‘Queer for Fear’ at SDCC 2022: Shudder’s upcoming documentary shines a light on the history of queer horror

Queer for Fear had its own panel at SDCC 2022, and we were in attendance to learn what exactly to expect from this four-part series that focuses on viewing the horror genre through a queer lens.

The minute I heard about Queer for Fear, I was intrigued. I haven’t always had an interest in horror—in fact, it’s been quite the opposite for most of my life—but lately, I’ve felt a strong pull toward the macabre, both with regard to film as well as literature. My knowledge of the genre is embarrassingly scattered, and it’s been difficult to find the right opening that would allow me to dip my toes into this world. Go too slow, and I might risk not finding what I’m looking for; go too fast, and I might bite off more than I can chew and regret ever having tried in the first place.

Queer for Fear, it seems, was made for someone like me. The official synopsis reads, “From its literary origins with queer authors Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde to the pansy craze of the 1920s that influenced Universal Monsters and Hitchcock; from the ‘lavender scare’ alien invasion films of the mid-20th century to the AIDS-obsessed bloodletting of ’80s vampire films; through genre-bending horrors from a new generation of queer creators; Queer for Fear re-examines genre stories through a queer lens, seeing them not as violent, murderous narratives, but as tales of survival that resonate thematically with queer audiences everywhere.”

Not only does this documentary promise to provide a list of works reflective of the genre’s evolution, but it centers queerness as a lens through which to view these stories. This idea makes horror much more approachable for me and provides layers to a genre I admittedly know little about. I love seeing patterns and making connections; looking at allegories and metaphors. Queer for Fear does all that and much more. I fully expect to be educated as much as I am entertained.

There was no trepidation as I walked into the room for the Queer for Fear panel at SDCC 2022. Our moderator for the next hour would be Harmony Colangelo, host of the podcast This Ends at Prom, and one of the documentary’s interviewees. Joining her was executive producer Bryan Fuller, known for such wondrous shows as Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, and American Gods; producer Steak House, known for Launchpad, The Mustang, and Drib; and fellow interviewee Kimberly Peirce, who directed both Boys Don’t Cry and the 2013 Carrie, as well as several episodes of television, such as The L Word, Halt and Catch Fire, and Dear White People.

You simply could not have asked for a better group of panelists to bring Queer for Fear to SDCC 2022 and explain what this genre has meant queer people throughout the decades. The room was not full by any stretch of the imagination, but the energy within those walls was palpable. You could tell that every single person was there by design. We were all waiting for what came next.

First, we were treated to about 10 minutes of footage from Queer for Fear about Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins, the star of Psycho. The film itself is entrenched in cinematic history; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, or at least heard of it. Even I have watched it, despite having had an aversion to horror for most of my life.

But the meaning of the film becomes more nuanced as you view it through a queer lens. Anthony Perkins was a closeted gay man, and Hitchcock knew that. Taking this perspective into account adds additional layers to your viewing experience and allows you to draw different conclusions as to the meaning of the story. An already rich and impactful film, therefore, becomes doubly so.

And this is just one clip from one episode. The documentary is brimming with history and anecdotes and information vital to better understanding how queerness and horror have always gone hand in hand. At one point, Fuller even speaks to this, stating, “I think that’s part of the queer narrative of horror: It’s not just about violence and slashing and fear; it’s about a survivor narrative.” It does not seem surprising, then, why these two are intrinsically linked.

As a result, Fuller and the others struggled under the sheer number of interviews they conducted to put together this documentary. So much so, in fact, that it ultimately impacted the final product.

“You know, the documentary, when it was initiated, was a movie,” Fuller explains during the Queer for Fear SDCC 2022 panel, “and as we got further into the interviews and all of these different people’s points of view on horror stories and how they saw themselves in different ways represented, whether the monsters or the psychopath, we realized that 90 minutes was just not enough to cover all the material. So, Shudder, in support of us, said that we should do it as a series, and that’s how it became a multi-episode series.”

