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The Gothic Tradition and the Origins of Queer Monstrosity

The Gothic Tradition and the Origins of Queer Monstrosity
© Photograph by Viacheslav Potemkin

Today’s understanding of queerness has been greatly influenced by a variety of discourses, such as psychoanalytical, medical, literary, and cinematic ones. When taking into account the filmic depictions of queerness in the LGBT-hostile decade of the 1980s, it is of interest to go back to and to examine the roots of said discourses in order to get a better understanding of how they first emerged and how they evolved over time. The following will thus serve as a historical evolution of the “monstrous queer” starting as early as in the eighteenth-century and ending at sundown of the rebellious 1970s. By going back to deprive certain signifiers attached to queerness of meaning, I will reveal their artificiality by pointing out how and why these misconceptions were constructed over time. Furthermore, several landmark films that changed and influenced queer perception in (horror) cinema will be discussed to give an overview on the changing paradigms concerning queerness on screen.

Queer undertones have been part of the horror genre from its outset. In fact, the genre’s origins can be traced back to the English Gothic novel and the German Schauer-roman, both taking root in the second half of the eighteenth-century (Carroll, 1990: 4). Here, the Gothic tradition, in particular, becomes of interest not only due to its frequent suggestive homoeroticism, but also for being deemed the first literary movement that took queer matters of various sorts into focus.

Homoerotic tendencies were found throughout this literary genre, starting as early as in Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), which is widely considered the foundational novel of gothic writing (Benshoff, 1997: 16-17; Cooper, 2010: 5). From the “excesses of aristocrats whose appetites for money and sex imperil normal domesticity” (Cooper, 2010: 62) in ‘The Castle of Otranto’ to “[a] religiously repressed sexual hysteria and a transsexual demon” (Benshoff, 1997: 18) in Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ (1796), these early gothic novels established the basis for the connection between a monstrous self and homoerotic desire. In the late eighteenth-century, this equation of the monstrous and the homosexual would be used when establishing the homosexual as a distinct identity. That is not to say that same-sex desire was non-existent at the time. While the signifier “homosexual” was not created prior to 1870, same-sex attraction was “usually understood as a preference for a specific range of sexual behaviours and not as an entire identity” (Benshoff, 1997: 17). Retrospectively one can nevertheless revise literary history and apply the idea of queerness to works published before the invention of the word.

While some critics set the end of the early Gothic novel around the 1820s, works relating to gothic conventions continued to be published throughout the eighteenth-century (Cooper, 2010: 5). A true gothic revival, however, was only celebrated towards the end of the century in the form of “neo-Gothic” (5-6), a concept originally applied to revival architecture. As Benshoff (1997: 19) notes, these works belonging to the fin-de-siècle “gothic renaissance were even more explicit than their predecessors regarding the conflation of the monstrous with some form of queer sexuality.”

Popular queer-tinged literary characters were developed in this period, most notably the story of a potentially closeted gay man leading a double life in Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886), or the sexually seductive Count Dracula in Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897), who might be perceived as a “condensation of all things sexually deviant” (Cooper, 2010: 81) and able to transform his prey into bisexual predators just like himself (Benshoff, 1997: 19).

Simultaneously, a poetic and artistic movement known as “The Decadents” was afoot, which epitomized “the association of homosexual behaviour with elitism, death, and decay” since it engaged in “abnormal loves, necrophilia, and the ever-present image of the woman’s corpse.” The Decadents outward appearance and behaviour, characterized by their “pale, thin, delicate, aestheticized, and emotional” (1997: 19) features, contributed much to homosexual signifiers still used today. In particular one of these male writers tremendously boosted the establishment of homosexuality as an all-encompassing representative feature for an individual. This writer was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, whose ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ fits perfectly into the “monstrous” paradigm, alongside Frankenstein and Mr Hyde.

