What Makes Horror Queer?

queer horror Babadook

This article is very much a self-reflective piece and not meant to be an instructional one. It is neither authoritative in that I am telling you how to think or feel. Please regard it as more using this medium to explore a question through a queer lens. I am a queer trans woman so I have a little bit of a differing viewpoint than most. You could probably just attribute a whole lot of these thoughts to my never-ending questioning of myself, the influence of people around me, and those that I talk with in my little horror bubble. However, I feel they’re important enough to scream into the uncaring yet somehow absolutely validating and neverending void that is the internet.

With all that out of the way, let’s get into this! Besides my own thoughts on the subject, which we’ll get to in a minute, there is seemingly a never-ending discussion of what makes a horror movie queer? I want to dive into this and really get to the meat and viscera of it all.

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When I ponder the question, ‘what makes horror queer?’ I feel that it is a little too simplistic. This is a topic that requires taking a variety of factors into consideration. Both in real life and in film. For me, the first things that come to mind can be boiled down to four questions:

  • Does the inclusion of a queer actor or crew member automatically “infect” a whole production?
  • Is the topic or subject of the film queer?
  • What if a movie is written by a queer author but the film doesn’t implicitly deal with a queer story?
  • Is the movie queer horror because of being memed into existence like The Babadook?

With these constraints in mind, let’s scratch the surface of a fraction of what queer horror is and can be.

Like I said earlier, I cannot speak for everyone, nor am I an authority on the subject. I may know a bit after reading up on queer history over decades, working on Shudder’s Queer For Fear, and having discussions with other queer friends on the subject. However, like Plato’s account of what Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing,” is a statement that rings very, very true. Queer history is such a complex and intricate subject. The more you learn about it, the more you realize that you only know a sliver of it. You know nothing but the highlights. We’re taught events and roadblocks such as The Lavender Scare, The Stonewall Riots, the AIDS Genocide, and Hays Code Erasure.

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In order for me to address these questions more than a little bit of context is required. It is a very challenging topic to answer when everything gets muddled for a decent percentage of the lifespan of film. Cinema has been around for about 129 years as of this writing. For 34 years, a vile form of censorship named the Hays Code.

This code prohibited many things such things as drug use, profanity, suggestive or realistic violence, and sexual persuasions. This makes 34 years of censorship of queer lives. Those years add up to a little over a quarter of the entire existence of cinema that queer lives were erased. In order to get your film screened in theaters and accepted for a rating, you had to adhere to this code.

The code was aggressively heteronormative. So, queerness was stuffed into subtext, such as with Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter from 1936. The way that Marya seduces and preys upon young women was a problem even before filming. There was so much of an issue that the script had to be reworked to avoid even the merest suggestion that anything perverse sexual desire going on. With these heteronormative narratives, you had to vilify queerness in coding villains with certain recognizable and stereotypical traits. Then you typically kill them just like what happens with Countess Marya at the end of the film.

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This was heavily rooted in misogyny due to one of the main stereotypes being effeminate men and the predatory queer woman. For 34 years, this explicitly erased queer relationships. Its effects are still felt today by people who were inspired by this media and use these tropes without nary a thought to what they are doing. This molds the way the overall populace perceives queer individuals, including those individuals themselves. The ramifications of this are impossible to quantify. 

The two topics are intricately entwined and deal with the erasure of transgender people in horror films until the 1930s. To this day, there barely exist movies with trans people in them. If they do then they are almost always typically white trans women. Trans men and non-binary people are just about non-existent in queer horror. It’s even worse when you try to think of trans people of color who even exist in the queer horror canon. This erasure comes from not only racism but also the existence of Anti-Crossdressing laws, and the mass murder of queer individuals done by the nazis in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

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Anti-crossdressing laws were all the rage in many cities. One of the earliest was in New York City, 1845 which was finally repealed in 2021. These laws required a person to wear a certain number of items of clothing based solely on their birth sex or they would be arrested. Basically, unless you passed PERFECTLY you were in grave danger. These laws are the straw that broke the camel’s back. They caused resentment and anger.

Eventually everyone became so tired of being subjugated that their anger turned to fury. This caused the first bottles and bricks thrown at the cops during the Stonewall Raid. I hesitate to call this a riot because Stonewall wasn’t a riot. It was a police raid due to anti-crossdressing laws. This is why people say that cops do not belong at Pride, and they are right in this sentiment! This was a battle for the ability to live your life authentically. 

As I’m discussing Stonewall I want to take a moment to thank and recognize the queer women of color that took control of their own lives and stood up for others just like them. Thanks to these individuals, trans women like me have more rights than they did. It’s all thanks to them for taking physical action. Thank you Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Zazu Nova for not sitting back. Thank you for fighting for basic human rights. Especially when it comes to the right to privacy and to be left alone.

