This article contains spoilers for the “Fear Street” trilogy.
Type “queer horror films” into a search engine and you’ll get a bevy of articles poring over every gesture, sentence of dialogue and subtext in movie history, from “Psycho” to “The Babadook.” While queer characters have, in the last two decades, begun to move to the center in films like “Spiral” and “The Retreat,” they’re still too often merely implicit, made to seem like the other, or simply killed off.
But in the director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street” movies, a Netflix trilogy inspired by the author R.L. Stine’s horror series, queer people not only are the lead characters, but a lesbian romance propels the entire narrative. For Janiak, that was intentional. It was an “opportunity to tell a story that hasn’t been told within that genre very often, if at all,” she said. “That involves creating this queer love story that drove everything.”
In Janiak’s recollection, Stine’s stories were mostly “very straight and very white.” But “Fear Street: 1994,” which kicks off the Netflix slasher trilogy that includes successors set in 1978 and 1666, presents a gay Black teenager, Deena (Kiana Madeira), as the heroine. When it comes to her romance with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), Deena allows nothing to get in the way — not a witch (Elizabeth Scopel) who put a curse on her town back in the 17th century, a killer in a skull mask or an ancient evil incarnate now taking the form of a white male cop (Ashley Zukerman).
It’s not easy, as the films show. At the start of “1994,” Deena and Sam have broken up and the latter is passing as straight, with a jock boyfriend to boot, in order to satisfy her homophobic mother and society itself. The ’90s, as any millennial can attest, might have been an era when girls imitated mainstream pop stars like Brandy, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but it also made it hard for those like Deena who fell outside of those cultural norms. She listens to Garbage, rocks oversize flannel and is into girls.
“First of all, she’s not white,” Janiak said. “Second of all, she’s butch. Even if she wanted to try to pass as a straight girl like Sam, she couldn’t. Society looks at her right away and says, ‘I know who you are. I know what you are.’ So, she’s been forced to take ownership of that, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy for her. She’s still a teenager in 1994.”
Other characters throughout the updated “Fear Street” universe similarly defy the typical “wholesome, white final girl” trope that has helped to define the genre. Deena and Sam’s classmate, Kate (Julia Rehwald), is an alpha Filipina American cheerleader. Deena’s brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), spends hours in AOL chat rooms dedicated to conspiracy theories about the countless murders that have plagued their town, Shadyside, for years. There’s also Martin (Darrell Britt-Gibson), the dutiful mall attendant who’s continually profiled by the police.
These characters don’t just play supporting roles or serve as punch lines for the leads. They are the protagonists anchoring the story. In addition to directing a fun, genuinely scary trilogy that thoughtfully pays homage to classics like “Scream” and “Friday the 13th,” Janiak wanted to shine “a light on a whole town of marginalized people that have been told that they’re outside.” She added, “And build that into the DNA. Not just have it be a gimmick of the movies.”
They’re also the heroes. In a tender scene in “1994,” when Sam finally stops denying her feelings for Deena moments before the former becomes possessed, Deena makes a crucial vow to Sam. “Tonight, even though we are in hell, I feel like I have another chance with you,” she tells her. “I am not going to lose you again. Because you and me are the way out.”
This simple statement is often heard in horror, but it’s usually uttered by a man to his female love interest. In “Fear Street,” the promise of a future feels more significant: It signals a change that requires Deena to be sent back to 1666. There, as Sarah Fier, the queer woman who was persecuted as a witch and hanged on account of her love for another woman (also played by Welch), she can seek justice against the same kind of hatred and violence that keeps Deena and Sam apart in the present day.
In “1666,” Janiak wanted to highlight the idea that women who were accused of being witches back then were those who merely didn’t fit the standard.
They were labeled witches “because they were other, because they were looking too long at the other girl, or because they didn’t want to get married,” she said. “They weren’t falling in line with whatever societal lines were.”
As it turns out, the animus that humankind displays — as with Solomon (also played by Zukerman), who rallies an entire town to persecute Sarah in “1666” — is just as deadly as a witch’s curse, if not more so. It allowed Janiak to look beyond the supernatural scares to examine the evils of our fellow man. “That, to me, is always the scariest thing,” Janiak said. “I thought this was a cool opportunity that we could visit crazy genre villains, but then ultimately get to that underlying thing of ‘Who’s the real monster here?’”
Ultimately, the “Fear Street” films are aspirational — though there is obviously much carnage along the way. Deena and Sam help to save the town, but more important, they preserve their love for each other. “The trilogy allowed us to give a little bit of hope that I don’t think usually exists in horror movies,” Janiak said, and with a laugh added, “When you only have an hour and a half, you’ve just got to kill everyone. But the experiment of the movies allowed us to push and question and change things a little bit.”
And it was necessary.
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