The Abominable Act: Depictions of Gay Sex in Horror Film

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

-Leviticus 18:22 (KJV).

Where does queerness reside? Is it in the labels we use to describe ourselves? The clothes and cosmetics we wear? The politics we espouse? Is it a feeling we carry or a place in the world we occupy, whether by choice or against our will? Consult any two self-identified queers and you’ll invariably walk away with three definitions. But unlike the modern malleability of “queer” as a social category, the definition of homosexuality is fixed in the physical act of sex. A homosexual is one who feels desire for and makes love to members of their own gender. In art, depictions of homosexuality are still treated both through social taboo and explicit policy as inherently more graphic and offensive than depictions of heterosexuality. 

From Oscar-winning movies to prestige cable TV, there’s a prevailing aversion to actually showing gay sex. Think of Ang Lee’s 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain, a massive cultural phenomenon which renewed mainstream interest in gay cinema. The film includes only a single sex scene, observed non-explicitly from a great distance by a straight observer. By itself the framing of the scene isn’t all that meaningful, but set Brokeback alongside the other mainstream gay films of the late 20th and early 21st century and a clear trend of sexlessness emerges. The Dallas Buyers Club, Breakfast on Pluto, The Danish Girl, Philadelphia, Milk, The Kids Are Alright, The Imitation Game and many other works of modern gay cinema eschew depictions of gay and trans sex completely. While mainstream film in general has trended away from explicit sex since the 1980s and 90s, nowhere is its absence more pronounced than in gay film.

Crash
Crash, David Cronenberg. 1996

Degenerate Art

Horror, which already depends on depictions of transgression to create a fear and/or disgust response in its audience, is closely situated to our cultural anxiety around gay sex. The genre has mined homosexuality for scares since Joseph Sharidan le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, relying on the audience’s conflicted feelings toward gayness to sell images of gay sex as decadent, depraved, predatory, and monstrous. Think of the kiss Mina (Winona Ryder) and Lucy (Sadie Frost) share in a kind of hypnotized, languorous stupor in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the unbalanced, sociopathic lesbianism of Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Barbet Schroeder’s 1992 erotic thriller Single White Female. In both cases lesbianism is presented in a heightened context, but hardly seems like a leap to assume that the titillation of its inclusion is intended as part of the films’ appeal.

Single White Female spends a significant amount of time exploring Hedra’s experiences of isolation and self-loathing. Its complex approach to its gay antagonist is mirrored time and time again throughout the horror genre, and while Schroeder’s film itself features little to no expression of gay sexuality it is taut with frustrated sexual tension. Park Chan-wook’s 2016 horror mystery The Handmaiden features multiple scenes of explicit lesbian sex, as does Peter Strickland’s 2014 romantic horror film The Duke of Burgundy. David Cronenberg’s 1996 erotic horror film Crash revolves around a complex web of sexual relationships both straight and gay, all of which are depicted explicitly. These films and others like them present a complex and comprehensive view of homosexual sex, using the “in” of horror’s reliance on the shock value of gay sex to explore it through an empathetic and explicit lens.

The Handmaiden
The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook. 2016

Flesh and Bone

Where mainstream adaptations of existing literary work like Breakfast on Pluto and The Danish Girl tend to cut sex scenes or, as in Breakfast on Pluto’s case, remove any and all depictions of their gay and trans protagonists’ sexualities, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, an adaptation of the 2002 historical novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, includes more sexual content than its source material. Its sprawling exploration of pornography’s complex place in the sex lives of lesbians is among the most interesting treatments of porn as an artistic force, moving through issues of objectification and into the gray areas of sexual experimentation and self-discovery within the larger framework of an exploitative culture.

The Duke of Burgundy follows a similar pattern, using the lens of a lesbian couple’s Dominant/submissive relationship to examine selfishness and conflict within gay partnerships. The film includes sexualized urination, bondage, and other sex acts portrayed not strictly as titillating but as a window into the love lives and personalities of its characters. In Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart a traumatized gay man castrated by his father for sleeping with another boy in his youth seeks out and murders gay porn performers, his weapon of choice a massive dildo with a switchblade concealed in its head. He sublimates his mutilated sexuality into violence against those able to express theirs in public.

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The Duke of Burgundy
The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland. 2014

Horror can develop these complex portrayals of gay sexuality because it commits the social breach of depicting homosexuality in the first place, something from which more “palatable” films about queerness routinely shy away. The genre’s history of presenting homosexuality as predatory and unnatural casts this exploration in an ambiguous light, but those depictions of monstrous homosexuality have touched truth in their own right. In a culture where so much gay art is informational in nature, designed to teach its audience how to think and talk about queer people and relationships, film willing to engage in more “problematic” subject matter is essential to communicating the fallible humanity of gay individuals.

Evelyn’s sexual selfishness in The Duke of Burgundy, Anne’s hateful, drunken intimidation of her former lover Loïs in Knife+Heart, and Byron’s scornfully misogynistic courtship of Percy Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic are more vital to the humanization of gay society than any PSA or sexless feel-good romance. Non-idealized images of gay sexuality make it clear that gay people need not be good examples to be complete human beings, that the gay community belongs to itself and not to the work of projecting a wholesome image for the viewing public. 

Gothic
Gothic, Ken Russell. 1988

Forbidden Bodies

Horror’s work is the manifestation of the forbidden and the breaking of social safeguards. Some such safeguards concern our bodies, our connections to others, and our free will, while others pertain only to learned disgust and popular convention. The act of breaking this latter kind of boundary is thus generative rather than destructive, bringing viewers into contact with kinds and classes of people they might otherwise never encounter. Bringing homosexuality out of the realm of formless cultural anxiety and into actual visual reality positions it as a physical and emotional experience had by real people.

In a society where killing someone over the mere suspicion of homosexuality is a regular event, depictions of gay sex in film carry a lethal charge. Movies like Brokeback Mountain and The Dallas Buyers Club, both of which feature explicit straight sex, present an Oscar-friendly view of homosexuals as supporting players in tidy stories of PG-13 heartbreak and privation. Horror pushes past this bloodless Hallmark posturing and into the images which produce such intense crisis in the hearts of Americans of all genders and social strata.

Men lying in each other’s arms, lips wet and tongues hungry. Trans women twined together among sweat-stained sheets, illicit bodies slick and eager. These and others are the moments at which horror transforms homosexuality from hated abstraction to living flesh, naked and flawed and real.

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