1985 saw more people diagnosed with AIDS than all previous years of the epidemic combined. The year marked the first time President Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS after over 12,000 deaths and years of his administration’s infamously disgraceful silence and inaction. It was the year when the crisis was first represented in American cinema by Arthur Bressan Jr., when Rock Hudson became the first high-profile celebrity to be outed with the virus, and the year Life magazine featured a cover dawning the haunting title “How No One Is Safe from AIDS.” The disease was unknowable, all-powerful, and unstoppable at the time, not unlike the vampires, werewolves, zombies, and boogeymen in your average horror film. It was also the year three of the most homoerotic films in horror history were released.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Fright Night, and Re-Animator were all released in 1985 at the height of queer fear. The world was a living horror movie we couldn’t escape, even at the cinema. Hit horror comedies the same year, like Teen Wolf and Once Bitten, threw around the word faggot as the genre was reviving and thriving on the Hays Code tradition of queer coding its villains. While monster-as-metaphor for homosexuality existed well before the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, it thrived in the decade’s horror cinema with these three films. Despite their frequent homophobic subtext, they’ve amassed devoted and vocal queer audiences.
The AIDS crisis, homophobic fear, and horror cinema were thematically linked through fears of invasion, transformation, and death. HIV invades the bloodstream, usually through penetration either sexually or by syringe — anal intercourse without protection poses the most significant risk sexually for transmission. Unable to fight back against attacks of opportunistic infections due to the weakening of the immune system, the progression into AIDS transforms the body through rapid weight loss, sores, and blotches, with further infection, tragically resulting in death.
Throughout the crisis, heteronormative society feared queer people invading their communities by openly being themselves, challenging and transforming traditional meanings of gender roles, gay marriage, and parenting. The conservative argument remains that same-sex relationships are destroying the nuclear family. Each film explores these themes directly, reflecting the looming threat of AIDS and the era’s queer fear.
After the smash success of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the last thing horror audiences anticipated for its sequel was cruising in leather bars, male shower spanking, and their Scream Queen to be a different type of queen. Dubbed the “first gay movie” by New York Native upon its release, Freddy’s Revenge shifted focus away from the dream demon haunting the collective nightmares of a group of teenagers to Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) becoming the inner demon of a sexually confused and questioning teenage boy, the new resident of 1428 Elm Street Jesse Walsh.
Played by Mark Patton, who was a closeted gay actor at the time, Jesse’s battle with Freddy became an internalized one. He struggles to repress the monster possessing his body while crying out to his girlfriend, “He’s inside me, and he wants to take me again!” Despite screenwriter David Chaskin denying intentionally writing homoerotic subtext into his script, both audiences and critics alike were quick to latch onto the film’s queer double meaning. Complete with Freddy using one of the blades of his famous glove to sensually caress the lips of Jesse in their first on-screen encounter (a scene where Englund originally asked to stick said blade in Jesse’s mouth), the Elm Street franchise’s shift from Nancy to “Nancy Boy” cemented Freddy’s Revenge as one of, if not the gayest horror films ever made.
The film’s final message is unclear: Can gay people not be saved, or is a happy ending not possible inside the dark confines of the closet?
Sex = Death was on the minds of many at the height of the AIDS crisis, so it was no surprise that it translated as one of the biggest tropes in 80s slashers. The most significant kills in Freddy’s Revenge beyond the climatic pool party massacre involve men Jesse experiences homoerotic tension with: Jesse’s handsome friend Grady (Robert Rusler) and his sadistic gym coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Grady pulls Jesse’s pants down, exposing his ass before wrestling him. Meanwhile, Schneider has a thing for “pretty boys” and “hangs out in queer S&M joints.”
Grady’s death results from Jesse literally struggling with his sexuality. When finally getting frisky with his girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers), Jesse grows a grotesque phallic tongue as Freddy refuses to be repressed. The scene cuts to Jesse on top of a shirtless Grady in his bed, worriedly telling him, “Something is trying to get inside my body,” to which Grady retorts, “Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana. And you want to sleep with me.”
Both Schneider and Grady’s deaths directly equate gay sex with death. Schneider is stripped and whipped in the showers by a possessed Jesse, while Grady is pushed against his bedroom door and penetrated by Freddy’s famous bladed glove. By having Freddy invade and transform Jesse’s body, coming out (pun intended) to kill Jesse’s male objects of desire, the film can simultaneously be read as a homophobic cautionary tale equating homosexuality with destruction and as a powerful story of a gay teen battling internalized homophobia.
At the film's end, peace (heteronormativity) is presumed to be restored by vanquishing the queer villain by Lisa declaring her love for Jesse and destroying Freddy through true love’s kiss. However, as is always the twist on Elm Street, Freddy is never truly dead. The film is bookended with Jesse trapped on a bus ride to Hell driven by Freddy. The film’s final message is unclear: Can gay people not be saved, or is a happy ending not possible inside the dark confines of the closet?