At the expense of a short digression, before engaging closely with the birth of the homosexual identity and the accompanying trials of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, it is important to take into consideration the sexual parameters of the times. Indeed, it is of no surprise that the first literary genre that would branch out to queer subject matters happened in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries and that the definition and identification of “deviant” sexualities took place during that period. In ‘The History of Sexuality’, Paul-Michel Foucault explains that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century was marked by the incorporation of sexuality into public discourses.

While in the Middle Ages a unitary sexual discourse centered around “the theme of the flesh and the practice of penance” existed, in the two aforementioned centuries this was “multiplied in an explosion of distinct discursivities which took form in demography, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy, and political criticism” (Foucault, 1978: 33). The inclusion of sexuality into various public discourses had the primal goal to regulate the sexuality of the masses, as the philosopher further explores: “Through the various discourses, legal sanctions against minor perversions were multiplied; sexual irregularity was annexed to mental illness; from childhood to old age, a norm of sexual development was defined and all the possible deviations were carefully described” (1978: 36).

To enforce the desired surveillance and persecution of these sexual deviations, “a new specification of individuals” (Foucault, 1978: 42-3) was required. In the case of same-sex desire, an identity had to be characterized and homosexuality had to become visible: “Nothing that went into [the homosexuals] total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away.” (1978: 43)

Accordingly, the same-sex desire was reduced to arbitrary, superficial signifiers, which became representative of a person as a whole. Paul-Michel Foucault sets the birth of the “homosexual” in the year of 1870 when Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal’s article “contrary sexual sensations [sic]” was published, in which Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal claimed homosexuality to be understood as an inversion of masculinity and femininity in an individual – or as Paul-Michel Foucault puts it, an “interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul” (1978: 43). This shows that homosexuality has been linked to medicine and pathology from the outset. This being said, it should be highlighted once again that while ‘the homosexual’ as an identity-defining a certain kind of person through specific signifiers was indeed a construct (such as gender itself might be perceived as an artificial creation, as discussed in greater length in the following chapter), same-sex desire and relations have always been a natural part of human sexuality. The idea of ‘the homosexual’ rapidly spread throughout Europe and was soon adopted in the United States of America: “By the 1880s, the same-sex attraction had been discovered in the United States, and articles about it popped up in domestic, scientific trade journals and magazines. There were only a few articles at first, but as the century came to a close, case studies were published across the country and by 1900, books and articles were commonplace.” (Hatheway, 2003: 2)

Apart from the medical writings on homosexuality, another event helped the newly designated homosexual identity to enter the public consciousness. Namely, in a series of three trials held in London in 1895, British writer Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was prosecuted and convicted for “the commission of acts of indecency in private with members of the own sex,” resulting in his two-year imprisonment accompanied by hard labour (Hyde, 1962: 19). These trials eventually helped to popularize the concept of homosexuality by “giving the pathologized category life in the popular consciousness” (Cooper, 2010: 61). Oscar Wilde became the representative for a homosexual identity and many characteristics associated to him would become general signifiers attached to the sexual orientation. After all, “parts of Dorian Gray were, or were used as, a handbook of gay style and behaviour” (Sedgwick, 1985: 95). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick even argues that “by the turn of the twentieth-century, after the trials of Oscar Wilde, the ‘aristocratic’ role had become the dominant one available for homosexual men of both the upper and middle classes” (1985: 94). This equation of homosexuality and aristocracy was closely linked to the believed life of excess amongst aristocrats, be it of financial or sexual nature (Cooper, 2010: 62). Here, the first link between Wilde, although not an aristocrat, and the Gothic can be established as Cooper explains: “To the denizens of normality who felt threatened by Wilde’s proclivities, Wilde looked like a Gothic villain. This resemblance enabled ‘the normal’ to equate Gothic characterizations with same-sex desire” (2010: 62) – a connection that naturally becomes even more obvious retrospectively from a twentieth- or twentieth-first-century perspective.

Also published on Medium.


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