TW: discussions of homophobia, ableism, racism, transphobia, sexism, violence (including sexual and domestic violence), and pregnancy loss
It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror is a collection of essays by horror fans who reflect on their experiences with the cinematic horror genre through a queer lens. I enjoyed every essay in this book and gained a new understanding of the complexities of meaning that each viewer can find within a film.
As the LGBTQIA+ viewers in this volume strive to see themselves reflected in a media that erases them, they bring their own meaning to the content, seeing themselves as werewolves, as Godzilla, and in one example, as The Blob. Because horror is so much about breaking taboos, being othered, and revealing secrets, the contributors to this anthology form complicated and powerful bonds with various characters, themes, and movies, using them to try to understand their own lives, especially during childhood and adolescence when most of them lacked the language and the support systems that would allow them to fully understand and embrace their identities.
The range of movies and contributors is wide and inclusive. Authors talk about 1980s slashers and Cuban psychological horror, classics such as Eyes Without a Face and relatively new releases such as Us. They write about being transgender men and women, of coming out of the closet, of going through adolescence with secret desires and terrible feelings of alienation and fear. They speak of the AIDS crisis and of conservative families, and of trying to overcome fear to live full and open lives.
Horror has a complex relationship with queerness, usually villainizing and killing off queer and queer-coded characters. Unable to see themselves portrayed as heroes, many contributors talk of finding themselves reflected in horror monsters, identifying with their outcast state and admiring their power.
In “Blood, Actually,” author Grant Sutton talks about his relationship to the Friday the 13th franchise, how the AIDS epidemic shaped his coming of age, and how he struggles to adapt to world in which AIDS is a “manageable illness”:
As it turns out, being raised in a homophobic, misogynistic, racist culture forces you to behave in sociopathic ways…even though I want to be a Final Girl, I’m more of a Jason Voorhees. They are both survivalists in their own ways, but I’ve used my improvised skills to hurt people deeply, to hide from my pain. My tongue is my machete…I built a persona out of pain. But the world has changed. Now that I live somewhere more tolerant and I have more sexual freedom, what do I do with my arsenal and killer instinct? Does Jason retire when he gets sick of the murder business?
Others use horror to explore intersections of race, gender, and disability. I was especially moved by the defense of demonic Regan from The Exorcist in “A Demon-Girl’s Guide to Life” by S. Trimble, and by the exploration of disability in The Ring and Pet Sematary in “The Girl, the Well, the Ring,” by Zefyr Lisowski. Sumiko Saulson talks about being the only Black woman at a special screening of Candyman in “Centered and Seen.” As someone who always had a crush on Annie in The Birds, I was delighted to see her get her due in “Loving Annie Hayworth” by Laura Maw. Special thanks to Tucker Lieberman whose essay “The Trail of His Flames” finally makes Nightmare on Elm Street make sense. I also found Viet Dinh’s “Notes on Sleepaway Camp,” presented in the style of Susan Sontag, to be a poignant mix of nostalgia and pain, humor, trivia, and reflection.
I recommend this book to people who are interested in looking at horror through inclusive lenses. There were things that surprised me in this collection and a great many things that edified me. I found new ways to look at movies I’ve seen before and added some new movies to my watch list.
Incidentally, I read this while also watching Queer for Fear, a four-episode documentary on Shudder that covers the history of queer-coded horror from Mary Shelley through the 1990’s. I recommend this documentary, although I cannot overstate how very NSFW it is, especially once the documentary gets to the 1970s which involves a large amount of nudity. The documentary and the anthology, while they aren’t directly related to one another, make for a fascinating exploration of text, sub-text, and the need to be seen.