Queer Subtext and Fandom in Re-Animator (1985)
In recent times, we seemed to have entered a golden age for queer representation in modern mainstream media. More shows than ever before incorporate queer characters and queer stories, and they are critically well-received by more people, queer or otherwise. Recent examples include the majority queer cast of POSE bringing trans issues to the forefront, the multi-season long gay romance of Schitt's Creek providing comfort with a real happy ending, and the autobiographical nature of Work in Progress showing accurate queer stories by being written by a queer person. These are just a few examples, but regardless, now seems to be the best time to be a fan of queer media.
With all that in mind, why are hundreds of queer people absolutely obsessed with a schlocky 80s horror movie?
Re-Animator is a 1985 film directed by Stuart Gordon, loosely based on the 1922 H.P. Lovecraft story of almost the same name. The film follows an eccentric mad scientist named Herbert West, who has discovered a chemical reagent that brings people back from the dead, and after roping his med student roommate, Dan, into his experiments, zombie shenanigans ensue. The film has absolutely nothing to do with queerness on the surface. There are no queer characters, queer relationships, queer issues, and all instances of obvious, textual romantic and sexual attraction are strictly heterosexual. Yet hundreds of fans have picked apart the film to find subtext and read the protagonist as queer, gay, asexual, autistic, neurodivergent, transmasculine, or all of the above. These fans gather into online Discord communities bonded by their queerness, love for the film, and shared headcanons. Curious to know why I dived into one of these communities to figure out why these headcanons were being made.
First, let's examine where these headcanons come from. When one watches Re-Animator through a queer lens, one will find numerous examples of subtle subtext. Herbert could be seen as the tropey effeminate villain that is so commonly seen in mainstream films such as the classic Disney musicals, but due to his status as a protagonist, it lends him a new level of sympathy not seen with his tropey counterparts. Dan, his roommate, takes to Herbert quickly, helping him in his strange experiments despite the danger and ethical grayness involved. As the film goes on, Dan starts to defer to him for decisions over his own girlfriend, Meg, needing to know "what Herbert thinks" when Meg expresses her desire to run away and get married. This line implies an extremely strong affinity or attraction. Another strong example surprisingly comes from a deleted scene that only appears in the director's cut of the film. In it, Herbert injects himself with a small dose of his re-animating reagent so he won't need to sleep. While one could easily read this scene as an allegory for substance abuse, many queer people (especially trans men) see it as a testosterone shot. Dan sits down next to Herbert to gently help him with the injection, driving home the homoerotic tension between the two. In addition to this queer subtext, some people read Herbert as autistic, citing moments where he shows tics/stims by tapping tables, his general dryness/bluntness/social awkwardness, and most notably, his intense hyperfocus or special interest in his experimentation.
There are more examples than these, but the important part is that queer and neurodivergent people see this film's protagonist as queer and neurodivergent, not out of some objective textual representation, but because they just want him to be. A lot of queer people, notably trans men, see themselves as an idealized version of themselves, in Herbert. They don't need the film itself to blatantly say the character is queer to view him as such. In fact, some fans would prefer that the subtext stays as subtext. When interviewing fans of the film, a common sentiment shared amongst them was that a problem with modern queer representation is that writers are too focused on creating respectful depictions of queerness that they don't create interesting or compelling characters. Herbert West is compelling because he has motivations and a personality outside of being queer, which is something a lot of modern shows struggle with. He is much more than his sexuality, which is what draws people to him despite their queer readings
The most common sentiment among those that I interviewed was that they are unsatisfied with the state of modern queer representation. The reasons vary from the one mentioned previously to the fact that they believe that modern media still depends on stereotypes, despite their goals of being respectful. Some of it comes down to the fact that modern queer media is not made for queer people but instead made for cisgender, heterosexual people. It's sanitized to make it easier for a generally straight audience to understand and consume, and it's common to see the media look for the pity of straight people. Due to these many reasons, a lot of queer people are looking elsewhere to find queer representation. Neurodivergent media also runs into the same problem of being catered to a neurotypical audience and thus is lacking in the same areas. There is also a significant lack of neurodivergent characters in general when compared to queer characters, so that is another big reason why people have a desire to create headcanons for Herbert.
So, what does this mean for future directors and showrunners? Firstly, it's important to realize that real people are much more than their gender identity, sexual identity, or neurodivergency. There are plenty of films and shows where queer people struggle with their identity, and it may be time to start writing compelling characters whose conflicts go beyond their identity. An easier way to achieve this is to have more diverse people in writer's rooms, director's chairs, and producer roles. Queer people know best how to create queer characters, and neurodivergent people know best how to create neurodivergent characters. Finally, it's critical to understand that just because queer people will gladly make headcanons and write fanfiction where they queer-up their favorite characters, doesn't mean that they don't deserve clear, textual representation. Just because they'll find queerness where it's not obvious doesn't mean you can bury everything in subtext without any textual manifestations of queerness – as that would be queerbait!