Queerness as Difference
It felt eerily relatable when I read The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells in school. The novel’s central theme of society reacting violently to something or someone they don’t understand felt close to me as a queer teen. The invisible man in the novel was “different” from society and, quite literally and metamorphically, hidden – a universal experience of queer people in some ways. While the book was primarily from the ‘sci-fi’ genre, there were horror elements akin to that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Growing up, I found similar narratives of relatability in the broader horror genre, mainly through the work of Mike Flanagan. Horror movies and series are replete with mysterious, dark, unnatural, and unexplainable things, which offers ways to cater to the grief of being closeted while growing up. The elements of horror movies parallel what I remember of my childhood – a lot of gloom. There were no rainbows. It’s a dark, lonely, almost unnatural way of reflecting upon the absence felt in my formative years – the absence of love, care, and warmth.
Our world is a privileged, straight man’s world, with all the heteronormativity. This doesn’t leave enough space to process painful emotions that come with the struggle of growing up actively resisting these structures, with the absence of any supportive community. The person or entity presented as “different” in horror movies rebels against their world. In an interpretive manner, queerness in straight man’s world can be seen as a similar struggle. Today, some horror movies incorporate queer characters and plotsor see a cult-like phenomenon of reclamation of their central figures like Babadook or Pennywise, both of whom are considered gay icons today.
While homosexualisation of villains and queer-coded antagonists neatly ties in with how the history of horror is also the history of queerness, there is more to unearth in terms of reclamation and emotional affirmation. Horror movies for a long time have been using queer subtexts and themes, visible mostly during Halloween. While these themes are around reclamation and the rejection of what is considered “normal,” it’s conflicting. The stereotyping of queer people as monsters, or queerness as inherently evil, contributes to the stigma against queer people.
Grief as the by-product of the Violence of Heteronormativity
Today, the media has more developed queer characters within the horror genre. We have queer women as protagonists in the Fear Street Trilogy and The Hanting of Bly Manor or as minor characters significant to the story in The Haunting of Hill House. In the latter shows, both by Mike Flanagan, we have the characters of Dani and Nell, respectively. With a closer look, one can easily see that both these characters are always the quiet ones – as if they understand everything that’s going around them – but are taking time to think and resist, almost as if they’re silenced. When Dani says in the episode Two Storms of The Haunting of Hill House, “I was here. I was right here. I was right here, and I was screaming and shouting, and none of you could see me. Why couldn’t you see me?” that felt like a stake to the heart. That’s how I felt about being invisible, as I couldn’t express my queer self or desire for most of my teenage years.
Talking to a friend about this, we see these peculiar characters as almost poetic, drowning in their sadness. Any queer person can tell you they felt similarly growing up. I can almost sense this grief when I look at these characters on the screen, and the first instinct is to hug them and tell them everything is going to be alright. And isn’t this what we wish we could say to our younger selves? These stories are far from homosexualisation and queer-coding; here, queer people are at the helm of the story. For me, there’s a sense of reclamation and subversion here. Horror movies for a long time have worked with queer characters through stereotypes. While I admired their camp style and rampage against normativity, they are stereotypes at the end of the day.
In Flanagan’s work, we see something peculiar when queer people with complex emotions around their identity are a significant part of the plot and not just part of the story’s queer aesthetics or bloody optics. While it’s not groundbreaking, these are indeed stories whose various points seemed reflective of my own experiences. Queer people have been used as bait or mere tropes to reveal monsters or serial killers (when they’re not the serial killers themselves). Movies like Hellbent and It Chapter Two featured brutal murders of gay people for ‘shock value.’ And then there are works by the likes of Flanagan, with informed queer characters, who explore their nuanced experiences.
The Rejection of Family
Horror movies, in general, reject our normative idea of families. They often show the structure of the family as a failing one, slowly rotting away, that causes the violence and grief. The family as evil (or evil mothers even) has been a trope and a stereotype, that subtly asks if these structures are viable in the first place. In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, we see the violence that family and relationships put on us. Going against them, finding love in a different community than family, is a form of queerness. I am not supporting the literal violence within these movies, but looking at it as the emotional measurement of visibly sharp pain. Hereditary explores similar themes: how families can be the site of all evil, the site of pain and trauma.
The terrifying aspect of these shows isn’t the gory violence or angered spirits’ vengeance. The actual violence is the grief, the mental anguish, the absolute terror, and the emotional trauma that the failure to adhere to structures like family or cisheteronormativity causes. These shows and their peculiar characters are situated within narratives that initially seem isolated. In the Haunting anthology series by Flanagan, we see how the family is the root cause of the violence all the characters are going through – more so, the failure of the structure of the family.
And in the end, in all these movies and shows, the family unit doesn’t persist.
But love does, in fragile yet warm and melancholic ways, even though it’s borne out of fear. And that’s one way to look forward to life. When I think of grief and how the horror genre holds an emotionally affirmative space, I know that love lasts even though it’s a journey through grief – similar to queerness.