Vampires, Psychics, and Ghosts: A Look at Queer Women in Horror

A scene from spooky 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter, where the fearsome Countess seduces young women.

October is like Christmas for horror film fans. Although many people categorically dismiss horror as a misogynistic genre, many feminists have discussed the ways horror can be used to great effect as social commentary. Taboo subjects and stigmatized identities have always been fodder for horror films, which—at their best—poke and prod at the fears and biases of audiences.

The first horror films to feature queer female characters are some of the first films of any kind to portray queer women. Though there were a few not-horror-related queer female characters before her, one of the earliest examples of a queer character in a movie was the Countess in Dracula’s Daughter. The film is the 1936 sequel to 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Like her blood-sucking father, the elegant Countess has a bizarre, murderous interest in young women. She seduces them with extravagant gifts and a hypnotizing stare. This makes her one of the first over-the-top queer villains seen onscreen—the Countess is a character who helped define what would become a trope. The film’s poster clearly plays into the  psycho-sexual drama of the film, with actor Gloria Holden’s eyes peering at the viewer under the slogan, “She gives you that WEIRD FEELING.”

In her book UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Patricia White makes the point that even sparse, slight, or negative images of lesbian women in film helped form lesbian identities. Audiences had to read into what they didn’t show as much as with what they did show. In one scene, Dracula’s dark Countess stares at her sleeping victim with intense sexuality, her lips drawing ever closer to hers, until at the last minute she is interrupted. It is only the implication of gayness, but it is a very strong implication, to say the least. It’s difficult to imagine how truly powerful these suggestive images must have been to queers during this time, as well as how foreboding they must have been for straight audiences.

Actually, the predominant image of queer women in horror much of the 20th century was the lesbian vampire. There are a great deal more lesbian vampire movies than pretty much any other kind of queer movie. Calling these films “queer” is, of course, dicey territory, considering the fact that they were almost exclusively created by straight people with straight audiences in mind, but the story has appeared again and again. After Dracula’s Daughter, there was Blood & Roses in 1960, Daughters of Darkness, Vampyros Lesbos, the films of Jean Rolin in the 1970s, The Hunger in the 80s, Nadja in the 90s, The Countess and We Are the Night for millennials, and on, and on. There are dozens of films with the same essential plot: one or more lesbian vampires roll into town, steal someone’s girlfriend, and get killed by a dude in the grand finale. The vampires in lesbian vampire movies are evil, murderous, and cruel. But, honestly, I tend to sort of like them. Sometimes I even relate to them. When you’re struggling to find empowered queer women onscreen, scarcity dictates that sometimes you latch onto some problematic favorites.

No character is more problematic than the villain (or maybe she’s the hero?) of 1971 German lesbian vampire masterpiece Vampyros Lesbos, aka Countess Nadine Carody. This is a character who is definitely evil. But I still relate to her so much because 1) Her fashion is on point 2) Her crush on professional girlfriend Linda Westinghouse is on point 3) Her tearful origin story is on point  and 4) She’s a well-read queer performance artist with a passionate feminist perspective that wears black dresses with red lipstick and scarves a lot. I am literally describing both her and myself right now. There’s a four-minute long scene where she dances around a stage with a naked female mannequin and a candelabra, touching herself erotically. I can’t watch her death scene, it’s way too real for me.

Whether she’s a vampire or mere mortal, the seductive lesbian out to ruin the lives of innocent young ladies quickly became a film trope. In the 1940s-1960s, the “evil lesbian” was profoundly effective in shaping public consciousness of gays. At the time, many institutions had personal vendettas against gay people and the development of queer subcultures. The J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI villainized queers with unsettling propaganda that sometimes blatantly endorsed homophobic violence. Anti-gay themes are found in a lot of pop culture from the era, but horror films give us a unique window on this fear. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock released his film Rebecca, based on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier book of the same name. The story follows a young woman who enters a marriage with a reclusive millionaire whose first wife “mysteriously” passed away. The younger woman, who is tellingly nameless and referred to only as the “the second Mrs. de Winter” through the film, must navigate living in a secluded mansion where all the other characters, her husband included, are haunted by the metaphorical (or not) ghost of Rebecca de Winter. In Rebecca, there is not one, but two queer characters.

One is Mrs. Danvers, a famously wicked housekeeper who tries to drive the second Mrs. de Winter to suicide multiple times throughout the story. The other, the deceased Rebecca, who is described in reverent, haunting tones by those that knew her. She is remembered as being strong-willed and beautiful, with many lovers outside of her terribly unhappy marriage. Even in the afterlife, she has a forceful spirit. Of course, it’s 1940, and that means we find out she was definitely evil by the end of the film.

