness of leading men.

Many horror films the classical horror and film noir for that matter, period of the 1930s and 40s suggested monstrosity and sexual transgression through foreign influences both culturally and individually. Certain horror films exploited racist fears, and were also expressions of ‘gay panic’ and homophobia, obfuscating the stereotypes and equating them with winged forms of decadence. Many of the actors picked to represent roles as villains were foreigners like Peter Lorre, Ernest Thesiger, Conrad Veidt, Colin Clive, Charles Laughton, Warner Oland, Erich von Stroheim, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi.

Benshoff notes –“In an anthropological essay published in Harpers Monthly Magazine in 1930 for instance, the author muses on “primitive sexuality and then suggests}; they would become voluptuaries as have some of the European people to whom greater sexual license has been allowed. These people have developed to a state where perversion is the rule…”

As this review suggests, gender inversion and physical deformity were the things used to frighten horror movie audiences in the 1930s. (Ironically, actor David Manners, who played many of these films’ stalward heroes, reportedly had to seek out Eva Le Gallienne to help him curb his own effeminate tendencies, a fact which suggests from the outset that these films’ depiction of normality was just as fantastic and unreal as their depiction of monstrosity.

As soon as the Hays Code was strictly enforced in 1934, fantasy and horror stories, often based on classical literature were all the rage. So what popped up on the screen were monsters like, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Siodmak’s The Wolfman, H.G. Well’s, The Invisible Man, and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the fiends, ‘otherized’ monsters, and social outsiders needed to become codified as taboo in order for them to get passed the censors.

The 1930s brought together two of its most prolific and dynamic horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The pairing of these two actors produced two of their four collaborations, that bore a very potent hint of sado-masochism and homoerotic conflict.

The four films that Karloff and Lugosi collaborated on were indelible and too few. Many of these 1930s horror films portrayed actors performing homosocial behavior in which hatred, violence, and death are surrogates for love, kindness, and life.

In The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) though on the surface, it is made to appear as if both villains are lusting after the heroine, there is still a savage homoerotic rivalry within the triangulation of the heterosexual metaphors. Whatever trace of heterosexual intimacy is transfigured into violence. In The Black Cat, the heroine is doomed to be sacrificed to the devil in a profane ceremony, and in The Raven, the heroine’s destiny is to be compacted like trash in a perpetually closing room with her lover.

While it’s apparent to the casual observer that it’s the normal heterosexual couple that is the centerpiece of the story, what is the marrow of the horror libretto is really the homosexual desire and sadomasochistic alliance between the two villains. What lies at the root of this homosocial conflict over the heroine, and the heterosexual couple, falls within the range as it has been theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.” It also conflates homosexuality with deviance and violence.

From Monsters in the Closet : Homosexuality and the Horror Film by Harry M. Benshoff “while the figure of the homosexual triangle is usually theorized to explain how male homosocial serves to bolster patriarchy it can also be invoked as a device used to mask a sublimated or repressed homosexual desire. in the Raven and The Black Cat, the queer couples’ desire are displaced onto violence and torture while in a film such as White Zombie the break in the homosocial homosexual continuum is linked to another Gothic signifier that of the predatory bird.”

1935: Boris Karloff (1887 – 1969), Bela Lugosi (1882 – 1956), and Irene Ware star in the horror film ‘The Raven’, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. The film was directed by Lew Landers (as Louis Friedlander) for Universal. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lew Landers, The Raven 1935, with a screenplay by David Boehm, vaguely adapted from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, brings together the two titans of classical horror, Bela Lugosi as Dr. Richard Vollin, and Boris Karloff as Edmond Bateman a criminal hiding out.

A brilliant surgeon obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and the instruments of torture he uses in his Poe-inspired torture chamber. “Death is my talisman!.” Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi) saves the life of a beautiful dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) who’s been injured in an automobile accident. Vollin falls madly in love with her, imagining her as his Lenore out of Poe’s poem. He becomes deranged when she shuns him and when he realizes that he will never possess her he plots his revenge on her fiancé and father (Samuel S. Hinds). He forces Bateman to help him with his plot to punish them.

Bela’s Dr. Vollin torments Bateman (Boris) by mutilating his face with a scalpel and severing his facial nerves. Vollin disfigures Bateman’s features so that he can’t stand to look at himself, sending Bateman into a reflected nightmare, trapped in purgatory by his ugliness. He then assaults him with a phalanx of mirrors, an infinity of his deformed face, and Vollin the sadist, then whips Bateman with a riding crop. The nod to Poe’s macabre stories including The Pit and the Pendulum gives inspiration to a myriad of ways to torture the heterosexual couple, using Bateman as his grotesque sidekick who has been beaten into submission. There is a homoerotic, sadomasochistic ‘queer’ sensibility to the Vollin/Bateman relationship. Ultimately, the heterosexuals go on to survive while the tormented ‘queers’ suffer a violent death.

Edmond Bateman: I‘m saying, Doc, maybe because I look ugly… maybe if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things.

Dr. Richard Vollin: You are saying something profound.

It’s mind-blowing to think of what this astounding pair of actors would have created had they been given more scripts together. It makes me sad to think that there are only four films showcasing their duets. Given that those films are weighty in substance and shudders, I can’t even imagine how much we’ve been deprived by the lack of more collaborations.

In Edgar Ulmer’s deeply deviant film, The Black Cat 1934, there is even more of an explicitly sadomasochistic ‘queer’ mysterious flirtation between Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) a famous architect with Karloff’s make-up artist Jack Pierce who gave him a severe and angular visage. And Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) renowned psychiatrist, who plays a sympathetic victim driven to a peak of vengeful retribution.

The Black Cat dares to express profane threads of satanism, necrophilia, incest, and allusions to graphic violence. There is a romantic rivalry between the two enemies, who bear the scars of old offenses. The dynamics of their present relationship are focused solely on revenge imposed on each other through a profane and perverted homoerotic triangulation. During the war, Poelzig stole Wergegast’s wife while he was sent to rot in a prison cell. When the wife dies, Poelzig then marries Werdegast’s beautiful young daughter Karen, but this is not yet revealed to Werdegast.

The train carrying David Manners and Julie Bishop, (newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast is derailed and all become stranded, having to spend the night at the Bauhaus-style castle owned by Hjalmar Poelzig, an enigmatic host. As the night progresses, the amenities fade away and the dark secrets that haunt Poelzig and Werdegast end with a savage climax.

