In this article:
- The creature features of the 1930s-1950s were just cheap thrills on the surface but their characters and stories were the product of an increasingly tense and dangerous moral panic that was sweeping the nation.
- In spite of strict censorship laws, filmmakers found in creature features the wiggle room they needed to tell queer stories thinly veiled as horror.
- Though not exactly positive representations, these queer-coded monsters gave LGBT+ audiences relatable characters at a time when queer people were being treated as monsters.
- The often sympathetic portrayal of these queer-coded monsters as being innocent at their core but wrestling with an inborn “evil” they can’t seem to shake resonated with queer moviegoers who battled internalized homophobia and risked their livelihoods if they dared embrace who they really were.
The monsters of horror are more than just something to make us jump in our seats. They’re funhouse mirrors held up to society.
In mid-century America, that society was one in the grips of Cold War era paranoia in which people were terrified that their moral purity would be tainted by unsavory ideas like human rights and market regulations.
Alongside the well-known Red Scare of the Cold War era, there was another, lesser-known strain of moral panic referred to as the lavender scare.
Just as Commies were hiding around every corner to recruit your children into the Red Army, there were Gay men and Lesbians right behind them, waiting to turn your children gay.
This wasn’t just personal bigotry, either, this was a widespread and institutionalized system of moral panic which saw the influx of regulations and covert operations meant to root out homosexuals.
In a very Palpatine-circa-Order-66 move, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 in 1953, officially barring homosexuals from federal employment and initiating a nationwide program that would see over 5,000 people fired and thousands of applicants for federal jobs rejected on suspicions of “sexual perversion.”
A whole system of detection methods was implemented to identify queer people, many of which (as you can probably imagine) are insane.
Interviews were conducted to observe a person’s mannerisms, posture, and behavior for “signs” of homosexuality. People were spied on outside of work hours to find out if they were visiting gay bars. Their friends and families were visited and if anyone you associated with showed signs of being gay, you might be found guilty of being gay by association.
“This is one thing you cannot get away with,” a police officer told a room full of children in 1966. “If you don’t get caught by us, you’ll be caught by yourself and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”
Many state and local governments soon followed suit, putting millions more LGBT+ employees in the position of either being fired immediately or forced to sign oaths attesting to their “moral purity” to keep their jobs.
You can see the seeds of fragile masculinity planted here. In a time when merely being suspected of homosexuality could put your livelihood at risk, you did everything you could to assert your masculinity.
You policed your every gesture and word, your interests, your friends, your children, to make sure nothing at all could be interpreted as a “sign of sexual perversion.”
If you were, in fact, gay, your options were to bury that as deep down as you could and live life as a straight person anyway or to come out and lose access to jobs, services, and the ability to participate in society.
Despite slight rollbacks in the 1970s, Executive Order 10450 remained law until 1995, when President Clinton revamped it into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — meaning government officials still couldn’t knowingly hire LGBT+ employees, but they’d stop looking for signs. As long as you didn’t explicitly state your sexual orientation, you could keep your job.
It wasn’t until President Obama signed Executive Order 13764 in 2017 that the discriminatory policy would be fully repealed.
So when we look back at queer-coded monsters, it’s easy to look at them through the lens of the present day, thinking that the fact that the only queer representation in these movies is in the monsters is a problem. And that is partially correct.
When the only queer characters you see are monsters, you’re liable to develop some unsavory notions about queerness itself being evil.
But in the years leading up to and during the lavender scare, these queer-coded monsters were also a lifeline for LGBT+ audiences. The monster’s experience was a relatable one: cast out from society, driven by a desire they can’t seem to ignore or get rid of, greeted with shrieks of horror and violent attacks from anyone they meet.
They yearn for acceptance, for compassion, and find none. Abandoned and lonely, they turn to violence and vengeance as a last resort.
The relatability was often intentional as filmmakers looked for ways to skirt Hay’s Codes to tell queer stories. The horror genre offered up some of the best loopholes to do just that.
For those enforcing the codes, horror movies with suspiciously queer storylines could be seen as cautionary tales warning audiences against homosexuality, rather than as a means of telling LGBT+ audience members, “I see you and you are not alone.”
Queer-Coded Monsters To Cozy Up With Tonight
The Monster in Frankenstein (1931) And Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Mary Shelley’s iconic story about a mad scientist attempting to create life in his own lab was famously adapted by James Whale, one of the few openly gay directors in Hollywood at the time, in 1931.
Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating the perfect specimen of a man, and the way he describes his creation as “beautiful” are read by some scholars as implying that the mad scientist is gay. The monster himself is often interpreted as an allegory for the loneliness and alienation felt by LGBT+ people in a time when society viewed them as predators.
Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935 sequel, lays the queer subtext on even thicker with the monster making no distinction between the relationship he has with his bride and the one he has with the male hermit he meets after escaping captivity.
The Count in Dracula (1931)
Tod Browning’s Dracula was an instant hit based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name. The story of a mysterious Count, lusting after his prey, set the stage for an entire genre of vampire stories that blurred the lines between romance and horror.
In the 1931 adaptation, Dracula’s visits to Renfield at the mental institution parallel the classic scene of Romeo at Juliet’s balcony. The Count longs for and seduces his victims, both male and female, in ways that unsettle the boundaries of sexuality.
The Countess in Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Like her father, the countess in Dracula’s Daughter has a thirst for blood that looks like lust and longing. This time, though, the vampire tries to suppress those unnatural urges — first by attempting a ritual destruction of her father’s body and then by seeing a psychiatrist.
