Skeletons in the closet: How classic horror reboots are committing to better queer representation

Illustration of skeleton coming out of closet
Olivia Staser/Staff

A cosmic dancing clown, a psychiatrist moonlighting as a cannibal, a murderous motel owner, demons who possess children and ghosts haunting an old house — such are the evils that abound in a selection of the horror canon’s most prolific works. It makes sense that we still haven’t been able to quite let go of these unnerving narratives. We’re so attached to them, in fact, that we keep giving them modern makeovers.

Bill Hader as Richie Tozier and James Ransome as Eddie Kaspbrak in “It Chapter Two.” / Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

The commercial success of these makeovers vary project by project. Following the critically acclaimed 2017 release of “It,” directed by Andrés Muschietti and adapted from Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name, the 2019 follow-up “It Chapter Two” was less praised, but still made waves — in part because Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is portrayed as a man in love with fellow “loser” Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone).

Some have applauded this update as a sensitive and realistic portrayal, and the fandom (yes, “It” has a fandom) has embraced this new addition to the canon because Richie (and Eddie) were already being read as queer before “It Chapter Two” was released.

Others have pointed out the somewhat troubling handling of this representation: The subtlety is dated. For all of Gary Dauberman and Hader’s well-meaning behind-the-scenes talk, the film, like Richie himself, seems afraid to confront Richie’s sexuality outside the context of guilt and shame. “It” primarily addresses queerness through the context of explicit homophobia, and Richie isn’t the only one attacked with slurs. The opening scene depicts a gay couple — Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) and Don Hagarty (Taylor Frey) — brutalized for publically showing affection, with Adrian ultimately being viciously murdered by Pennywise.

Let’s backtrack: Four years before Richie’s sexuality became more than fan-alleged subtext, the updated Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) who Bryan Fuller brought to the table of human meat in the NBC television series “Hannibal” was confirmed as queer in the show’s penultimate episode, but the series’ first confirmed queer character, more minor than Hannibal, was introduced a year before that.

This trend continued with television adaptations of three other iconic horror novels, each one containing prominent queer themes or characters: “Psycho,” “The Exorcist” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

It’s not just cultural significance, reboots and updated queer representation that tie these stories together — the source material for each of these respective franchises inspired readers, and later viewers, to speculate queer readings and discuss queer themes. Yet in the cases where queerness in the source material was actually more than subtext, it was never in a progressive way. 

Some of the most important works in the horror genre are retroactively letting the skeletons out of the closet, and this raises an inevitable question: Now that we’re out, where do we stand?

Modern practice analyzes literature without the author in mind, but allowing full authorial death in the case of problematic representation or lack of representation altogether is overly generous at best and irresponsible at worst.

All of these novels were adapted for the screen at some point, and each time, the script stayed mostly loyal to the original pages — problematic queer themes, et al. in some cases. It is in part through these adaptations that these fictional horrors maintain their relevance. Novel and film (and a miniseries for “It” that did away with queerness altogether) have become fairly synonymous.

Rather than discussing these works in chronological order, they will be arranged thematically and discussed in tandem with their most well-known, mostly loyal adaptations. Modern practice analyzes literature without the author in mind, but allowing full authorial death in the case of problematic representation or lack of representation altogether is overly generous at best and irresponsible at worst — accountability is key. Fair consideration, however, is given to the time periods during which certain works were written.

Novel: “It” (1986) by Stephen King
Note: Nothing discussed below was included in the 1990 “It” miniseries.

Queerness in “It” is present in ways that speak loudly despite how minimal they are: Pennywise kicks off his new murder spree by killing Adrian, a young gay man. This scene was, as previously stated, preserved in the 2019 film. Eddie is often called homophobic slurs by bullies, although he’s never confirmed to be queer. One of these bullies, Patrick Hockstetter, has a sexual encounter with another bully, Henry Bowers, in a scene likely meant to highlight the two boys’ deviancy. Queerness in “It” operates exclusively within a bubble of fear and shame.

To his credit, King has gotten better about the way he writes queerness into his fiction. But this responsibility was a long way off when “It” was published, and King has admitted he didn’t intend for Richie to be read as queer. Despite this, the oldest “Reddie” (a portmanteau of “Richie” and “Eddie,” indicating that they’re being paired romantically) fan fiction on Archive of Our Own dates back to 2011. Fanfiction.net, an older website, contains stories about decidedly not-straight Richie dating back to 2009. Muschietti’s recent films have dramatically increased the visibility of online fan interpretations, but the theories aren’t new.

