The Progressive Politics of Early Horror Cinema: Gender, Female Empowerment, and Sexuality
By Brian Fanelli
In his seminal essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” film theorist and horror critic Robin Wood praises the American horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, specifically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. Wood says, “Central to the effect and fascination of horror films is their fulfillment of our nightmare wish to smash the norms that oppress us and which our moral condition teaches us to revere.” In other words, horror films from that time period were groundbreaking, according to Wood, because of their nihilistic endings and the fact that the monsters often weren’t defeated. A conservative order wasn’t restored. In the final scene of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface does a manic dance with his chainsaw under the blazing sun, while hysterical final girl Sally (Marilyn Burns) hitches a ride out of there. The zombies in George A. Romero’s film are not fully exterminated, and the ghoulish children devour their parents. Wood believed that horror films from an earlier period were more conservative because the monster was generally defeated and heteronormativity restored. However, some of horror’s most impactful early films, including Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), were progressive for their time period, especially in their portrayal of gender, sexuality, and female empowerment.
The German Expressionist film Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau, who was openly gay, is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Due to copyright issues, some plot points stray from the novel and names were changed. The film is more progressive than the novel, especially in its gender representation and female empowerment. The film begins by focusing on the young couple Ellen (Greta Schröder) and Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who generally stand in as Jonathan and Mina Harker from the novel. When the couple is introduced, their room is well lit. German Expressionism, especially Noserfatu, makes use of light and shadow. Here, the point seems to be that the domestic space is “normal,” especially since many of the shots of vampire Count Orlok (Max Schreck) are shadowy. However, the clichéd formula of the traditional strong male and passive female are questioned throughout the film. Hutter, for instance, is immediately introduced to the audience as someone self-absorbed since he spends his time looking into the mirror.
In an analysis of this scene, Michael G. McDunnah says, “Hutter is turned away from the window, towards himself….and what we see through his window is rooftops and chimneys, signs of industrialization and urban life. Compare this to the first shot of Ellen, in which she is in the window, looking out, surrounded by flowers, playing with a cat. It's a marvelous contrast, done efficiently: Hutter is a creature of masculinity, industry, rationality, and self-obsession, while Ellen is feminine, at one with nature, emotional, and attuned to the world.” He adds that their different sensibilities are reinforced a few minutes later, when Hutter presents her with cut flowers, to which she says, “Such beautiful flowers. Why did you kill them?” While Ellen may initially be presented as someone who needs protection, she is the one who defeats the vampire.
The men in the film are generally helpless against the vampire. Hutter initially refuses the book of vampire lore, which contains information about how to defeat the monster. When he revisits it a second time, while staying at the Count’s estate to finalize a real estate transaction, he flees from the creature instead of confronting it and using the knowledge the book contains. Furthermore, Nosferatu lacks a strong male figure like Van Helsing who generally thwarts the vampire’s plans in Stoker’s book and is an authority figure. More specifically, when Dracula slowly seduces Mina and starts turning her into a vampire, Van Helsing disrupts the process and essentially saves her. Ellen is not turned into a vampire, and instead, she is the one who conquers the monster by sacrificing herself.
While Hutter and other men in the film are impotent against the threat, Ellen takes it upon herself to defeat the Count by allowing him to enter her bedroom and feed on her. He does this until the sun rises and is thus killed. Writing about this scene, Elizabeth Vest and Elisabeth-Christine Muelsh state in “The Role of Nosferatu in the Development of Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Androgyny in Vampire Film,” “Ellen must become independent and sexual in order to defeat the vampire, giving herself over to this passionate relationship willingly and dying in the process.” They add that in her sacrifice, Ellen becomes the hero of the tale, rescuing her husband, “further twisting the gender expectations of the film’s viewers.”
