The Queer Experience and Horror Movies — Talking with Joe Vallese about 'It Came From the Closet'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday February 18, 2023
Originally published on February 3, 2023

A promotional photo for "It Came From the Closet"
A promotional photo for "It Came From the Closet"  

Joe Vallese, an Associate Professor of Expository Writing at NYU, set out to compile a collection of essays that would illustrate a fascinating tenet: that horror fiction — particularly the movies — reflect, in a major way, the realities of the LGBTQ+ experience.

The idea has been explored before, as in "Queer for Fear," a recent four-part docuseries streamed at Shudder that uses interviews with queer creatives and lots of movie clips to explain how classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein's patchwork creature, and the Wolf Man crystallize both heteronormative unease around queer people and the victimization that has befallen the LGBTQ+ members of society as a result.

But Vallese's book, titled "It Came from the Closet," takes things a few steps farther. Each of the book's two dozen essays parallels the author's own lived experience — raw, painful, intimate, and, in each case, extraordinary — with a thematic resonance that the essay unearths, explains, and justifies from a specific film (or, on occasion, two films). Horror can shock and frighten, but the true twist about this collection is how the essays speak to the human heart, and don't simply comment on the human condition.

Cases in point: Themes of body horror resound with personal reflections about being trans, or experiencing health issues. When one writer compares their history of health care experiences with the underlying anxieties explored by "blob monster" movies, a deeper realm of pain and alienation is imparted than any film can capture. In another essay, a deft analogy reveals the sense of erasure that disabled people deal with day after day — something invisible to most of us that, it turns out, is inescapable and omni-present for those who must contend with it.

Vallese himself contributes one of the collection's most heart-rending essays, in which he reveals, with piercing candor, the traumatic journey he and his husband had to endure in order to arrive at the fulfillment of parenthood. Forget slasher flicks that dare you not to cover your eyes; be ready with a handkerchief to dab at them as you read his account.

EDGE chatted with Joe Vallese about the origins of this collection, what went into curating it, and why, even though horror movies have been popular since the birth of cinema, these essays are particularly relevant to this specific moment.

Joe Vallese
Joe Vallese  

EDGE: Between "It Came from the Closet," and Shudder's documentary series "Queer for Fear," it seems as though there's a new surge of interest in looking at the ways in which the horror genre reflects LGBTQ+ experiences.

Joe Vallese: I think that queerness and horror, and the intersection of the two, are meeting a lot on podcasts, on Twitter threads... of course, "Queer for Fear" is sort of a mainstream example of a documentary series that is tackling the issue head-on. I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that more queer creatives are coming of age and finding that horror is a comfortable place to tell stories that don't necessarily fit another genre.

We would be remiss if we didn't say that we lost a large generation of gay creatives to AIDS, and that left a gap. That's where that sort of psychosexual, crazy female thriller thing happened in the '90s and the early aughts, because there wasn't a core group of queer creatives to say, "This is terrible. This is this is all the male gaze." As some of that reclaiming of that gaze, or re-distribution of who gets to tell what stories, I think we're seeing a resurgence of queer stories, or queer-adjacent stories, being told, as well as the reclaiming of horror that feels made for us. I've chatted with a few journalists in the past few weeks because the movie "M3GAN" suddenly became a clear example of a film that is not queer in its content, but is queer in its place in the culture.

EDGE: The horror genre often presents us with figures that are looked upon with horror by "normal people," but the twist is that normal people turn out to be the real monsters. Looking at the way the LGBTQ+ community, and especially trans youth, are being demonized and legislatively punished, this seems like the right time to have this conversation.

Joe Vallese: Absolutely, and it's one of the reasons why I felt so certain that now was the time for an anthology such as "It Came from the Closet." I was waiting around for so long to read this very specific kind of narrative about the queer relationship to horror films. There's a lot of good scholarship about queerness and camp in horror, and the othering of the homosexual, but I wanted to read a more personal essay that reckoned with the problematic nature of our relationship to horror. How do we acknowledge a film like "Sleepaway Camp," which is so transphobic and so homophobic and [was made] at the peak of the AIDS epidemic? "Sleepaway Camp" is a great example of a film that goes so absurdly far in its phobias and its meanness that it kind of loops back into being a queer classic. [Or] "A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part Two," which, you know, the director and the writers claimed was never intended to be a gay Freddie movie, but certainly gay panic and the fear of AIDS influenced and seeped into those stories. So, how do we view those films and feel passionate enough about them to find the ability to turn them on their heads and claim them as our own?

I knew that it was time [for this collection of essays, but] I didn't know people were interested in writing about this. Of course, I was wrong, and I got a deluge of submissions, which is wonderful. But there were some queer writers I solicited who were very blunt about the fact that they feel like being a queer person in this moment feels so nightmarish, especially for trans people, that they want to stay as far away from thinking about body horror and victimization as possible.

