Horror Gave Me Power to Embrace Queerness in Rural Appalachia
"The Wolf Man" helped me process the things that still remain unspoken and unacknowledged with my father
The VHS tapes waited inside a small pull-out cabinet: Frankenstein. Dracula. The Mummy. The Wolf Man. All of these movies had been recorded off Syfy. Early ’90s Sci-Fi Channel, as it was then spelled, was a television treasure. It was dark, it was scary, and to my child’s mind it seemed to reveal the hidden world of unspeakable truths I felt sure existed. Even the channel itself was a secret. Growing up in a working-class family in rural Appalachia, we didn’t always have easy access to nonlocal channels.
My home, like the community around it, was a deeply conservative and religious one. Long before I knew what they thought of queerness, I knew that many in our community, including some of my own family members, believed horror movies were of the devil. The act of watching one opened the viewer up to demonic entities, even Satan himself. That belief makes some warped sense back home, where geographic connections to heaven and hell seem possible. The skies in the mountains are like none I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Looking out in the morning or after a storm, you can see smoke-thick fog rising out of the trees in long plumes to touch the clouds. Valleys and hollows are deep enough, but deeper still are the abandoned mines and runoff lakes that we used to use as playgrounds, both of which have poisoned the dirt and water around them. Pet Sematary doesn’t sound all that unrealistic there. Christian fears of witchcraft coexist with regional folk magic. Phenomena that can only be described as Weird Shit happen all the time, and even many local skeptics believe they’ve personally experienced something that conventional science can’t explain. Sights of unholy form and violence might seem just as likely to open up supernatural contact as staring too long down into one of those howling sulfur-smelling mine shafts.
My father was an anomaly. While he did believe that contemporary, gory horror was wicked, the classics were safe. His only child was allowed to rummage through those tapes freely, and the only movie I was forbidden to watch was, for reasons I never understood, Christine, John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a killer car.
As a small child, I loved all of the old Universal movies, but it was The Wolf Man, director George Waggner and writer Curt Siodmak’s take on the werewolf, that most captured my heart. The fog rolling over the Welsh countryside in the film reminded me of the fog that embraced our hills. The danger of being caught out at night in the woods where dangerous creatures roam was deliciously familiar. Larry Talbot was kind of an oaf, but he seemed predestined to do wrong, and I pitied him as his life spiraled out of control and he became the monster of the town’s nightmares.
Werewolves have always fascinated me. They combine two of my favorite elements in horror: the monster and grotesque bodily transformations. Walking on two legs and still wearing clothes, Larry Talbot’s werewolf was both man and monster. His transformation into the eponymous creature, though perhaps now low-quality in its cheesy dissolves, slowly strips away his identity to replace familiar human flesh with the fur, claws, and teeth of a creature that defies all norms and violates the rules of what makes a good person. Rather than appearing as simply an animal, Larry embodies the Other. The film emphasizes the ability of a monster to lurk inside a seemingly good man in the poem repeated throughout it: “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The real horror in the film isn’t really Larry’s attacks on townspeople but his own monstrosity.
By the end of first grade, I was already a Weird Kid, the kind that horror often attracts. Painfully introverted, bookish, constantly afraid I was the butt of some larger joke everyone else was in on—but also drawn to dark things. I scared my cousins with my own made-up horror stories and got into trouble for it. With the Satanic Panic still fresh in their memories, the grownups seemed to pride themselves on warning me about the dangers that lurked around every corner, waiting to prey on little girls. I didn’t tell them I’d already learned that lesson. I kept quiet partly from humiliation, but also partly because I wanted to protect their innocence. For their own safety, I let them think the monsters on my tapes were the only monsters I knew about.
There’s a greatly mistaken belief that there are no queer people in Appalachia. Let me assure you: there are plenty. Their existence has historically been a quiet one: obscure bars and gathering places, gender nonconforming relatives, men who are “funny but mean well,” stony, unmarried women with lifelong “friends.” Appalachia is simultaneously a terrifying and beautiful place to be queer, and it is also contradictory. There’s a deep sense of danger that being outed could mean the end of one’s livelihood or life altogether, yet amid that danger there’s a solace in the cultural value of being left to one’s own business. The bonds of queer community are hard-won there, but they’re strong, or at least stronger than those I’ve experienced elsewhere, including New York. Outside the hypercompetitive metropolitan world I now live in, where financial, social, and cultural capital often dictate even casual friendships, Appalachian queers seem to recognize each other as partners in the same fight despite our individual differences.
With increased attention to queer issues on the news in the ’90s, our churches and families had to actually talk about queerness, and many did so with disgust they learned from conservative media. Ironically, although it would be a few more years before I linked werewolves to lesbianism, I became consciously aware of the word lesbian as a source of horror from a news report about a fatal dog attack. The woman’s death was, I was told, justice for her crime against God. She was in hell now, but her surviving girlfriend might yet be saved if she repented. God was merciful, after all.
