Representation matters even in horror. There’s something to be said for seeing yourself in a role other than an emotionally-flat monster or a bit-part side character. There’s a reason for the trope “the Black guy dies first” in such films. Growing up, the only time I saw queer character in horror was as flat-villains or villain-fodder. We rarely got complexity. We never got to survive.
And then, I started reading horror.
Then, I picked up Clive Barker.
While today, the efforts of a white cis-gay British man might not seem revolutionary on the surface, they truly were and are even in a contemporary sense. Clive dealt in what was seen as deviant, not only via queer sexualities and genders, but also in their expressions. The Hellbound Heart and Candyman are his most famous works–both dealt with the horrors of hyperrealities, with the first dealing with the concept of fear of “deviant” sexuality and the other of revenge over past racial wrongs in the United States.
But the one I want to speak on today is Barker’s weird horror-fantasy and lesser known work–Imajica. At its heart lies the sensualist and master art forger, Gentle, whose life unravels when he encounters Judith Odell, whose power to influence the destinies of men is vaster than she knows, and Pie ‘oh’ pah, an alien assassin who comes from a hidden dimension.
That dimension is one of five in the great system called Imajica. They are worlds that are utterly unlike our own, but are ruled, peopled, and haunted by species whose lives are intricately connected with ours. As Gentle, Judith, and Pie ‘oh’ pah travel the Imajica, they uncover a trail of crimes and intimate betrayals, leading them to a revelation so startling that it changes reality forever.
Complicated? Yes. And the revelation is magnificent and I won’t spoil…well, I won’t spoil all of it. But I will say when they revealed who Pie’oh’pah was, really was….
It was the first time as a young adult in the early 2000s that I saw a non-binary character. It was the first time I knew what being nonbinary <i>was</i>. I know these blogs are meant to be mildly more in character than this, but only until you’ve been in the position of finding yourself in the pages of a book, can you understand how important this is.
Pie is also not morally pure. While they aren’t evil, they are flawed and make evil decisions, and it is so so important to see realistic, contradictory, utterly <i>real</p> people in diverse characters and not just cardboard cutouts of perfect morality as an author’s voice piece or attempt at brownie points.
Representation matters, even in horror, and Clive Barker’s work has been formative for so many queer and Black young readers. Just remember, if you feel you have a story in you, but fear that who you are and who your characters are will turn people away…
Try anyway. Write your Imajica. We’ll be there to read it.
What book was the most formative experience for you as a young teen or adult? What book changed your life for the better, if you’ve found it? And if you haven’t, what are you looking for, so we can help you along?
A zip drive arrives at the FBI. On the drive is video of dozen of graphic murders and an implication: the scions of a wealthy family are more monstrous than anyone might guess. THE FBI agents and Georgia AG’s office intends to bury them, but evidence is scarce and facts aren’t lining up. What’s more, one of the agents keeps having a feeling that something is going on beyond murder for revenge or profit–something occult. With everything already seeming too circimstantial for their liking, it’s not as if they can pursue what amounts to an X-File, but Agent Baylor is… He’s having strange dreams. Nightmares. As the trial and a verdict looms ever closer, it’ll be up to the FBI agents to make sure to close the case on the seven young adults who seem to have the whole world fooled.
Hey y’all! Those of you who know me, know that I have been working awhile on a narrative fiction podcast project. Thanks to my supportive friend-based team, we now have social media for the podcast! Give us some follows at the following links to see progress, videos, art, and updates!
As discussed before, the anxieties and delusions driven into the societal mainstream during the era of Satanic Panic were largely reactionary to the contemporary gains made by feminism and queer rights. Michelle Remembers placed the blame of abuse on her mother for leaving her in the care of others–a parallel for the soon to occur daycare abuse allegations made during the era. In fact, one may look beyond Michelle Remembers to other mass media paperbacks of the time to see this reactionary blowback.
As documented thoroughly by Alison Nastasi in her essay “The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks,” publishers began aping on the success of stories like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (as well as so-called “non-fiction” accounts like Michelle Remembers) by releasing their own original stories steeped in the societal fear and fascination of Satanism. The books often focused on female possession victims, painted luridly on the covers in compromising positions. At the forefront of this movement was Russ Martin, an erotica writer who spent 1978-1988 penning novels of “unholy passions” with the Devil.
Martin’s and similar books were reflective of the growing complexity of gender relations. According to Nastasi, these books “equated fears of feminism with the moral panic that spread through the decade.” Like many erotica novels, they followed a certain script: women are stripped of their agencies and become sex slaves to dark forces. Martin’s books focus on physical and psychological domination of women, women in perpetual victimhood, and eventual outright physical enslavement. Some of the women were queer, yet were stripped of their orientation and identities via these demonic incursions.
