Queer Horror: a conversation with horror academic Jordan Phillips

Jordan Phillips knows all things queer and horror and is postgraduate researcher at Queen Margaret University. At SQIFF this year, he will introduce a selection of classic queer horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge described as ‘The Gayest Horror Movie Ever Made’!

How did you come to get involved with SQIFF?
I contacted SQIFF at the start of the year to plant a seed of interest in my current academic/personal passion: queer horror. Oft misunderstood and maligned (as with all forms of horror), I thought it was time to bring queer horror out from the shadows and into the public eye a bit more. What better way to do this than an international queer film festival? The organisers were so excited about the project and it all took off from there, really. It’s very satiating for me to know that people do actually care about this nascent sub-genre/sub-community of horror.

When most mainstream LGBT narratives are either comedies or true life stories why do you concentrate on horror?
Although there is a gap in the cultural consciousness regarding queer horror, it’s still very much a present force. Recent televisual examples include American Horror Story (2011-present) and Scream Queens (2015-present). However, I was largely drawn to studying horror and queerness because of the ways in which the genre has evolved (or, its lack of evolution, to be more concise). If you look at romance movies or comedies, you can see a very clear progression from disparaging, homophobic films made many decades ago to fully realised queer cinema with queer leading characters, some of which are “mainstream” movies and even Hollywood cinema. The horror genre, however, still deflects this progression. Yes, there are inherently queer horror movies (commonly independent) such as Bruce LaBruce’s transgressive “gay zombie” movies i.e., Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008) which screens at SQIFF on October 1st,  and L.A. Zombie (2010), but many horror fans (even horror fans who identify as queer) do not know of such films. This came up in my research quite a lot – that is, queer horror fans not feeling like there was enough mainstream recognition of queerness within horror, and that they were marginalised more than non-queer horror fans.

Many people often feel horror is about the fear of difference — either race or sexuality, what are your thoughts?
I do think this argument still holds a great deal of currency within horror scholarship. Scholars such as Robin Wood and Harry Benshoff have potently argued that horror positions racial and sexual Otherness as the abject – something to be feared or censured. However, another recurring theme from my research was that some queer horror fans do not necessarily buy into this sexual Othering, and instead view themselves as a part of the “normative horror audience” (that is, the heterosexual audience). So, although Otherness still plays an integral part in the construction of horror fandom, it may not be the over-arching factor for every queer horror fan, which I think is quite fascinating.

When you watch horror films are you always looking for queer subtexts or do you think they are there anyway?
As an academic I’ve been trained to tease out subtextual materials – sometimes these can end up being inconsequential or red herrings, but sometimes you really have a goldmine of subtextual queerness. One of the best examples of this is A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), which we’re showing this year at SQIFF on October 2nd. Often labelled the “gayest horror film of all time,” the film’s queerness emerges from a place of industrial and subtextual connotations. The film’s lead actor Mark Patton is gay (known as horror’s first “male scream queen”) and the writer David Chaskin has admitted (decades later) that the gay themes within the film were intentional, as to increase the horror for the teenage boys in the audience.

Do you know if any of the better known horror films had queer people creating the visions?
In terms of well known horror, this is very much something which still lacks a firm identity. There are the LaBruce films, which are more transgressive, trashy horror. One of my personal favourites is Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987) – again, very subtextual, but very queer. Perhaps one of the most popular examples of recent years is the Neo-Victorian TV series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). John Logan, the series’ creator, speaks openly of his experiences of social Otherness and homosexuality, suffusing his characters with decidedly queer sensibilities. Although at times obfuscated by the hefty Victorian dialogue, there are several openly queer characters in the series, and it’s refreshing to see this within mainstream television.  

What do you think of zombie movies as a metaphor for the fear of contagion of queer desire?
There’s been a lot written about this, and it’s really not my speciality. I do think it’s a potent allegory, in a similar vein of queer vampires passing on a deadly disease through the mixing of blood/flesh, etc. My friend and fellow queer horror academic Darren Elliott-Smith (who joins Jordan for a discussion after SQIFF’s screening of The Haunting on 2nd October) has written extensively about queer zombies, so I suggest you look up his work for a clearer picture of this. A great example he implements is the short-lived BBC series In The Flesh (2013-2014). The series positions zombies as infected with a treatable disease (very reminiscent of “gay cures”), and has a bisexual leading character and also supporting characters. It really is a great show and it’s a shame it didn’t stick around to fully realise its queer potential.

Death by flesh eating zombies vs Death by chainsaw?
I’d have to go with the zombies – but only if they were queer. What a way to go!

October 1st and 2nd Jordan Phillips will introduce Otto, Fright Night, Freddy’s Revenge, and host a discussion after The Haunting

Jordan Phillips – St Margaret University

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