**Editor’s Note: The Long and (Often) Dysfunctional History of Lesbians in Horror Films is a continuation of iHorror’s Horror Pride Month celebration.
The ties between the horror film and the LGBTQ community has been, at best, tenuous and coded and at worst, outright sensationalized and damaging.
True, some films in recent years have begun to change this trend. Richard Jenkins nuanced and honest portrayal of a closeted gay man in a time when you could still be arrested just for being gay in del Toro’s The Shape of Water comes to mind.
Still, the appearance of the queer community is sparing at the best of times and such honest portrayals are few and far between. While each of the letters in LGBTQ have their own issues to deal with inside the genre, and will be dealt with in further articles this month, it sometimes seems that lesbians may have a longer history to contend with.
At different times fetishized, demonized, or quietly queer-coded so that only those looking for them will find them, the lesbian community has been on the front lines in queer representation in the genre from the beginning and almost always to the detriment of the lesbians in question.
Our first installment looks specifically at those films that fell most heavily under the Hays Code, an early “morality” code for film ratings in which the depiction of any sort of same sex coupling (along with open mouthed kissing, interracial couples, and offense against the clergy) were strictly forbidden.
This didn’t mean that queer characters weren’t present, but it certainly meant that they had to be hidden and were almost certainly doomed to die.
This list is not all-encompassing by any means, but is meant only to give examples of these characters during certain time periods. If you have others you’d like to point out, please let us know in the comments!
Starring Gloria Holden, Dracula’s Daughter was the first official sequel to Dracula, and picks up where the former left off with Countess Marya Zaleska (Holden), vampiric daughter of the now-dead Count, stealing his body with the help of her manservant. It seems that she feels if she destroys the body, she will be free of their shared curse.
This, of course, doesn’t work, and so the Countess’ inner battle continues. She soon gives over to her instincts and lo and behold a young and beautiful woman is brought to her to “paint”.
Her name is Lili and the sexual tension is palpable in their scene together and it’s plain to anyone watching that the Countess seems to want the girl for more than her blood. She attacks Lili as the camera pans away to the image of a devil mask.
It was one of the first times that a lesbian was painted as the villain in a horror film, and of course, that lesbian/vampire had no control over her desires. Because she couldn’t put away what was “unnatural” about herself, ultimately she had to be destroyed.
Some would argue whether Rebecca actually qualifies as a horror film. I, myself, consider it one of the greatest ghost stories ever made by the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, the title character is never actually seen in the film. In fact, she died several years before the film begins, but her spirit is ever present, though unseen, throughout the film.
A young, and interestingly enough never named woman (Joan Fontaine), marries the handsome Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) after being swept off her feet. He takes her back to his home, Manderley, where she discovers she is the second Mrs. de Winter and comes face to face with the terrifying housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who seems as obsessed with her former employer as Maxim is.
In one pivotal scene, Danvers catches young Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca’s old rooms and taking the moment to drive home that the new wife will never measure up to the old, shows her Rebecca’s old wardrobe, and the fine things that she would wear. Danvers lingers over Rebecca’s underwear, pointing out how fine and sheer they were, running them over her hands.
Once again, though it’s never spoken aloud, the coding is there, and it’s pretty clear that Danvers felt much more than a servant’s devotion to Rebecca. Of course, this couldn’t stand in the days of the Hays Code, and so Mrs. Danvers was fated to die, burning to death in Manderley’s halls.
1943–The Seventh Victim
Starring Kim Hunter, The Seventh Victim, was one of the first ties that lesbianism and Satanism were tied together on film, though once again, the word is never uttered. Directed by Mark Robson and produced by horror auteur Val Lewton, The Seventh Victim is, in many ways, an enigma to this day.
For one thing, it actually portrayed women standing up to men and being assertive in ways that were unheard of in the industry at the time.
A young woman named Mary (Hunter) goes in search of her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) after the latter misses the tuition payment that allows Mary to stay in school. Her search leads her through a labyrinth of mystery and possible murder as she discovers that Jacqueline had become a member of a Satanic cult whose members may have wanted her dead.
It seems the recently married Jacqueline’s marriage might have also been a front, and that she was actually in love with her hairdresser, Frances (Isabel Jewell).
In fact, in one pivotal scene, Frances, under pressure from the cult members, first tries to convince Jacqueline to drink poison before stopping her while shouting, “I can’t let you die! The only time I was ever happy was with you!”
Pretty intense and overt for 1943, right?
Naturally, in the end, Jacqueline commits suicide by hanging herself (are you seeing a pattern here yet?) while in voiceover quoting the poet John Donne, “I run to death, and death meets as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterdays.”
One of the finest films of its kind, 1963’s The Haunting was based on equally impressive material written by Shirley Jackson.
Made as the Hays Code was losing some of its power, it was still not okay by industry standards to include an openly lesbian character, but for once, she did not die.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it centers on a Dr. Markway, a parapsychologist trying to prove the existence of ghosts. He invites a group of carefully selected guests who have exhibited psychic abilities to Hill House, a famously haunted structure.
Among those guests is the emotionally traumatized Eleanor (Julie Harris) and the mysterious Theo (Claire Bloom), a rather chic clairvoyant who just also happens to be a lesbian.
Now, remember, they could not say anything outright about Theo. Instead, her story is told in off the cuff remarks, her spurning of male attention, and the loving way that she takes to Eleanor almost immediately.
“What scares you?” Eleanor asks Theo at one point in the film.
“Knowing what I really want,” Theo replies.
It was, perhaps, the most sensitive portrayal they could manage at the time, and it was beautifully played by Bloom.
What’s more, unlike many coded lesbian characters who came before her, Theo was not predatory nor was she a “hard woman”. And, as previously mentioned, she actually survives the entirety of the film.
The portrayal of Theo in The Haunting came a long way from that of Marya in Dracula’s Daughter, but the 70s were right around the corner, and though lesbian characters would appear to move into a more prominent place in the genre, they also took a turn from hidden in the shadows to the center of exploitation.
Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of “The Long and (Often) Dysfunctional History of Lesbians in Horror Films” coming soon!