Chopping it Up and Burning it Down: Queer Camp in “Night Warning”

By Johanna Isaacson

As we enter the age of the “social thriller,” horror is in a transformative moment. Films like Get Out (2017), Atlantics (2019), The Invisible Man (2020), Candyman (2021), Freaky (2020), They/Them (2022), and Nanny (2022), reverse the tide of the genre, declaring openly that “outsiders” are more likely to be targets than perpetrators of violence.

These breakthroughs are laudable, but representational progress doesn’t mean we should dismiss the messy, complicated horror that came before. As we see in It Came from the Closet, a recent collection of creative memoirs that deal with the tangled and mesmerizing hold of the genre on queer viewers, those who have suffered ostracism or prejudice are uncannily drawn to horror, including films that depict queers as villains or monsters. In that collection’s introduction, editor Joe Vallese remembers worrying that his love of horror was “just some residual self-loathing” and that he should shed his fascination with the genre to make room “for more heady, urgent, queer pop culture…” only to conclude that the obsession with horror among queers was key to community building and cultural expression (4). 

Queer horror critics Robin Wood and Harry Benshoff go further, noting that horror’s monsters are emblems of insurgency—representing a multitude of repressed desires and potentialities. As threats to “culturally constructed binaries of gender and sexuality that structure western thought” these mutinous entities are banished to horror’s “shadowy closets” (Benshoff 91). Yet, they can’t be completely shut away; monsters loom, oozing through the cracks in our authoritarian social order. Just as queer desire imperils heteropatriarchy, the horror movie monster violates a whole disciplinary system enforcing conformist behavior.

While it may be true that monsters in horror are essentially transgressive, this doesn’t cancel out the fact that ghoulish representations of queers may feed into the fears and hatred of an audience already predisposed to homophobia. The history of horror necessary excluded overtly gay characters up until 1968, due to the Hays censorship code which didn’t allow the clear depiction of same-sex attraction or varied gender expression. But even after that, the gradual appearance of non-normative sexuality and gender identity in post-sixties films did not bring relief from this invisibility. Instead, overtly queer characters in horror were almost uniformly seen as inhuman, violent threats whose eradication would elicit cheers from audiences. From Dressed to Kill (1980) to Sleepaway Camp (1983) to Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Single White Female (1993) queers in horror are portrayed as crazed and damaged killers. The other possible depiction of gay characters was as comical, “sissy” victims as in Blacula (1972) or Once Bitten (1985). 

On the other hand, the same figures that are fodder for heterosexist prejudice can become glorious emblems of camp excess when seen through a queer gaze. The danger of horror’s “progress” into an era of positive gay representation is that this camp sensibility may be diluted. The potential for subversive joy in the genre wanes when gay characters are confined to boring “straight” roles and the excessive pleasure of embodying extravagant monstrosity is given over to heterosexual villains. Claire Sisco King goes so far as to argue that the refusal of camp in a gay horror film such as Hellbent prohibits a true politics of liberating queerness. Instead, these milquetoast, homonormative films imply that “homosexuality should be tempered by the larger goal of fitting in and playing by hegemonic rules” (265). 

So, the question becomes, how to embrace the camp glory of queer monstrosity without playing into homophobic stereotypes? I want to argue that an obscure film from 1981, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, (later retitled Night Warning) provides an innovative response to this challenge. A queer camp carnival that also contains an earnest anti-homophobic message, Butcher is an oddity that miraculously emerged from the Reagan era, a period ruled by enforced normative gender roles, AIDS-era anti-gay moral panics, and generalized conservative retrenchment. 

The film begins by showing a young couple leaving their toddler with his aunt as they embark on a short vacation. Soon after, their brakes fail, resulting in a gory, deadly car accident. From there, we flash forward and see that the child, Billy, has grown up with his aunt Cheryl to become an all-American high school student whose main activities are playing basketball and hanging out with his girlfriend. He seems to have a loving relationship with his aunt, but perhaps it is too loving. Aunt Cheryl spends an inordinate amount of time stroking her nephew, ogling his shirtless body, purring in his ear… 

Cheryl’s clinginess becomes a real problem when Billy’s coach tells him he is a candidate for a full basketball scholarship, which will take him far from home. When Billy delivers this information to Aunt Cheryl her eccentricities escalate to psychosis. Resolved that Billy will never leave her, she devises a preposterous plan, summoning a repairman, Phil Brody, to fix an appliance and staging his innocent visit as an attempted rape. In “self-defense” she murders Phil just as Billy is returning home. 

Cheryl hopes her scheme will activate Billy’s protective instincts, ensuring that he gives up on the idea of abandoning her. Instead, the chaos at home only heightens his desire to escape. When Billy persists in his plan to leave, Cheryl launches into an axe murdering spree, chopping up those who come too close to the truth—that is both the truth of her role in Phil’s murder and of her past sins which include hiding Billy’s real parentage. It turns out that Cheryl herself is his mother and that she killed his biological father as well as of his adoptive parents. In the meantime, a homicide detective, Joe Carlson, is so blinded by his own homophobic obsessions that he refuses to see evidence of Cheryl’s crimes, instead aggressively investigating an imagined gay conspiracy around Phil’s murder. 