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of content Queer for Fear promises its viewers, especially for those of us who have not seen most of these movies and haven’t a clue where to start. But don’t worry—it’s not like the creators of this documentary are just throwing everything they can at the wall and seeing what sticks with their audience. There’s a method to the madness, and this is represented in each of the four episodes.

“So, every episode has a kind of thematic unifying idea,” Fuller says, “and in the first episode, it’s about queer storytellers, and there’s an act before [the clip we watched] about Hitchcock and all the queer people that Hitchcock worked with. Chances are if you’re watching a Hitchcock movie, it was written by a queer person. So, that’s a point of view that a lot of us don’t know about, and even going back before Hitchcock, to James Whale, who was creating the Universal Monster genre, essentially with Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and his queer perspective, and who was very important in crafting the monsters that we know. And then going back before that, to Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.”

Fuller continues, saying, “So, the first episode is really about the foundational first storytellers that created the horror genre, and then as we get into the second episode, it’s exploring the queer thematics that we all relate to, whether it’s werewolves or cat people or body snatchers or zombies. What are the thematics? And having all of these people come in and say this is what it means to me, this horror identity. We had a trans journalist come in and talk about how the first time they saw themselves in a queer narrative was The Exorcist because they were a young woman whose body was taken over by a male presence, and it took them decades to exorcise and reclaim their true gender. So, it starts to build a vocabulary for the audience of—yes, we all look at these movies as scary films, but there’s something much deeper and personal and queer about the entire genre.”

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It was fascinating to sit in that room full of strangers, unsure of how much they knew about horror and the innate queerness of it. At the mention of cat people, there was a collective giggle, but when Fuller talked about the trans allegory in The Exorcist, a hum of understanding rippled throughout the room. If the Queer for Fear panel at SDCC 2022 could reveal as many hidden truths as it did in under an hour, imagine what this documentary as a whole will do for all who see it.

In other words, if you’re looking for a comprehensive overview, you’ve come to the right place. Queer for Fear will by no means cover every movie representative of every queer person, but the creators have promised a wide variety and a varied scope at which to view this topic. It also won’t just be about modern cinema, but the birthplace of the horror genre in all of its forms.

Peirce speaks to this point, saying, “I think, for us, it was so important to be really diverse in our process of this show, to make sure that we were representing all kinds of queer people, not just, you know, gay and lesbian. It was, like, dykes, queers, bisexual, asexual, pansexual. People of color, white people, you know, all different people. And I think that I just would love for the show to get out there to people who don’t have a community and need to see themselves on screen in order to feel okay with themselves. Right now, our country is obviously having a little bit of a backwards moment in some places, and I hope that this is supportive for them.”

Peirce is right, of course. We’ve come leaps and bounds since the days of Mary Shelley or Alfred Hitchcock. The subtext we often see in horror—or media in general, for that matter—is much more textual. Diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, is much higher across the board, and it’s nowhere near as taboo to be queer and create queer content as it was even a decade ago. What Queer for Fear aims to do is to show us that there’s a reason why queer people have often seen themselves in horror, and to remind us that queerness has always been entrenched in media, even if it hasn’t been as obvious as it is now.

queer for fear sdcc 2022

“One thing I want to celebrate these guys for in making this,” Peirce says, “is just the level of complexity and depth of the intelligence coming out of the people who are talking. You can even see it in a few of those clips, and it’s just like, ‘Wow!’ You know people are speaking really from the heart, from their own experience, and they’re really articulate and smart. And I went to the screening, and so many people who had been in the film or hadn’t been in the film were just like, ‘Wow! That completely resonated with how I felt.’ And I really have a feeling that, yes, we’ve been through periods of repression, and yes, they’re going to legislate the—I can’t use the h-word out of things, I just read that on here—but they can’t put everything back in the box. I do think the idea of the proliferation of images and particularly a film like this begins to open up in their Pandora’s box. And let’s just say Pandora’s box is a good thing.”