Ted Levine as Jame Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs.” / Courtesy of Strong Heart/Demme Production.

Novels: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1988) and “Hannibal” (1999) by Thomas Harris
Film: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme

Warped as it is, queerness is also present in the two middle novels of Harris’ tetralogy. Jame Gumb, one of the antagonists in “The Silence of the Lambs,” has relationships with men and kills women to take their skin and make a “woman suit.” However, Gumb’s transgender desires are narratively discredited and written off as a result of psychological disturbance, with Gumb only ever referred to as “he.”

In response, there’s been strong backlash from communities that feel misrepresented, both at the time and to this day. A much smaller selection of readers have proposed, however, the possibility of Gumb actually being transgender, made out to be a monster as a result of not being able to conform.

After “Lambs,” Harris toned it down, and the result was Margot Verger, a minor character in “Hannibal.” She is a bodybuilder who abuses steroids, underwent extensive familial sexual abuse and is in a relationship with another woman. Margot is not in the 2001 “Hannibal” film.

Fuller commented on book Margot in a 2014 interview: “It was unclear to me in the novel whether she was either transgender or a lesbian as a result of those horrible abuses and that horrible childhood and … that’s not how transgenderism or homosexuality works.” Fans have, through the years, agreed with Fuller’s comments on the potentially harmful reading of Margot’s sexual and gender identity.

Novel: “Psycho” (1959) by Robert Bloch
Film: “Psycho” (1960) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

“Psycho” has long inspired discussions around Norman Bates’ supposed genderqueerness, given that he intermittently assumes the personality of his mother and dresses the part to boot. At the end of the novel, transphobic slurs are used to hypothesize that Norman may have experienced gender dysphoria before he killed his mother, but it’s left unclear whether this is something he would have felt if he had not been codependent with his mother to the point where he wishes to become her.

It’s most likely a provocative tactic meant to tap readers into Norman’s mental state, though some believe it truly is indicative of a transgender or nonbinary identity. Others have noted the transphobia in Norman’s depiction, which popularized and perpetuated the idea of a cross-dressing murderer (see “The Silence of the Lambs”).

Novel: “The Exorcist” (1971) by William Peter Blatty
Film: “The Exorcist” (1973) directed by William Friedkin

Blatty reduces queerness to the barest of shock factors in the “The Exorcist,” such as when Pazuzu, the demon possessing Regan MacNeil, describes a sexual encounter between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. He also claims that Father Lankester Merrin is a gay man and taunts him with homophobic slurs, taunting Father Damien Karras with the same slurs. Blatty later implied these were outright lies, like many of Pazuzu’s taunts; to believe this claim, Blatty says, is to believe Pazuzu’s claim that he is the devil.

Spoiler alert: Pazuzu is not the devil.

While it’s been theorized that Father Karras’ narrative includes queer subtext and the film version of Father Joseph Dyer (Father William O’Malley) might be seen as camp, Blatty’s blatant homophobia certainly throws a wrench into these readings.

Julie Harris as Eleanor Vance and Claire Bloom as Theo in “The Haunting.” / Courtesy of Argyle Enterprises.

Novel: “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959) by Shirley Jackson
Films: “The Haunting” (1963) directed Robert Wise

This is the only work on this list penned by a woman, and it is one that doesn’t openly acknowledge queerness at all unless you’re interpreting it as such. Theodora (as well as her relationship with protagonist Eleanor Vance) in “The Haunting of Hill House” happens to be a goldmine for these interpretations.

Mandatory queer coding has been proposed to be at play here — if Jackson wanted these characters to be gay, she couldn’t have explicitly stated it because of the time period she was living in. Among other small and subtle instances in the novel, Eleanor calls Theodora “unnatural” (which could be a euphemism for “lesbian”) and Theodora’s unnamed, ungendered roommate is briefly alluded to. Jackson, however, refuted these purported “lesbian themes” herself, clarifying that the “ambivalence” inspiring queer readings is “ambivalence of the spirit, or the mind, not the sex.”

Even so, it’s worth noting that “Hill House,” although devoid of unambiguous representation, is also devoid of mishandled queer themes. No other work on this list can make the same claim. Also interesting to note: “The Haunting” originally included what Wise later called a “lesbian scene,” in which Theo appears to break up with a woman before heading to Hill House; Wise, however, chose to remove this scene.

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hese are culturally inescapable works of fiction, and most of them are anachronistic when viewed against a modern backdrop. Still, they hold us under their spell.

