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SLASHER SCHOOL 101: DANIEL SHEPPARD ON 
SLASHER CINEMA AND QUEERNESS IN HORROR

BY MO MOSHATY, DECEMBER 15, 2023

From writing about Queer villainy in slasher cinema to the characterization and identification in contemporary slasher films, Daniel Sheppard takes us from his youth to psychoanalyzing his love for Chucky. Mo Moshaty sits down with the Ph.D. candidate as they chat about loving, and sometimes siding with, the villain.

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MM: II’m so excited that we’ve got the chance to sit down and chat. I feel like we could’ve gone on and on after Cine-Excess in October!

 

DS: Oh God I know, yes this is excellent that we’ve got the time now!

MM: So as most of these things start, can you tell me how you’ve arrived at seeking your Ph.D. in horror cinema?

DS: It’s all going to start off very cliché but, growing up queer in small-town England, I absolutely loved horror films. I was always too scared to physically watch them as a kid but, still, I had this abject fascination with the icons of modern horror: Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface, Chucky, Pinhead, Candyman, you know the ones. So, like, I’d just spend hours on Google looking them up, learning about their franchises, and gawping over

of these monsters while being too frightened to actually watch them in action. Little did I know, so theorists such as Robin Wood and Harry M. Benshoff would teach me, that these hideous beings reflected that sense of “difference” or Otherness that I felt so deeply in childhood. I mean, when I first started reading academic literature, it was like therapy, realizing the unconscious correlation between yourself as a marginalized person and the Otherness that monsters often represent in horror films.

MM: And sometimes within that otherness we begin to discover parts of ourselves we’ve hidden that the characters or even the monsters themselves show so heartily.

DS: Exactly! But, the thing is, there’s more to these films than the monsters. When I finally found the courage to start watching slasher films as a teenager – it was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, of all films, that made me realize they’re not as scary as you think – I realized that I was most drawn to the victims. 

 

MM: The Final Girls and Boys.

DS: You’d think. When I was younger, long before I went into academic reading, I was always drawn to the female victim who dies! Take Debra Hill’s Halloween, for example, and ask yourself who’s the coolest woman in that film. Because we can pretend it’s Laurie but her friends, Annie and Lynda, are such well-rounded, relatable, unapologetic representations of young womanhood. Halloween really invites you to be part of that friendship group and, listening to all their talk, you almost get that sense of being one of the girls. 

MM: I mean at the forefront, Laurie is the most square out of the friend group. PJ Soles’s character, Lynda is romping it up with her boyfriend, you know, a sexually active teen as they were at that time, naturally. Same with Annie played by Nancy Loomis, she’s in her panties most of the film, waiting for her boyfriend, and pawns her little sister off on Laurie to make sure she can get some unbothered. And maybe that’s the arc, right? The meek shall inherit the Earth-type thing – because it isn’t until she has to fight for her life that we see what she’s made of.

DS: But she’s also saved by Loomis in the end so is she a Final Girl in the heroic sense? Not really. 

MM: Loomis coming in at the zero hour. Like where has he been the whole film? Oh right hiding behind a bush near Michael’s old house. Jesus! (Laughs)

DS:  Yes! Very valiant in the end… 

MM: Coming from those slashers, and identifying with the killer and victim, as you grew in your studies, what drew you to the academic piece of it?

DS: I first wrote a very short, very terrible essay as part of a women’s film course. “To what extent can the Final Girl be characterized as a feminist figure in the 1990s teen slasher film?,” or something like that. in which I looked at Scream and Urban Legend. What fascinates me, in retrospect, is that even though I framed this essay through a feminist lens, discussing female spectatorship, I was very much appropriating the vocabulary to make sense of my own viewership. Problematic though it might seem, by discussing issues of feminism and female spectatorship. I was exploring my own subjectivity as a young gay male spectator of these films. I only had 2,500 words so, instead of making an entire thesis out of it, I thought I’d go with the pre-established discourse: women are a marginalized people and feminism accounts for them. But if feminism accounts for women, and I can make sense of my own subjectivity through this, surely feminism accounts for my experiences as an openly gay man too? This really set the foundation for my subsequent academic pursuits: who is feminism speaking to if not only women?

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MM: Additionally who is the message for?

DS: And to situate this messaging in cinematic examples, Scream, and Urban Legend are really important to acknowledge. Sure, Wes Craven directed Scream and Jamie Blanks directed Urban Legend, but the films themselves were written by Kevin Williamson and Silvio Horta respectively -- two openly gay men. It’s said that these films are written to address young women and teenage girls and, at face value, they are. But, given that the so-called “feminist politics” of these films also resonated with me as a gay male spectator, by looking at who wrote Scream and Urban Legend as opposed to who directed them, you realize that I was never reading too deeply into something that wasn’t for me - I was reading between the lines of the homosexual script. I always say, it’s not that queer people read too deeply into things, it’s that everyone else is conditioned to read too straight.

 

MM: If you had a chance to go back, knowing what you know now, what would that once “terrible essay” include?