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Stonewall became the beginning of the contemporary fight for queer rights after 20-ish years of stagnation and erasure thanks to the Nazi’s destruction of the world’s first queer rights organization and medical facility. This facility was known as the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, translated into English as The Institute For Human Sexuality. They pioneered techniques still used to this day for gender-affirming surgeries in 1938. But it wouldn’t be until the early 1950s for this knowledge to actually be put to test. The facility was raided. Lists of the patients were used by the Nazis to round them up for “cleansing”. The building as well as all the documentation containing nearly four decades of research burned and bombed. With all of this unadulterated hatred and erasure, there are times when physical action is required.

It would take until the late 20th to the first quarter of the 21st century before you could see explicitly queer themes and plots play out without needing to be hidden behind a layer of otherness. The first explicitly gay slasher, Hellbent, did not exist until 2004.

Now with that context out of the way, let’s get back to the four questions I posited earlier. In order to get different perspectives besides my own, I asked four people from diverse backgrounds to see how they define queer horror. Through their answers, you will find a variety of explanations and definitions showing how they experience life and the horror genre.

Kara Hagerty

The first person I interviewed was Kara Hagerty, a queer, trans, horror musician by day and horror writer by night. Her pronouns are she/her/they/them. She isn’t a consistently active part of the horror sphere but is a part of it nonetheless. Her talents are vast, just like her knowledge. I have met very few people able to absorb so much history and have the ability to entertain you while delivering some knowledge bombs. She sees horror in everyone and that is heavily reflected in her music as well as her writings.

In your opinion, what makes horror queer?

“Horror is a lot like a kink. It depends on the reason you’re watching it, and it can be an acquired taste. Sometimes people watch horror to deal with their complex trauma. If you’re gay or trans that’s most likely gonna happen. If you’re anything that isn’t deemed normal (i.e. cisgender, white, and straight) that’s what will happen. Horror is inherently queer, a language of memories, running up that Sisyphean hell fearing that every queer protagonist is gonna die. They typically do. Every trans/genderqueer person or flaming queer is one of the the ‘two genders’. It’s not ‘Scream Queen,’ or ‘Final Girl,’ but Alive or Dead!

One could argue that all final girls are queer because by no choice of their own they are targeted in sequel after sequel representing the survival trope. That’s what we as queer people all are in real life; constantly hypervigilant, fully aware that we need to learn how to enjoy life both after and before the next ‘sequel’ because it’s the only time before we are murdered or unceremoniously killed off-screen like Laurie Strode in Halloween Resurrection.

No one cares about the statistics of dead queer people. I can’t look up statistics that are accurate about all the dead queer people. But I can look up my Halo Infinite score. Upon rewatching Fear Street with my queer lover and friend of many years, it’s clear to me that that is queer horror in its purest form. It’s about girls who know that they’re doomed, not just your typical final girls. It’s essentially like the anime Madoka Magika but with more blood, stabbing, and the playing with/reversal of tropes such as one character being literal queer bait, and burying your gays yet bringing them back to life tropes.

Oftentimes with cis-hets our moment of self-actualization and acquiring dignity is a threat to them and requires fighting back. What people see as the most tragic moments of our lives can be the most dignified; fighting our monsters, even violently and viscerally. Nothing is more queer than that.”

Does the inclusion of a queer actor or crew member automatically “infect” a whole production?

“No, unless you consider gay to be a positive contagion. Also, it really depends on their intent, where they are in the hierarchy of production, and whether or not they’re a main character. It’s not our job to make productions better but it does help us being there, usually.”

What if the movie is written by a queer author but the film doesn’t implicitly deal with a queer story?

“They deserve all the recognition and money, so yes. I would include it in the queer canon. We are having genocide committed against us, by politicians, fascists, and society in general. We will take what we can get. Despite not implicitly dealing with a queer story, it becomes queer by the point of view and lived experiences of the author. Consider the movie, The Faculty. Due to the gay writer’s point of view you can view the movie as a bunch of adults, alien or not forcing kids to conform to their standards. What is more queer than that? Convert or die.”

Is the movie queer horror because of being memed into existence like The Babadook?

“Fascists and bigots with no imagination take our symbols from us. The world doesn’t give us good things, so we have to take them like piracy. When you’re gay in America, like criminals, you take what you can get, or what we can claim as ours. They do not want to invent their own symbol just like capitalism; they take everything we love even for innocuous reasons. The path of least resistance is very often the only one we can afford or what we have the energy for. So yes the Babadook is part of the queer horror canon and we have co-opted it before some asshole does.”

Alice Maio Mackay

My next interviewee is Alice Maio Mackay, a 17-year-old transgender woman from Australia. Her pronouns are she/her. This woman has multiple shorts under her belt already such as Tooth 4 Tooth, Boys Night, and The Serpent’s Nest. Now she’s moved on to making feature films, her first, So Vam was recently released on VOD. At the moment she is currently in post-production on her next feature film Bad Girl Boogey, a queer horror slasher.

