Queer Horror: Comparing Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Hellraiser, and Let the Right One In.
The history of sexuality and gender identity expression in movies dates back to the 1920s, where the terms “pansy” and “sissy” became linked to homosexuality to describe flowery, fussy and humorous male characters in film. Later on, in 1968, with the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code censorship guidelines, expressions of sexuality and gender became more subtle (Russo 1981). Also known as the “Hays Code,” the code dictated what could be shown on screen, and thus, made any kind of queer representation prohibited. A response to these moral guidelines occurred during the 1960s with an influx of horror movies, in which many directors began utilizing their monsters and hauntings as subtle allegories for queerness and other “perversions.” Consequently, horror and queer cinema quickly became intertwined, ranging from movies celebrating, fetishizing, or suppressing queerness. Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge expresses queerness as something to be afraid of within oneself, whereas Clive Barker’s Hellraiser dives into the hyper-sexual BDSM community of the 1980s, while Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One in, handles the queerness and gender identities of its two main characters tenderly.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge exemplifies the troubled history of queerness through its usage of its featured nightmarish slasher, Freddy Krueger, as an allegory for the perverse, villainous ways of homosexuality. At the beginning of the film, the viewer is introduced to Jesse, an awkward, lanky teenager handling adolescence clumsily. His more popular, charming classmates, shown on the school bus that serves as the viewer’s vehicle into the plot, alienate and bully him. Instantly the viewer knows that Jesse is not like the other boys, and is left asking why. The answer is shown rather quickly: Freddy Krueger. However, once the initial shock value of Freddy is peeled back, the more subtle connotations of how Jesse’s queerness, shown through Freddy’s actions and words, is what truly makes him different is revealed.
Jesse refuses to have sex with his girlfriend and is not shown to have any blossoming relationships with heterosexual women near him, but instead is shown to lean towards his masculine, stereotypically attractive classmate, Ron. He is an important character in the discussion of Jesse’s suppression of his queerness. Ron wrestles with him early on in the movie, has locker-room conversation with him over how their school coach is “into pretty boys,” hinted to be like Jesse, and the two are even punished together afterward when the coach overhears them. In another scene, a snake, the symbol of sin and temptation, crawls over Jesse and he panics, Ron watches and laughs. The climax of their relationship comes towards the end of the film, when Jesse and his girlfriend are finally sexual, the two making out and fondling one another in her shed. At this point, Freddy (Jessie’s queerness) emerges, replacing Jesse’s tongue with a monstrous appendage. Jesse, naturally, freaks out and sprints to his nearest comfort, Ron, leaving behind his girlfriend.
Jesse somehow sneaks into Ron's bedroom and wakes up the teenage boy up by hovering above him as he sleeps, shirtless. Here, one of the least subtle lines in the script is said. Jesse, trying to gather himself, sits to face Ron and says, “Something is trying to get inside of my body.” To this, Ron replies, “Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana, and you wanna sleep with me” ("A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge"). Shortly after, however, their relationship comes to an end at the hands of Jesse’s queerness. Jesse, after sharing the truth of his haunting/possession, entrusts Ron to keep an eye on him so he wouldn’t fall asleep. Ron, however, thinks it is safe and lets the two of them go to sleep. Here is where Freddy reveals himself. He kills Ron, which the viewer can assume Jesse will guilt himself over. It serves as a gory allegory for Jesse possibly coming out to Ron about his true feelings and thus terminating their previously held relationship.
Other characters and events in the movie also support the villainy of queerness and Jesse’s reasoning to suppress it unconsciously. Two of these characters are Coach Schneider and Jesse’s girlfriend, Lisa. Coach Schneider from early on in the film is depicted as predatory and strict, especially towards Jesse and Ron. One night, when Jesse is very troubled and lacking sleep from his haunting, he wanders out into the night, disoriented. He blatantly chooses to ignore a “regular” heterosexual strip club and instead ventures to “Don’s Place,” a BDSM/leather bar filled with drag queens and queer-coded individuals. At Don’s Place, Jesse encounters Coach Schneider. His coach immediately leers at him before forcing him to go to the school gym to run punishment laps, followed up by a steaming shower. While Jesse is showering, Freddy emerges once more.
