When they aren’t awing us with the illusion of a real woman, drag artists traditionally serve as clowns, their exaggerated attitude rooted in camp and satire. I remember watching a humble drag version of Brian de Palma’s Carrie during the late 90s in San Francisco. Hilarious. So I appreciate the clowning around. Especially when, like Lear’s fool, the queen helps us discover some profound truth about the world.
But there’s now a richer world of drag horror waiting to be unleashed. The humor hasn’t necessarily been bled from it completely, but the horror element has a more prominent role. And the drag queens themselves are taking control of the narrative, dissatisfied with being portrayed simply as victims or villains. So let’s take a look at the history of drag and horror.
FILM / TV / STAGE
Movies have long portrayed transgender and drag characters as homicidal murderers, at least as far back as Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) and its imitator Homicidal (1961, William Castle). Gender reveal twists made for shocking endings, though often at the expense of sensitivity. The great age of slasher flics from 1978-88 brought us The Comeback, Dressed to Kill, Terror Train, Deadly Blessing, Sleepaway Camp, and The Newlydeads.
When Jonathan Demme directed Silence of the Lambs in 1991, he avoided the cliche reveal. We learn early on that serial killer Buffalo Bill is transsexual, but we’re also given a straight serial killer villain with Hannibal Lecter. For me, that moderates criticism that the film is transphobic. In any event, cross-dressing killers continued with other films, such as Insidious (2010).
Camp made inroads in mainstream culture during the androgynous 70s. The Rocky Horror Show, with music, lyrics, and book by Richard O’Brien, debuted on London’s West End in 1973. Two years later, this campy tribute to sci-fi and horror B-movies found cult status with the release of the film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tim Curry, who originated the iconic role of transvestite Frank-N-Furter on stage, gave the movie most of its pizzazz. Talk about anticip…—pation!
Drag actor/writer Charles Busch produced several satirical films and plays, starting with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (Broadway, 1984). His movies include Psycho Beach Party (2000) and Die Mommy Die (2003).
Lloyd Kaufman directed the 1999 satirical slasher Terror Firmer. I’d say it’s more “straight camp” than “gay camp,” but he does poke fun at the cliches with a cross-dressing hermaphrodite killer. In another low-budget satire, Killer Drag Queens on Dope by director Lazar Saric (2003), two drugged-up drag queens work as contract killers. Killer Unicorn (2019, dir. Drew Bolton) also brings us a low-budget blend of drag humor and horror. A man wearing a unicorn mask is killing off Brooklyn, one drag queen at a time, and he won’t stop until he has his revenge.
While satire and gender surprise villains have a long history, we’ve recently seen more innovative efforts to insert drag into horror. The television series American Horror Story, created by gay writer/producer Ryan Murphy, has led the charge. In Hotel (season 5, 2015), Denis O’Hare portrayed a cross-dressing bartender (pictured at left). The following season, Roanoke (season 6, 2016), featured Rupaul’s Drag Race contestant Trixie Mattel in one episode as a panel moderator. The Quiet Room by Sam Wineman (2018) features two Drag Race contestants, Alaska (in horror drag) and Katya (out of drag). Although only a short, the film attempts to go beyond the narrow confines of our expectations about drag.
Sometimes the horror aspect remains subtle. Kon Ichikawa’s Japanese film An Actor’s Revenge (1963) may not be classic horror, but it teeters on the margin. Kazuo Hasegawa plays a Kabuki actor who has become an onnagata, a male actor who specialises in female roles. He exacts a terrible revenge on the three men responsible for the deaths of his parents when he was a child. In one chilling scene, he takes on the guise of his father’s ghost with furious rage.
The Boulet Brothers’ competition series Dragula launched in 2016, loosely based off a long-running club event of the same name. In the show, the brothers search for the world’s next drag supermonster.
I could make the argument that Alice Cooper was the first horror drag musician, given his female moniker (also, originally, the name of the band), tattered housedress, fright makeup, and macabre songs. But he never presented himself as a drag queen. I loved Alice Cooper during the early 70s, before his rock edge softened into blander pop.
Different versions of drag spread through music culture, from Bowie to Boy George. Where it intersected with horror, it influenced the development of heavy metal and goth. Whether Twisted Sister during the 80s, Marilyn Manson during the 90s, or The Frankenstein Drag Queens at the cusp of the millennium, horror drag, rock, and punk continued to join hands.
When Sharon Needles won season 4 of Drag Race in 2012, here came the first major, unabashed drag queen singer with a penchant for horror. The following year, she released her first album, PG-13, which featured the edgy video “This Club Is a Haunted House.”
Get possessed by the DJ
You’ll scream like Linda Blair
Pick up a trick or treat and
Come to the party tonightmare
Two albums followed in 2015 and 2017. What makes Sharon Needles unique is her melding of punk attitude with electronic club music rather than the predictable pairing with heavy metal. Song titles include “Hail Satan!,” “Wendigo,” “666,” and “Electric Chair.”
Music Video: Sharon Needles, “Dracula”
DRAG HORROR PERSONALITIES
Let’s talk about drag queen personalities. We have to start out by mentioning Elvira, who started hosting late night horror B-movies on television in 1981. Despite her resemblance to Vampira, who hosted a Los Angeles TV variety show in 1954-55, Elvira found much wider notoriety with her sexy vampire look and campy humor. Yes, she’s a real woman (Cassandra Peterson), but that doesn’t mean she’s not a drag queen.
What distinguishes horror drag from mere costuming, you might ask? First of all, the personas will probably be female, which may involve some version of a dress and/or wig. Secondly, the face makeup will probably be rooted in traditional female makeup, albeit taken to the extreme: eye shadow, lipstick, blush, mascara. We are now blessed with a bevy of Instagrammers who post lovely, monstrous creations. Not all of them focus exclusively on horror, but it factors in a significant portion of their aesthetic. I’ve listed below some of the best with their Instagram handles.
Andro Gin — @androginking
Charity Kase (pictured at left) — @charitykase
James Majesty — @jamesmajesty
Marco Punk — @marcopunkkk
Maxi Glamour — @maxiglamour
Nina Bo’nina Brown — @nina_bonina_brown
Opulence Black — @opulence.black
Peroxide Femanon — @peroxide_femanon
Severity Stone — @severity_stone
Sham Payne — @shampayne8
Victoria Elizabeth Black — @victoriaelizabethblack
Yovska — @yovska
What can I say? Drag is visual, so books are one area relatively untouched by the horror drag aesthetic. Two satiric novellas came out (pardon the pun) in 2018. Justin MacCormack wrote an erotic horror story, The Drag Queen of the Opera. Ma’am Stoker released Dragula, about a vampire grudge match.
I wanted to rectify this imbalance with my latest unpublished novel, which strives for a smaller dose of humor in favor of horror, the supernatural, and folklore. Yes, you’ll find some comic moments, but this is not a satire. It’s a horror tale in which a drag queen and his best friend investigate an increasingly ominous haunting. A morality tale about our current state of affairs in the world. I’m currently seeking a publisher, so keep your fingers crossed.
Let’s hope that horror drag thrives and continues to grow.