Not My Heteronormativity! 5 Stories of Straight Sex Imperiled

The transgressive nature of the horror genre can often support either conservative or progressive readings

The horror genre as a whole has a complex, often ambivalent relationship with dominant social and cultural standards.  Horror narratives rely, after all, on the disruption of normative values and expectations.  Interestingly, this tendency is one of the reasons that the genre is so often subject to attacks by both right- and left-wing cultural critics.  To many conservatives, horror is perceived as an assault on the traditions and institutions which maintain orthodox power structures; to many liberals, horror is perceived as a reactionary space wherein those same institutions are presented as sacred and in need of protection from radical elements.

Of course, both perspectives are largely ignorant oversimplifications.  First off, they tend to paint centuries of genre history – consisting of works made in different eras and different societies, by artists from different classes and presenting different agendas – with the same brush.  But even when the discussion focuses on a single work, there is often no clear answer to the question of whether the story is ultimately conventional or revolutionary.  Based on one’s interpretation of the text, the same story can lead to totally opposite conclusions; those aspects of duality and uncertainty are part of what makes art in general, and horror narratives in particular, so engaging.

One of the most fundamental of orthodox structures is the nuclear family, and so the family is a favorite subject of horror.  And the starting point of the traditional family is heterosexual coupling.  Now, a lot of horror movies have a relationship in peril as part of their plot; it is taken for granted that endangering a romantic relationship increases the emotional stakes of a story.  There are, however, cases where the primary threat is (or can be read as) the disruption of a heterosexual couple by a non-normative intruder.

In this list, I will not be considering movies where the disruption of the relationship is a secondary element, there to motivate the protagonist (as in, for example, An American Werewolf in London [1981]).  Nor will I be looking at movies where the threat is an outside influence which, while disruptive to the healthy relationship, would still result in a heterosexual pairing (as in Fatal Attraction [1987] and most versions of Dracula).

Some readers may be quick to note the complete absence of lesbian vampire movies from this list.  Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, but my reasoning is as follows: those movies generally strike me as indulgences of a stereotypical masculine fantasy of lipstick lesbian erotica.  The reductive exploitation of female sexuality to gratify the male gaze plays into traditional patriarchal power structures, and as such really isn’t transgressive so much as it is a veiled reinforcement of conservative norms.


Poster-Art-bride-of-frankenstein-19761624-2560-2048The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

You knew I was going to start here, didn’t you?  Yeah, you knew.  First of all, because it’s so obvious; second of all, because if you’ve read a few of my articles, you know how much I love to talk about The Bride of Frankenstein.

Elizabeth and Pretorius clash over Henry

Elizabeth and Pretorius clash over Henry

Of course, all Frankenstein stories have an element of threat to traditional family structures, in that they tell the story of a man trying to create life through means other than a traditional sexual relationship with a woman.  But James Whale’s beloved sequel is a special case; the issue of coupling is so much at the forefront of the narrative that it dictated the film’s title, with its allusion both to the monster’s mate (Elsa Lanchester) and to Elizabeth Frankenstein (Valerie Hobson), newlywed bride of Baron Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive).

The villain of The Bride of Frankenstein is not the Monster (Boris Karloff).  The movie doesn’t really have a single, definitive villain, but the closest character to filling that role is the fey, prissy figure of Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

An earlier attempt by Pretorius to create a society that would accept him

An earlier attempt by Pretorius to create a society that would accept him

Whale’s earlier Frankenstein (1931) ended – thanks, admittedly, to studio interference – with Henry having survived his ordeal and set to marry Elizabeth, and his father leading a toast, “Here’s to a son to the house of Frankenstein.”  But the sequel’s plot is set into motion when Pretorius, a former teacher of Henry’s, invades the couple’s bedroom uninvited to tempt the new groom away from his marital bed so that the two men can create life together.  The emphasis of the horror is never on the killings perpetrated by the Monster, who ends up just a pawn in Pretorius’s schemes; the primary threat throughout is that Henry and Elizabeth will not be reunited.

Whale was openly gay, and the sympathetic presentation of social outsiders in his films can in part be attributed to his own sense of difference or distance from cultural norms.  Even Pretorius is not presented as evil or wholly unsympathetic, but rather as an eccentric desperate to create a new world in which he belongs.  Pretorius, like the Monster, has been made into a threat by a society that has coldly rejected him.


