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Quaking with Queer: A Brief History of Queer Horror Cinema

The subtext is killer.

A collage of Nosferatu, Frank-N-Furter, and Jennifer Check
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  • Photo Credit: Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Atomic, and Annie Spratt/Unsplash

The horror genre has always had a special place in the queer community. After all, haven't you ever heard that Halloween is like gay Christmas?

But it goes beyond just an admiration for the genre. Queer stories and creators are the backbone of the horror genre.

Though queer stories haven't always been allowed or accepted at the forefront of horror narratives, that didn't mean they weren't paving the way for the gruesome tales that would follow for years to come.

Walk with me through a delightfully chilling brief history of queer horror.

During my time in film school, I spent a good portion of my time studying gender, sexuality, and “the celluloid closet.” What I found was that it's incredibly difficult to trace back to the so-called origins of queerness in media.

For starters, queerness has always been there, whether it was brazen or otherwise. The Hays Code, which was a strict set of rules censoring cinema from 1934 to 1968, ensured that all traces of queer representation had to be heavily coded, or else stricken from the record entirely.

Frankly, Hays Code or not, the lack of social acceptance for queerness meant that films both pre-dating and post-dating the rigid guidelines kept most concepts of non-heterosexuality strictly subtextual. But gay always finds a way.

Early Queer Horror Movies

Queer horror, like all other horror, got it's beginnings in the oral tradition. After all, before safe queer spaces existed, much of the information passed between the LGBT+ community was by word of mouth or heavily obscured symbols.

But the first queer film that audiences and scholars alike can pinpoint might surprise you.

Most avid horror fans will have at least heard of the 1922 silent horror film, Nosferatu, the unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire novel Dracula. But many probably don't know that the director behind the project, F. W. Murnau, was a gay man.

Through the lens of German expressionism, Murnau was able to reflect queer anxieties in his seminal vampire film. In short, the character of Nosferatu was an allegory for modern values (women's liberation, Jewish and Eastern immigrants, and homosexuality) threatening the traditional ways so many at the time were clinging to.


A rare sapphic example in early horror cinema, 1936 gave audiences the queer gem Dracula's Daughter. Some of the subtext is expertly obscured, but other factors of the film are a—pardon the pun—dead giveaway.

The film really harps on a desire to be “cured” and achieve “normalcy," harkening back to the alienation of queer women at the time. But the titular daughter of Dracula, Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) also tends to sate her hunger with female models who she undresses before dining on.

In the name of keeping it relatively brief, as promised, let's fast-forward to another popular film: Rope, by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948. This film is perhaps the best example of queer obfuscation during the Hays Code.

The screenwriter of the film, Arthur Laurents, did not come out as gay until later in his life, yet the film was very clearly laced with queerness throughout. In fact, the lead antagonists in the film, Peter Dall and Farley Granger, were gay and bisexual, respectively.

The film is based on the play of the same name, which does not shy away from the fact that the killers in the story are homosexual. Though Hitchcock had to resort to queer-coding, he didn't take the straight-washing approach many directors of the time chose to take.

Queer Horror Movies of the 70s and 80s

Rushing quickly onward, we have the 1975 horror satire The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The most brazenly queer horror film to date, condensing the impact this film had on queer cinema into a few lines seems nigh impossible, considering I've written multiple 20-page papers about it.

Alas, the significance of the film seems fairly straightforward and obvious. The film pokes fun at the hypocrisy of those who hold rigid ideals of heterosexuality and conformity, and makes one of the most famous queer villains deeply empathetic.

The movie was written by Richard O'Brien, who also starred as Riff Raff. O'Brien is a controversial figure in the queer community, harboring some antiquated understandings of gender, but openly identifies themselves as a transgender individual.

I recall seeing this movie for the first time when I was six years old, and when Tim Curry descended down the elevator, declaring whole-heartedly, “What a beautiful woman!” I maybe didn't get it back then, but the queer characters never seemed like weirdos to me. I just loved them.

The film celebrates queerness and desire while exemplifying the ways in which it is othered in society.


Hopping a decade forward, any discussion about queer horror cinema would be incomplete without touching on the film A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Released in 1985, this film came out during a very difficult time for the queer community.

Not only was the HIV/AIDS devastating the queer population, a simultaneous moral panic over queerness had a stranglehold over politics. Yet here was this sequel film to a major horror hit, delivering thinly veiled, barely subtextual representation of homosexuality that was both wildly offense and incredibly identity affirming to the queer community.

First and foremost, the film centered a teenage boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) in the role of what was typically a “Final Girl"—a role which frequently grappled with coming-of-age struggles with purity and sexuality. More brazenly, one of Jesse's nightmares takes place at a gay bar, as well as the common locale for queer anxieties, the high school locker room.

The film turns the queer into the monstrous, which is undoubtedly a hurtful concept, and proved to be one for the film's leading actor, who spoke about at length in his documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.

But the film also seems to speak to the very real feelings brewing in the queer community, finding sameness in their internal hurts, and gained a hefty cult following.

Two years later, the gay community got their holy grail of horror films: The Lost Boys. With all the glorious campiness of the 80s, this film tackled the inherently sexual trope of vampirism, and did it using incredibly attractive men.

I mean this with all the love in my heart and as the highest compliment: director Joel Schumacher couldn't make a heterosexual movie if he wanted to. It's why his Batman films will always be my favorite.

To describe what makes the movie a queer masterpiece would be to describe the entire film beat by beat, save for the one weak attempt to pretend there was heterosexuality present with the singular female vampire in the film, Star (Jami Gertz).

And she's beautiful, sure, but she doesn't really talk, and she certainly doesn't get the hazy glamor shots the strapping young men of the film benefit from.

One of the film's stars, Alex Winter, is even quoted as saying the homoeroticism of the film was “freaking obvious.”

The Double-Edged Sword of Queer Horror

With all of the queer wins in horror cinema, there are some pretty defining queer losses. Particularly in regards to transgender individuals, there is consistent villianization and mockeries being made of queer bodies.

The 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs is one of the more infamously toxic examples with its portrayal of Buffalo Bill, but it's not alone, finding company in films like Sleepaway Camp and Dressed to Kill.

The “bury your gays” trope gets complicated when it comes to films where death is the norm, but even horror has it's share of happy endings. It seems that even in horror films by queer creators, queer triumph is a rarity.

Contemporary Queer Horror Movies

Things are getting better, though. There are more and more contemporary horror films that give audiences queerness without having to scour through layers of meaning, such as Let the Right One In, Jennifer's Body, What Keeps You Alive, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Knock at the Cabin.

And more and more movies and media properties are taking their original framework and leaning into its queerness. Chucky, Interview with the Vampire, Scream.

Why do queer people love horror? Maybe because queerness and the macabre both stand as counterculture to the “norm.”

Maybe it's because queer people have been made to feel monstrous their entire lives, and horror movies make them feel like they're seen, like they can breathe.

Or maybe it's because a staple of horror movies is actually a staple of queerness: camp.

It could be all of these reasons. It could be none of them.

But horror has always been an escape for the community, a genre where they could stretch the bounds of the weird. Maybe in contemporary films, it has even become a home.

History is still trucking onward, and I'm excited to see what the next few decades of queer horror cinema brings. In the meantime, dive even deeper into queer horror history with the docuseries Queer for Fear and the nonfiction book Queer Screams.

Featured: Annie Spratt/Unsplash