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16 Monsters in the Closet


Myths, movies, and fiction are filled with characters who are thinly veiled representations of LGBT and HIV-positive people.

Scholar Harry Benshoff argues that the monster throughout the history of the English language has stood in as a metaphor for queer people. Indeed, homophobes continue to demonize LGBT and HIV-positive folks as monsters, which has resulted in many coded representations in culture. However, these pariahs aren’t always the villains of stories. Many of them, like LGBT people, are misunderstood and stigmatized, and their portrayals often show sympathy for their plight.

In recognition of all those who live outside the boundaries of social norms, here are 16 characters from movies, myths, television, plays, and novels who represent the queer experience.



1. Frankenstein’s Monster

The original novel by Mary Shelley tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a man haunted by the death of his mother and plagued by his own sickness when he decides to play God. After he make his monster, the abomination stalks his creator, killing his friends and loved ones. Many believe Shelley drew inspiration from the Black Death that had ravaged Europe, and the attitudes of isolation surrounding Frankenstein’s solution to dealing with his own monster have led to comparisons with the handling of the AIDS crisis



2. Count Dracula

There remains literary dispute as to whether Count Dracula was written by author Bram Stoker to be gay. The most notable outing in the text comes when Jonathan Harker is pulled away from a group of vampiric women, and the count states “this one’s for me.” Shortly after, the granddaddy of all vampires overtly flirts with Harker, explaining that he too can love. A sexual orientation never gets expressed outright, of course, but this creature of the night demonstrated many a gay tendency, making him an early, if also somewhat predatory, representative of queer culture in the 19th century.



3. Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at a time when gay identity enjoyed a sudden sense of awareness in Great Britain. Indeed, Hyde’s home sits on Queer Street. Today, many readings of the text look at the tale as more than just a man living a double life as a monster at night. To be gay and upper-class at the time meant living an existence of secrecy, stigma, and potential extortion.



4. Quasimodo

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the tale of Quasimodo, a deformed orphan shamed by treacherous religious leaders and forced out of public view while still suffering mockery and humiliation. But if the original text isn’t enough to draw LGBT parallels, check out the Disney version, which built up the undertones enough to draw scorn from the Southern Baptist Convention (yes, the group found a Disney film to be too tolerant). In the song “Out There,” Claude Frollo warns the hunchback that his nature is a crime “for which the world has little pity,” in the same song where Quasimodo simply longs to “freely walk about” for just one day. Who is the monster and who is the man, indeed.



5. The Beast

The classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast could easily be read as a simple story of a man with a secret living away from the reach of society. But let there be no doubt that the definitive Disney version serves as an allegory for a man pushed into the shadows by an HIV-like condition. The screenplay was one of the last works by writer Howard Ashman before his AIDS-related death in 1991. His writing partner Alan Menken says the Beast in this film personified Ashman’s own physical transformation and social isolation at the hands of the disease.



6. Remus Lupin

The lycanthropic Defence Against the Darks Arts instructor initially arrives at Hogwarts in the 1999 novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban, but not until 2009 did writer J.K. Rowling confirm that the werewolf stood in for those with stigmatizing illnesses like HIV. In the books, Lupin was infected with lycanthropy as a child, and his parents hid the ailment to shield him from stigma. Only at Hogwarts could Lupin find a community of those who look past the ailment. But even as an adult, Lupin doesn't enjoy the popularity of other teachers at the school (despite being the least murderous or incompetent of all DADA instructors to instruct there).



7. The Fly

The horror classic The Fly was widely seen in 1986 as an allegory about the AIDS crisis. In the film, a scientist played by Jeff Goldblum sees an experiment go awry after making himself the test subject. The cells of a fly end up taking over his own body and causing a degeneration and physical transformation of man into monster. While director David Cronenberg intended to make a story more about disease in a broad sense, he doesn’t mind the connection made in viewers’ eyes to HIV. Either way, audiences were afraid, very afraid, of either encountering or becoming the Fly.



