When I was in fourth grade, I got in trouble for discussing how fast my body would decompose if I was stabbed. It was far from the first time I’d discussed murder and rotting flesh with my classmates, and it definitely wasn’t the last. I wasn’t trying to scare them or get attention; I was genuinely interested in all things murderous and bloody. That was just who I was. Gore girl. While other kids watched Cartoon Network and the Disney channel, I consumed hours of horror and crime television, especially Bones. Even though I didn’t always understand what was happening in the movies and shows I watched, I found myself fascinated and strangely grounded by the fictional violences playing out on screen.
I began to more heavily rely on horror as a place of solace as I made the shift from elementary school to middle school to high school. With each passing day, I felt more and more like I didn’t belong in the world presented to me. It wasn’t just that puberty had brought with it a blanket of unwelcome hormones and clinical depression; it was that I was coming to understand the particular pains of being queer and being a teenage girl. I started to more fully contextualize the men who yelled at me from their cars and interrogated my friends and I on the sidewalk. The hardest part was that the danger wasn’t just coming from men I could disregard under the label of “stranger danger.” The boys I’d previously considered friends and casual acquaintances started to show me the cruelties they were capable of. In seventh grade, a girl a few lockers down from me told me she’d put duct tape around her pussy in case her boyfriend wouldn’t listen when she said no. The words gay, dyke, hoe, and slut served as staple insults. Girls were rated, and the ones with the lowest ratings were treated as inferior and annoying. None of these experiences are particularly unusual. I ignored my own growing anxieties and spent my days pretending to be a girl I wasn’t. At home, I obsessed over the show The Following and read all the Stephen King books I could get my hands on.
As I got older, I found the language I needed to explain my constant buzz of anxiety, depressive dips, and the gendered fear the world normalizes. I got on medication and fell in love with horror franchises like Halloween where I could easily point to villains and say: That guy. That’s the problem. He’s the evil that needs to be defeated. When he’s gone we’ll all be safer.
One thing to defeat, not a world to change. It was a simple understanding of violence that couldn’t be applied to anything else in my life (though of course as Stef Rubino writes in their Horror Is So Gay essay “Elm Street Was a Nightmare Before Freddy Made It One”, even horror’s monsters do not exist in isolation from the horrors of society).Watching horror also gave me a way to have power over something that scared me. I can’t walk away from my mental illnesses or ever guarantee someone isn’t going to hurt me because they feel that’s their right. But when I watch something scary, I can always close my laptop, turn off the television, or walk out of a movie theater.
During my college orientation, new students gathered to listen to a presentation on how not to be raped. We watched a video about how we should think of sexual assault like a bear attack. Wouldn’t you take precautions if you lived on a campus full of wild bears? A girl left the auditorium in tears, and a sports bro in the row ahead muttered about his time being wasted while leveling up in Candy Crush.
The presentation confirmed what I already knew: You need to protect yourself and others because institutions aren’t going to. That night, I started looking into transfers and wondered if it’s possible to escape the apparently inescapable. I later celebrated finishing my transfer applications by watching The Purge alone because I hated leaving my room at night. I already knew about the fucking bears.
In the end, I graduated from a different college and started work at an outdoor education center in Vermont. The job came with housing, and living with cis men gave me an anxiety that was both warranted and unwarranted. We become close in the way people do when they are living and working together in rural Vermont. But I made a miscalculation about what that closeness meant. Because there were things they never understood. They never understood the piece of my life that made me hate when they stood in door frames. They nodded in sympathy and confusion as I shared my anger over the coverage of Amber Heard’s defamation trial and the Roe Supreme Court Draft Leak. They gave allowances to men known to be misogynists. When I found these men sitting in my house, I’d go on long runs and hide out in my room watching Black Swan on a loop.
I was relieved when I got funding and a teaching assistant to start my MFA at a university far away. My mental health had been on a decline again, and I just wanted space to write, run, and focus on better strategies for dealing with my mind. I dedicated myself to my novel and routine and being the best teacher I can be. I see my student’s keychain pepper sprays and pray they never have to use them.
