By RICKY J. DUARTE
In the mid-20th century, a wave of wrongful and malicious dismissals from government service positions swept the country, leaving many without employment, to be shunned, exiled, and publicly shamed. The targeted demographic was queer people and those accused of such “behavior.” (Think McCarthy’s Red Scare, but for “homosexuals or other moral perverts in positions of trust.”) The movement, dubbed “The Lavender Scare,” added fuel to the inferno of bigoted and ignorant viewpoints of anti-gay individuals and legislation. This irreparable displacement of hard-working and dedicated government employees served as proof that, ultimately, the “moral majority” is afraid of what they don’t understand. This fear, deeply embedded within the minds of, frankly, dangerous individuals, is more terrifying than any horror movie.
Hence the title of a brand new NYC-based queer horror art exhibition: LAVENDER SCARE. Just as radical protesters worked hard to reclaim the word “queer” to serve the purposes of the community it set out to harm, so too, is curator Dan Halm repurposing the phrase “Lavender Scare.” Here, it serves as a sort of shorthand or passcode for those in the know. To the marginalized, othered and feared… this exhibition is for you.
Running from September 6 through 11t, the show is an amalgamation of everything we celebrate about being proud horror fans and proud queer people. LAVENDER SCARE is part of the Spring/Break Art Show, an internationally recognized exhibition platform using underused, atypical and historic New York City exhibition spaces to activate and challenge the traditional cultural landscape of the art market [per the show’s website]. LAVENDER SCARE features the works of four unique and brilliantly talented queer artists, each with a passion for horror. The show will include artists Robert Hickerson, Michael-Birch Pierce, Daniel Samaniego and Richard Stauffacher. Each artist brings a deeply personal sense of self to their work; Each piece evokes a response from the viewer. This mix of self-meditative media runs the gamut from photography to graphite, Swarovski to ceramic.
Dan Halm (he/him) is a New York-based artist, curator, and writer who has curated numerous exhibitions both domestically and internationally. He’s no stranger to the queer art scene, having recently curated a bodybuilding-themed show called Massive (also at NYC’s Spring/Break Art Show) and Queer as I at the HERE Art Center, as well as Unearthed (co-curated with Geo Gonzalez) at Rockelmann & (Berlin), which was named a critics pick by Artforum. In 2019, Halm was named resident curator at the HERE Art Center. In addition to his independent curating, for the past 20 years, he has served as lead curator to the SVA Galleries booth at numerous art fairs, including Untitled, Art (both Miami and San Francisco), PULSE (both Miami and New York) and Miami Project among others. He has also developed programming and lectures for the Armory Show.
Aside from the art world, Dan is also a massive horror fan. Having grown up obsessed with the genre, it wasn’t until later in life – after having come out – that he began to connect the horror genre to the queer experience. In our interview, I spoke with him about that connection, his LAVENDER SCARE exhibition in NYC’s Spring/Break Art Show, and what it is about queer people that induces fear in others.
I’m so excited for this exhibition. Can you tell me a bit about yourself, LAVENDER SCARE and the Spring/Break Art Show?
The Spring/Break Art Show is a collection of curators from all over the world who are responding to themes that the art fair itself suggests. I’ve done numerous exhibitions with them over the years; This is their sort of 12-year retrospective, so each curator is responding to one of the themes that they’ve already done in previous fairs … I’m responding to this idea of what they call “Stranger in a New Town,” which is about outcasts and people who are making artwork out things that are a little off-kilter or bizarre – a little unusual in what’s considered mainstream information. So my response to this was to do an exhibition about the intersection of queer and horror.
As someone who is obsessed with horror movies and horror in general, growing up, I didn’t feel that there was a queer community for horror in the beginning of coming out and “finding my tribe,” as somebody would say. I found that there is a really big queer horror following, which to me, was interesting to find and to continue to find and continue to explore this idea of this weird intersection between why queer individuals have this response to horror. Why do we love it so much? Why are we obsessed with it? So, for this exhibition, I decided I would look at that.
