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Shudder Secrets: Queer for Fear: The Horror Documentary We Need Right Now

Courtesy of Shudder

I’ve been asked several times over the years why I love horror. Sometimes, I’ve struggled to give an answer. Part of it comes from watching Universal Monster movies with my dad as a kid. But just as important to me is the genre’s association with Otherness. That’s why I love teaching and writing about all things spooky. Horror has always been a genre for and about outsiders. Going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster has always been the outcast. The Shudder docuseries Queer for Fear crystalizes this argument.

It’s a deep and thorough dive into the genre’s queer history and Otherness, starting with the Gothic authors who pioneered the genre and lived bohemian, sexually fluid lifestyles. While there are countless documentaries on horror, we’ve never seen one like this. It arrives at just the right time.

Horror’s Queer Roots

Queer for Fear is produced by “Hannibal” creator Bryan Fuller. The series offers an array of statements about the genre’s association with queerness. “Orange is the New Black” star Lea DeLaria says, “As queer people, we are considered outside of society. I think horror is outside of society.” She adds, “We queers have been part of the horror genre since the beginning.”

Prior to these statements, the series opens with that great first scene from Bride of Frankenstein, where Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley. It’s a retelling of the novel’s creation, as she’s surrounded by Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. This scene is important in the history of horror for a few reasons. For one, it establishes the 19-year-old author as the genre’s godmother.  Lanchester was queer, playing an author who was sexually fluid. Lanchester also starred as the Bride, who rejects the Monster and the men who brought her to life. In fact, she cackles and then screams in their face.

Further, the film was directed by James Whale, a gay director. So, as DeLaria discusses, queer folk have been part of the genre since the beginning. James Whale’s four films for Universal, including his last, Bride of Frankenstein, remain some of the best from the golden age of the Universal Monsters. From there, the series has a slew of commentators, including writers and directors, opining on the genre’s queerness.

Courtesy of Shudder

Horror’s Queer Authors and Early Monsters

The series contains plenty of film history, but the dive into Gothic literature stands out. It’s stunning to think about how many authors were queer in the 19th Century, not only Mary Shelley but also Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker. The Dracula author masked his feelings and even rebelled against them because of the times. Various commentators recite letters from these authors underscoring their sexual fluidity. Of note is drag queen Alaska Thunderf*ck’s hilarious recitation of Mary Shelley’s letter from 1825 about a woman named Jane. “I was so ready to give myself away…I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women.” Just think about that for a moment. A young woman in the early 19th Century explicitly stated her feelings in a letter about another woman.

If I have one quip about the analysis of these authors, it’s that it brushes over the hardships that befell Shelley, not only Percy’s death at 29, but the loss of several of her children. Yes, Frankenstein can be read as a queer novel, as commentators argue, but it’s also about birth and death.

The torment and struggles Oscar Wilde faced, however, are given ample time. The playwright was arrested for homosexuality in 1885 and sentenced to two years of hard labor. As film critic Alonso Duralde articulates, “He could have fled the country, but he stood and fought. That’s a really great act of heroism.” Horror scholar Mark Gatiss, you know, the one who coined the term folk horror, also depicts Wilde as an early queer icon, stating, “By not running away, he became immortal.”

Vamps and Otherness

There’s also stellar analysis given to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the vampire as a metaphor for sexual desire, especially repression. But there’s a sad story underpinning Stoker’s life. A letter he wrote to Walt Whitman is recited. In it, he opines, “You’ve shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulder still, but I have no wings.” You can see the repression all throughout Dracula and the fear of Otherness the vampire continually represents. But even more tragic is the fact Stoker become publicly homophobic after Wilde faced arrest. Most likely, knowing the consequences, Stoker was forced to stay in the closet. For more on Stoker, readers should check out David J. Skal’s Stoker biography Something in the Blood. It explores this subject much more.

Not only does the documentary give hefty commentary on early Gothic authors, but plenty of queer readings of the Universal Monsters, especially Whale’s Frankenstein films, as well as The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. There’s time devoted to gay German director F.W. Murnau as well, especially his masterpiece Nosferatu. I especially liked the comparisons between Max Schreck’s take on the Count and Bela Lugosi’s dashing and erotic character. When it comes to vamp, Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama says it best, “The story of Dracula is the story of ordinary people visited by this terrible force.”

Hitchcock, Perkins, and Psycho’s Legacy

The middle of the series devotes a fair chunk of time to Hitchcock. There’s not much here we already didn’t know. Yes, he both feared and was in awe of the feminine. Yes, he worked with some gay screenwriters and actors, and yes, his queer characters were villains, especially in Rope and Shadow of a Doubt. But especially Norman Bates. Psycho is the role that changed Anthony Perkins’ career forever, from a heartthrob to a monster.

Queer For Fear
Courtesy of Shudder

The most interesting commentary on Psycho/Perkin’s life comes from his son, director Oz Perkins. This includes his analysis of the parlor scene between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman, personally my favorite in the entire film, even more than the shower scene. Both characters desire something more. They speak of escaping private traps, but as a gay man, Perkins couldn’t escape. For his own career, he had to stay in the closet. However, Psycho changed everything. As his son puts it, “It was his coming out and his funeral.”

Unfortunately, Perkins didn’t really land major roles after Psycho. He did, however, resume the role of Norman Bates for three more sequels before dying of AIDs in 1992. His life, like a lot of earlier horror stars, was cut too short. The documentary offers a powerful reminder of that. But perhaps more importantly, it celebrates just how groundbreaking these performances were and how the genre’s roots have always been steeped in queerness, dating back to Shelley, Wilde, Stoker, and the monsters they created.

Queer for Fear Is a Must-see

Queer for Fear addresses contemporary franchises too, including Child’s Play, Hellraiser, among others. There’s a lot of ground covered, but luckily, it’s chunked into 45-minute segments. It would be overwhelming otherwise. Overall, this is a thorough and important docuseries, released at a time when there’s a serious backlash against LGBTQ rights. But the horror genre will still be here, welcoming and celebrating Otherness.

Queer for Fear will release in four episodes. The first streamed on Shudder on September 30, with a new episode releasing each week. For more on the streaming service’s latest releases, follow my Shudder Secrets column.