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In The Philosophy of Horror, film critic and philosopher Noel Carroll tries to determine why the horror genre endures, even though, at its most basic level, it functions to generate unpleasant emotions such as fear and disgust. Carroll’s answer is simple but full of truth: The audience is willing to pay the horror creator’s price, to experience fear and revulsion, in exchange for the thrill that comes from contact with the Unknown, the film or novel’s monster. It satisfies us, Carroll argues, to see the familiar horror plot unfold and resolve itself; as the lights come up, we congratulate ourselves not only for having bravely borne witness to the mayhem on the screen, but also for having survived it.
While arriving at his explanation for horror’s seemingly undying popularity, Carroll de-spooks the explanation traditionally offered by those writers and academics he calls “politically minded critics”: that horror narratives are popular because they ultimately reaffirm the status quo. “It might be argued,” Carroll writes, “that the horror genre is essentially xenophobic: monsters, given their inherently hostile attitude toward humanity, represent a predatory Other, and mobilize, in a way that interactively reinforces, negative imagery of those political/ social entities which threaten the established social order at the level of nation, class, race or gender.”
In Monsters in the Closet, Harry Benshoff, clearly one of Carroll’s politically minded critics, submits a new turn on the status-quo thesis. Benshoff asserts that because we live in a predominantly heterosexual world, horror movies traditionally present their threats to the established order in a homophobic manner, through the figure of what he terms “the monster queer.”
Beginning with the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, and concluding in the ’90s with Interview With the Vampire, Benshoff pulls apart stereotypessuch as those of the mad scientist and his fey, demented assistant attempting to create life “homosexually” (i.e., without women)and follows the monster queer’s lycanthropesque transformation decade by decade. Further, he isolates individual trendslike the Cat People films and other RKO horror-noir movies popular during the 1940sand analyzes them in the context of whatever the social and political climates were at the time of their making. With varying degrees of success, Benshoff deconstructs his horror films and refashions them into a series of funhouse mirrors in which homosexuals see distorted, demonized”monsterized”versions of themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the images are far from flattering. While discussing horror movies from the ’50s, for instance, Benshoff argues that such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Married a Monster From Outer Space, both about aliens infiltrating human society by posing as “normal” people, play on the paranoid fear of communists and homosexuals (which at the time were often collapsed in the public’s mind) invading small-town America by masquerading as upstanding, heterosexual citizens. I Married is further queered, Benshoff maintains, because its lead character, a disguised alien recently married, “finds it preferable to meet other strange men in the public park rather than stay at home with his wife.”
The pervasive fear of older homosexuals preying on America’s children, stoked by Fredric Wertham in his 1953 attack on comic books Seduction of the Innocent (which infamously condemned Batman and Robin’s “friendship”), encodes another cycle of horror films produced during the ’50s: the teen horror film. In I Was a Teenage Werewolf and How to Make a Monster, older men (a scientist and a makeup artist, respectively) seduce young hardbodies Michael Landon and Gary Conway, transform them into monsters, and force them to do their bidding. Of course, as is the case with most of the horror films Benshoff analyzes, the relationships depicted cannot be overtly homosexual; rather, what are presented are acts of homosexually tinged violence.
Benshoff’s analysis of these and other horror movies from the ’50sand his reading of the two Vincent Price Dr. Phibes movies, technicolor horror musicals released on the high heels of the Stonewall rebellion as “gaysploitation” horror filmsare Closet’s best sections. The cultural and historical background Benshoff layers behind these films validates his discussion of them; the contexts cited explain why it makes more sense to see How to Make a Monster as an attack on homosexuality than as an indictment of capitalism (another possible reading). And finding a gay parallel to the blaxploitation heroes Superfly and Cleopatra Jones in the campy Dr. Phibes reflects both Benshoff’s genuine fondness for his chosen material and the ease with which he draws on the rest of the popular film canon.
It’s disappointing, then, that much of the rest of Benshoff’s critical autopsy comes off as lazy scholarship. There is nothing revelatory, for instance, in his queer reading of the 1987 vampire hit The Lost Boys, which was, after all, directed
by the man who years later would give Batman nipples and Robin an earring. A similarly easy observation, Benshoff’s criticism that the lesbian vampire films produced by England’s Hammer studios in the early ’70sfilms written and directed by men, marketed specifically with the healthy, red-blooded heterosexual man in mindwere meant for the titillation of male viewers and not the consumption of lesbians looking for representation on the screen, is terribly obvious; one of the films, Twins of Evil, stars a set of Playboy Playmate twin sisters.
An even graver fault is Closet’s omission of films that don’t readily fit his ideology. The Exorcist, certainly one of the most influential horror films of the past 25 years, gets glossed over in a few sentences; this is especially surprising, since the film, which methodically presents Karras, the young priest battling Satan, as gay, begs for scrutiny from a queer eye. Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both modern terror classics and both featuring characters who could be identified as gay, are likewise dismissedonly, it seems, because Benshoff didn’t want to invest the time or effort necessary for a closer, more careful critique.
These carelessor, more frighteningly, consideredexclusions, when coupled with Benshoff’s overreliance on academic jargon (when analyzing the film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Benshoff writes: “[Moreau’s] creations…are the embodiment of his animalistic phallicism which is conflated within the film with Moreau’s homocentric megalomania”), indicate that Monsters in the Closet would have benefited not only from more careful thinking but also from sharper editing.
The problem with analyzing horror films from one particular ideology, Carroll concludes in The Philosophy of Horror, is that no ideologybe it Marxist, sexist, or homosexistis broad enough to cover the entire genre. Some theories, though, can be used as tools for better understanding particular cycles within the horror genre; Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, a feminist critique of slasher and rape-revenge horror films, proves this admirably. Closet would have better served its thesis had Benshoff narrowed his scope to a particular trend or decade. Because the topic he is addressing, the links between homosexuality and horror-film conventions, has not received much serious critical attention, Benshofflike Dr. Frankenstein before everything went to hellshould be commended for this early, enthusiastic effort. That Monsters in the Closet is ultimately unable to overcome its creator’s immature reductions and simplistic reasoning must, however, be lamented. CP