Unhappily Ever After: Queer Hauntings in 1960s British Cinema

Our latest guest blog is by Jordan Phillipsa postgraduate researcher and teaching associate at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. In this thought-provoking post, Jordan discusses representations of queerness in 1960s British horror cinema, with particular reference to Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting. 

The 1960s is often cited as a revolutionary epoch for Britain in terms of both cultural and socio-political movements. However, cultural shifts commonly signal that of which came before, which ultimately begs the question… How progressive were the reflections of British society within cinema during the 1960s? To narrow it down, the representations of queerness in cinema (particularly horror cinema) throughout this decade. The 1960s saw some of the first explicit representations of queerness within cinema, including horror, and as such serves as a salient cinematic landmark for the queer-orientated horror film.

According to Harry M. Benshoff, the horror genre has always been subject to its socio-historical circumstances i.e. political ideologies of the time and points of cultural unease(i). With the 1960s came the liberal anti-establishment causes as well as the so-called sexual revolution, with hegemonic heterosexual monogamy being challenged as the status quo position for young people in Britain at this time. As such, sex and sexuality were prominent themes of the 1960s e.g. Naked as Nature Intended (1961) and Women in Love (1969). Violence was also another significant thematic concern for the ‘60s, with real life events such as the Manson Family murders mirroring the cinematic penchant for death and depravity. These lurid subject matters, both of which were still considered to be taboo at the time, proved to be a natural fit for the generic categories horror and queer cinema, the latter of which was especially underrepresented within the cinema of Britain (or anywhere, for that matter).

peepingtom

A poster for the  film Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), known for its depiction of voyeuristic pleasure and perverse violence.

As with the preceding decades, 1960s Britain proved to be a prolific period for horror films. Hammer Film Productions released a string of horror films at this time including the Brides of Dracula (1960), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and The Witches (1966). They also released a number of sequels or spiritual successors to their previously established horror franchises such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Here, Hammer drew upon what came before in the form of iconic monster movies from the 1950s in an attempt to create a resonance with their beloved characters from their most successful movies. Instead of trying to reinvent the horror wheel, so to speak, Hammer Film Productions took popular horror franchises and rejuvenated them with the cultural imprint of the 1960s. This meant that these films were, by and large, imbued with the liberal sexual politics of the time, resulting in queerly-inflected horror films which are still a rarity today. One of the most prominent examples of a queer horror film from this era (one which is still held in high regard by today’s standards) is Robert Wise’s psychological horror film The Haunting (1963).

hauntingposter1

The Haunting

Broadly speaking, horror films are created to inspire fear and examine the tensions between the normal and the abnormal within society(ii). Within the horror genre, the “normal” is commonly represented as white heteronormativity, with anyone who dissents from this privileged typing (i.e. minority ethnic groups and LGBT or queer persons) being considered to be abnormal by opposition. This raises an aporia within the construct of queer horror, as horror itself has been viewed as a socio-politically conservative and reactionary genre, while the notion of queerness is entirely antithetical to all of these positions – or, positions at all. To be queer is to eschew and negate culturally constructed positions of authority, race, sex, gender, not to reinforce them(iii). In order to examine the idea of a queer horror film from the ’60s, we must first assess the state of queer politics during this period.

In line with the sexual revolution and liberation of disenfranchised groups, LGBT rights were swiftly improving over the course of the decade. In 1963, the Minorities Research Group became Britain’s first lesbian socio-political organisation. In 1964, the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee was founded in an attempt to abandon the medical model of homosexuality as an illness. In 1966, House of Commons Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley introduced a bill to legalise male homosexuality in the same vein as the Wolfenden report 9 years earlier. The next year in England and Wales the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts between two men (over the age of 21 in private).

