[Horror Queers] The Horrors of Coming Out in ‘Closet Monster’ & ‘Bugcrush’
Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Closet Monster and Bugcrush follow.***
Synopsis for Closet Monster: Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup), a creative and driven teenager, is desperate to escape his hometown and the haunting memories of his turbulent childhood, including a challenging relationship with his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams).
Queer Aspect: Oscar is a closeted teen who falls in love with a co-worker, but suffers from paralyzing psychosomatic pains when he gets turned on as a result of seeing a horrific gay bashing at a young age.
Alright, let’s get this out of the way straight away: Closet Monster is not a straight-forward horror film (Trace, I remember describing it to you as a “coming of age drama with horrific elements”). The reason I wanted to examine Stephen Dunn’s film is because, more than any horror film with LGBTQ+ elements we’ve watched in this series, all of the horror elements in Closet Monster are intrinsically linked to its queer content. While most of the film is a coming of age drama about a young artist coming to terms with his sexuality (a homo film staple), every time sex enters the equation, the film reverts to a body horror film, complete with blood, sexual assault and rebars puncturing guts.
And if people really have an issue with it, I partnered it with Carter Smith’s completely traumatizing short Bugcrush, which we’ll get to shortly.
Justifications aside, I completely adore this film. It has a quirky sensibility, which is embodied in Oscar’s love of monster movie makeup and, most specifically, in the form of Buffy the hamster, Oscar’s spirit animal (voiced by the incomparable Isabella Rossellini!) Dunn’s script adheres to many of the expected tropes of queer coming of age films (falling for your straight friend, coming out to your parents, engaging in sexually confusing encounters with a best friend), but finds new ways to keep them from feeling stale. Throw in a very solid performance from American Crime star Jessup and Closet Monster is all around great.
But let’s talk about the horror.
To me, Dunn’s smartest decision is the visualization of Oscar’s (closeted) trauma about his sexuality. The opening of the film clearly establishes a linkage between notions of traditional masculinity, Oscar’s close relationship with his father Peter and that savage attack in the cemetery that leaves an unseen gay boy paralyzed. The perfect confluence of these factors cements in Oscar’s mind the idea that sexual desire for other men is undesirable, punishable and leads to physical endangerment. I love the fact that Oscar’s sexuality is never in question – I read his brief kiss with Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) as friendly affection more than her questioning him; Closet Monster is less interested in Oscar’s realization that he is gay than it is in exploring how damaging it is to live an inauthentic life. Rather than simply show Oscar struggle with his demons, though, Dunn makes the monsters literal and visceral. By maintaining a close control of how frequently the episodes occur and how they are visually represented, Dunn amplifies the horror so that when Oscar is sexually assaulted at the party or discovers the rebar poking through his insides at the climax, it is all the more upsetting and horrific.
Trace, as a first time viewer, what did you think of Closet Monster? Do you agree that the marriage of horror and coming of age drama helps to distinguish the film from other, more traditional queer films? Also: did any of the awkward junior gay moments remind you a little too much of your own coming out? (I know I shuddered with familiarity more than a few times).
Joe, you’re right about Closet Monster not being a horror film, but all of the moments of body horror more than justify us covering it for our Horror Queers series. Also, I looooooooooooooved it. It was so good and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before (my husband wanted me to let everyone know that he tried to get me to watch it two years ago but I turned down the offer so…shame on me). I’m so happy I watched it after Bugcrush because I needed that pick-me-up. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Bugcrush but holy hell did that ending gut me. I now see why director Carter Smith was chosen to direct the film adaptation of The Ruins which, coincidentally, I wrote about last month to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.
Anyway, back to Closet Monster. This was such a refreshing piece of cinema for me because it takes a lot of familiar tropes of queer coming-of-age films and puts such a fresh spin on it. It really is a fascinating (and beautiful) work of art. Linking Oscar’s (Jessup, in a wonderfully nuanced performance) struggle with his sexuality to the brutal hate crime he witnessed as a 9-year-old gives the film such a visceral feeling that almost perfectly represents the mental back-and-forth struggle many members of the queer community experience in their youth, especially if they had a religious upbringing.
This may be a little too personal, but I’ll go with it: I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and was raised Catholic. While my family wasn’t super religious, we did go to church every Sunday. I went to catechism classes and I went through the sacraments (communion, confirmation, confession, etc.). I had a clear idea of what the church thought of homosexuality and, really, sexuality in general. So I created this idea in my head that God was keeping a track record every time I had a gay thought or whenever I masturbated (self-pleasure is a sin, don’t you know?) and making something bad happen to me for every sexual sin I committed. So if I had a bad day, or failed a test, or something didn’t go my way, I thought it was God just checking off one of my sins and paying me back for it. It wasn’t until I really came to terms with my sexuality (and started having sex) that I stopped having those thoughts.
