CU Denver Film Professor Excited About Future of Horror | Westword

Andrew Scahill on Queering Horror and Nightmare on Elm Street 2

Horror film gives viewers a way to talk about deep-seated issues in society, like systemic racism, white privilege, and queerness.
Film poster for Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.
Film poster for Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. Courtesy of The End Productions.
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On January 8, GALECA, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, announced its annual Dorian Awards. Among the awardees are 2019 hits such as Parasite, which took home a Dorian for Film of the Year –– as well as Director of the Year, Supporting Actor of the Year, and Foreign Language Film of the Year; Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was awarded LGBTQ Film of the Year; and Cats, which was awarded Campy Film of the Year.

Among the list of winners is a film with Colorado ties: Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, which took home LGBTQ Documentary of the Year.

This striking investigation delves into the gay subtext of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, the sequel to the 1984 hit slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, produced the year after Wes Cravens’s original, was written and directed without Craven’s artistic eye. The film also emerged at a time when Hollywood was staunchly homophobic, the AIDS epidemic was raging, and bright young star Mark Patton was breaking into Hollywood. Cast as Jesse Walsh, Patton played a sensitive leading man. It was his first big break on screen, and has since become what Scream, Queen! asserts was cinema’s first — and most iconic — male scream queen. In fact, the film's title plays on this idea. The scream queen, typically a female protagonist who is a killer's main focus in a slasher film, must come into her own power in order to defeat the killer.

In Nightmare 2, Patton must overcome his queerness to fit in with mainstream society. Patton is gay but was in the closet when he played Walsh. So when Nightmare 2 was widely read by the press and the public as a queer film, Patton's once-bright breakout role ruined his nascent acting career.

At least, that’s what he believes.

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
was the opening-night selection for the Sie FilmCenter’s 2019 CinemaQ festival, held in July. On January 9, 2020, the film was picked up for distribution by Virgil Films. It will be available on DVD and for digital streaming beginning March 3.

In advance of this highly anticipated release, we sat down with Andrew Scahill, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in critical analysis of the horror genre and monstrous youth. Scahill was featured in Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, analyzing the allegory and queer theory behind Nightmare on Elm Street 2, as well as its reception by the LGBTQ community and the public at large.

Westword: You’re an assistant professor at CU Denver, and your specialty is the critical analysis of horror and images of youth in rebellion. What compelled you to pursue that?

Andrew Scahill: It came together through various interests. I was going to do my dissertation on evil children in film. It's just a trope that really fascinated me, and also the Cold War, that period of American cinema. The evil child really comes about during the Cold War. It's a post-war kind of thing. It's about anxiety, about not being able to control the future, the sort of burgeoning youth movement. So I was going to do typology of certain children, what forms they take, what do they tell us about ourselves. And then on the side, I was writing about queer spectatorship, and what do queer spectators see when they go to the cinema, and is it different than other people. Then, the more I looked at the evil child, I thought, well, gosh, isn't it weird that the types of evil children in film, like the child who has the secret, the child who has to go out and find others like them, or the child that's not mine and I have to reject it — like The Omen — or, like in The Exorcist, the child who becomes a monster in adolescence, I thought, well, maybe there's a way of talking about the queer child, for which we don't have a very good vocabulary. So I went with that idea and the idea that the queer child kind of represents the queer monster, the alien within the home that I either have to repudiate or bring back into the fold.

One of the things I do is read The Exorcist against conversion-therapy rhetoric. And it's exactly the same thing. It's this idea of there's the demon inside you that we have to pray away and cleanse your body through this sort of ritual purification. The child gone wrong is both the way we talk about the monster child and the queer child.

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Andrew Scahill speaking in Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.
The End Productions
How did you get involved with the production of Scream, Queen!?

I've always been interested in horror, and I heard about this documentary being made...and I contacted them. Initially, I was just going to have them Skype in and talk to my students in my horror genre class, and the more we started talking, they said, why don't you be part of the film? I was going to fly to New York, but then I found some money to bring them to the university where I was teaching, Salisbury University, and then that all made it into the documentary.

How do you see Mark Patton’s role as Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge representing the things that you study?

One of the things that I like to think about with my students is, how does horror around sexuality coincide with the AIDS crisis and the paranoia that developed around the queer male body? So the vampire film comes back in the mid- to late ’80s and, where they used to be these sort of Romanian aristocracy, when they come back in the ’80s it's like Near Dark or The Lost Boys, where they look like New Wave punks. They look kind of queer. And I don't think that's an accident. I think this sort of anxiety about this new, effeminate man, this sort of Billy Idol-looking creation sort of coincides with the vampire threat, and this idea of dirty blood and infection and perversion. I think it all kind of dovetails together. Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is part of that. What's weird about the film in the franchise is that it's not really a slasher; it's a possession film. In many ways, it's a lot like Carrie, where there's this monster, this power inside him that he has to continually repress. I think it's pretty easy to read the film now as this sort of paranoid anxiety that there is this sort of queer monster inside you, and what happens if you fall asleep? Which has always been part of Nightmare on Elm Street, right? What happens if you fall asleep? For the first film, it's all about Nancy trying to protect her virginity, and in Nightmare on Elm Street 2, it's all about Jesse not giving in to this thing inside him. It's also a tester for: What does a male scream queen even look like? In that sense, it was this sort of spectacular failure. Audiences are not willing to accept this sort of man who is a scream queen, who is a vulnerable, penetrable body, essentially.

Do you think any films since
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 have featured a male scream queen in the same capacity?

I think another attempt, and one that I think is really instructive, is Hostel. I think that film is very interesting in the way that it allows its male scream queen to basically get revenge and turn the tables. But the monster is coded as everything that's not good, red-blooded American male. They're European, they're queer, their torture is sort of depicted as a seduction, and to turn the tables on them, I feel it's this incredibly homophobic move.