WerewolfofLondon_MPOTWWerewolf of London (1935)

I’m prepared for a few people to take issue with my inclusion of this movie.  In the other movies on this list, the themes under discussion are unmistakably matters of authorial intent, but there is no evidence to suggest that director Stuart Walker or any of the writers of Werewolf of London intentionally included any subversive themes.  However, meaning-making in storytelling is not strictly a matter of intent; a story can take on implications to its audience (or portions thereof) through social and cultural context regardless of the author’s goals.  In critical theory, any reading that can be supported by the text is valid.  In this case, a modern viewer might even see meaning in some narrative elements which would have seemed to be pure plot mechanics in the pre-HIV world of 1935, but we are not watching in 1935, we are watching in 2014.  So, on to the movie!

Yogami and Glendon embrace

Yogami and Glendon embrace

Poor Valerie Hobson just couldn’t catch a break with her on-screen husbands in 1935.  Here she is cast as Lisa Glendon, wife of Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), the Werewolf of the title.  Well, actually, the city ends up playing host to two lycanthropes in this movie: Dr. Glendon and the one who passed this infection on to him, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland).

Yogami and Glendon have their first encounter while both are in Tibet, searching for a rare flower, the Mariphasa Lupina Lumina.  As Yogami later says, they met “once, but only for a moment, in the dark.”  My thanks to Bob Gutowski in the Universal Horror Films group on Facebook for pointing out that, as Bob put it, “Them’s crusing words!”  This encounter involves Yogami, in his lupine form, biting Glendon – an act of penetration and fluid exchange.

We never get to see Glendon’s relationship with Lisa prior to his first meeting Yogami, but when we do see the couple together, there is little genuine affection between them; Glendon spares his wife little attention, while Lisa clearly appreciates the attention given her by former suitor Paul Ames (Lester Matthews).  Lisa may be faithful to Glendon, but it is a faithfulness born of desperate hope that their dull marriage might be rekindled.

Lisa in peril

Lisa in peril

When Yogami reappears in Glendon’s life, though, he makes it clear that the curse he has passed on is destined to threaten the marriage further.  He reveals not only that Glendon is now, like Yogami, a werewolf, but also that, “the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.”  The idea that Glendon and Yogami’s moonlight encounter has left Glendon transformed in a way that will disrupt his marriage lends itself to a fairly straightforward homoerotic interpretation.  But, from the perspective of 2014, the fact that the disease Yogami has passed on to Glendon is now a threat to the life of his heterosexual partner carries a further associate with HIV.

Remember, when a werewolf bites you, you’re also being bitten by anyone who’s ever bitten that werewolf.


PsychoPsycho (1960)

SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t seen Psycho, I must advise that you skip this section!  Actually, I’d advise you go see Psycho RIGHT NOW!

Now we change course a little.  Psycho’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is unable to enter into a normative (note the intentional similarity of Norman’s name to word “normal”) sexual relationship not because of extra-familial interference, but because of a problematic intra-familial fixation.  And, of course, one doesn’t have to do much reading into the text with Psycho; the movie ends with a handy summary of Norman’s twisted psychology, provided by Dr. Richman (Simon Oakland).

In Psycho, Norman is both killer and victim.  As a child, his mother was his only source of affection, and he treasured the cloistered little world in which they lived.  However, she was also a “clinging, demanding woman.”  She essentially used Norman as a substitute for her deceased husband, and, though the full extent of this substitution is not made explicit, there are incestuous implications, particularly as young Norman is revealed to have murdered his mother and her lover out of jealousy over their sexual relationship.

Norman is tempted

Norman is tempted

Now, as an adult, Norman functions as a split personality, and projects his own jealousy of his mother onto the mother side of himself; when Norman finds himself sexually attracted to a woman, “Mother” takes over and, in a mirror image of Norman’s original crime, “she” murders the object of his affection.  Thus, the transgressive history of Norman’s relationship with his mother becomes the source of horror, preventing him from pursuing normative sexual relationships, actively wiping out anyone who represents Norman’s desire to escape from his mother’s grasp.

There are two factors which interfere with any political reading of Norman’s psychosis.  The first is that the script is so explicit about his psychology that there is little room for subtext; literalism can be the worst enemy of criticism.  The second problem is that novelist Robert Bloch took the inspiration for the story from the case of real-life murderer Ed Gein.

