The legend who never dies, the most infamous horror icon, is due to return to screens once more. Blumhouse Productions have announced plans for a new Dracula film, led by Karyn Kusama. Given Blumhouse’s recent superb interpretation of a classic movie monster in The Invisible Man (2020), their continuation of monster revivals with a new twist is exciting, and Kusama’s involvement even more intriguing. Kusama is no novice to the horror genre, with her chilling film The Invitation (2015) as well as cult-horror classic Jennifer’s Body (2009). Jennifer’s Body is a favourite among many sapphics thanks to the romance between Jennifer and Needy. Kusama’s history of bringing queer subtext out from the shadows of horror and into the light suggests a very exciting potential direction for the upcoming Dracula film. Could Kusama finally let Dracula be gay?
Queer subtext in vampire portrayal is hardly a new concept. Throughout film history, vampires have always seemed overtly sexual – their way of survival give new meaning to the term “love bites” – and that sexual nature is limited to heterosexual relationships. In an honours thesis, William A. Tringali wrote that “As a creature that straddles the binaries of life and death, drawing attraction and repulsion, the vampire queers both gender and sexuality”. However, vampires not only represent queerness but also the cultural attitude at the time of representation. Tringali again writes that vampire imagery is “conduit for cultural anxieties concerning queerness within society”. When we consider the methods of defeat over vampires, they are seeped in queer subtext. The two weaknesses of vampires are sunlight and crucifixes. The queer interpretation for these qualities are very easy. A weakness to crucifixes can signify the way religion, specifically Christianity, has rejected those in the LGBTQ+ community, seeing them as “perverse” or “sinful”. The aversion to daylight can also represent how many in the LGBTQ+ community had to hide their true selves from the light of day, instead keeping their sexuality or identity secret.
A particularly subtexually queer adaptation to Dracula is the 1958 version with Christopher Lee. In this film, we firstly follow Jonathan Harker, an engaged man who has left his fiance to slay Dracula. Upon arriving at Dracula’s castle, Harker is confronted by a woman vampire who tries to seduce Harker and bites him, which enrages Dracula. Harker kills the female vampire easily but Dracula succeeds in trapping Harker and tempting him to the life of a vampire. Soon, a new vampire slayer – Van Helsing – arrives and kills Harker, which enrages Dracula and prompts him to seek revenge by preying on all the women in the nearby village. Eventually “good” triumphs over “evil” and Dracula is slain by Van Helsing by being exposed to sunlight. Although there is not anything overtly queer included in this classic monster film, the subtext offers an entirely different interpretation.
A queer reading of this film is that of a gay revenge tale against the heteronormative society which hunts down and “vanquishes” any deviation from the norm. If we see Dracula as the embodiment of queerness, then we can read Harker’s behaviour as an experimentation with his sexuality. Harker abandoned his fiancee to find Dracula, in hopes of killing him – another way of looking at this, he was a closeted gay man who tried to “kill” his true identity. Instead of killing Dracula, however, he kills the only woman in the castle, before Dracula turns him into a vampire himself. In killing the female vampire, Harker kills off his attraction to women and turns instead to Dracula and his life of “sin”. Harker can now live out (sort of) his true identity and spends the rest of his days with his new live-in lover, Dracula. This fairytale ending is ruined by Van Helsing, who kills Harker when he sees he has become a vampire himself. What follows is then a tale of gay fear told from the hetero perspective. Dracula seeks revenge for his lover’s death by seducing the women in the nearby village and eventually killing them off. The hetero fear of a non-hetero lifestyle was the idea that it would destroy traditional relationships and societal norms. Dracula is a threat to the heteronormative relationships in this film and must therefore be destroyed. Van Helsing eventually defeats Dracula by using the two classic weapons against vampires – crucifixes and light. The concluding message of this tale is clear – the good and pure will defeat the “perverse” and “evil”.
The perspective of homosexuality being monstrous made sense in the historical context of the 50s because the identity was still legally punishable. As the attitude towards homosexuality shifted, so did the portrayals of vampires. In the 80s during the height of the AIDs crisis, vampires were the perfect vehicles to demonstrate this fear, what with their tendency to share bodily liquids (in this case blood) that can lead to an “infection” of vampirism [link to article]. The film The Lost Boys (1987), which was directed by Joel Schumacher who has been openly gay for most his career, can be read with this interpretation. Today, however, is a different time because today anxiety isn’t the only mainstream perspective.
Retelling Dracula from a queer perspective rather than one of queer-fearing would be an interesting and revolutionary decision. A twist on the gay-revenge story of the 1958 Dracula would be one where Dracula is not framed as the monster but Van Helsing and the hateful society that cultivated him is. Revelling in the rebellion from the norm and defeating the hatred which tries to force “otherness” into the shadows would be a celebratory full-circle moment for horror and the prominent queer subtext that has existed for centuries.
Kusama’s history of including queer representation in her films – the gay couple in The Invitation and, of course, the entire plot of Jennifer’s Body – could mean she’s one of the best people to lead a fully realised queer Dracula retelling. A story where sexuality isn’t villainised but instead celebrated. One where hatred doesn’t win. One where we get to see ourselves not as the monster who must be defeated but as the badass rebel who fights back against the invasive hatred of society.
by Michaela Barton
Michaela is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow who watches far too much Netflix so might as well make a career out of it. Her one true love is procrastination but she’s also a fan of feminist and queer theory, ugly dad shirts, and abducting cats. You can find her on Twitter at @MichaelaBarton_