Believe it or not, the first time many young queers feel seen in media isn’t in some sweet romcom, it’s in horror. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a queer character in the horror story who makes them feel comforted, or empowered, or even validated. It’s the final girl. It’s the vampire. It’s the werewolf. It’s the man waiting in the shadows. It’s the otherworldly thing hiding under your bed.
Recent Pride parades have lifted up horrific creatures as unlikely gay icons, like The Babadook or Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The reason for this is it’s good, camp fun, but is there a deeper meaning behind queers seeing themselves in the monster—and not in a self-hating way, but from a place of strength? Many horror stories are about the disruption of normative harmony, which is another way of saying the suburbs are under attack! In the seventies and eighties, the slasher enjoyed its first glory days. An unknown, disguised entity tears through a picture-perfect, heteronormative American neighborhood, waking the local young people to a grim realization: something evil is out there, and their gated communities can’t save them. Historically, this lines up with America’s post-Stonewall demonization of queer and trans people.
They are coming for you and your children, was the message. Strike first before they do.
Sound familiar? It should if you’ve been paying attention to the news. In the 2020’s, queer and trans people are once again contending with angry mobs of people crying indoctrination, and even grooming, of young minds. And what did the townspeople of Elm Street do to Freddy Kruger, the campy, coded, child-killing monster? They took matters into their own hands. As a horror-loving child, Freddy freaked me out, as designed. But as an adult gay man, I rewatched A Nightmare on Elm Street and couldn’t help but wonder if those hairsprayed, Reaganite parents maybe got their facts wrong about Freddy before burning him alive. In the real world, people like them were wrong in the eighties and they’re wrong now. If that were me, I’d be pissed, too, and looking for a little dream revenge. Isn’t that at the heart of so much horror that queers love? Wish fulfillment, bloodlust, and revenge fantasy. The reclaiming and owning of the title of “monster” that the rest of society is so tirelessly relentless in forcing on us. We’ve tried conforming, we’ve tried assimilating, but even the kindest, sweetest, most harmless queer books are regularly set ablaze as obscene by fearmongers. So…love might be love, but we can still be your monster.
Consider the werewolf. By day, a loving, caring, helpful member in the community. But he will never be of the community. Because he has a secret, one he’s convinced makes him a danger to others, one that makes him lock himself away. This secret, he’s convinced is not part of his identity; it’s some regrettable, minor, irrelevant thing he has to deal with once in a while before going about his normal life.
How many queer and trans people have tried to convince themselves of that same thing?
But in many werewolf stories, when they transform, they feel more like themselves than ever before. They feel strength. And that sniveling, cowering, frightened voice in their heads is finally silenced.
Way too often, society’s horror stories subtly convince queers that when we free ourselves, the entire village is put at risk. Which is why so many queers embrace horror as their home. For one moment in a young queer person’s sheltered, fear-drenched mind, they can look at a monstrous outcast destroying the peace of idyllic suburbia, and let a wicked grin cross their face as they think “Good.”
The monster can’t help themselves, so why should we? The monster isn’t afraid, so why should we be afraid? Besides, those camp counselors had it coming.
Fear dominates a young queer person’s life. It informs every one of our decisions (or indecisions): what to wear, how to talk, who to look at, what to wish for. It’s exhausting to maintain. Even after you’ve come out or transitioned, there are daily (hourly!) internal negotiations and decisions to make, all to protect our safety and larger society’s comfort. It’s cruel, draining, and enough to make any queer person think, “You know what? Maybe it’ll be fun to be a vampire.”
Anne Rice’s Lestat saga is one of the more famous stories to entangle the vampire myth with queerness, and all the luxury, eternal beauty, and surrendering to temptation that comes with it. It’s irresistible to queer people, who are often the victim of stolen youth. We don’t feel comfortable coming into our own identities for so long, where do those years go? Cosmically, aren’t we owed that youth back? So what if it costs is a little blood to get it?
The queer community has rarely, if ever, known structural power. The gains we’ve made over the last few decades haven’t shielded anywhere near all of us, and even those few gains have been met with rage and blowback from bigots who’ve decided that we have plenty, thank you. To them, we’ve lived peacefully in their world for long enough. Their recent demonization efforts to legislate us out of existence have dumped so much fear into the air, that they don’t even need to win at the courts to get their way. A young queer person’s first and worst enemy is their own fear. Poison the atmosphere with enough terror and uncertainty, and the young queer will box themselves away all on their own. But to a bigot, their worst fear is a queer with power. Through horror, young queers can access those feelings of power for the very first time, even if it’s through a werewolf’s jaws or a vampire’s fangs. And once a powerless person gets a taste for the kind of freedom from fear they could have, they want more. It will never be enough until they completely break free—and if they have to “disrupt” their suburban home and community to do so, them’s the breaks.
However, this power doesn’t always come through identifying with the monster. Many queers identify with the slasher genre’s infamous Final Girl, the one who survives the slaughter. In slasher stories, there’s a relentless, unstoppable malice coming for the Final Girl and her friends and lovers when all they were doing was minding their own business and trying to have a good time. Through quick action, cunning, and resourcefulness, the Final Girl escapes or defeats the slasher—an evil that is gone…but only for a matter of time before it resurfaces.
Does this also sound familiar?
In horror—even poorly crafted horror—queers can find something to love and turn into a shelter. It will always be our genre because unlike in other genres, we aren’t relegated to just one role or one character. In horror, we are everyone and everywhere. And that makes it just like life.