Although these horror staples that define how we view the genre started as novels, the cinematic and television adaptations have pulled the most cultural weight. When these stories have been updated, it’s in a completely different context than that of the source material — completely new, completely modern, completely open to the subversion of franchises with troubling representations of marginalized characters. 

While “It” was originally adapted into a miniseries while the rest of the novels were adapted into films, it is the only novel to have recently received a rebooted film — the rest have been translated into television series. These adaptations and their canonically queer characters will also be arranged thematically rather than chronologically.

When these stories have been updated, it’s in a completely different context than that of the source material — completely new, completely modern, completely open to the subversion of franchises with troubling representations of marginalized characters. 

Series: “Bates Motel” (2013-2017) on A&E
Character: Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore)

Highmore’s Norman opens this section because the queer themes present in “Bates Motel” inspire further, extensive conversations about mental health, sexual consent, and familial codependency and abuse, including sexual abuse. Thus, please note this is a very cursory glance at the character compared to those that follow.

As in the original “Psycho,” Norman experiences dissociative episodes wherein he assumes the identity of his mother. One episode in season 4 features Norman-as-Norma seducing and kissing a stripper, introducing viewers to the blurred lines of gender and sexuality that become more significant in season 5 when it’s revealed that Norman-as-Norma has been (unknowingly until then) having sex with men while dressing the part.

After the reveal, one of the creators of the show, Kerry Ehrin, in an interview with TVLine, said Norman’s sexuality is “all over the place … (and) not clearly defined.” As is true of the source material, however, it’s still unclear whether or not Norman only has sex with men because of his dissociative episodes — regardless of what is said outside of the show, the show itself doesn’t explore Norman’s queerness outside of his alter ego. Still, “Bates Motel” takes the cheap shock tactics utilized in the source material and adds depth by making it about more than just something that shocks viewers — it’s a major step up from Bloch and Hitchcock’s visions. 

Series: “Hannibal” (2013-2015) on NBC
Characters: Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle), Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy)

In this modern retelling of Harris’ novels, Margot Verger is confirmed to be a lesbian in her season two debut, and she enters into a relationship with Alana Bloom in season three. Alana is attracted to both men (Will and Hannibal) and women (Margot) in the show, and although the word “bisexual” is never used, Fuller and Dhavernas have noted this as the label she would use. Their relationship is refreshing — the show kicks the “Bury your gays” trope to the curb — and the couple’s last scene is of them fleeing with their son after Hannibal’s escape, presumably to somewhere safe given Margot’s wealth. It’s not the happiest ending, but it’s in line with the show’s tone.

More complicated is the three-seasons-long developing relationship between Hannibal and Will, another case in which fandom speculation was, in short, a lot. Partly because of this, the show eventually confirmed their relationship to be more than platonic. This didn’t happen until the penultimate episode in which Will asks Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) if Hannibal is in love with him, and she says yes. She then asks if he “aches for him as well,” and Will, ever the bearer of pensive expressions, essentially says, “Well, yeah.”

The canceled “Hannibal” has received well-earned acclaim: All of these characters were so much more than just their queerness. But it wouldn’t be fair to omit how the show was criticized when Margot — due to complicated reasons — has sex with a heartbroken-over-Alana Will in season two. For all its progressivity, the show didn’t quite manage to completely avoid the use of harmful plot devices.

Ben Daniels as Father Marcus Keane in “The Exorcist.” / Courtesy of Morgan Creek Productions.

Series: “The Exorcist” (2016-2017) on Fox
Characters: Kat Rance (Brianne Howey) and Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels)

A sequel to the 1973 film of the same name, “The Exorcist” does away with the disconcerting “Exorcist” canon and completely reinvents how queerness operates in this demon-possessed world — it’s treated like something normal, as it should be.

Although it was also canceled, “The Exorcist” still gives us two incredibly valuable cases of queer representation. The first character confirmed to be queer is Kat, as she mourns the death of her best friend and almost-lover who died in a car accident just as they were about to begin a relationship. Throughout season one, their relationship is shown in bittersweet flashbacks, as Kat also deals with the supernatural forces torturing her family.

One of the exorcists called in to deal with said supernatural forces is Marcus. Toward the end of the first season, Marcus — who has been excommunicated by that point — flirts with a man at a bar, but demon-caused drama derails this. His queerness is affirmed more strongly in season two when he kisses another man, and it’s no big deal.

This is an impressive feat: Despite the obviously significant presence of religion (namely Catholicism) in the series, the show uniquely refuses to grapple with any conflicts between religion and sexuality. Queerness and religion coexist, and queerness isn’t a shock factor — that job belongs to the demons.