It hardly seems a coincidence that the height of a blood-borne epidemic would overlap with the resurgence of interest in vampirism in Hollywood. Horror cinema of the eighties and nineties was dominated by vampire narratives, many of which directly included or subtextually eluded to queerness. Whether it be the glam-punk delinquents in The Lost Boys (1987), the sensual bisexual love triangle in The Hunger (1983), or the entire metaphor of My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987), the inherent queerness of vampirism was at peak popularity, save for the seventies-wave of lesbian vampire flicks. However, one horror comedy that not only featured a predominately queer cast but combined growing fears of gay contagion and assimilation was Tom Holland’s Fright Night.
Like Jesse Walsh’s preoccupation with queer monstrosity while making out with his girlfriend, 17-year-old horror fanatic Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) can’t help but ignore his girlfriend Amy's (Amanda Bearse) sexual advances when he catches a glimpse of two men who’ve moved in next door, finding himself curious about the queer things he catches them doing at night. Charley meets the devilishly handsome Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), a bougie suburbanite and centuries-old vampire. Charley attempts to out Dandridge’s secret while those around him are none the wiser. Meanwhile, his mother (Dorothy Fielding) laments about the seductive vampire, “With my luck, he’s probably gay.”
The intimacy between Jerry and his loyal undead manservant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) is immediately recognizable as a domesticated gay couple, despite Jerry’s interest in Amy. Billy affectionately calls him “Jer,” throwing fruit across the house to him. Jerry envelops his arms around Billy from behind while smiling, and Billy kneels in front of Jerry while a wound, the framing resembling fellatio — perhaps Ms. Brewster’s assumptions were correct. Jerry and Cole, as the monstrous queer couple, represent homophobic anxieties about mainstreaming queer people in broader society. The fear that welcoming homosexuals into your community invites the vampire into your home. Charley and Jerry’s first violent encounter includes ripping the boy out of his closet. It’s here that the link between homosexuality and violence is created.
The film’s queer fears of invasion, transformation, and death are perhaps best exemplified through the character of “Evil Ed,” Charley’s strange best friend. Played by future gay porn star Stephen Geoffreys, Ed is given the moniker “Evil” due to his queerness in both senses of the word. It is Ed’s queerness that results in him being the target of bullying, which Charley is guilty of. He constantly uses Ed’s nickname against his wishes, calls him “sick,” and jokes that Ed (after he threatens to give Charley a hickey) would give a vampire “blood poisoning” - the AIDS metaphor is blatant.
When Jerry corners Ed in an alley before turning him into a vampire, what follows feels less like an attack than it does Ed’s first moment of acceptance. Calling him Edward instead of his cruel nickname, Jerry reassures the sobbing boy that he will not hurt him, gently saying, “You have nothing to fear from me. I understand what it’s like to be different. Only they won’t pick on you anymore or beat you up. I’ll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand.” The two outsiders find a connection with one another and embrace before Jerry strikes. It is here that Ed’s blood is truly poisoned. In the film’s final act, normality is restored by killing the queer villains, as Jerry, Billy, and Ed are slain.
Ed’s death is particularly gut-wrenching. His life is tragically cut short after an altercation with former horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) results in a fatal stake in the heart. Ed grotesquely transforms into his former self while dying an excruciating death with a weeping Peter watching. The scene is all the more powerful with our knowledge that both actors are gay. As Brownworth and Redding state in the introduction to the vampire anthology Night Bites: Vampire Stories by Women (1996), “Anyone can become a vampire simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, befriending the wrong person, choosing the wrong lover … being offered hospitality by the wrong host. Because anyone can become a vampire, the threat is much more terrifying. No one is safe.” The final line in Holland’s script for Ed’s death emphasizes the devastating loss of life in the era it was written, “He dies, Peter staring down at him, sorrow-struck by the waste and horridness of it all.”
Compared to the prior films, Re-Animator has only gained a homoerotic legacy in recent years, mainly helped by its campy cult sequel Bride of Re-Animator (1990), featuring a man proposing to another man with the heart of his deceased lover. While its predecessor’s queer coding may be less evident and intentional than its 1985 contemporaries, the mad scientist and his devoted assistant trope is considered one of the earliest forms of queer coupling in horror. As Benshoff states in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (1997), “Together the mad scientist and his sidekick become a major generic convention that is easily read as queer: the secret experiments they conduct together are chronicled in private diaries and kept locked away in closed cupboards and closets.” As Herbert (Jeffrey Combs) tears his assistant away from his heteronormative world, the two male scientists create life together without the aid of a woman. Many people believe that the relationship between Herbert and Dan (Bruce Abbott) continues that tradition.
