Writer and director Tyler Christensen seems to have come into the world loving horror even before he actually discovered horror films.
Christensen, who hails by his own admission from a “normal” middle class, white family in Wisconsin, says he’s not entirely sure where that came from, but it was always there. As a child, he would create haunted houses in the basement and take his mother on guided tours.
He also admits that he took no little delight in scaring the daylights out of his little sister whenever he could. Her name is Rachel, and unfortunately for her, at one point she saw the Zelda clip from Pet Sematary when she was quite young.
For a young Tyler, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I would hide out under her bed,” he related to me in an interview. “Sometimes I’d be waiting two hours but I would commit to it. When she’d finally get in bed I’d start scratching at the wood on the bed frame while saying, ‘Raaaaacheeeeel.'”
They were the earliest memories he had of the thrill of being scared and scaring others. When he finally realized that horror films were a thing, it was life-changing.
“When I realized I could have that feeling sitting in front of the TV. I was totally down for that,” he said.
Horror changed Christensen’s life in a lot of ways, and he points to the movies and the themes within them that he began to identify with as his own sexual orientation began to make itself known.
He couldn’t quite place his finger on why he liked Psycho so much. For a long time, he thought it was simply the reveal of Mother at the end. After years of watching, however, he realized that it was Norman’s isolation and loneliness that had drawn him to the film.
And of course, there was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
“I was still too young to put it into words,” he said, “but I was able to see it and think, there’s something there that felt familiar to me.”
It was also during this time that another horror film was released that would play a major role in his life. The film was The Blair Witch Project, and this time the film would set him on his path to creating horror movies of his own.
At all of 16 years old, Christensen got one of his buddy’s older brother to purchase tickets for them to see the film on the one weekend it was playing at a local theater. He had been drawn in by the film’s marketing campaign and was on the periphery, wavering on whether it might be real or not.
“I remember when that ended, that cut to black at the end, I couldn’t move,” he said with traces of that nostalgic excitement in his voice. “It had kept me completely glued to my seat, and people in the parking lot after were checking their backseats and scanning the parking lot on the way to their cars.”
He got home as fast as he could, hit the old dial-up AOL, and began tracking down everything he could about the film, only to learn that it had all been a clever marketing ploy. Rather than dissuading him, however, it lit a fire in him.
“People made this and made it look like other people made it and terrified an entire audience,” he said. “I wanted in on that!”
A few years later, he was in on that.
Working his way up as production staff on shows like America’s Got Talent and Deal or No Deal, Christensen was also writing constantly and in 2016, he had finally written, produced and directed his first feature film, House of Purgatory.
In the film, four teenagers in search of a legendary haunted house, find themselves, upon entering, confronted with their greatest fears. Naturally, some of his own came to the surface while preparing the script long before it was ever made.
In a pivotal scene, not only is one of the characters outed in a horrific way, but the reaction of his family and friends is to shun and/or attack him.
“I was still in the closet when I wrote the script and I was asking myself what the scariest thing was that could happen to me, and there it was,” he said. “To not be accepted, to be outed, to have someone take that from you is like ripping the power from your hands. I think there are a lot of kids who grapple with that, and I knew it would resonate.”
So, how would Christensen like to see the future of queer representation in horror?
“I don’t need necessarily a ‘gay’ horror movie. I don’t need the hero to be gay,” he explained. “I’m 100% okay with a gay villain in a horror film so long as their villainy isn’t tied into them being gay. Everyone wants to see themselves on the screen. Little girls loved Wonder Woman because they got to see a woman being the superhero. The African-American community went in droves to see Black Panther so that they could see themselves represented as heroes.”
“I wrote a script where the villain is gay, but that’s not why he’s the villain,” he continued. “I did it because I think if someone is going to write that movie, then it needs to be someone in our community. I don’t need another coming out story or someone grappling with their sexual orientation because we’ve seen that over and over. I want someone who’s out and proud and going about their daily lives who just happens to find themselves in a horror story.”
Despite the lack of this type of representation, thus far, Christensen remains hopeful for the future. He points to the audiences he sees when he heads to his local theater to see a new horror film. At least a quarter of them, he estimates are part of the LGBTQ community, and he hopes those percentages somehow open the eyes of studio executives and producers.
“Everyone says they’re looking for new voices, and it’s only a matter of time before our voices are heard and we see ourselves more often on the big screen,” he said.
I totally agree with him, and I’m hoping we see it sooner rather than later.