Gretchen Felker-Martin discusses queer horror

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Today on the blog, in our effort to explore what we love about horror, we are lucky enough to have our own Charlie Monroe, writer and co-director of Biters & Bleeders, sitting down with Gretchen Felker-Martin, author of Manhunt (2022) and the upcoming Cuckoo (2025). As with all of our horror content, this article may contain discussion of sensitive or disturbing content, including transphobia, bigotry, violence, and gore.

I’m a horror screenwriter, and here’s the main thing I’ve noticed about horror: it provokes the
most boring fucking conversations of all time. Insipid hand-wringing around what is too tasteless to be allowed in polite society; vapid interrogations of the utility of sex and violence in art; bad faith accusations of “written pornography disguised as literature” that, among other things, fail to answer the most basic question at the heart of that premise: what’s wrong with pornography?

To be clear, Manhunt, the 2022 novel by Gretchen Felker-Martin, is not pornographic. It is not
tasteless, either, though its tastes are certainly not for everyone. It is a brutal, challenging novel
brimming with blood-splattered walls, guts spilling out onto grimy floors, sadistic acts of torture, oodles of sweaty deviant sex, and one particular act of fatal maiming so disturbing that I got a stomach ache reading it. In fact, the book left me feeling uneasy in many ways. I had to really sit with it, to try to understand what it was trying to do. Its provocation, though, has a real and valuable purpose. Gretchen is a trans woman; Manhunt is a book for and about trans people, a channeling of righteous fury at our oppression into a series of horrific grindhouse tableaus. In one tweet promoting her book, Felker-Martin described the plot like this: “Fascist TERFs. Men turned into rapist cannibal beasts by a plague which feeds off of testosterone. Trans people struggling to survive in a world that sees them as a grotesque danger. Get it now.” She knows who this is for.


There are many interviews with Gretchen about the origins and writing process of this novel. I
wanted to take a slightly different approach. As a trans horror writer myself, I wanted to know
more about how Gretchen views the role of horror—particularly this kind of extreme horror—in our society. I wanted to talk about the motivation and meaning of making scary art with one of its most interesting auteurs. I hope you enjoy it.


CM: I want to start with the simplest question imaginable: why horror?


GFM: If there’s really one definitive reason that I love horror, it is that it transforms people
completely. The person who puts their hand on a hot stove is a completely different human being
from someone who you’re having a reasonable conversation with. And in some ways those
experiences are universal, and in some ways they really reveal things about people and pull out extremely intimate, closely-guarded parts of human nature.

Also it’s very appealing to be in control of that kind of destructive, creative process. As a kid, I
loved to be scared over and over again. If something gave me nightmares, I would rewatch it or ask my dad to read it to me again the next night or what have you. Yeah, I guess it’s, you know, some kind of roller-coaster syndrome. And now I hate roller coasters!


CM: Well, if you loved roller coasters, you’d be riding on roller coasters instead of doing this.


GFM: Right. We wouldn’t be having this conversation.


CM: But yeah, it’s the transformative potential to me that makes horror so alluring. Is that
something that you hope to achieve with your work? Like, when you imagine people reading and engaging with what you write, are you hoping that it will transform them in some way?


GFM: That’s a lot to hope for. I certainly hope that people get things out of my work and I would love to be someone’s like, “Oh, I read Stephen King at age 11 and it completely ruined my entire psyche!” I’d love to be that to someone. But it’s not what I’m setting out to do. I’m writing
stories. You know, art is a spacewalk. You put something outside yourself and then someone can leave the safety of their own perceptions to go and experience it. And you have this sort of liminal world inside every piece of art. That’s all I really hope to do: be honest and be genuine and show something that people might care about.


CM: Well, I will say that for me, while I obviously didn’t have access to your writing when I
was 11 years old, Manhunt was definitely a pretty pivotal work for me in the last few years of
giving myself permission to indulge in the, like, weird fucked up stories that have been in my
head for a long time. Obviously it’s been kind of talked to death, the way that horror has its roots in queer counterculture—the sort of inherent queerness of horror. What do you think is particularly attractive to queer people about really visceral body horror? Because I find that while there are a
lot of different genres of horror that can bring a more mainstream audience to it, as you get
further down the iceberg into the really gross stuff, you find it a lot more dominated by
marginalized people.


