Don’t Call Me Evil Anymore: A Study in ’80s Vampire Queerness

First things first: Sam, the dorky young protagonist played by Corey Haim in Joel Schumacher’s flamboyant 1987 California vampire fable The Lost Boys, is definitely a gay icon. He’s got pinup posters of buff dudes in his bedroom; he sings about how he “ain’t got a man”; he’s captivated by Oily Shirtless Saxophone Man Tim Cappello; he’s the soft, sensitive human heart at the center of a movie often overwhelmed by cartoonishly loud competing male egos and toxic masculinity. Not that Sam is the only queer-coded character in The Lost Boys, not by a mile, but there’s one key difference– his queerness is presented as endearing, wholesome, even relatable.

On the other side of the same ’80s vampire movie coin, we find Charley Brewster, the protagonist of Fright Night (1985). Charley is heterosexual, and obnoxiously so. In the very first scene of the film, we’re introduced to him in a scene where he tries to pressure his reluctant girlfriend into having sex. He’s whiny, he’s oblivious, he’s entitled. He seems to have only one friend, his high school’s resident “weird kid,” who he bullies and berates. Who calls their one and only friend “Evil Ed” against said friend’s explicit wishes? Who calls the police on their new neighbor after voyeuristically spying on him and assuming, pretty quickly, that he must be a vampire because he bites women’s necks and moves coffins around with his boyfriend? Who assumes that a Vincent Price-style vampire killer from TV can, and would want to, kill actual vampires in real life? Charley Brewster does all of these things. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

Imagine my surprise, with these baselines in place, to find out that The Lost Boys and Fright Night are pretty much equally gay, just from different vantage points. I found both of them to be compelling viewing as a queer audience member, and I think they can both tell us a lot about mainstream attitudes towards queer people in the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the height of public awareness of the AIDS crisis. Crucially, both films also stand as monuments to the way queer creators were able to subvert mainstream, conservative attitudes of the day in their art, finding ways to overtly depict queerness in a nuanced and sometimes even positive way through the guise of campy vampire-movie shenanigans.

It’s important to note that gay and queer themes in vampire fiction have existed for as long as there has been vampire fiction. The lesbian vampire novel Carmilla was first published in 1871, while queer (and again, specifically lesbian-coded) vampires have existed overtly onscreen since at least 1936, when the film Dracula’s Daughter premiered. There had even been at least one overtly gay vampire movie earlier in the 1980s: the depiction of vampire Catherine Deneuve’s explicit seduction of mortal Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger. These two films I’ve chosen to focus on are definitely not the only gay vampire movies up to this point; however, they feel significantly similar to me in ways that matter.

Both The Lost Boys and Fright Night focus on impressionable or naive teenagers being targeted by “worldly” and villainous vampires who are explicitly queer-coded, they both set up a central heterosexual romantic pairing that’s held up as an escape or salvation from vampirism, and they both represent vampirism explicitly as a disease, with deforming or debilitating physical effects and the nebulous possibility of a cure. A film like The Hunger focuses on adult characters who all seem extremely sophisticated, and the effects of a vampire bite more closely resemble a drug addiction metaphor; in these two films, it feels like…something else.

In Fright Night especially, the roots of the story in heterosexual gay panic and an outsider’s view of the AIDS crisis are pretty clear. The villain, Jerry Dandridge, is the epitome of the Predatory Bisexual archetype, living in an intimate relationship with a man while preying on women both sexually and vampirically. At the beginning of the film, characters like Charley’s mother acknowledge and then shrug off Dandridge’s potential queerness, seeming to take the attitude that if he’s gay and thus not interested in women, he’s just not very interesting. Other characters who assume he’s heterosexual find him intriguing, or attractive. Charley, who observes both sides of his affections voyeuristically, is portrayed in these early scenes as the one reasonable person who sees Dandridge for what he is– a threat to the peace and order of suburbia, Charley’s tidy heterosexual world. All of Dandridge’s most menacing moments are tied to his sensual flirting towards men and women– a moment where he shows overt affection towards his male roommate is played as ominous, and his later seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy is depicted as being sexy, but also perverse and dangerous. Jerry Dandridge is worldly, sophisticated, and bisexual; in the Reagan-era suburbia of Fright Night, that also makes him diseased and dangerous.

