Unwelcome Survivors: Rooting for Monsters

E.F. Schraeder

When I was growing up horror seemed like dude territory— mostly young, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender white dudes at that. This reflection traces the cinematic obsessions of a gender-neutral white working class queer kid in the late 70s and 80s. This genre journey follows my early-life Vincent Price infatuation through the strange relief of Final Girls and female monsters to explore the subversive, resistant, and transgressive aspects of horror’s unwelcome survivors.

I have always loved horror. All of it. From early German silents and Universal monster movies, William Castle’s cheesy romps, stylish Hammer Horror films and Roger Corman productions, low-budget creature features, badly edited B-films, ghouls, monsters, and gore-fests. If a “predatory, twilight creature” (Russo, p. 48) creeped, lurked, lured, and bit, I tuned in. By grade school I was a bonafide horror junkie watching late night TV reruns, and that’s how I cut my queer teeth on Vincent Price.

A Few Words About Vincent Price

 If one Mr. Price swirled onscreen wearing a purple robe or a dark suit and winked at the camera, I swooned at that Very Vincent, effortless camp. Some may consider Vincent Price an odd if not inexcusable habit for a queer lesbian, but I have indiscreetly loved Mr. Price since I was practically preverbal. Price’s oddly elegant, romantic androgyny captured a kind of sensitivity. With few exceptions,[1] his misunderstood-evil-doer portrayals seemed more mischievous than threatening, more welcoming than frightening.

To me, Vincent serves as a damn near perfect metaphor for all that is queer and golden in horror. His stylized acting delivered an aura of aristocratic elegance with a dash of subversiveness to every film. Vincent seldom embodied the macho straight dude attitudes that dominated so much pop culture of the era.[2] Even when his films catered to the heteronormative male gaze, Vincent didn’t play into that vibe.

Namely, Vincent wasn’t a dude; he was a gentleman. He glided onto the screen donned in lace and batted his lovely eyelashes at the camera. He almost always looked rather pretty, and frequently portrayed characters who had loved quite deeply and lost painfully. Unrequited love was kind of my thing before I was out, so I could relate. Even Price’s most eccentric characters hinged on emotional depth. His blend of personal tragedy and morbidity flirted at the borders of death, desire, revenge, and passion. Kinda sexy, right?

That comfortable ambiguity in Vincent’s films spoke to me and made horror feel like home. This reinforced how horror, as I later learned, often said a lot about gender and otherness. Carol J. Clover told me this in Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). Barry Keith Grant told me this in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (1996). That’s theory. Here’s experience. When I dipped into the world of a horror film, it plunged this lonely teen-aged werewolf (me) into a place of inverted paradigms. Horror welcomed moments that busted out of norms and broke down expectations. Vincent was a key part of that for me. He was recognizably different. He didn’t fit a mold. He was sort of like me and other kids from school who got picked on. But in his films, he was in charge. He was dangerous. And it was delicious. So early on Vincent may have been a favorite mold-breaker, but what about women?

The STD of Horror’s Women: Sexy Til Death

 As a young viewer, horror’s women characters often troubled me.[3] Identified as what my generation usually termed a tomboy. Countless portrayals of women in horror seemed to embody my opposite: a certain kind of weak-willed hetero, upper class, ‘lady’ who was a side character at best, seldom a part of the action so much as a prop to protect. Bleh!

Despite some notable exceptions like Simone Simon’s complicated representation of Irena Dubrovna Reed’s sexual repression and outsider-status (Cat People, 1942); June Lockhart’s conflicted would-be she-wolf as Phyllis Allenby (She Wolf of London, 1946); and Tippi Hedren’s independent but vulnerable Melanie Daniels (The Birds, 1963), a lot of horror’s women were destined for particular, bloody fates. Often if women had storylines, they were conscripted to the role of untrustworthy schemers or hand-wringing whiners: Carol Ohmart’s Mrs. Loren in House on Haunted Hill (1959); Barbara Steele’s plotting, adulterous Elizabeth Medina in Pit and the Pendulum (1961); Luana Anders’ conniving Louise Haloran in Dementia 13 (1963); Judith O’Dea’s traumatized, dull Barbra in Night of the Living Dead (1968). So many films. These women and others like them were more inclined to scream and drop their keys than to take action, confront evil, or solve problems. As a result, many of horror’s finest actresses seemed to end up with flat characters despite the bosoms and snug bodices.

Such movies tended to depend on hetero-pairings, and when I did discover alternate options for women’s sexuality and power, they typically fell into a few lesbian-for-show moments played for mostly male audience appeal.  Of those near-lesbian moments, standard fare clung closely to lesbian vampire seductions that spun LeFanu’s Camille: a type of attractive but loathsome and always predatory lesbian that persists to this day. Despite the negative connotation, some intense and varied portrayals of vampirism persisted like Gloria Holden’s nuanced warning against woman-hungry-women as Countess Marya Zaleska (Dracula’s Daughter, 1936); the incomparable Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla and Countess Elisabeth (The Vampire Lovers, 1970 and Countess Dracula, 1971); the bold sexuality of Soledad Miranda’s Countess Carody (Las Vampiras / Vampyros Lesbos, 1971); Catherine DeNeuve’s seductive prowess (The Hunger, 1983); Grace Jones’ iconic and intensely captivating stripper (Vamp, 1986); Lili Taylor’s angsty yearning (The Addiction, 1995). These actresses (and others) sunk their teeth into horror roles for women that went way beyond screaming and fleeing, and even these few examples demonstrate that horror cinema never lacked exceptional actresses so much as it may have lacked complicated roles for women.