Poelzig creeps into Werdegast’s bedroom while he sleeps, Now Vitus, we have something to settle, we two.” He then takes him down a winding staircase, into the cellar and in a macabre moment of dreadful revelation shows Werdegast the macabrely preserved body of his first wife, floating in a glass cabinet like a museum piece.

It is eerie and unnatural how Poelzig shares the dead wife. Though unspoken the implication is that he has been acting on necrophilic impulses.

Symmetrically framed around the body, the two men recreate a scene so common to Gothic novels, as Eve Kosofky Sedgwick has noted “male rivals unite, refreshed in mutual support and definition over the ruined carcass [sic} of a woman.” Their homosexual desire is filtered through death, and Poelzig and Werdegast realize that their destiny is linked “Are we not both the living dead?”

Bela lustfully stands over the naked body of Karloff as he tortures him, in The Black Cat

In The Black Cat (1934), much like Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) absorbs herself in a triangulation with the heterosexual, ‘normal’ couple, there is a triangulation here too, of the heroine, Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), through the desires of Wedergast and Poelzig. The converging of sexual territories and the hints of ‘queerness’ in the film were drastically cut for theatrical release, diluting the strength of a homoerotic motivating force. Bela Lugosi refused to portray his character as a depraved fiend like Karloff’s Poelzig, lusting after Joan as well, he was tired of being typecast as an unsympathetic sexually driven monster.

In order to reveal how male homosocial relationships are initiated, the erotic rivalry and the link between male rivals are as intensely powerful as a heterosexual friendship, but the queer nuances are left as suggestive of seduction.

One of the sequences that were modified was depicting the satanic ceremony where Ulmer’s original conception of the cult was “as aberrant as possible. A stable of misfits, members of the decadent aristocracy of the countryside.” the film goes as far as to depict an inverted crucifix that was the design of the ceremonial pulpit.

There was also supposed to be a follower in the satanic cult named Frau Goering suggesting another manifestation of ‘queerness’, Goering who would be portrayed by a man, in order to put forward a taste of gender-bending, but the Production Code made it clear that there was to be no suggestion of, homosexuality or perversion.

The scene with the satanic rites still contains some provocative imagery as does Ulmer’s entire cinematic imaginings. One of the atmospheric paragons of The Black Cat is its highly stylized German Expressionist interiors, lighting, and camerawork. Ulmer took his inspiration from Aubrey Beardsley’s silhouettes of orgiastic scenes depicting Epicurian debauchery.

By the end of the 1930s, the cycle of sadomasochistic duets with Lugosi and Karloff had been substantially removed from the screen, and in 1939 with the release of Son of Frankenstein. Their relationship becomes a version of companionship and ‘domesticity.’ One could say that they have a loving physical relationship with Ygor (Bela) caressing the monster (Karloff) all the time, like a pet.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The Raven (1935) directed by Lew Landers

The Black Cat 1934 directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

“The queer, unlike the rather polite categories of gay and lesbian, revels in the discourse of the loathsome, the outcast, the idiomatically proscribed position of same-sex desire. Unlike petitions for civil rights, queer revels constitutes a kind of activism that attacks the dominant notion of the natural. The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous the uncanny. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant;frightening to look at, desiring as it plays is own organ, producing its own music.” – Sue Ellen Case – tracking the vampire-differences

“in a film such as White Zombie the break in the homosocial homosexual continuum is linked to another Gothic signifier, that of the predatory bird.” (Benshoff)

Set in the West Indies, director Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) reveals homosexual desire, yet another homo-erotic triangulation of desire, this time through heroine, Madge Bellamy as the ghostly Madeline. The homosocial triangle is engendered by Bela Lugosi’s saturnine Murder Legendre and the longing of the hapless plantation owner Beaumont. On the surface, Legendre performs heterosexual desire as he pursues the young married couple to be, Madeline and Neil (John Harron) just for funsies. The carriage is stopped, blocked by a local funeral, they must get the body buried before it is stolen. Madeline, ” Driver, What is it? Coach driver, “It’s a funeral, ma’m’selle. They’re afraid of the men who steal dead bodies, so they dig the graves in the middle of the road where people pass all the time.”

Legendre draws closer to the carriage, studying the young couple, and immediately it stirs his evil impulses. The iconic close-up of his flaming eyes, burning into Madelines. He takes her white scarf and puts it inside his jacket. A pre-cursor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Legendre’s horde of lifeless male zombies follow Legendre lumbering like mindless puppets as if summoned by their master. Zombies that were once his enemies, and now emotionless workers operating his sugar mill. The coach driver tells Madeline and Neil that “they are not men, madame, “they are dead bodies.”

The kindly Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) meets the couple at the Beaumont plantation, in order to preside over their wedding. Madeline informs him that she met Beaumont on a ship coming from New York, but doesn’t know their host well. There are hints of Beaumont’s repressed sexuality, when the priest questions his intentions, by saying that Beaumont doesn’t strike him as a man to “play fairy godfather to a young couple like you unless…” He leaves the question hanging there.

Through Madeline, Legendre sees his opportunity to manipulate Beaumont into submitting to his will. Legendre is strangely fixated on the heartsick Monsieur Beaumont (Robert Fraser) who is hopelessly in love with Madeline. Right up to the day when he walks her down the aisle, Beaumont begs her to marry him instead. When she refuses for the last time, he conspires to take her away from her fiancé Neil Parker. In order to get Madeline under his control, he asks Legendre to cast a spell on her, using his zombie potion. Ultimately Legendre’s evil motivations and sorcery are brought to light as the inclination of ‘queerness.’ Legendre true object of desire is Beaumont who he wishes to dominate.

White Zombie, leaves the question open as to whether Legendre wants to control Madeline himself or does he want to make her pliant like a willow, in order to remove her from Beaumont’s gaze.

Beaumont “You give me what I want and you may ask anything.” [Legendre whispers in his ear] Beaumont, “No!, Not that!”

When Beaumont meets Legendre for the first time, he refuses to shake his hand. Legendre is clearly insulted by this rude gesture, then he shows him Madeline’s white scarf, in order to persuade him of who is truly in charge. With delicious pleasure, Legendre tells Beaumont, “I looked into her eyes. She is deeply in love, but not with you.”

