With a top ten placement on Autostraddle’s 25 Scariest Queer Movie Moments, Stewart Thorndike’s first feature already established her horror bona fides. Tight, unsettling, familiar and unique, Lyle was a cry of maternal grief, queer distrust, and female rage.
Nine years later, Thorndike has returned with a second feature that fulfills — and surpasses — the promise of her first. Bad Things is somehow even queerer, even scarier, and even more formally accomplished. Returning to many of the same themes but with a grander palette, Thorndike has confirmed herself as one of the most exciting voices in modern horror.
I was lucky enough to talk to Thorndike about Bad Things, her fascination with motherhood, the nightmares that haunted her childhood, and so much more!
Drew: I’m so excited to talk to you! My best friend had you as a professor and raved about your class. Do you feel like teaching has informed your artistic practice in any way?
Stewart: I have to just say that we’re matching.
Drew: Oh look at that! We are!
Stewart: (laughs) Well, I never knew how polarizing I was until I became a teacher.
Drew: Ooo tell me more.
Stewart: I didn’t realize that I was considered so eccentric in my thinking. People’s reactions to me and my work always take me by surprise and teaching taught me to just embrace who I am.
Drew: What do you think makes you controversial?
Stewart: Well, I don’t think I ever really understand what’s going on in the world. I’m confused and scared all the time, which is why I’m drawn to thrillers and psychological horror. So I don’t know if I’ll be the best person to answer why I’m controversial.
But even my attraction to horror has been divisive. When I went to grad school for film, horror was considered low-brow, so I actually rejected it for a little bit. I had to fight my way back to horror and be like, no this is what I love.
Then when I started teaching I was surprised that my students either seemed to be really inspired by what I was saying or felt maybe, like, well, I don’t know what they thought! But people seemed to either love me or hate me.
Drew: That’s interesting. I mean, it suits horror as a genre, because different things scare different people. Different things unsettle and offend different people.
Stewart: Yeah I think that’s true. And I think what’s so cool about new voices taking over horror is that we are getting to see what scares other people. Sometimes the point of horror has been to scare rather than to show we’re scared. In general, I think when straight white boys are telling stories it’s more about scaring and when other voices are telling stories it’s more from the perspective of fear.
Drew: I definitely see that pattern.
Was the gap between Lyle and Bad Things due to the normal Hollywood financing bullshit or did you choose to take a break?
Stewart: Absolutely the first.
Stewart: I was ready to make The Stay — at the time Bad Things was called The Stay — right away. I had my third film ready to go too! But I’m a queer woman fighting to make films that not everybody immediately understands or feels comfortable with or wants to finance or support. It’s just a battle.
Drew: How did you end up getting the financing together?
Stewart: Shudder. They support so many women making films.
Drew: I love the way you play with references and engage with our cultural texts. Do you start out wanting to respond to these past works or do you get the idea and then find the influences later?
Stewart: It’s definitely the personal idea and then after a lot of work I look at it and realize the connection. I want to be mindful to not talk as a writer because I want to honor the strike and our labor movements. But when I’m directing films, I’m not fully aware of my influences. Of course, I wonder if people are going to think it’s like The Shining. But I don’t plan it out where I’m like these models haunting the hotel are going to look like the twins. Or showing room 237 and 217, that was just a coincidence.
These films are in my bloodstream. They’re like my church. They’re in the culture. I’m responding in some way, but it’s more that I’m compelled toward it rather than anything scientific or deliberate. I’ve never been like, oh I love The Shining, let me see what I can do with it.
Drew: I love how sometimes our influences are just a part of us. How old were you when you first saw The Shining?
Stewart: I think I was pretty old by the time I saw it myself, but when I was 11 my best friend told it to me beat-by-beat.
Drew: (laughs) That’s the best way to experience a horror movie when you’re 11.
Stewart: I saw The Shining, Blue Velvet, and Rosemary’s Baby all first as retold by my nerdy best friend. And she didn’t spare a detail. She was very vivid.
Drew: I think that was my role as a child. I watched all sorts of movies as a kid including The Shining and would definitely tell my friends about them.
Stewart: (laughs) We would sit in a dark room and literally go through every beat.