Post 1970s, perhaps it is unsurprising that pushback against social changes became very evident onscreen, including the horror genre, which carved deeper into more violent trends.[4] Much existing scholarship tracks that cinematic trend as part of the cultural backlash against progressive changes. In that light, horror sometimes sought to re-entrench misogynistic, racist, classist, and homophobic paradigms (Clover, 1992; Grant, 1996; Skall, 1993). These emerging trends soon sent final girls into the limelight of mainstream horror. But for me, these last-ones-standing characters offered another view of women, too.

Tougher than their soon-to-be-murdered, always hyper-hetero gal pals, final girls were clever, often book-smart examples of survival. They had boyish or gender neutral names. Even in this new bloody landscape, final girls held a significant allure. Among other things, they lived. In that feat, final girls break the mold for much of what happens to women in horror. They may have been pushed beyond extremes, but at least they made it to the end. There were bullies at school, isolation at home. Between girls who threatened and boys who harassed me, I did not find a lot of places for relief. At home, my increasingly obvious commitment to blurred gender lines, sexual experimentation, and queerness were met with disgust and later rejection. Final girls weathered far worse and made it out okay(-ish). I knew about danger, and surviving seemed like a good plan.

Besides, more than a little bit, isn’t the idea of a queer kid making it through high school alive rather like a slasher film? Like final girls, the odds were against me in real life. But in horror, not so much. In horror, the rude popular kids, annoying jocks, and their horny girlfriends were the first to get it. In horror, the quiet person (androgynously named) skulked in the background, and she became the only one to get out alive. Yes, please. More of that!

From this angle, the era provided a number of unruly and indulgent movies with increasingly complicated and interesting (if uneven) roles for horror’s next generation of women. The transition from final girl to lead role included many side trips, monsters, revenge plots, unlikely heroes, and much more.[5] Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Prom Night (1980), The Hunger (1983),[6] Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Vamp and Aliens (1986), Near Dark (1987), Heathers (1989),  Nightbreed (1990), Innocent Blood and Candyman (1992), The Addiction (1995), The Craft (1996). From gory exploits to comedic romps, urban to suburban settings, and variations in content and style, these roles (and others) broadened what was possible for horror’s leading women onscreen. Similar to Ripley’s transition into an alien hybrid, the roles were changing what was possible for women in horror. Badass women continued to emerge in challenging, unusual, and provocative films like the Ginger Snaps trilogy (2000, 2004), Gothika (2003), Dark Water (2005), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), Jennifer’s Body (2009). The trend didn’t end so much as it exploded, as proved by recent films like The Girl with all the Gifts (2016), The Craft: Legacy (2020), and Laurie Strode’s ultimate final girl comeuppance reprisal, Halloween (2018).

Final girls, like the more violent, monstrous women represent a necessary variety of women who are more than victims. Monsters, like final girls, were sometimes minding their own business and up to nothing, yet suffered some version of a public outing: dragged into attention quite against their wills. Whether crafted from human scraps, bitten to life, carved from tragedy and trauma, or swimming around in private lagoons, monsters got a lot of bad press.

Talk about outcasts. Flinching women feared them. Angry men tried to kill them. Villagers gathered in pitchfork and fire-wielding groups to run them out of town. Everyone hated them, and they would be vanquished. For a queer loner who learned early how to dodge a negative attention, that hits all the highlights. I saw myself in monsters long before they were portrayed by women, and I rooted for monsters because I understood them. Welcome or not, like final girls, I find a strange, satisfying relief almost every time a monster makes it out alive.

 

References

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

Princeton University Press, 1992.

 

Grant, Barry Keith. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film 1996.

 

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, revised edition. Harper

& Row, 1985.

 

Skall, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.  Faber and Faber, 2001.

 

[1] With obsessive love gone wrong, Dr. Phibes was a horrible genius, but he was also out to avenge his lost lover, so even he could be kind of a pathologically dangerous romantic hero. The Witchfinder General, not so much.

[2] Between the kind eyes and ruffled shirts, is it just me or does Vincent Price seems to figure in pop culture similarly to the late, brilliant musician Prince as a cisgender straight guy that falls outside the normative expectations of rigid gender roles?

[3] As a kid, I was troubled. By college, I started naming some of those representations misogynist.

[4]Protests for racial justice, the peace movement, the Stonewall riots, women’s rights, numerous SCOTUS decisions, much activism, and many efforts led to widespread social changes and civil rights advancements for historically marginalized folks throughout the late twentieth century. Against the backdrop of the rather rebellious sixties, it seems like the pushback against these changes has become easier to spot, and it’s a pushback that obviously persists.

[5] Dang 1970s and 1980s horror was on fire. Camp. Vampires. Slashers. Mayhem. So much blood and so little time. I don’t have room to note all of them, but I hope noting a handful helps draw attention to the dynamic changes in gender representation in horror.

[6] Fun fact: the first time I saw The Hunger, I couldn’t watch The Hunger, and my straight friends teased me so hard about my blushing shyness that we all knew for sure I was queer.

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