Watching Closet Monster brought back those feelings I used to have as a pre-teen and it was uncomfortable to say the least. I am a big proponent of sexual education and anti-shaming because of my experience growing up. Oscar’s struggles don’t seem to stem from religion (I don’t believe religion is even mentioned in the film, something I found to be quite refreshing), but the struggle is there and it is real.
Watching Oscar pull a rebar out of his stomach (the same one that was shoved up the anus of the gay man he witnessed being beaten) or vomit up pieces of metal after having anal sex for the first time is a literal interpretation of the nausea he is feeling over his actions. Maybe it’s not like this for everyone, but I connected to it on a deeply personal level because I had that fluttery stomach during most of my initial sexual experiences and when I had gay fantasies that I thought (at the time) were wrong. Oscar has been scarred from witnessing a hate crime, and also grew up with a homophobic and immature father, which made his already natural reticence to accept his homosexuality even worse. One thing I did want to mention is that I didn’t view his sexual experience at the party as sexual assault. Yes, he was high on what I presume was ecstasy or molly, but I didn’t view it as a rape. Maybe I’m being dense here though, so at the risk of opening myself up to abuse in the comments I’d welcome a dissenting opinion on that scene.
Oscar’s experience can be directly contrasted by Ben’s (Josh Caras) in Bugcrush. Where Oscar works to accept his queerness and find peace, Ben has already made that step and is punished for it in what has to be one of the most difficult-to-watch scenes I have seen in quite some time: he is drugged by the object of his affection with magical bugs and gang-raped by him and two of his peers. Roll credits. Yikes.
Joe, I think I answered your questions about Closet Monster, and I think I made a lot of my response about me, but I just connected to it so much! Now tell me about Bugcrush. What made you decide to pair it with Closet Monster, and what was your reaction to it? Did you, like me, think that it would have a happy ending? Or could you see the endgame coming a mile away? Do you think there is any additional symbolism to the bugs other than being a stand-in for date-rape drugs? Lastly, both of these films have pretty gruesome moments of body horror. Why do you think that is so effective as a metaphor for wrestling with sexual uncertainty?
I’m glad that you had such an emotional connection to both films because I know that on my first watch, I was completely affected. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one!
Closet Monster is just so effective at capturing that uncertain time in your life when you know who you are, but you’re not quite ready to begin expressing it publicly. Even though I saw it long after I came out, it immediately brought me back to that (head) space, which is hilarious because I’m one of the privileged few who had a very smooth experience (no family drama, no estrangement, ready acceptance by friends). I can’t even imagine introducing a religious component into that powder keg of emotions, especially if it’s a significant component of your upbringing. Kudos to you for sharing that; I imagine that a lot of queer men and women from religious upbringings have to contend with similar fears and ideas; I hope that people feel safe enough to see this space as an outlet to share if they need it. We’re not professionals or anything, but we are a community and one of our goals with this series has been to bring people together.
Ok, I guess I’ve delayed addressing Bugcrush as long as possible. Oof…what a terrible little short (by which I mean it’s amazing, but so, so hard to watch).
I haven’t seen Bugcrush in several years, but it still evokes an uncomfortably visceral reaction in me. I came across this when I was looking for a companion film to screen with Hellbent for the Queer Horror week of the slasher course I was teaching and I was immediately drawn to its dark and nihilistic tone. In hindsight, I can’t believe I made 18-19-year-olds watch this!
I suggested pairing this with Closet Monster because I see them as two sides of the same coin. If Oscar’s journey to self-discovery is peppered with moments of darkness that he ultimately overcomes, Ben’s grim ending is the very real alternative. The fact that Carter’s short ends in such an open-ended, horrifying fashion makes it all the worse: the best case scenario (if you can even say that) is that Ben has been sexually assaulted; it’s just as plausible – given the dialogue in the car ride and the sounds of the beating on the soundtrack – that he doesn’t survive the encounter. Carter’s refusal to offer closure or resolution of any kind is agonizing and really hammers home the dangers that can accompany anonymous sexual encounters for queer youth in less open communities.
The ending packs a wallop, but Bugcrush’s greatest asset is its pervasive ominous tone. I forced my husband Bryan to watch with me and the moment that Ben walks into the woods to smoke with Grant (Donald Cumming), Bryan immediately became uncomfortable. Cumming is quietly menacing as the bad boy who is new in town and it’s clear from Grant’s first encounter with Ben that he’s preying on him. The power of the short is that Carter’s screenplay keeps you guessing where the bad shit is coming from: initially we’re led to believe that Ben will be gay-bashed, then it shifts into a bad drug situation and finally, after Grant paralyzes Ben and begins to remove his clothes, it becomes a sexual violation. In this way, the bugs act as horror movie stand-ins for real-life horrors just like Closet Monster, but their otherworldliness offers no respite from the traumatic events that conclude the short. It’s just so horrible.
