People who enact and support anti-LGBTQ laws and social norms are fond of cloaking their hatred in fear. From homophobia to social contagion to bodily mutilation, bigots regularly characterize queer people as unnatural and monstrous. The plot twists in many iconic horror films mirror this apparent revulsion: the villain is revealed to deviate from cisheteronormativity in some way, whether in being a girl who knows how to masturbate, simply being transgender, or actively seducing victims of the same sex. This thread extends from The Exorcist (1973) to Sleepaway Camp (1983) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
When met with such grisly depictions of yourself, you can protest them, embrace them, or wholly transform them to suit your needs. And that’s exactly what twenty-five writers have done in the new essay anthology It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror.
The book, published by The Feminist Press this October, is edited by Joe Vallese, a writer and professor who notes in the introduction that his enthusiasm for horror gave him “a perceived toughness” useful for a gay kid in the 1980s. He describes the subsequent essays as “eclectic memoirs that use horror as the lens through which the writers consider and reflect upon queer identity, and vice versa.”
Split into five parts — An Excellent Day for an Exorcism, Monster Mash, Fatal Attractions, Whatever You Do, Don’t Fall Asleep, and Final Cuts — It Came from the Closet’s writers explore coming of age, break-ups, parenthood, grief, and more while diving into movies as disparate as the 1988 remake of The Blob and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Gore aficionados and reads-the-Wiki-plot-summary scaredy-cats alike will find something haunting to love within its pages.
To kick things off, Carmen Maria Machado, the Folio Prize winning author of In the Dream House, revisits the oft-maligned 2009 horror comedy Jennifer’s Body to discuss “the central body of water that is bisexuality.” Her essay, Both Ways, is also available on Autostraddle, and sets the tone for the rest of the collection: whip-smart, honest, and hilarious.
Jennifer’s Body has developed a massive following in the last decade, comprised mostly of young queer women. But it was a box office failure, panned by casually misogynistic critics only interested in Jennifer’s body. It was simultaneously accused of performative queerness — most notably for a kiss shared by Jennifer and Needy (best friends played by Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried). The film’s larger themes of assault, the hell we call girlhood, and fracturing friendship were lost in the initial furor.
In pushing back against the dismissal of young women exploring their sexuality, Machado drops an absolute banger: “People always talked cynically about [allegedly straight girls kissing at frat parties] as if men were the reason, but it felt like no one ever considered that men were the excuse.”
Without spoiling too much, Machado hones in on a central theme of It Came from the Closet: that queerness mirrors the ambiguity of all good horror and LGBTQ people shouldn’t pigeonhole our experiences to fit perceived narratives. “The project of identifying “false” or “performative” queerness is dead in the water,” she declares. “Do not trouble yourself to rescue it. Do not grieve at its graveside.”
Further along, Jen Corrigan plumbs the depths of Jaws (1975) for subtle indications of queerness in Three Men on a Boat. These arrive in the form of “playful touch” as the main characters compare scars, as well as in the titular shark’s gaping desire as it breaches the waters surrounding Amity Island. In her obsession with the film, Corrigan comes to know her own sexuality better.
“The ocean is not just one thing,” she writes. “It is both beautiful and terrifying. It is knowable and unknown. As Brody gazes out into forever, I think about how the sea is not just one thing, and neither am I.”
Other essayists return to failed (or never realized) queer relationships in their past, linking them to the unresolved and anxiety-inducing nature of suspenseful horror films. Laura Maw laments a relationship dependent on “the thrill of uncertainty” in Loving Annie Hayworth. She connects her love for a classmate to the “palpable, if tentative” chemistry between The Birds’ main women characters, Melanie Daniels and Annie Hayworth. Maw once felt “feral with anticipation” for a “mythical endpoint” where her feelings could be out in the open and clearly reciprocated, but eventually realizes no such clarity or closure can ever truly exist. The same goes for Daniels and Hayworth, unable to properly explore their desire in a film unwilling to believe it.
Likewise, Tucker Lieberman condemns the obfuscation of truth, however chilling, in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The 1984 film underwent major edits, to the point were nightmare-hopping villain Freddy Krueger went from child molester to child murderer. This change, Lieberman points out, makes the film largely “incomprehensible.” He deftly alternates between “final girl” Nancy Thompson’s point of view and his own as he unfolds the sudden loss of a queer friendship, asking what we do to ourselves by presenting others with simpler, false narratives of our pasts.
“If we forget the real story,” he explains. “We dream ourselves back into our cellars, setting our own misremembered trauma aflame.”
The remaining chapters offer even more revelations about queer affinity for the horror genre. In The Healed Body, Jude Ellison S. Doyle dismantles the anti-trans rhetoric embedded in much of body horror and champions the 2002 French film Dans ma peau (In My Skin). Sarah Fonseca uses ¿Eres tú, papá? to analyze the fraught nature of father-daughter relationships when queerness is involved. Lastly, Viet Dinh rounds out the collection with an homage to Susan Sontag’s Notes of Camp, this time about Sleepaway Camp and “queer rage, a fire that consumes all before it.”
It Came from the Closet is an essential read for LGBTQ people drawn to the macabre, either gleefully or begrudgingly. I used to avoid horror, because it was difficult to fathom enjoying silver screen screams when so much of my daily life was steeped in fear and unanswered anxieties. The terror of being outed, the unknown beyond being known, the desire to entirely subsume my truth in order to survive — that felt like enough horror for my young self, and I wanted to stick to sci-fi and rom-coms. But I caught myself lingering on grainy gifs of Jennifer’s Body in middle school, watched all of Netflix’s so-called adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House because one of the leads was a lesbian, and developed a strong appetite for anything vampire-related.
Queer people are still left out of much mainstream horror. As Vallese puts it, the genre “actively excludes us from the narrative—or, worse, includes us only to marginalize, villainize, or altogether neglect us.” It Came from the Closet writes a new narrative, one in which queerness is centered and celebrated. LGBTQ people often face unspeakable, countless horrors in real life. It’s about time we tell those stories, unmask the true villains, and make it to the final scene.
- It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror is available from The Feminist Press as of Oct. 4.
- Yhara zayd’s video essay, Jennifer’s Body & the Horror of Bad Marketing, is a succinct breakdown of what went wrong in 2009.
- Actress Megan Fox and screenwriter Diablo Cody talk at length about the sexist abuse they experienced surrounding the film in this ET Live interview.
- In It Came from the Closet, Prince Shakur writes about As boas maneiras (Good Manners), a film I had the pleasure of reviewing for The Knockturnal. It’s a fascinating look at the potential for queer family structures and surviving unfathomable loss.
- For all my fellow sapphic scaredy-cats out there, I highly recommend shirleyjacksonmemes on Instagram and this edition of Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria Machado.
By Dani Janae
What my mouth means when
it opens is that I want to eat you
alive; to say “touch me”
without all the hesitance.
A fig without its juice is just
the waist of a woman, honey
butter. Something to bind your
jaw in the deepest winter.
Seeds erupt on my tongue in
a raptured applause: I listen.
For the fruit, tender and
sticky, all I can do is hunger.