GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Adam Messinger is a Los Angeles based writer and enthusiast of all things that go bump in the night. He is currently the scriptwriter and researcher for 10 Minute Murder and loves overcasts, true crime podcasts, Courtney Love, and corgis in Halloween costumes. Check out some of his work on Film Daily Co., OutBuzz, and Ithaca Times. Follow him on Twitter @adamessinger.
Let’s Talk About It
In 2019, the final instalment in the reboot of the IT franchise entitled IT: Chapter 2 was released. The movie was the highly anticipated follow-up to 2017’s first chapter, which ended up becoming the highest grossing horror film of all time. The sequel—that saw the children of the first movie being played by some big name actors like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader—was an exciting beginning to the fall horror film season. My friends and I went on opening day and we even pondered buying our tickets in advance as to not risk being disappointed when we showed up as the previews were rolling—we’re often late.
We were all avid horror movie connoisseurs and had seen countless first run showings at our local Regal. But IT was a movie that we didn’t come to be frightened by.
The first movie, filled with its bright-eyed stars and kitschy lines, was more closely related in tone to films like 1985’s The Goonies, as opposed to 2019’s Suspiria remake. Needless to say, we weren’t there ready to cover our eyes and clutch our pearls. But, as you likely know by now, IT: Chapter 2 starts with something that we did not see in the first film: a super blatant, and bloody, homophobic hate crime.
The film opens with a young gay couple at a carnival. Their names are Don Hagarty and Adrian Mellon (played by Taylor Frey and Xavier Dolan). They are white, and cis; they are a bit sassy, and they are in love—the safe image of a queer person in media. We hear them planning their future to get out of Derry, Maine and move somewhere more accepting.
Just when you start to think that maybe this is a new casting choice for one of the lesser-known members of the Losers Club, the pair are berated by a homophobe and his friends, who follow and then horrifically beat them almost to death. Then, Pennywise drops in and is like “oh yes, me too” and takes a lethal bite out of Adrian.
I have never read the 1986 novel, but this scene is pulled straight from the pages written by author Stephen King. Before we get too mad at the old guy, it’s important to talk about how this story is handled in the book, on which both films are based. The novel, which totals at 1,138 pages, provides a much stronger sense of who these characters are outside of their gay identities. We get their backstories, as well as an exploration of the gay social scene in Derry. But, most importantly, there is a bit of justice for both of these characters in the book. In the film, after Adrian is murdered, we never hear about it again, apart from a brief police investigation wherein the couple is barely mentioned. There isn’t even a scene including Don, the lone survivor of the attack.
Naturally, my friends and I were shaken by this. Not in a “snowflake triggered” sense, but in a general “Wow, it’s kinda horrifying and upsetting to see something so real and plausible represented in the opening scene of a movie like IT” kind of way. Like I said, I go see every new horror movie out there. And I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely taken out of a film by something so upsetting and misplaced. The baby-eating scene in Mother! (2017) and the decapitation scene in Hereditary (2018) left me horrified, but not so genuinely upset that I was unable to focus on the movie.
No, Like, Really… Let’s Talk About IT
Why did this happen in 2019? Again, in defence of Stephen King, he was inspired to write the story of Adrian and Don after the 1984 hate crime murder of Charlie Howard, which occurred in Bangor, Maine while King was writing the novel. The scene does not open the book and was written during a very different time. The director of Chapter 2, Andy Muschietti, said this about his choice to include the scene:
For me, it was important to include it because it’s something that we’re still suffering. Hate crimes are still happening. No matter how evolved we think society is going, there seems to be a winding back, especially in this day and age where these old values seem to be emerging from the darkness.
It is important to note that Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman are both straight white men. So, this statement does make them seem clueless as to what they have actually done. I don’t want to get into the specifics of this right now, but what is painfully clear is that this scene is a perfect example of straight creators being out-of-touch and trying to create content for queer audiences. When you add this scene to the fact that Richie (played by Finn Wolfhard and Bill Hader), is now portrayed as closeted and working through his feelings for another member of the Losers Club, Eddie (played by Jack Dylan Grazer and James Ransone), you see that maybe there was a dash of queerbaiting at play. Something along the lines of “We’ll show the hate crime, but give them a queer narrative halfway through so that they will stay engaged.”