Beaumont still wants Legendre to work his magic on Madeline, just make her disappear for a few months, giving him time to woo her. The sorcerer tells him the costs are high. He takes out a vial of his powder and tells Beaumont that it only takes a pinpoint of powder in their wine or on a flower, to turn people into passive followers. After he places a pinch on a single flower on her wedding night, she goes into a “lifeless sleep.”

Legendre puts a pinch of powder in Beaumont’s wine glass and goes through a slow transformation of the paralyzing drug. As he struggles to maintain muscle coordination. Legendre, aroused by his influence over the object of his desire, plays with Beaumont’s mind before he slips completely into a mindless zombie. A vulture appears at the window, symbolic of Legendre’s essence. Beaumont compares Legendre to the vulture and once again refers to an unspoken threat, “You!… No! Not that! Not that!”

Legendre tells him that he has other plans for Mademoiselle and “I’ve taken a fancy to you.” Beaumont places his hand on Legendre’s hand as the last bit of his remaining will, any cognitive perceptions, drains from his body, weakened, he pleads for his life. The fiend looks deeply into Beaumont’s eyes and reminds him of the time he refused to shake his hand. “Now, we understand each other better.”

Legendre tells Beaumont that if his men were to gain their souls back, they’d tear him apart. And Dr. Bruner tells Neil that “Before we get through with this thing, we’ll uncover sins that even the devil would be ashamed of.”

Legendre reaches out and touches Beaumont’s shoulder, and looks to his zombie servant. A tilt shot from foot to head of the bare-chested zombie answers his gaze… (interestingly, this tilt-shot of the zombie “from feet to hairy chest” was one of the studio committee’s suggested deletions.”

Gays as predatory twilight creatures were a matter of style and personal interpretation in the horror films of the 1930s. The equation of horror with the sins of the flesh is easily seen in monster movies of the period.(Benshoff-Monsters in the Closet)

The Canterville Ghost 1944 I’m so tired…

Directed by Jules Dassin and based on a story by Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost is a charming reverie with its main character being a ‘queer’ spirit trapped for centuries in his stone prison. The skittish ghost Sir Simon de Canterville haunts the castle for three centuries after he had been walled up alive by his own father. Laughton, a genius with an inimitable flare, brings a bit of a childlike naiveté, that he delivers with fluid agitation, both whimsical and melancholy. Sir Simon was imprisoned for his cowardice, and now to break the curse that was placed on him, he hopes to be set free by his descendant Cuffy Williams (Robert Young). An American soldier who must restore honor to the de Cantervilles, and show himself to be brave by doing something courageous in the face of danger! Margaret O’Brien is wonderful as she plays Lady Jessica de Canterville who befriends the easily scared ghost of her ancestor and sets out to help him break his eternal chains.

Sir Simon-“Excuse me, I really must gibber at the oriole window.”

Charles Laughton was made for the role of Sir Simon de Canterville, a ghostly ‘sissy’ whose haunts are as scary as a midnight drag show at the original Lucky Chengs in the East Village.

An expressionless gay couple or a man and his dummy!

Dead of Night 1945 Michael Redgrave as Frere


Dead of Night (1945) The Ventriloquist’s Dummy — sequence.

Dead of Night (1945) is an anthology of five haunting stories, one a dark comedy starring the British duo Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (The Lady Vanishes)- whose sequence breaks the ghostly, feverish atmosphere with the segment that adds some comic relief. Theirs is a hilarious golfing short story, adapted from H.G. Wells.

In The Ventriloquist’s Dummy written by John Baines and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Michael Redgrave gives a deeply disturbing performance as the suffering Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist, who is being driven insane by his dummy, Hugo Fitch. Frere and Hugo are the top-billed act at a pre-war Paris nightclub Chez Beulah. As Benshoff puts it, “The overall otherness of the film is pervasive.”

Maxwell and Hugo have an intensely antagonistic relationship with Frere conveying panic, fear, and a neurotic jealousy over Hugo. Maxwell and Hugo have a hostile, and co-dependant relationship. Frere is ambivalent and intimated by the self-animated dummy, who is verbally abusive to his ‘partner’. At one point the repressed Frere gazes at the photograph of Hugo in his hotel, and he utters a revealing comment, “I can’t bear anyone touching him.”

It brought together several traditions – German Expressionism, French Surrealism, and the round-the-fireside English ghost story that found its classic expression in James (Henry and MR). (Phillip French The Observer.)

It does seem to hold a strange parallel to the character. Redgrave was a complex man whose off screen unhappiness with his bisexual nature gives this performance a fascinating dimension (Stephen Bourne.)

Ventriloquist Sylvester Kee, visits the nightclub and is impressed with Hugo, who threatens to leave Frere and take up with Kee. Hugo tells Kee, “We two could make beautiful music together” Compounding the abuse, Hugo bullies Frere until he is driven mad. Though the story is a supernatural one, the subtext is emblematic of a violent sadomasochistic, homo-erotic narrative. Frere acting like a furious lover slaps Hugo’s menacing wooden face. Hugo warns him, “You’ll be sorry for this Later.” Feeling threatened that Kee is taking away his partner, he shoots Kee, like a jealous lover. While in prison for attempted murder, we see Hugo in the cell with Frere. He says “I knew you wouldn’t leave me… I knew you’d come back.” Frere is a melancholy lost soul, with traces of misogyny and anxious fixation on Hugo, bringing to bear the argument for the ‘queerness’ of their bond. The subtext of a homosexual romance turns violent as the connotation of deviant love must ultimately become a destructive one.


From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
“{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” – Val Lewton

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

Lewton and his associates understood the principles of fantasy and utilized them in the complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy, J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” His collective stories are endowed with otherworldliness and a complex and stylized atmosphere that work its way on screen employing the study of the mind, resisting shock value. In this way the tone of his work differs from that of Universal’s cycle of classic horror films as there are no observable monsters, the terror comes from within.

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of subversive, fantastical darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal Studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at, RKO Studios produced an exquisite, limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘night world.’ Lewton used our deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows in our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment. Lewton’s dream worlds are bathed in chiaroscuro and Expressionist landscapes that make them almost indistinguishable between 1930s classical horror and 1940s film noir.