This exact relationship between a ghost and her incredibly violent lover is almost identically repeated in 1944’s The Uninvited. One queer woman is completely intangible, appearing only as a ghost. And yet, she is the malevolent force that causes every problem the main characters have in the film. She eventually tires of scaring cats, making flowers wither, and causing drastic temperature shifts, so she escalates to trying to convince a teen girl to walk off a cliff. Like Rebecca and her Mrs. Danvers, this film’s ghost has an implied sexual connection with a similarly murderous middle-aged woman now obsessed by her memory. It’s 1944, so they don’t explicitly state that the two were girlfriends, but there is a lot of scenes of the living female character sighing dreamily at, oh right, the gigantic portrait of her dead friend in a sexy pose that she keeps in literally every room she ever stands in.

The evil lesbian trope carries on well into the modern era, with films such as 2003 French film High Tension, which is not so much about a lesbian relationship as it is about a lesbian fixating on her straight friend to the point of utter insanity.

Cecile De France and about a gallon of fake blood, co-starring in High Tension.

The idea of women driving one another insane due to their lustful desire is seen also prominently in films that combine elements of horror with those of art house cinema, another genre which is not overall very kind to its lesbian characters. In the instance of Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant Persona, the main characters are an actor suffering from mental illness (surprise!), and her nurse. Like many art house films, and all Ingmar Bergman films, Persona has a dreamy, creepy quality that is difficult to describe with words, but images such as one woman gashing her arm and forcing the other woman’s face into the blood could place this film quite distinctly in horror. The same is true of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive, which can be described as an art house film, but likewise has one queer woman driven completely mad by her desire for another and it leads to her terrifying ruination. The “insane but arty horror lesbian” also makes a prominent appearance in the utterly bizarre The Mafu Cage of 1978, which is a bit like a horror version of Grey Gardens… if the sisters in Grey Gardens had a really unsettling sexual obsession with one another, and murdered things a lot more.

One exception to the endless images of the mentally ill or wicked lesbian is in the 1963 film, The Haunting (we don’t talk about the 1999 remake). This was based on the Shirley Jackson novel, the Haunting of Hill House, but there is one surprising change: the character Theo, whose queerness is implied only briefly in the novel, shows up in the film version as a full-out gay psychic.

Claire Bloom as Theo in 1963’s The Haunting.

I can’t stress enough that Theo from The Haunting is probably my favorite character in all of horror. Why? Because she’s a psychic lesbian. She flirts with the main character, and almost punches a bro for trying to rub her shoulders. Because who wouldn’t! Theo, I love you. Besides my personal affection for her, Theo does what has been proven time and again as almost statistically impossible, which is to be gay and survive a horror film. She is visually fascinating, with a starkly different wardrobe than the rest of the cast, and a cryptic half-smile. Theo is pretty much the cover of a lurid 1950s pulp novel about lesbian witches come to life, and it is glorious. The mysterious way she discloses her homosexuality is brilliant: Theo discusses an apartment she shares with someone, leading the confused main character Eleanor to ask, “Are you married?” Theo looks her in the eye, and softly says, “… no.” Later, Eleanor openly calls her “a mistake of nature,” and Theo’s mouth opens slightly to respond, then closes again, in a moment which I feel somewhat profoundly demonstrates how difficult it is to respond eloquently to that level of homophobia.

There are a lot of biopics about queer women, but in horror, there are only a few, one being Monster. This was a film which made a famously bizarre choice in casting the beautiful Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, one of the more famous female serial killers of the modern era. This is not to say that Charlize Theron did a bad job; she won an Oscar that I feel such an exceptional performance perfectly warranted, but I do infinitely question the idea of straight actors winning awards by playing queer characters, particularly when that queer character is a serial killer, and therefore not doing public perception of gay people any favors. One moment I remember was going to a video store and finding Monster in the gay/lesbian section. This seemed sort of odd to me, as all the biography style films are are about male serial killers, including Dahmer, Gacy, and Ed Gein, were all in the horror section. I looked on Netflix, and it was the same, the men were in horror, the one woman was in gay/lesbian. This is odd to me, because you wouldn’t put Dahmer in the gay section, so why is Monster categorized thus? I might be overthinking this, but that’s pretty much what I do: What is the difference between these films? They’re all violent biographies which attempt to sympathize with the serial killer in question while simultaneously displaying their crimes in an unflinching light. This trend was consistent with other selections of lesbian film that belonged definitely in horror that I found in the gay/lesbian sections of various video stores and film-viewing sites, including High Tension and 2009 thriller Cracks. I watched Cracks because it was classified as gay/lesbian, and was described as a drama. In truth, that movie is about a teacher terrorizing, sexually harassing, raping, and murdering one of her female students. I think we can go ahead and put that in the horror section, everyone. I believe the societal dismissal of women’s capability to be seriously violent is communicated in these small details of placement. Female characters in horror are so often victims, but even when they’re violent criminals, that violence is either quickly punished, or it’s normalized and reduced by audiences and creators alike. Yet, relationship-based violence from lesbians is considered so commonplace and intrinsic that a movie about a serial killer is placed next to the romantic comedies and dramas otherwise populating the gay/lesbian sections of stores and streaming sites.