On Thursday nights, I attend a reading series usually followed by drinks with my cohort at a local bar. On one of those Thursdays, a man I didn’t know stopped me and started asking me questions. Was I a college student? Did I have a boyfriend? Did I live alone? Hadn’t he seen me before leaving that apartment building? I did what I’ve trained myself to do in these circumstances. I walked away, gripped the whistle I carry harder in my pocket, and got ready to dial a friend. After he saw my whistle, he walked away too, allowing me to go back to my apartment to have my panic attack in peace. I was too rattled to sleep, so I decided to calm myself down by making my way through the Saw franchise. About halfway through, I started laughing to the point of tears. Maybe I’d be stalked, but there was no way that man was smart enough to put together a reverse bear trap.
After I finished my journey of death traps, I added to my notebook a list of men I’d seen scream in horror movies. Not men panicking or yelling, but men reacting with a gut-wrenching scream. It shouldn’t have been a hard list for a horror fan to make. Men aren’t free from the terrorizing events which take place in horror movies. They have their own dangerous encounters with murderers like Micheal Myers, Ghostface, Leatherface, and Jason Voorhees. They experience the same petrifying paranormal events which dominate the genre: ghosts, haunted dolls, and evil clowns. Where were the screaming men, and why was their absence bothering me so much?
The genre’s lack of Scream Kings was a problem I’d been discussing via text with a crush who I’d never met and who lived on a different continent (sometimes to be gay is to be unhinged and irrational). She was a horror fan too and seemed interested in the list, so I spent an unhealthy number of hours watching movies alone and going through online horror discussion boards. What I eventually came to realize is that men do actually scream in horror movies (rarely), but almost always under four set circumstances. The first is torture or extreme physical pain, which is why a good number of the movies on my short list ended up coming from the Saw franchise. The second is when a male character is queer or queer coded, as Jesse and Grady are in Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. The third is when they are screaming for a joke, over-the-top shrieks played for laughs (this second and third scream often occur at the same time). The last is when they are going through possession or body transformation, like Peter in Hereditary and Wallace in Tusk.
The message behind these specific gendered scream choices and the infrequency of screaming men in horror in general seems to be that screaming in terror is ultimately a feminine act which straight men simply aren’t capable of even in the most dire of circumstances. This message is as unbelievable as it is disappointing. The genre is designed to push our understanding of both human behavior and the human condition. That’s part of the reason I fell in love with horror in the first place. We’re willing to accept everything from sexually transmitted demons to armies of murderous doppelgängers, yet we are still unwilling to accept the very real possibility that a frightened man might scream when he’s scared. Why is that the boundary directors and screenwriters are so unwilling to push on?
Perhaps the answer lies in all the “nonviolent” men who have followed me and commented on my body with relative frequency since I was 11. I used to tell myself I had this problem because I usually walk alone, look young for my age, come and go from queer spaces, and socialize with other queer people in public spaces. These are definitely factors, but I know better than to see myself as the one at fault. If there’s one thing horror movies have taught me, it’s that looking for a reason doesn’t help you when the call is already coming from inside the house. I’m sure a good number of those men know they aren’t going to get anywhere with me and aren’t planning to do anything beyond verbal harassment (though I can never know that for sure). They just want to see my fear because they know that scaring someone is a way to demonstrate power over them. That’s why fear is one of the most powerful tools of patriarchy and why our screens are full of screaming women. Screaming being the ultimate encapsulation of fear and not something audiences expect from men.
To be clear, I’m not saying Scream Queens themselves are only a manifestation of patriarchy. It’s natural for terrified people to scream and for horror films to want to show that terror. Scream Queens go back almost as far as the big screen itself, beginning with Fay Wray’s show stopping scream in the original King Kong. She started the parade which would later go on to include horror icons such as Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Neve Campbell, Tanedra Howard, and countless others. I have deep respect for the work of every single one of them. Have you ever let out a full body scream? Have you seen Samara Weaving scream? Are you fucking kidding me? It’s an exhausting art form and one which shouldn’t only be practiced by women. The Scream Queens aren’t the problem. The problem is the relative silence of men.
There are certain things I never really see changing. I can never guarantee that people will react well when they read me as queer or when they find out I’m a lesbian, something I’m very open about at this point in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable running at night or getting rid of my pepper spray. I don’t think people will ever stop voting bigots into positions of power. Is expecting fear to be displayed equally in the face of deep fictional terror too much to ask? It might not change the world, but I do know more men screaming their heads off would bring at least one dyke a little bit of satisfaction.