Lewton’s psychological horror landscapes have a symbiosis with the lighting and German expressionism of early film noir. They can be considered noir with a dread at its core suggested by possible supernatural origins rather than social crookedness. But both have a certain fatalistic vision and a pervasive otherness. Like film noir, Lewton horror films depict a paranoid and pessimistic world wherein traditional roles of gender and sexuality are perpetually in flux. (Benshoff)

Lewton’s fantasies rework our perspective to let us ‘see’ the dark spaces even within the light. As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy evokes an ‘indirect vision’ that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works are suggestive of a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace.

Within the exclusive canon of Val Lewton’s significant contribution, there exists an inner logic that expels convention and reality and heads for a deeper darker passageway to the mind. Lewton knew what he was doing when he created stories that traded in themes of ‘otherization.’ While most or all of his films bare a message of queerness, the impenetrable sexuality, is veiled behind figures who escape our knowledge, and become unspeakable in the way they wear their secrets.

Val Lewton’s films Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and The Ghost Ship are reflexive expressions of the power of sexuality and repression. Lewton situates homosexual subtexts using symbols for hidden secret desires or the outsider narratives, a trope that opens the door to the ‘closet’, or at times where the implied homo-erotica is built into the mystery and surrounding supernatural suggestiveness of the plot.

Those made at RKO under Val Lewton reflect a growing awareness of homosexuality , homosexual communities and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society. Indicative of these shifts towards an increasingly complex understanding of the monster, there was also less focus on a happy heterosexualized closure for the films. Many eschewed the “normal” couple altogether and instead focused solely on their queer protagonists suggesting as will the horror films of later decades that it is the monster queer whom the audience really comes to see and identify with, and not the heterosexualized heroes and heroines. (Benshoff: Monsters in the Closet)


The Seventh Victim (1942)

Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline Gibson in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1942) directed by Mark Robson

Mark Robson directs The Seventh Victim maintaining focus on a thematic and structural exploration of the common human experience of limitation. Joel Siegel comments that it’s the most characteristic work of the series, but goes on to say that it’s “a film in which existence is portrayed as a hellish void from which all souls yearn for the sweet release of death.”

The Seventh Victim directed by Mark Robson, written by DeWitt Bodeen and stars sultry Jean Brooks (Kiki Walker in Lewton’s The Leopard Man 1943) as Jacqueline Gibson, an enigmatic woman who is running away from a secret sect of ‘Palladists.’ Throughout the film, she is transfixed by fear. The clandestine, outsider trope, can read as an esoteric society of devil-worshipping ‘queers’ who dwell in Greenwich Village. The Village is notoriously connected with artistic, gay culture. There is a strong atmosphere suffused with deviance, that Jacqueline seems to be fleeing from. As the seventh victim, they are trying to drive her to commit suicide. Character actor Ottola Nesmith has a small role as Mrs. Loughwood, one of the headmistresses of the girl’s school that her younger sister (Kim Hunter) attends.

In scenes with the Palladists, both men and women, there is a homo-erotic subtext and no clearly defined elements ascribed to heterosexuality. Society uses identifiable symbols, and coded emblems to recognize each other. “Why, you fool! That symbol is us! She was asking about us!”

The film opens with an all-girls school that is reminiscent of stories that have a tinge of lesbianism at play. And scenes surrounding the cosmetic factory that Jacqueline founded, ‘La Sagess’ is a shadowing realm of sapphic poetry. “My dear, we were intimate.” Glady’s to Mary, “The times we use to have together! I bet she never told you about that – you’re too young.”

In a scene with the head of the Palladists, Esther Redi (Mary Newton) an ‘odd woman’, violates Mary’s private space, the shower, and quietly, in silhouette threatens her. Redi’s sinister presence reads like a sado-erotic lesbian assault.

Mildred Gilchrist, “One must have courage to really live in the world.”

Jacqueline’s sister Mary ( a very young Kim Hunter) leaves her private school and goes to New York City in search of her older sister Jacqueline, who has suddenly disappeared. Mary meets Jacqueline’s husband Gregory (Hugh Beaumont) and psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) “One can take either staircase. I prefer the left. The sinister side.” Both men set out to help her find her missing sister.

Gregory Ward “I love your sister, Mary. I love her very much. It’s easy to understand now, isn’t it? A man would look for her anywhere, Mary. There’s something… exciting and unforgettable about Jacqueline. Something you never… quite get hold of. Something that keeps a man following after her.”

Mary Gibson “Because I loved Jacqueline I thought I knew her. Today I found out such strange things, frightening things. I saw a hangman’s noose that Jacqueline had hanging… waiting”

Gregory Ward “Well, at least I can explain about that. Your sister had a feeling about life; that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get that rope”… that room made her happy in some strange way I couldn’t understand. She lived in a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth. In fact, I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was.”

Mary doesn’t know that Jacqueline has renounced the Palladists, and is now a target because she has divulged the existence of their secret society. Fashions, hairstyles, and behavioral mannerisms further distinguish these people as being not quite “normal.” Jacqueline Gibson has let the secret of the group slip to her psychiatrist and therefore she became marked as the titular “seventh victim.” She’s been characterized as having had a loving relationship with another woman. This woman later confides to Jacqueline that “the only time I was ever happy was when I was with you.” 

The linkage of homosexuals and witchcraft within popular understanding has a long and tangled history. The analogy was certainly present at the dawn of the classical period of Hollywood horror films, as evidenced by a 1930 Scribners Magazine essay about homosexuality entitled “Demoniac Possession.” (Benshoff: Monsters in the Closet)

The Ghost Ship (1943)

Richard Dyer has noted that sailors have always occupied a privileged niche in the popular mythology of homosexuality, as well as in homosexual literary history from the Greek Argonauts to Genet’s Querelle de Brest: “Sailors have especially figured in gay erotic tradition … (Benshoff: Monsters in the Closet)

RELEASE DATE: December 24, 1943. MOVIE TITLE: The Ghost Ship. STUDIO: RKO Radio Pictures. PLOT: Tom Merriam signs on the ship Altair as third officer …

The Ghost Ship was the fifth successive low-budget moody ‘horror’ film produced by Val Lewton in a short period of time, following The Cat People (1942) I Walked With a Zombie The Leopard Man (1943), & The Seventh Victim (1943). This was Mark Robson’s second directorial effort, after his debut with The Seventh Victim. Like all of Lewton’s films, the elements of horror and fantasy do not assault our senses from an explicitly supernatural source, the terrors come from the dark, unfathomable corners of the human psyche and all its machinations. The Ghost Ship, once again communicates its dark chaos like any good film noir.