These landmark reforms galvanised the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement, which would take shape more firmly in the 1970s and 1980s(iv). As with the socio-political standing of LGBT persons in the 1960s, cinematic attitudes and representations were also becoming more and more progressive. In 1961, the film Victim was released, becoming the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual” on screen. Many regard this film as sociologically significant in the changing attitudes (and laws) regarding homosexuality in Britain. Other prominent LGBT-orientated films of this time include A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Leather Boys (1964). However, despite the prevalence of LGBT-orientated films and the gay rights reforms in Parliament, the average film-goer would not become acquainted with the homophile (appreciation of homosexuality and its practices) movement and gay liberation until much later. This explains, at least in part, the ongoing socially conservative treatment of homosexuality, and also explains why films such as The Haunting, despite having a decidedly queer slant, still verged on the ideologically conservative and regressive.

homophile poster

A Christianity Today editorial regarding the growing awareness of homosexuality in the 1960s

Based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, the film tells the story of a haunted house which is supposedly infused with paranormal properties. Dr. John Markway gathers a team of investigators, who have themselves been exposed to the supernatural in some way. The two main female characters are Eleanor “Nell” Lance, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child, and Theodora “Theo” who is a psychic. Their relationship throughout the film carries strong lesbian undertones, although the representation of lesbianism is never explicit, keeping in line with both the mysterious nature of the film and the conservative attitudes towards homosexuality. According to White, The Haunting provides, “One of the screen’s most spine-tingling representations of the disruptive force of lesbian desire”(v, p.144). Despite being made in the ‘60s, homosexuality was still a highly taboo subject and the inclusion of out-and-proud homosexuals could have seriously hindered a film’s success both commercially and critically.

Throughout the film, Theo’s otherworldly powers of extra-sensory perception and female sensuality position her as a force of otherness. She is a proudly independent woman, one who scorns at the idea of needing a man in her life. Her powers align her with the supernatural entity which is Hill House (which is, in itself, a queer entity of disequilibrium). Just as the Gothic castle which harbours the vampire is emblematic of the vampire’s Gothic otherness, as is the Hill House of Theo’s abnormality as a lesbian woman during the 1960s. This connection is furthered by the film’s dialogue, which strengthens the correlation between Theo’s non-normative power and identity and the house’s own paranormal nature. In a particularly heated scene, Eleanor screams, “You’re a monster, Theo! You’re the monster of Hill House!” before fleeing the room. The characters continually remark about the “something” which pervades the house, something which is not right or does not belong in this world at this time. Eleanor’s verbal assault on Theo elucidates this point of difference to the viewer emphatically: Eleanor is monstrous because she is a lesbian. Later, Eleanor tells Theo that she is revolting, unnatural, a freak of nature. When Theo responds by calling Eleanor a “Poor, stupid innocent”, Eleanor responds by saying “I’d rather be innocent than be like you”. Eleanor’s remarking of Theo’s sexuality as unnatural and monstrous is reminiscent of Judeo-Christian ideologies concerning homosexuality – i.e. the virtuous and wholesome Eleanor is placed into Hill House unbeknownst of its unholy and queer properties, unlike Theo who relishes in her own difference and wickedness(vi). Within The Haunting, then, queer desire is depicted as predatory and unsettling, just as the house itself is characterised as such.

theo and nell

Theo and Eleanor

The horror genre has consistently courted with the idea of queerness, yet it still shows rhetorical resistance the notion of truly queer horror. Harry M. Benshoff writes that, “Queer suggests death over life by focusing on non-procreative sexual behaviours, making it especially suited to a genre which takes sex and death as central thematic concerns(i, p.5). Despite this, the horror genre, as a whole, has shown an unwillingness to embrace both explicit and progressive portrayals of queer persons. That being said, visibility is crucial to the representation of marginalised groups insofar that invisibility is potentially more damaging overall. Although The Haunting does present lesbianism as unnatural and predatory, the inclusion of a lesbian character and storyline has cemented the film in queer cinema history, and is often regarded as a landmark in the queer horror canon. Along with the socio-political movements which were roused during this time, the 1960s has been concretised in queer and horror cinema history, with The Haunting being remembered as one of the most significant queer horror films ever made.

 

……………………………………………………

(i) BENSHOFF, H. M., 1997. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

(ii) WELLS, P., 2000. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. United Kingdom: Wallflower Press.

(iii) BUTLER, J., 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

(iv) ROBINSON, L., 2007. Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

(v) WHITE, P., 1991. Female Spectator, Lesbian Spectre. The Haunting. In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. FUSS, D. New York and London: Routledge.

(vi) BRINTNALL, K. L., 2004. Re‐building Sodom and Gomorrah: the monstrosity of queer desire in the horror film. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Volume 5, Issue 2, pp.145-160.

 

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