The genius of Butcher is that it works on two registers: both as a realistic drama and a campy Grand Guignol—an amoral theater of gore and excess. In the realistic mode, the film serves as an indictment of homophobia. But on another level, Susan Tyrell’s unhinged performance as “psychobiddy” Aunt Cheryl is pure madness, unleashing buckets of blood and emotive outlandishness that point to a queerness beyond assimilation. 

The social realist plot is quite moving. It turns out that the repairman murdered by Cheryl was the lover of Billy’s basketball coach, Tom Landers. The day after his boyfriend’s murder Tom shows steely stoicism as he expertly performs the duties of an encouraging basketball coach. When Detective Carlson follows his own homophobic logic and concludes—with no evidence—that Phil’s murder must be the result of a gay love triangle among Phil, Tom, and Billy, Tom is forced to resign from his position lest he get “lynched,” as Detective Carlson threatens. And he must maintain his dignity as Carlson carries on his campaign to persecute and pin the murder on Tom, accusing him of molesting Billy and other young people along the way. 

In the end, when Billy realizes the true extent of Cheryl’s madness, the only person he can turn to is Coach Landers, who immediately comes to his rescue, even at significant risk to his reputation and his life. In a reversal of nearly all other seventies and eighties film plots, Butcher ends with a face-off between a sympathetic gay man, just trying to be a good person, and a homophobic cop/monster. 

On this register, the film reads like a very straightforward social issue film, a cry against prejudice and a rare representation of a non-predatory, sympathetic gay character in horror. Coach Landers is comfortable with his sexuality and consistently acts with integrity. And in a startling move, even for today, Tom’s teenage protégé, Billy, never has a panicked reaction to his coach’s homosexuality, defending him from bullies at every turn and remaining certain that Tom is the only trustworthy adult in his life.  

Butcher’s anti-homophobic storyline is powerful in a quiet way, but this plot alone would not make for a very interesting horror film, nor would it honor the ways that generations of queers have been inspired by the larger-than-life monsters and villains of the genre. There is nothing campy about Coach Landers or his lover Phil Brody, they are just two responsible citizens who happen to be gay. 

On the other hand, we find another kind of gay pleasure in the figure of Cheryl, who, though she is homophobic, is arguably the queerest character in the film. Cheryl’s lurid thirst for young, male flesh, her wild and unkempt appearance, and her murderous determination to follow her taboo desires to any extreme, place her far beyond the pale of any societal definition of heteronormality or civilization. While Tom and Phil make gayness respectable, Cheryl makes respectability of any kind unthinkable. 

Cheryl is a monster whose desire exceeds definition or bounds. In her extravagance we can see what José Esteban Muñoz calls a refusal of “straight time,” as well as a rejection of a limiting gay pragmatism “that tell[s] us not to dream of other spatial/temporal coordinates but instead to dwell in a broken down present” (26; 30). Coach Landers and Phil Brody are confined to this “broken down present.” The best they can hope for in life is a secret relationship that shields them from constant homophobic violence and harassment. They appear to be asexual good citizens, as the politics of respectability requires. 

On the other hand, Cheryl’s refusal of reality gives her access to “a modality of ecstatic time” with no limits; she is beyond even the most primal taboos against murder and incest (32). This unhinged woman is a figure of camp as “antinormative degeneracy,” the freedom accessible only to monsters and outlaws (70). The storyline of Coach Landers asks for equality, an important intervention in homophobic representation, but queer camp asks for so much more… 

The totalizing refusal and performative excess that characterizes camp goes beyond a critique of sexuality and gender roles, becoming a queer “challenge to bourgeois ideology” (Meyer 138). Aunt Cheryl, as brilliantly performed by character actor Susan Tyrrell, exhibits an appetite that exceeds all measures of propriety. Her incestuous gaze lingers hungrily over Billy’s young body, liberating her from instrumentalized familial and romantic roles while releasing Billy from any filial debt. The grotesque excess of this inappropriate love and lust is a source of humor and release from the strictures of normative behavior as when, after throwing out Billy’s age-appropriate girlfriend, she confronts him as he is about to shower, imbuing the nearly-naked teen with a lingering kiss. And later, as she slowly poisons him to death so she may keep him forever, she gives his face a long, sensuous lick. 