The film’s ominous beginnings portend the bad luck and ill deeds that follow when Officer Tom Merriam young and optimistic, hears a blind singer comment that the ship is cursed, right before he boards the Altair. Tom then meets his shipmate, an odd mute sailor named Finn.

Finn is an interesting companion storyline that runs through The Ghost Ship as the outsider looking in (without the need for a physical voice), “Finn” who is mute, narrates the story through eerie voice-over. Tom first meets “Finn” before he gets on the Altair.

Finn is portrayed by Skelton Knaggs, who can also be seen in another Lewton film, director Mark Robson’s Bedlam 1946 starring Boris Karloff. In Bedlam,(suggested by The William Hogarth painting Bedlam Plate #8 “The Rake’s Progress”) Knaggs plays the effete Varney. And in Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) adapted by Oscar Wilde and starring Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders, Knaggs plays the uncredited Blue Gate Fields Waiter who is a dweller of the invisible netherworld of ‘queerness.’

Finn’s close and inner monologue, “This is another man I can never know because I cannot talk with him, For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men but in my own silence, I can hear things they cannot hear. Know things they can never know.” Both the blind man and Finn are clairvoyant and have special access to knowledge that we do not yet know. They are one of Lewton’s ‘others’ who live on the fringes of society and have crucial secrets.

The Ghost Ship 1943, directed by Mark Robson and written by Donald Henderson Clarke, contains one of the most palpable homosocial collectives of half-naked sweaty men, (“Hey Sailor, new in town?”) and homo-erotic narratives of any of Val Lewton’s films. One of the most vivid imagery of The Ghost Ship is the countless phallic matrixes and symbols. There are knives, scalpels, guns, large swinging hooks, anchors, and really really big chains.

This brings to mind a tense sequence, during a tumultuous storm, a cargo-hook swings wildly like a giant metallic snake, whose driving force, the men cannot retrieve as it wildly sways around the men. it serves as an apt metaphor for untethered and uncontrolled phallic power, and as such comes to represent the obsessed Captain Stone’s monomania. (Benshoff)

Richard Dix stars as the pragmatic Capt. Will Stone of the ship Altair, becomes fixated on Russell Wade as 3rd officer Tom Merriam/Tertius. Dix is confounding as the maniacal Captain Stone who manifests a fevered madness, growing more and more obsessed with Merriam, and asserting his rigid authoritarianism.

Stone is read by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick similarly to Claggart in Billy Budd: “a man with homosexual impulses but also severe internalized homophobia.”

There’s a similar dynamic to Billy Budd and Claggart, as Capt. Stone is conflicted by his attraction for Tom, while he is drawn to him sexually, at the same time, he is repulsed by his homosexual desire. Already a murderer, It is this war inside himself that brings forth his paranoia and by the end, Stone becomes unhinged.

Stone’s paranoia overwhelms the framework of the narrative, he bares, his soul, revealing some of what is at the root of his mania: “I’ve done things I couldn’t remember doing. I’ve had moments when I felt that I was on the verge of losing control. Of doing some terrible, stupid, ugly things.”

In the beginning, Stone pursues Tom’s favor, but the relationship between Stone and Tom devolves quickly as he sees the true nature of Stone’s distorted view of the world and his cruel streak. Under the shroud of the manly bonding during a homosocial journey on the sea, their relationship is implicitly suitor/object of affection, the innuendo is clearly, homosexual. Stone no less than cruises Tom, as a pick-up, “I chose you, Merriam. Your history could have been my own. “ The Ghost Ship is not short on hinting about Stone’s desire to spend isolated periods of time, journeying with a willing apprentice “You know, that’s one of the nice things about long voyages – time for talk, time for friendship.”

At first, Tom idolizes Stone as a strong father figure. Once the honeymoon wears off, and Tom begins to question several inexplicable deaths of crew members, their relationship turns dark. Tom recognizes that Stone is in fact a psychopath with a hunger for authority and Stone now sees Tom as a threat. No one believes Tom when he tries to tell people that Stone is a madman. Stone has a credo that hangs on his wall, “He who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock.” Stone is that strong unmovable force and those who try to challenge his authority will wind up dead. Stone is the metaphoric ‘rock’, and the men who do not obey his authority throughout the film are murdered by him.

Like the Socratic methods initiate rituals men and boys Tom is the feminized student Stone’s repeated pronunciation of Merriam as Miriam makes this relationship obvious. Stone gleefully extols the privilgeges of masculine authority. (Benshoff)

Stone in an outburst of homo-erotic rage pulls a long sharp knife on Tom who is bound and gagged, and injected with a sedative. Essentially Stone is about to penetrate Tom with his ‘knife.’

Captain Stone“I’m captain. As long as I wear these stripes there isn’t a man in the crew that’ll believe you or help you. You’ll find them too lazy, too cowardly, too disinterested… That’s what I want you to learn, Merriam! Men are worthless cattle! And a few men are given authority to drive them.”

In The Ghost Ship, Lewton frames the destructive powers of homosocial dynamics where ‘queerness’ is disrupted by unconscious hostility and repressed sexuality, giving rise to violence.

in Bedlam (1946) also consider another coded character, the pudgy, decadent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) who gorges himself in the midst of inmates at the asylum. He forces one of the young male inmates to paint himself in gold, practically naked in his Lamé toga, the sight of the young boy titillates Mortimer until the gilded boy drops dead from suffocation.

Glen Vernon as The Gilded Boy-Bedlam 1946.

Skaggs and House in Bedlam 1946.

CAT PEOPLE (1942) “She knew strange, fierce pleasures that no other woman could ever feel!”

She was one of the dreaded “Cat People” – doomed to slink and prowl and court by night… fearing always that a lover’s kiss might change her into a snarling, clawing KILLER!