Then, diving in a bit deeper, I started to think about what my response… Why do I love horror so much? And then, seeing that reflected in other artists. So I pulled together four artists for this show that have different aspects of what I respond to in horror and what they respond to in horror. So it’s sort of this tribe of queer weirdos who enjoy this for different reasons and what their responses are.
What do you think it is about the queer experience that relates so heavily to horror?
I think it’s two-fold, for me. We kind of see ourselves reflected in the monster, where we’re the “other.” We’re the outsiders. We’re the outlier, you know. We sort of see ourselves in these different creatures of the night – something like a vampire, which only comes out at night and is overly sexual. There’s a bit of a queer narrative in the Dracula myth, where he’s, like, seducing men and women. I think of the Dracula wives, who are this lesbian little cult together, so I think we sort of start seeing ourselves as the monster because every boy’s response to the monster is: Kill it. Get rid of it. Bury it. So I think we start to see ourselves reflected a little bit in this idea of the monster. It’s Frankenstein’s monster and the townsfolk get together to destroy it because they don’t understand it or they’re afraid of it. We see ourselves reflected in those myths, those legacies. I came out much later in life, so I lived what I like to think of as the werewolf persona. Every once in a while it’s gonna be a little fun moment, but keep that inside. You don’t want anyone to know! We see ourselves in these “others.” It’s these repressed fears that these people are going through, and it’s an outside person looking into a queer space and being afraid of it. So we respond to that.
And then there’s also, I think, this huge camp factor and over-the-topness that appeals to my campy sensibilities, you know? I loved Elvira growing up, but I didn’t love her for every reason a straight man would love her. I loved her because she was so over-the-top and ridiculous and beautiful and dangerous and didn’t give a shit! I think [for] most people who get into horror, there is that adrenaline rush – that being so scared could snap you out of being depressed about your own life. I dated a man who was chronically depressed because there is that release, that joyful release, I think, when you’re scared. You ultimately know nothing really bad’s going to happen to you in that moment while you’re watching the movie, but you’re gonna laugh about it afterward – after the screaming. I think it’s kind of exciting.
I think as I got older, I also thought about how we can relate to what has been called the “final girl,” or now, even, the “final boy,” where it’s somebody who’s been beaten and battered and comes out of this feeling a bit changed. Stronger. I think as a society, queer folks are always on high alert. We’re always in that fight-or-flight mentality. I think this idea of relating to the final girl – and I think it’s not even a queer audience, but an audience in general – you would hope you’d be smart enough to survive. You’d hope you’d be smart enough to not go into the basement by yourself. But I also think, instincts, you know? I find myself all the time, when I walk into a dark space, going, “Hello?” Why do we do that? It’s human nature!
So I think a lot of the time, the struggle of queer folks gives us the opportunity to relate to both the monsters in some movies and the final girls in other movies. We can see ourselves as being resilient but also being chastised or ostracized – something to be feared. A lot of that bounces back and forth. I think we kind of straddle [that line]. Sometimes, we’re the monsters to certain people; Sometimes, we’re the heroes to other people. So I found all of that fascinating as I dove into understanding why I love horror. Why am I obsessed with this?
Curating is an art form within itself! What do you look for in an artist’s work for a show like this?
It’s almost like part of my art practice that all my shows are based on my interest outside of art and something that I might find fascinating. Usually, it starts with one artist, and I build an exhibition around them. Like I said, with Spring/Break, we’re responding to a given theme, and how do you interpret that theme? So for me, this year, I’m doing horror. Last year I did a show about bodybuilding.
This year, it was this artist, Robert Hickerson, whose work I had seen. I’d curated a friend of his in an exhibition, and we became friends on Instagram. I’m obsessed with his work because … his work is so bright and vibrant. It reminds me of Argento films and Creepshopw and heightened-color-and-pop. And then, there’s this humor to it that makes me laugh about the work because it’s so ridiculous and over-the-top. And then, when you start talking to Robert, you find out that he has a whole body of work based on dating and the horrors of dating as a gay man, and I’m like, “Oh my God! Of course, that’s why I’m relating to this stuff!” So then, I start building the show around that. Robert’s work has sort of a camp factor, so who else could fit in to make this work stand at the same level? When you’re looking at the show, it’s sort of all really strong work but all different enough that you have the opportunity to find something that you can relate to. For me, curating an exhibition, my artwork wouldn’t necessarily dip into the horror genre at this moment, but I’m fascinated by it as a subject matter.