Herbert is immediately poised as the queer force invading and disrupting heteronormativity when he arrives on fellow student Dan’s doorstep, directly following having sex with his girlfriend, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). Introducing a new queer world to Dan through the science of re-animation, he cannot help but be curious and soon becomes, against all logic, fiercely loyal to Herbert. Throughout the course of the film, West quickly begins to fulfill and replace Megan’s role in Dan’s life by moving in with him, which Megan was unable to do, and becoming Dan’s research partner. The two even share moments of physical intimacy customarily reserved for straight couples in horror cinema. Herbert often hides behind or clings onto Dan like a scared girlfriend and later wraps himself and a blanket around them, resulting in the film’s most homoerotic moment.
Herbert and Megan become bitter rivals vying for Dan’s attention. Megan fears for Dan's safety declaring, "He'll ruin you," while Herbert loathes how she distracts Dan from their work, saying, "Damn the bitch." In the film’s documentary Re-Animator: Resurrectus (2007), Crampton remarks, “I think there was definitely a triangle in the movie, and it was myself and Dan and Herbert West. Megan and Herbert West were foes fighting for the same man.” That triangle starts sounding even more like a love triangle when one considers the sexual undertones of Herbert’s life’s work.
Dan is involved in two sex scenes in Re-Animator: one physical between him and Megan and one metaphorical between himself and Herbert. The penetration of a syringe filled with “the primordial ooze from which life originates” is a blatant phallic metaphor. In the Integral Cut of Re-Animator, Herbert begs Dan to inject him in bed. The scene reveals that Herbert has eliminated the need for sleep by injecting himself with a weaker solution of his serum. However, he cannot administer his injection when weak from withdrawal, so Dan takes charge. When Dan penetrates him, Herbert has an orgasmic response similar to Megan’s climax while in bed with Dan. The main difference between these sex scenes is their normalcy: Dan and Megan engage in “traditional” heterosexual lovemaking, while Dan and Herbert engage in abnormal queer perversion.
Zombiism as an AIDS metaphor has existed since the early days of the crisis. It was even referenced in the Journal of the American Medical Association in their 1986 AIDS article “Night of the Living Dead II: Slow Virus Encephalopathies and AIDS: Do Necromantic Zombiists Transmit HTLV-III/LAV During Voodooistic Rituals?” Herbert is a queer-coded character desperately trying to defeat death in the 1980s — the metaphor writes itself. However, Re-Animator could just as easily be read in a less charitable light as a gay man creating the living dead through his penetration, with Herbert existing as a walking contagion. The film’s antagonist Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), calls Herbert a “cancer” in the Integral Cut, associating him with disease. AIDS and queerness are discussed openly in the film’s official novelization released in 1987 by Jeff Rovin, just two years after its release. Here, Dan pretends to have AIDS for a homophobic police officer — who earlier asks if the scientists are lovers — to leave him and Herbert alone. When the officer reacts with disgust, Herbert decides that homophobes won’t have access to his serum as “certain people just didn’t deserve immortality.”
Re-Animator subverts the traditional horror ending of the monstrous queer, as Dan’s heterosexual love interest and queer secret don’t survive the Miskatonic Massacre. Herbert’s queer force lives on with Dan embodying it — choosing to re-animate Megan, he is transformed into the queer villain. He is The Re-Animator, infecting those around him, turning them into the walking dead.
Almost forty years later, Freddy’s Revenge, Fright Night and Re-Animator, despite existing under the shadow of the AIDS crisis and the rampant homophobia at the time they were created, remain beloved cult films for queer horror fans. All three include a delightful camp. Scream queen Jesse shakes his ass in his “No Chicks Allowed” bedroom, theater queen Peter finally finds himself in the spotlight again, and shady queen Herbert wins the queer reading challenge whenever he speaks. Their iconic status is largely thanks to the contributions of queer performers like Patton, Bearse, McDowell, and Geoffreys, along with queer talent behind the scenes. Whether short-lived or queer-coded in villainy, coupled characters like Herbert and Dan Cain and Jerry and Billy holding each other is weirdly wholesome and rare to see without being the butt of a joke. What self-respecting gay person doesn’t love Evil Ed in Raggedy Anne drag crooning, “Dinner’s in the oven!”
Queer people are used to living in horror movies, made to be monsters while continuing to be victimized by society. Whether it be in the 80s and 90s during the AIDS crisis or the current surge of anti-trans and drag legislation, we’re used to the government turning its back on us, our existence being up for debate, and the underlying message of those who paint us villainously being “better dead than queer.” It’s not surprising then that gay people decades later find comfort in horror narratives where the twink mad scientist challenges traditionalist beliefs with another man, a bullied queer kid is given the power to fight back against those who have wronged him, or a feminine teenage boy struggles with the queer curiosity. The queer fears represented in 1985 horror cinema live on today. Only now, through reclaiming what’s been used against us and creating our queer narratives, are we regaining our power.
Raine Petrie is a film graduate, artist, and writer from "Cronenberg" Canada. Assigned 80s video store clerk at birth, Raine explores horror and oddball cinema through a gay, trans, and autistic lens.