Strangers on a Train

Homophobic Horror

Carol Clover’s ‘final girl’ theory insists that in the Horror film subgenre, the Slasher film, the audience, both male and female, are structurally forced to identify with the female character labelled the ‘final girl’, who survives the killer’s onslaught, often by slaughtering him herself. I propose that the final girl is female in physicality only, and her identity is that of a male whose heterosexuality is threatened and in danger of being converted by the symbolically non-heterosexual killer.

Fears of the non-heterosexual have permeated horrific tales through the ages, from the cross-dressing wolf of Little Red Riding Hood (Perrault, 1697) to the monstrous progeny of Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Pretorius’ (Ernest Thesiger) homosexual union in Bride of Frankenstein (dir. Whale, 1935). These are early examples in film and literature, but the direct roots of the Slasher can be traced back to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The depiction of the non-heterosexual male as subversive, wicked and deranged permeates Hitchcock’s films much as it did American society at the time. Rope (dir. Hitchcock, 1948) sees a homosexual couple, based upon real-life homosexual killers, Leopold and Loeb, commit murder for sport. Strangers on a Train (dir. Hitchcock, 1951) initiates many staples of the Slasher subgenre, such as the shadowy killer who stalks and attacks a young girl in a suburban setting. Also, through the film’s killer, Bruno (Robert Walker), Strangers incorporates many of society’s views on homosexuals; views that can be drawn from viewing ‘educational’ films such as Boys Beware (dir. Davis, 1961). Boys Beware depicts homosexuality as a contagious disease of the mind, and homosexuals, although outwardly normal, as murderous masked predators who target young boys. It describes conversing with a homosexual as “riding in the shadow of death”, which could easily be the tagline for a Slasher film. Further views from the era on the nature of homosexuals can be gained from reading Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals (Bieber, et al., 1962), considered at the time the definitive text on homosexuality.

“The specific findings of Homosexuality (in Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals) concerned three broad areas: mother-son relationships, father-son relationships, and developmental patterns. A significantly greater proportion of homosexuals had ‘close-binding-intimate mothers’ who were seductive to their sons and also over-controlling and inhibiting. A significantly higher proportion of homosexuals also reported having detached, hostile, or rejecting fathers whom they hated or feared during their childhoods.” “It was also found that boys who grew up to be homosexual fit the stereotype of the sissy.” (Lewes, 1988, pp.184).

Many comparisons can be drawn between these depictions of homosexuals and Bruno and his relationship with Strangers’ protagonist, Guy (Farley Granger). Bruno, although ostensibly erudite and charming, is mentally deranged. He is camp, effeminate – enjoying having his nails manicured – adoring of his overly protective mother (Marion Lorne), and has an indignant hatred for his distant father (Jonathan Hale). The older Bruno instigates a flirtatious seduction of the boyish Guy. Granger also played Philip Morgan, the subjugated partner in the homosexual relationship in Rope; a precursor to his role as the victimised Guy. It is indicative of Hitchcock’s view of the character of Guy as a victim of a homosexual aggressor that he would select Granger to play him. Bruno’s homosexual coaxing escalates into predatory stalking in an attempt to seduce Guy into the ways of the killer. Bruno’s characterisation and actions mirror those of society’s perception of the homosexual, with his status as a killer symbolic of his homosexuality and the act of murder acting as a metaphor for homosexual intercourse. Guy’s role in the narrative can be seen as a prototype for the final girl, with all future final girls adopting his position as a male whose heterosexuality is under threat from a non-heterosexual antagonist.

Hitchcock’s depiction of the non-heterosexual killer continued in Psycho (dir. Hithcock, 1960), a film that with its knife-wielding costumed killer, and gruesome, periodic murderous attacks, helped set the template for all subsequent Slasher films. The film would see the character of the homicidally deranged, homosexual mummy’s boy, glimpsed at in Strangers, taken to the extreme with the character of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman, whose upbringing could be drawn straight from the pages of A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals, would help set the template for all subsequent Slasher film killers. His father died when he was a child, removing his male role model and leaving him to develop an intimate relationship with his domineering, matriarchal mother. He secretly poisoned and killed his mother and her newfound lover; the murder taking place while they were in bed, implying recent sexual interaction. This is not only indicative of his jealous attachment to his mother but also his fear and disgust of heterosexual love. Slasher film killers’ aversion to heterosexual love would continue in future films, with killers frequently carrying out murders of young heterosexual couples embroiled in sexual encounters.