Drew: Were you not watching it because—
Stewart: I wasn’t allowed! I did manage to see A Clockwork Orange when I was very young and I loved that. I was like, are grown ups allowed to make movies like this?
Drew: I want to talk about casting. Cal and Maddie’s transness was just something that was found through casting those actors, right? You weren’t specifically looking for trans actors?
Stewart: No. I just look for mega talent. I mean, I’m definitely attracted to queerness and transness. I shouldn’t say this, because I have no evidence to believe that it’s true, but I assume all my actors are queer. I just do!
Drew: (laughs) It’s interesting because I feel the transness of the actors in their characters. It feels like you at least created space for them to bring that part of themselves. It’s hard to talk about identity because it’s so ephemeral, but I really felt in the movie like they were playing trans characters even if it wasn’t dwelled upon in a tired way.
Maybe the best way to talk about this is just to discuss your process with them in general. How do you work with actors? And did you talk about transness with them or did you just let them tap into that part of themselves if they wanted to or not?
Stewart: There’s so much room for them to make the characters what feels right for them. They’re all intense artists with really strong ideas. When I’m casting, I know the qualities I need. Like let’s say I’m looking for someone with an expansive energy who can be very charismatic, but also scary and also funny. Not too many people can do that and everybody in my cast can. Because of that I’m otherwise pretty flexible. It’s something I like about how I make art. I believe that when I’m not flexible I’m killing the spirit so I leave a lot of room for everybody. I’m still guiding the ship and I know where it’s headed. But I’m very responsive to location and clothing and the people I’m drawn to work with are as well. I like people with strong opinions.
For instance, Rad turned down the part. At that point Rad was probably the least known of the actors and we were like how are they turning this down? So we had to beg a little and follow up. They had some problems with the script that we ended up talking about. It was such an easy fix! They wanted to change the character’s pronouns to better match their own and it was like of course. Those things are really fluid.
Drew: Does that include improvisation?
Stewart: Well, this movie is kind of a mystery, so we had to stay pretty close to the script. But people think of improving as dialogue, when sometimes it’s just how actors are doing the scene. I always think of this one scene where Ruthie and Fran see each other in the stairwell after they’ve hooked up and Ruthie just wants Fran gone. We talked about them being mad at each other, but instead they were giggling and blushing and I was like what are you doing? You can’t control them. They’re these big artists. Hari is another person who is game to explode and go to so many places. Her secret weapon is her access to pain. She’s so vulnerable but she’s also so funny and smart and dazzling that people don’t see it right away. But yeah it’s a collaboration. It’s a true collaboration.
Drew: I have to imagine working in one location like the hotel creates an added intimacy and feeds into that collaborative process.
Stewart: Yeah and alliances form. The actors felt like they were their own unit sometimes. It was cold and it was fast and we didn’t have a lot of money. It could be uncomfortable and it was rush rush rush during these dramatic, sensitive scenes. And so they formed their own supernatural little unit.
Drew: Were you always drawn to horror? Did it start with your friend describing the plots of movies when you were 11?
Stewart: I didn’t like childhood that much. I was kind of a depressed kid. And I didn’t like cartoons. They made me uncomfortable and antsy. I didn’t like sitcoms either. But I remember the first time I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone. I was by myself and I happened to pass by the TV — I didn’t sit down for the whole episode. I just stood there. I was very confused and drawn to it. I felt a comfort from it.
Alongside horror, I also liked old movies and melodramas. Women in trouble. I really liked that. It scared me, but I felt comforted too. I guess it felt more reflective of life to me. I mean, I’m not depressed now. But I was a heavy, melancholy kid. And I think artistically I’m interested in horror because things aren’t always what they seem so there’s room for seeing things wrong and being more elaborate. Altered spaces. You can visually play. Also I think the world is a frightening, frightening place, so I don’t really understand why every film isn’t a horror film. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) I love that.
You’re so good at horror set pieces. I’m thinking of the Skype call in Lyle and so many moments in Bad Things. Horror doesn’t often scare me and your work has managed to do that. I want to honor not talking about your writing process, but I’d love to know how you come to your horror visuals.