The Black Dahlia film is not based around the actual case of the Black Dahlia, but rather a novel by James Ellroy that borrows heavily from the case. The one consistent detail from both real life as well as the fictional account is that both are about the murder of a young woman named Elizabeth Short in 1947. Elizabeth Short has been connected to lesbian culture for decades now, and is widely considered bisexual, but was never actually known to express romantic interest in women at any point in her life, and, according to the notes of the district attorney, did quite the opposite, having “no use for queers.” She is also considered a failing small-time actor, but there is little evidence to support that allegation, so where do these myths come from? Much of it is due to the newspapers of the time: When any woman is murdered, she tends to be immediately either martyred or demonized in the media. The more brutal the crime, the more people need to feel that the woman must have somehow done something to deserve such brutality. There has been nothing short of a posthumous smear campaign leveled against Elizabeth Short in the media over the last 60-plus years, which only adds to the tragedy of her story. References to her have appeared in newspapers, novels, “nonfiction” books, movies, a rock band that felt it was appropriate to name themselves after the murder of a 22-year-old, and a few episodes of American Horror Story. The implication in much of pop culture is that Elizabeth Short was bisexual, a prostitute, a failed actor, a woman with a death wish, a drunk, or all of the above. All of these notions are 100 percent based in the idea that she was in some way “asking for” what happened to her.

Mia Kirshner as the doomed Elizabeth Short in 2006’s Black Dahlia.

The way society has exploited a woman about whom we truly know very little indicates a lot more about society than it does about Elizabeth Short, and that becomes more and more clear as we view the 2006 crime pseudo-noir Black Dahlia. Her queerness is played upon as her gateway into a dark underworld. Pretty much: You wouldn’t meet a murderer just anywhere, you would have to go to a gay bar for that. After her death, her affairs are the subject of disgusted reactions from the manly boxer/detectives working on her case. I’m not joking, they’re both former boxers as well as detectives, because they are that macho. Even her former lover shrugs off their relationship as “I was curious.”

Cold. The film’s portrayal of The Black Dahlia is essentially that she was a tragic victim, but also that there was really no saving her once she started making out with women in front of cameras.  The portrayal is consistent with many of the sexist and homophobic renditions of the Black Dahlia, which strongly involve the projection of queerness upon a likely straight woman to help justify her murderer.

Modern horror, on the other hand, has developed a penchant for the martyred or “innocent” lesbian character, who is unfailingly brutalized or murdered by the end of the film. These are horror films, and brutalization is to be expected, but there is something unsettlingly specific about the idea of the angelic queer woman who is punished quite literally to death for her sexuality. In 2012 film Here Comes the Devil, the movie begins with a young, closeted queer woman having sex with her girlfriend before being attacked by a possessed male in an exceptionally violent scene. The girl is never seen again, and mentioned in passing only once—the opening scene seems to be a way to slip a hot lesbian sex scene into the film.

Here Comes the Devil

In the 2008 movie Martyrs, a young woman is trying to help her violently mentally ill friend. Our queer hero undergoes what can only be described as some of the most intense and horrifying situations conceivable to the human mind as a result of acts of altruism towards her friend-crush. Her queerness is conveyed only in a very brief scene in which she tries to kiss her friend, but is immediately rebuffed. It’s practically invisible, yet it’s the whole reason for the film. Images of queer women as saintly or martyr-like honestly freak me out a lot more than the images of us as evil, sycophantic murderers or vampires, because it displays us as eternal victims. Martyrs is famously one of the most unflinchingly violent and gory films of all time, and I can only recommend it to those that have the ability to watch extremely shocking imagery for 90-plus minutes straight. As a horror fan, I think it’s really interesting and good. But as a human—a queer human—I definitely had to stop and recollect myself after watching it. It’s not always easy to perpetually watch the few representations of queer women onscreen meet such violent, horrifying ends.

While modern horror films are more likely to feature queer women—and not just lesbian vampires—than early films in the genre, they still often frame queerness as taboo. Even these days onscreen, lesbians have something different about them,  they’re set off from the rest of the characters by their sexuality. Just like the Dracula’s countess, filmmakers still set up queer women to give us that “weird feeling.”

Related Listening: Our “Oh the Horror!” podcast episode features favorite feminist heroines from horror films. 

by Sara Century
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Sara is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who is obsessed with most people, places, and things. She is good at speaking in public, working on art projects for most hours of her waking life, and saying quotable things in casual conversation. She came of age in the DIY art scene and throws her whole heart into everything.

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