Feature art by Autostraddle // image by Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd via Getty Images
When I was seven years old, my mother opened my bedroom door to tell me it was time to stop reading and go to bed, and I jumped so hard I’m surprised I didn’t throw my book across the room. As I caught my breath and dug around the mess of blankets for my bookmark, she asked me, “Why on earth do you read those Goosebumps books if they scare you so badly?” All I could do was shrug as I placed the book on my end-table (skeleton-family-barbecuing side down, of course) and say, “Because it’s fun.”
I was an anxious child, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me now as an anxious adult. I didn’t like going new places or meeting new people. I didn’t like birthday parties or having to go into the White Hen alone to get a gallon of milk so my mother didn’t have to get out of the car. Hell, I didn’t even like it when my food touched. But I loved “scary” things. I loved R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books (some of which I definitely got my hands on too young). My favorite show was Are You Afraid of the Dark? My brother and I would stay up late reading to each other from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or huddle around the computer squealing with delight when the Goosebumps computer game would groan out the words, “The scarecrow walks at midnight.” I was 10 when the first Scream movie came out, but as soon as it was available at my local Blockbuster it was in my greedy little hands. When I was 11, I wrote a whole “novel” about a little boy who died but didn’t know he was a ghost for half the book. (A full year before The Sixth Sense came out, for the record.) For years at Halloween, my mother would ask me what I wanted to be and I would respond, “A dead cheerleader.” (Every year, she told me I couldn’t get fake blood on my real cheerleading uniform and made me repurpose my last tap recital costume instead.)
This side of me was always incongruous to the little girl with blonde pigtails and Little Mermaid sweatshirt with matching sneakers. No one would have expected it from the timid kid glued to her father’s leg at social events, if you had asked them. But looking back, I think the reason is layered. Since I was so anxious about so much in my life, this was my way of having some control over what was scaring me and when it started and stopped. And there’s no denying that being scared comes with a little adrenaline rush, so this was a safe way to get that rush without being in any actual danger. Also, since my anxious brain was already coming up with worst case scenarios, sometimes it felt nice to see someone survive the worst things. Even though the odds of being stalked by a serial killer are low, I knew at a young age that if a radio station calls YOU to ask you a trivia question and says you won a trip not to trust it! Especially if you got the answer wrong! Horror, as a genre, felt like a win-win-win to me.
Horror continued to serve me through grade school. At sleepovers, already having consumed enough horror to start recognizing patterns and music cues, it made me feel brave that I didn’t scream as loud as the other girls when the bad guy appeared in frame after the door closed. And being able to show bravery in this one small aspect of my life meant I was my friend Sidney’s go-to scary movie buddy. (Name changed for privacy; I unfortunately did not have a friend with the same name as one of my all-time favorite Final Girls.)
Sidney would come over to my house, and we’d curl up under a blanket together. She’d grip my arm like she was hanging off a cliff. By Jennifer Love Hewitt’s last scream in I Know What You Did Last Summer, I’d have little crescent-moon indents on my arm that would keep me on that wave of adrenaline, even as the credits started to roll. And it wasn’t even about Sidney specifically, not really. It was exploring another thing that scared me in a safe way. We were past the age where friends typically hug and hold hands on the playground, but there was something in me that still felt an urge to be physically close to my friends. I didn’t know what it meant or how to express it, and having a friend cling to my arm while we watched scary movies satisfied that…desire feels too strong a word for the age we were. It was platonic and innocent — but still intimate in a more mature way than I had experienced.
I remember going to see The Sixth Sense in the movie theater, but I don’t remember if I felt scared at all while I was watching it. All I remember is running my fingers gently over the little crescent-moon indents on my arm as we left the theater.
As I got older, my love for scary movies only grew. It helped that the 90s and early 2000s were peak blockbuster horror years. Between the Scream, IKWYDLS, and Final Destination franchises, movies like The Faculty, Sleepy Hollow, and Misery, there was not a short supply of spooks. And they were mainstream spooks! I liked movies like She’s All That and Can’t Hardly Wait just fine but they were so…straight. Which of course wasn’t something I could have put so fine a point on at the time. And it’s not like the horror movies of my youth were particularly queer, but they didn’t revolve around romance at all. I didn’t have to fake my way through “he’s so dreamy right?” because instead we could talk about how badass it was when the main character kicked down the door with her platform shoe.
I continued having horror movie sleepovers all through high school. I remember watching The Ring at a friend’s house whose living room had a glass door that opened into the black abyss of the woods for added ambiance. I have visceral memories of the sleepover when the movie of the night was Ghost Ship, and I still can’t watch anything with Christopher Walken in it because of the night we chose Sleepy Hollow. But also more than the movies, I remember the friends I was with, the ones who buried their heads in my shoulder, the ones who made me come with them to the bathroom mid-movie, the crescent-moon indents given and received.
The night we watched Ghost Ship started the way all of our movie nights started at the Nestor house: We scattered across their large living room, some opting for sitting sideways in the armchairs, some spread out on the floor with their hands under their chins. I took my spot at the end of the couch, where the fluffy armrest allowed me to sit in a cozy lean. We had all been laughing and chatting from our respective spots right before the movie started, but less than five minutes into the movie, we all witnessed one of the most horrifying things our tiny teen brains had ever seen, and suddenly we were no longer scattered. My body too full of adrenaline to lean, I sat up straight with my knees pulled fully into my oversized sweatshirt. My one friend had swiftly closed the gap between us on the couch, those that had been on the armchair were now on the floor, and everyone on the floor pressed close against the couch under my friend and I. It no longer felt safe to be far apart. The tension of the scene broke, and the movie started in earnest. We laughed at ourselves and our involuntary reactions, but still, we decided to stay in our new, closer positions. Just in case.