By taking the role of a protective mother to camp extremes, Cheryl effectively blows up the family structure rather than reinforcing it. Her melancholic attachment to Billy’s father (whose corpse she keeps in the basement) keeps her from normative heterosexuality as she instead carries on phantasmal relationships with the dead, whispering furiously into the air and obsessing over her jars of pickled vegetables and preserved body parts. By barring Billy from the normal path to autonomy—instead locking him in an attic and surrounding him with children’s toys—she both saves him from heterosexual normativity and refuses the self-sacrificing role of mothers who outlive their usefulness as their children grow into adulthood. Instead of gently releasing the men for whom she cooked, cleaned, loved, and sacrificed, she commands them to stay. Forever.  

Tyrrell’s exaggerated acting style underscores Butcher’s carnivalesque celebration of “the lure of the deviant” (Benshoff 98). Tyrell was in her thirties when she played the role, but her stagey shabbiness, exaggerated expressions, and wild, unkempt style makes her appear older. This theatrical bathos fits with Erin Harrington’s description of the liberatory aspects of the horror “psychobiddy,” a figure who embodies the monstrosity of an aging woman. The most archetypal performance of this form of camp is Bette Davis’s depiction of former child star Baby Jane in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As Harrington convincingly argues, the juxtaposition of overly-sexualized youth with an “aging nonreproductive body and sexuality” does not simply add up to ideological ageism, but something much more uncanny, a place where the “abject perils and pleasures of aging can be found and explored.” Likewise, rather than performing authenticity, Tyrell’s campy acting draws attention to the impermissibility of a middle-aged woman’s lust, rendering the whole edifice of youth-obsessed heteronormativity visible and evoking Moe Meyer’s definition of camp as a “specifically queer parody possessing cultural and ideological analytic potential” (143).

Another queer pleasure in Butcher is Billy’s ambiguous sexuality. Along with Cheryl, we are invited to objectify his young body, as the camera lingers on his flesh and pointedly ignores the charms of his girlfriend, Julia, or any other woman, thus reappropriating the filmic gaze for a non-heteronormative audience. We are informed that Billy is sexually passive while Julia is the more assertive partner in this queered relationship. Due to this reversal of assigned roles and Cheryl’s intent on barring Billy from normative development, his sexuality remains unresolved; the film is uninterested in confirming Billy’s orientation and instead leaves it open to speculation and plentitude. 

Butcher was directed by William Asher, who is known for presiding over the beloved late sixties/early seventies sitcom Bewitched. The consensus is that this sitcom was a gay allegory, in which the mixed marriage between a mortal and a witch serves as a coded depiction of a closeted gay couple. Many actors on the show, such as Paul Lynde and Agnes Moorhead, were gay, and the star Elizabeth Montgomery (the wife of William Asher), was a champion of gay rights. 

Together with Dick Sargent, a gay actor who played her husband on Bewitched, Montgomery became a grand marshal of the 1992 Gay and Lesbian pride parade. Sargent had just come out the year before this event, but the world he came out to was not all glorious pomp and pageantry. Tens of thousands of gay men were dying of AIDS related conditions, with no help from the Bush administration. Gay marriage and adoption seemed an impossible horizon. Only three years after coming out (in hopes to help intervene in the tidal wave of suicides by gay youth) Sargent died of prostate cancer, having lived most of his life in the closet.

While in real life, LGBTQ+ people were made to wait patiently for respectability, queer camp takes a queue from AIDS activist Mark Lowe Fisher who, in the same year that Sargent and Montgomery were hosting a sanctioned Gay Pride event, combined theatricality and pitch black humor by demanding that, after he died of AIDS, his friends carry his dead body to George Bush, who refused to fund AIDS research and who implied that the solution to the disease was that gay people stop having sex. Politeness and permission be damned, Fisher and his friends’ morbid, campy performance art conjures a world in which ecstatic fucking and empathetic care replaces cold puritanism and callous neglect.  

In Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker Aunt Cheryl, in her own way, refuses the half measures of societal tolerance. Instead, she takes what she wants: entombing young, hot men in her home, caressing and preserving them, murdering anyone who gets in her way. With this campy vision of monstrous becoming, Butcher refuses the paltry offerings of “rights” and rather insists on burning bright and deadly, proving once again that trudging down the long road to acceptance is far less fun than speeding along the axe murdering, psychobiddy highway to queer ecstasy.

Harry Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, (Manchester University Press: 1997).

Erin Harrington, Women, Monstrosity, and Horror Film: Gynaehorror (Routledge: 2017). 

Claire Sisco King “Un-Queering Horror: Hellbent and the Policing of the ‘Gay Slasher’,” Western Journal of Communication 74. No. 3 (2010): 249-268

Moe Meyer, “Reclaiming the Discourse of Camp,” The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance, edited by Lizbeth Goodman, Fiona Shaw, Jane de Gay (Routledge: 1998). 

José Estaban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (NYU Press: 2019).

Joe Vallese, “Introduction,” It Came from the Closet, edited by Joe Vallese (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2022).

Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror from Common Notions Press and The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books. She has published widely in academic and popular journals including, with Annie McClanahan, the entry for “Marxism and Horror” in The Sage Handbook of Marxism (2022). She runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.


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