A Nightmare on Oxford Street


Words || Cameron Colwell

I am 12, and watching The Lost Boys, from a mattress on a motel floor. Eighties movies are a feature of my childhood holidays to Forster, and the ancient unit we’re staying in fits the mood of the film. The place is musty, the dated TV’s light is glaring and a little overbright, and I am still young enough to find the garish cheesiness and sheer Eighties-ness of the film scary, even if I’m laughing at the jokes with my brother. Actually I’m drawn to the sincerity of the age, to the decadence and ridiculousness of the costumes. Everything is too much; too flamboyant, but I like it. It’s a nice break from the unrelenting bleakness of the other DVDs we’ve watched on the holiday.

Then, the main character closes his closet door, and we see an erotic poster of Rob Lowe. My brother lifts the remote and pauses it, laughing.“What kinda guy has gay porn just hung up on his cupboard door like that?”

Years later, I am reading Carrie. The protagonist is undergoing strange changes nobody seems to understand. I like the image of Otherness presented as power – I am not (yet) an outsider but I fear to be one. What I want is revenge, because already I am being picked on for being different. What I get is catharsis.

Gay men, on reaching a certain level of distance from the mental shitstorm of realising they’re queer, often look at childhood with a fresh perspective. They sift through early memories in the search of moments that made it obvious that there was gayness to be expected in future. I thought I was fairly immune to childhood foreshadowing of my queerness, but after thinking about my favourite movies of pre-adolescence, I’m starting to think I was wrong: I loved horror. Specifically, cheesy, visceral movies of the late Seventies and Eighties. Stephen King books, generally bought off vaguely disapproving old ladies at Vinnies, were also part of this phase. I used to think, on early reviews of the obsession, that any gayness I detected was part of a paranoiac media-gaydar developed as consequence of 
being desperate for some queer representation.

As it happens, horror movies of the period I’m talking about are slicked with as much subtextual queerness as they are with fake blood. First off, a personal favourite: Carrie. If it’s been a while, Carrie is about a girl who, in a change room, has her first period and is bullied for it, leading her to develop psychic powers, being locked in a closet by her mother, and eventually killing most of her school cohort at prom — just like me! Well, not quite: I lack the necessary equipment for menstruation, and my Year Twelve formal was comparatively bloodless. After I did a bit of digging, I have come to find out I am not the only one to see queerness in Carrie: Betty Buckley, who played Carrie’s gym teacher in the original, imagined her character as a lesbian, something that makes the intimacy between
her and Carrie (Miss Collins is the only character who is nice to Carrie from the beginning) hold a slightly inappropriate queer meaning.

There’s also the remake, directed by Kimberly Pierce, whose previous work included Boys Don’t Cry, about the murder of
 a trans man, and an episode of The
 L Word. She, too, sees queerness in Carrie: “What I find interesting is the two straight girls, when they’re with their boyfriends, they’re always talking about Carrie. The things these two girls have together is to talk about Carrie. If they’re with their boyfriends, they’re talking about Carrie. We even have two scenes where heterosexual sex is interrupted to talk about Carrie”. So that’s comforting: I’m not just talking shit.

Another horror film with queer vibes is the aforementioned The Lost Boys, which is also one of the more iconic vampire films. Directed by the openly gay Joel Schumacher, the film is about the relationship between two brothers, one of whom joins a pack of vampires, and signifies his change by beginning to sport a single earring. Homoerotic implications of vampirism aside, there’s the appearance of the protagonist, who happens to resemble the mid-teen version of half the twinks I’ve seen at ARQ: there is also the poster I mentioned above, inexplicable and baffling.But, then again, it was the Eighties: flamboyance was the style, ‘no-homo’ was yet to be a thing, and, apparently every straight boy had sexy Rob Lowe posing on their bedroom wall.

On a more serious note is the much-documented and fairly tragic queerness in that most unlikely of franchises, A Nightmare on Elm Street. While I was never a fan, this exploration would not be complete without mentioning the first sequel, Freddy’s Revenge. The main character, Jesse, is faced with Freddy Krueger trying to take over his body, a plot line that commentators have interpreted as a metaphor for queer relation. It sounds far-fetched, until you consider that one of the film’s nightmares involves his sadistic PE teacher coming onto him at a gay bar, and Jesse repeatedly saying things like “Something is trying to get inside my body.” In this case, the queer subtext was not accidental: Mark Patton, who played Jesse, is a gay man, a fact he mostly concealed but was well-known by the crew of the movie. Media scrutiny about Patton’s sexuality led to a mental breakdown, and he decided to quit acting altogether, to instead become an interior designer. The writer of the film, David Chaskin, repeatedly denied that the film had any gay subtext, but the results of his screen debut led to a bitter rift between him and Patton. In 2010, on a documentary about the franchise, he came clean, and admitted that the gay subtext was a way of targeting the sexuality of teenage boys, the main audience for horror.

That last detail, I think, is a clue as to why queer subtext in horror is of such interest to me. Horror is at its most efficient when it successfully targets the fears of its audience. Many early horror stories involve thinly veiled racism, reflecting backdrops of white anxiety. In the case of these horror films, it’s not that much of a stretch to say that it reflected a pre-AIDS paranoia about queer people, an emergent category of person that was finally beginning to work out how to liberate itself. Either way, as a storyteller myself, these films serve as lessons as to how texts represent the fears and anxieties of their time – conscious, or otherwise.