GFM: So I think the big thing here for me is that queer people and trans people and fat people
and disabled people and all of these other marginal groups are othered, not just from society, but from our own bodies. So we have this lifetime of being incredibly intimate with something that can feel hostile…that can feel like prison…that can feel like Hell. You’re stuffed inside this skin sack and everyone hates it. And you know, maybe you can get by if you hate it too. And it creates a really intense relationship to the body. Body horror says, Okay, those urges can sublimate. You can see that take effect in the real world. You can watch someone’s flesh change in accordance with their emotions or with their
circumstances. And that is such an incredible act of catharsis to someone who has been stuck in a
static body for decades.


CM: Kind of going back to this idea of transformation. This idea of, you know, it being about the change.


GFM: Right. The art is saying to us that this is a malleable thing. This is a medium.


CM: And why do you suppose that it feels good for that to also be very violent and bloody?


GFM: You know, there’s a tremendously popular subset of videos on YouTube of people
scooping infected gunk out of horse hooves and, you know, excavating ingrown toenails;
popping pimples; cysts. It’s that. It’s that. We want to see it pop. We want to know that it’s
coming out. It has to be physical. It has to be visible and measurable. We have to be able to
understand what is happening in the bluntest terms imaginable. And the bluntest terms
imaginable for anything to happen to the human body are meat.


CM: It’s like how that very first shot in Jennifer’s Body—the close-up scab picking—kind of
frames the entire rest of the movie. The decision to start there with the relatable picking at
imperfection…it immediately puts you in this emotional state that makes you really receptive to the humanity of this otherwise extremely ridiculous film.


GFM: Absolutely.


CM: There can definitely be a tendency when talking about horror to focus on the aspects of it
that feel more—and I am cringing, using this term—“elevated.” Like, how does this book or film
speak to us, anthropologically and philosophically? And sometimes that comes at the cost of ignoring the aspects of horror that are just…really fun? When it comes to writing horror, are you able to pursue what you think is fun and not worry about this construct of high-brow vs. low-brow?


GFM: So the short answer is, I just don’t care. I love pulp. I also love things that are broadly
considered high-brow. I’m not concerned about delineating between them. I think that it’s
counterproductive. At the end of the day, who cares if your horror is, quote unquote, “elevated”
or not. That means nothing.

CM: I agree. But even so, when people ask me what my favorite horror movies are, there are
definitely movies that I’m confident in telling a random person. And then there are movies that
I’m low key worried about their response to it. I think for me, sometimes it has to do with the
shame that I already carry as a person. And the awareness that society sees various aspects of my identity as suspicious and perverse. And if I admit that I enjoy things that are extremely violent, or if I admit that—heavens forbid—I like boobs a lot, I’m worried about that judgment. I don’t want to be, but I am. Is something that you think about at all?


GFM: It’s not something I’m concerned about. I am a pervert. I am a freak. I am sick, according
to a lot of very boring, tedious people I want nothing to do with. And if that’s the way that they
want to see me, that’s fine. I have nothing to say to them. I’m surrounded by perverts whom I
love, and I’m supported by, and that’s my life. That’s the life I’ve picked. If I’m following in Bob
Flanagan’s footsteps, that’s good enough for me. That’s enough of a patrimony for me to feel
okay doing what I’m doing. This all boils down to respectability, and respectability is something I’ve never been interested in and never will be. I don’t care if people think my opinions are acceptable, I don’t care if people agree with me when I say that I loved Blonde last year, or that, you know, I put on Audition when I want to calm down, because I like it when she taps the needles into his face. That’s my
life. You know? It is what it is.


CM: I really love that. I hope to have the courage of my convictions that it seems like you have
someday.


GFM: Well, I do my best.


CM: Something about Manhunt that I was uncomfortable with was how much I related to [the main character] Fran’s internal monologue. Some of her willful blindness—blindness in
moments where you really need to not be blind—and her being very subject to flattery. And the
way she weaponizes her self-loathing to avoid culpability. And when I got to the end of that
book, I was thinking to myself, it’s funny…I don’t actually feel like I’m challenged in this way to
reflect on these things about myself, because a lot of literature and a lot of storytelling maybe
wants to sanitize the things about us that make us unlikable. I’m curious why you think it’s
important to write about—and read about—flawed characters?