In your opinion, what makes horror queer?

“I think what makes horror queer is totally up to the viewer. Whether the media has explicitly queer characters/themes, or if the creative team/actors are queer or even if a person is able to identify with themes and scenarios that are more subtly queer. I think it can definitely be any of those factors or even a culmination of those elements. But at the end of the day, I feel it’s however the viewer reads and connects with the text.”

Does the inclusion of a queer actor or crew member automatically “infect” a whole production?

“I think it fully depends on their involvement in the production. But say a queer actor is playing a role that isn’t inherently queer coded or their sexuality isn’t stated. I still think they can be bringing aspects of their own journey to the role that may be able to resonate deeper with queer audience members. Same with the direction. Even if the text isn’t explicitly queer coded, I think they bring their own unique lived perspective to the production regardless of the material presented. So, on a deeper level, it could be perceived as queer.”

What if the movie is written by a queer author but the film doesn’t implicitly deal with a queer story?

“I think that if a movie is written by a queer author but doesn’t explicitly deal with a queer story, writers can still bring in their own lived experiences and diverse perspectives so even if it’s on a subconscious level there would be some queer coded elements to the piece.”

Is the movie a queer horror because of being memed into existence like The Babadook?

“I definitely don’t think this is a super common thing to occur, but I think because ‘The Babadook’ was ‘memed’ (so to speak), into being connected with queer audiences, that viewers were able to analyse and watch the film with this in mind and therefore discover queer themes or relate to the film in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Logan Ashley Kisner

Our third interviewee is one of the foremost historians on transgender horror, Logan Ashley Kisner. Their pronouns are he/him/it and I have to say in the short amount of time I have gotten to know him that he is an endless font of knowledge regarding horror films and transgender people. The research he has freely shared with me is so methodical, in-depth, and well organized that it astounds me. It bears repeating, the more I learn, the more I know very, very little of my own history. You can find Logan through the many links on his LinkTree.

In your opinion, what makes horror queer?

“The easy answer to this is absolutely “when it includes queer people and themes”. But I think an actual answer is: when you’re dealing with horror that intentionally or unintentionally relates to gender, sexuality, and community. What makes horror queer is when that horror focuses on the physical and social elements of people deemed ‘abnormal’, and how that affects the individual and larger society as I think it fully depends on their involvement in the production.

But say a queer actor is playing a role that isn’t inherently queer coded or their sexuality isn’t stated. I still think they can be bringing aspects of their own journey to the role that may be able to resonate deeper with queer audience members. Same with the direction, even if the text isn’t explicitly queer coded. I think they bring their own unique lived perspective to the production regardless of the material presented. So, on a deeper level, it could be perceived as queer as well.”

Does the inclusion of a queer actor or crew member automatically “infect” a whole production?

“I love your phrasing of this: I think it does! A film is made of so many different perspectives and experiences that a queer one affects the end product just as much or as little as anything else does. The set designer for NOES2 being gay comes to mind; it wouldn’t have seriously altered the final product if they hadn’t been gay. But it’s a notable thing that they were and their gayness remains in the film visibly.”

What if the movie is written by a queer author but the film doesn’t implicitly deal with a queer story?

“Even if the story itself is not implicitly queer, I think every author leaves traces of themselves in their stories. That queerness may absolutely still be evident in a story that doesn’t deal with queerness. Or it can deal with queerness in a subtle way: themes of isolation, body horror, sexual terror, etc.”

Is the movie a queer horror because of being memed into existence like The Babadook?

“I think a movie might not be able to be queer *just* from meme alone. But I think that movies can garner queer readings from memes. For example, transgender Evil Dead was mostly memes about Ash having a “girl” name, and then slowly people started taking it more seriously. “It depends” probably isn’t a super satisfactory answer. But I do think that memes can actually force people to think about the subject matter seriously if they think about it jokingly to begin with.”

Dani Bethea

Now with one more perspective that is fantastically thought out and succinct, we have the very talented Dani Bethea. Their pronouns are she/they/them. You can find their writing right here on Medium, and I will always be screaming from the rooftops to check out these deeply insightful articles giving you something to think about afterward. They are insightful and full of empathy.

In your opinion, what makes horror queer?

“Queer horror pushes the boundaries of heteronormativity and the bodies that exist therein.”

Does the inclusion of a queer actor or crew member automatically “infect” a whole production?

“The presence of an individual queer person never infects or affects others to be less homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc. Truly, the entire production team has to have an established politic and inclusivity that will make the individual and everyone feel safe on set.”

What if the movie is written by a queer author but the film doesn’t implicitly deal with a queer story?

