As a genre known for pushing the boundaries of good taste, horror films occupy a unique position within American cinema. Because horror triggers an emotional response in audiences via the presentation of scenes meant to revile and offend, what is deemed to be horrific is largely dependent upon the time in which a film is made. In the 1930s, horror films were in a state of evolution. Trading in the supernatural, dreamlike qualities that defined 1920s horror, the films of the 1930s relied upon “otherness” as a marker of monstrosity. Villains came from far away lands and posed a threat to the American dream. Complicating these narrative was a calculated movement by critics of the genre concerned that depictions of perversion and violence within films were threatening the moral integrity of the culture. The end result of this effort to “clean up” films was a move by those making horror films to code stories so as to not arouse criticism.
In the early 1930s, the United States was still recovering from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which devastated the country economically. Stemming from this collapse, the Great Depression swept over the United States impacting individuals of every economic class and resulting in significant unemployment. The ensuing fallout and its impact upon everyday Americans were depicted in such notable film classics as American Madness (1932), Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Yet, beyond these films devoted to showcasing American perseverance were an increasing amount of titles that explored the seedy underbelly of an American culture turned on its head.
As a reaction to these films, the Hays Code was a voluntary standard of ethics created in 1930 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The Code was guided by the principle that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”[i] Although it was officially in effect from 1930 until 1968, the Motion Picture community did not immediately adopt the Hays Code. In fact, the first four years saw an increase in the production of titillating films designed to shock the moral conventions of the time. Films such as Safe in Hell (1931), Employees’ Entrance (1933) and Scarface (1932) depicted prostitution, white slavery, and incest, respectively. Horror, in particular, pushed the boundaries of good taste by creating storylines extreme enough to interest a cash strapped audience. For instance, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) contained scenes of inter-species miscegenation while Frankenstein (1931) showcased a vulgar expression of God when the scientist, Henry Frankenstein, proclaims, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” These instances caught the attention of moral watchdog groups, chief among them the National Legion of Decency (LOD) that was affiliated with the United States Roman Catholic Church.[ii]
In 1934, the LOD entered the fray when it called for the establishment of a film rating system. By threatening boycotts en masse if filmmakers didn’t eliminate depictions of immorality, the LOD was the power structure needed to enforce the Hays Code. Established in late 1934, the Production Code Administration, led by Roman Catholic Joseph Breen, mandated that the board must approve all films prior to release. It also amended the original Hays Code to include stringent guidelines as to what constituted moral and immoral behavior.[iii] Chief among the list of immoral behavior banned in films was “any inference of sex perversion” which referred to depictions of homosexuality.[iv]
Interestingly, while filmmakers attempted to challenge social mores on virtually every front, the one issue in which motion pictures continually supported the dominant culture was how they portrayed queerness. Gay men were usually depicted as sissies, such as in The Broadway Melody (1929), while lesbians were seen as masculine to the point where femininity was all but erased, such as in Call Her Savage (1932). Yet, even these depictions, marginalizing as they are, were all but eliminated from film in the wake of renewed enforcement of the Hays Code. This new rigid enforcement resulted in filmmakers finding creative ways to express homosexuality while seemingly adhering to the Code.
As a means of projecting homosexual subtext, “coding” became the way in which films could be read as both heterosexual and homosexual narratives. Just enough homosexual signifiers were included in films so that audiences open to a homosexual reading of a film were rewarded while those looking for a heterosexual reading were also pacified. Horror, especially, capitalized on this trend.
Monsters, likely due to their inherently transgressive natures, provided the perfect vehicles for coding in 1930s Universal horror productions. Films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Old Dark House (1932) imbued their monsters with a campy aesthetic meant to mute their queerness in the hope that non-queer audiences, especially the LOD, would write off the non-normative behaviors being explored as simple comedy. For example, the relationship between the titular character in Dracula (1931) and his manservant, Renfeld, contains a homoerotic subtext designed to make Dracula even more menacing in the minds of the audience. His enslavement of Renfeld has a sadomasochistic quality to it that skirts the LOD’s injunction against displays of perversion due largely to Renfeld’s depiction as an effeminate, sarcastic foil. Audiences are not supposed to take him seriously and so the projected subtext is more easily dismissed. These cinematic moments also served to put the LOD in a difficult position. Because the sexuality being projected was not overt, one had to admit to seeing it and in the repressed, homophobic era of the 1930s and 1940s such an admission could arouse suspicion.
While gay monsters were used for comic relief, lesbian monsters were crafted to evoke pity. Films utilized a subtext of lesbianism, or sexual perversion as it was called at the time, to heighten the suspense contained within their narratives. The differentiation in how gender impacted the way queerness was shown in horror is attributable to the religious nature of the LOD. Given that women were considered culturally to be the weaker sex, it stands to reason that attitude would be reflected in film. Rather than making a woman an active participant in her lesbianism, and thus inciting the ire of the LOD, coding enabled the woman to be victimized by a nameless disease that, to a queer audience, would easily be read as homosexual.
Horror films by their nature are designed to be vehicles in which culture attitude and beliefs are challenged aggressively. While the LOD sought to eliminate violence and perversion from the screen, it failed to accomplish that goal. Instead, horror films became narratives that could be read on different levels depending upon the audience and that opened up the much-maligned genre to a more elevated discourse. In the next part of this series, we’ll look at how coded homosexuality created a new breed of monster.
[i] Jon Lewis, Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 300-302; 312.
[ii] Thomas Patrick Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 6-9.
[iii] Ibid., 107
[iv] Mick LaSalle, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 20.