Horror a broad church with a diverse congregation, it is also one of the oldest, founded on folklore and communicated through tales cautioning to be wary of everything from strangers and the forces of nature, be it the weather or wild animals, to the forces within which might have once been thought of as demonic possessions, temptations to give in to dangerous impulses and desires, an abandonment to sin which might lead to self-destruction.
What horror also does is challenge the expectations of its audiences, forcing them to confront that which they do not wish to see, be it their own frailty and mortality or parts of themselves they would rather remain secret, a dark mirror which reflects back different aspects depending on the beholder and their own particular peculiarities, anxieties sometimes oblivious to others seeing the same material but apparent to those in the know.
A documentary miniseries self-identified as “the history of queer horror”, Queer for Fear is an examination of some of the most famous creators and creations in the fields of horror as considered by dozens of writers, directors and performers who offer insights and personal reflections on how they have experienced, interpreted, drawn inspiration from and found comfort in horror, among them Freaky’s Christopher Landon, Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller and The Shape of Water’s Doug Jones and Cassandra Peterson, Elvira herself.
“The reason queer people have latched onto these monsters is because we see in them that society is always trying to eradicate us, and we’re always waiting to fight back,” critic Emily St James proposes, not the only individual to propose that while mainstream audiences might see themselves as potential victims or avenging villagers, there are those whose sympathy is with the ostensible “monsters.”
Writer Carmen Maria Marchado is more gleeful in declaring her allegiance to the forces of darkness, finding the fun which lurks in the shadows she states “Horror stories upset all the right people. People who can’t handle ambiguity. People who can’t handle violence or eroticism.”
The opening episodes encompassing Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker and the characters and themes they explored in their works, Frankenstein and his creation, Dorian Grey and Count Dracula, the film adaptations of those works are of course part of the narrative, Nosferatu by F W Murnau whose lover, the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, died in the Great War, and James Whale who cast Bride of Frankenstein from his ensemble of eccentrics and gave them free reign to be as outrageous as they desired.
Vampirism often interpreted as a metaphor for repressed desire, writer Mark Gatiss comments that “One night with Dracula is worth dying for,” but historian Michael Feinstein focuses instead on what Renfield might represent to someone who is treated as an outsider: “It is being marginalised, it’s being told that you’re crazy, it’s being told that you don’t fit in, yet absolutely having a conviction that nobody else shares.”
With readings from contemporary documents, while a letter from Shelley confessing her deep feelings for a woman of her acquaintance will raise few eyebrows considering the liberal attitudes of her customary companions, some insights genuinely surprise such as Stoker’s near-confession of love to the American poet Walt Whitman, though after the prosecution of his formerly close friend Wilde Stoker immediately adopted a public stance condemning such behaviour so stridently it is in itself suspicious.
The second episode dissecting Whale’s four contributions to the Universal Horror sequence, also under the lens is the work of Alfred Hitchcock, not just the obvious pair of suspects who murdered their friend with Rope but his adaptations of Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, the investigative lovers (of cricket) Charters and Caldicott of The Lady Vanishes and Norman Bates of Psycho who loved his mother to death, Oz Perkins offering sympathetic insight into the dilemma of his late father Anthony.
Queer for Fear genuinely surprising even to those who know their horror intimately, the opening montage of clips indicate later episodes will play host to Carrie, The Lost Boys, Hellraiser and Vamp as well as the broad camp of Phantom of the Paradise alongside the obvious allegories of Nightbreed and Freddie’s Revenge, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the contributors speaking of their love of the subject, as expressed by Bad Hair’s Justin Simien: “The world… is so intoxicating. It makes it so clear why you want to dance with the devil.”