Playboy heralded his work as feminist, since the stories took place from the women’s perspective.
During the Reagan era, many of the former disciples of free-love turned their backs on their previous beliefs and became even more strongly convicted by conservative dogma and Christian morality. However, this new cultural Crusade did not align so well with more secular cultural morality. More women than ever were working outside the home, and–while feminists themselves were divided on the concept–sex positivity was coming forward as a leading movement, including sex positivity for queer cis women.
Martin’s books, and books similar to them, were bringing forth a new type of horror to the conservative American household. The devil was truly real, and he was luring American women and children to the dark side. In Nastasi’s words: “Martin’s books brought these fears to light, exposing fantasies about control (or lack thereof) and fear of the changing social tide, encouraging a queasy relationship between the reader and female subjects–one where they are both turned on and punished at the same time.” These stories are a vehicle by which women are told their sexualities are of the devil; in such a worldview, enjoyment and punishment must be one and the same. Martin also makes sure to punish trans women in his narratives, as well; in The Destruction of Susan Browning (one of his more famous works), the trans woman in the story is a seductress, forcing the main character’s husband to leave her and sell his soul to the devil. While Playboy was championing women’s right to contraception and abortion, they were (unsurprisingly) simultaneously publishing these stories.
No type of woman–trans or cis, straight or queer–may win in Martin’s world: they exist only as victims or villainesses. And that was the brush with which women became painted in during the Satanic Panic, both then and now.
In 2009, the world watched in a mix of emotions as Amanda Knox was placed on trial for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Both women studied in Italy, and the Italian courts were dead set on using Amanda’s strange trauma and the date of the murder being All Saint’s Day as evidence that the murder was Satanic ritual abuse. Despite DNA evidence pointing to another person (who was eventually convicted), the trial dragged on, painting Knox and her boyfriend as satanic deviants. There were also plenty of accusations of Amanda being the person who sexually assaulted Meredith, painting the former in the trope of “psychotic bisexual.” She was acquitted, reconvicted, re-acquitted, and fully exonerated by 2015; understandably, she refuses to return to Europe as those who still believe her to be some Satanic deviously queer murderer have a strong presence
This ties again to the fact that the modern Satanic Panic is largely affecting queer (or perceived to be queer) Americans as opposed to more liberated cishet women alone. In “Why Satanic Panic never really ended” by Aja Romano of Vox Media, they discuss the history of the Satanic Panic and how we are now seeing it tie heavily to queer identity. Even beyond the supposed ending of the phenomenon in the early 90s, the panic persisted on for queer people.
“In 1997, four lesbian women who became known as the San Antonio Four were targeted and wrongfully convicted for child molestation claims. Their trial played out against a resurgence of Satanic Panic tied to homophobia in a conservative state, and their fight for justice lasted nearly two decades. All four women spent 15 years in prison before having their convictions overturned in 2015 and ultimately expunged in 2018.” [Romano, 2021]
With the recent decisions by the SCOTUS to dismantle privacy laws, it’s no wonder we of the queer community are sitting by in quiet desperation and worry.
Recently, the infamous music video for Montero by Lil Nas X, in which the rapper gives a lurid lap dance to Satan, may be seen as edgy fun to one group; however, to those who follow evangelical and QAnon movements, it was proof of queer ties to Satanic cabals that secretly wish to control and chage the bodies of children to “aberrant sexualities and genders.” Even in the arts, where queer people have typically found more freedom throughout history, we are unsafe from these accusations of satanic ritual abuse merely through acts of self-expression.
In an odd tie back to literature, nowhere is the public seeing this more clearly now than the protests against and shuttering of many libraries, particularly smaller libraries in rural areas. The American Library Association has faced more book challenges than in decades, mainly for books that contain elements of social progress, queer existence, or discuss racism. The most-challenged book of 2021 was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, which was challenged, banned or restricted because of LGBTQ content.
The connection of any sexuality outside of Christian patriarchal norms has been a driving force throughout the Satanic Panic, showing up again now in full force. It chants about groomers and throws rocks at drag queen story hours and burns books that contain any deviation from white cishetero hegemony.
For queer people and even some cishet women who deviate from patriarchal expectation, the danger is inside the house, trying to corner us into a closet where it can finally strike like Michael Myers to Laurie Strode.
Let’s Final Girl this shit once and for all.
In the next installments we will talk about how the Satanic Panic hit the nerd community, specifically cultures surrounding goths, metalheads, horror fans, and D&D players.