A still from "Jennifer's Body"
A still from "Jennifer's Body"  

EDGE: That said, I think for a lot of people the exact opposite is true. When you find yourself in a situation where life is a bit of a horror story, you need a way to work out and represent those anxieties.

Joe Vallese: Yeah, I think that's right, and I think a lot of the essays in the collection represent that. My own essay represents that to some degree, finding an unlikely place of solace and understanding — in a very difficult, specifically queer situation like queer family making and loss — in a movie ["Grace"] that is sort of a schlocky zombie baby film that barely anybody saw. That sort of obscurity made it feel almost like the film was secretly made for me in my grief, trying to create a family as a queer man.

EDGE: I was surprised at how profound and emotional many of these essays are.

Joe Vallese: The cover is so fabulous and so campy, but the pieces inside are anything but; they're serious memoir. There are some light moments, but generally speaking the essays have a particular kind of melancholia — though they're not hopeless; the opposite, I would argue. There's quite a bit of hope in the collection. But I think that they all, in different ways, are confronting the more difficult realities of queerness. Sometimes the movies create light, and sometimes the movies re-frame the darkness for the individual writers.


EDGE: There is an amazing breadth of representation in this book. Was that the kind of diversity you were looking for from the beginning?

Joe Vallese: Absolutely. If we were going to do an anthology that was celebrating the spectrum of queerness, it also had to honor the spectrum of identity. It's a fool's errand to try to represent everyone and everything in one book, but I was mindful of it.

EDGE: Was there a specific commonality you were hoping to find from these various essays, though?

Joe Vallese: My main prompt for myself was that every essay in the book had to have the potential to be somebody's favorite essay. Based on what I've heard over the past few months, that that is proving to be true. Whether it's about gender identity, racial identity, or just the type of experience that's being written about, a lot of different types of queer people are finding themselves in the essays. I'm even hearing from people who don't identify as queer who feel like they appreciate the readings that the book presents.

I also didn't want essays that sort of cherry picked and made something of the movie that wasn't [really there]. There's nothing that is far-fetched in terms of a claim or a thesis about what a film is doing. I think that most readers will be able to understand how and why a writer gleaned something from the film.

EDGE: The other part of that equation is how personal these essays are. Every one of them talks about a personal experience that's often quite emotional.

Joe Vallese: That was the core conceit of the book, and that is how the call for [submissions] went out. They all had to be personal essay/memoir that confronted and reckoned with queer identity and experience and a particular horror movie. There were some wonderful writers who wrote me multiple drafts, but just couldn't get the hang of what I was asking — they couldn't envision it.

"The Blob"
"The Blob"  

EDGE: Did you find that there were a lot of submissions that wanted to talk about the same movies?

Joe Vallese: I received quite a few pitches for "Jennifer's Body," which was Carmen Machado came on board. That was her demand: "I must write about 'Jennifer's Body.'" We weren't gonna say no to Carmen. I had a few pieces on "The Exorcist," and I grappled with [choosing one] until S. Trimble's "A Demon-Girl's Guide to Life" appeared in my submission box, and it was clear that that was the essay for "The Exorcist." I got a lot of work on "A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part Two," which I didn't include in the book because it has been written about so much, but when I saw Tucker Lieberman's piece on the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which is such a wild, experimental piece, I said, "This is what I need to bring this into the book. I don't need to tread similar waters." And there were a few essays on "Hellraiser," but none of them made sense for the collection.

EDGE: That must have felt like something that you wish you'd been able to include, because "Hellraiser" belongs in any canon of queer horror literature.

Joe Vallese: Absolutely! I wish that there was something that worked out with that, but there's so many horror movies and only so many slots, so not every piece of our iconography can find its way into one book. But if I was seeking submissions now, with that remake of "Hellraiser" casting a trans actress [in the role of Pinhead], I think I probably would have received a lot more submissions.

EDGE: It feels like there's still so much to explore on this topic. Could another book, or more than one, follow?

Joe Vallese: I wouldn't say no if there was demand for another volume. One of the wonderful but sad things is how many messages I get from people saying, "I didn't know that this book was being made. I have a perfect essay for this." I think as time goes on, the need for this kind of discourse is only growing.

That said, I also hope that other representatives from marginalized groups pick up the gauntlet and create their own version of this anthology, and I think that that would be really exciting, too. And it might not be specifically about queerness. I want to continue the conversation. I hope that it's saying that horror is for Black women; horror is for indigenous people; horror is for the asexual community. I want more dialogue about our being reclaimed in different corners of our culture, and the subcultures within that. So that's my way of saying yes, I would, I would do it. But I also want to buy those books by other people.

"It Came from the Closet" is available from Feminist Press.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.