Series: “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) on Netflix
Character: Theodora “Theo” Crain (Kate Siegel)

From the ashes of these canceled horror series rose Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” which completely reimagines the original Jackson novel. In this present-day retelling of the story, Theo finally gets two things she was denied in the 20th century: one, a last name and two, the chance to be an out and proud lesbian.

It is no exaggeration to call Theo one of the most significant characters the horror genre has ever seen. She’s been revered as a queer-coded character for decades, and reinventing her to finally match up with the popular interpretation is a huge win for the community. Nearly 60 years later, Theo is no longer held back by the constraints of the time period during which she was originally conceived. 

Kate Siegel as Theo Crain in “The Haunting of Hill House.” / Courtesy of Flanagan Film.

Like many of the updated characters discussed,  Theo’s story does not concern itself only with her queerness or with any homophobia. Her journey is centered around achieving emotional vulnerability after years of, in the words of her brother Steven, being “a clenched fist with hair.” This is further complicated by her ability to feel others’ emotions through touch. By the end of the series, she has grown enough to enter into a loving, committed relationship.

Everyone in her family acknowledges her sexuality at some point, always in a lighthearted way that shows they accept and love her. And, impressively, Hill House never uses Theo’s sexuality against her in a way that depends on bigotry. In terms of her sexuality, Theo is allowed to simply be.

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erhaps this is a utopian notion, allowing queer people to simply be. But what is the role of realism in horror?

Let’s go back to the 2019 rendition of “It” — isn’t it somewhat odd that, in a film where a clown is graphically shown eating children, some of the hardest aspects to stomach are the instances of homophobia? King has said the death of Adrian was based on a 1984 hate crime that took place in Bangor, Maine, where he was living at the time. In this respect, fictionalized prejudice becomes a horror tactic meant to unnerve the reader or viewer. 

Incorporating queer themes this way, while perhaps not stemming from a place of malintent, isn’t all that efficacious when it becomes the dominant focus of queer themes in any work. Depicting homophobia isn’t inherently bad, but it can become harmful misrepresentation when a work fails to render its queer characters as more than the societally induced shame of their identity. To a certain degree, we must suspend our disbelief in order to be fully immersed in any piece of horror media; allowing queer characters to exist outside the context of bigotry truly doesn’t require a significantly wider stretch of imagination than when you decide to read a book about, say, a demon-possessed tween.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a performance credited with popularizing the “cross-dressing murderer” trope. / Courtesy of Shamley Productions.

Consider also the ill-inspired history of horror as a genre that uses queerness as a malignant “other” meant to scare us, as is the case with characters such as Jame and the original Norman. The “othering” of queerness can happen in any genre, but when utilized in horror, it immediately sends a clear message that queerness is something evil to be feared, something that belongs among the many other taboos on which horror capitalizes. 

With all this in mind, “It Chapter Two” is still a little victory: A big budget film that no doubt felt the limitations of being a mainstream production was able to break free of heteronormative standards. This is good, but there are glaring drawbacks to this kind of limited depiction — mainstream boundaries are still obstructing queer representation. Despite progress made toward full acceptance of the queer community, it says something that some of the series with the most impressive representations of queer characters in horror — “Hannibal” and “The Exorcist” — never went mainstream before cancellation.

In short, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

That work starts when these narratives are reclaimed to make room for queer characters, not necessarily forgiving problematic representations, but instead acknowledging that we are living in a different time and that we can preserve the oft-genius and fear-inducing aspects of these works without preserving outdated and socially irresponsible portrayals. As this recent trend has shown us, it’s very much possible to keep a story bone-chillingly terrifying without overreliance on queerphobia. 

What it comes down to is the necessary intimacy of horror. Killer clowns and clever cannibals are scary caricatures on their own, but what truly brings their grotesqueness to life are the characters whose eyes through which we perceive these monsters. Horror inspires queer readings because we want to see ourselves in a genre that, like us, is considered taboo — that’s why it’s not uncommon to read think pieces on horror villains being coded as queer. 

What it comes down to is the necessary intimacy of horror.

While it certainly isn’t innately tactless to “queerify” horror antagonists — such as Hannibal and Norman — what would indeed be tactless is to “queerify” only antagonists. Yes, sometimes monsters can be queer. But the queer community also can and should be represented just as often by the tragic heroes these monsters haunt. Closet doors, be locked no more; skeletons, we are no more.

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Alex Jiménez is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.