Janisse, K.-L., Corupe, P., & Nastasi, A. (2019). The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks. In Satanic panic: Pop-cultural paranoia in the 1980s. essay, FAB Press Ltd.
Junot Diaz once wrote on the subject of representation and monstrosity:
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”
I cannot, of course, speak to the experiences of a person of color who grew up not seeing themselves. As a white kid in rural Tennessee, in a town that was just about as blindingly Caucasian as one might expect, my media had plenty of mirrors–plenty of stories of kids who looked like me.
What a weird funhouse mirror trick, huh? Shows you what’s on the outside, but none of what’s on the inside. Probably for the best though, considering what cracked and garish mirrors did exist for what I hadn’t yet realized was the truth of myself.
Villains or victims. Vampires too if you just barely squinted at the new wave of vampire media in my youth–Lost Boys, Interview with…, etc.
White queer kids got a right to see ourselves but only so long as we never actually saw the cause behind what made them dreadfully different. As long as by the end of the film, we got the reminder that all that waited was death for the vampiric villains.
Let’s not even talk about supposed representation for those of us who were also neurodivergent or disabled.
Still, I guess horror was the only place I could see anything in the mirror that wasn’t someone else entirely. There’s a comfort to that, I guess?
Not that horror wasn’t fun too! I was way too enamored with the aesthetics of the spooky and the forbidden fun the genre offered to even realize why I love the genre so much on a whole other level till I was an adult. Horror for kids in the 90s was a booming industry, with Goosebumps books at every Scholastic Book Fair and Disney Channel offering a new spooky original movie every October. I wasn’t the only kid hooked by the genre well into adulthood, even without all of us crossing those same intersections of identity on the way.
Still, the way I’ve approached my love of horror over the years is from a perspective of multiple identities for myself (queer, neurodivergent, disabled) and from an empathy and attempts to understand others through that same lens. It’s my intention through this blog to analyze horror media, particularly film and literature, through a lens of identity.
I go by Res. The name Novel Divergence combines my neurodivergence and love of literature–and also my love of puns and play on words. I have degrees in graphic design and art history (B.F.A.x2), English Literature (M.A.), and Education (M.Ed.), from a couple different universities in my state. My capstone in design was on queering propaganda posters, my art history final journal article was (disabled) queer themes permeating the works of Warhol, my M.A. final work was on the queer themes of Victorian era Gothic Horror, and my M.Ed. proposal was on disability representation in children’s literature. After a stint of doing other jobs and taking time for my health, I taught various grade levels for about five years. Eventually had to quit due to an injury caused by a student, that I might address in a later post.
Pronouns for the purposes of the blog are they/them, though I answer to any of them really. I work in hospitality in a large tourist city, in a decently bougie hotel. Been with my partner for over a decade now. No kids, no intention of kids. Cats though! Got a lot of them lil bastards!
As for neurodivergence and disability, I’m on the double axis of ADHD/autism, C-PTSD, persistent depressive disorder (previously called dysthymia), and general anxiety disorder. With a light peppering of psychotic episodes–you know, for funsies. Physically, I have a systemic genetic disorder of the connective tissues, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, hEDS type. This is comorbid to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Mass Cell Activation Disorder (MCAD), and even Tempero-Mandibular Disorder (TMD) to name just a few. I’m a mobility impaired medical atrocity! Fun fun.
I use the general blanket term queer as a descriptor. While I’m definitely nonbinary, I interact on different areas of the gender spectrum in different aspects of life, some out of freedom and some for the sake of personal safety. I’m definitely on the multi-attraction spectrum, and while I self-identify as bi, pan is also a decent descriptor tbh. I also use the term queer, though I know some don’t care for it–I didn’t for a bit either. When and where I grew up, it was very much a hurtful term. Still is for some people in some places, and I respect that. I won’t use it for another person if they express discomfort with it, but I prefer it to self-identify and use in an academic context as it has come to be ubiquitous in academia.
There’s definitely more about me that’s interesting, I suppose, but those are more for later entries.
That Diaz quote from above had a bit more to it, fyi.
“And part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
I eventually realized that the mirror handed to me that showed what I looked like so clearly on the outside was a funhouse mirror of its own: a trick mirror made by society to keep people in the roles deemed most appropriate by the powers that be. The scary mirrors, the one painted with monsters and madmen, are sometimes the more “real” even if they aren’t representative of everyone.
I’m not here to excuse the way horror has reinforced cultural prejudices, to be clear. But for those of us who felt more comfortable in the strange, who felt more empathy or recognition for the “monsters”…
Even if the mirror didn’t show your reflection, I still see you. I hope I can help see yourself better, through this project, even if just a little.