Essays Horror Film

Sympathetic monsters: queerness in Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers

Stephen King. Even as a kid, I knew that that name attached to a film title meant that I was going to be freaked out. Both of my parents were avid horror fans, so I became acquainted with cinematic monstrosity at a rather early age. I cut my teeth on It, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Pet Sematary, and Halloween. As a result, it isn’t very often that a scary movie really gets me. However, if someone were to ask which movie scared me the most, my answer wouldn’t be a major title. Nor is it one that seems to get a lot of attention. It is, however, a Stephen King film; one that left a mark, or rather, a scratch on my psyche that I’ve only truly begun to understand as an adult: Sleepwalkers.

Released in 1992, Sleepwalkers follows Charles (Brian Krause) and Mary Brady (Alice Krige), a mother/son duo of vampiric werecat-like creatures, presumably of Egyptian origin. Traveling from town to town, Charles seduces young virginal girls, drains them of their life force, and then “feeds” that energy to his mother through sexual intercourse. Having settled in rural Indiana, Charles has a new target: Tanya Robertson (Mädchen Amick). Despite a genuine romantic interest, Mary demands Charles’ predation of Tanya. Meanwhile, the town’s cats are slowly accumulating around the Brady residence, presumably drawn to the presence of the sleepwalkers. Ironically, the scratches of house cats appear to be the only thing that can hurt a sleepwalker.

Though certainly monstrous, one cannot ignore the sad desperation of the Bradys’ struggle for survival. Apparently the last of their kind, they are at once relatable; driven by the need to survive and their love for one another. The tragedy of their plight is even addressed within the film itself, when Charles shares a fictionalised version of his story with a high school classroom. Of all people, it is Tanya who remarks, “I thought it was very sad… because they were always driven away. Because they were such outsiders.” In the end, the proverbial good triumphs over evil but this ending is only half satisfying. We stand for Tanya, the final girl, but are also sad to see the demise of such pitiful creatures. Mary’s final words practically harmonise with Enya’s haunting tune Boadicea, “You killed my son…my only son!” In the end, despite being engulfed in flames, she laments the loss of her son who, incidentally, died trying to nourish her.

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Grendel's mother, illustrated by Lynd Ward (1933)
Grendel’s mother, illustrated by Lynd Ward (1933)

The dynamic of a monstrous mother-and-son feels at once familiar. These characters are undeniably timeless, as though drawn straight out of myth; and I’m not just referring to the film’s preface lore. The very name, Mary, and its associations with divine motherhood is at once compelling. Yet, it is in the epic poem, Beowulf, that we find a truly comparable duo, in the characters of Grendel and his mother. Interestingly enough, similar climatic confrontations occur in both Sleepwalkers and Beowulf: the son attacks, he is defeated, and the mother wreaks vengeful havoc. Further, we find the mother-and-son in other works of modern horror. There is, of course, Jason and Pamela Voorhees of Friday the 13th. Though, in the case of the first film, Jason isn’t technically present, the two are arguably inseparable via spirit and iconography. Then, there’s Norma/Norman Bates of the Hitchcock classic, Psycho, and Billy Loomis/Debra Salt of the Scream franchise. Again, in both of these cases, the son is defeated and we are left to contend with an angry mother.

Perhaps, deep down, we all want to think that a parental figure will have our back and unleash hell, should the situation call for it. I would argue that this adds to the sleepwalkers’ relatability. While some might read the monstrous mother-and-son as a cautionary perversion (i.e. the dangers of being a mummy’s boy) I find myself with a soft spot for Mary Brady. I look at her and see an immensely powerful being, one to be respected. It’s practically the norm for boys to idolise their fathers, yet we get these narratives of obsessive incestuous monsters whenever a boy is “too close” with his mother. Being a gay man, I am not unfamiliar with the bogus anxieties that boys with female role-models will grow up to be queer. Coming out in my teenage years, I felt that very scrutiny toward my own relationship with my mother.

As with many horror films, the queer subtext is apparent and articulate. The creatures are outsiders, though they appear to be like everyone else. They share an unconventional love, as a major aspect of their monstrosity. And, perhaps most striking, their survival depends on Charles’ ability to front a relationship with an unsuspecting girl. Coming from the early 90s, it is interesting to see a queer subtext as both monstrous and sympathetic. One might even view this as an early representation of the cultural movement toward acceptance for LGBTQ folks. In that regard, however, it is worth mentioning Charles’ killing of his teacher.

Mr. Fallows, played by Glenn Shadix

Whereas Tanya represents and encourages humanity for Charles, one might view his teacher, cringingly named “Mr. Fallows” and played by openly gay actor Glenn Shadix, as representing the predatory darkness of Sleepwalkers. “It takes one to know one,” as they say, and so it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fallows recognises something different (perhaps, queer?) about Charles. Upon discovering details of Charles’ fraudulent identity, Mr. Fallows confronts him with the intent of blackmail. “Your generation is so mercenary, Charles. Money this, money that. Well, money is not the only means of exchange.” When Fallows makes an attempt to grope Charles, however, he rips his hand out of the socket, chases him down, and mauls the teacher to death.

Given the depiction of Mr. Fallows and the very nature of the sleepwalkers, the film undoubtedly pairs queerness with the predation of youth. An old trope, to be sure. Though this portrayal is disheartening, I pivot back to the sympathetic characterisation of the sleepwalkers. This film offers us the deepest darkest supposition of the queer, then presents it humanised: longing, loving, and struggling to exist. “In the end, [Charles] and his mother always had to run. For, one night, the men would come… in their old cars, men with lights and guns. To the boy and his mother, their curses and their screams of rage always sound the same, like the laughter of cruel gods.”

Many aspects of Sleepwalkers have stuck with me throughout the years: the horror, the desperation and depravity, the sheer tragedy of it all. Of course, I identified with the creatures. I was a gay boy with a fiercely independent mother. In a world known for its hostility toward characters like us, perhaps I found encouragement in the sleepwalkers’ immense power. Then again, maybe I was just terrified that one of those things was waiting in my own closet… in the end, who’s to say they weren’t?

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