I find that as a researcher, you’re finding work that speaks to you and also complements the other work that’s being put together. I might start with ten artists and get it down to four, or I might start with something that’s a group show because it’s multiple people, or just two people, because the conversation that those two artists are having is strong. For this show, it ended up being four artists, each artist working [in] a different genre or style. It’s photography, ceramics, drawing and a mixed media piece with ink and Swarovski crystals. I knew all of the artists except for one… I have a big network of artists and curator friends, so I always like to throw it out to my community and say, “Does anybody know artists who are working in horror?” I get a bunch of requests, and I get a bunch of people, and I find that to be satisfying because I’m looking at what people are recommending and who people are excited about – or who their friends are. For me, it’s like a really nice community to have artists and curator friends make suggestions. Not everybody ends up in my show, but now those artists are on my radar… [For] LAVENDER SCARE, there has to be a level of camp to the show, I wanted it to be just ridiculous enough that people would enjoy seeing the work and referencing this idea that these are four queer artists who are as obsessed with horror – if not more – than I am.
Are there any particular horror influences that visitors of the show can expect to see referenced in the work? You already mentioned Argento…
One of the artists, Daniel Samaniego, is referencing Freddy Kreuger, but it’s also sort of a drag moment happening with Freddy, where he’s using himself, his body – the artist’s body – then he’s using a Kreuger mask and wearing a wig… It’s way over the top.
And then, Michael-Birch Pierce is doing a series of drawings of the hairstyles worn by different women in movies. They have the Elvira wig. They have Casey Becker from Scream. They’ve got Brenda from Scary Movie. Michael has a drag persona named Grace Wetpants, so it’s referencing their love of drag with these [characters] that are iconic enough that [they’re recognizable by] just the hair. With the Casey Becker piece, there’s the [big cordless] phone incorporated, but really, [it’s] just the hair. So there are these references to iconic final girls or victims or … these iconic women in horror movies.
The final piece to the puzzle is Richard Stauffacher, who’s doing these ceramic ghosts that talk about this idea of loneliness and isolation. He has this ceramic room that exists with a sheet-ghost figure in this very lonely, sad room, with two dogs by its side. It’s this idea of Are we gonna die alone? Do we die alone? Am I forced into this sort of loneliness? And so, I think each of them sort of complements each other in a way that keeps the work interesting and keeps the focus on all of them in a different way.
I think you could find something that references, like I said, these iconic women who you will know – that idea of the ghost, which is a really sad, isolated sort of moment. I think in Daniel’s work, he’s also talking about this idea of “the dandy” and how the dandy fits into these iconic horror tropes. He’s looking at gay culture and these horrors and the masks that we wear.
They’re all ideas that surface-wise, it’s obviously horror, but once you’ve spent a little time with it, you start to realize that the work does actually sit a little deeper for everybody. Whether it’s the horrors of dating or this idea of loneliness or these super strong women that maybe survive, maybe they don’t, each of the artists is doing something really interesting and fresh and new with this idea of horror, and I think you could take any of that work and put it elsewhere, and it still has impact and still has the power that I think a good horror film or a good horror novel has that sort of lingers with you. I think this work could kind of linger in a way that’s a little bit more in-depth than just surface.
What kind of horror inspires you?
Like I said, I’m kind of all over the place. I do really love campy, over-the-top [horror] – Elvira or Killer Clowns From Outer Space. But I’m also obsessed with everything A24 is doing right now because I feel like they’re taking horror back to a level that we haven’t had in a long time, where it’s smart and sophisticated and terrifying. I find myself falling in and out of genres. I’m not like, “Oh, it’s a vampire film. I have to see every vampire film.” I love a creature feature. … I can remember going to see Poltergeist in the theater with my mom and my aunt and my brother and thinking, “Oh, this is gonna be a great movie!” and being so terrified of it that I ran out of the theater. I watched the last twenty minutes outside the door. It’s such a moment in my life, where, I love it now and I’m so obsessed with Poltergeist the movie. Why did it terrify me when I was 10 or 12? Now, it’s one of my favorite movies. I think horror has that impact.
