Darren Elliot-Smith and John Edgar Browning (eds.), New Queer Horror: Film and Television (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2020. 256 Pages). ISBN 9781786836267
The connections between the queer community and Gothic and Horror are self-evident. Queer-coded monsters, defiant subversions, rebellious identifications are all a familiar part of the horror scene. It’s a connection that arguably stretches back through hundreds of years of Gothic and horror history. It’s there from the early days of the association of the vampire with ‘perverse’ sexuality in works like Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) to modern celebrations of the queer vampire through diverse queer lenses, such as the trans vampires of K. M. Szpara (2017), the polyamorous bisexual vampires of Saint Gibson (2020), or the lesbian vampires of the Carmilla web series (2014-2016). From the queer celebratory reimaginings of Gothic stalwarts in cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) to the proliferation of openly and complexly queer identities in the Slasher franchise (2016 -). From the transformation of the Babadook into a gay icon to the immersive fan communities built around queer ships in the Hannibal series. The queer and horror are hard if not impossible to separate. Queerness runs through the veins of horror in its creators, storylines, characters, allegories, fan communities and fandom appropriations. I was therefore excited to get my hands on a volume seeking to dive into the changing relationship between horror on screen and queerness in this new millennium.
The introduction to the volume makes a number of key claims. While queer readings of horror (and Gothic) texts are increasingly prevalent and the field is widening, much key criticism is still circumscribed by a limited conception of the boundaries of the queer, an identarian approach focusing principally on gay male identity, or an all-encompassing non-identarian meaning. I was thrilled to see this volume nail its colours to the mast and claim to be ‘taking in a broader spectrum of gender and sexual identities’ (p.5). New Queer Horror is defined in the volume as horror ‘crafted by directors/producers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, queer, transgender, non-binary, asexual, intersex’ or as work that ‘features homoerotic, or explicitly homosexual, narratives with ‘out’ LGBTQ+ characters’ (p.5). Moving away from criticism which has previously focused on ‘queer sexual difference as sub-textual and symbolic’ (p.1), this volume seeks to engage with texts which are openly queer. The question is whether the volume succeeds in its aims and whether it meaningfully produces new critical frames or articulates a truly distinct sense of ‘New Queer Horror’.
To some extent, the volume succeeds in its aims. There are twelve essays which look at a variety of texts and investigate gay, lesbian, gender non-conforming and bisexual identity (although in one essay a bisexual character is throughout problematically referred to as a ‘lesbian’ as she is being discussed in relation to a female ‘partner’). There are some innovative readings and useful articulations of important shifts in the relationship between horror and its depiction of queerness interrogated in a number of the essays as I will discuss below. If we are to judge the volume however by its own claims, its assertion that it focuses exclusively on overtly queer texts and on a wide range of sexual and gender identities is not entirely fulfilled. Several readings focus on subtextual and symbolic readings. Three examples. Christopher W. Clark asserts that Final Destination (2000) is a queer text because, as all the characters die young, the text rejects ‘Reproductive Futurity’ and thus is informed by a non-identarian conception of queerness. John Edgar Browning argues that Victor Salva’s own queerness produces a ‘gay voice’ in Jeepers Creepers (2001) and allows for a queering of the creeper from textual clues that‘pushes at boundaries of sexual extasy’ (p.28) with the creeper ‘at once terrifyingly promiscuous and sexually emancipatory’ (p.21). The references to Salva’s paedophilia, which run through the article, make problematic many of the claims about the supposedly ‘emancipatory’ queerness of the film’s predator, who preys particularly on young men. In Lisa Metherell’s essay, the werewolf’s ‘coming out’ in Being Human (2008-13) is read as a queer allegory, largely ignoring the way in which werewolf ‘confession’ is also overtly framed through comparisons with addiction in the show. In total, of the twelve essays, almost half deal with texts which are not overtly queer. These essays provide some useful and important readings. In particular, some map the history of queering Gothic ‘monsters’ (the vampire in Simon Bacon’s essay and the werewolf in Lisa Metherell’s) and showcase modern iterations of televisual uses of these figures. The reader should not expect, despite the introduction’s promises, a volume which primarily focuses on the openly queer narratives and characters or the wide range of queer identities which proliferate in modern Gothic texts.