Mother's victory

Mother’s victory

Worth noting, however, is how much Norman as portrayed in the movie differs from the character’s presentation in the book.  Director Alfred Hitchcock chose to cast the young, charismatic Perkins in the role, a striking contrast to the middle-aged, overweight, off-putting Norman of the novel.  Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano eliminated other elements that would make Norman seem more explicitly transgressive; gone are his alcoholism, his collection of pornography and his interest in the occult.  The movie’s Norman is a sympathetic boy-next-door, and this suggests that transgressive elements exist not just among freaks and outsiders like the novel’s Norman, but among the seemingly innocent.  In this regard, while less explicitly violent and sexual than the novel, the movie is actually more challenging of the social order.


nightmare_on_elm_street_2_poster_02A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

The homoerotic subtext of this strange and often unfairly maligned sequel has become a favorite topic among horror fans and critics in recent years.  This is a case where, regardless of the intent of screenwriter David Chaskin (who has admitted that the gay themes were included by design), the final result at times feels very reactionary.

A basic summary: Jesse (Mark Patton), a teen whose family has just moved to Elm Street, is in a not-quite-relationship with Lisa (Kim Myers).  He is also developing a close friendship with athletic Grady (Robert Rusler), with whom he has bonded after both suffered sadistic punishment at the hands of Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell).  And Jesse is the newest target of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who seeks to be re-born through Jesse’s body.

Is Grady the one Jesse really wants?

Is Grady the one Jesse really wants?

Freddy’s appearances to Jesse, and later his emergences from Jesse’s body, are triggered by sexual situations, especially homoerotic ones.  The most glaring example may be a sleep-walking Jesse’s encounter with the abusive Schneider at an S&M leather bar, which leads to Freddy’s murder of Schneider in the school showers.  This instance could theoretically support a progressive reading of the film, in which Freddy represents not Jesse’s homosexual impulses, but rather the repression of those desires, conservatism as the monster.  This reading is somewhat frustrated by the unmistakably negative portrayal of Schneider, especially with his abusive tendencies so directly linked to his homosexuality.

A later appearance by Freddy occurs when Jesse and Lisa sneak away from a pool party and begin making out.  Here, Freddy’s emergence drives Jesse away from Lisa, and into the bedroom of underwear-clad Grady.  It is in this sequence, just prior to Freddy’s killing of Grady, that the film’s most thematically on-the-nose line of dialogue occurs: “He’s inside me, and he wants to take me again!”

Lisa in peril (wait, didn't I already use that caption?)

Lisa in peril (wait, didn’t I already use that caption?)

In the end, it is Lisa’s affection for Jesse which saves him.  She kisses him at a moment when he has been completely consumed by the Freddy persona, and this gives the inner Jesse the strength to reclaim his own body.

So, is Freddy being triggered because he wants to repress Jesse’s attraction to both Lisa and Grady?  Is he a jealous lover, who wants Jesse’s body entirely to himself?  Or is he a monstrous symbol of homosexuality itself?  There is textual evidence to support each of those readings; the final decision is up to the individual viewer.  But any purely progressive reading will be problematized by the fact that it is heterosexual affection that saves Jesse, and by the extremely negative portrayal of the film’s one openly gay character.


braindead_poster_01Dead Alive (1992)

Much like Psycho, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (Braindead in its native New Zealand) tells the tale of a young man with a controlling mother who seeks to prevent him from getting romantically involved with a woman.  And, as in Psycho, Dead Alive’s Lionel (Timothy Balme) is trying to protect and preserve his mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), after she has died.

Three's a crowd

Three’s a crowd

While still alive, Vera actively schemes to keep Lionel away from Paquita (Diana Peñalver).  Once Vera has become a zombie, it is Lionel’s attempt to keep her hidden that complicates the would-be couple’s romantic desires.  In the end, Vera regains her intelligence and will as she becomes a kind of super-zombie, once again active in keeping her son away from Paquita.

Where Dead Alive differs from Psycho is that it does not suggest an incestuous relationship between Lionel and Vera.  Rather, Vera seeks to infantilize Lionel; as an old and lonely woman (and then as a zombie), she is dependent upon him, and so she actively manipulates him to keep him dependent upon her; since her husband’s death, her only identity is that of a mother, and she seeks to preserve this at all costs.

Rivals for Lionel's attention

Rivals for Lionel’s attention

Vera’s need to trap Lionel in their mother-child dynamic reaches its hideous apex at the film’s climax, when, in her gigantic, monstrous final form, she actually re-absorbs Lionel into her belly, before turning on Paquita.  In order to assert himself as a man and save the woman he loves, Lionel must force his own re-birth from his mother’s grotesque parody of a womb.

Dead Alive is the one film on this list where the threat to heteronormativity comes not from an alternate sexuality, but (almost paradoxically) from a conservative controlling force.


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