DS: I actually did have a chance to re-write it, a 70,000-word dissertation!

MM: Oh, wonderful!

DS: I really got to interrogate the pre-established discourse on gendered subjectivity and (post-)millennial slasher films. We know that, following Scream, the slasher film self-reflexively points at itself, calling out the cliches of the subgenre to subvert and/or reaffirm them. Everyone likes to call these films “meta” or “postmodern” or, like, use big words to intellectualize the subgenre. But, given how many of these films are actually written by gay men – and, believe me, there’s a lot - aren’t these films just camp? Don’t these films just use camp aesthetics to comment on a subgenre that has historically erased gay subjectivity? And, by playing with “the rules” of the slasher film and nuanced female representation, these films aren’t just camp for gay male audiences – they use “feminist camp,” to borrow Pamela Robertson’s phrase, to speak to female audiences by the same mode of address.

MM: The rules breakdowns can be fun but trite.

DS: Everyone singles out Sleepaway Camp or A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge as queer slasher films because, at face value, they are. People refer to them as queer because they have queer villains, whether by literal or subtextual means. But, if you look at the amount of slasher films that are written by queer people, you realize that the vast majority of slasher films are queer. Yet, because they don’t necessarily give face to their queerness, most queer-written slasher films simply pass as “straight” slasher films. Slasher as a subgenre is so innately queer, even in the Hollywood mainstream!

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MM: Inexplicably. It’s very easy for folks who don’t want to delve too deeply to say it’s only these films. If you step back and look at it from the marginalized point of view. When you got to expand in this dissertation, was there an intellectual exhalation or did it bring up things that you felt more comfortable saying now?

DS: I’m very aware that my dissertation is coming out at a time when there’s a prevalent “gender critical” discourse surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality. My thesis spends a lot of time talking about gay male spectatorship, female characters, and cross-gender identification, so sometimes I worry about accusations of misogyny and appropriation. But, to my understanding, it’s way more complicated than that. Women have historically been told to go to feminist theory to understand their subjectivity and, in much the same way, gay men have been told to go to queer theory. Yet, as a gay academic, what’s the point of me going to queer theory when queer theory does not encapsulate my life experiences like feminist theory does? My entire lived experience can be framed through feminist theory, including my understanding of cinema, so what’s the point in solely using queer theory because it’s the “correct” thing to do? What’s the point in pretending that I’m solely developing a queer theoretical framework when I actually think it’s a feminist framework first and foremost? This brings us back to the fundamental question: who is feminism for? Because, if it’s going to do good, feminism 

needs to be for everyone and intersectional. Alas, certain types of feminism have no interest in the liberation of all.

 

MM: It’s definitely not the same for everybody. Because people like to cherry-pick what works for them and their own values. I mean if I’m taking an example from where I was born and raised, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who was the epicenter of women’s right to vote is championed the house down and women from miles around stick “I Voted” stickers on her headstone in Rochester, NY,  she was incredibly vocal about making sure Black men didn’t get the right to vote before White women and was famous for excluding Black women in most of the suffrage movement. We cherry-pick the fact that she was exclusionist in turn for us to feel good about the fact that we received the right to vote. 

 

DS: Precisely! And, again, slasher is such a perfect subgenre to look at in relation to this. Theorists often suggest they’re talking about the representation of race in the slasher film when, in actual fact, they’re talking about and centralizing Whiteness. Now, Urban Legend is by far one of the most fascinating films. As well as being openly gay, writer Silvio Horta was a first-generation Cuban-American, and while Urban Legend focuses on a bunch of White college students, it’s really talking about the insidious nature of stereotyping and racial profiling. Rebecca Gayheart, a White woman (spoiler), goes around killing people, perpetuating urban legends that implicate other marginalized groups. So, for example, she kills someone while enacting an urban legend based on gang initiation – that which implicates Black and Latino men – and, at the beginning of the film, an off-White hillbilly that pumps gas is arrested for a murder she commits. Really, the film’s about the urban legend of the White woman’s innocence, and how White people are guilty of the very things they accuse people of color of.

 

MM: Oh 100% in that film –light glazing of subdued contest but it’s definitely there. Rod Serling did a similar thing with Twilight Zone and his stories regarding socio-economic disparity and racism – he set it against the backdrop of aliens or fantasy because it was palpable to the audience that way. What other films do you feel we’re not seeing all the way through to the true nature of?

DS: Child’s Play is rarely discussed as a slasher film because it’s set in Chicago, not the suburbs. Even a film like Fatal Attraction – Carol J. Clover refers to it as a slasher film for Yuppies – which has generated decades of criticism, is not talked about in relation to the cityscape. You’ve got the evil Glenn Close who lives in downtown Manhattan. She has an affair with Michael Douglas (who, I should add, is the real villain of the film!) and, when things go awol, he and his wife move to the quaint little town of Bedford, New York. There’s a real xenophobia to the film that never gets picked up on – the amount of racist jokes in the film is unbelievable, not to mention the misogyny directed at professional women in Manhattan – which points to the city as the site of White patriarchal collapse. Even in Child’s Play, Chucky is the byproduct of Voodoo and black magic in the slums of Chicago, making the point much more explicit. At least Child’s Play is sympathetic in its representation of women – Catherine Hicks plays a single mom trying to make ends meet, looking after her little boy in a crumbling apartment block.

