"What kind of faggot runs around in a Christmas sweater?"
Those words weren't spoken to me, but they stung just the same. In Freddy vs. Jason, 2003's long-awaited Nightmare on Elm Street–Friday the 13th crossover, Kia (Kelly Rowland) taunts Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) by mocking his weapons, his outfit, and yes, his sexual identity. Long after she's macheted by Jason, her slur lingered in my head. Was Freddy queer?
That might explain some things. As a child, there was no movie monster more often on my mind than Freddy Krueger. I was repulsed by him — too terrified by the mere concept to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street or any of its sequels — but I was drawn to him all the same. I remember browsing the "Horror" section at Blockbuster, regarding the box art for the Nightmare films with a sort of breathless anxiety: Would I ever be ready to follow through and rent one?
By the time Freddy vs. Jason came out, I was almost 17. I wasn't entirely out, but I'd told friends and maintained a healthy number of crushes on straight classmates. I'd also been called a "faggot." There was something so abhorrent about Freddy Krueger being cut down with the same word, not because it's inherently offensive, but because it aligned us in a way I'd never let myself consider.
There was something different about Freddy, and it wasn't that he was a dead child murderer who returned to kill new victims in their dreams. What scared me more than his burned face and knife-fingers were his winks and sass. He was so out there — and it looked like he was having fun. It would be silly to say Freddy frightened me because I saw myself in him: As a teenager, I was nowhere near that snarky. But I felt a connection, however subtle, and it's something that took me years to articulate.
"In many ways you could argue that Freddy is essentially a drag queen," filmmaker Joshua Grannell told me. "He had the bitchiest quips. He had the most fantastic accessories. His makeup was over-the-top. I'm not trying to reach too far here. For me, there's a big connection."
And Grannell knows drag: He's the man behind the drag persona Peaches Christ, San Francisco's queen of midnight movies — a sort of queerer Elvira, if such a thing is possible. Grannell is also the writer and director of the drag slasher film All About Evil, which is how we met. I was an extra for one very long weekend.
I contacted Grannell and other gay men I consider horror aficionados to get a better handle on a question I've mulled over for years: Why do gay men love horror? I remember my transition from a kid too fearful of boogeymen to sleep with the lights off to a gore fiend who gleefully looks for any excuse to bring up Halloween in casual conversation. And in many ways, I liken it to my experience coming out: Both involved first coming to terms with my identity, then abandoning fear, and finally sharing it with the world.
It turns out, I'm not alone. While investigating, I reached out to Jeffery Self, co-screenwriter and star of the upcoming queer horror film You're Killing Me. Like me, Self has always been attracted to horror but had kept himself from watching it because he was, in his words, "really anti–getting scared." And again, there was likely something deeper going on.
"We, as gay men, gravitate toward things that are over-the-top, I think because our conditions growing up are heightened, in that we're holding on to all these secrets a lot of times," he told me. "So the idea of something that's even more heightened in the world of a horror movie is exciting."
Exciting, yes — but also terrifying. There is a taboo to liking horror, to seeking out images of gore and violence, but perhaps more importantly, to finding something relatable about a psycho killer. And yet, for many gay men — myself included — there's a vague kinship felt with quiet loner Michael Myers, eccentric weirdo Freddy Krueger, and deranged mama's boys Jason Voorhees and Norman Bates.
It's not about violent urges: It's about feeling different. Before I knew I was gay, I knew that the world was frightening in a way that I couldn't express. I knew that I wasn't like the people around me, and I knew that they picked up on my otherness. When you're a kid, you want desperately to belong, which means trying to hide those unspeakable feelings — long before you're willing to identify with being queer.
"We're raised in a world that's not designed for us," Darren Stein explained to me. He wrote and directed the cult classic teen comedy Jawbreaker, and he produced Grannell's All About Evil. "The stakes for us are higher in life, in a way, because we're raised around all these aliens. I think that horror is a genre that we can get lost in, because we can relate to the extremes of it, the terror of it. The feeling of not belonging is something that comes easily to us."
Stein told me that when he was a kid, he turned to Fangoria magazine the way his peers stole their dads' Playboy. Being too young to consciously crave and seek out gay porn, he looked for images of grotesquerie. I remembered the way I pored over the horror video cases at Blockbuster. There was a perverse pleasure to it — not sexual, but thrilling because it was so outside of the norm. It was another kind of filth, and shameful in its own way.
When Grannell saw Silence of the Lambs for the first time, he felt the same confusing feelings of desire and embarrassment. "I went back like 10 more times, and I was very closeted about it," he recalled. "It completely connected to my secret viewings of Paris Is Burning. I had these secret movies that I would go to the theater to see and not tell anyone, like the way you would go to a porno house in Times Square in the '80s. I remember just loving Hannibal Lecter and loving Buffalo Bill in a way that maybe should have been disturbing to me."
