Why You Can’t Separate Camp and Horror

The art of camp is both nuanced and outrageously blatant in the best way. It’s like being slapped in the face by a penguin wearing a bedazzled denim jacket – you’re not too sure what’s happening, or why it’s happening, but you damn well notice it. Trying to define camp is famously difficult, with many academics disagreeing on specific descriptions and even more people saying it exists outside the realm of academia and sensibility entirely. The most noted definition is from Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’, which exclaims that camp emphasises artifice, frivolity and shocking excess. In an earlier descriptor of camp, writer Christopher Isherwood said in his novel ‘The World in the Evening’ that “you can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance”. In general, when it comes to deciding what media count as camp, art can be split into two categories: the deliberate camp and the accidental camp. For example, the 1985 who-dunnit-ridicule film Clue is deliberate camp, with its hilariously precise over-acting, purposefully confusing plot, slap-stick manner and truly iconic characters; whereas a disaster movie like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is accidental camp for its prestigious title of the best worst film ever, according to many on the internet. With all this in mind, camp isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – it’s outwith the norm, it pushes boundaries to the point it disregards any semblance of boundaries, and it’s existence is often met with a stiff-upper-lipped dismissal from polite heteronormative society. All of this can be said to be true of another misunderstood genre that has walked hand in hand with camp for decades.

Horror is made to be shocking, outrageous, fun and distasteful. This genre has wiled up enough protest from sensible society for the heinous, bloody violence it unleashes onto prying eyes – it’s judged harshly by many who simply don’t understand the brilliance of it. Horror, as a genre, is camp. 

There are many sub-genres of horror, ranging from the pure cheap silly B-movie to the serious ‘elevated’ horror, all of which – to a degree – can count as having elements of camp. Starting with the classics, early horrors that first introduced us to the universal monsters were camp before camp were a thing. Firstly, all these classic monsters – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man – are easily distinguished allegories for queerness. I’ve already written about the queerness of Frankenstein in this column series before and I’ve discussed the inherent queerness of all vampire depictions for Screen Queens so I won’t write further about that here and will instead focus on the camp. Dracula – in a massive castle, wearing a fabulous cape and mysteriously prowling about the halls of his lair – has big camp vibes. Can you really take someone wearing a cape seriously? No, of course not, especially when they have an upturned collar and lil pointy teeth. But this character demands respect because he’s iconic, as are all the universal monsters which nowadays may look a little silly to today’s standards. Camp media can be distinguished often by its rough-around-the-edges appeal and over-the-top theatrics, which these films fit the category for. From a modern perspective, it could be easy to mock old films for their flimsy practical effects and theatrics but it’s impossible not to enjoy them and that is partly in due to their retroactive element of camp. 

If both camp and horror are defined as boundary pushing, then exploitation horror could arguably fit nicely in the camp territory. Exploitation horror is perhaps the most thoroughly debated sub-genre of horror; coming to fruition in the 1970’s, this sub-genre created some of the most stomach churning gruesome images put to film – it was made to shock and to disgust. Notorious films of this era include Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which was banned in many countries for its horrific images and real-life controversial and actually exploitative filmmaking techniques. Outwith horror, the genre of exploitative cinema which existed most famously through John Waters works, revelled in the disgusting and uncomfortable. Although widely protested, the sub-genre didn’t die in the 70’s and it continues to this day in horror with the likes of Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) and Terrifier (2016). These films are often low-budget cult favourites, with enough buckets of gooey blood to make Carrie scream. Sometimes they fall into the accidentally camp genre due to their low budget, which comes hand-in-hand with questionable acting and storylines that should have had another edit. However some lean into the purposefully camp, like Terrifier, with its delightfully psychopathic main character Art: the playfully murderous grinning clown who enjoys making jack-o-lanterns from his victim’s heads. 

In the 1980’s to 1990’s, when slasher films became the most popular horror sub-genre and actually started to break into pop media more, there came a period when previously “serious” horror films, like Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), commercialised itself with multiple sequels and became steadily more and more notably camp. The character of Freddy Krueger, although a nasty murderous child abuser, became a quippy jokester of a character who even had a rap video and was marketed as a fun face for children’s toys (the 90’s was a strange time, kids). Horror moved towards the more recognisable definition of camp – the fun, ridiculous, playful type – and although fabulous, it did slightly hinder the wider public perception of horror, giving those darn normies even more opportunity to disregard the genre as immature and silly. Anything that threatened the rigid heteronormative standard media was ridiculed and unfortunately, horror that fully embraced its camp roots was an easy target for wider society. 

The closest similarities between camp and horror is how they exist outside of society while still being rooted within. Both art forms hold up a distorted fun-house mirror to society and mocks its ways. Camp exaggerates standards and pulls away from normality to make its own shocking image; horror does the same by plucking the nastiest things that plagues the mind of wider society and creating a monster to symbolise real-life anxieties. Both art forms are what normal society – the society that wishes to pretend everything is fine and dandy –  despises, or at least doesn’t wish to see. They mock and dismiss through their own naivety and ignorance and they miss out on some of the best stories cinema has to offer, as well as the best communal film watching experience. I will argue that camp films and horror films, and especially camp horror films, are the absolute best films to watch with groups of people – there is a level of pure enjoyment that’s hard to find in other genres. Whether you’re cackling at a ridiculous character, squirming at a gruesome death or leaping out of your chair at a jump-scare, it’s an experience that has inspired repeated cult viewings because it’s pure unbridled joy. 

This Halloween, we’re missing out on the opportunity of large group viewings of camp horrors. We’re unable to dress up as ridiculous characters and act like idiots and play tricks on our friends and sing along to Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) surrounded by dozens of fishnet cladded drunken peers. Halloween is yet another in a long list of ‘missed opportunities in 2020’, however if there’s one genre that will cheer you up even if alone in your flat – it’s camp horror. Find a copy of Sleepaway Camp (1983), The Seed of Chucky (2004), A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Evil Dead 2 (1987), sit back and enjoy some silly, gruesome, brilliant fun. Let’s be honest, we deserve a fun little nightmare now and again.