I’m Alicia “Kestrell” Verlager, a 2006 graduate of the Comparative Media Studies master’s program at MIT. I am a relative newcomer to fan studies, though I have been a lifelong fan of genre media, particularly SF and horror. My writing often explores the intersections of non-normative bodies and identity, with an emphasis on interpretations informed by both disability and queer studies (an intersection often referred to as crip studies). My thesis was on images of disability and technology in science fiction media, and I have also written about the theme of disability in Harry Potter fan fiction. I write about media, disability, and technology at my blog http://kestrell.livejournal.com.
James and I were grad students together in the CMS program at MIT, but since graduating, we continue to get together and discuss both theory and our favorite media, so our post here will probably convey that sense of this being an ongoing conversation between us.
James: I am James Nadeau, also a 2006 graduate of CMS. My own work is centered in visual art and technological evolution, specifically video and related technologies. My background is in critical studies, psychoanalytic and queer theory with a focus on Queer Cinema. I curate a monthly queer film and performance series at the Brattle Theatre here in Cambridge. On top of that I am a longtime comic book collector and science fiction fan. I am particularly interested in British post-apocalyptic graphic novels, mainly Judge Dredd, as well as Marvel produced superhero comics (pretty much why I landed at CMS). Like Kestrell I am fascinated by the possibilities that looking at horror and science fiction through the lens of queer and disability studies provides. Our conversations have centered on the similarities that both queerness and disability have when placed within the genre of horror and extreme science fiction. By extreme I mean the type of science fiction that operates as both horror and science fiction, be it from a gore or Lovecraft-ian “horror beyond the worlds” nature.
I would like to open the conversation by exploring how genre becomes intertwined with gender through the process of defining what horror is. As a fan and a scholar, I have become increasingly intrigued by the representations of female and queer fans in horror fandom. Specifically, I am curious about what role gender plays in defining the horror genre itself and how deeply gender influences interpretations of horror, its purposes and its effects.
These questions were prompted by a pattern I noticed in how discussions of horror are often framed: In either an online or real-time discussion of horror, a panel of male writers and critics open the discussion by seeking to define “real” horror. One of the first things mentioned, usually with a laugh, is the dismissal of paranormal romance. Aside from the fact that paranormal romance is not a new genre (it can be traced at least as far back as the TV. shows Beauty and the Beast and Dark Shadows, both of which suffered from critical and marketing attitudes which devalued their female audiences), this dismissal is usually followed by adding more subgenres to the list of what isn’t horror, with subgenres like gothics, ghost stories and even new horror such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream, etc. (refer to the work of Mark Jancovich
This disavowal of specific subgenres and their female fans isn’t limited to books or film, either: in horror comics fandom, the stereotype of a female fan is that of the gothy Sandman fan. No slight to Neil, but the linking of goth fashion and being female is another way in which I see female fans being portrayed as romantic and/or ridiculous, which comes close to reflecting the way the overly-sexualize and ridiculously romanticized has come to be associated with camp, another disavowed form of horror. There are films that are labeled camp which I am not even clear on why they are labeled camp: Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, which a number of horror producers such as Clive Barker, have listed as their favorite horror classic: why is that classified as camp? If,
as one definition of camp claims, camp is equated with being “effeminately homosexual,” then I think we are seeing media being disparaged and disavowed not for its content, but for its audience, and that disparaged audience is identified as female and queer.
I can’t help but feel that these attempts to restrict the definition of “real” horror are prompted, at least in part, by an inclination to define who the ideal reader/viewer is, and, for a lot of male
critics and scholars, that ideal reader/viewer is someone a lot like him. And yet you have artists like Alan Moore, Clive Barker, Angela Carter, and their works include elements of not just horror, but also fantasy, surrealism, the gothic, and yes, romance.