One Halloween night, my cousins and I ran ahead of our parents as we trick or treated. We’d been going door-to-door, but the Dads shouted for us to stop as we crossed onto one home’s lawn. The porch and interior lights were on, the universal signal that trick or treaters are welcome. But catching up with stern, worried faces, the Dads explained to us that lesbians lived in that house. By this point, I had a much more detailed image of what a lesbian was. In the religious tracts that our parents kept in their Bibles, lesbians were ugly, unlovable women, God-haters, predators, child abusers, every bit as perverse as gay men were thought to be. Who knew what they’d done to the candy they handed out to innocent children that night?
As the Dads led us away from the house, I felt as if I’d been the one to do something wrong. But I also hoped those women hadn’t seen us kids coming through their lawn, hadn’t noticed that we never rang their doorbell.
My father was still my connection to horror even after I’d memorized every image and line of every film in the VHS cabinet. He spent many days away from home hauling freight across the country, then he’d come in off the road, shower, and sleep. Like his own father, he was a disciplinarian with a soft side except where sin was concerned. But Friday nights brought out the best in him as we’d sit in the bedroom, where my parents kept a smaller TV, and watch The X-Files.
Stories of filial piety compromised by the son’s shameful otherness have always resonated with me. The figure of the son is key to that resonance some how. My relationship to this figure clearly owes something to Biblical roles of sons, as well as to pop culture’s typical recognition of shameful Otherness in queer men’s narratives while not-always-but-often presenting only a watered-down acknowledgement of those feelings in queer women. It may also owe something to the fact that most of my friends in the teen years of queer realization were queer boys, who treated me as if there were no difference between us. Yet, even those explanations are inadequate. There’s some kind of truth to that role, and any attempt I could make to codify it is certain to become a complicated mess with disclaimers, footnotes, a song lyric, a collection of images sans context. But there would be no comfortable answers, and certainly no easy ones.
Maybe it would have been different if I’d seen Dracula’s Daughter first. But I didn’t find this gem until college, and so, when I think of my father, I think not of the Count’s sapphic daughter but of the Talbot son.
The conflict of The Wolf Man isn’t just between Larry and himself as he becomes a werewolf, knowing that he can’t resist the monster lurking in his own body, but rather between Larry and his father. Portrayed by Claude Rains, Sir John Talbot represents the elitist traditions from which Larry has fled. He speaks with a crisp British accent and comports himself with poise. Larry, meanwhile, is an American whose speech and movement convey a sense of leisure. He is a large man. Compared to his father’s physical slightness, he almost appears as a naive, graceless giant. Yet they do love each other. As the townspeople realize that Larry is the werewolf that haunts the woods at night, Sir John insists that his son suffers from delusions. To him, Larry is sick, under a pagan influence, but curable and certainly not a monster.
At a family barbecue when I was thirteen, the adults sat on the porch and shared their disgust over two women, clearly a couple, who had been in a doctor’s waiting room with me and my parents earlier that day. I’d recently had the surgery that would leave me permanently hard of hearing, but I was still close enough to hear every word the adults said about the couple. They were sinners, monsters, surely a sign that the End Times were upon us. But I’d felt something for those women—not longing or admiration but a fascinated comfort. One woman’s hair was dyed in a black-and-blond pattern I’d never seen before, and the other was called “Daddy” by their son. In the waiting room, I wanted to sit closer to them.
As host of the barbecue, my father put an end to the talk. “I’m disgusted by it,” he said—it now going beyond the lesbian couple to include all queer people. “And I know everyone here is too.”
I wasn’t sure if the kids counted in that “everyone here,” but my heart fell into my stomach when he said it. I wasn’t like those women. I couldn’t be. I’d already had boyfriends. I hated kissing them, hated the way their tongues poked into my mouth, hated the way their hands felt on my skin, but I was a Christian, a model student, a Good Girl. I couldn’t be a monster. But some thing in me was disgusting, and I begged God to take it from me. Within a year, that feeling in my stomach developed into a chronic pain like a fist squeezing my guts every time I felt anxious.
I also met a girl. The girl.
There is something especially visceral about the werewolf’s violence. The vampire’s bite, at least, looks erotic. The werewolf, though—it doesn’t just want a taste or to remake you as its immortal companion. It wants to tear you apart. Lacking any semblance of human morals or even social codes, the transformed werewolf has no compunctions about killing its victims. And unlike the vampire, the werewolf doesn’t need to kill to survive. But it does. And so the werewolf is irredeemable.
The first werewolf of The Wolf Man isn’t Larry Talbot but the fortune teller Bela (portrayed, no less, by Bela Lugosi). Bela looks into Jenny’s palm and sees the pentagram, the in-film sign of the werewolf and a symbol deeply feared within my family. He knows the wolf inside him will want her. Rather than act on the wolf’s desire by allowing her to linger, thus ensuring she is nearby when he transforms, Bela begs her to flee. As she obeys, the camera lingers on Bela, who looks horrified at his own existence—and still attacks her moments later.
