An article by Leeroy Cross James
Synopsis: It’s a broad term—The Closet Monster, but one I often think about for the various ways it’s represented in society. Of course, there is the childhood neurosis that many of us can relate with: the hairline crack in the closet door that we used to watch at night, imagining some fearful beast or dark clothed man who was ready to snatch you away. The other—for me—was the monster who consumed my inner thoughts. The monster, created by the society I grew up in, that hid in the closet of my mind, day after day, as I was growing up. This monster was never trying to hurt me—only free me from the confines of societal views. Little did I know, it would be horror cinema that would help to set me free.
From as little as four years old, I can remember watching horror, mostly thanks to my siblings who often cared for me whilst my parents worked. Eventually they just let me watch certain horror films they thought I could handle. One of the first horror movies I remember watching when I was a kid was The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987). The story of a wayward biker gang who lived in a cave by their own rules because of their ‘difference’ from society. So, that’s not the standard synopsis of the movie, but that’s one way of describing the story—a story about being an outcast. It was only in my teens I began to appreciate the darker side of The Lost Boys and see it from the perspective of the vampires. As audience members, we’re not meant to route for David and his gang, but yet so many of us do. My reason? Because my own personal monster empathised with them: they dressed different (or in the words of Mrs Emerson, ‘they dress better!’), looked different and embraced who they were. To me they were these androgynous beings that wanted to rebel. I could relate. As a teen I was obsessed with black—everything I owned was black. I dressed in it, painted my eyes and nails in it and dyed my hair with it. That was who I was and that was who I wanted to be at that point in my life. However, a lot of my life I felt like Frankenstein’s Monster because of the way others would not accept me because of this. They didn’t understand me and like the villagers, they came for me. They may not have come at me with torches and pitch forks, but verbally and sometimes physically that’s what it felt like. That’s the type of monster I was. However, David and The Lost Boys were the monsters I wanted to be—I wanted to be fearless.
After many viewings of a horror film, you start to look deeper behind the meaning of the story—especially when you’re a confused teenager who hides in his room and has little else on their mind. It’s not gone un-noted by enthusiasts or scholars of the genre that the film contains a homoerotic subtext and power struggle between David and Michael. As much as I wanted to be David, I recognised that he was the villain and the monster—Michael’s monster. I saw a lot of myself in Michael, the eternal struggle with new feelings and cravings that he hadn’t felt before consuming David’s blood. Look into that how you will. Often, it’s a battle of will power for Michael and eventually a battle with the monster himself. Ultimately, he never lets the monster win. That’s not to say that Michael never wanted to join the gang and live as an outcast. Perhaps that was the easier option for him. Instead, he chose to live in society as he always had and deal with the struggle. I could understand that completely.
Throughout my childhood and teens, I began to dive deeper into the genre and discover movies for myself, thanks to the local video shop. I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street parts one, three, four and five before I was even a teenager, but I was never shown number two: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985). I can’t recall the reason, but during my many visits to the VHS store with my father, Freddy’s Revenge was one movie he refused to rent—that and The Exorcist. Possibly because at the time it still had a lot of stigma from its initial release. The first time I watched Freddy’s Revenge was when I was well into my black hair and nails phase—when I was Frankenstein’s Monster. I was initially surprised by the context and the blatant homoeroticism of Jesse Walsh, the hero played by Mark Patton. Jesse isn’t your usual outcast—but it’s made clear from the opening that he is an outsider. On the surface he’s just the new kid in town, trying to get by and make new friends whilst being bullied by his demanding coach and haunted by the monster ‘inside’ of him. Behind closed doors, he’s dancing away in his bedroom carefree and embracing who he is. I saw a lot of myself in Jesse, confused by these feelings of control from his monster, trying to navigate relationships with his best friend and his girlfriend and just get through high school in one piece. Jesse was the hero I needed earlier in my life, even before David from The Lost Boys. I wasn’t quite ready for David’s confidence, I felt more content dancing in my bedroom like Jesse where nobody could see me. So perhaps the reason I wasn’t shown Freddy’s Revenge as a child was because of the homoerotic subtext, I’ve never actually asked my parents. Maybe it was because my parents didn’t think I would understand or perhaps they wanted to shield me something I wasn’t ready to understand. Of course, I don’t blame them because by the time I did I see it I could understand that protection. Yes, they let me watch horror movies at a young age, but they understood the difference between fiction and the real-life horrors of society. Little did they know, during my early teenage years I was already living it.