And wouldn’t it be nice to say that this is just an anomaly in the wonderful and non-problematic history of queerness in horror? Sure, but this is not a fairy tale, and you are not even the Final Girl. What went down in IT is indicative of widespread problems regarding the utilization of queerness in the horror industry.
A Horrific History
None of these choices exist in a vacuum. For years, films in and out of the genre had to rely on subtext for any sort of queer representation. While the representation was rarely positive, it was the beginning of queer bodies in media—even if it had a harmful effect. For example, Norman Bates from the 1960 film Psycho is written as an effeminate man who enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing. He is queer-coded as gay or even transgender—although the writers probably weren’t concerned with getting the terminology and identity correct. They were purely trying to prey on society’s expectations of queer people—and often those expectations went hand-in-hand with a tragic ending, where the vilified queer person meets a bloody and well-deserved end. Much like the characters at the beginning of IT.
As time went on, these tropes were defied, slightly. Or, rather, creators learned workarounds.
The Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code) was a system of moral guidelines developed in 1930 which introduced an element of censorship to filmmaking. American filmmakers began to follow it in 1934, and it more or less subsided in the late 1960s, giving way to the less rigorous MPAA film rating system, which is more focused on the societal values that we hold today.
As time progressed and more liberal values were (slowly) adopted, filmmakers found ways to queer-code their characters without being explicit, and sometimes with positive intentions. Vampire movies were a popular way to do this, and having two male/female companions spend their afterlives together in a totally normal and not-at-all-gay way became a widely-explored trope. Such films include The Daughters of Darkness (1971) and The Vampire Lovers (1970), which live up to their titles and provide sexy girl-on-girl-in-fangs action. While this queerness was acceptable only as long as there was room for the straight male gaze, these are still the earliest signs of horror becoming gay as hell. Other films embraced a more subtextual queerness; this didn’t rely on concrete examples of homosexual acts. Queer subtext is a way to signal that your characters are super gay, without being super loud. So, the gays in the audience can recognize it, but the homophobes cannot.
An infamous example of such a practice is the 1985 film A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. The main character, Jesse (Mark Patton), is clearly queer-coded as a gay teen struggling with his sexuality in the way he reacts to Freddy Krueger’s (Robert Englund) antics within his dreams. And it honestly is quite subtextual; if you weren’t someone who either related to or was explicitly looking for the deeper meaning, maybe you would miss it.
But things get #explicit with queerness, including a scene in a gay bar where Jesse outs his gym teacher, then follows him back to the gym showers where he is killed by Freddy. We are also treated to a scene where Freddy runs his knife-hands over Jesse’s mouth in a way that can only be read—by any reasonable person—as super homoerotic. Also, many young male characters are sweaty and shirtless for, like, no reason at all.
The intended meaning of the film has been heavily debated by critics. Director Jack Sholder at one point said he didn’t intend it to be queer, then later—when public perception of homosexuals had become more favourable—claimed that he had always intended to make a movie about queerness as a way to help gay teens who might be bullied for their sexuality. A true martyr.
And we all know that the sequel to a teen slasher flick is the perfect place to make a political statement.
With all of that in the past, we are moving towards a society where queerness can be explored in many ways, in and out of the horror genre. My first recollection of a cinematic queer narrative was one that initially polarized both critics and audiences—as well as my middle school.
Karyn Kusama’s 2009 horror-comedy, Jennifer’s Body, tackles queerness in a way unseen on the mainstream screen before this time. Written and directed by two straight women, the film deals with Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), the most popular girl in school, who is sacrificed by an indie boyband and—instead of dying—becomes a demon whose insatiable bloodlust is only ever quenched by boys.
On top of these feminist themes, writer Diablo Cody—of 2007’s Juno success—manages to tackle queerness as well. Specifically, feminine queerness, which has a long-standing history of being acceptable, but only as a means for male masturbatory material—remember the hot lezbvampires? The vampire movies discussed earlier often included queer-coded gay characters, but utilized female sexuality in a way that would at times put themselves in jeopardy of being almost pornographic. These tendencies can be argued as earlier examples of female queerness being explored onscreen, but, more often than not, can just be viewed as exploitation by male writers and directors.