There is much to interest in some of the essays. Lynskey’s investigation of ‘Queer Cult Performance: Recreating Rocky Horror in the Twenty-First Century’ (while concentrating exclusively on the gay male audience) usefully interrogates the role of queer ‘fandom’ and fan interaction with horror texts, foregrounding spontaneous audience participation as both destabilising and recuperative, and questioning the commodification and then sanitisation of this interaction in the Rocky Horror remake (2016). Darren Elliot-Smith’s ‘Castrating the Queer Vampire’ investigates the queer potentialities of both the original novel of Let The Right One In (2004) by John Lindqvist and the subsequent adaptations, tracing the ways in which the texts navigate queer identities based on sexuality (the novel and the Swedish film 2008) and gender (the 2008 film). In ‘Becoming Hannibal’, Ben Tyrer explores the ideas of identity and transformation in Hannibal, leaning heavily of Diana Fuss’ Identification Papers. He suggests that through queering the oedipal distinction between ‘having’ and ‘being’ (which separates the desire to become from the desire to have), we find in Hannibal the possibility and violence of transformation through identification. He innovatively argues that by concentrating not on spectator identification but on how identification functions intra-diegetically in Hannibal, the programme explores how identification can lead to subjective change and transformation and therefore models alternative ways of desiring. In ‘Abjection, Queer Bodies and Grotesque Dopplegangers’, Fernando Berns and Mariana Zarate articulate the idea of the abject double as a means of policing ‘acceptable’ homosexuality. Tim Stafford outlines his conception of the ‘New Werewolf Pack’, distinct from the old solitary werewolf as threat in ‘Like and Lycanthropy: The New Pack Werewolf’. While this essay would have benefitted from engaging with work on paranormal romance and urban fantasy (often aggressively heterosexual in ways which problematise the necessarily queer reading that Stafford produces) as the roots of these new ‘pack’ wolves, he clearly articulates the characteristics of this new wolf and investigates it potential in televisual portrayals to be both metaphorically and literally queer.
While there is much to admire in the volume, its main deficiency is in the scope which it vaunts but does not have. The majority of readings focus on gay male identity – as creators, viewers and characters – with some focus on lesbian identity or non-identarian readings. In some cases, other identities are willingly and problematically excluded as irrelevant to the analyse (John Lynsky reflects on the ‘queer cult audiences’ of The Rocky Horror Show, recognising them only as ‘gay male spectators’, p.32). Darren Elliott-Smith’s essay ‘Castrating the Queer Vampire in Let the Right One In (2008) and Let Me In (2010)’ was one of the volume’s strongest additions, exploring the differentiations between texts and the exploration of gender and sexuality within the texts. It is one of the only examples, however, of a text which engages with gender diversity. The book is almost entirely devoid of any engagement with trans identity or theory. Bisexuality, pansexuality, polyamory and asexuality are likewise largely ignored. As an asexual reader engaged with asexual theory, I was disappointed by the misuse of the term and the lack of any engagement at all with asexual theory. Instead, asexual is used as a synonym for the absence of genitalia (‘asexual genitals’ (p.49) or of gender identity (‘his doll-like smoothness instead suggests an asexuality or transcendence of gender’, p.55); or infantility (‘the film codes this asexuality as related to her immaturity’, p.95; ‘she is mostly undifferentiated, asexual in her attachment to the maternal womb’, p.125). The frequently psychoanalytic framing of many of the essays, leaves no room for asexuality to be considered as anything other than pathological. The final limitation worth mentioning is more broadly about the scope of texts used. A number of arguably key queer texts are missing (from The Babadook, to Carmilla, Neon Demons, Castlevania, and others). Although it is not, of course, possibly to cover even a fraction of the possible queer texts in existence, a greater concentration on overtly queer and influentially queer texts would have strengthened the appeal of the volume. More importantly, perhaps, there is an almost complete absence of texts originating outside of the United States and an overweening concentration on texts depicting white queer identities. As such the claims to represent ‘New Queer Horror’ become claims to trace some aspects of the intersection between queerness and horror in a limited selection of mostly anglophone productions. The book does not match the claims it makes for itself but contains a number of useful and challenging interactions with ‘New Queer Horror’ which are worth a look.
Review by Sam Hirst