His horror is repeated in Larry. The aloof irreverence that so separates Larry from the stuffy old townspeople disappears as he realizes that not only is he a monster but that his condition can’t be reversed no matter what he does. For the rest of the film, his brash American cheer is replaced by depression.
Bela’s mother, Maleva, is the only person who offers Larry real help. Larry watches her deliver a benediction over Bela’s coffin that absolves the werewolf of blame for his own condition. She alone understands that the werewolf isn’t evil. She alone recognizes her son’s and Larry’s suffering under the weight of their own monstrosity. When Larry is caught in a trap, she repeats her benediction and temporarily restores him to his human form. But she can’t offer him any more help. His face is a picture of wild terror as he hears hunting dogs drawing closer. If he is caught, he and Maleva both know, his condition means his death.
Unlike the vampire, who retains enough human consciousness to enjoy the sensations of their new existence, the werewolf has no control over their own body once transformed. Just as they are bitten without consent, werewolves change and succumb to violent animal instincts without any autonomy at all. Despite his masculine posturing and American bravado, Larry is clearly traumatized by being bitten, and his transformations continue to use his own body against him.
I’m old enough and, as an academic, steeped enough in theory to recognize a link between my love for horror, my sexuality, and my trauma. All of it combines in the werewolf and, in my first favorite movie, in Larry Talbot’s growing awareness of his nature and betrayal by his own body. Without knowing what I was angry at, my church taught me that my anger was a sin. But horror gave me a power to reckon with what happened and with my increasing difference. In those monsters, even those who weren’t as sympathetic as Larry Talbot, I found people and creatures like me. A product of Appalachia himself, Pumpkinhead seemed more like a faithful companion than a demon. Chucky gave me nightmares, but these were somehow more comfortable than many other social interactions. Every year at Halloween, a family near Main Street dressed up as famous horror characters to scare trick or treaters. My cousins screamed when the man dressed as Freddy Krueger moved his knife-fingered glove toward them, but I loved him. I’d stand on the dark wooden porch while candy was being dispensed and stare at him, daring him to move, waiting for that thrill. The irony of liking a child predator isn’t lost on me, but back then, Freddy seemed to be just another one of those dark things to which I felt a kinship. Monsters, not heroes, were my friends.
What did terrify me was myself. In my teens it was the slow sense of separation from God and my parents, the mounting interest in girls who were soft and pretty, girls who looked more like boys, girls who were new and looked lost in the hallways at school, girls who made sure their underwear showed through their gym clothes, girls from homes surrounded by junkyards, girls from the backwoods who cursed and wore dirty boots. If I looked at one too long, I could feel the last threads connecting my soul, God, and my family coming unstitched.
At the end of The Wolf Man, Larry is killed by his own father. Sir John doesn’t know the werewolf he beats to death is Larry until it is too late and he sees the monstrous body transform back into that of his son. He looks at the dead Larry and then the murder weapon—Larry’s own cane—with horror. Though Larry is much larger than his father, his death makes him appear smaller and vulnerable. Sir John sees that his son was indeed the monster terrorizing the countryside, but, rather than recoiling from him, kneels beside his son’s body and strokes his face.
My father and I don’t talk much anymore. I’ve moved several hundred miles away and he’s in poor health. He only rarely mentions old horror movies and The X-Files when I visit, but we haven’t watched either together in over a decade. Instead of classic horror, his choice of entertainment now is right-wing religious conspiracy theories, pro-Trump videos narrated by uncanny automated voices, and evangelical sermons on YouTube. He speaks constantly of the end times. He waits for the Rapture, for Jesus to come take His children away from the evils of this sinful world. Whenever we do speak, he reminds me of the need to get right with the Lord so I won’t be left behind. It would be easy to ascribe this to political antagonism, but he means it. He genuinely wants his family to be with him in eternity in a celestial land where there are no monsters.
Ever fearing that I’d turn out to be a lesbian, my mother warned me once that if I was one, to “never to tell Daddy because it would break his heart.” So, I never told him the truth about the girl who stepped out into the hallway while I was skipping world history. Her face still had smears of pale makeup from a scene she’d been doing in drama class. She wore red eyeliner. She told me she’d played Dracula.
My father knows her, but doesn’t know who she was to me then or who she still is now. To this day, my sexuality remains unspoken between us. I pretend most of my daily life doesn’t even exist. Sometimes I think he must know and that he simply doesn’t acknowledge it because doing so would mean admitting that his only child is bound for hell. Sometimes I think he knows there’s something different about me, the same way other members of our community always seemed to, but can’t identify it because surely a girl who elected baptism at only five years old couldn’t be so sinful.
Recently, the woman who used to be the girl who played Dracula asked me what my favorite part of The Wolf Man is. I told her it’s Larry’s first transformation and night as a wolf, but my second choice is that last moment between Larry and Sir John, when Larry is revealed as both man and monster—and, still, a son. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a damn good one.
Excerpt adapted from “The Wolf Man’s Daughter” by Tosha R. Taylor in the collection It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror, published by Feminist Press.