The murder of his mother irrevocably warps the young Norman’s mind, transforming him into a gender-bending sociopath, who dresses as and takes on the persona of his mother to carry out his brutal murders. Norman’s ‘mother’ persona is a personification of his homosexuality; a disease that eats at his mind, one that must be fought and repressed if he is to find normality and redemption. Psycho’s sequels take a greater focus on Norman’s redemption, as he seeks normality through heterosexual relationships and finally marriage, with the shadow of his deviant, cross-dressing alter ego perpetually hanging over him. Much like Bruno and the murderers of Boys Beware, Norman successfully hides in plain sight, lulling his victims into a false sense of security. But when the shy ‘boy next door’ side of his persona becomes heterosexually aroused, his mother persona emerges, rebuking and terminating his feelings. By adopting his mother persona, he is symbolically castrated, reflecting society’s view of the homosexual as less than a man: a sissy. For Norman, killing is an outlet for his sexual inadequacy; the phallic knife penetrating the flesh in an unnatural manner acting as a grim substitute for the sexual act, reflecting society’s view of the perverseness of homosexual intercourse.

By the mid-seventies, attitudes towards homosexuality and transvestism had improved. Despite this, a new generation of filmmakers emerged, highly influenced by Hitchcock and raised in an era where non-heterosexuals were treated as an ever-present danger, initiating a golden age of Slasher films. Dressed to Kill (dir. De Palma, 1980) is a Slasher film profoundly influenced by Hitchcock. As in Psycho, the film features a murder in a shower, a blonde (implied to be the leading lady) being killed off early on, and a cross-dressing killer. Transvestism is again depicted as a dangerous psychosis, with Bobbi (Michael Caine), the killer’s ‘female’ side, killing whenever Robert, his ‘male’ side, is heterosexually aroused. Other Slasher films, such as The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Demme, 1991) and Sleepaway Camp (dir. Hiltzik, 1983), continue these negative representations of transvestites. The Silence of the Lambs’ killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), skins his victims to create a female skin suit, and Angela (Felissa Rose), Sleepaway Camp’s ‘secretly male’ killer, is driven insane by his adoptive parent forcing him to live his life as a girl.

A seminal film, crucial to the emergence of this new era of Slasher films, is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (dir. Hooper, 1974). The film features a group of young people who set out on a road trip and fall afoul of a perverse, cannibalistic family. Like Norman, the family’s perverse desecration of the body is symbolic of their carnal homosexual depravity, which writer Kim Henkel concedes by acknowledging his inspiration for the film:

“The character that influenced the script was a guy named Elmer Wayne Henley. Elmer Wayne was the procurer for an older man. Elmer Wayne would lure young men to the ‘ghouls kitchen’ so to speak, and the older man and Elmer Wayne would have sexual relations with these young men, and then the young men would be murdered.” (2008).

Also like Norman, the family are a product of a perverted upbringing (their grandfather instigating their cannibalistic tendencies) and the corruptive influence of the matriarch, as they hold their Great-Grandma in great reverence. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (dir. Hooper, 1986), her corpse is placed in a shrine made of human bones. Worship of the matriarch features in other Slasher films, such as Friday the 13th Part 2 (dir. Miner, 1981), in which the killer, Jason (Warrington Gillette), constructs a shrine for his mother’s decapitated head. To compensate for the death of Great-Grandma, the character of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) has taken on her role. Like Norman, Leatherface is a transvestite, and his transvestism is presented as a deranged sickness and the product of a scarred childhood. He wears a wig and a mask of human flesh adorned with makeup, has a high-pitched voice, and with his rotund figure and apron, like Red Riding Hood’s wolf, he becomes a gross parody of the grandmother figure. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (dir. Henkel, 1994), Leatherface’s (Robert Jacks) transvestism becomes blatant. He applies lipstick and nail polish, dons a black dress, pearl earrings and a necklace, and his masks are stated to be made solely from female victims, from which he also fashions fake breasts.

In Chainsaw Massacre 2, Leatherface (Bill Johnson) instigates a relationship with Stretch (Caroline Williams), the final girl, which like Bruno and Guy’s relationship, can be viewed as a homosexual seduction. During the film, Leatherface corners Stretch, about to impale her with his phallic chainsaw. In desperation, she acts flirtatiously towards him, and his sexual gratification acts as a substitute for the kill. Later, when Stretch infiltrates the family’s lair, Leatherface conceals her from the rest of the family and attempts to further their romantic involvement. In distaste for her physical form, he places a mask of flesh upon her, made from ‘male’ skin, and they dance romantically. Like Bruno’s seduction of Guy, Leatherface is converting the symbolically male Stretch to his perverse homosexual lifestyle. At the film’s climax, Stretch is pursued by Chop Top (Bill Moseley) to Great-Grandma’s shrine and the conversion instigated by Leatherface reaches fruition. Stretch takes a chainsaw from the dead hands of Great-Grandma, symbolically accepting the corruptive influence of the matriarch. She skewers Chop Top with the symbolically phallic chainsaw; the kill again used as a metaphor for homosexual intercourse. She then proceeds to whirl her chainsaw in a fit of insanity, directly paralleling Leatherface’s actions at the end of the first film, symbolising she has become like him, a sexual deviant.