For me, my adoration of figures like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees read more as fear. I couldn't explain my obsession, but I knew that I was scared. I watched what I could through my fingers, because that was the only way to both take it in and block it out. It's the same way I responded to early gay thoughts, which were just as frightening. And who could blame me, when I grew up with the relentless association of being gay and dying from AIDS? On a larger scale, the mere thought of sex between men — regardless of the consequences — was too much to bear.
"Anal sex ultimately can be construed by a child as a very grotesque act," Stein pointed out. "It's invasive, much like a knife in the flesh."
Years later, when I watched the 1980 thriller Cruising for a college course, I saw that subconscious fear made literal, as shots of the killer stabbing his victims were intercut with graphic footage of men fucking. Suddenly, my youthful fears of getting stabbed by Michael Myers took on a new and uncomfortable resonance.
College was also where I discovered A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, the much maligned 1985 sequel. At this point I was out and slightly more comfortable in my own skin, and I was eager to continue exploring my on-again, off-again relationship with horror. I took a summer course on the horror film in an effort to fully immerse myself in the subject, and to overcome some of the fears that still plagued me as an adult.
Freddy's Revenge was not scary, but it was eye-opening: Here was a movie that took my childhood fear of Freddy Krueger and gave it the queer reading it desperately needed. The film is now regarded as a camp classic, especially among gay men, and with good reason. It follows Jesse (Mark Patton), a boy plagued by nightmares of Freddy Krueger. But rather than killing Jesse, Freddy wants to become him — and by the end, they're one and the same.
It's easy to laugh at the movie, because it's absurdly homoerotic. What's amazing is that screenwriter David Chaskin denied any of that was intentional for years before finally admitting the truth. But that didn't change anything: The script speaks for itself. "Hey, Grady, do you remember your dreams?" Jesse asks his hunky classmate. To which Grady responds, "Only the wet ones." Later Jesse flees from a makeout session with his female love interest and winds up in Grady's bedroom, where he cries, "Someone is trying to get inside my body."
But all snickering aside, what amazed me was the way Jesse talked about Freddy: "There's something inside me," Jesse says. "He's inside me, and he wants to take me again!" Watching the film, I knew — even if Jesse didn't — that the "something" was more than just Freddy. There's a reason he's unable to shake it, even as he and his would-be girlfriend look for ways to defeat Krueger. As Freddy says, "He can't fight me. I'm him."
That freak, that monster, that drag queen — that was Jesse. And I understood, because that was me, too.
Is it wrong that I love Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 as much as I do? It can certainly be construed as homophobic in the most literal sense, with queer Freddy Krueger as the monster in your closet, waiting to jump out at night and turn you into what he is.
Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger, saw it that way. In a 2010 interview with Attitude magazine, he called Freddy's Revenge "early '80s, pre-AIDS paranoia. Jesse's wrestling with whether to come out or not and his own sexual desires was manifested by Freddy."
That's almost certainly how the filmmaker intended it, not as something for gay men to latch onto but as a way to scare the mainstream audience. Even so, does it matter?
"I ultimately don't give a shit what the intentions were," Grannell said.
When we talked, he spoke about some of his other favorites, films that inspired his creation of Peaches Christ. They are movies with trans or cross-dressing characters as villains: Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill. They're dangerous in the way they teach straight people to fear the other — but that's not the way Grannell appreciated them. And it's not how I came to adore Freddy's Revenge.
"At the time, the screenwriter [of Freddy's Revenge] was very clearly using queerness as something to be afraid of and kind of the real internal terror," Grannell noted. "They were using queerness as a mechanism for fear, but as young queer people, we were tapping into that identity and actually finding a connection there."
There's an intellectual conflict, surely: You can love a film like Sleepaway Camp, in which — spoiler alert — the heroine turns out to be trans and the killer. And you can also recognize that, on the surface, it's a damaging representation that perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Thankfully, we still have the right to claim these movies as our own, to revere the killers as fantastical exaggerations of our own desires. It's an act of reclamation, in much the same way as we won back the word "queer." We are not apologizing for our difference, but embracing it. We are owning our place as outsiders rather than trying to blend in.
There is power in taking what's been hurled at you as an insult and making it your own. When the freaks start calling themselves freaks, the designation can no longer be used against them. Part of my coming-out process was accepting my difference, which is even more difficult than trying to blend in. I'm not a person who just happens to be gay — I'm queer. And for me, that means being drawn to the dark, bloody, strangely alluring fantasy that horror offers.
Identifying with these iconic villains is about recognizing your place outside of mainstream society and taking it to the next extreme. You can't fit in as gay, so you stand out as Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter or — in the ultimate convergence of queer and horror culture — The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Society is frightened of you, and rather than try to assuage those fears, you wear your terrifying queerness as a badge of honor.
And if it freaks out "normal" people, that's on them.
I was scared of Freddy Krueger once, terrified of what he represented, and even more afraid of what my fear said about me. I got over it. No matter how scary otherness can be, everyone stops being afraid eventually.