The Lost Boys, meanwhile, views its villains as somewhat more ambiguous and alluring, despite painting them in a similarly dangerous light. These vampires are stylish teens who drink blood from ornately carved decanters, fly around and party a bunch, and have a fun and unique sense for interior decoration. Unlike the disgust and animosity that Charley Brewster feels for the much older and more experienced vampiric villain in his story, victimized vampire-to-be Michael in The Lost Boys is seduced by and clearly attracted to head vampire David, who is portrayed as more of an alluring figure than a repulsive one. The vampires in The Lost Boys are a kind of misfit chosen family, a queer collective surviving on the margins, so even though they prey on people, they’re easier to root for. Their eventual true leader even turns out to be one of the most clearly heterosexual characters in the film, and his coercive acts are portrayed as more villainous than anything the Lost Boys do. Ultimately, the results are the same: all vampires must be killed or cured, and the status quo of heterosexuality is restored. But you get the sense that the film wants to really revel in the vampires’ shenanigans before getting to that part.

Despite what it may sound like, and much to my relief, Fright Night isn’t totally devoid of positive or nuanced queer moments. A lot of that is courtesy of the gay actors who worked on the film and the related subtextual moments involving the characters that they play. “Evil” Ed Thompson, played by future gay porn actor Stephen Geoffreys, is played as a somewhat-sympathetic outcast character who deals with bullying and ostracization, something many gay teenagers can relate to. The scene where Dandridge corners him in an alley and turns him into a vampire could be read as a seduction, but to me it played out more like an accepting embrace, an older queer person providing a disenfranchized younger one with a moment of solidarity: “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I know what it’s like being different. Only they won’t pick on you anymore… or beat you up. I’ll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand,” these are the words Dandridge says as he draws Ed into an embrace. Ed is treated as a conventional villain after his vampiric transformation, but for one scene he’s treated with dignity, and it feels profound.

Another character who can very easily be read as queer is TV star/”fearless vampire killer” Peter Vincent, played by Roddy McDowall with soft, lilting mannerisms. This character is adorable, and he’s played as completely genuine rather than feeling like any kind of overdone stereotype of a more feminine man– this is just what Roddy McDowall was like, and the film benefits a lot from his presence. That he displays ingenuity and eventually gets to be a hero feels even more revolutionary. He’s never portrayed as explicitly gay onscreen, but the fact that a gay actor is playing one of the most fun and heroic roles in the piece feels significant. This character is the source of much of the film’s fun and snark, and a lot of its soul too, as he grapples with potential obsolescence in the wake of movies about, in his words “demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.” His energy and charm go a long way towards making the movie enjoyable in a way it wouldn’t be if Tiresomely Het Charley Brewster was the sole main character.

There’s something to be said for the fact that, while Fright Night had plenty of queer actors on staff, The Lost Boys was directed by an out gay man, Joel Schumacher. While Fright Night, despite a lot of enjoyable moments, ultimately feels like a paranoid film about preserving a normative culture of white-bread heterosexuality, The Lost Boys takes place in a beautiful, fun, and seductive queer world…that happens to be depicted as dangerous and scary, despite its allure. Schumacher makes a huge difference, thoughin casting a very clearly queer-coded character as his most sympathetic protagonist. Sam is enthusiastic, empathetic, and he’s the core of his family. The film, despite its view of vampires as sexy queer villains who have to die for the social order to be restored, also depicts an unconventional family (a single mother, two sons, and an eccentric grandfather) as being preferable to a nuclear family unit with a conventional father figure. In the midst of a stiflingly conservative political and social climate, this was a quietly revolutionary story– a depiction of a family finding a configuration that works best for them, rejecting something seemingly more “normal” that proves to actually be toxic. The fact that a probably-gay teen is at the center of this loving and accepting family is even more revolutionary.

In closing, it’s clear that both these movies are definitely problematic. Equating villainous, predatory vampires with gay people, even subtextually, is a whole can of worms. Especially in hindsight, the subtext in these films is all too easy to read as ham-fisted gay panic– the damaging idea that overtly sexual and/or overtly queer people could be carriers of communicable disease. It’s also simultaneously true that both of these films are a ton of fun: they have unparalleled ’80s soundtracks, excellent practical effects, more amusing dialogue than most writers pen in a lifetime, and a lot of queer talent in front of and behind the camera. They’re mixed bags, but no matter how they end up playing today, they’re an important reminder of how Hollywood (and the queer people working within the mainstream film industry) endeavored to portray queerness between the lines of some of the most popular horror films of the 1980s.