The first time I remember finding another man attractive came when I was around ten and this too came from a horror movie. I was obsessed with as much horror as I could get. Week after week my dad would rent me horror movies from the store and one day, I requested Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985). The story of Charley Brewster who suspects that his neighbour—Jerry Dandridge played by Chris Sarandon—is a vampire. I’m going to take a moment to justify and romanticise this . . . maybe it was the sensual score by Brian Fiedel or the Adonis-like structure of Sarandon’s face, but I was smitten with Jerry Dandridge. Captivated by the way he would stare at Charley, his cheeky smirks, the way he would glide across each frame in such a erotic way—it lit a fire inside of me that I had never experienced before when I looked at a female. It became pretty clear to me not long after that I was homosexual.
The more I watched Fright Night, the more I saw that this too had a homoerotic subtext like The Lost Boys and Freddy’s Revenge. Charley is more interested in Jerry than his own girlfriend, and at one-point watches him seduce a woman from his bedroom window. It seems that everything Jerry does is this film is for Charley’s voyeuristic curiosity. Jerry’s exhibitionist antics is his own way of seducing Charley, and it works like a charm. Charley becomes obsessed with Jerry and drags his girlfriend and best friend into the mix. Enter Evil Ed—another character who clearly lives with a monster that he hides behind his immature laughter and childish jokes. My observation is that Evil Ed just wants to be around Charley and feel accepted by him, going so far as to make fun of him frequently to feel like he’s in on the joke—rather than being the joke. Jerry manages to seduce Evil Ed by seeing right through his disguise, and Evil Ed lets his guard down to allow Jerry to transform him into a vampire—no longer having to hide behind his jokes to be who he wants to be. This moment of transformation always stuck with me because I felt it represented Evil Ed truly letting himself be taken in and appreciated for who he was—by another man, no less. Behind the comedy and the horror of Fright Night, there is a lot of sexual drive in this movie that is often overlooked. Even from that first viewing I saw it and felt it.
Horror movies may be tales of fear, dread and the uncanny, and at their core that’s what makes up the genre we love. The deeper subtexts and context of some of the issues and characters in these films is something we all don’t see collectively as fans or observers—sometimes it’s just personal. My Closet Monster and the monsters of horror cinema seemed to gel and reflect on one another. The examples of characters I’ve used have one trait in common—they’re outcasts. They all present themselves differently to the society in which they have to live and survive. It’s not lost on me that the majority of characters and movies I found myself identifying with involved young adults—because that’s what I was when I tried to piece my sexual orientation and identity together. For a long time, I thought my own personal monster would hurt me and overtake me because I refused to let it out of the closet. And sometimes it did. Sometimes mine was vicious, sometimes seductive and sometimes afraid. So, it’s fair to say that I didn’t just relate to the protagonists in these stories, but the antagonists too. The monster was a part of me that I was afraid to let lose for so long because I finally realized it wasn’t a monster—it was just another part of me. When I released it, I didn’t just open the closet door a crack—I practically ripped the door off its hinges. Just like the monsters of horror cinema, my monster seemed immortal and unbeatable. But what’s the saying? If you can’t be ‘em, join ‘em? Years later, the black clothes are mostly gone—all my hair certainly is—and I live not as an outcast like the horror characters from my youth, but I live in total acceptance for who I am. Society may still see me—and others like me—as a monster, but I don’t fear stakes, torches or pitchforks. If I’m a monster in some people’s eyes, then so be it. I think I’ve made it clear throughout this piece that even when I couldn’t root for myself, I still rooted for the monsters who are overlooked. I still do.