Vest and Muelsh also note that the film is progressive for its depiction of sexuality. Unlike the novel, Orlok has no vampire brides to seduce Hutter or to entertain himself. Prior to encountering Ellen, Orlok is primarily concerned with males, including Hutter and Renfield, whose depiction in the film is similar to the sycophantic character in the novel. Vest and Muelsh write, “Hutter and Orlok’s interactions are often seen as homosocial, but there appears to be an underlying homosexual subtext as well. Hutter is attacked by Orlok as he sleeps, and again in his bedchamber, clearly intimate settings.” They add that Orlok’s interest in women, specifically Ellen, negates the possibility that he is purely homosexual. They describe the relationship between Orlok and Ellen as “more passionate, predatory, and lustful” than the “puppy love” between Hutter and Ellen.
The writers further the argument that Orlok has a non-binary gender identity because of the symbolic use of the hyena. Murnau’s hyena, they state, is associated with androgyny and femininity. In the novel, Dracula’s love of the wolf and his ability to transform into one links him to the ancient symbolic nature of the wolf as a masculine sexual predator. In ancient cultures, hyenas were thought of as hermaphrodites because the genitals of both sexes are similar. Vest and Muelsh see the association of Count Orlok with the hyena as intentional, especially in replacing the wolf. They write, “As vampires have been traditionally associated with the wolf in folklore and literature (the work of Stoker included), at first glance the change from wolf to hyena in Nosferatu makes little sense. The hyena also makes no appearances in vampire folklore, meaning that it is not harkening back to some less well-known legend or archetype of vampire lore…This would seem to indicate that the hyena’s placement serves another purpose entirely.” Murnau’s possible intention, they add, is to place the behavior of the vampire in the context of non-binary gender sexual behavior and expression. Historically, the 1920s in Germany saw shifts in the portrayal of gender and sexuality. Women started to work, and numerous bars and publications catered to gay, bisexual, and transgender patrons.
Though the monster may be defeated at the end of Nosferatu, normality is not necessarily restored. Hutter and Ellen’s traditional, heterosexual domestic life is shattered. Ellen sacrifices herself, and an argument can be made that she gives into lustful sex with the “monster” rather than a domestic life with Hutter, who falls asleep in a chair when the attack on Ellen is about to occur.
Universal Studio’s 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, another openly gay director, is also progressive for its period, and its ending raises serious questions about whether or not the monster has been defeated and if heteronormativity will be restored. The film is a loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, but generally includes the same main plot line: a scientist brings to life a creature who he then shuns and tries to destroy. The novel’s scientist, Victor Frankenstein, is renamed Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in the film. The creature (Boris Karloff) threatens normalcy, specifically the engagement between Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and Henry, similar to the way that Count Orlok threatens Ellen and Hutter’s relationship.
Throughout the film, the creature and scientist are paralleled and mirrored and there is a juxtaposition between the domestic world and the shadowy castles where Henry dwells and brings his creation to life. The use of light, shadow, and contrast is a technique that Whale borrowed from German Expressionist films.
In one of the early scenes, Elizabeth talks to Victor Moritz (John Boles), a friend of the Frankenstein family, about the domestic life and that she longs to have with Henry. This is contrasted with the concern they have about his experiments and how much time he spends in the castle, away from “normal” life. She says, “The very day we announced our engagement, he told me of his experiments. He said he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity. There was a strange look in his eyes, some mystery. His words carried me right away. Of course I've never doubted him but still I worry. I can't help it.” Metaphorically, the experiments serve as a fear that Henry is fooling around with other women or even men, such as his lab assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), who he spends an exorbitant about of time with. Regardless, the question is raised early in the film as to whether or not Henry is actually interested in marrying a woman.
This desire for Henry to settle down and marry is especially echoed by his father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). Baron is also concerned about Henry’s “experiments” and says at one point, “I understand perfectly well. There's another woman…Pretty sort of experiments these must be.” Baron is desperate for his son to marry because he wants his name to live on and toasts to the “House of Frankenstein.” The House of Frankenstein represents male legacy and traditional order. Henry is supposed to be the heir to that.
By the conclusion, Henry confronts the creature in a windmill. The camera alternates between Henry’s face and the creature’s, thus underscoring their doubleness. The creature is ultimately defeated, and in the final scene, Elizabeth is shown nursing Henry. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Henry, who parallels the monster, is going to stop experimenting, thus the monster is not necessarily defeated, nor is traditional order restored.