I’d like to tackle a few of these points. First I think that you are correct in that camp is most often associated with queer culture. However, it is mainly thought of in terms of exaggerated behaviour verging on the ludicrous. To quote John Waters, camp is “the tragically ludicrous and the ludicrously tragic.” It has been used on pop culture artifacts in this manner since Susan Sontag published her essay “Notes on Camp” in 1964. For Sontag camp was liberating. It is noteworthy for being both naÃ¯ve (completely unaware of one’s camp-ness is a requirement) but also it’s extravagance. Bride of Frankenstein is thought of as camp because it is so over the top. One look at Elsa Lanchester’s hairdo as the bride and you know there is something not quite right. As Sontag notes “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.” I think that what we need to establish here is that for Clive Barker (for example), a gay man, having this as his favourite film is motivated by forces other than those that seek to feminize or demean. I would also say that Bride of Frankenstein is pretty commonly thought of as an example of camp even by those only marginally aware of what camp really is. But I think this is a good starting point to discuss the viewer. For the queer viewer of horror films where does camp fit in or does it even need to? There is a lot of classic (the twenties right through the sixties) Hollywood horror films that could be seen as campy by queer audiences. There is something decidedly fey in Max Schreck’s performance in Murnau’s Nosferatu. And do we even need to mention the homosocial Lost Boys or the lesbians in The Hunger? The vampire character itself has come to be known for outside normal sexual boundaries. And I agree with you that the vampire character is recognized as a romantic figure and it is consistently associated with the feminine. Is it this “feyness” or implied deviance that pushes it outside of the patriarchy and into deviance? I think that romanticism in horror and science fiction offers up an interesting opportunity to think about alternative identities within these narratives and how they relate to what audiences feel and desire outside of heteronormative paradigms. These films open our eyes to the possibilities that exist outside the hegemony of “the normal.”
I think your final sentence is very telling, and there seems to be a lot of evidence to support it around this time of year, when we seem to see a lot of these alternate identities, from the romanticized to the queer and campy, being literally tried on during the Halloween season. It’s interesting that the mainstream seems to focus so much on the campy aspects of Halloween, from Elvira costumes to Dracula to drag: if camp is a combination of the overly-sexualized
and the naive, then it’s okay to play with identity at Halloween as long as you maintain that element of camp, of emphasizing that it’s all pretend, *really*.
Yet these exaggerated campy figures also seem to be a way of shedding the old worn out images of horror and replacing them with something that’s still emotionally powerful and socially transgressive. Vampire fashions, or how the vampire is fashioned, may change, but each change seems to say something about the culture at that historical moment. Anne Rice’s vampires may have come to be associated with the clichÃ© of the overly romanticized erotic vampire, to such a degree that her stories have become *the* source for the stereotype of the Byronic emo boy which was often parodied in Joss Whedon’s “new” vampire mythology of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but looking back there was a lot more going on in Rice’s story, such as a preoccupation with the metaphysical, the transcendental, and the historical. There also emerges this theme of families and communities that are based on blood but are oppositional to the nuclear family. At times the erotic seems as much a means for making emotional connections as it is reflective of the strictly sexual.
Perhaps what Rice’s vampires did most explicitly, however, and I think this is something which Clive Barker’s horror and fantasy has always done very explicitly, is allow the monster a voice. Once upon a time Robin Wood could write the following prohibition:
“…Dracula must never be allowed a voice, a discourse, a point of view: he must remain the unknowable, whom the narrative is about, but of whom it simultaneously
disowns all intimate knowledge…”
That kind of vampire, however, is kind of the old school vampire, and it began to lose its potency at the same time that the women’s movement and the gay movement began to really be heard. Unfortunately, a lot of what female and queer artists wanted and needed to express was still considered taboo, is still considered taboo, by many of the critics and gate keepers who get to officially define art and fiction.
Helene Cixous managed to link this feminist and queer art with a kind of monstrous mythmaking in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she said
“Where is the…woman who…hasn’t been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a … divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought she was sick?”
What horror of the ’70s and ’80s did–and I am going to return to my favorite trio of Clive Barker, Alan Moore, and Angela Carter– what made it so transgressive, was it reclaimed that idea of the non-conforming body as a point of identity. It blurred the subjectivity between the female or male protagonist and the monster and it questioned how authority was physically located in the idea of the “perfect” most masculine, most normal, body. And from Carter’s re-imagined Red Riding Hood to Moore’s Swamp Thing to Barker’s Nightbreed, identity as it related to gender, sexuality, and subjectivity intersected at the nexus of sexual relationships between women and monsters.
There are a few things I want to respond to. To continue with the vampire exposition I agree that there is much more going on in Rice’s books than a simple horror romance. She also touches upon the idea of creating a family as opposed to being born into one. This is a metaphor that resonates within the queer community. The notion of choosing one’s family based not upon blood but upon social and physical difference in complete opposition to that nuclear family is something that the queer community has always done – out of a need for close social ties that have to replace those severed by identity. And of course the transformation can also be read as a coming out narrative – one that involves the severing of ties with one’s former life (something unfortunately that is extremely common). I think these are some of the reasons that her books resonated with the queer community. Not to mention the transformative nature of the bloodletting and drinking. The fact that the vampiric traits are transmitted through the exchange of blood added another layer as her books gained popularity at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US. I think that you are right as well in that the underlying erotic current of these relationships adds to their romantic nature. It also complicates it further with the inclusion of the “incest” or family taboo to these already “outsider” relationships.