The horror genre is gay. Really, really gay. I’m sure that there’ll be some who read those words and immediately scoff at it; after-all, I’m sure every queer person reading this has been told at least once how we’re reading too much into something that we say is queer-coded. But the new four-part documentary series, Queer For Fear: The History of Queer Horror, lays out a pretty clear argument for why a lot of horror is queer – even the ones you’d probably not consider.
Beginning at the very beginning, the series’ first episode deals with the creation of horror itself by some of the best known, and most respected authors. The show goes into detail about how Mary Shelley was bisexual, if not a closet lesbian, showing us the letters where she describes how much she loves another woman, and enjoys engaging with certain intimate parts of her anatomy (I’d like to see historians try to turn that into ‘just good friends’). It looks at how Frankenstein is a queer story, delving deep into the different connotations and interpretations that, once pointed out, are hard to deny. From here we get the same treatment for Oscar Wilde, a man who was convicted of homosexuality and sent to prison for it. And we are shown pretty concrete proof that Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula (a very homoerotic story) was in fact queer too. And much like with Shelley, it’s hard to listen to the letters that he wrote and not come away believing he was gay.
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‘You’re trying to queer historical figures who can’t defend themselves’ some will cry at this point; but that’s not what the series is about. It doesn’t say definitively ‘this person was gay’, but presents the evidence for it, looks at the themes in their works, and allows the audience to make up their own mind. And that shows through as the episodes progress and we move into the early days of cinema, where things weren’t overtly queer, and it’s down to the viewer to decide how it speaks to them personally.
We spend a decent amount of time in the second episode looking at the work of gay film director James Whale, a well-known name in early Hollywood. Openly gay at the time (something unusual in Hollywood then), Whale filled his films with queer subtext, and queer actors. The show takes a look at his more famous horror works, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein. It becomes clear that Whale put a lot of his identity into these films, and that it would in ways influence other creators, both straight and queer. As some of the defining foundations of horror cinema, it meant that other films that came after would follow similar themes.
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The series dives into this with a look at Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s, examining things like the work of director Alfred Hitchock, in particular Psycho and the career of its star Anthony Perkins, as well as the slew of ‘Teenage’ movies such as I Was A Teenage Werewolf, and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein. It takes a look at the queer subtext that was in many of these films thanks to the work of some openly queer writers, but also shows how that shifted once the Hayes Code came in, forcing a change in depictions of queer themes and characters, and how the evil homosexual became a thing.
The third episode goes deep into werewolves, taking a look at films such as The Wolfman, The Howling, and Ginger Snaps and examines how a surface reading of ‘person turns into an uncontrollable monster’ can give way to experiences that speak a lot closer to queer people. The transformation from the ‘good’ and ‘normal’ straight person into the ‘monstrous’ and ‘dangerous’ queer out to satiate their physical desires does quite easily line up with the depictions of werewolves on screen, and when added in with the liberation that trans people feel in physically becoming who they really are, in their body literally changing (and sadly, the way the world tries to loudly demonise such a thing and make it sound monstrous) it undeniably becomes a queer allegory.
The final episode takes a look at the shifting attitude towards gay women in cinema, how the secretive lesbian themes of early cinema led to the open sexualisation of queer identities in 70’s horror films that bordered on the pornographic, with things such as Vampyres, and Requiem for a Vampire. But after this we see a shift, and the titillating vampire lesbian soon became the Femme Fatale. The predatory bisexual became the big thing, sleeping with and killing straight men, and corrupting women into queers with depraved sexual acts; these killer bisexuals became a staple of films such as Basic Instinct and Mulholland Drive. The role of queer women had shifted, becoming an overt danger to good, ‘normal’ people.
Each episode is filled with experts, queer creators, actors, writers, critics, and directors who talk about their experiences with queer horror, from their early influences to the films that came along and spoke to them in strong ways thanks to their openly queer themes. Series producer, and episode director, Brian Fuller appears in front of the camera at times, alongside guests such as Carmen Maria Machado, Emily St. James, Briana Venskus, Kimberly Peirce, Lea DeLaria, Renée Bever, and Bruce Vilanch to name just a few. There are also times when family members of certain actors will appear to speak about certain topics, such as Anthony Perkins’ son coming on to discuss his father. There are also appearances by drag queens, as well as familiar faces such as Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
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This isn’t a series that is going to go through a list of queer horror movies and tell you what they’re about; you’re not going to see a segment that explains why A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one off the gayest films around (which it definitely is). Instead, the series takes a look at the overarching themes of queer horror, especially those that probably fly under the radar for a lot of straight people. And it looks at the shifts and changes in Hollywood and society in general that changed the way queer horror was approached and presented. It goes in depth, and will likely be eye opening for many viewers, no matter their orientation or identity.
Queer For Fear: The History of Queer Horror is an enjoyable series, one that’s as entertaining as it is educational. It features some great voices who are clearly passionate about the subject, and the series always seems to aim to teach in as fun way as possible, and never to preach or convert. You can watch this series and come away with a new perspective, or leave it thinking it’s queer people trying to read too much into things yet again. But however you end up, the journey there is sure to be a fabulous one.
Queer For Fear is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.