LGBT Representation in the Modern Horror Film

nightmare on elm street

James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud

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With Halloween just a few weeks away, now seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at the (mis)representation of LGBT people in mainstream horror. Horror fiction is often camp, kitsch and utterly barmy; surely a perfect combination for the gay community? Alas, as a horror fanatic, I can never quite square my admiration for the genre with the fact that it treats its LGBT characters so shoddily.

Why then, in this enlightened era of same sex marriage, new-Grindr interface and Lady Gaga, are LGBT people still so under-represented in horror cinema? If a mainstream horror film does have a “token gay” it’s safe to assume all of the following:

1. He’ll fit into one of two basic categories.

2. He’ll have chosen looks over books.

3. He ain’t gonna make it to the end.

In essence, he’ll either be camp, flamboyant and played-for-laughs – in which case most audiences will look forward to his gory death – or he’ll be so confused about his sexuality that he’ll seek to prove Sir Gerald Howarth right and take out his aggression on his classmates with an assortment of garden tools and sharp cutlery. Either way the poor bastard’s ending the film on a mortician’s slab. I’m not sure we should complain though; after all if you’re L, B or T the chances are you won’t make it past the cutting room floor, so perhaps gay guys should count themselves lucky.

In order to understand exactly why the horror industry has such a flaky record on LGBT representation we first need to go back to 1950s America and the era of green lawns, racial segregation and McCarthyism. As a genre, horror is progressive and surprisingly left-wing which is why it has always been subject to some of the tightest levels of censorship and regulation. In the 1950s, horror’s subversive nature was seen as an affront to “traditional American values” and it can be no coincidence that the most successful releases of that era were all about alien invasions and the threat of Communism. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them! and The Thing (From Another World) preyed on audiences’ fear of “the other” with a political subtext that was so obvious it’s a small wonder the invaders didn’t burst into a rendition of the Internationale while they were taking over the World. Of course, almost in spite of their success, the concept of these films was simple; “the other” went against the norm, ergo “the other” was scary.

So that’s how Communists are born then.

What’s important about all of this is that to a white, straight, middle-class male audience, “the other” can be very broad indeed. Any minority or social group that didn’t suit the values of the “American Dream” was essentially ignored or treated as something to be feared. This wasn’t the sole fault of the horror industry, rather it was the result of an often obvious but sometimes surreptitious propaganda campaign against Communism and the Soviet Union. If you wanted your film to be approved for distribution then certain values and guidelines had to be adhered to; values such as – but not limited to – racism, homophobia and rampant sexism. God bless America eh?

This problem affected much of Hollywood, but the horror genre suffered particularly heavily because it was already viewed with disdain as a result of its violent and sexual content. The conservative revolution of the 70s and 80s saw a further clampdown, this time via an attack on what were known as the “video nasties”. Artistic freedom and creativity were both stunted by a reactionary campaign that categorically failed to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, with films such as The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave and The Driller Killer being banned on grounds of “indecency”. The state-sanctioned suppression of art is always worrying, but when it’s based on a notion as subjective and arbitrary as “decency” it’s absolutely terrifying. That, however, is exactly how it happened.

When faced with such a hostile form of regulation, it’s tough to deviate from “the norm” without facing a heavy backlash. As such “normal” LGBT characters – along with BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) characters – have fallen so far into the background that their rare appearances in the genre often feel gimmicky. See, for example, the much-maligned A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 in which the main character – Jesse (Mark Patton) – is presented as an emotionally confused young man struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. As the film progresses Jesse keeps having dreams about another man – Freddy (Robert Englund) – taking over his body. These dreams involve the penetration of male flesh, a repulsion of female sexuality and a frankly indulgent amount of BDSM. When he isn’t dreaming, Jesse is wrestling seductively with his hot male friend and running away from his girlfriend during sex so he can spend more time in said friend’s bedroom. So yeah, Jesse’s definitely gay then…

With dance moves like that how could Jesse not be gay?

Even to a staunch literalist, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II is little more than a coming-out allegory, albeit one in which the villain looks a bit like Jackie Stallone after one facelift too many. The disappointing thing is that – had it been any good – this film could have represented a real turning point for LGBT horror cinema. Alas, it was utter shite. Worse still, thirty years on, not all that much has changed. LGBT representation in horror cinema has been all but abandoned by mainstream filmmakers and is now the niche of a subgenre that has slowly but surely developed a devoted following of its own. “Gay horror” is, in simple terms, a subgenre in which the tables are turned so that it is scantily-clad men – rather than women – who are being stalked, butchered and abused. Films like Hellbent (which is a great title by the way) and Bugcrush offer something a bit new, but the problem is that they’re marketed primarily as LGBT cinema rather than horror cinema, almost as though the “horror” element is an afterthought. It’s a step in the right direction and I won’t begrudge these films their market, but this approach doesn’t really get to the root of the problem.

You see, there’s a lot more at work here than a lack of mainstream appeal and a bit of overzealous regulation. For the most part – particularly in the United Kingdom – the power of the regulators has now been consigned to the dustbin of history. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) is much more tolerant than it once was and the vast majority of the video nasties have now been released in all their uncensored glory. Though homosexuality might still be enough to bring the Phelps Family out in a rash, the public-at-large are much more liberal about “teh gays” than they were thirty years ago. Nevertheless, LGBT people remain largely unrepresented in mainstream horror cinema. Why? Well, it all boils down to the simple fact that horror and sex have always been intrinsically linked.

From the European gothic literature of the 18th century to the fetishist works of Clive Barker and everything in-between, horror has always preyed on man’s fear of sex and sexuality, particularly female sexuality. Films like Alien, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby are obsessed with the dangerous consequences of pregnancy, while books / films like Stephen King’s Carrie treat female adolescence and menstruation as two of the most powerful forces on Earth. Almost all horror fiction has its basis in man’s subconscious fear of powerful women and female sexuality and it’s very hard to portray that through the eyes of a gay man.

Moral of the tale; don’t get pregnant with Satan’s kid…

The reason these fears work best when seen through the eyes of straight men/women is because these characters act as the feint through which the male audience experiences much of the action and are therefore the characters that they can most relate to. In the “slasher” genre the POV often shifts in the final act from the (male) killer to the (female) victim. Throughout much of the film the audience is encouraged to cheer on the killer as he butchers and bludgeons his way through a menagerie of attractive but brainless young women because we see a lot of the action from his POV. When just a few people are left, the audience is manipulated into shifting their support as, slowly but surely, the POV changes so that we start to see much of the action from the POV of the “last woman standing”. The battle of the sexes has driven horror fiction for decades – perhaps even centuries – and throwing a gay man into the mix would destroy that well-worn formula. Maybe this, above all else, is why mainstream horror (which never seems to take risks anymore) remains so reluctant to improve its representation of the LGBT community.

Those of you unfortunate enough to have endured the abomination that is Scream 4 (stylised Scre4m… yeah, I know) might recall one of the characters – Charlie (Rory Culkin) – claiming that in order to survive a modern horror film “you’ve pretty much gotta be gay”. As I hope you can now see, what Charlie meant to say was that in order to even appear in a modern horror film “you’ve pretty much gotta be white, straight, middle-class, virginal (within reason; after all it is the 21st century) and really boring”. Damn! That’s most of us out at the first hurdle then. Oh well, at least we’ve still got Michael Bay’s new horror project to look forward to…

*Shoots self repeatedly in the head*

Next week I’ll take a look at the problematic misrepresentation of trans-people in horror fiction, as well as examining why bisexuals and lesbians are even more under-represented than gay men. In the meantime go and hunt out a copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 because it really does need to be seen to be believed…