As I’ve gotten older, more pieces of the “why do I love horror so much” puzzle fall into place. For one, so many of them involve metaphors for depression and anxiety right in the text. Before the Babadook was a gay icon, he was a vehicle for a depression metaphor; The Night House can also be interpreted as a terrifying actualization of mental illness. Hereditary covered generational trauma and grief. Sometimes these metaphors are purposeful, sometimes they are just the byproduct of being left open to interpretation. Victoria Pedretti has said she interpreted her character’s predicament in the last few episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor to be like living with a terminal disease, but to me it was a perfect depiction of how my depression can feel: heavy, haunting, lingering, threatening to ruin any happy moment. And since the show was about the supernatural, there’s room for both of these interpretations.
As horror movies trended away from slashers and into more general horror, the stories got more complex, more emotional. Even shows like American Horror Story have tales that are, on one hand, gory and horrific, but they are also trying to say something about something (to varying degrees of success.)
And I’m not above a classic paranormal trip. Let’s talk about the Conjuring universe! Classic ghost stories galore; haunted houses, haunted dolls, Vera Farmiga as a paranormal investigator. What more can you want? Hell, I love me a cheesy monster movie or sci-fi thriller. Even bad horror movies can be good; the movie Old made me want to steal all of M. Night Shyamalan’s pens, but I still have fun talking about it. Point me in the direction of the latest witch saga; bring me your vampires, your zombies. The more over-the-top the better. In fact, some of my favorite horror movies don’t take themselves too seriously. Horror-comedy is something I wish I knew about sooner but love to find in movies like Happy Death Day and Gatlopp: Hell of a Game. And while my extensive history with horror means I’m not as easily spooked as I once was, sometimes I get an extra thrill when something manages to surprise me. For example, the movie Host made the most of the uprise in video chats during the pandemic by having the entire movie filmed as a Zoom call, and the new medium stressed me out way more than I thought it would. That movie gave me major anticipation adrenaline in a way not many do these days. (They also managed to fix the major problem I have with found-footage horror, because there were hardly any shaky-cam scenes.)
Lately, my favorite trend is the deep and thoughtful horror, the shows and movies that combine my love of storytelling, ghost stories, and the adrenaline rush of a well-earned jump scare. The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor walk that line beautifully; they have background ghosts, startling scenes, and gothic imagery that could give you nightmares for days, but also both left me sobbing by the end because they wove such devastatingly beautiful stories of love and loss.
Speaking of the Hauntings, my love for this genre has also paid off in a gay way. From characters being added to beloved franchises (looking at you, Jasmin Savoy Brown in Scream), to entire stories centering around queer love (hello Fear Street!), it’s a beautiful time to be a queer horror fan. Hell, even some of the best characters in horror video games are queer, like Ellie in The Last of Us. Though as someone who is single and perfectly happy being so, I still do appreciate that most horror content doesn’t revolve entirely around a relationship. A relationship might be involved, or even a pivotal part of the story, but it’s not typically the main goal of the protagonist, and the central story usually involves a murderer, a ghost story, or an internal journey the lead character has to go on. Or, you know, finding out about your girlfriend’s parents’ terrifying racism cult.
Once for my friend’s 30th birthday she wanted to have an old-fashioned sleepover. So we all got in our pjs, snuggled up on the touch, and watched a scary movie together. And much to my surprise, I once again got those familiar feelings when I was laughing at the sheer volume of my friends’ screams, getting to feel like “the brave one” when my one friend was fully under the blankets playing Taylor Swift in her headphones. Even though sleepovers aren’t a frequent part of my life anymore, I still find ways to experience the vulnerability of being scared alongside friends, whether it’s pressing play at the same time with someone who lives a state over, or streaming horror video games on Twitch so we can all laugh at me when a ghost child makes me jump out of my skin. We found ways to recreate sleepover vibes without having to sleep on a floor.
This might sound backwards, but I found horror movies surprisingly comforting during the early months of the pandemic. Working from home and living alone, it was easy to sink into my depression and let it wash over me like static from an old TV set. It made all the sounds softer, the edges duller. I didn’t feel as angry and sad as I had, but I also didn’t feel much at all. A trade-off I accepted, for better or worse. But there was something about horror movies that kept me from floating too far out into the abyss. I’d let the Netflix algorithm pick something and hit play, expecting it to feel like everything else I had been watching; like nothing at all. But then a spike of adrenaline from a jump scare would clear some of the fog from my eyes. Or anticipatory music would get my heartbeat to grow louder than the static. There were familiar patterns that were comforting, coupled with surprising twists that earned my hard-to-hold attention. I’ve changed and grown so many ways in my years on this planet, but I found myself back in my old, self-soothing patterns, turning to horror to garner a sense of control and ease my anxiety.
There was something about watching a main character trudge through the darkness and come out the other side. To fight her demons, literal or metaphorical, and still be standing at the end. Not unscathed, of course; traumatized, bloodied, and exhausted. Maybe she lost friends or family along the way; maybe she lost part of herself she’d never get back. But she also learned she’s stronger than she knew she could be. She withstood more than a person should have to, and she’s still standing.
By the time the credits rolled, I’d realize I didn’t feel as…empty as I did before I started. It wasn’t a cure or a fix. I wasn’t suddenly free of the numbness I wrapped around myself like a blanket. But I did feel something. It was faint, and it only lasted a little while, but it was there, and it was real. Like crescent-moon indents on my arm.
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.