You can imagine why a documentary of this scope—especially having expanded from one 90-minute film to four hour-long episodes—would be important not only to the queer community, but to other creators who hope to build off of what Queer for Fear has started here.

“I think we all took it very seriously,” Fuller explains, “and I got involved in this project because I recognized if there was a version of this documentary that wasn’t up to snuff, it would hurt future documentaries or it would limit perception because that’s where we are with any sort of story that’s marginalized. We don’t get the chances that perhaps more heteronormative storytellers do if we fail. And it was something that kind of unified all of us; it unified Shudder in a way that they knew they had to back this project in a way that allowed a greater access and a higher caliber of story being told because if we do this right, if we tell the story right, it opens the door for other queer storytellers, and if we do it wrong, it may close the door. So everybody was kind of cognizant of, ‘We have to do this well,’ and that’s why it’s taken so long.”

From everything I’ve seen at the Queer for Fear panel at SDCC 2022, it appears as though this documentary will be worth the wait. And I wasn’t the only one who was excited—the audience questions varied in range from those specifically about the four-part series to broader questions about being a queer creator and how to get your content out in the world.

One particular question that got a huge response was about the “bury your gays” trope. Fuller spoke to this topic for a moment, angrily referencing Tara from Buffy, before saying, “Harmony has a fantastic bury you gays—specifically with the trans community—segment in episode 4 that’s hilarious, insightful and educational.”

I fully look forward to exploring the various tropes, but what I’m really searching for is a list of movies to explore. And don’t worry, Steak House knows there are a lot of newbies like me out there: “You don’t have to have watched any of them to enjoy it. But you’ll go away from this with is a huge list of movies you want to watch. Everybody at the office was like, ‘Oh my God, I have, like, 100 new movies on my list I have to watch!’”

That’s what I’m hoping for! It’ll be fun to watch this documentary and make a list of the ones I might relate to most, then sit down and watch them. Afterwards, I’ll be able to come back to Queer for Fear and watch those segments again with a better understanding of what they’re talking about and my own personal feelings in relation to the film.

The Queer for Fear panel at SDCC was at times hilarious and at others heavy; horror and the queer experience share these qualities as well, and I enjoyed the time I spent in the room getting a taste of what’s to come. What really impressed me, however, was the panelists’ dedication to uplifting queer voices—not just in the horror genre, but in the creative world everywhere.

Fuller had a particularly beautiful response to one audience member who asked how they could begin to get their own content out in the world. What avenues work best? Which festivals respond better to this kind of media? How do you find out the answers to these questions and more?

“I think that’s a good challenge for us to be thinking about in terms of, as we platform this show and put it out into the world, being able to provide queer storytellers with answers to those questions with specifics about which festivals [to attend]. So, just hearing this question, I think it’s helpful for us because then we can work with Shudder and start pulling up those lists, and creating an opportunity for access that you may not be aware of. Because I certainly think that access is part of the issue, and the barriers to entering for access. And there are so many… When you go on twitter, and you see so many great voices, and they don’t know how to get to the diversity programs. They don’t know how to get to programs that are designed to lift them up, and they’re usually limited in access to people who have really nice educations and are still socioeconomically advantaged over other folks. So, thank you for the question because I think you want us to provide some information for storytellers who come to the show. So, some answers here, but let us work on that and provide a platform that gives you good places to go and click on to advance your own storytelling.”

A resource guide for queer creators, especially from the likes of Bryan Fuller, Shudder, and the Queer for Fear team, could quite literally change lives. Even just having the names to the right festivals, agencies, or studios could be a huge step in the right direction, and could mean more queer content in the future. And we all want that, don’t we!?

To say the Queer For Fear SDCC 2022 panel got me even more excited for this documentary would be the understatement of the year, but it’s truly a win-win for me. Not only is this an open door leading straight into the world of horror, but it will challenge me to view the genre in a new light, consider new perspectives, and learn more film history in the process. I can’t wait to get started.

Are you planning to watch ‘Queer for Fear’ when it hits Shudder on September 29?