This time, Freddy is there to punish the coach. He does this by stringing him up in the gym showers with a jump rope, in a faint recall to the BDSM bar, and by whipping his back and arse until they bled profusely, all in front of Jesse. During the gruesome yet sexually coded attack, Jesse watched and did not run away or seek help. This could be seen as a shock response, but it could also be seen as Jesse refusing to possibly out himself via his testimony to the crime leading to proof of him at a queer club. When Jesse does finally decide to flee the scene, he does so out of guilt and fear, after the appearance of Freddy’s glove on his hand. Yet again, the audience is given another allegory for Freddy and Jesse being one.
The final character that influences how Jesse handles his queerness is his girlfriend, Lisa. Lisa is the only female character outside of family that Jesse truly interacts with, and the only female character to explicitly hint at Jesse hiding something perverse. In one moment during the film, Jesse confides in her that he dreamt of harming someone. In response, Lisa says “just because you dreamt it, doesn’t mean you did it.” Although the direct significance of this dialogue is to display Jesse’s slow descent into murderous madness, it also serves a more implicit purpose. Lisa’s words are not a far cry from a flustered girlfriend to a closeted queer man, telling him that just because he has gay thoughts or gay dreams, it doesn’t mean he’s gay in actuality. Closer to the climax of the film, in which Jesse is distressed and the bodies begin to pile up, she says, “We can figure this out together.” To this Jesse responds with a simple yet exasperated, “There's nothing to figure out” ("A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge"). Jesse’s suppression and internalization of Freddy, a ghastly metaphor for his queerness, is clear.
At the end of the film, Jesse is seemingly absolved of his queerness. While wearing Freddy’s literal skin, he allows himself to be burnt alive (perhaps a somber metaphor for his queerness burning in hell). However, Jesse survives the ordeal. Freddy’s skin melted off of him to reveal a cleansed, heterosexual version of himself that embraces his girlfriend immediately. After all, hate the sin, love the sinner.
Straying away from the narrative suggesting suppression in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is Hellraiser, a 1987 horror film directed by Clive Barker in which sexuality and gender expression are inherently fetishized. Hellraiser explores the need for pleasure and how far some will go for it. Written and filmed in the 80s by a gay director, this could be seen as a metaphor for the lengths gay and bisexual men would undergo in the 80s to seek pleasure during a time where various sexually transmitted diseases, most infamously AIDS, surrounded them without any real government support for cures and prevention.
The film introduces four main characters to the viewer: Larry, a plain white man who just moved into a home his brother used to live in; Julia, Larry’s independent wife who is in charge of her sexual agency throughout the film; Frank, Larry’s sexual deviant of a brother who not only initiates the supernatural plot to Hellraiser but also has a hyper-sexual romance with Julia; and Kristy, Larry’s grown-up daughter who immediately holds suspicions over her step-mother, Julia, from the beginning of the film. Although Frank, a man, plays an important role in furthering the plot along, the narrative of the film is told through the female gaze via Julia and Kristy’s point of view. Julia is not as interested in Larry as he is in her, shown through their dry conversations and the decision to move into a new home to fix their strained relationship. Her character is shown to isolate herself; however, once it is revealed that Frank, the man shown in the first few minutes to sacrifice himself for the “indivisible pleasures and pain of heaven and hell,” is alive in the attic but requires the essence of other living people to become whole, Julia’s characterization blossoms. Her sole mission in the film turns into luring single, lonely men into her family home and sacrifice them to her supernatural lover.
The montage of strangers entering her home wishing to be lovers, only to meet their demise at the hands of a bloody, decrypt humanoid is symbolic. The sacrificed men Frank feeds on are presented as hook-ups, seeking pleasure without contemplating possible consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and death. Throughout the process of luring these men, Julia’s sexuality expands and alters her gender expression. Before finding out Frank is alive, Julia presents herself as more “timid” or “conservative” around Larry and others. Afterward, however, Julia outright rejects the traditional feminine gender roles expected of her. She slowly begins to dress more androgynous, borderline masculine, and only submits to Frank during their sexually charged encounters. She does not fight the dark secret that threatens her nuclear family as other female horror-genre characters do, instead, she defends it and experiences a twisted, kinky romance with it.
Additionally, another queer component of Hellraiser is the blatant display and dramatization of fetishes, specifically BDSM and sadomasochism. This is personified through the entities known as the Cenobites. Cenobites are otherworldly creatures that can be deemed to be considered angels or demons depending on whom they interact with. These creatures appear when a person solves a certain artifact (in Hellraiser this is a puzzle box), which causes a temporary tear between dimensions, allowing them to emerge from hell and drag whoever summoned them back with them to experience “twisted” forms of pleasure. The Cenobites present themselves clad in leather garments that border on religious wear, with exposed skin that’s either stained with blood or revealing a throat or stomach that's torn open and held ajar with pins and wires. One cenobite in particular, although confirmed to be female in another film in the Hellraiser franchise, is presented as androgynous with a shaved head and gender non-conforming appearance. These walking embodiments of sadomasochism represent a fetishized, dramatized vision of the gay BDSM and leather culture that existed in the 1980s. Hellraiser strays away from heterosexual, monogamous sexuality and instead revels in its hyper-sexual, polyamorous connotations, even though they’re violent gory images.
