Define Frenzy: Monsters as Queer Figures in Horror

The third in a series of weekly essays throughout June attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films.

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Define Frenzy: Monsters as Queer Figures in Horror

“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen.

Check out the first entry here and the second here.

Looking into the mirror as a queer person carries with it a lot of baggage. For many queer people, we only have the looking glass in the bathroom, or on the bureau, or in water to see our reflection: While visibility of LGBTQ people has certainly been amplified over the last several decades, the search for self-affirmation has always been tricky when it comes to looking at oneself with few points of reference compared to looking to fiction (mostly) for those points of reference and being unable to find them. What happens then? What happens when what we see of other queer selves becomes inextricably linked with trying to conceive of our own queer selves? What if we hate what we see?

Themes of self-loathing are a bit of a trope within queer cinema, and they’re often framed within the context of explicit social marginalization (Rebel Without a Cause, Far From Heaven) or unrequited love and emotional cruelty (Edge of Seventeen, My Own Private Idaho). But this particular (queer) brand of self-loathing becomes curiously affecting within a genre framework, particularly one such as that of horror filmmaking. After all, horror conventions are stark in their approach and objectives—in horror, there is an acknowledgment of not only how society might see you, but of how you might see yourself: as a monster.

“Monster” seems like a pejorative term, of course, but that kind of rhetoric—queer as deviant, pervert, etc.—is very real. Moreover, the monster in any horror film has almost always been used to signify the Other: The monster is “separated from humanity through distortion,” writes Emma Louise Backe. They appear as vampires, aliens, living dolls, serial killers, predatory older brothers and demons that reside in the dream world. And yet, a point of identification is inherent in that term, and the humanization of monsters in films like Frankenstein and Dracula is contingent upon this point of identification, in a viewer being able to recognize oneself in the monster.

In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, identification with the monster is the root of the film’s idea of self-hate. Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) moves into the original film’s nightmare house, an uprooting which coincides with the appearance of ugly-sweater-donning Freddy Krueger in his dreams. Jesse is not merely coded as queer in his actions (a little fey, not particularly drawn to women, etc.), but the his inability to reconcile himself with his true identity is explicit: There is nothing but fear in his eyes when he looks into the mirror—he has no safe space—but danger has a duality to it: It is as attractive as it is horrifying. Freddy (spoiler alert) literally slashes through his body and comes out, an action which comes with death.

There’s certainly an AIDS allegory that can be built into a reading of that film, which was much maligned at the time of its release but experienced a critical reevaluation later among cult cinephiles and queer people. That, too, could be said of William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising, another film in which queerness itself becomes killer. After a series of body parts from gay men begin appearing around the Hudson River, Officer Steve Burns’ (Al Pacino) undercover investigation into the leather scene of New York City is itself a curious thing: Pacino’s character is an ostensibly straight man navigating queer spaces, specifically the leather community. He continues returning to these bars and men keep dying.

The subtexts of Cruising and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 aren’t much different, yet the former is the other side of the same coin. There are allusions to Burns’ daddy issues in the film, and when he looks into the mirror, putting on his leather gear, Cruising suggests a very specific, deliberate construction of identity. But the irony is that the role he tries on isn’t that of a leather man, but that of a police officer. Dead bodies show up in pieces, after all—a deliberate segmentation and dehumanization. The nasty implication is that gay men eventually just become cuts of meat. Burns can’t help but want to shear off what he might be.

Mirrors exist in other forms in queer horror films, not just as tangible objects. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive might have Rita (Laura Harring) look into the mirror to see someone whom she use for her identity in a fantasy where she is and has nothing, but it’s the way that Diane (Naomi Watts) looks at Camilla (Harring) in “real life” that has longing. For a film whose plot arguably consists of a 90 minute dream sequence, the monster is Diane’s own mind.

Depressed and heartbroken, Diane looks at Camilla and sees what she once could be: not only a success, and not only someone in love, but someone who is comfortable with herself—someone whose identity is fully realized. Lynch oscillates between the oneiric horror of wavering soundscapes in a dream world that seems too perfect to be real, and the much more palpable world of failure. But perhaps the film is masterful, and its lead so real, because she fails. It is this very failure—to borrow from J. Jack Halberstram, a queer artist, if you will—that renders Mulholland Drive such a success: There is a necessity for stories that do not exist solely within the confines of narratives about people, queer people, being (or learning to be) OK with themselves.

With the swapping of personas, Mulholland Drive takes mirroring and makes it metaphysical. The character onto whom the other character projects becomes malleable, unfixed, their identities nearly melting. So if Lynch’s film reflects the shaping of queer female identity to some degree, then Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm does the same with queer masculine identity. On his (closeted, unbeknownst to him) late lover’s family farm, Tom (Dolan) encounters Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who is best described as a hulking, abusive brute. Their intellectual, erotic, emotional tango of truth and lies is foundational to Tom’s own representation of and to himself and what they both represent to one another. Francis bleeds a kind of hetero-coded masculinity to which Tom is attracted, its oppressiveness notwithstanding. But they are there to play roles, for each other and for Francis’s mother (Lise Roy). There is an interplay here, where Tom doesn’t see himself in Francis and Francis doesn’t see himself in Tom, but they both see what they want. Within the context of small town Midwestern America, that’s dangerous—that’s the making of a mob with pitchforks.

As mentioned in an earlier piece, Shon Faye elucidates that, “Queer [as a slur] is about what you are told you are, whether you are abnormal or you simply do not recognize yourself in the narrativized normal that society tells you about.” What society tells us about who we are makes sense in terms of the way we manifest in fiction. If Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin can operate as an allegory about trans(feminine) identity, then that Scarlett Johansson’s character is an alien working through a misogynist world in new skin fits within this context.

Willow Maclay writes, “In society, transgender women are constantly being told that their bodies are outlets for disgust, which does nothing but unfurl all of that self-hate and loathing. […] She looks in the mirror and sees herself—a woman, a human, her body. Mirrors are mortal enemies of those dysphorically inclined, as bodies feel foreign almost constantly.” For “Laura” (Johansson), and other trans people, the mirror is as capable of self-actualization as it is of undermining that very thing. When she tries to have sex with a man, this triggers her gender dysphoria and the mirror acts as an arbiter of doubt in her identity. Maclay continues, “The discomforted stare she has while looking out of a window after she realizes she cannot have sex signifies a purely human emotion: pain.”

Whether or not there is explicit escape from that feeling of self-hate in the film is arguable. Knowing you can’t change yourself and changing the world around you is a notion difficult to put behind you. In Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who is regularly terrorized by his peers, finds solace in Eli (Lina Leandersson), who lives by night. They are both outcasts in their own way: One does not fit the mold of conventional masculinity, one is a vampire. Mirrors, for them, are reminders of what they are told they cannot be. Cognizant of the continued marginalization they would experience, in the end they run away. They board a train to nowhere, abandoning the world that continues telling them that they are monsters.

They know it. They’re working through it. We’re working through it.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber. He has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, the Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.