“A queer author does not necessarily a queer film make; however, some winks and camp could potentially be injected where it may not be present in a non-queer written text.”

Is the movie a queer horror because of being memed into existence like The Babadook?

“Films can take on a life of their own once in the hands of the masses, i.e., The Babadook, which can result in the queer community latching onto an aspect of the film that resonates (the villain, the ‘final girl’, etc.)”

As to my feelings on the first question of what makes horror queer, it’s actually impossible to definitively define queer horror because it’s such a nebulous, ever-changing subject. You have to look at queer horror through the lens of the time it was created and understand its cultural and political climate. Some movies are explicity queer and others, you have to look under layers and layers of subtext to even find it.

The best example of subtext as well as possibly unintended subtext is the 1935 film, Bride of Frankenstein. First, the book Frankenstein was written by a bisexual teenager by the name of Mary Shelley. The director of the first two Frankenstein films, James Whale, lived as a gay man “out” in the entertainment industry, an open secret. Whale directs the story of one man who leaves his wife that he just married to live with another man in a gothic castle to create a new life together. Hmmmmm, feels a little queer to me! 

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These two men, Dr. Frankenstein played by Colin Clive who was rumored to be bisexual, joins forces with another mad scientist played by Ernest Thesinger named Dr. Pretorious. Thesinger himself was one of the most out gay men of his generation. With their queer energy combined with Whale’s direction, and the source material, this inadvertently helped to create this astoundingly queer film. Both performances of Clive and Thesinger are campy. Camp is very much a trait utilized in queer horror and camp is very much a queer aesthetic and style which is used to show something as dynamic and lively, something that seeks to challenge the status quo. It’s seen in the first film with Clive’s portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein’s God Complex and then some. 

When put together with Thesinger’s Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein, they bring high camp to an all-new level. These two men birth another being into this world who themselves could be seen as a metaphor for transness. Last year, I wrote an article about the trans themes behind Frankenstein, to keep this short I’ll give you the cliff notes. This being created by Frankenstein and Thesinger is a newly stitched-up body (not all trans people have surgery, however many go that route).

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If she had survived she would have had the same treatment from the townspeople that Frankenstein’s first creation went through, mirroring what happens to many trans people when they come out. She would be ostracized and shunned. She’d have to learn her new place within society, a thing to be hidden. She would have to dig deep and figure out who she really is now. She’s not the same person as before, she’s transcended and been born into something else.

With all these different influences and a reanalysis through a queer lens, this can be read as an EXTREMELY queer film. According to the director James Whale, it was definitely not intended to be a queer allegory. Yet with this example, we’re told something isn’t queer, but those involved and the way they experience the world have influenced what we see on screen. Bride of Frankenstein is an irrefutable queer horror classic. One I would consider a staple of the genre and a full-on in-your-face queer horror, one of the foundational films in the queer horror canon. 

Also Read: The Bride and Her Daughters: 5 Horror Films About Ill-Fated Marriages And Queerness

As to the question of whether or not someone’s queerness could infect a production, I would say yes. Bride of Frankenstein is a great example of how queerness can inform a performance or even an entire film by a queer individual’s presence. I also think of actors like Clea DuVall who plays Stokely in The Faculty. This character masquerades as a lesbian to keep people away from her. But based on her actions in the film, I would clock Stokely as possibly bisexual. DuVall is such an icon that her presence makes everything queerer by existing.

There is a unique viewpoint to being queer that you gain by living in the society that you do. It can create some wholly unique ideas that could only come from that perspective. Context and perspective are key here. Queer subject matter will seep into whatever an author writes or the way a queer actor approaches a performance, even if unintentional. Context and perspective inform the way we view and are treated by the world.

Finally as to my view on whether a non-queer movie can be memed into existence such as The Babadook, I say yes. We should be taking as many possible characters and accepting them into the queer space for us. We don’t have much and the more people, characters, and memes we have, the more visible we are, and the more heard we are the more progress can be made for equal rights for all humans regardless of gender or sexuality. People have been meme’d into a presidency so we know it’s a viable way to gain acceptance. Let’s meme queerness hard and be louder than ever. It’s important for our future and for the next generation of queer kids that are out there right now.

Also Read: Body Horror and Growing Up Trans

This essay has taken me weeks to put together, and I have put a lot of thought into this. I hope this will make you think a little bit about what everyone has said about this subject. I implore you to ponder what has been discussed here. Please keep in mind what I was talking about earlier, it bears repeating. The history behind the subjugation of the LGBTQIA+ population and how the era one lives in informs the definition of what queer horror is at its core.

To be completely honest with you, I personally can’t define queer horror adequately enough to do it justice. There is so much history and so many different viewpoints behind the topic that it is neigh impossible to nail down what queer horror truly is at its core. It’s different for everybody. So, what does queer horror mean to you?



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