“She gives you that weird feeling,” Universal assures its audience on the poster for 1936 monster horror Dracula’s Daughter. The film follows a vampire as she sees a psychiatrist to try to curb her cravings for the blood of young girls. Universal’s monster flick is just one piece of proof that a lesbian film canon before The Children’s Hour (1961) exists. The film industry only had sparse censorship before the Production Code of 1934 which outlined a code of conduct for studio films to abide by. This code forbid many things including homosexuality, deemed “sex perversion.” This didn’t stop filmmakers from creating gay characters, but they were forced to get creative in representing them. Due to censorship, films released during the production code era use coded language and often represent gay men as sissies while lesbians are portrayed as cold monsters that are often killed. 1940s gothic horror is full of coded lesbian villains. They reflect the views of a homophobic general audience, but appeal somewhat to a dedicated queer audience as well. The characters are often made to be hated by the film’s protagonists, but as a queer audience member I find them hard to take at face value. These characters were some of the only images of lesbians in media at that time. Prime examples of the lesbian monster can be seen in Dracula’s Daughter, Rebecca, and The Uninvited.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936) has the prototype lesbian villain which arguably inspired those that followed. Countess Marya Zaleska is her name, and her game is seducing unsuspecting young virginal blonde girls. Zaleska is Dracula’s daughter, as the film title implies, and the film picks up right after Van Helsing kills her dear old dad. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as Zaleska’s need for blood becomes apparent. The film continues with Zaleska performing her favorite compulsive activity, cruising outside at night for beautiful girls to bite. In one melodramatic horror scene, Zaleska has her servant Sandor invite young Lili in out of the cold damp streets and offers to pay her to model for Zaleska. As Lili warms up by the fire, Zaleska says her hands are beautiful and offers her wine and food. She then asks her to remove her blouse in order to study her shoulders for a painting. As Lili changes, Zaleska watches her undress and gets closer to her, speaking slowly before hypnotizing and ultimately biting her off-screen. Lili is half naked and Zaleska isn’t exactly covert about her desire. The film uses her vampirism as a cover for lesbian desire and does so covertly enough to make it past the early censors. The analogy is taken so far that Zaleska even sees a psychiatrist with hopes of curing herself, an act that evokes gay conversion therapy.
Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) may not be quite as explicitly erotic as Dracula’s Daughter, but Danvers is a little too obsessed with her former house mistress and we become aware of that in every scene she appears in. The first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca) died under mysterious circumstances. Her widower Maxim de Winter remarries our nameless heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) and moves her into the Manderley estate. Rebecca’s memory haunts everything inside. In one scene Mrs. Danvers gives a tour of Rebecca’s perfectly preserved room to the second Mrs de Winter and strokes a mink coat to her face before taking a long pause at the underwear drawer to caress and describe each item of clothing that Rebecca wore. This isn’t the only hint of lesbianism in the film. Despite attempts to make us fear Mrs. Danvers for her obsession with Rebecca and hatred of the second Mrs de Winter, there are tidbits throughout the film that suggest Rebecca wasn’t quite as heterosexual as the second Mrs. de Winter either. It seems as if the intimate relationship Mrs. Danvers describes with Rebecca was reciprocated. When Maxim confesses he murdered Rebecca, he reveals that their marriage was a sham and she wasn’t even interested in him. It is echoed through his statements that Rebecca “was not normal” and even loathed most men. Thus, her murder is ignored and the second Mrs de Winter doesn’t seem to care that her husband killed Rebecca at all. The film ends with Mrs. Danvers burning Rebecca’s mansion down while standing inside Rebecca’s room and watching the flames envelope her. As is typical, all lesbians, even the subtextual ones, die within the film.
Almost an homage to Mrs. Danvers, Miss Holloway in The Uninvited (1944) is a cold and “unfeminine” nurse obsessed with her dead patient Mary Meredith. The film follows siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald as they decide to buy Meredith’s old house, Windward, not realizing the mansion is haunted by two ghosts – Mary and her husband’s mistress Carmel. Stella, Meredith’s supposed daughter, has always been fascinated with the house and felt something missing inside her that could be answered if she were to stay there. When she does visit, she faints and even feels compelled to throw herself off a cliff, the same cliff both Mary and Carmel fell to their deaths from. Miss Holloway runs a mental asylum and Stella’s grandfather commits her to it with unclear motives. When Miss Holloway is introduced the audience realizes the depth of her connection to her former “best friend” Mary Meredith. She eulogizes Mary’s good nature and beauty. She describes their “intimate” relationship and all the plans they made for their life together. The suggestion is hammered home when one of Holloway’s patients, Miss Bird, excitedly brings her gifts as if she has a crush – beautiful stones in place of flowers, she says, because Holloway already has so many flowers. Miss Holloway eventually tries to get Stella to commit suicide as we find out that Stella was not Mary’s daughter, but her husband’s child with Carmel, something Mary could never get over.
All of these characters are important not just because they suggest a dedicated lesbian film canon before the Stonewall era, but because of their immense impact on the lesbian image in culture. During the 1930s and ‘40s, lesbians were seen as unnatural and the word “lesbian” was rarely even used, instead we were called “sexual inverts” or worse “monsters.” All of these homophobic cultural sentiments are echoed throughout these horror films, though some of them were even made with the help of rumoured lesbian and bisexual women such as writer Daphne du Maurier and actress Judith Anderson of Rebecca. It is hard to see yourself as a full human worthy of life when the most despised characters take your life experience and twist it into a monstrous obsessive act. Still, it is important to acknowledge that lesbians have always existed in our popular media, even when our love was illegal and our movie plots betrayed us. Only recently filmmakers have begun to reclaim LGBT narratives and are starting to make overt and positive lesbian films, but the images of characters past have taken their toll. Critics completely ignored any hint of homosexuality in these films when they were released. The audience members that did notice it were deemed perverted. Films with coded lesbian characters need to be reclaimed by the dedicated queer audience that they have always had. We have always existed, we were never perverted, and the subtext in these films is more than implied.
by Janet Reinschmidt
Janet Reinschmidt is a fifth generation New Mexican currently residing in Austin, Texas. She is an aspiring audiovisual archivist and film historian specializing in LGBT and women’s stories. She is passionate about silent film, Citizen Jane Film Festival, dogs, and Lily Tomlin’s comedy albums. 2019 marks the sixth year in a row that Janet has nominated the film Stage Door for consideration to the National Film Preservation Board. Follow her on letterboxd for rants and gay film reviews.
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