I’ve never been a massive fan of the horror film genre, which you might think makes me a weird person to review this book. But maybe it makes me the perfect person to review it.
Horror attracts fans and detractors of seeming equal enthusiasm, but I’ve mostly viewed it with ambivalence. I’ve seen a few classic scary movies over the years, and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see one. Horror as a genre, in my admittedly somewhat ignorant view, seems to carry a lot of misogynistic, sex-negative baggage, and I’ve always been more interested in a villain whose motivations I can understand rather than an unstoppable, inscrutable killing machine. Before reading this book, I couldn’t remember the last horror film I saw. So, what does the genre have to offer someone like me?
After reading It Came From The Closet — a new collection edited by Joe Vallese and featuring a variety of essays that focus on a film or pair of films but are really about the author’s personal connection to those films and the horror genre itself — I realized: quite a lot.
Jen Corrigan, in their essay “Three Men on a Boat,” explains that the classic film Jaws “is only queer if you’re looking for it.” In my opinion, this could apply to nearly every film reflected on in the book. Queer readings of mainstream media frequently require a healthy disregard for the intentions of the creators of that media. After reading “Loving Annie Hayworth,” Laura Maw’s essay on The Birds, one of the few films discussed that I’d actually seen, I re-watched the film with my girlfriend. “There’s lesbians in The Birds?” she asked. And, well, not really.
There are two women, and they give each other meaningful glances and talk in an old-timey way at each other, and that’s it. But isn’t projecting queerness onto these women kind of … fun? To imagine subtext that wasn’t originally intended? Isn’t that so much of what we, as LGBTQ+ people, have to do in a queerphobic and transphobic world? Insert ourselves where we don’t “belong?” Your interest in doing this is pretty proportional to the enjoyment you will get out of reading this collection of essays.
I, for one, had a blast, and have added all of these films to my watch list. But while I imagined that inventing queer subtext was the primary activity these writers would be doing, it actually went far deeper. I can see five primary shapes that queer readings of horror films take in this collection (and of course there will be plenty of overlap between them):
- Rooting for the villain
- Misunderstood monster
- Being seen
- Queer subtext
- Critique of society
It’s obviously tricky to root for the villain when the villain is a violent killer. But what if we understand the killer, or the monster, as simply reacting to mistreatment in the way so many of us wish we could: with anger, rage, violence? What if we imagine the villain as the protagonist? What if we try to piece together their motivations, even though the films so rarely do so?
In “Sight Unseen,” Spencer Williams sees the Blair Witch as someone who primarily just wanted to be left alone. She’s living her best life, sequestered alone in the woods, and here come a bunch of young people trying to blow up her spot. She does her best to warn them, over and over, to get them to leave … and they refuse. They forced her hand! And 80s slasher Sleepaway Camp ends by revealing the killer was shy, often-bullied Angela — who was actually a trans girl. But doesn’t the fact that she was forced into that gender role in the first place by her aunt in the aftermath of the traumatizing death of her sibling, and bullied by the other teens the entire film, argues Viet Dinh in “Notes on Sleepaway Camp,” seem to explain, if not justify, her actions?
Killers, monsters, and demons are frequently metaphors for what we don’t understand about our own humanity; they’re an attempt to externalize the “monstrousness” so many of us suppress within ourselves — or that others project onto unchangeable aspects of who we are. In “The Wolfman’s Daughter,” Tosha R. Taylor explains that the protagonist of 1941’s The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot, “seemed predestined to do wrong … I pitied him as his life spiraled out of control and he became the monster of the town’s nightmares … Larry embodies the Other.” So many LGBTQ+ people have the experience of discovering something within ourselves — something considered monstrous by society — that we would give anything to rid ourselves of. That we attempt to resist, but can’t, so we’re ostracized, villainized, and misunderstood.
Because we’re so frequently othered, many LGBTQ+ people find ourselves in horror film monsters. In their essay “Indescribable,” Carrow Narby describes feeling a kinship with the titular creature in The Blob; our society is so gendered that someone without a gender identity is nearly impossible to describe or even perceive. In “Twin/Skin,” Addie Tsai explores how their difficult relationship with their twin sibling is reflected in Dead Ringers. And the metaphor of having to hide oneself behind a mask, not lost on most queer people, is explored by Richard Scott Larson’s reflection on Halloween in “Long Night In The Dark.”
We can project a queer subtext onto many films, as in previously mentioned examples The Birds and Jaws. “Is there really anything gayer than three men on a boat?” asks Corrigan. But in addition to inventing subtext, we can also create new meaning by taking a film’s logic and turning it on its head: What if instead of focusing on the villain, we turn a critical eye to the society that created it? Some films are clearer in their perspectives; Sachico Ragosta and Jude Ellison S. Doyle explore how Eyes Without A Face and In My Skin could easily be critiques of misogynist standards of beauty and not the people who react to them with violence. And what about A Nightmare on Elm Street’s adults, asks Tucker Lieberman in “The Trail of His Flames?” Beyond inept, they may actually be facilitating the story’s murders through their inaction and, like the powers that be in Jaws, seem more concerned about appearances than about protecting young people’s lives.
What fascinated me about these essays were the ideas — explored above — but what really brought them together is the fact that they are far more personal than analytical. Queer readings of text that weren’t intended to make queer points are always tenuous reaches, and if the book focused on the readings it might have felt like a reach too far. But every essay weaves into its analysis a personal reflection on what the film meant to the individual writer, which makes it extremely readable. These are personal essays, not queer theory papers.
If you’re a big fan of horror, you’re probably already planning to get this book. But if you’re a casual fan, or have always wondered what LGBTQ+ people see in horror films, then It Came From The Closet is an excellent introduction. I finished it with a new appreciation for the genre, and I highly recommend it.
It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror is out now. Carmen Maria Machado’s essay “Both Ways” — on Jennifer’s Body, queerbaiting, and bisexuality — was previously featured on Autostraddle as an exclusive excerpt.