Book Review:

 Queer for Fear: Horror Film and the Queer Spectator, by Heather O. Petrocelli

Reviewed by Pace Warfield

Review of Heather O. Petrocelli's Queer for Fear: Horror Film and the Queer Spectator, University of Wales Press, 2023. 288 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1837720514). Kindle (ASIN: B0BSKZ27KR). 

I host a queer horror podcast called Horror Nerds at Church. Each week, my co-host and I look at a horror film and talk about how it connects to queerness and religion, noting how the horror genre is influenced heavily by the queer and the religious, an overlap that has been ignored for far too long. While, as one example, Eleanor Beal and Jonathan Greenway edited and published the volume Horror and Religion: New Literary Approaches to Theology, Race and Sexuality (2020) under the University of Wales Press’ “Horror Studies” series, creating an entry point for scholarly study of the overlap between religion and horror, and while queer horror as both a genre and a fanbase has exploded in popularity in the past decade, there has not been a systematic and empirical analysis of the queer horror audience—at least, there had not been until Heather O. Petrocelli’s Queer for Fear was published last year (2023), also under the University of Wales Press’ Horror Studies series.

Petrocelli begins by noting the ways in which queerness and horror have gone hand-in-hand, at least in Western culture, nearly since the inception of horror as a genre, while also drawing attention to how underrepresented the queer audience is in empirical studies of horror audiences. To address that, Petrocelli created an oral history project, “The Queer for Fear Oral History Collection,” which surveyed over 4000 self-identified queer participants, the largest queer horror spectator survey to date. The results, as collated and detailed in the second chapter of the book, are fascinating and, as is typically the case of queer studies, challenge popular notions about who is consuming horror and the reasons why spectators interact with the genre. Just as one small example, for instance, the survey found a gender balance among queer spectators of horror, going against the popular and common assumption that horror is primarily consumed by cis straight adolescent and young men.

From there, Petrocelli jumps off into the richness of discoveries and observations from the queer oral history project, particularly around what draws queer audiences to horror. For one, it is the aforementioned inherent queerness of the genre: queerness itself is genre defying and deals with the margins of society, peeking under the curtain to see what monstrous shadows lurk underneath; so, too, is horror. Petrocelli also notes the importance of camp to horror; camp has long been a queer aesthetic (and not just the aesthetic of gay men, Petrocelli argues), and the excess of camp is apparent in horror: from gore to elaborate set pieces on the one hand, from campy dialogue and cheap, visually unconvincing effects on the other. “Horror and camp share core attributes that resonate with queer spectators,” Petrocelli posits, and not least of all is the excess of trauma (149). Trauma is one of the most enduring entry points of the queer spectator to horror, with over 85% of oral history participants noting that horror films are cathartic in that they allow the spectator to engage with trauma in a relatively safe way. Petrocelli notes how to be queer in a cis-heteronormative hegemonic society is in and of itself traumatic, and the horror genre allows queer people to connect with trauma: “queers feel seen by horror because they recognize a kind of kinship between the trauma shown in horror films and their embodied queer traumas, as both societal victim and monster” (132). This binary opposition of victim and monster is perhaps the most obvious connection between horror and the queer spectator: much has already been written about the queer coding of villains, even more so in horror films, that can give the queer spectator a cathartic vehicle to take revenge.  But there is also the connection to the survivors of the trauma, e.g. the ways in which many queer folks celebrate the final girl.

I thoroughly enjoyed this ethnographic study of the queer horror spectator. Petrocelli is a master of the interdisciplinary, genre-defying queer theoretical framework and applies it expertly to the analysis of the Queer for Fear Oral History. This volume is essential for anyone hoping to learn more about the horror audience, particularly the queer audience who has for too long been understudied and underrepresented by the academic side of horror studies. However, the book is sadly just an entry point; there is much more work to be done. Hopefully this book will be a catalyst for further study, as “[e]xamining the queer is crucial to understanding horror” (30).

-14 April 2024