From 1934 until 1967, Hollywood movies were shaped by the Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code. Written in 1930, but not implemented until four years later, this set of rules was generally intended to keep movies from “corrupting” the people who watched them. Given that homosexuality was considered either a physical or psychological malady in the early 20th century, the code effectively legislated any limited queer presence out of existence. While homosexuality was not explicitly banned in the Hays’ text, it was mandated that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” It was also codified that only “correct standards of life” should be presented,” and that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”
In other words, for a long time, cinematic queers were pushed underground, relegated to existing only in subtext — and most often as villains. In order to get queer stories onscreen, filmmakers had to find creative ways to subvert the system.
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. Below is a beginner’s guide to the most essential queer horror of the past 90 years. It also doubles as a timeline of the evolution of queer horror: How LGBTQA themes and characters went from hiding between the lines in movies with “gay sensibilities” in the 1930s to breaking out as Pride memes almost a century later — going from invisible (lesbian ghosts!) to closeted (literally, in the case of Dorian Gray) to fabulously out (who wouldn’t have given in to Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock?), before finally being allowed to exist as multidimensional characters onscreen.
From the coded abominations of James Whale’s taboo-skirting films of the 1930s to the Pride reign of The Babadook, here’s our guide to queer horror cinema.
The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters
Queerness was codified as taboo when the Hays Code went into effect in 1934. But at the same time, the public was hungry for fantastical stories of monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, and so on — all of which are convenient avatars for the socially ostracized, the misunderstood, and the disenfranchised. 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.