What is Queer Horror?
Is it just horror that has queer characters?
No! In fact, there are a number of classic “queer” films, books, and plays that have no explicitly queer characters. Furthermore, there are many pieces of horror media that DO include explicitly queer characters but are not generally classified as “queer horror.” For example, the fact that IT Chapter 2 (2017) features a handful of (at least subtextually) gay characters does not make it a queer horror film. In fact, many would argue that this film is actually an example of both queerbaiting and queer exploitation, rather than an example of a film that utilizes various queer voices and/or elements to enhance a story. On the other hand, Bram Stoker's Dracula lacks any explicitly queer characters but is considered a classic example of queerness in horror.
So then what is it?
Some would suggest that queer horror is a contemporary genre dominated by queer writers who are reclaiming the historically problematic genre, creating new work that seeks to explore the genre’s inherent queerness in a less damaging way.
However, there is also an argument to be made that the majority of horror media is inherently queer, and, further, that these queer elements are actually what makes horror media so horrific. This line of thinking hinges largely on the definition of the word "queer." Rather than using the word only to describe individuals that identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, academia sometimes uses this term to describe anything that subverts traditional norms (norms that are typically heteronormative and patriarchal). The argument then becomes that the “scariness” of horror media often relies on exploiting preexisting fears of non-normativity in a heteronormative society.
Consider, for example, the vampire, one of the most recognized emblems of the horror genre and, arguably, one of the most queer. Vampires exist outside of “straight” time—that is, the heteronormative concept of linear time marked by reproductive and familial time markers such as marriage and childbirth (Cooper 15-17). These creatures cannot reproduce naturally (we all saw what happened to Bella), and thus have no reason to exist in a society where time is dictated by the reproductive urge that is central to heteronormative biopolitics—the desire to control bodies through reproductive sex. In addition, queerness is often understood as a breaking down of binaries (gay/straight, male/female, etc). Through their very existence, vampires and other undead creatures deconstruct one of the most intrinsic binaries of human life: the life/death binary. It then follows, that our fear of and attraction to vampires in media are, on some level, a fear of and attraction to queerness, or at least an escape from the constraints of heteronormativity (Cooper 32). We can observe these traits in various other horror icons as well. Ghosts provide another example of transcending the life/death binary and existence outside of straight time. Meanwhile, witches and other female-coded entities tend to live in covens—family-esque units that lack reproductive intention—and function as an inversion of typical understandings of female motherhood, especially with tropes that include the murder and even consumption of human children, as seen in films like The Conjuring (2013) and even the popular TV series American Horror Story (Geller and Banker).
Horror media where the “monsters” take on a more human form is predicated on queer elements. Consider, for example, the distorted family unit formed by the cannibals of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the final image of the 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby. Both iconic works of horror, these pieces portray twisted reflections of the heterosexual family unit, a trope that is incredibly common to the genre (Elliot-Smith). Viewers of these pieces feel unnerved as they witness this queercoded mocking of heteronormative life.
Furthermore, horror media can also be understood through the lens of queer time. "Queer time" is a term that encompasses many concepts. For example, many queer individuals experience a skewed sense of linear chronolgical progression, as their lives may not be as firmly dictated by heteronormative reproductive milestones (Jaffe). Queer theorist Jack Halberstam notes that the idea of queer time as experienced by queer individuals in everyday life is often marked by a feeling of “foreshortened future.” That is, queer individuals sometimes feel as though they have no future, or at least less of a future than their cisgender and/or heterosexual peers. This feeling can stem from any number of experiences, from the trauma of being closeted to the reality of global threats to queer existence, such as the AIDS epidemic, to a lack of heteronormative time markers in queer life (Halberstam). Horror media often utilizes this sensation of foreshortened future to instill feelings of unease and terror in straight and queer audiences alike. First, an audience consuming any form of horror media typically does so with the knowledge that many of the characters will not survive the narrative, in of itself a type of “foreshortened future,” especially as performative horror media, such as theatre and cinema, often employs various techniques to place the viewer in the body of the protagonist (Williams, L 4). Many horror films also employ queer time by distorting chronological linearity and bringing the past into the present, not only for the characters within the film, like in a ghost movie, but also for the viewers themselves. Have you ever taken a shower when home alone? Did you feel nervous? Uneasy? Perhaps you double- or even triple-checked that the door was locked before turning on the tap. Perhaps you even tore the shower curtain back to be sure no one was lurking behind it, waiting to jump out and stab you while a chorus of violins shriek ominously in the background. Where did this fear come from, do you suppose? There’s no logical reason for you, a fully capable human being, to fear your shower. Or is there? Whether you’ve seen the film or not, this fear probably stems from Hitchcock’s Psycho, or one of the numerous parodies and reimaginings of the film’s classic shower-stabbing scene. In this way, you are experiencing a form of queered time, as an event from the past—your subconscious knowledge of this iconic scene—has resurfaced and reshaped your present, through your irrational unease with the shower (Cooper 53). Therefore, even genre slasher media provide another clear example of past/present collision and existence outside of straight time.
