There are multiple figures who linger around the periphery of horror icons. They are your lesser-known villains of Gothic literature, your non-Universal monster movies, your decent enough films killed by external factors or an underperforming box office. And of those figures, there are a few who’ve gotten as many chances (and who’ve routinely missed the landing) as Dorian Gray.
Dorian Gray is the protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about a young man whose good looks hide a lifestyle of hedonism and debauchery while ruining the lives of those he loves. Dorian’s beauty is due to the titular picture, a portrait that takes off all traces of age and sin that might grace Dorian’s face. The novel came out in 1891 smack dab in the middle of a Gothic revival and people have been trying to make it chase horror clout ever since.
One of the best-known film adaptations of the source material, 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, released by MGM, can be seen as a direct competitor to the Universal monster movies of the time as, compared to Wilde’s book, it increased its reliance on the supernatural. Another well-known adaptation, 2009’s Dorian Gray, ups the horror by adding in jump scares and tense action scenes. Likewise, the character has shown up in multiple properties with other horror icons such as the 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the 2014–2016 television series Penny Dreadful.
So, with all these chances, why hasn’t “Dorian Gray, Horror Icon” actually stuck? Obviously, there’s no single answer to this question, but if we combine all the possible causes, maybe we can come up with a fuller picture.
The Iconic Image Isn’t That Iconic
Iconography plays a big role in the horror genre. After all, what’s Jason or Michael Myers without their masks? And though an image or costume might not be iconic, certain scenes or ideas are. There are multiple versions of The Phantom of the Opera’s mask, but in every adaptation, the opera house’s chandelier will crash to the ground. If you had to pick an iconic image from The Picture of Dorian Gray, it would be the picture itself — the image of a man ravaged by age and depravity. And the idea has certainly become iconic: a portrait that ages in place of its subject has shown up in horror media ranging from Dark Shadows (1966–1971) to Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
But what do you imagine when you think of the actual picture of Dorian Gray? Possibly the closest thing to an iconic image is the corrupted portrait from the 1945 film, painted by American artist Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, artwork that is currently housed in the Art Institute of Chicago and has made a cameo in some other Dorian-involved material such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018–2020). But until Albright’s portrait becomes as widespread and widely parodied as Dracula’s cape or Ghostface’s mask, that picture of Dorian Gray might be just a little too niche for mainstream on-the-spot recognition.
The Story is Pretty Dang Queer
While historians and literature professors could argue for days about the precise nature of Oscar Wilde’s sexuality, one thing is clear: that man wasn’t straight. Wilde had multiple romantic relationships with men throughout his life leading to his arrest for “gross indecency,” a charge often used at the time to punish male homosexuals. The theme of male intimacy and sexuality runs through Wilde’s text. Male characters remark on Dorian’s beauty and there are intimations that Dorian sleeps with other men. This thread of male sexuality was so strong that it even shines through censorship. The 1891 novel is an expanded version of an 1890 novella. Homoerotic references were toned down or outright removed from the novella to novel expansion, and that’s AFTER passages alluding to homosexuality were removed from the novella! Two sets of revisions couldn’t kill the novel’s queer tone.
While there is a long history of reading queer subtext into the horror genre, for the longest time it’s been just that: subtext. Queer characters often have their sexuality erased or downplayed in adaptations, a term known as ‘straightwashing.’ This is true for Dorian himself. The 1945 film adaptation, the 2009 film adaptation, and 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen give Dorian a female love interest while making little to no mention of his male love interests. Even the most queer-friendly adaptation in the Penny Dreadful TV series limits its relationships to one male-male kiss with implied offscreen sex and a trans woman love interest for Dorian, who he brutally murders at the end of the second season. His love interest for the first and third seasons? Cis women. For most of Hollywood, Dorian Gray might just be too queer to stick.
Dorian Gray is a Human Monster
The actions of classic horror monsters are always a little inhuman. Dracula drinks blood, turning young women into fiendish monsters like himself. Frankenstein’s monster murders a townsperson, as he doesn’t know his own superhuman strength. Even the all-too-human villains have something to help challenge their humanity. Again, there’s the iconic image of various movie villain masks as well as the horror genre’s long history of equating visible disability with inhumanity.
In contrast, Dorian Gray and his actions are aggressively human. He murders, he blackmails, he indulges in depravity, and he coerces people. All of his crimes are absolutely terrible, but they are crimes that the average human could commit. Indeed, one of the novel’s main points is that nobody can believe that Dorian does these heinous actions due to his angelic face. His humanity is the point, and, at least in the visual medium of film and television, that average humanity could be seen as uninteresting. Maybe this is why so many adaptations give Dorian an added bonus he lacked in the novel: the ability to heal from any injury. There’s something otherworldly about watching a man’s skin knit itself back together. That’s monstrous. Having a toxic boyfriend is just all too human.
I still think there’s hope for Dorian Gray. With just the right film at just the right time, there’s potential for the story to join that pantheon of horror icons. Because at its core, The Picture of Dorian Gray can be timeless. It’s the story of temptation, of a man who lets himself do terrible things under the assumption that no one will confront him. It’s a story of humanity. After all, if we had a portrait that could hide our flaws, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same things?
Katie Gill is a librarian by day and a culture critic by night, who has strong opinions about dead explorers, the Eurovision Song Contest, and public domain works of literature. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Women Write About Comics. Her voice can be heard on various podcasts including PseudoPod and Stacks and Stories.