As a horror audience, [it’s great] when we can be surprised by something or not expect something, [like] seeing Scream for the first time, and thinking, “Wow, this is so clever because it’s people who know the rules, but continue to do the same things that they shouldn’t do.” We all do that! You think if you’re in that situation, I’m not gonna go to the basement, but you end up going to the basement! The adrenaline rush of fear can be intoxicating. Why do we do it?! I’m afraid of the dark. It terrifies me. And I can’t watch the bug scene in Creepshow. I just can’t. To me, that’s the most terrifying scene in horror. That’s what excites me about horror – when it taps into your primal fears, it’s terrifying.
That cockroach scene does a great job of getting under your skin, so to speak. What do you hope people will take away from this show?
I hope that they think about this idea of horror and queerness because I think a lot of times, people don’t associate queer people with horror. Like I said, I didn’t for the longest time when I came out. I think there is a love, there is a passion for it. There is a large group of queers who love horror… What is it really about it that attracts us to it?
These four artists are passionate about horror movies. I feel like you can see that love for each of these artists in the work. It’s in their souls. They love horror movies. A few of the artists do other things besides horror work; They’re not just strictly horror content. What I want viewers to walk away from is to enjoy the campy fun that horror allows us [and] also to think about why queer people connect with horror. And I think a lot of what they’re connecting to is how – and especially now – members of the queer community are often served up as something to be dehumanized. I think we’re dealing with that right now with trans people. They’re making them these scary bogeymen, and the response is, I think Frankenstein really speaks to the queer narrative, where it’s like, “Let’s kill it! Let’s get rid of it! It’s something we don’t understand. We don’t like it. It’s terrifying.”
I always think of that line from The Mob Song in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when they’re storming Beast’s castle. “We don’t like what we don’t understand. In fact it scares us…” (written by a queer man, Howard Ashman).
I think politicians know how to manipulate society to a certain degree, and I think if they can make something scary, the response becomes terrifying to people. Especially if you know a trans person or you know a queer person, then you realize, “Oh, this isn’t so scary.” It’s kind of like the language they used to use about gay marriage – how gay marriage was gonna destroy the sanctity of marriage until gays started getting married. And everyone realized, “Oh, alright. It didn’t affect me.” It happened in the ’80s when HIV and AIDS was happening. People were afraid. They were terrified. Unfortunately, queer individuals are the scapegoat a lot because we aren’t the majority. We’re a minority, and I think people take that opportunity to make something scary that, if you just took the time to talk to a trans person, you would realize, “Oh, okay. They’re just like me. They have problems. Some are really lovely; Some are assholes.”
What I hope people will take away from this show is that there’s a humor to it, you know, but mostly people are just living their lives. We may be the monsters; We may not be the monsters. I think people should walk away from the show, hopefully, having a good time … because I wanted to tap into the campiness of horror that I enjoy. When I was talking to Michael about the wigs that they were drawing, I was like, “Well, I need an Elvira wig. I just have to have an Elvira wig.” They were like, “Oh, absolutely!” We connect on those levels; I think it’s a great shorthand. I want us to get to the point where we’re not always having these conversations about being cast as the queer person – as the monster. I also love the fact that if you find another queer person who loves horror, you already have this sort of shorthand.
Anybody who loves the genre of horror could enjoy this work. It doesn’t necessarily have to read as queer. It also reads as horror. It just happens to be being produced by queer artists. A straight audience will get as much out of it as a queer audience would. The community is a lot bigger than people expect, and I would hope this exhibition would scratch the surface a little bit and let more people in to realize it does exist.
LAVENDER SCARE runs from September 6 through 11 as part of the Spring/Break Art Show at Art Center, 625 Madison Ave, NYC. Click here for tickets!