In The Horror Film: An Introduction, Rick Worland asks, “Are we now to believe he is ready to settle down and become the gentleman physician in the village?” (213). Additionally, Worland notes that Universal wavered on Dr. Frankenstein’s fate. The shooting script initially had him die with the creature. Once production finished, however, they switched to a more traditional, happy ending. However, Henry can’t fully assimilate into that normative conclusion because the film paralleled the scientist with the monster.
It should be noted too that the role of Elizabeth in the film was progressive for its time period. She generally moves around freely, unlike the novel, and even enters Henry’s castle. She is not static and does not spend much of her time awaiting letters, nor does she die at the hands of the creature. The film comes about a decade after women obtained the right to vote, and Whale’s depiction of Elizabeth reflects the rights that women were gaining at the time.
The sequel to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by Whale, is in many ways more progressive, especially in terms of female empowerment. The film opens with a recreation of the famous story that Mary Shelley wrote the novel after staying at Lord Byron’s estate with her husband Percy Shelley. They dared each other to tell ghost stories, and thus the inspiration for Frankenstein was born. The scene is set in a Gothic castle, with cracks of thunder echoing outside. Mary Shelley is played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the Bride, and she immediately reclaims her voice from the men who interrupt her and tells her story the way that she wants it to be told.
The film introduces a new scientist, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesinger). On the one hand, Pretorius is a character who tries to control production. He kidnaps Elizabeth, for example, and he controls the creation of the Bride. On the other hand, he represents the “other” because he is the one who lures Henry Frankenstein back into the castle to continue the experiments.
Eventually, Frankenstein and Pretorius bring to life the Bride for the creature. When brought to life, the Bride resists the men by laughing in their face. Writing about this act of resistance, Ann C. Hall writes in her essay “Making Monsters: The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein,” “Men want women to do as they say. Men may want to be reflected at twice their natural size, but in this brief moment the film shows that women will say no to these matters. There is female power here, and though it is exercised in negation, it is there nonetheless.” Hall adds that the Bride’s laughter indicates her unwillingness to be defined by patriarchy.
Ultimately, the creature pulls a lever, blows up the lab, and says, “We belong dead,” referring to himself and the Bride. It can be said that by doing this, he restores order, but it should be noted, as Hall points out, that the creature destroys the very phallic-looking castle. Furthermore, the Bride is the most notable and memorable character from the film, as well as the one who challenges the audience.
The horror genre has always reflected our social, psychological, and political anxieties. This legacy is reflected in more contemporary films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Robert Egger’s The Witch. Get Out is a biting and haunting commentary on race released in the age of Black Lives Matter and a groundbreaking film for the way it blends Peele’s knack for comedy writing with horror. Though The Witch is set in the 17h Century, it deals with female empowerment through its young protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accused by her Puritanical father of being a witch the more she becomes her own person. Horror cinema, once again, is reflecting deeper cultural anxieties while pushing the genre to new heights. Eggers is set to direct a remake of Nosferatu, and it will be interesting to see what the young director does with the classic monster and what fears the ever-shifting bloodsucker will represent in the 21st Century.
Hall, Ann C. “Making Monsters: The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.”
The Philosophy of Horror, Thomas Richard Fahy, Ed. University of Kentucky Press, 2010. Print.
McDunnah, Michael G. “Nosferatu (1922).” The Unaffiliated Critic. 20 Jan. 2013.
https://unaffiliatedcritic.com/2013/01/nosferatu-1922/ (Accessed 10 May 2017).
Vest, Elizabeth and Muelsch, Elisabeth-Christine. “The Role of Nosferatu in the Development of Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Androgyny in Vampire Film,’’ CRIUS,
Vol. 3, 2015. https://journals.tdl.org/crius/index.php/crius/article/view/20 (Accessed 5 June 2017).
Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Festival of Lights, 1979. Print.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Blackwell Pub, 2007. Print.
About the Author: Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Verse Daily, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.