Yesterday, Comic Con released details on their schedule, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come. One of the more interesting, recurring panels. The Gay Agenda in Horror: Terrifying Subtext (Friday, July 22 • 7:00pm – 8:00pm) will be presented by Prism Comics and hosted by moderator/screenwriter Michael Varrati (Tales of Poe, Flesh for the Inferno). Varrati will share the stage with horror genre professionals Jaclyn Chessen (Shock Attack), Alan Rowe Kelly (Tales of Poe, The Blood Shed), Chris Landon (Disturbia, Paranormal Activity franchise), Aja Romano (web culture reporter, Vox/fandom expert), and Darren Stein (Jawbreaker, GBF) to discuss the history of this popular field from a queer perspective. Panelists in previous years have included Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Guinevere Turner (American Psycho), Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination), and Mark Fortin & Josh Miller (The Final Girls).
Why explore the LGBT community and horror? Is that really a thing? You bet your brunch it is. Films, TV shows, books and comics have always attempted to bring us to the threshold of our fears and force us to come face to face with the “otherness” that exists outside of the mainstream. For those in the LGBTQ community, this sense of otherness within the genre is not only terrifying, titillating, and transgressive, it’s quite often also relatable.
We had a chance to talk with Varrati about the upcoming presentation and the discussion was a fascinating one.
HB. Mr Varrati, talk to me about the gay agenda in horror. Is there one?
I think the “gay agenda” in horror is the same as it is everywhere else: To have visibility. To have representation. The same could be said about anyone that’s not part of the mainstream majority, really. We want to see stories about us. We want to be able to watch a movie or read a book and see a bit of ourselves in there. Now, in the case of the horror genre, that identification may come for better or worse, but I’d rather have it than not. Also, as we’ve discussed on the panel in years past, I think that the LGBT community connects with horror because we’re drawn to the sense of “otherness” the genre engenders. Horror is a genre that often celebrates and sympathizes with outsiders. We get that.
HB. Do you think that is why not just the queer community, but outsiders in general, are drawn to horror and other niche entertainment?
I certainly think that’s a part of the draw. Despite the popularity of certain tentpole horror franchises, the genre itself still is very much regarded by the film industry and the general public as being outside of the mainstream. It’s kind of an outsider genre, so it makes sense that people who feel like they are on the outside connect with it on a certain level. But, it’s more than that, horror has an ability to tap into topics, themes, and elements that non-genre movies just aren’t always willing to go. There’s a subversive nature to these movies, but within that subversion, there’s also always a glimmer of truth. It’s a reflection of society and its darkness. Frankenstein was about the debate of God vs. Science at the time. Godzilla was a commentary on atomic weapons. SAW and HOSTEL came out when torture in the Middle East was a hotly debated topic in the news. And now we’ve got THE PURGE and its commentary on the state of our politics. These aren’t mistakes. Horror always reflects where society is at a current time, and it shows us by holding up a dark mirror. When you exist outside the so-called “norm,” you connect with that…because you’ve seen that dark mirror’s reflection far more often than others. It’s both telling and cathartic to watch horror movies for that reason.
HB. Even the most flawed horror films have a compelling aspect, you are right. Plan 9 from outer space comes to mind. There is always a lesson or a truth that is examined. How have LGBT filmmakers influenced horror? Present company included of course.
How much time do you have? Ha ha! LGBT filmmakers have been a driving force in the horror genre for ages. The original film adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN was directed by James Whale, a gay man. Although not gay, Hitchcock played with queer elements and characters in several of his films, which was nigh unheard of in that era. Clive Barker, who never shied away from his sexuality, introduced a whole new aesthetic to the genre with his work. The screenplay to AMERICAN PSYCHO, a landmark movie that’s all about fractured masculinity, was written by a lesbian, Guinevere Turner. John Waters brought a new radical aesthetic to exploitation cinema. Bruce LaBruce’s work has showcased the intersectionality of horror and pornography. Peaches Christ, both in films and on stage, has reinterpreted horror through drag lens…creating a whole new representation of “cult.” Bryan Fuller’s work on HANNIBAL re-imagined how gay characters could be represented on network television without falling victim to gay-baiting (i.e. he delivered after much build up). There’s this great trans filmmaker, Lola Rocknrolla, who’s re-defining how to make horror shorts. Some of the biggest horror franchises were created or curated by LGBT people (FINAL DESTINATION, PARANORMAL ACTIVTY, etc). Look at some of our panelists this year: Darren Stein’s work on JAWBREAKER has served as entry point for many fans into horror because of its clever aesthetic. Alan Rowe Kelly’s movies often utilize gender subversion. Aja Romano has written extensively about proper visibility for queer people in fandom. I mean, I could go on and on. The LGBT impact on horror is undeniable
HB. It’s a distinct voice that comes from a very unique point of view isn’t it?
Yes and no. Certainly, there are universal experiences that all LGBT people have had and can relate to. But there’s also varying elements. If your a person of color, if you’re trans, if you grew up in a city or a small town, that will effect how you perceive the genre and how you tell your stories. But, what’s interesting to me is that how, despite all these varying backgrounds, we were all drawn to horror as a means of escape and celebration. I think that says more about the universal appeal of the genre than anything else. It’s like a beacon that draws us all home.
HB. For two seconds I thought you said bacon, and I thought, “What draws people together more than bacon?”
I mean, bacon still draws me home ha ha
HB. What can people coming to the panel presentation expect?
The panel discussion is always passionate and intense, but is definitely a lot of fun. In years past, we’ve discussed things like the correlation between sexuality and horror, queerbaiting, the agency of “otherness,” and much more. There’s almost always a discussion of horror movies that we all love, and whether or not they have gay elements. I also always take some time to discuss the popularity of slash fiction, which tends to amuse the horror fans on tumblr. The conversation really goes all over the place in the best possible way. I also always ask the panelists to recommend horror films to the audience. Because, you know, it’s what we do.
HB. Are there any horror films you would recommend right now?
In the spirit of LGBT horror, I would definitely recommend people check out JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD. It’s a movie directed by Carter Smith, who directed THE RUINS, about a boy who befriends the ghost of a former classmate who was bullied and tormented. It’s a devastating portrait of how people are made to feel invisible, and an elegiac piece on death and dying. It’s not a traditional ghost story, but it resonates. And, since we’re discussing him, check out Carter Smith’s short film BUG CRUSH. It has a similar aesthetic. I like how he exposes the fragility of being young and different. I think these are both works that will specifically connect with audiences and really, truly must be seen.
HB. Finally, what is your go-to gay horror film?
I mean, like most people I think A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE is an absolute must for a gory gay viewing party. But, if you’d also like an off-the-beaten path answer…I love HEAVENLY CREATURES, Peter Jackson’s true crime story of lesbians who kill for love. Oh, and of COURSE, VEGAS IN SPACE. It’s not horror specifically, but it’s part of the drive-in era milleu. And who doesn’t want to see drag queens go beyond the stars?
Prism Comics is a non-profit organization that supports LGBTQIA comics, helping bring visibility to creators, their work, and the people who support them. Prism sponsors a whole bunch of panels at Comic Con and is a major presence at a lot of fandom conventions throughout the year.