Sometimes a Comic-Con panel goes beyond being fun and becomes inspirational. The panel for Shudder’s upcoming Horror is Queer documentary did just that, as the panelists dug into the joys and terrors of being weird, queer, and creative. Writer Jordan Crucchiola moderated the conversation between the documentary’s director, Sam Wineman, Nay Bever, co-host of the podcast Attack of the Queerwolf (which, let’s face it, is the best name a podcast has ever had), Lachlan Watson, most recently seen as Theo Putnam on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Don Mancini, creator of the Child’s Play franchise (who described himself as Chucky’s agent), and Bryan Fuller, who went ahead and made the subtext text on Hannibal. They talked about formative horror experiences, and attempted to define exactly what we mean when we talk about queerness and horror.
You can watch the full panel here, or hop down to read highlights from the panel.
Allow me to start this panel coverage by calling your attention to Bryan Fuller’s kick-ass George A. Romero glasses? And the terrifying Chucky doll that lurks behind Don Mancini?? And Nay Beyer’s excellent spidery blouse??? Now that the style has been noted, on to the less important things.
Toward a definition of “Queer Horror”:
Sam Wineman: Explicit representation as in actual identity in a character; Queer-coding, the implication that a character is queer. “There’s kind of an ownership that happens, particularly pertaining to otherness, that allows us access to so much of horror.” And finally having a queer creator because “If a queer creator is telling a straight story, it’s still queer. We’re informing it with our own life experience. Nosferatu had a queer director. There are no queer characters, but you can sense what he brings to the story because of Otherness and his own experience.”
Don Mancini added, “In my case, in the first three Chucky movies, there was nothing explicitly queer in those films. In retrospect I would say that they were informed by my queer identity, in the sense that the lead character of Andy Bartley, the little boy…[w]hy did I make that character fatherless? I didn’t think about it as much at the time but now I think it had a lot to do with my very conflicted relationship with my own dad, growing up as a gay man with this macho father, who, it was his biggest nightmare that I would ‘become’ gay…so maybe it was my form of revenge? There is no dad! He’s dead! Ha ha ha! But the loneliness, I think was definitely autobiographical. And then when we got to Bride of Chucky, that was when I first started trying to consciously gay it up…and since Bride it’s been a conscious thing for me to make my franchise a specifically gay thing.”
Nay Bever’s definition got straight to the point: If queer and trans folks see ourselves in something, then it’s ours. Period. I think any community that is marginalized an experiences the death rates and the death threats that we do? We are absolutely, 100% allowed to find ourselves whenever we can. Anyone that has a problem with that, first of all that tells us something about them, and second of all, they should be honored that we would be able to see our magnificent and brilliant selves anywhere in their work.
Lachlan Watson spoke to the complexities of working as a non-binary actor, saying: I see that from a sort of queer acting perspective because we’re placed in this very specific box, especially within drama or horror, where you have this very specific amount of character that you’re allowed to relate to or that you’re allowed the space to tell. I’ve only ever really been allowed the queer token characters in drama or in horror. It’s funny, because when I watch Silence of the Lambs I don’t see myself in the implicitly queer characters, I don’t see myself in the like, poodle. I see myself in Jodie Foster! [Bryan Fuller, laughing, “Implicitly queer!”] It’s interesting the idea of allowing queer people the space to interpret what they want from the characters, where, as a non-binary actor now I don’t think I would feel comfortable playing the “queer” character, I think I’d get so much more fulfillment, and bring so much more of the queer perspective, if I was playing the Jodie Foster role. I don’t think most casting directors would see that…it’s this idea that queer actors and creators can only create queer art, and I think that’s worth breaking down, because there’s so much more to it that that.”
Fuller talked about the unexpected arc of Hannibal: I think with Hannibal in particular I didn’t start out wanting to tell a queer story between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, I waned to tell a story about how straight men fall in love with each other and explore that. Once people are tapping into what you’re trying to say they’re going to project a certain queerness on it, and there was certainly a dynamic with the Fannibals where they were projecting a queerness on Will and Hannibal’s relationship that I wasn’t consciously tapping into early on…and then it became queerer, not solely out of listening to the Fannibal community but also kind of reading into the authenticity of the relationship between these two men, and realizing that they’re was a love relationship, that one of them was more in love with the other, in a way that could become text. And could be dramatized in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, because I was trying to respect Thomas Harris’ material and he did not write these characters as queer. But then, the material, the actors, the community receiving the show all spoke to the queerness of it, and it was hard to ignore. Like, yeah, I guess in the attempt to be as authentic as possible, what came through that authenticity was a queerness. It wasn’t an agenda. It wasn’t something that I set out to do and designed. It was something that adapted because it felt genuine for the characters, and I let the characters tell me and the writing staff what they wanted to be, and they said, ‘We’re queer!’” [Jordan Crucchiola: From my own personal observations, there are few things gayer than straight men.]