GFM: I feel like my characters are unlikable because when you can hear someone’s internal
monologue, almost invariably, it makes them sound unlikable. We are all scared. We are all
terrified that we will never experience connection again. A human being is a herd animal trapped inside a monkey that has to go to work. It’s a lonely, alienating, painful way to exist. And so
people are fucked up and injured and angry and sad and manipulative. It’s all predicated on loneliness and fear. And those are the things that I care about. So that’s what the characters in my books are thinking about. And, you know, obviously there’s wiggle room, and there’s give and take, but those are my areas of interest. It’s human malfunction and suffering. People who go through bad things generally are not super fun to be around.

CM: Yeah, that is the case, isn’t it?

GFM: Yeah, unfortunately, we have this idea as a society that being a victim gives you some
kind of moral high ground. And unfortunately, most of what being a victim does is give you a
bunch of maladaptive responses to common stimuli that make you very difficult to be close to.

CM: One thing about Manhunt is that it was one of the most oppressively violent fictional
worlds that I’ve ever inhabited, but the people in that world keep fighting to preserve a sense of
community. And fight for their own lives. There’s hope there. In your work, as you explore these
very dark things, is it important to you to preserve a sense of hope?


GFM: I think that on a mechanical level, you need it for a really good horror story. People have to see something that they want to endure; they have to see something beautiful. Because if they
don’t, it won’t mean anything when you break it in front of them. What would The Witch be without that scene where the married couple are in bed, and she’s just like having this breakdown, and he tells her, “Does that not remember that I love thee?” And it’s just like, oh, they’re just normal fucking people trying to survive. That’s where a good story becomes a great one. And so, yeah, it’s important to me. It’s important to me that there’s some sense of that in fiction, but on a personal level…yeah, I think it matters to me on a personal level as well.


CM: In what way?


GFM: In a lot of the classic ways that post-apocalyptic fiction posits that queer people don’t
have a future. Most of us aren’t going to have kids. We don’t have a civilization. We don’t have a
country. Nor do I want us to have one. But our lives are still worth living and protecting. And
we’re still always going to exist, and I think it’s good to encourage people to fight for that; and to remember that other people don’t deserve to take it away just because it makes them
uncomfortable. And frankly, I think American queers could stand to be a little more ready to do
violence.


CM: I think that you also achieve that with the fact that you’ve created an apocalypse that
essentially has one speculative sci-fi element—the Virus—and everything else is really just a heightened version of what trans and disabled people are currently living through. And I think
that while all apocalyptic novels strive for that, I think some fail in the specificity. They’ll sort of
hand-wave the collapse of civilization…like, “Oh, um, something-something supply chain…uh,
overpopulation…uh, governments crumbled…” and like, it doesn’t always connect the dots from
our world to their world. Manhunt has this specificity to me, the way that the rhetoric that we see in our world now would push even further into violence if we lost some of the structures that are currently preventing that violence from taking place.


GFM: Well, we live in an enormous, rotting empire’s carcass and at some point it might very
well try to kill more of us than it’s currently trying to kill, in a more direct way than we are currently being killed. So yeah, I think we all have to think about that.


CM: Is that one of the roles that horror stories play in our culture? To warn us?


GFM: I think it’s something they can do. I’m cautious about overestimating the power of art to motivate people. I think that we have very clearly seen its limits. And even beyond that, there’s so much potential for misinterpretation. The classic example is that after Full Metal Jacket came out, recruitment rates went up. Art is an unpredictable tool. I’m hopeful that some people might turn some thought process around or reevaluate something about themselves or their lives, but ten thousand books laser targeted at something is still not going to turn society.


CM: In light of the limitations of art that you just outlined, in light of how difficult it can be to
be an artist and to put your work out there, and especially if you’re already part of a marginalized
identity that makes things more difficult, why make art at all?


GFM: I’m not good at anything else. I have a need to do this. I’ve figured out how to get paid
enough to do it. And that’s it. It’s a hard job. I wouldn’t recommend it.


CM: And for the foolish among us who are gonna keep trying anyway, are there any piece of
advice?


GFM: Make exactly what you want to make. Do not compromise it. Do not water it down. Do
not think about how people react to it. Just make exactly what you want to make, no matter how
freakish or bizarre or boring or insignificant you think it is. If you want to make it, make it. That
is the only advice I can give. Your work will be better. People will respond to it more
powerfully. And if people are gonna get mad at you for writing something that’s too
transgressive or whatever, there’s a very good chance those people would have found some other weaselly little reason to get mad at you anyway. So who cares?

Note that for the sake of legibility and concision, these answers have been edited down. – CM

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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