Fear Street proves that all teen slashers are queer
Claire Cao on the history of teen horror — and their overwhelming queer energy
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I’m Michael Sun, Netflix Culture Editor at Junkee and first to die in a horror movie. This week, I chat to horror expert, critic, and ghost story writer Claire Cao on the one scene from Fear Street Part 1: 1994 that takes all the queer subtext of classic 90s slashers — the repression, the longing, the over-the-top tropes — and makes it explicit.
MS: Claire, it truly is the season of horny teens. I’m talking Elite S4 and its Spanish private school love triangles, I’m talking Riverdale S5 and its deep-in-the-woods/ illegal-underage-drinking-in-a-DIY-speakeasy hook ups, I’m talking…Fear Street Part 1: 1994??!!!
CC: Truly, Fear Street pays homage to the 90s horror of yore by making horniness such a priority! In a critical scene, its plucky gang of teen protagonists are uncovering their town's dark history. They discover that there's not only one killer after them, but a pantheon of costumed callback villains. We're getting flashbacks to a masked child with a bloody mallet, a Friday the 13th-esque summer camp murderer, and an ominously stooped figure called "The Pastor." But main characters (and ex-girlfriends) Deena and Sam have more urgent anxieties on their minds: their relationship. As their friends pore over newspaper clippings and conspiracy boards, Deena hands Sam a warm jumper (that Sam loved wearing during their relationship) and angles to get back together. Sam's disposable boyfriend is well and truly forgotten, as are the trail of dead bodies from literally 20 minutes ago.
This is the most accurate depiction of queerness I have ever seen, i.e. literally having so much ~ queer yearning ~ that you can’t hold off declaring your love for 10 seconds despite having 3-5 murderers after you at any one time.
Absolutely. The film is great at balancing the skewed priorities of teenagers (this couple initially broke up because Sam moved thirty minutes away!?) with the real consequences of queerness in a small town. A nice beat is when Deena acknowledges that “it’s not easy for me to be like us either” after giving Sam shit for half the movie for trying to adopt a normie (read: straight) cheerleader facade. A lot of ~ queer representation ~ lately can feel tokenistic and overly sanitised, but Deena and Sam are given the space to express the full spectrum of emotion. Screaming at each other, dramatically returning mixtapes, almost committing manslaughter, getting back together at the most inopportune of moments. They're messy and feeling every emotion at all times!
Okay, so I have a question that you might know the answer to better than me since you are a horror stan and ghost story writer and I’m baby. Do you reckon there’s something specific about the horror or slasher genres that taps into the experience of being a queer teen?
Well first, I think horror is great at tapping into the anxieties of being a teen in general — everything feels life-or-death at that age, and that becomes externalised in a slasher. Every second is literally life-or-death.
I mean, if there are literally a cadre of bloodthirsty murderers after you, everything else seems doable by default — which can feel like a relief for queer characters. Past grievances and repression are small fry compared to facing a brutal death.
If we take a trip down memory lane, we can see it in the films of, say, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who played a big part in shaping 90s slasher tropes with Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and The Faculty. I think his films endure because he understood the emotional tumult of teens, and their desire to have control over their lives. The alien of The Faculty is literally targeting the kids who have the least agency — the victims, drug dealers, lesbians etc.
This tenderness towards social outcasts obviously translates smoothly into a queer narrative. Williamson was an openly gay writer but, on the surface, his scripts were intensely heterosexual. The queer energy, though! Ryan Phillipe’s gratuitous shower/towel scene in I Know What You Did Last Summer…Elijah Wood’s softboi hero in The Faculty…Neve Campbell in Scream having an Indigo Girls poster on her wall and being miserable in every relationship she has with a man. As a child, it was a huge betrayal when queer icon Clea Duvall’s hot goth character in The Faculty reveals she isn’t actually a lesbian. She kisses the jock at the end of the movie while wearing a LILAC CARDIGAN. I mean...
90s horror was defined by its extreme meta-ness. The protagonists knew they were in a horror movie; they weren’t always just hapless, sexy victims. They were allowed to quip and make active decisions and come-of-age. Deena and Sam in Fear Street are a great homage to all of this. They can be mean-spirited and self-absorbed, but they're also actively driving the plot with their reckless bravery.
I think you touch on something so true there about the queer energy of 90s slashers. I have made a promise to readers of this newsletter to stop saying the word ‘camp’, so instead I’ll say the energy is…outsize, outré, horny in that repressed way, and so OTT that they seem targeted — at least subtly — towards a queer audience. In Fear Street, we finally get to see something that abandons the subtlety in favour of a direct admission: slashers are (and have always been) queer!!!!!
“Outsize, outré, horny in that repressed way” is the perfect description of what I gravitate towards as a viewer. Female characters weren’t only surviving in the horror films I watched as a child, but did it in the most OTT, badass way possible. A good example is the climax of Scream (spoilers!) when Sidney, our heroine, dons the Ghostface costume to play mind games with her tormentors. It was a cultural reset! The specific combo of Neve Campbell’s hotness/the teen girl power fantasy/the extreme theatre kid energy definitely triggered my own “do I want to be her or date her?” awakening. I never became much bolder as a person but I do have 9 years’ worth of Neve Campbell GIFs saved on my Tumblr, so I think the answer to that question is clear.
Sometimes, you need a life-threatening ghost/murderer/resurrected witch to make you confront emotions you wouldn’t otherwise.
It's telling that GIFs celebrating Deena and Sam's relationship are already cropping up around the Internet. That queer subtext and longing embedded into 90s horror finally becomes explicit in Fear Street with little fanfare. The girls are allowed to be as dramatic and unhinged as any heterosexual couple facing down a horde of bloodthirsty monsters. They can have ridiculous loved-up moments in the middle of a life-threatening emergency and somehow it still feels right! I’m excited that teens of this generation get movies like Fear Street, where teens are allowed to bask in the fact that growing up — and growing up queer, especially — is pure chaos.
I mean, some would say that queer adulthood is pure chaos too (case in point: me), but you’re right that there’s something specific about the way queer comings-of-age feel uniquely primal.
Oh adulthood is probably more chaotic but we aren't as open about it. Maybe that's why so many adults are drawn to teen content, for that cathartic bolt of vulnerability. Horror is especially great at tapping into these primal, hidden emotions — both for its characters and for the audience. It never made sense why anything was off the table. I mean, if there are literally a cadre of bloodthirsty murderers after you, everything else seems doable by default — which can feel like a relief for queer characters. Past grievances and repression are small fry compared to facing a brutal death. When I’m writing horror stories, I definitely see myself gravitating towards adolescent queer protagonists for this very reason. Sometimes, you need a life-threatening ghost/murderer/resurrected witch to make you confront emotions you wouldn’t otherwise.
Next time I want to get back together with an ex I’ll just introduce a resurrected witch to up the stakes.
Unfortunately I have the survival instinct of someone who is the first to die in a horror movie, so a resurrected witch would do nothing for my love life. I'll just have to keep living vicariously through Deena and Sam.