What is so interesting about Jennifer’s Body is that it does show a seemingly gratuitous make-out scene between the film’s two female leads (at the height of stars Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried’s careers) that some, at the time, perceived as random and exploitative. But since 2009, there has been a resurgence of attention paid to the film, which has been the subject of many articles embracing its feminist and queer undertones.
The steamy scene in question was written as a culmination of Seyfried’s character Needy’s confusing feelings towards Jennifer, feelings that had been brewing throughout the film’s runtime in anticipation of this scene. While Cody is a straight woman, she has reportedly said that Seyfried’s character is “100% gay for Jennifer”; some of the subtext was lost during editing, but was always there and was always intended to be there.
A Post-Jennifer’s Body World
So, with this clear, queer example—however distorted it may be—of intended positive representation, the question must be asked: how is it that almost exactly ten years has passed since the release of Jennifer’s Body, and films like IT still struggle to portray queerness correctly?
I personally view it as both a lack of education and a wholehearted desire to give us proper representation. IT feels like a film that attempted to get the ‘woke treatment,’ and used its straight guilt to try to make the outdated situation more relevant, while having the opposite effect. And while there is so much to unpack about why this is still happening, I think a better use of our time is to turn away from what is going on behind the scenes—because we all know that problematic white straights are still running the show—and instead explore the stories of the queer audiences who, despite everything, still turn out in droves to see every new horror flick the day it’s released.
As I explained earlier, I saw IT with a group that was ¾ queer. I was the only gay person, but two other members of my group were bisexual. Leading up to the movie’s release, I was aware of many queer people who were excited to see it. This is a trend that I see often: queer people being excited for horror.
So, in a world where queerness is so rarely portrayed effectively and happily, why do queer people line up out the door to see themselves so negatively and unrealistically portrayed?
This is not a simple question. And I think that, in order to answer it, we need to look at why humans in general watch horror movies. Since the dawn of time, humans have listened to ghost stories around the campfire and had their interest piqued by tragedies like shootings and murders. There is a human desire to experience the emotion of fear. Some crave it more than others but, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, fear is a unique emotion that we usually try to dispel in our daily lives. So, when we get the chance to conjure it up in a harmless way, it can be quite exciting—for some.
The love of ghost stories has only grown through the medium of film. Now, we have something even more vivid than our own imaginations to delight and terrify us for future generations. And yet this genre has stood to be even more divisive than simple scary stories. Every person has their own opinion on how they handle and process horror movies, and that is something that I think is interesting as hell.
Researchers Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin conducted a study about how the brain processes fear and upsetting images. In 1994, they developed a tool they named ‘The Disgust Scale’, and exposed a number of college kids to a video made up of real-life horrors, such as close-ups of surgical procedures and animals being prepared for consumption. Ninety percent of the students turned off the film before it was completed. But this same group had no qualms about going to see a Hollywood horror film with equal, if not greater, amounts of blood and gore.
So, what is the difference between the two?
McCauley concluded that “the fictional nature of horror films affords viewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed.”
Now, THAT really makes you think…
Time to Get Personal
My own experience with the genre is one with many ups and downs. I grew up afraid of most things. I was not a fan of horror movies and tried to stay away from most scary things. I still went to haunted houses and loved ghost stories—I was just scared as fuck.
And I lived this way until I was sixteen. Then, my brother died of an overdose. Needless to say, my life significantly changed. Not only physically, but emotionally. I viewed the world very differently after. I had new priorities and generally moved through life with a newfound sense of self, and of how we fit into the universe.
But. on top of that, I was suddenly able to watch horror films.
It didn’t happen overnight. But, one day, very soon after, around Hallowe’en, I was still grieving and ended up watching The Conjuring (2013) with a few of my friends. This was purportedly “the scariest film of the year” according to not only several publications, but also many of my friends who had seen it.
So, I posted up with my friends, trying to forget about the tragedy that had befallen my family. I instead tuned into another family that was dealing with an entirely different tragedy—one involving ghosts and spooks! And while the jump scares still made me twitch, the overall impending creepiness of the film did not. In fact, it slightly comforted me. And when the movie ended, I was fine. We were all still there. We had made it through the darkness.
I decided to keep it going and watched several more of the “scariest movies ever made.”
And I loved them.