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

Val Lewton chose Dewit Bowdeen to adapt Algernon Blackwood’s 1906 short story “Ancient Sorceries.” The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (The Spiral Staircase 1946, Lewton’s The Seventh Victim 1943, Bedlam 1946, Deadline at Dawn 1946, Where Danger Lives 1950, Clash By Night 1952 and Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker 1953) paints a monochromatic netherworld. Both Lewton’s elegant seductive manipulation of veiled narratives, Musuraca and Lewton’s gift of hewing shadow and light, construct perspectives where sexual ambiguousness can thrive.

Simone Simon is Irena Dubrovna an ‘odd girl’, a mysterious Serbian woman who is haunted by the legacy and mythology of her ancestors. When she marries Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) she is terrified that she will transform into a cat and kill him if they consummate their relationship, so she avoids any intimacy. She fears the inevitability of the curse of her descendants that damned the ill-fated women in her village to transform into pathers and kill anyone who awakens her desire.

On the surface, Cat People appears as a dark fable, a morality play driven by the influences of sexual desire that deviate from ‘normalcy’. There is a prevailing theory that Irena’s unwillingness to give into her heteronormative prison is coded for her repressed lesbian desire.

When Irena comes to New York to work in the fashion industry. Irena and Oliver strike up an attraction, though Irena is hesitant because of her inherent fear of being overcome by her ferocious impulse to slaughter her lover when she is sexually aroused. Irena has always felt like as ‘other’, a ‘queer’ soul who lives on the borders of a shadow world. Essentially, she is forbidding any ‘heterosexual’ contact with Oliver. In Val Lewton’s cinematic meditation on sexuality, Irena’s arcane desire can be read as a metaphor for lesbianism, which to her is regarded as a destructive force.

Irena marries Oliver, in spite of her uneasiness. But shortly after, she grows more and more terrorized by the ancient folklore about women who turned themselves into large cats with a lust for blood. Oliver sees Irena’s distress and sets up an appointment with Dr. Judd, a psychologist who is fascinated by Irena’s belief that she is a descendant of this evil race of cat women.

Dr. Louis Judd “You were saying, the cats.”

Irena “They torment me. I wake in the night and the trail of their feet whispers in my brain. I have no peace. For they are in me.”

Dr. Louis Judd “You told me of your village and the people and their strange beliefs.”

Irena “I’m so ashamed. It must seem so childish.”

Dr. Louis Judd “And the Cat Women of your village, too. You told me of them. Women who in jealousy or anger, in want of their own corrupt passions, can change into great cats, like panthers. And if one of these women were to fall in love and if a lover were to kiss her, take her into his embrace, she would be driven by her own evil to kill him. That’s what you believe and fear, isn’t it?”

Irena, who is very feline in her sensuality, is drawn to the sights and sound of big cats, which hints at her affinity toward ‘grimalkin’ (in Scottish legend it is a faerie cat that dwells in the highland, much like the survivors of her race that fled to the mountains) and spends her time, sketching them beside their cages at the zoo. Cats have always been perceived as having feminine energy, and feminine primacy is perceived by patriarchal authority as threatening.

Tom Conway plays psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, the character he played in The Seventh Victim (1943), and Jane Randolph plays Alice Moore the ‘good girl’ who is hopelessly in love with Oliver.

Irena “I like the dark. It’s friendly.”

Mrs. Plunkett “You can fool everybody, but dear me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s not right. If you know what I mean.”

Cat People, has an implied ‘lesbian’ schema as seen by the queer interaction between her and Elizabeth Russell (The Cat Woman) who approaches Irena at her wedding celebration. The Cat Woman, gazes at her with a potently fixed expression, as she identifies Irena as ‘my sister.’ Irena has an uncanny connection to the woman, they share a secretive province, a cultural heritage, and her deviant appetites.

“While this shadowy, “nightmare world” of homosexuals would become a regular model of straight society’s representation of gay and lesbian people in later decades, it is possible to locate a more contemporary formation of the idea within several ‘horror’ films produced by Val Lewton at RKO between 1942 and 1946. These B films were not horror films similar to those produced at Universal Studios during the 40s. They feature no hulking monsters and few Transylvania cripts, instead they dwell upon implied monsters and psychological landscapes.” Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen

“Some audience member read a lesbian meaning into the action. I was aware that could happen with the cafe scene, and Val got several letters after Cat People was released, congratulatiing him for his boldness in introducing lesbiana to films in Hollywood… Acutally, I rather like the insinuation and thought it added a neat bit of interpretation to the scene. Irena’s fears about destroying a lover if she kissed him could be because she was really a lesbian who loathed being kissed by a man.” –(DeWitt Bodeen)

“these fairytales you can tell to our children theyre gonna love them.”

“look at that woman…. isn’t she something… she looks like a cat.” “My Sister, my sister”, she says in another language. Irena crosses herself. She looks like a cat so she must be one of the cat people. An association that knowing they are linked by a secret society of women…

While during the classical period, monsters were primarily evil characters who sinned against God, Mankind, and the Natural Order, now they were “tragic figures who, with the proper care, might be cured of their “unnatural lusts.” The films made at Universal Studios, while ostensibly continuing their monster sagas of the 1930s, reflect a growing interest in psychiatry as a tool for correcting social deviance, ultimately suggesting that their monstrous contagions are beyond medical intervention. Those made at RKO under Val Lewton reflect a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society.


From Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet…. PODS: QUEER SEXUAL THREAT IN THE 1950S MONSTER INVASION FILM

Dr. Miles J. Bennell “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next…”

In the 1950s, the most marketable audience became the teenager. The studio that reigned during the decade was American International Pictures or AIP which weaponized its themes of fear– invasion, nuclear bombs, the Cold War, and the paranoia of McCarthyism. They produced a cycle of science fiction/horror that put teenagers who already felt like rebels and outsiders in the front row, to be recognized and entertained. The stories were fodder for the angsty, hormone-raging masses, and at times, were coded with cleverly disguised social commentary. AIP started out as a small distribution company in 1954 headed by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Jame H. Nicholson, once they discovered they had a winning formula, they dove into film production full force, employing directors who themselves became auteurs of outré movies made with low budgets, flashy titles, and tacky monsters. Benshoff refers to there being a “queer hybridization with the science fiction genre… A burgeoning Cold War — combined with atomic fears and adherence to cookie-cutter conventions — made for a lot of very thinly veiled queer horror.”