Don Mancini chimed in with a shout to Samantha McClaren’s beautiful article about Hannibal‘s queerness, which sparked a bit of a conversation between queer and straight viewers about whether they saw themselves in the show.
On queer horror origin stories:
Sam Wineman: It was Child’s Play. There was this older kid in the neighborhood, and I was too young to see it, so I would make him tell me, again and again, like it was this fairy tale. I would want to go beat by beat through the movie. I knew all about how to kill him, and who he went after in the movie, I was obsessed. And there was just something about being…I was bad at sports, I was really just bad at fitting in in a lot of ways? But I was like king of the sleepover, because I had conquered Chucky. I could bring any rental there, and I could survive the viewing of something that other kids had to watch between their hands. It gave me a sense of toughness.
Lachlan Watson: My mom loved film noir, and she refused to watch anything modern, like she was that brand of hipster. So I watched all of these older movies, and I feel like my horror start was watching the old Frankenstein, and Dracula, and these, Godzilla? I remember leaving Godzilla in the middle of the movie because I was like, 9, watching it in the art museum, and being like “This is really stressful!” But I go back to it now and I realize it represented so much more to me at the time. I think about it now, how it might have affected me and affected my queer identity to watch all of these queer-coded villains from so far back, from before my time, and being like, if this was how it was back then, how can I get out of that now? How can I be in this industry, or be a queer person in the world, and avoid that?
Nay Bever: The first horror movie I remember watching was Halloween in my grandma’s bedroom, on TNT, I’ve got my finger on the return button in case anyone walks in, my heart is racing the whole time because I know I’m not supposed to be watching this. It was so very important for me to disobey rules as a child, because growing up in church and church school, it’s all about rules, and how you need to be good, and these rules come directly from God, not made up by any of your peers or anyone you know, so they must be obeyed! And I was also taught that once Jesus Christ comes back all of the Christians are going to watch your whole life on a screen and everyone’s going t know every. Single. Thing. You. Did. [Bryan Fuller’s and Jordan Crucchiola’s mouths both drop open in horror.] So I was very hesitant to break rules, but I was looking for safe ways to rebel, and watching things I wasn’t supposed to watch was pretty safe. I didn’t feel safe to come out as a queer person until I was 25, so I started early trying to find ways to do the wrong thing…I definitely think horror did that for me at a really early age
Don Mancini: My queer horror origin story probably began with Dark Shadows. Specifically I identified with the young boy character, David Collins, and if you’re familiar with Dark Shadows they get into this kind of Turn of the Screw relationship between David Collings and Quentin, who is this brooding, hairy, dark, hot, man. And I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew I was fascinated by that. But then in terms of movies, my first R-Rated movie, my dad took me to see The Omen. The same year Carrie came out, my second R-Rated movie, totally enthralled, and in retrospect I realize what all of these things have in common: these are characters of children who feel powerless, but. they’re able to enact supernatural revenge…increasingly in my teen years, I saw them as stand-ins for me, the bullied gay kid who get bloody revenge, powerful revenge on those who have tormented him.
Bryan Fuller: I grew up in a very violent home, with a very verbally and physically abusive father, so there was something interesting about going to horror movies, or seeing people in danger in horror movies, because I felt a level of threat every day by being in a house with a violent, ignorant, racist man, and there was something about the acknowledgement of being in danger or feeling of threat that felt genuine, or authentic? I immediately understood the circumstances that the characters were in, I related to them feeling like they were in danger, and there was something implicit in the stakes being so high for the characters. Everything was vibrating at a very high frequency in my home as a child, so it was interesting to have a narrative that spoke to the danger that I felt daily, and also to see that people survived that danger in a way that spoke to my ability to survive the danger that I felt.
On the evolving thesis of the documentary:
When I went into this I went in with a very narrow perspective, or at least it feels like that now. I approached is as, why don’t I have the type of representation that I want to see? But sitting down with everyone that I’ve been able to speak with, and opening that door to a dialogue, I learned about where people see themselves, which, it different for everybody. I had thoughts about where the gatekeepers were, like, straight people are keeping us from making these films, or maybe producers aren’t greenlighting it, and then what I learned as I went along was all of the gatekeeping in so many different places. Who gets opportunities? Where does privilege get you? I mean, even me directing this documentary—why me? We need to being everybody with us. And where I’m standing now, I did a lot of growing with this movie. And I would like us to look around as a community and say, This isn’t enough.