The central relationship in the movie is that of the Countess and Lili, a young woman she enlists to be a model for her painting. The Countess does everything she can to resist her urges, but as Lili undresses so that she can be painted, the temptation proves too much.
Even though she ultimately decides to transform a man into a vampire to be her lifelong companion, the Countess opts to kidnap the man’s female secretary instead, ostensibly to lure him back to her castle — but why not just kidnap him from the start?
Irena in Cat People (1942)
Similar to the Countess in Dracula’s Daughter, Irena in Cat People is doing her best to resist an inborn identity that overwhelms her. Instead of a vampire, though, Irena is a “cat person” (get it?). Cat people are an ancient lineage of women who transform into large cats whenever they become aroused to passion (either rage or desire).
On her honeymoon, she confesses this fact to her new husband after they try and fail to consummate the marriage. At first, he’s patient with Irena, letting her see a psychiatrist to overcome this “cat person” business so that they can finally have sex.
Eventually, her husband becomes frustrated and seeks companionship in his secretary. Irena becomes obsessed with this secretary, stalking her and often transforming into a panther at the sight of her — including in a suggestive scene where she watches the secretary as she swims in a clingy swimsuit.
It’s a pretty on-the-nose allegory of a lesbian trying to repress her sexuality and pass as straight.
Mary in The Uninvited (1944)
When brother and sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, buy an abandoned seaside house in Cornwall, it quickly becomes clear that it’s haunted. Soon, the siblings learn that the ghost is that of Mary Meredith, who fell to her death from the nearby cliffs.
After a séance gone wrong, Mary’s surviving daughter, Stella, is possessed by her mother’s spirit. After being sent to an asylum, Stella, still possessed, encounters Miss Halloway who turns out to have been Mary’s close friend.
Miss Holloway still has Mary’s portrait hanging in her room, where she often gazes dreamily at it, and describes the deceased woman as a radiant goddess.
The relationship between Miss Holloway and Mary was so queer-coded, in fact, that the National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that vets films for “objectionable content,” strongly objected to the lesbian undertones of Miss Holloway’s and Mary’s relationship.
While that relationship between the ghost and the asylum’s director is the most overtly romantic, even Stella and Pamela are arguably queer.
Pamela is an adult woman living with her brother instead of a husband — something that would have at least raised eyebrows at the time. Meanwhile, Stella is trying to spark a romantic attraction to Rick, but continues to get pulled away from him by the lesbian ghost she’s drawn to.
Tony in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
In I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Tony Rivers is a troubled teenager who has anger management issues and gets into fights. His anger issues soon get so out of control that he decides to see a psychologist.
Dr. Brandon, his psychologist, turns out to be running his own experiment, though. Using a combination of drugs and hypnotherapy, Dr. Brandon is able to transform Tony into a werewolf who then goes out on killing sprees.
The werewolf storyline is like the frustrated, repressed cousin of the vampire storyline in queer-coded media. Where vampires tend to be more overtly sexual and seductive — and, moreover, are fully aware of their vampire identities — the werewolf is filled with pent-up desire, often so deeply repressed, they don’t realize they’re the werewolf until later in the movie.
The teenage werewolf has repressed his sexuality (werewolf self) so hard that it takes therapy and medication to bring it to the surface. Even then, he isn’t ready to consciously acknowledge it until he’s caught in the woods in his werewolf form.
Bill in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)
About a year into their marriage, Marge starts to notice that her husband, Bill, is growing despondent and cold. He hasn’t shown any affection toward her in who knows how long. As her concern grows, she begins noticing that the other husbands in their social circle are acting the same way.
In fact, most of the men in the neighborhood have grown distant from their wives and have taken to going on long solitary walks at night. After following her husband on his walk one night, she learns that he’s been going to an isolated place in the woods to meet the other men of the neighborhood.
What she uncovers is that the man she thought was her husband is actually an alien from a planet where all the females of the species have gone extinct.
Bill’s story bears all the hallmarks of a closeted gay man attempting (and failing) to fulfill heteronormative expectations and finding solace and acceptance in secret meetings with other men in the gay community.
There’s even a point when Marge confesses to her doctor that one reason for her concern is that she wants to become pregnant but Bill’s emotional and physical distance has made it impossible.
Honorable Mention: Scott in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Though not really a monster, Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man deserves a spot in the hall of fame for being one of the few allegories of queerness in this era where the queer-coded character was a protagonist, rather than a monster.
Scott Carey is your classic everyman, complete with the perfect suburban life — until he’s exposed to radiation and toxic gas that causes him to start slowly shrinking in size.
As his stature diminishes and his voice grows high-pitched, the former model of masculinity loses his job and the respect of his wife, who presumes him dead when he becomes too small to be seen.
Confined to his home, even the ordinary objects of that picture-perfect suburban life become terrifying. After an encounter with the house cat sends him flying down into the basement, he becomes lost to larger society forever.
Tragic as it is, it’s ultimately a tale of triumph. Scott comes to embrace his smallness and, no longer under pressure to live up to a masculine ideal, he sheds old insecurities and becomes more proud and courageous than he ever was when he was the “perfect man.”
It captures so many nuances of the post-war LGBT+ experience in its seemingly simple storyline. The more you embrace who you are, the more society pushes you into the margins and underground. But, once in those margins, you’re free to become unapologetically yourself.