Discussion of the beginnings of horror film history, in this post looking specifically at feminist/queer history and Hammer Horror.

Hammer Horror’s 1971 Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is… certainly something. As with many Dracula adaptations, this Jekyll/Hyde adaptation lends itself to queer appropriations and alternative viewing strategies. It’s one of very few early representations of gender transition on screen, which is, I suppose, worth something. Despite this potentially progressive context, however, when read within its own historical context it tends towards a reactionary form of transphobia and misogyny stemming more from anger at emerging LGBTQ and Second Wave Feminist movements than genuine on-screen representation of non-normative identity.

As discussed in my last blog the Stonewall Riots took place in 1969, two years prior to the release of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and while Stonewall occurred in the US, I find it difficult to believe that a major political action lead by trans women and sex workers of color didn’t have an impact on British film production, let alone Hammer’s distribution in the U.S. (which is, after all, my main focus here). Between 1969 and 1971 a number of significant actions in LGBTQ history took place, not the least of which were the first Gay Liberation Day March (New York City)[ii] and the first Pride Parade (Los Angeles)[iii] in 1970. In case this blog series hasn’t made it abundantly clear, early LGBTQ action was primarily centered around social justice, riots, and activism, so that the next two major events of 1970 were the first “Gay-In,” held in San Francisco[iv], and Carl Wittman’s publication of “A Gay Manifesto” with The Red Butterfly cell of the Gay Liberation Front[v]. On the legislative front, 1971 saw the repeal of sodomy laws in Colorado, Oregon, and Idaho (although Idaho reinstated the law in response to lobbying by religious groups)[vi]. Additionally, in 1971, in the scope of election politics, Dr. Frank Kameny became the first openly gay Congressional candidate[vii]. Of particular relevance to anyone who’s spent the majority of their conscious life in college (like me), the University of Michigan established the first collegiate office specifically for LGBT programming, entitled the “Gay Advocate’s Office”[viii]. While this history of LGBTQ action in the U.S. is pretty sparse compared to the 1960s, it still had a significant enough impact to provoke a popular response that was, in turn, reflected within the global film industry. Due to the nature of the “monster” in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, however, this film’s production and U.S. release were not only prompted by increased LGBTQ actions, but also by Second Wave Feminist movements.

Second Wave Feminism picked up in 1969 with the official formation of the Redstockings[ix] and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL)[x]. The Redstockings took action in ’69 around a New York Legislative hearing regarding abortion because the witnesses for the hearing were 14 men and a nun, demanding repeal (rather than reform) of restrictive laws regarding abortion[xi]. Also on the legislative front, California approved a “no fault” or mutual consent divorce law[xii] (not adopted in every state until 2010) in addition to equal common property division legislation[xiii]. On the academic front, Kate Millett’s PhD dissertation Sexual Politics on the political role of patriarchy was published in 1970, and Sisterhood Is Powerful was also published and edited by Robin Morgan. A further nail in the proverbial vampire coffin might also have been Toni Cade Bambara publishing The Black Woman, this collection of essays, poems, and short stories by black women about gender, race, and politics. As if that wasn’t enough subversion, Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. lead to the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that job titles for women couldn’t legally be changed in order for companies to pay women less for essentially the same jobs (which fell under the protection of the Equal Pay Act of 1963)[xiv]. Both the North American Indian Women’s Association[xv] and Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional (National Mexican Women’s Commission)[xvi] were founded in the US. All of this happened just prior to the 1971 release of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. The first edition of Ms. Magazine was published, featuring Jane O’Reilly’s article “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”[xvii]; Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was also published in 1971 in ARTnews[xviii]; and, 1971 saw the establishment of Women’s Equality Day as August 26 in the U.S.[xix]

While much of Second Wave Feminist history (and LGBTQ activism) is problematic when considered in terms of race and class, horror film history has largely ignored these legitimate criticisms and jumped directly to reactionary, conservative criticism of liberal social movements. The trailer alone for Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde makes it apparent that the premise of the film is not meant to be progressive with regard to gender. First, Sister Hyde is referred to in the film as Mrs. Hyde because “Mrs.” construes her as the proper female subject, property of a man, and thereby tamed/tame-able. Second, she is immediately and consistently referred to as a monster.

As a frame of reference, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, originally published in 1886, Mr. Hyde was described as a monster, both internally and outwardly. He’s initially introduced when he tramples a young woman on her way to fetch Dr. Jekyll for help, and is later explained as Jekyll’s attempt to create an alter-ego through which to satiate his base impulses and desires without harm to his reputation. Further, while the Jekyll/Hyde transformation is initially undertaken only with the assistance of a serum, it later occurs in Jekyll’s sleep, and then while he is congratulating himself for being an exemplary person due to his recent philanthropic work. The novella ends with Jekyll’s final transformation into Hyde and Hyde’s suicide, undertaken in order to prevent his capture and prosecution by police for his numerous crimes, including murder.

Considering this original text, it’s unsurprising that an adaptation that casts the monster of Mr(s.) Hyde as a woman would be horribly problematic even without the contemporary context of LGBTQ and feminist activism. Within these contexts, though, the film transforms Robert Louis Stevenson’s original text into something more than the intended fictional consideration of the nature of humanity. By gender-swapping Hyde, Hammer Horror attributed the most monstrous aspects of humanity (murder, violence, disregard of the social contract) to women. Moreover, viewing the film in 2016, considering the full scope and meaning of Stonewall and subsequent LGBT activism, the film implicates not only women as the root of evil, but more specifically trans women as the ultimate unremorseful evil. While this may seem revisionist, the film is already clearly reactionary, and in an era of challenges to normative gender and sexuality, trans women posed a particular threat to the sanctity of the patriarchy. These women raised the question, for mainstream cisgender society, of why anyone would willingly forfeit the privileges of masculinity, and of whether those privileges could still be as unassailable if someone did decide to give them up.

[ii] Blasius, Mark, and Shane Phelan. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] Wittman, Carl. “A Gay Manifesto.” Gay Homeland Foundation. The Red Butterfly, Gay Liberation Front, 1970. Web. 04 July 2016.

[vi] “Getting Rid of Sodomy Laws.” Get Busy. Get Equal. American Civil Liberties Union, 2006. Web. 04 July 2016. <http://web.archive.org/web/20070929133832/http://www.aclu.org/getequal/gettingrid.html&gt;.

[vii] Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park, 2002. Print.

[viii] “Our History.” Student Life Spectrum Center. Ed. Nick Burris. University of Michigan, 2016. Web. 04 July 2016.

[ix] Willis, Ellen. “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism.” No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1992. Print.

[x] Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “NARAL: Prochoice America.” Harvard University Library Web Archive Collection Service. 4 July 2016.

[xi] Willis, Ellen. “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism.” No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1992. Print.

[xii] Johnson, Sharon. “No-Fault Divorce: 10 Years Later, Some Virtues, Some Flaws.” New York Times 30 Mar. 1970, sec. A: 22. Print.

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Shultz v. Wheaton Glass Company, 421 F.2d 259 (3d Cir. 1970).

[xv] Olsen, Kirstin. Chronology of Women’s History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994. Print.

[xvi] “Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, Inc. Archives.” UC Santa Barbara Library. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010. Web. 04 July 2016.

[xvii] O’Reilly, Jane. “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” Ms. Dec. 1971. Print.

[xviii] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (1971): 229-233.

[xix] “Women’s Equality Day.” National Women’s History Project. National Women’s History Project. Web. 05 July 2016.

Image Credit: Hammer Films © 1971



Author: Geneveive Newman