Why do you think Patton's is an important story to revisit and to tell in contemporary society?

I think, especially for the generation coming up now, it's easy to forget about the AIDS crisis or to not learn about it. And so it does provide that sort of insight as to what previous generations have gone through. And I think the stories that Mark tells are quite harrowing, about going to a funeral every week, or men just disappearing, and you assuming that they've just died, or people looking like they were zombies, as Mark described. I think we're at a place where it's easy to forget that there was once an epidemic and a plague that no one cared about, because they were victims that the general public considered unworthy of life, essentially.

And if we look at this film from a modern perspective, we have to ask ourselves, how far have we come, exactly? Why is it that we haven't been able to name these things for what they are?

Which things, specifically?

The anxiety around queerness. Because I think a lot of the power of homophobia gets power through subterfuge, through not naming it for what it is, and kind of using these kinds of removes and metaphors when essentially what we're talking about is an anxiety about anything that isn't heteronormative and a part of majority culture. So the work of someone like Jordan Peele — when you start to get minorities actually in the director's chair, getting women making horror films, a genre which is, I would say, up until fairly recently has been really antagonistic to minorities, that's always been about the fear of minorities and pushing them back down — what happens then, when you get minorities making films about the tyranny of the majority and what it feels like to be a minority in majority culture. We're kind of at an exciting time for horror.

At the end of the movie Nightmare on Elm Street 2, screenwriter David Chaskin says that movies manipulate people. Do you think that’s a fair analysis of the medium?

In a certain sense, all films do is manipulate. They use metaphor and visual symbols to move us toward something. But I think intention matters. I think awareness matters. If you give a film that says that queerness is a sickness that needs to be cured, and can only do that through heterosexual romance, it seems irresponsible to use that as a manipulation tactic. And I think David's right. I think that is probably something that's quite terrifying to its young, male audience. But also you have young queers who are watching this as well. And what do they learn from media and these kinds of depictions?

The whole point of the horror genre is to define what's normal against the abnormal, and then how you code the abnormal, I think, tells us a lot about your worldview and what you think is good and true and clean and natural. All those things. But I think this film, in particular, lays it out in pretty clear terms: that queerness is the same as sadism; that Jesse, if he continues down this path...that the coach is what he's going to become if he doesn't curtail his ways. And the coach is a sadistic pedophile, essentially. And a would-be rapist.

Scream, Queen! a film you think you'll work with in your class?

Yeah. I talk a lot about reception, and it's something I'd use in class to talk about what different people see when they go to a film. What does it mean that queer spectators have kind of embraced this as a cult film when it is, I would say, quite clearly homophobic? Does that mean that queer fans are dupes, that they'll grab at any kind of scraps? Or is it something endemic to queer spectatorship that we find enjoyment where it's not intended, through camp? Or that we sort of twist things in order to enjoy them? Or we enjoy things in bits and pieces, and we ignore the things that don't work for us? That's just kind of the toolbox of being a queer spectator.

There's this great story — it's one of my favorite stories about queer spectatorship. There's this film from the ’90s called Personal Best. It stars Mariel Hemingway as a college student who's a track runner who falls in love with her track coach, a woman. And at the end, she kind of learns that what she really needs is a man, and she ends up in a romance with a man. There's this great lore of lesbian audiences going en masse to the film in the ’90s and choosing to leave a half-hour before the film ended. I think it's fascinating, and I think it is how we watch movies.

I do remember, as a kid kind of figuring out my sexuality, I would watch certain parts of Top Gun, and then I would put it away. I would watch the parts that worked for me.

I see.

This is my hope for the horror genre. Because the genre is so good, like sci-fi is, about using allegory to talk about the real. And it's powerful that way, because it presents these sorts of real issues that are often hard to conceptualize, hard to give a tangible form to. Like, how do you talk about systemic racism? How do you talk about white privilege? These are things that are designed to be invisible. And horror gives us a vocabulary to talk about these things, much like Get Out did. And that's the power of the genre. It can kind of make these ineffable things flesh. I'm happy to see filmmakers now able to talk about the experiences of being a minority through the language of horror.

It was interesting to look at the list of other films that received Dorian awards this year and to see so many films, like Parasite, that get at complex issues. It's been an exciting year for horror.

I agree. I'm so pleased with it. We had a brief moment around the ’70s where paranoid horror took a foothold, things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary's Baby were kind of finding out about the tyranny of the majority. Or The Stepford Wives, one of my favorite movies. And then we lost it. We lost it somewhere in the ’80s, and I don't think that was an accident. That was also a return to a kind of conservative core value system. So I am heralding the return of paranoid horror. In fact, I don't think we're being paranoid enough.


Modern horror is so interesting. It's using the same formula as the ’80s — young people being picked off. Paying for the mistakes of your parents is part of the rhetoric of the ’80s slashers and films of today. But today the big franchises are, like, Final Destination, or The Purge, or Saw, or Paranormal Activity, where it's like, yes, I'm still paying for the mistakes of my parents; I'm still in an endless war that my parents created or my grandparents created. But today it's like, I can't even face against the thing that's killing me. In the ’80s, we could defend ourselves against Freddy or Jason, but today the thing has no form. It's a huge machine that will keep existing after I die.

And I think that's how young people feel about the political process today. It is like Final Destination, where I don't have to tell anyone that the president is a liar, or that I'm in a baseless war, or that the government is listening in on my cell phone. All of these things we kind of know to be true, but what are you going to do about them?

Visit Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street online, catch the film at the Sie FIlmCenter on February 15, 16 and 20, or wait for the film to be released via DVD and streaming on March 3.
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