You keep talking about cinema. Isn't this a theatre festival?
It is true that the majority of current research into the intersection of horror and queerness has come from studies of cinema and literature. However, though true “horror plays” may not be incredibly common, they are far from nonexistent. For example, both Hamlet and Macbeth contain numerous horror—and incredibly queer—elements, from witches to ghosts to strange dream sequences that seem to exist out of time, or out of straight time, at least. In the early 20th century, the Parisian Grand Guignol began a blood-drenched theatrical gore-fest that regularly caused audience members to swoon in fright (or so it was rumored) (Williams, H). Contemporary works such as Annie Baker’s John, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, and Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is utilize various horror tropes, from the heavy gothic influence on Baker and Wallace’s works to the bloody slasher-esque elements present in Is God Is. These three plays are also both very queer, both in structure and in content. Thus, perhaps it is time we begin to pay more serious attention to horror as a genre of drama.
Furthermore, the presentation of specifically queer horror through drama makes sense as the theatre itself is, arguably, an essentially queer artform. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as an “imitation of an action.” In order for theatre, specifically tragedy, to exist as an “imitation,” it must logically be an imitation of some idea or concept that already exists naturally. In her essay “Naturally Queer,” professor of sex and gender science Myra Hird suggests that everything that exists naturally is, as the essay’s title would suggest, inherently queer. If the inherent queerness of natural life is accepted as fact, it logically follows that theatre, as an imitation of that which exists naturally, must also be queer. In Cruising Utopia, queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz argues that queerness inherently active. To be “queer” is a thing that you do, not a thing that you are. Similarly, theatre is an inherently active art form. From conception to consumption, theatre is something that is done. To an extent one could argue that this is true of any art form, but it is particularly definitive of theatre because of theatre’s performative nature. In order for a theatrical work to be communicated from creator to consumer, it (almost always) requires an active middleman: the actor. Theatre cannot exist without continuous action. As soon as the action ends, the theatre ends (again, in most cases). Muñoz makes the same argument about queerness—that it is ongoing and active. Thus, theatre itself stands as an essentially queer medium, just as much as horror seems to be an inherently queer genre. Because of this, the temptation to synthesize the three elements—queerness, horror, and drama—is simply too strong to pass up.
Okay, so why this festival now?
Theory and inherent queerness aside, horror remains a genre riddled with problematic stereotypes about queer people. One of the simplest ways to reclaim this genre? Amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ writers of all horror media.
In addition, this festival creates a space for queer artists to share their work without feeling limited by their identities. Sometimes, queer and other marginalized writers find themselves in situations where their art is only promoted when it is explicitly and realistically tied to the experience of having a marginalized identity. This is not always a bad thing, as it is very important to have authentic stories about the experience of existing as a marginalized individual put on stage. That said, queer artists must also have avenues to come together and collaborate on work that can be as closely tied to their identity as they want it to be—whether that means writing a play that is intrinsically tied to their experience as a queer individual or whether that means writing a fun ghost story.
Finally, to quote co-coordinator of the festival, Ennis Matthew Neal, “Also [a queer horror festival] would be totally sick,” and, really, is there any better reason to create art? I think not.