8. Audrey II

The 1982 musical version of Little Shop of Horrors may have borrowed much of its plot from the 1960 Roger Corman film, but the growing impact of the AIDS crisis provided tremendous subtext to the story of a whimsical singing plant that originally appears to be a token of love but reveals itself as a destructive outside force capable of destroying all life on earth. (Spoiler alert: In the stage version, it does!)  It’s easy to read HIV into all of Howard Ashman’s plays, but especially knowing the way AIDS was devastating the Broadway world at the time, this Mean Green Monster From Outer Space seems to represent a too-real threat.



9. Gregor Samsa

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for years has been read as an allegory for various outcasts or cast-out groups — the disabled, Jews, the mentally ill — but among the most popular theories has been that Gregor’s transformation into an insect-like creature represented a sexual awakening, one where he desired what the author described as an “unspeakable vice." A certain number of scholars believe the story was an outlet for Kafka to express his own forbidden same-sex desires. Like many gay men who chose an open lifestyle in the early 20th century, Gregor encoumters ostracization from society, hostile disappointment from his family, and eventually a violent end.



10. The Walking Dead

Zombie lore often draws from fear of pandemic disease, but The Walking Dead goes so far as to attribute the undead condition of its walkers to an actual viral infection. Along the way, the still sentient in the world find themselves in moral conundrums about whether to quarantine the zombies (a la Herschel’s farm) or make them fight one another for sport (see the Woodbury arena). One character, the Governor, even keeps his infected daughter on some kind of metaphoric life support. 



11. Eleven

Homophobia may be the real monster in Stranger Things, but it’s not the only thing scaring people. The gender-nonconforming character 011 arrives on the scene with awesome powers, including telekinesis, astral projection, and sound mimicry, which allow her to conceal herself from the “bad people." Dubbed a “queer avenging angel” in a review for The Advocate, she has reality-altering powers that don’t just create shifts in her environment; they change the preconceptions of all around her.



12. Edward Cullen and Bella Swan

If vampirism can be seen as the ultimate allegory for HIV, then Edward and Bella may be the Twilight series’ respective gift-giver and bug-chaser. By series end, Bella has begged Edward to turn her into a vamp, even though fiction’s twinkliest vampire describes himself as a predatory monster. And yes, this does serve as evidence Twilight can really screw up young people’s idea of relationships. Safe sex sounds boring? It’s still a better love story than Twilight.

13. World War Z

The zombies of World War Z deserve special mention, just because Max Brooks modeled the outbreak in his story specifically after the spread of HIV. He even spoke about it with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when he discussed how the clear-headed leadership absent in most zombie lore also seemed missing from the world as AIDS became a pandemic. But there's hope. Calm minds with community-saving intent could yet save this world from the destruction beset by the war in his story.

14. Norman Bates

On The Advocate’s list of greatest queer movie villains, Norman may be an unpowered, mortal human, but he may also be cinema’s greatest monster. But one of those most interesting elements of this Hitchcock baddie, played by gay (or bisexual) actor Anthony Perkins, was that the killer’s gay attributes — mommy issues, cross-dressing — are what makes Norman a more sympathetic character. He’s scariest when he hops in the shower with a woman. Not a bad juxtaposition to pull off so artfully, Alfred, especially in 1960.



15. Macbeth’s Three Witches

One of the startling differences between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his other famous plays remains the presence of strong women, and the witches hold their own power independent of any male influence. Even their lack of grooming in the nether regions shows a man-like ownership of their sexuality; as Banquo states, “Upon your skinny lips; you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” They also helped cement the image of a coven where women bring their power together in natural union. So are the witches lesbians? Transgender? The Bard’s own sexual politics leaned regressive, but these female figures were hardly submissive Juliets.



16. The Giant’s Wife

It may not seem as apparent if you just watch the subtext-free film rendition or the kiddie version performed in most schools, but Into the Woods in 1986 was received by stage audiences as an obvious allegory to the impact of AIDS. The Stephen Sondheim classic offers an adult retelling of classic Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, with many characters revealing themselves as good-natured or selfish and shallow. But when the Giant’s Wife enters the plot, seeking revenge on whoever downed a beanstalk and killed her husband, she causes devastation that indiscriminately claims the innocent and evil alike. The Baker’s Wife dies after succumbing to adulterous temptation. It’s well into the second act that characters absorb the weight of the situation as the Witch cries, “Wake up! People are dying all around us.”

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Jacob Ogles