This was a cinematic experience that kept me engaged and didn’t allow my mind to wander to other things. And when the film ended, and it was time to go back to the problems I was facing in the real world, I wasn’t plagued by nightmares of ghosts or serial killers—and on the off chance I was, well, the spectre of Norman Bates is arguably more comforting than heartbreaking family turmoil.
It seems that exposure to my own trauma helped pave the way for cinematic trauma. And, not to generalize—I’m sure that everyone, regardless of sexuality, has trauma—but queer people notoriously have soooo much trauma. Trauma associated with simply being alive, in a way that straight people just do not experience. Yet, most people within this community seem to fuck with horror movies!
I tested this theory out with several of my friends who are also queer and into horror. My friend Arden, who is a trans man, had a story similar to mine. “I was not allowed to watch a lot of things as a kid,” he told me. Arden grew up in a very religious household. “Horror was absolutely not allowed,” he explained. “But, as I got older, it became this sensationalized thing that I wasn’t allowed to have. So, obviously I tried everything I could to have it.”
Upon viewing it at an older age, after several traumatic things had happened to him, Arden started to appreciate and understand the genre much more than he had as a kid. Suddenly, he was able to not only push past the horrific images onscreen, but to empathize with not only the victim, but also the villain.
“I think in some ways I was desensitized to the violence because of the things that I had seen in real life,” he said. “But that is not to say that I became a more hardened person. I think I also became more empathetic to the mistreatment of others.” Arden found that he naturally became a more caring person regarding others’ wellbeing after experiencing his own trauma. This carried over to how he sees the world: “I started helping more of my friends and being more attentive because I wasn’t so solipsistic anymore.”
While, for some, being able to stomach horror may be a byproduct of the effects of trauma, there are others who do not feel the same way. Brielle, a gay woman, sat down with me to discuss her own experience with horror and trauma. “I have never liked horror,” she admitted. “There’s a rush that comes with it that I just don’t chase. If I am watching a horror movie, usually someone is forcing me to. It’s never my choice.”
Instead, she was able to channel her trauma into different outlets. “I started using theatre and the arts as a way to work through things,” she told me. “Even after I had been through my shit, I was still scared. Maybe even more so. Because I knew what that felt like. To be helpless or to feel Othered. If anything, it makes me even more anxious about life.”
Horror has never been for everyone. And likely never will be. For those of us who have benefited from using it to exorcise grief, that is perfect and unique to us. There are people who cannot relate to that, and that is because everyone is different, our brains are wired differently, and all of that jazz that makes us special and unique. I like to see it as another example of how queer people, while united under that rainbow umbrella, are very different breeds. While we share a common bond and goal, our queerness does not mean we are alike—I personally find so many queer people annoying! And yet… if it starts to rain, I will huddle any lost queer kid under my gay-ass umbrella.
I have loved horror because it has served as a distraction. It’s proven itself as a way to show where I’ve been and where I still have to go. And while I don’t often see myself depicted in horror in a way that makes me feel seen and heard, I think that there are other characters I can relate to within the genre in a way that maybe I was always intended to, as a queer person.
Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger, Jason, and the rest have one thing in common: being an outsider. Someone who is misunderstood and exists on the sidelines. Someone whose suffering is so extensive that they take out their anger on attractive, white, straight people. As I am getting into dangerous territory in terms of violence and influence, I am going to stop there and just say that there is much of us in monsters—and that is why we are so afraid of them.
As long as queer people are avid moviegoers, they will attend horror movies, buying their tickets and just hoping for some sort of positive representation—if that. At this point, we don’t expect much from Hollywood, so if they do add something for us, it’s just an added bonus. But if filmmakers are going to make this choice, I would love for it to be purposeful, and not just to quell feelings of straight guilt or inform us that “these real horrors are still happening.” We are very aware of that fact. It’s why we come to the movie theatre to escape. Let us have this one thing without inserting your straight guilt into it.
Jennifer’s Body is not available to stream for free anywhere. So, I guess we still have a lot of work to do.
McCauley, C. (1998). When screen violence is not attractive. In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment (pp. 144-162). New York: Oxford.
Reilly, K. (Sept 6, 2019). Did We Need The Hate Crime Scene In IT Chapter Two?. Refinery29.