The 1950s — Kitschy Monsters and More Queer Subtext, Perverts and Predators: QUEER SEXUAL THREAT AND THE INVASION OF MONSTERS.- Jordon Crucchiola -Vulture: Queer Cinema

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 directed by Don Siegel, Body Snatchers, is a fierce reflection on subverting normalcy. Another invasion fantasy where the alien outsider or ‘queer’ intruder, threatens our world with pods that insidiously turn alien life forms, into appearing normal. We can not tell the difference between us and them. The film is rooted in paranoia and nihilistic doom, but not only is it a mediation on spreading fear during the Cold War, the threat of being taken over by a deviant force, but it could also be read as a homosexual violation. ‘Gay Panic’ and homosexuality were seen as another lurking menace during the 1950s.

Let’s look at some of the most popular films of the teenage monster movie subgenre. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) starring a young brooding Michael Landon as a lonely, rageful outsider who is exploited by an older psychiatrist Whit Bissell to tap into his inner ‘secret’ rage and turn it outward, out of the closet and into furry make-up. The success of Werewolf was followed by I Was a Teenage Frankenstein that same year. Both similarly dealt with scientists or teachers, who exploited same-sex teenagers by turning them into ‘monsters’, divergingly grotesque scenarios with a queer subtext. The manifestation of the monster in the horror/science fiction genres automatically made them outsiders because of the way they looked or acted. They intrude on the heteronormative society and a culture of conformity that shuns what is unknown, and different. A difference that causes fear and ‘gay panic.’

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956

As Benshoff writes in Monsters in the Closet, the postwar era was a terrible time to live outside the prefab definition of what it meant to be a true American: “In many ways, the 1950s might be thought of as the darkest decade of the twentieth century both for monsters and for homosexuals, as well as for anyone else who might have considered him/herself somehow outside the hegemonic construction of normality.”

In 1951, Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby directed The Thing From Another World. Margaret Sheridan is the only woman in the midst of an all-male institution, where Kenneth Tobey leads a group of scientists and military men. They are conducting their research in a typically homosocial environment. Until an invader challenges them to defend against a formidable enemy, a super carrot that morphs into a humanoid killing machine. An interesting character in the film is Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Arthur Carrington, who is not only a bit feminized by his intellectual elitism, he appears less of a hypermasculine figure like the rest of the members of the artic station. The men fight back with phallic flame throwers and guns.

When the hypermasculine carrot ‘Thing’ (James Arness) strikes, Carrington in a very wooing tone, after he tries to reason with the creature and tells it that he understands. In other words, he finds an affinity with its ‘otherness.’ “Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.” “I doubt that it *can* die… as we understand dying.”

Carrington to the “THING”–I’m your friend! I have no weapons! I’m your friend! You’re wiser than I! You must understand what I’m trying to tell you! Don’t go farther! They’ll kill you! They think you’ll harm us! But I want to know you, to help you! Believe that! You’re wiser than anything on earth! Use that intelligence! Look and know what I’m telling you! I’m not your enemy! I’m a scientist who’s trying…!” – !!!SMACK!!!

Invaders From Mars- (1953) William Cameron Menzies’s beautifully surreal invasion fantasy, deals with the loss of identity and an insidious plot to take over the world, invading our bodies and looking just like us. The aliens are pants monsters who pray to a ‘queer’ head with phallic tendrils that asserts its control from a glass orb.

Lt. Blair [about David’s parents] “That’s the coldest couple I ever saw.”

David Mclean “They’re not! They’re wonderful, *they’ve* done something to them, something awful!”

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) In Jack Arnold’s iconic man vs. monster trilogy of the 1950s, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a perfect example of men performing homosocially as a group of sweaty, half-naked anthropologists and one single woman. The film stars Julia Adams as the object of everyone’s gaze, and the two men who are part of the homosocial triangulation, Richard Carlson and Richard Denning.

A group of scientists on an expedition to the Amazon go in search of a legendary Gill-man whose fossilized hand suggests proof of a species of half man half amphibian. The men, invade the creature’s space who then must defend himself. The creature is drawn to Julie Adams, with an unforgettable scene that showcases synchronized swimming between the creature and Julie Adams. She is delighting in the weightlessness and the ease with which she navigates the water like a swan. Simultaneously below her, the creature follows her movements, performing like an unconscious dance. It emerges as an erotic water ballet, the water symbol of fluid sexuality.

The film is not only suggestive of bestiality but the creature is an androgynous figure with no apparent genitalia, which makes it sexually ambiguous. And Carlson and Denning perform their homosocial maleness sporting their spear guns as phallus, while they swim together in their own homoerotic sequence. The presence of the creature is indicative of ‘queerness’ because he exists outside of the heterosexual relationships between the three main characters. His otherness presents them with dread and alarm, all the time exhibiting a veiled sexuality.

It conquered the world in 1956 is similar to Siegel’s pod people, is Roger Corman’s cucumber visiter from Venus. An alien outsider tries to take over the world by invading our bodies, and putting us under his nefarious control. Paul Blaisdell’s cucumber monster Beula is a giant rubber dildo with eyes. The alien’s appearance is phallic, intentionally or not. The film stars Lee Van Cleef who longs for Peter Graves to give way to his will and join him in welcoming the invasion.

Dr. Tom Anderson: “He wants you on his side. Next to me, he wants you.”

Paul Nelson: “And you want me to condone this reign of terror? To swear allegiance to this monstrous king of yours? To kill my own soul and all within reach? Well, I won’t, Anderson. I’ll fight it ’til the last breath in my body. And I’ll fight you, too, because you’re part of it – the worst part. Because you belong to a living race, not a dying one. This is your land, your world. Your hands are human but your mind is enemy. You’re a traitor, Anderson. The greatest traitor of all time. And you know why? Because you’re not betraying part of mankind – you’re betraying all of it…

...I’d have to take a long hard look at anything if it was gonna change the world and me so completely.”

It also features one of the most audacious, confident ‘in the face of danger’ feminists, Beverly Garland, who goes into the cave and fights off the phallic cucumber, with a loaded phallus of her own, a 12-gage shotgun!

