Badpuppy Gay Today
Monday, 23 March 1998
MONSTERS IN THE CLOSET: Homosexuality and the Horror Film by Harry M. Benshoff; Manchester University Press (Inside Popular Film); 328 pages; $18.95.
As gay boys in a homophobic society, many of us grew up knowing that we were different from the norm. Knowing that we were different, we watched television shows and movies about other "outcasts" from society, like science fiction and horror movies.
As a kid in the sixties, I would watch Worlds Beyond, a Saturday afternoon anthology of cheesy sci-fi and horror flicks. There I would lose myself in a world of sensitive monsters and lonesome aliens who were lost and doomed in an planet that hated them. I became a horror film junkie, unlike my "straight" friends who watched "Battlefield", a World War II movie show I hated. (I also liked the jungle movie series "Safari", but that's another story!)
As a life-long horror film fan, I welcomed the publication of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. I agree with Harry M. Benshoff's thesis, that horror films reflect and reinforce popular perceptions and prejudices about homosexuals: "for many people in our shared English-language culture, homosexuality is a monstrous condition. ... For the better part of the twentieth century, homosexuals, like vampires, have rarely cast a reflection in the social looking-glass of popular culture.
When they are seen, they are often filtered through the iconography of the horror film ... Both movie monsters and homosexuals have existed chiefly in shadowy closets, and when they do emerge from these proscribed places into the sunlit world, they cause panic and fear. ... To create a broad analogy, monster is to "normality" as homosexual is to heterosexual."
Movie monsters, Benshoff writes, changed as popular views of homosexuals changed. During the thirties we (monsters and homosexuals) were outcasts who threatened the heterosexual norm. During the forties we were pitiful figures who sought a cure from a sympathetic scientist (psychiatrist).
During the fifties we were a threat to innocent youth and the American way of life. Though many of us (homosexuals and monsters) became sympathetic, even sexy, after 1969 (the year of Stonewall), this changed during the AIDS-ties, when "monster queers" became "contagious vampires ... who, with a single mingling of blood, can infect a pure and innocent victim, transforming him or her into the living dead."
Though all this sounds implausible to some. Dr. Benshoff – who received his doctorate from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television - made a good case with incontrovertible facts culled from five decades of mostly American and British horror films. Take, for example, the two most popular subjects in horror movies: the Frankenstein monster and Count Dracula. In Frankenstein movies "mad" male scientists and their male assistants "give birth" to a monster who in turn threatens "straight" stability and family life.
Dracula films feature "an elegant and seductive count who preys not only upon the bodies of men and women, but also on the very being of his victims, transforming them into creatures as sexually monstrous as himself."
Sometimes Benshoff gets carried away. Though I can see the queer (and Commie) significance of I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), "in which a newly-wed husband (Tom Tryon), secretly a monster queer, finds it preferable to meet other strange men in the public park rather than stay at home with his wife", methinks Benshoff goes out on a limb when he calls The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) a "phallic monster" which "suggests the repressed homosexual urges which may lie at the heart of such homosocial bonds."
Equally preposterous is his contention that, in "teenage monster" movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), "adult scientists and teachers prey upon same-sex teenagers and attempt to turn them into monsters". (If I stress 50's horror films it's because these were the flicks that I grew up with, on TV's Worlds Beyond.) And what do we make of Benshoff's interpretation of Vincent Price movies, where "a deliberate and overarching camp aesthetic is used to nominate the protagonist as queer."
Since horror films reflect society's opinion of queer people, it makes sense to presume that movies made by queer film makers would have a different slant on the subject. As it turns out, queer directors and script writers, from James Whale to Ed Wood to Clive Barker, are more ambivalent than their heterosexual counterparts, softening their monsters and making them more appealing.
In Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), "'the normals' are as eccentric as the denizens of the house, and the horror inside is revealed to be an explicit function of queer sexuality and its attempted repression."
Six decades later, in Barker's Nightbreed (1990), "the monsters are the heroes, whereas the forces of the patriarchal order are revealed to be the 'real' villains." Whatever their fate, contemporary monsters like Pinhead in Barker's Hellraiser (1987) and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990) are worlds away from the life-destroying fiends that Universal, American International and Hammer gave us in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's.
Monsters in the Closet is a must-read for all of us, queer or not, who enjoy the horror cinema. Even if you don't agree with Benshoff's theories and conclusions, you will love the film stills and the little-known facts about horror films and horror film-makers. Did you know that Gary Conway, the monster in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958), also posed for 1950s physique magazines? Or that Gloria Stuart of Titanic made her last major film in 1932 (The Old Dark House)? Monsters in the Closet will send you out to your local video store, to rent and watch those horror movies that we loved so long ago.
Book Nook News: The American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table's Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Task Force recently announced the winners of its Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Book Awards. Established in 1971, the ALA GLB Book Awards "are given annually to authors of books of exceptional merit that examine the lesbian, gay and/ or bisexual experience."
Working Parts, a novel by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (Seal), was named the winner of the Award for Literature. "The first novel for Bledsoe, Working Parts captures the personal growth of a lesbian cyclist and killed bicycle mechanic Lori Taylor as she undertakes the challenge of learning to read."
Other Literature finalists are Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon (Press Gang), The Escape Artist by Judith Katz (Firebrand), In Awe by Scott Heim (Harper), and Prozac Highway by Persimmon Blackbridge (Press Gang). The Shared Heart: Portraits and Stories Celebrating Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young People by Adam Mastoon (Morrow) was named the winner of the Nonfiction Award. The Shared Heart "pairs the photos of Adam Mastoon with the words of teens and young adults describing their awakenings to gay, lesbian, or bisexual identities and the effects of their awakenings on the world around them."
Other Nonfiction finalists are Hospital Time by Amy Hoffman (Duke), Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life by James Sears (Westview), Queerly Classed, edited by Susan Raffo (South End), and Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation by Arlene Stein (California).
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