I was almost going to start this review by saying that it’s been a fruitful few years for both queer and horror analysis in popular media, but that’s really only in comparison to the dearth of titles that have come before.
Thankfully, recent analysis of queer themes and representation in media has highlighted the necessity of examination in relation to mainstream horror and have set the stage for further exploration. This includes documentaries like Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, which follows the story of actor Mark Patton as a closeted gay man while starring in the subtextually-homoerotic second installment of the franchise, and Laverne Cox’s Netflix series Disclosure, which explores trans representation across the genres while focusing on key horror works such as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
It’s no surprise that Shudder has taken up the same mantle, following their highly engaging 2019 documentary Horror Noire: The History of Black Horror, which discussed the shift in the representation of Black characters from spectacles of fear to hero protagonists throughout a hundred years of cinema. Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror, their four-part documentary series, aims to do the same for the LGBTQ+ community and the history of horror and thriller.
Following in the footsteps of Horror Noire’s model, Queer for Fear features talking heads from directors, critics and actors who have been involved in creating and supporting queer horror, from Hannibal’s writer and producer Bryan Fuller (who is also the executive producer of Queer for Fear) through horror media critic and author Emily St. James, the director of bisexual cult horror film Jennifer’s Body Karyn Kusama and actor and director of Dear White People, Justin Simien among many others.
The first episode is perhaps the most straight-forward instalment, with three sections focusing on the queer nineteenth-century progenitors of the western horror genre: writers Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker. The focus on Stoker is perhaps the most compelling of the three as his queer history has been less explored (indeed, watching the episode which discussed his often romantic correspondence with Walt Whitman, American best-known nineteenth-century poet and gay man, I was reminded of a talk on Dracula I attended where one of the speakers insisted that Stoker could not be gay because he “had a lot of female friends.” An interesting argument to make, certainly).
Novel-writing is then left behind with the advent of cinema which becomes focus of the rest of the series – although cinema had already made its mark with clips from films based on Shelley and Stoker’s work included from the very beginning. The following episodes are broadly chronological, focusing on first on the early years of Hollywood, particularly the horror classics of gay director James Whale, queer metaphors in the 1940s such as werewolves and bodysnatchers, and female vampires of the 1970s which challenged the conventional beliefs around women’s sexuality. And indeed in certain respects, this fourth episode feels like quite an appropriate place to conclude the analysis, building as it does on the anxieties of lesbian desire found in Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu’s early vampire novel and precursor even to Dracula.
Throughout, the critics and experts reflect on how seeing symbols of queer experiences in horror onscreen were hugely influential on their own journeys of self-discovery. They address how queer-coding from the days of the Hayes Code onwards has shaped horror cinema, meaning that often LGBTQ+-coded characters appear in the shape of villains and monsters: but that it can also be empowering to learn how to identify with the outsider. They also explore the opportunities and limits of sexualising female characters in a medium that is still struggling with the male gaze while recognising its liberatory potential.
There is a lot to like and plenty to mull over throughout Queer for Fear, which is why it doesn’t really feel right to be complaining about too much lesbian rep in a series about queer horror. So perhaps it would be better to say that the lack of trans and indeed gay male representation in modern and contemporary cinema hopefully hints at the possibility of further episodes – or maybe even whole seasons, which would be very welcome indeed.
Queer for Fear has set itself an almost impossibly big challenge, one that could hardly be completed in four episodes. Where Horror Noire had a formidable job in contemplating over a hundred years of black cinema, Queer for Fear has also to engage in against the grain readings and conflicted examinations of sexuality as highlighted by their dissection of Hitchcock. Let’s hope that Shudder gets the message and commissions a second season ASAP.
Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror is currently streaming on Shudder.