Whit Bissell experiments with the body beautiful…

I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1957) During the teen monster movie craze of the 1950s, there was Teenage Frankenstein. A pair of male mad scientists endeavor to create a young, muscular boy toy. Prof. Frankenstein wants to have control over his macho specimen. As the dominant one he demands that the ‘teenage Frankenstein’ Bob (Gary Conway) call him “Sir.” Bob is a track athlete who has died in a plane crash. Bissell as Prof. Frankenstein makes comments like, “Look at all those fine young athletic bodies!” The Professor does have a girlfriend as decoy, but he also watches his experiment with erotic glee while he workouts without a shirt on. “Our main concern is with your physique,” Frankenstein tells his hunky monster, from the neck down that is.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) is based on a familiar paradigm – male scientists who seek to uncover profane secrets by experimenting on young male subjects they can control. Michael Landon plays Tony Rivers, a young high school student who doesn’t fit in and goes to Dr. Alfred Brandon (Whit Bissell) to help cure him of his aggressive urges and violent outbursts. Dr. Brandon soon begins a type of hypnotherapy that regresses Tony’s subconscious, in order to discover the source of his uncontrolled rage. At that time, hypo-transgressive psychoanalytic techniques were used to root out homosexual desire.

Landon is quickly manipulated by Brandon’s powers of hypnosis, unknowingly drawn into a plot to exploit and control his primal conflict. In keeping with the tradition of homosocial men doing science horror films, Bissell has a male assistant, a queer pairing who plan on using the young boy in their immoral experiment. Of course, the experiment backfires, and they wind up unleashing Tony’s inner ‘queer’ monster.

BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957) directed by Herbert L. Strock, this tawdry film was AIP’s lesbian overture of the subgenre of 1950s science fiction/horror hybrids. Replacing the male scientist holding sway over a young male subject, the gender is flipped and the scientist is now a woman with her young female disciples. Sandra Harrison plays Nancy Perkins who is dropped off at a boarding school for troubled teenage girls after her father re-marries a really cheap floozy.

Myra says to Nancy as she tries to convince her to join their sorority, “Just remember, there’s no such thing as a lone wolf here at Sherwood. We can make life awfully miserable for oddballs.”

The school is run by the queerly irregular Mrs. Thorndyke (delicious name) who cautions the girls, “There is a power greater than science that rules the earth, and those who twist and pervert knowledge for evil only work out their own destruction. I’ll call the police.”

The science teacher Miss Blandings (Louise Lewis) who has her circle of pets, follows her experiments and her sapphic authority. As Benshoff notes, the film “brings together many different strands of U.S. post-war culture, especially fears of nuclear technology, holocaust and the rising power of the young and the hint of forbidden sexuality.”

Set in the post-WWII era, it succeeds, the early Gothic undertones of Dracula’s Daughter, propelling the theme of the lesbian vampire into the 50s decade with teenage angst and an updated milieu. Miss Brandings wears an amulet with a suggestive vagina with its three-pointed symbol, and much like Zaleska’s jeweled ring it not only has a sexual power but shares a link to the ancestry of Count Dracula. Miss Blandings like Countess Zaleski dresses in all evil black, and exudes a menacing perversity. Not unlike Whit Bissell, Blandings dabbles in hypnosis in order to manipulate her female subject.

Her motivation is to experiment with a susceptible girl she can regress. She picks Nancy “a special kind of girl-with special potential… I must find someone with the natural fire—explosiveness -close to the surface-a disturbed girl perhaps but with a will of her own.” Blandings is experimenting with unleashing primal female rage, which is seen as a destructive force.

Miss Blandings- “Remember, the deed or the responsibility is mine.”
Nancy –“Your responsibility? Like master and slave?”
Miss Blandings –“Like brain and arm. Put it out of your mind. Go on, Nancy. Go back to class.“

Nancy asks Miss Blandings for help. “Who am I? What am I doing”? I’m living a nightmare… I must do something awful, but when I try to remember all I can see is you.”

According to these films, young people that are troubled to begin with-Nancy comes from a broken home, Michael Landon’s Teenage Werewolf is a ‘hothead’ unable to control his temper are especially vulnerable to the lures and promises of older same sex adults. Whether teachers or doctors. Nancy reverts to a hairy bestial vampire and begins to kill as Miss Brandings command. (Benshoff)

Voodoo Island 1957 stars Boris Karloff who plays scholar Phillip Knight who goes to an island resort to investigate the rumors of zombies. The team also finds killer plants. Beverly Tyler and Jean Engstrom co-star as the women tag along. Tyler as Sarah is Karloff’s secretary and Engstrom plays Claire Winter a sophisticate who ogles Tyler, offering her a role in a very exclusive club of powerful women. Claire offers to mold Sarah into an exciting more alluring woman which is suggestive of enticing her into the world of lesbianism. Claire also rebuffs any male advances. She is an ice queen and it’s clear she has no interest in men.

The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957 Directed by Jack Arnold and written by the prolific Richard Matheson, it’s an existential soliloquy starring Grant Williams embodying the everyman who vanishes into oblivion. Scott Carey (Williams) becomes exposed to radiation and toxic gas and begins to shrink in size. Once he is infantilized by his wife, who can’t embrace his difference, their relationship goes sour, and Scott gets lost in a dangerous terrain right in his own basement. Ordinary objects turn life-threatening, and the minutia becomes mountains to climb. Aside from the fantastical narrative with remarkable cinematography by Ellis W. Carter, and art direction by Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen, the story can also be seen as the outsider trope and the invisibility of queerness.

I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) Tom Tryon and Gloria Talbott star as a newly married couple Bill and Marge who live in a small town that has been invaded by frightening alien monsters. The invaders infiltrate the bodies of young men, causing them to become detached and unemotional. Marge starts to sense the change in Bill, as well as her friends’ husbands as well.

Almost like the cruising spots in Central Park, the men ‘hook up’ in the local woods to go over their plans for invasion. The plan is to re-populate their race with fertile women. On the outside, the men appear to be their human selves, but their monstrous alien faces glow like lightning under their anthropomorphic visages. Either read as a straight alien invasion movie or as a secret society of men cruising outside their marriages, and the underlying monstrous ‘queer’, both scenarios are interesting ways to look at this very well-done science fiction film that closes out the 1950s genre.

Stay tuned for the last installment Chapter 5!

4 thoughts on “Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

  1. Many thanks, Joey. 👏 🙏 I used this series of articles in my thesis for uni here in Auckland. I am so pleased to tell you I earned A marks on my thesis. You have such a formidable command of this subject and I have watched many films based on this series. Thank you for helping in my studies!

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