Stewart: Horror and depression and dread are really intermingled for me. “Scarewp_postsalmost feels too energetic. But, for example, the breakfast room scene? You know, when you see a stock family picture and they’re all laughing? It just freaks me out. So I really wanted to capture that. Sometimes it just feels like everybody is lying and I’m trying to reveal that. Or I want to find discomfort in the exact place you’re supposed to feel comfortable.
Drew: I want to talk about motherhood.
Drew: Why do you think horror is such a common genre for stories about moms?
Stewart: Because it’s the most important relationship on Earth. I collect books on moms. I feel like we haven’t investigated that bond as much as we should. The influence is great. A lot of people approach motherhood in terms of body horror and this leaky, bloody invasion, but I’m more in my head about it. More in the spirit world I think.
I think of it as a first relationship and for a lot of people our first heartbreak. After that it’s like, come on try to hurt me! I’m impenetrable! Nothing else will ever compare. For a lot of us, that relationship is the programmer. And I’d say God! Like if you’re not into a higher power up there then you’re left with Mom.
Drew: Oof. Yeah.
How has that fascination shifted upon becoming a mom yourself?
Stewart: Oh it’s the biggest honor to be a mom. I think it’s so fun. I’ve always loved children and felt really comfortable with them. They don’t have any preconceived ideas about who you are or what you’re going to be or if a tree is friendly. They have their own ideas and I think it’s the best. They have a worldview that’s completely liberated. I love children. It’s easy to be a parent, actually. I love it.
Drew: That’s so nice. It’s not something you hear very often.
Stewart: Well, it does require a lot from you. But it’s so rewarding and fun too.
Drew: How do you think queerness plays into that? Both as a queer mom and a queer daughter of a mom. Is queerness just the only worldview you have or are you conscious about how queerness factors into your questions surrounding motherhood?
Stewart: I liked what you said about queerness as my only perspective. I think that’s what it is. Even as a little kid, I was just thinking a little differently. And sometimes that made me ahead of people and sometimes that made me behind. I remember being in 1st grade and thinking, “Wait. We’re coming back here every day?”
Stewart: Not that confusion is inherently about queerness. But I think I was just looking at things in more of an unindoctrinated perspective. And as far as being a queer parent, being queer is just natural. My daughter knows I’m queer. I think the more unnatural stuff is what patriarchy, misogyny, and capitalism try to do to us.
Drew: There’s a detail in Bad Things that made me laugh. When Ruthie is cheating, the text from her mom says, “I’m sorry I can’t come.wp_postsLike while she’s having sex.
Stewart: (laughs) Your brain! I didn’t even think of that to be honest.
Drew: Oh really??
Stewart: I mean, it suits the story right there for sure.
Drew: Well, it’s fitting that it wasn’t intentional, because people are often acting out their parental relationships through romantic relationships without realizing it. I think especially for queer women not even in an Oedipal way, well, maybe a little in an Oedipal way—
Drew: I think about what’s added when that core initial relationship is with a woman and then our later relationships are also with women. I think it deepens that bond and makes it even more fraught sometimes for queer women.
Stewart: That’s interesting. Personally, I don’t think I’ve felt too different in my relationships with men versus my relationships with women. But I know that’s not how everybody feels.
Drew: I mean, I do think people can act out mommy issues through dating men and daddy issues through dating women. Gender is expansive!
Drew: Last question. Do you have nightmares?
Stewart: I used to when I was a kid. I had recurring dreams.
Drew: Do you remember any of them?
Stewart: One of them was about these men with green faces. There were three of them. Red crazy hair and beards. Everywhere I went they would be there. And it was always outside in the sun. Everybody else was having a great time and I would see these three creepy men.
And in another one I was a man! It was a black and white film. I remember every detail. It was a melodrama and I was a man and I was really sad. I walk into an office and I look at this woman and she’s the love of my life and I know I’ve betrayed her. She looks at this other room and I feel an intense dread. I walk over to the room and there’s this other woman sitting on the ground with a nightgown on. She’s a terrible woman and she’s been my undoing.
It sounds like Bad Things now that I say it.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, films like Bad Things would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work.