MM: And the class system of it all, she’s a working-class woman that people discount for the lion’s share of the film. 

DS: I mean, Chris Sarandon plays a Detective who functions as husband, father, and savior by film’s end in all but name. You assume he’s in a better financial standing than Hicks’s character on her own. But, before this, you have a working woman on low income trying to hold her own. That’s not to say that all representations of poverty are sympathetic in the film. When Hicks first goes to buy the Chucky doll secondhand off a homeless man, in the backstreets of Chicago, she’s surrounded by dangerous people. Among these people, people of color. This is in the context of White Flight in the 1980s where White people would migrate and leave urban neighborhoods that had become too racially diverse and, thus, “dangerous.”

MM: If we’re still heading through the subject of race and slasher, what’s your view on The Blackening?

DS: Oh my God, it’s brilliant, co-written by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins – a Black woman and a Black gay man. It’s sort of been received as a Black parody of horror/slasher when, in fact, it’s a Black queer feminist parody. There’s this great line in the film: “Gayness is Whiteness wrapped up in a bag

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of dicks.” So, like, even though horror/slasher films increasingly give visibility to “normal” gay representation, The Blackening still pokes fun – the fact of one’s gayness isn’t to be revolutionary!

MM: I’m so interested in what you said about Gay villains because you’ve written a paper on AIDS and Other Killers: Queer Villainy in 1980s Slasher Cinema. Talk to me about that. 

DS: I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the representation of queer villains in 1980s slasher films, analyzing Sleepaway Camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. So, in contrast to my PhD thesis, I was looking at queer representation at face value. Specifically, I was looking at how the queer monster emerged in slasher films of the 1980s as an emancipatory figure in the face of sociopolitical backlash against gay people, what with the AIDS epidemic. 

Using the vocabulary we have today, Sleepaway Camp’s Angela is quite clearly transgender. But, when the film came out in 1983, vocabularies were different and it wasn’t necessarily a given that she was trans. Her gender and sexuality were much more open to interpretation. At the end of the film, she’s naked, and we see her penis. As one character says, “Oh God, she’s a boy!” It’s so ambiguous and there’s no definitive answer as to what she is – any queer person can project their identity onto her. Although this ending is clearly problematic, and I believe it really is grounded in homophobia/transphobia, can queer people reclaim the image and read against the phobia?

MM: And bullying is such a huge catalyst in a lot of horror films, take Jason with his disfigurement and being chastised, being neglected while swimming. Carrie White!

DS: And, indeed, Angela’s tormented relentlessly by her peers. That makes the ending so prominent – Angela’s reign of terror is ongoing. You've got that incredible closing shot where she’s frozen with a shocked expression, mouth agape, a knife still in her hand. She's traumatized. It’s so creepy and unnerving but it’s precisely the unnerving nature of the image that’s so important to politicize. This is what happens when queer people are hurt and oppressed, giving face to our internal struggle. Sleepaway Camp doesn’t give narrative closure and it depicts the direct cause of the effect of bullying, not to mention the need for emancipation. There's something really powerful in that film, even though it was completely accidental!

MM: And especially throughout the whole “don’t feed into your sexuality, kids, or these things will happen to you” strain of horror movies – when you can look at it through the lens of accepting your sexuality where it stands it’s much more palatable. Do you think identification and liberation depiction in modern slasher films has gotten better?

DS: Absolutely, though I think it’s more complicated than a simple shift in representation. I think how people understand identification now is very different to how it was initially conceptualized in horror studies and film studies more broadly. Now, when people watch films, they think that identification is purely about their attachment to one particular character as if they’re bound to them. But, as psychoanalytic film studies tell us, there’s two registers of identification in spectatorship: primary identification and secondary identification. Secondary identification describes our identification with a single character but, in order to achieve this, primary identification needs to happen – the process of identifying with the screen image, the mise-en-scene, everything that’s shown within the frame. Primary identification gives you permission to really tap into the contradictions that occur in film, that ethical slippage, oscillating between different feelings that might seem contradictory but aren’t. Primary identification allows you to feel everything all at once and, subsequently, it doesn’t bind audiences to identifying with a single character at any given moment. This is really important to me, especially when we consider representation and who we identify with in film. Just because a gay character exists, it doesn’t mean that gay spectatorship should be limited to a consideration of that one gay character, you know? There’s so much beauty in identification and the whirlwind it opens up and, if film theorists became more in tune with this component of psychoanalysis again, I think we could start having much more interesting and nuanced conversations about representation.

Wanna hear more from Daniel? Explore his academic publications on horror and queerness here

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