Welcome to the latest installment of our 2022 Pride Month Series! For the entire month of June, we will be highlighting different members of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think are great examples of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s spotlight features the Fear Street franchise, which took queer subtext in horror and made it the primary focus.
Horror and queerness have a messy relationship. Villains are often queer coded both explicitly and subtextually. The victims in the slasher genre tend to be those who are different in some way, whether that be due to their race or sexuality, while the ones who survive are presented as “good” (virginal, likely white, and straight-presenting). However, horror has also been one of the few genres comfortable including both openly LGBTQ and queer coded characters, even if their ends are grisly. Scream and its follow-ups have long mocked and subverted these tropes. But it’s taken a while for queer characters to not only survive but be the leads in their own stories, Freaky being a recent example. 2022’s Scream also finally brought an explicitly LGBTQ lead to the franchise in Mindy (the subject of her own Pride Spotlight this year).
But Fear Street, Netflix’s slasher trilogy, presents a mainstream queer horror with a lesbian love story at its center. Loosely based on the classic 1990s book series by R.L. Stine, Fear Street centers on Deena and Sam. Both are queer, but while Deena is essentially forced out of the closet because of her choice in clothes and music, Sam is straight passing. Their relationship is rocky, with the first film, Part 1 — 1994, showing the pair breaking up. Sam is scared to invite the wrath of her homophonic mother by being with Deena, while Deena faults her for not being willing to fight for what she wants. The symbolism is explicit from the start. Deena is a Black, out lesbian in the cursed town of Shadyside, while Sam is the white, blonde, and closeted cheerleader who is able to blend into Sunnyvale. When bodies start piling up due to a serial killer, the duo and their friends are forced to confront the evil that has terrorized Shadyside for hundreds of years.
At first, it seems like Deena or Sam would be an ideal candidate to fall victim to the murderer. But over the course of the trilogy, expectations are upended and examined. It turns out that the witch who placed her curse on Shadyside was murdered by homophobic townspeople, a plotline given its own film in Part 3 — 1666. The ugly curse spawned by that original prejudice has bubbled up through the centuries and caused havoc in the form of Sarah Fier’s possession of various characters. But right alongside that righteous anger warped into evil is the regular old homophobia and racism perpetuated by the humans in Shadyside and Sunnyvale. It’s the classic “who is the real monster?” horror trope reimagined, and it is effective.
Tonight, even though we are in hell, I feel like I have another chance with you. I am not going to lose you again. Because you and me are the way out.Deena, Fear Street, Part 1 — 1994
Director Leigh Janiak pushed for the leads to be queer from the start, noting the lack of diversity in the Fear Street books beyond some queer coding. She told Pride Source that, “Obviously, queer representation in horror movies has a long and complicated history, for the most part. We’re only seeing ourselves on screen as monsters or as victims. You know, maybe I don’t always want to be the monster. I don’t think that there’s a reason why the queer people always have to see themselves that way.”
The fact that Deena and Sam both survive, and that their love is not only key to stopping the curse but also the throughline connecting all three narratives, is a huge shift for a genre-long content to push queer characters into supporting roles at best and kill them horrifically at worst. Deena and Sam are also not victims of “are they or aren’t they” subtext — the films uphold their queerness as a vital part of both their identities. While films written in the 1990s and earlier had to deal mostly in subtext in order to get by studio censors and remain commercially viable, in the 2020s this is far less excusable. Writer Phil Graziadei, who is gay, expanded on the importance of this kind of representation in an interview with Them.
“We wanted to do something else with this, like the kind of movies that I didn’t have when I was a kid growing up, where you don’t have to look for yourself in the subtext. By pulling our characters out of the subtext and putting them in the spotlight, we were able to address a whole lot of other things under the surface.”
The Fear Street trilogy is a horror franchise for a new generation, righting some of its predecessors’ wrongs while telling an entertaining story. For any kid who grew up reading Goosebumps and the original novels, this trilogy offers scares and new heroines to see themselves in.
The Fear Street trilogy is available to stream on Netflix. Stay tuned for the rest of our Pride Spotlights!