Before I hand it back to you for final thoughts, however, I do want to address the sexual assault in Closet Monster because it is absolutely rape. Sure Oscar has a connection with the hottie on the dance floor, but he cuts it off when it becomes too physical and retreats to the bathroom. The mystery boy then forces his way in and initiates sex – this despite the fact that Oscar is clearly intoxicated and unable to communicate consent. Oscar’s inability to do so is what makes it a sexual assault and his retreat from mere touching on the dancefloor suggests that full anal penetration (yes readers we are going there!) is much further than he would have been comfortable with even if he had all of his faculties.
Back to you, Trace: do you agree that Bugcrush is the darker, flip side of Closet Monster? Is there another queer horror coming of age film that offers a different take? And (question for both you and readers), are either of these films as impactful if you don’t self-identify as queer?
Okay, so I’m going to go out on a very thin limb here and just say that if that sexual encounter in Closet Monster was rape, then the film doesn’t do a very good job of framing it that way because not enough information is given to the audience about Oscar’s feelings about it. I will defer to the commenters though because I fully realize this is a very sensitive subject and I don’t want to claim to know what qualifies as rape so if you are going to bring it up in the comments, please be respectful. All I will add to this subject is that if it was rape it definitely recontextualizes the ending of the film for me.
On to Bugcrush, which most definitely contains a rape scene. This is such a devastating little film and it really is the darker flip side of Closet Monster. If The Twilight Zone was still airing today, then I could see Bugcrush being one of the episodes. The Marvel movies have had too much of an effect on me because I totally waited until the end of the credits to see if there was a post-credits scene that showed Ben post-rape. I just need to know what happens to poor Ben!
I don’t want to make it sound like I grew up in a super-conservative town and had to deal with oppression my whole life. Yes, I grew up in Texas, but I had a good support system with my friends and, after a couple of years of post-coming out awkwardness, from my parents. Now that I live in Austin (frequently called “the blueberry in the tomato soup” because it’s the lone blue/Democratic county in a sea of red/Republican counties in Texas), it becomes easy for me to forget about the queer youth growing up in small towns and how hard they can have it. This isn’t to imply that queer youth growing up in major cities don’t have it difficult either, but you get what I’m saying.
Bugcrush maintains a considerable amount of tension throughout, and that is where it truly excels. We know what will probably happen to Ben but we’re hoping for the best. That tension is able to mirror the tension queer youth feels when trying to admit their feelings to their first crush (this is something our straight counterparts can relate to as well, but on a somewhat different level). It’s a raw experience and uncomfortable to watch for that reason. The short film has the distinction of not only horrifying me, but also breaking my heart. I felt emotionally raped by Bugcrush and it’s not many films that can do that, so kudos to you Carter Smith.
The technical merits of Bugcrush should also be commended. Not just Smith’s direction but also the sound design, which is a key components of an effective horror film. In Bugcrush that credit goes to Eric Nagy, who also worked on The Ruins with Smith.
The squishy/sticky sound effect of Grant peeling off his bandage in the closing moments of the short is permanently engraved in my brain ever since I watched the film over a week ago. Even Ben’s panicked breathing as he lies on the ground paralyzed sends chills up the spine. It’s some creepy-ass shit.
I think the time of release is important here too. Bugcrush was released 12 years ago in 2006. It’s fascinating to see how much has changed in society and its attitude towards the queer community since then. Things aren’t perfect, but so much positive change has happened in the time since Bugcrush was filmed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Closet Monster, which was released in 2015, ends on a much more hopeful note for our queer protagonist.
Joe, like you I am fascinated to know if someone who doesn’t identify as queer can relate to either of these films. I feel like Bugcrush will be the easier one to identify with because who isn’t afraid of being drugged and date raped in a shack in the woods? Closet Monster might be a little different but one some basic level we can all relate to adolescence, can we not? I mean, I’ve been identifying with coming-of-age films about straight people for years so there must be something here, be they queer or not. There seems to be a misconception that our Horror Queers articles are just meant for people who identify as queer but to clarify that’s not the intent. We invite people of all sexual orientations and gender identities to chime in with their own comments!
Next on Horror Queers: we’re celebrating Part One of our sixth month anniversary with possibly THE campiest film to hit the big screen in the last two decades: 1997’s Anaconda. Come for the ludicrous animatronic snake and the awful CGI; stay for whatever accent Jon Voight is affecting.
Closet Monster is available to stream on Netflix. Bugcrush is available on YouTube or can be purchased on the Boys Life 6 DVD.
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles:
- May 2018: I Know What You Did Last Summer
- April 2018: The Hunger
- March 2018: The Covenant & The Brotherhood
- February 2018: Insidious: Chapter 2
- January 2018: The Skin I Live In