Similarly, Let the Right One In, provides the viewer with violent images and themes. However, the Swedish horror film differs from Hellraiser and A Nightmare on Elm Street: 2 by juxtaposing these images with an unexpectedly tender, queer love story. In the film, the audience is presented with Oskar, a nontypical horror movie male protagonist. Oskar is a scrawny and lanky 12-year-old with long, delicate hair that matches his timid demeanor. The other boys in his strangely liminal Swedish town are aggressive towards him and bully him. Other than the personality differences between Oskar and these boys, there are also physical differences. The boys, although in the same grade, all have shorter hair that end by the napes of their necks, and have enough meat on their bones to fill out their shirts and sweaters.
Shortly after, the audience is shown Eli. Eli is a vampire that appears androgynous but still around Oskar’s age range. They dress in a way that does not adhere to the typical gender expression in the small town, nor act in a traditional femme or masculine way. When Eli is first introduced, they’re moving into an apartment next door to Oskar with their caretaker. Their caretaker is shown to board up and tape the windows to their apartment, thus making it impossible for an outsider to see in. This is done to hide Eli’s supernatural state, but it also doubles as a manner to hide their queerness and seclude it to their private sphere of life. Although Eli’s caretaker supports their vampirism/queerness, they tell them over and over again it is safer for them to hide it.
The space where both Eli and Oskar can express their queerness and true personalities is with one another. Oskar is not honest with his mother when asked about the abuse the other boys put him through, but is honest with Eli, who then urges him to fight back. Eli attempts to eat candy Oskar offers them, knowing that they will feel sick, and then allows Oskar to comfort them with a hug after they vomit. This moment is the first display of affection any of the characters have towards Eli and Oskar, and it comes from one another. Tender, secret meetings they have with one another nightly all lead up to a scene in which Eli addresses the romantic feelings growing between them.
They ask, “Do you like me?” To which Oskar replies, “Yeah, a lot” which leads to the reveal of Eli’s gender, with them saying, “If I wasn’t a girl, would you still like me?” ("Let the Right One In") Eli’s gender-queerness and androgyny aren’t questioned or rejected by Oskar, it is accepted and celebrated, with Oskar replying nonchalantly and explaining that he would still like them regardless. Eli’s gender is brought up among the two of them again later on, during an intimate, non-sexual moment in which they’re both shirtless, lying in the same bed. Oskar flat out asks Eli if they would like to be his girlfriend, and Eli corrects him, reminding him that they aren’t a girl. Again, Oskar acknowledges this in a wholesome, nonjudgmental way and says, “Okay. Do you still want to go steady?” ("Let the Right One In")
Throughout the film, both separate narratives for Eli and Oskar become entangled until they merge into one; this leads up to the two of them escaping their town after a series of dramatic, fatal events with others. They’re shown traveling together on a train, Eli hidden from the sunlight as Oskar taps his knuckles against her hiding spot. They leave the location where their story initiated, where neither Oskar or Eli was accepted for who they were, in hopes of finding sanctuary elsewhere for their queer, supernatural love. Overall, Let the Right One In explores and delves into the traditional romanticism of the tale of a vampire, but adds an adolescent and queer lens to it.
In essence, horror films since their creation have served as a creative medium to discuss and explore occurrences in society. This extends to the depiction of queerness, whether it be positive or negative. Certain films, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, depict queerness in subtle but damning ways, suggesting its villainy through the usage of a nightmarish creature, while others like Hellraiser dramatize and fetishize queer aspects and actions of characters. There are even films that present queerness in a positive light and as something to be protected, such as the tender and emotive Let the Right One In. Overall, these films take on different approaches to express and discuss gender and sexuality, but they all serve towards extending that conversation into a more mainstream, commonplace setting.
Alfredson, Tomas, director. Let the Right One In. Hulu.
Barker, Clive, director. Hellraiser. Hulu,
Russo, Vito. Celluloid Closet ; Homosexuality in the Movies. HARPER, 1981.
Sholder, Jack, director. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Admitme.tv,