Posted on June 22, 2015

Coded Queerness in Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Elizabeth Erwin

Last week we took a look at how the Legion of Decency’s strict moral code caused horror filmmakers to get creative in their depictions of  queerness. This week we are looking at how coding in a film works. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) traces the struggle of Hungarian Countess Marya Zaleska who, upon learning of the death of her father Count Dracula, believes the curse of her being a vampire will be lifted. When her hope is not fulfilled, she enlists the assistance of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth whom she believes has the power to cure her. When his help too proves ineffectual, Marya flees to Transylvania intent on turning Garth into a vampire and her everlasting companion. As noted by film historians, Dracula’s Daughter contains a number of scenes in which a lesbian subtext is evident.

The most obvious of these scenes occurs between Marya and her manservant, Sandor. Upon returning home after disposing of Count Dracula’s body, Marya confides to Sandor that her curse will be lifted and that she’ll finally be able to “live a normal life now, think normal things.” An audience in the 1930s would easily equate normalcy to heterosexuality and the scene plays upon Marya’s desperation to be cured of her inner conflicts.

Another scene of note occurs when Dr. Garth accuses Marya of “concealing the truth” about herself to which Marya responds, the truth is “too ghastly.” While the audience knows the truth to be that she is a vampire, they also at this point in the film understand that Sandor procures female models for her whom she has undress before killing them. This fusion of the female gaze upon female sexuality implied to an audience of that time a subtle perversion that, although never explicitly named, still colors the film.

dracsdaughterskinYet, it isn’t only the dialogue that supports a queer reading of this film. The camera is used to great advantage in portraying the longing Marya feels toward her female victims. Unlike her lone male victim who is dispatched with little interaction, and is likely born more out of a desire to re-kill the father who has disappointed her than out of sexual desire, Marya slowly seduces her female victims. The camera lingers on Marya as she gazes upon Lili’s exposed body. The film underscores the attraction Marya feels toward her female victims when it appears she is more interested in kissing Janet than killing her in one of the film’s penultimate scenes.


What these coded instances in both films represent is a move to a new monster in horror in which lesbian undertones are used to increase the repulsion experienced by the audience. In his seminal work The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll sets up the criteria for what constitutes a monster. First, it must be a being that exists outside of conventional scientific understanding.[1] Second, the monster must be viewed by the audience as threatening and impure.[2] Adding to the work of Mary Douglas and her association of the impure with the monstrous, Carroll contends that “an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless.”[3] In other words, monsters are derived when two distinct forms are mixed. For example, the human who is also the vampire.

With these caveats in mind, Marya is clearly the monster of the film. Marya reads as monstrous on two fronts. Not only is she a vampire with a long list of victims in her wake but also she is aware of her “cravings.” As what she desires is by her own definition unnatural, these cravings mean Marya partakes of the forbidden. The audience sees her continually attempt to resist her urges but she is unsuccessful because the vampire part of her continually overrides the human part. Interestingly, while she does engage in contact with her victims when she drains their blood, Marya attempts to subdue them through hypnosis and not physical restraint. Her only physical interaction with her victims comes after they have been rendered comatose. Indeed, Marya is aroused by looking at her female victims, not touching them.

dracuda3Marya struggles with a desire to kill which, importantly, is something over which she has little control. As Carroll notes, it is not enough to simply be threatening. A monster must also be impure. And in the 1930s and 1940s there was no easier was to imply impurity than to suggest lesbianism. Audiences in those decades were conditioned to view homosexuality as a violation of the natural order. The coding evident in each film suggests the innate desires of each woman are something to be feared and something by which to be repulsed.

Paramount to the positioning of Marya as a monster is underscoring the threat she poses to traditional domesticity. Harry Benshoff, in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, contends that coded homosexuality “looks ahead to a new set of signifiers which become the chief foci of the monster movie’s narrative-an increasing domestication of the monstrous figures.”[5] Marya is engaged in a relationship with her servant, Sandor, in which aspects of the traditional husband/wife dynamic are both obvious and clearly perverse. Not only does Sandor protect her from outside discovery but he also exhibits the role of provider in literally procuring the bodies she will consume. Adding to their unique dynamic is Sandor’s own questionable heterosexuality. Benshoff refers to Sandor as “an overly coiffed, surly queen,”[6] and his subsequent relationship with Marya harkens to the bearded relationships homosexuals sometimes entered into in order to avoid detection. It is telling that Marya wears the ring she uses to hypnotize her prey on her left ring finger, the finger upon which a wedding band is traditionally worn. It demonstrates a commitment to her life with Sandor and so, when she begins to express an interest in Dr. Garth, she is essentially committing a form of adultery. As a result, the audience not only reads Marya as betraying Sandor but also as a dangerous threat to the “normal” relationship between Dr. Garth and Janet.

photo-La-Fille-de-Dracula-Dracula-s-Daughter-1936-1Complicating the perceived domestication of Marya is that she is medically deemed to be abnormal. While monsters would often fight against their abnormality, such as in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), their battle almost exclusively resulted in defeat. Horror films of this period utilized doctors, specifically psychiatrists, in order to paint monsters as threatening. Given that homosexuality was deemed a mental illness in this time period, it is not surprising that most horror narratives showed the psychiatrist attempting to cure the monster. The intersection between psychiatry, the monster and homosexuality is best expressed by Benshoff:

Homosexual signifiers help to characterize a terrible secret or a group of odd fellows, a trope that both draws on and foregrounds the phenomenon of the closet, wherein monster queers who are not “out” may choose to “hide.”[7]

As a woman who hides in the form of a marriage, Marya’s monstrous nature is triangulated between her unnatural cravings, her desire to be rid of her curse and the psychiatrist she entrusts to cure her.

psyhMarya’s faith in Dr. Garth comes when she has exhausted all other options. At a dinner party one evening, she meets the doctor and is taken with his assertion that “any disease of the mind can be cured.” In a vulnerable state after the death of her father, which she believed would cure her of her curse, Marya has come to the dinner party after having recently killed. When the other party guests support Dr. Garth’s claims with stories of their own, they work in much the same way as a greek chorus. By their validating the doctor’s claims, his legitimacy in the mind of Marya is increased. When Marya meets privately with the doctor to convince him of her sincerity to be cured, he equates her “horrible impulses” with that of an alcoholic locked in a room with liquor. To cure the curse, the doctor contends, Marya must have the will to fight it. The belief that lesbianism is an impulse possible to control permeated the culture in 1930s America. Indeed, this was the time period in which conversion therapy, ameliorative strategies designed to change sexual orientation, first gained national prominence. As Marya is deemed to simply give in to a controllable impulse when she embraces her state as a vampire, her death is no longer tragic but an expected consequence for choosing a life of perversion.


[1] Noël Carroll, “The Nature of Horror,” in The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 27.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 77.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 101.

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