Halloween’s (dir. Carpenter, 1978) Michael Myers (Nick Castle) is another killer with strong roots in the films of Hitchcock, confirming his position as another homosexual tormentor. Like Norman, he had a traumatic childhood and killed a family member due to distaste for heterosexual sex, having at age six murdered his sister (Sandy Johnson) after discovering her in bed with her boyfriend (David Kyle). Like Bruno, he is a predatory figure, watching from the shadows, stalking his victims through a suburban setting. Another acknowledgement of the influence of Hitchcock is the casting of Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), the final girl, who’s played by the daughter of Psycho star, Janet Leigh. An indication that Laurie, like Stretch, is symbolically male is her androgynous appearance. She shares this trait with other final girls, such as Stretch, and Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice (Jodie Foster), who all have short hair and wear masculine clothing, such as shorts, trousers, and suits. Questioned on whether his film punished female sexuality, director John Carpenter had this to say:

“They (the critics) completely missed the boat there, I think. Because if you turn it around, the one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing the guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. She’s the one that killed him. Not because she’s a virgin, but because all that repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy… She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression.” (Clover, 1992, pp.48-49).

Carpenter acknowledges the sexual repression of both the killer and the final girl, and also the phallic symbolism of the weapon. Crucially, the final girl’s association with this phallic symbol reveals her symbolic manhood.

But if the final girl is representative of a male, why is she played by a female? A film that breaks from this convention is A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (dir. Sholder, 1985). Revenge sees the traditional position held by the final girl assumed by a male, Jesse (Mark Patton), and the themes of non-heterosexual fear are made manifest. Jesse has nightmares of being a misfit and being uncomfortable with girls. This shows that, like past final girls, he is socially awkward and sexually anxious and resistant. His social awkwardness is also visible in reality, as depicted via several embarrassing incidents involving Grady (Robert Rusler), including Grady pulling Jesse’s gym shorts down in front of his classmates. This is the beginning of a relationship between the two boys with patent sexual undercurrents. Grady refers to Jesse as a “pretty boy”, the couple discuss wet dreams, and a sexually fuelled row erupts when Jesse snaps at Grady when he asks him out to the movies. Like past killers, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) takes on the role of homosexual aggressor and tempter. Freddy visits Jesse in his nightmares in an attempt to seduce him and enter his body so he can wreak havoc in the real world; the possession of Jesse’s body clearly acting as a metaphor for homosexual intercourse. The sexual nature of the relationship is made apparent via Freddy’s flirtatious actions and dialogue, as he is seen to stroke Jesse’s face and declare, “I need you, Jesse.”

“Freddy Krueger, seems to exist solely in order to work the frightening generic and social connections between horror and homosexuality.” (Benshof, 1997, pp.246).

Revenge’s depiction of homosexuality is evidently in line with the dated opinions of Boys Beware, with homosexuality presented as an evil temptation that Jesse must resist, an abhorrent contagion that can be passed on by an elder aggressor. The film’s writer freely admits its subtext:

“I started thinking about guys being unsure of their sexuality, and I thought, ‘well, that’s pretty scary.’” “Freddy appeals to that gay part that’s like, the questions, he appeals to the questions that Jesse’s asking himself.” (Chaskin, Never Sleep Again, 2010).

Troubled by Freddy’s nocturnal visits, Jesse begins to act erratically. At this point, Revenge displays more outdated opinions on homosexuality as Jesse’s mother (Hope Lange) is extremely protective of him, defending him against his disapproving father (Clu Gulager); parental characterisations in line with A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals.

Freddy ignites homosexual feelings in Jesse that begin to reach fruition during the sequence at the pool party. As the young heterosexual couples start to pair off, an anxious Jesse is escorted to the changing room by Lisa (Kim Myers), a female suitor. The reluctant Jesse declares, “I’m not into this”. Lisa insists she wants to help, but Jesse argues, “How can ‘you’ help me?”, emphasising his feelings for her sexual inadequacy as a woman. Jesse is cajoled into a sexual encounter with Lisa, but Freddy intervenes, his tongue emerging from Jesse’s mouth and sending him into a panic. Freddy symbolises Jesse’s homosexual nature, an evil that restrains his heterosexual feelings. He releases Jesse’s homosexual urges, sending him running to Grady’s bedroom. Jesse’s sexual intentions are apparent as he throws himself upon Grady, demanding, “I need you to let me stay here”. He confesses, “Something is trying to get inside my body” and Grady replies, “Yeah, and she’s female. And you wanna sleep with me.” The final girl’s conversion into the killer, as seen in Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Halloween, becomes literal as Freddy bursts out from within Jesse’s body, impaling Grady against the door, symbolising the unleashing of Jesse’s destructive homosexual urges, with the kill again substituting for homosexual intercourse. Like Norman, Jesse has a chance of redemption through heterosexual love. Lisa confronts Freddy and Jesse’s consciousness begs for death, but she declares her love for Jesse and kisses Freddy. Her heterosexual love destroys Freddy’s malignant homosexual force, sending Jesse’s gay nature into remission, and a new heterosexual Jesse rises from the ashes of Freddy’s corpse.

