Discussion of the beginnings of horror film history, in this post looking specifically at Dracula, queer history, and the 1960s.

Before getting into my actual post discussing Dracula, and horror, and all things 1960s vampire, I’d like to take a moment to comment on the historical placement of this particular post. I won’t be addressing the Orlando Massacre, or, in fact, the contemporary politics of queer death here. I’m not ready to do that yet and I’m not sure when I will be. But this post does, in part, serve to recount the queer history that lead to the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the event that today’s Pride celebrations aim to celebrate. This post is my attempt to examine the relationship between on-screen representations of queer folks, representations of violence against queer communities, those real-world communities, and real-world violence against them. I do not claim that this is a complete history by any means, but in looking at horror in conjunction with gender and sexuality, it is especially important to understand that filmic queer horror has real-life roots, which this post aims to illustrate.

Hammer Horror’s first Dracula film was released in 1958, however, the remainder of the franchise was a project of the 1960s and ‘70s. While it is possible to cover both decades in the development of the monster movie by looking at this one example, due to its inception on the cusp of the 1960s, and its referent (like Frankenstein), in the 1800s, it is more appropriate to focus on the 1960s iterations of the franchise.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, upon which all adaptations are (however loosely) based, is not solely focused on sexuality. Critical responses to the novel encompass gender, sexuality, race, literary experimentation, and traditionalism vs. industrialization. Filmic adaptations of the novel, especially those produced by Hammer in the 1950s-60s, however, tend to focus on the vampire as a primarily sexual image. Furthermore, Dracula, and all ensuing vampires, are sexualized in a distinctively deviant way. They represent sexuality that is “other.” This is present in Stoker’s original text: sexuality is presented as a possibility outside of conventional relationships. In other versions of the tale[1] Dracula and other vampires come to primarily represent cultural anxieties and fears regarding gender roles. These pre-existing anxieties made Dracula an ideal figure to represent fear regarding emerging understandings of sexuality in the 1960s.

As mentioned above, Hammer released three Dracula films after Terence Fisher’s 1958 Dracula/Horror of Dracula: The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher 1966), and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis 1968). While the franchise continued into the 1970s, the figure of Dracula is very much indicative of 1960s LGBT/queer politics.

The first (credited) gay rights demonstration took place in September, 1964 with a small picket line, led by Randy Wicker, protesting the Whitehall Street Induction Center’s release of gay men’s confidential draft records. 1964 also saw protests of the pathologization of homosexuality (through psychoanalytics, as a mental illness) and of police action to shut down the inception of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco. 1965 included activists protesting the White House and United Nations (by East Coast Homophile Organizations, ECHO, and others), sit-ins at restaurants, the Annual Reminder (through ’69)[2], and picketing at the Grace Cathedral for disciplinary actions taken against Rev. Canon Robert Cromey for his involvement with the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. 1966 encompassed protests against the prohibition of serving alcohol to “known homosexuals”[3], the armed forces for the exclusion of homosexuals from the Service, and restaurants, as well as riots against police harassment. In 1967, LGBT activists organized directly against police raids of gay bars[4] and in solidarity with the disproportionate prosecution of minorities within the LGBT community by police.

1968 brings us that much closer to the Stonewall Riots with protests reaching a fever-pitch. These actions encompassed a Griffith Park party to protest police entrapment of drag queens and gay and trans prostitutes, student protests at Columbia University against the continued pathologization of homosexuality as a mental illness, and a protest of police raids at The Patch in LA, a gay bar like The Black Cat Tavern. Prior to the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, two major actions took place, in April and May in San Francisco. The first was a protest against the firing of Gale Whittington by the States Steamship Company and the second a protest of the firing of Frank Denaro by Tower Records.

And then June 1969, the event that would resonate in the queer community through the decades: the Stonewall Riots. The Riots were a series of collective actions lead primarily by trans women of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, in response to police raids of gay bars and to disproportion discrimination (police and otherwise) of women of color, trans women of color, and sex workers of color.

This all leaves Hammer’s 1960 Brides of Dracula and subsequent films in a rich context of queer theory, politics, and demonstration activity, all of which affect the films’ production and release.

Dracula, as a figure, represents the monstrosity of sexuality, in both the psychoanalytic and popular consciousness. Vampires feed on blood, a necessarily visceral means of survival, but also a sexual one. Further, Dracula’s willingness and desire to change a human into a vampire is never entirely utilitarian, but is, instead, always informed by sexual desire. This is because the process of transforming a human requires the sharing of bodily fluids (much like intercourse), and encompasses the consequence of eternal life, a consequence that is, very often, romantic, if not sexual. Working from these concepts, Victorian notions of the vampire (and their later iterations) are not necessarily representations of agentive sexuality, but, rather, monstrous representations of perverse and aberrant sexuality. These representations coincide with the gaining momentum of LGBT rights and visibility, so that by 1968 Dracula Has Risen from the Grave presents us with an image of non-normative sexual desire defeated by the power of Christ and the Lord’s Prayer.

In this context, the monster film via Dracula specifically comes to identify human figures of anxiety, the LGBT community, with the vampire, who can be otherwise referred to as a leech, a parasite. This is to say that 1960s Hammer Horror, while significant to the horror genre and the monster movie subgenre, does not necessarily allow for an easy agentive figure for the queer community. Rather, it presents us with a negative, antagonistic, and wholly defeat-able figure, only reclaim-able via off-screen viewership practices, that equates non-normative, non-heterosexual sexuality with destruction and deserved death.

And on this cheery note, next week’s post will explore Hammer’s third adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Roy Ward Baker’s 1971 film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

[1] Note, here, that I am not including a discussion of Sheridan La Fanu’s Carmilla, which I have discussed in a previous blog post (link), and which complicates this discussion along lines of gender as well as adaption since it is often conflated in adaptations of Dracula but its own adaptations function differently within the field of horror film.

[2] Events aimed at reminding the American public that LGBT were still not allowed basic civil rights.

[3] Significant in terms of Stonewall and contemporary queer politics in that gay and lesbian bars have become safe spaces for the community to be together, find ways to love ourselves, and find joy.

[4] The Black Cat Tavern in LA among them.

References and Further Reading

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.

Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Eisenbach, David. Gay Power: An American Revolution. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. Print.

Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. Print.

Hand, Richard J., and Jay McRoy. Monstrous Adaptations: Generic and Thematic Mutations in Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007. Print.

Heffernan, Kevin. Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953-1968. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.

Stine, Scott Aaron. Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s. London: Headpress, 2008. Print.

Image Credit: Hammer Films © 1968



Author: Geneveive Newman