Adam Bingham-Scales, University of Surrey
31 October 2017[print-me]
Halloween, it’s that time of year again where people are free to be their true selves. For gay people especially, it’s that one holiday where everyday markers of identity can be transcended and outsiderdom becomes the norm for one night only.
Halloween is also an opportune time to mass consume horror in all of its variance. According to Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet (1997), not only are gay audiences invested in horror but they are said to establish particular identifications with the figure of the monster, the counter-hegemonic and disruptive force. This argument is part of a much wider lineage of work (see Wood, 1986; Halberstam, 1995) that situates the monster as the outsider and ‘other’ to societal normalcy and ultimately as a threat to the status quo.
In observing the history of horror from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Universal’s monster flicks broadly, it has been said that the monster’s quest for understanding might resonate with a faction of the population whose identities have been subjugated and desires labelled as aberrant. Indeed, whilst some subgenres of horror might invoke these themes more intelligibly such as body horror (the degenerative body) werewolf films (identity crisis) and vampires (AIDS and forbidden lust), the slasher film has often been absent from these conversations. In part, this is because the slasher has largely been grounded in politically driven discussions around violence, moral panics and gender representation.
Of course, it’s possible to see how the iconic villains of slasher from Michael Myers (1978) to Freddy Krueger (1984) might also resonate with gay audiences through the surfacing of their repressed desires as they seek to enact revenge on heteronormative society that has ostensibly wronged them. However, the slasher subgenre is unique in that there’s a possibility that gay (and other minority) fans have identified not only with the aberrant killers but also with the perils of the final girl. As the last figure standing, the final girl must cultivate the strength and maintain a moral high ground to defeat her oppressor and survive another day. Of course, gay men have always been said to share an affinity with powerful or subversive women from pop divas to Hollywood stars (Judy Garland anyone?) but the final girl has been absent from this lineage. This is strange considering that the final girl also destabilises traditional constructs of gender identity as she oscillates between ‘traditional’ masculine/feminine postures and often shares a psychological affinity with the monster itself – Laurie Strode in Halloween being a pertinent example – suggesting a somewhat internal struggle of identity and moral deliberation.
Figure 1: Laurie Strode, the final girl in Halloween (1978)
Trawling through a sample of popular gay magazines around the time of the early slasher cycle (1978-1984) such as Christopher Street and After Dark reveals a curious absence of reviews or discussions of the slasher film or victim characters. However, one finds a wealth of retrospective gay press and fan-produced articles online that focalise the final girl as a figure that resonates with gay sensibilities. To paraphrase writer and slasher fan Vince Liaguno’s (2008) blog, the final girl’s trajectory from a state of weakness and uncertainty in ‘how to navigate the situation she finds herself’ is much like the coming out process; both require a transformation coloured by toughness and confidence in one’s self. Further, members of slasher’s cast and crew have also recognised the cultural significance of the final girl within gay fandoms. In an interview with the gaytimes (2015), for instance, Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street), acknowledges that final girl Nancy might ‘appeal to people who have to struggle with something, or feel they’re fighting in a world that doesn’t understand them’.
Figure 2: Nancy Thompson, the final girl in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In research conducted for my thesis (2015), I found that gay fans often tie their sexual identity narratives to the figure of the final girl and her survival; articulating these identifications within personal online blogs and discussion threads. And whilst I found that variously, the monster continues to resonate with gay fans, I argue that this has been overstated and largely propelled by societal discourses and scholarship, rather than through the voices of the gay fans consuming these texts. In other words, less research has accounted for the individual lived experiences of gay fans and specific contexts of viewing that might engender shifting identifications with the monster and victim figures.
If I have suggested that the final girl figure resonates with gay fans, I also maintain that the slasher film has played with sexuality in overt ways (Elliott-Smith, 2016; Bingham, 2012). That is, the slasher film has a history of ‘queering it’ from the homoerotic Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) through to the ‘first gay slasher’ Hellbent (2004), which inspired a series of independent movies, such as Ticked Off Trannies with Knives (2010). Further, with the campy Final Girls film (2015) and hit TV shows such as Scream Queens, I wish to suggest that the slasher subgenre is responding to a much more diverse audience base. In other words, if the slasher subgenre was once the choice of adolescent, predominantly heterosexual male horror fans seeking out illicit material (Clover, 1992), it has since re-emerged by responding to the interests of a wider audience.
Figure 3: Audrey and Rachel’s kiss that went viral in Scream (2015-)
Figure 4: Out and proud Boone Clemens (played by Nick Jonas) in bed with Chad Radwell in Scream Queens (2015-16)
Figure 5: Gay couple Robin Turner and Justin Faysal in Slasher (2016-)
Most notably, slasher’s new home on television has centralised the victim figures at the heart of its narratives whether through their journey to discovery (Slasher, 2016-), high school and coming of age (Pretty Little Liars, 2010-2017; Scream, 2015-) and exaggerated displays of gender (Scream Queens, 2015-16). Interestingly, whilst each of these shows feature out LGBTQ characters, they also explore themes that are likely to resonate with gay fans through social media bullying, high school alienation and questions over gender presentation. More importantly, these are familiar slasher themes that have arguably been repackaged to speak to younger millennial and centennial generations. However, the point here isn’t simply to state that contemporary slasher is necessarily addressing a gay audience, but rather that its reconfiguration speaks to a more diversified audience. This can be evidenced through the protracted victim narratives, melodrama and campy appeal that colours recent examples.
Of course, this raises a series of questions around whether these texts are really slasher and to what extent these are serious horror fans consuming them (Jancovich, 2000). In other words, can mainstream slasher continue to address a wider audience whilst sustaining the interests of straight, male audiences who have traditionally been said to constitute its audience? It would be nice to think that, after all, a fandom defined by its adoration for the outsider would be accepting to these changes, but it’s true that monsters lurk everywhere…
Benshoff, H.M. (1997) Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Bingham, P. (2012) ‘Jeepers Queerpers: exploring queer identity in Jeepers Creepers 2’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No.54, <www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc54.2012/BinghamQueerHorror> Last accessed: 24/10/2017
Elliott-Smith, D. (2016) Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
Halberstam, J. (1995) Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jancovich, M. (2000) ‘“A Real Shocker”: Authenticity, Genre and the Struggle for Distinction’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 14(1), pp. 23-35.
Wood, R. (1986) Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press.
Dr Adam Bingham-Scales is a Learning Adviser at the University of Surrey where he has also acted as an Associate Lecturer in Sociology. His PhD (2015), titled ‘Logging into Horror’s Closet: Gay Fans, the Horror Film and Online Culture’, explored the social and cultural significance of online micro-communities for gay horror fans. Adam’s interests include media audiences and fans, genre studies (especially horror), sexuality and the politics of taste. As a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Adam also has interests in pedagogy and student transitions to higher education.
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