Although Revenge follows all the conventions of the classic Slasher film, bar the casting of the male lead, it is not well regarded by fans, being mockingly referred to as “the ‘Homo Nightmare on Elm Street’ on the net by a million prepubescent boys” (Patton, Never Sleep Again, 2010). The cast and crew, including producer Joel Soisson, also acknowledge the film’s failings and cite the casting of a male in the role of the final girl as responsible.

“when you suddenly cast your male lead in the victim role, and then you have him scream like a girl for ninety minutes, you’re gonna have some people going, ‘well, that’s not the manliest performance I’ve ever seen.’” (Soisson, Never Sleep Again, 2010).

To understand the failure of casting a male in the final girl role, it is vital to consider audience expectations when viewing Slasher films; films that are used as a form of romantic courtship by millions of young heterosexual couples.

“teenage boys enjoyed a horror film significantly more when the female companion they were sitting next to expressed fright, whereas teenage girls enjoyed the film more when the male companion with whom they were paired showed a sense of mastery and control.” (Zillmann, et al., 1986, pp.586).

Accepting this, to depict a male protagonist having his sexuality put into question, and his control threatened, would work contrary to the popular appeal of the films. Therefore, it becomes clear why although the final girl’s identity remains male, she must physically become female.

Bibliography

Books

Bershoff, H., 1997. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bieber, I., Dain, H.J., Dince, P.R., Drellich, M.G., Grand, H.G., Gundlach, R.R., Kremer, M.W., Rifkin, A.H., Wilbur, C.B. and Bieber, T.B., 1962. Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals. New York: Basic Books.

Clover, C.J., 1992. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Lewes, K., 1988. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality. New York: Plume.

Perrault, C., 1697. Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals. Paris: Publisher Unknown.

Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N. and Aust, C. F., 1986. Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, [Journal Article] 3(51). 586. Available through: Zotero Website < https://www.zotero.org/mbeam/items/itemKey/BDRMT58F > [Accessed 15 March 2013].

DVD Extras

Interview with director Tobe Hooper, 2008. [DVD Extra] USA: Dark Sky Films.

Interview with writer Kim Henkel, 2008. [DVD Extra] USA: Dark Sky Films.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 2008. [DVD Commentary] Tobe Hooper. USA: Dark Sky Films.

Films

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, 1985. [Film] Directed by Jack Sholder. USA: New Line Cinema.

Boys Beware, 1961. [Film] Directed by Sid Davis. USA: Sid Davis Productions.

Bride of Frankenstein, 1935. [Film] Directed by James Whale. USA: Universal.

Dressed to Kill, 1980. [Film] Directed by Brian De Palma. USA: Cinema 77.

Flesh Wounds, 2006. [Documentary] Directed by Michael Felsher. USA: Dark Sky Films.

Friday the 13th Part 2, 1981. [Film] Directed by Steve Miner. USA: Paramount.

Halloween, 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: Compass International.

Never Sleep Again, 2010. [Documentary] Directed by Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch. USA: 1428 Films.

Psycho, 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Paramount.

Rope, 1948. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Warner Brothers.

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991. [Film] Directed by Jonathan Demme. USA: Orion.

Sleepaway Camp, 1983. [Film] Directed by Robert Hiltzik. USA: American Eagle Films.

Strangers on a Train, 1951. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Warner Brothers.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974. [Film] Directed by Tobe Hooper. USA: Bryanston Films.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, 1986. [Film] Directed by Tobe Hooper. USA: Cannon Group.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, 1994. [Film] Directed by Kim Henkel. USA: Return Productions.

Online Newspaper Articles  

Maher, K., 2010. Psycho: The Impact Made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Classic Movie. The Times, [online] 26 March. Available at: www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/film/article2467719.ece [Accessed 15 March 2013].

Websites

Kelly, A.S., 2010. Mother Issues. [online] Available at: www.screenjabber.com/psycho-50th-importance [Accessed 15 March 2013].

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