On the importance of using your power to tell queer stories:
Bryan Fuller: I think all we can do as artists is speak to our truth, what inspires us, and what resonates with us for whatever reason. If you’re not doing that, and approaching story from the outside in and thinking about what the audience wants as opposed to what you want to generate, I think those are the big considerations. And I think, if you look at the Child’s Play franchise, they’ve hit such a big target with the audience, and then used that large target to bring in other ideas, when you look at Seed of Chucky, and how that was unapologetically queer—Don dipped his toe in with Bride of Chucky, and it was queer in sensibility….but then you actively went to a transgender story with these characters that are living, killing, dolls, and gave them a storyline that was more aligned with a very important episode of a drama! It probably exposed the idea of being a trans person to people who had never considered it before.
Don Mancini: Seed of Chucky did not do well. We rip out a piece of our hearts in order to make these things authentic, but it comes with a price, like less success in ways that are important as measured by Hollywood standards. I wouldn’t trade the stories that I hear from queer kids, trans kids, telling me that this meant a lot to them as kids, in a weird way it kind of normalized it, even though they’re killer dolls, they’re still the protagonists of a Hollywood movie, so they felt seen for the first time. And I feel like that’s the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career.
On the reclamation of the queer villain/monster trope:
Lachlan Watson: We want to get to a point in the world where it a level playing field enough that everyone can play all of these intricate facets of humanity, I want to have the Killing Eve experience, where the characters can be queer in their own way, but that’s not why they’re doing what they’re doing! Who knows what their motives are—they’re human motives, not “queer” motives.
Nay Bever: I immediately think of, who decides who is a monster, who is a villain? I don’t know that monsters always self-identify in that way? I think you get labelled this way if you are a monstrous thing to a majority or a privileged group. And if people are able to monsterize you, or dehumanize you, it makes it just that little bit easier to kill you, or watch your community die regularly.
Don Mancini: One of my favorite queer horror characters is Catherine Trammel from Basic Instinct… a lot of members of the gay community protested the production of this movie. I thought that was ultimately misguided in a way because part of Catherine Trammel’s power is her bisexuality. The fact that she can use that aspect of her personality to win, I think that’s a really appealing concept.
Bryan Fuller: SHe’s also preying on white straight guys who have it coming! What we’re seeing with these queer villains is someone who has had enough, who is not going to take your shit anymore, aaaannnd here’s an ice pick! Or here’s a straight-edge razor, or here’s your skin coming off your back and I’m gonna wear it.
Sam Wineman: When we’re navigating the waters of queer horror, we have to keep in mind that two things can be true at the same time. When looking back I can feel totally seen by Sleepaway Camp Part 2, and someone else can feel like that was an attack, and also somebody from the outside in can take that and run with it, and use it as a way to enact violence….we have to remember that both can be true. And, on the note of Sleepaway Camp 2, still love it, because: he just kills everybody that sucks! I wanna watch movies where everybody who sucks, dies.
Nay Bever: I will always just defer to trans folks…I’m always going to defer to the folks whose livelihoods are actually affected by that, you know?
On the current “hotness” of both queerness and horror:
Lachlan Watson: From the baby perspective, I feel such an overwhelming sense of pride that I exist in the world now. You have revolutionary people like Jordan Peele, and you have all these interesting reboots and. retellings, things like Sabrina, where we took an older story and we flipped it and made it as queer as humanly possible, and I’m very proud to be doing that.
Don Mancini: Do we have any danger in the mainstreaming of our sensibility? Are we in any danger of losing our outlaw status? Is that something that, honestly, I have enjoyed? There’s something very galvanizing about that, and I think there’s an analogy to be made to the horror genre itself. And I want to see it less as mainstreaming of us, but more as acceptance of the weird as a valid thing in and of itself.
Nay Bever: Even if we woke up tomorrow and there was equality and justice and a level playing field, I feel like we would still mess stuff up because our outlaw roots! We bring that to the table. Because social movements aren’t always progressive. Things take maintenance. We’ve seen our communities make gains and then be hit a few steps back and have t fight even harder. Sometimes we have to assimilate for our own safety, and there is something even badass about that in some ways, if you’re like, “I’m going to appear a certain way to stay alive, but just know…if it comes to, ‘You can die, or you can die saying the truth?’ I’m going to pick dying and saying the truth.
Bryan Fuller : I don’t think that the “Other” community is ever going to find total acceptance in heteronormative society, and I’m fine with that. I like being a freak. I like being a weirdo. I think we were taught growing up that that was a bad thing, and then as we discovered our own individual powers we realized it’s a wonderful thing to be weird, and it’s a wonderful thing to be other, and I feel sorry for the squares.
Jordan Crucchiola: As we are all exceptions, we are all exceptional.