Review: 'Queer for Fear' Celebrates LGBTQ+ Horror History

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 10, 2022
Originally published on September 30, 2022

While in the midst of a proliferation of queer horror films, queer horror has an extensive history. Docuseries "Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror" rightly asserts that horror has always been queer, ever since its inception.

From filmmaker Bryan Fuller ("Hannibal") and producers of the fantastic "Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror," Shudder docuseries "Queer for Fear" chronicles and celebrates the history of LGBTQ+ horror. Shudder has featured other compelling horror documentaries, including "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror" and "Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist."

The series consists of four episodes. I screened the first two episodes for review.

Interspersed with montages and scenes from films, the interviewees in the docuseries consist of filmmakers (Kimberly Ane Peirce, Mark Gatiss, Karyn Kusama, Justin Simien, Leslye Headland, Osgood Perkins), actors (Lea DeLaria), film critics (Alonso Duralde, Nay Bevers, Emily St. James), writers (Carmen Maria Machado, Jewelle Gomez) and drag performers (Alaska Thunderfuck, Peaches Christ). While a conventional documentary format with talking heads in some ways, it feels like a lively soiree with queer friends reminiscing about queer horror.

The docuseries reveals why horror often resonates with queer people. Several interviewees talk about feeling like monsters and outcasts by society and why we as queer people feel empathy with persecuted monsters. Filmmaker Justin Simien says, "The evolution of queer horror really parallels the evolution of queer liberation."

A fascinating watch, it's injected with fun and levity. Visual continuity exists in the interviews, as all occur in a vibrant red chair against a black backdrop. The slick neon credits with a pop synth song evoke the fun nostalgia of the 1980s.

The docuseries succeeds the most — and this is where I personally found it the most riveting — when it digs into film history and film criticism, analyzing the queer subtext of films.

The first episode focuses on the origins of queer horror, looking at gothic literature in the 1800s. It examines queer writers Mary Shelley — who invented both the horror and sci-fi genres with "Frankenstein" — Oscar Wilde ("The Picture of Dorian Gray"), criminalized for being gay, and Bram Stoker ("Dracula"), whose sexuality has been debated and speculated.

Interviewees discuss how gothic literature deals with suppression and transgression: The queer narrative in "Frankenstein" and how the monster confronts Frankenstein as a reflection of himself; repression in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," its "queer take" on "multiple selves," and the "dangers" of being closeted; resisting sexuality and "fear of queerness" in "Dracula."

Episode 1 also covers early horror cinema. Gay German filmmaker F. W. Murnau features queer coding in "Nosferatu" and "Faust," and explores hidden selves and the duality of being queer in "Der Januskopf," an adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." People discuss camp, queerness, and "repressed desire" in Tod Browning's "Dracula," as well as antisemitism in vampire narratives and how Dracula is "a perfect metaphor" for queer people.

The second episode — which is even stronger — examines queer representation in the films of James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock.

Out gay filmmaker James Whale made a "groundbreaking" and "archetypal" horror film with "Frankenstein," "filtered through the lens of his queerness." Interviewees discuss empathy with the monster, how we queer people feel persecuted like the monster, and the film's trans narrative.

People talk about Whale's other films — Camp and humor in "The Old Dark House"; Don Mancini shares how the "maniacally cackling" villain in "The Invisible Man" inspired him to create Chucky; and the queer actors in "The Bride of Frankenstein," as well as the impact of the Bride's agency and the power of "No" for women.

Episode 2 also discusses queer representation in Alfred Hitchcock's films: The very gay "Rope" and queer characters in "Strangers on a Train" and "Rebecca" (and whether Mrs. Danvers is a top or bottom). Hitchcock often directed film adaptations from queer writers (Patricia Highsmith, Thornton Wilder, Daphne DuMaurier) and featured queer actors. In one of my favorite observations, "Attack of the Queerwolf" podcast host Nay Bevers says, "One way to read 'Rope' is overtly homophobic. Another way to read it is that it's not sexuality but homophobic society that's turning men into monsters."

People also discuss Hitchcock's "complicated" legacy — how he seemed to be "wrestling with both an awe and hatred of women and expressions of femininity," an "unease about queerness," how he problematically linked gay men and misogyny in "Shadow of a Doubt," and the transphobic "killer crossdresser" trope in "Psycho."

One of my favorite moments occurs in the second episode, with filmmaker Osgood Perkins sharing about his father Anthony Perkins, who starred as the iconic Norman Bates in Hitchcock's "Psycho" in a riveting, powerful performance. He opens up about his father's queerness. The scene made me emotional, giving me a new appreciation of the superb classic film.

Brimming with insightful and thought-provoking observations, "Queer for Fear" is a joyous and contemplative celebration of the history of LGBTQ+ horror.

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The first episode of "Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror" premieres on Shudder on Friday, September 30, 2022. Each subsequent episode premieres weekly.