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Chucky Turns a Tired Horror Cliché on Its Head

Chucky explicitly links Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) exploring his sexual identity with him exploring his killer instincts, but without any of the shame that traditionally colors such metaphors. Photo: Steve Wilkie/USA Network

Charles Lee “Chucky” Ray has taken on many different roles in the 30-plus years since his debut in Child’s Play. Beyond the obvious — serial killer turned evil doll — he’s been a romantic antihero in Bride of Chucky, a reluctant father in Seed of Chucky, and a wisecracking shock jock as a mainstay at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. Now on Chucky, his first TV series, the titular good guy gone bad is something Chucky has never been before: an LGBTQ+ ally.

On the show, now airing Tuesdays on Syfy and USA, Chucky has fallen into the hands of 14-year-old Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), a bullied loner struggling with his crush on classmate Devon (​​Björgvin Arnarson) and the abuse he faces from his single dad, Lucas (Devon Sawa). By the end of the first episode, Chucky has revealed himself to Jake with a nasty comedy routine at the school talent show and, more significantly, the murder of Jake’s father. “He got what he deserved,” Chucky says after Jake confronts him. “I know an asshole when I see one.” (He’s actually talking about Jake’s cat, but the point stands.)

On some level, Jake wanted his dad dead, and his new doll was simply following through in a way that Jake wasn’t able to. This isn’t the first time that Chucky has functioned as something of a murderous id for the kid he befriends (for lack of a better term). In creator Don Mancini’s original script for 1988’s Child’s Play, Chucky was literally the manifestation of 6-year-old Andy Barclay’s (Alex Vincent) repressed rage. The story was revised to the doll being possessed by “Lakeshore Stranger” Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, who has voiced Chucky ever since), but Chucky still behaved as an avenging angel, fighting back against the authority figures looming over Andy through the first three Child’s Play movies: his babysitter, his foster parents, his teacher, and the bullies at his military school.

Even so, the killer doll’s bond with his new owner on Chucky still feels distinctive, as he pushes Jake to pick up a butcher knife himself and fight back against the kids who are making his life hell. Almost immediately, Chucky starts referring to Jake and himself as “we.” They’re just friends, he emphasizes (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but anything Chucky does, they’re doing together. “You and me, we only kill people who have it coming,” he tells Jake in the second episode.

Jake’s burgeoning queerness is central to this story. That’s not a total surprise given that the show was created by Mancini, who has written every entry in the franchise aside from the 2019 reboot. Mancini has infused his work with queer representation, from characters who — like himself — are gay to stories about the spectrum of gender identity. But the Chucky TV show is the first installment of the Child’s Play series with a gay lead, and the bullying that Chucky is encouraging Jake to stab his way out of is explicitly about Jake’s sexuality. Before Chucky kills Jake’s father, Lucas is harassing Jake for playing with dolls. If that queer signifier wasn’t direct enough, Jake puts it plainly when he tells his dad, “You don’t care that they think I’m weird. You just care that they know I’m a fag.”

Until now, Chucky has never seemed all that concerned with being on the right side of history, but in aligning himself with Jake, the latest iteration makes it clear that there’s nothing wrong with Jake’s sexuality. “You know, I have a queer kid,” Chucky tells him, referencing his gender-fluid offspring Glen/Glenda for the first time since 2004’s Seed of Chucky. When Jake asks him if he’s cool with that, Chucky appears almost offended. “I’m not a monster,” he answers, plastic tongue firmly in cheek.

These exchanges bring to the surface the themes at the heart of Chucky: The show is both literally and subtextually about coming out, with Jake working hard to suppress his inner urges. The series links Jake exploring his sexual identity with Jake exploring his killer instincts, but in a 2021 twist, it depicts both without any of the shame that traditionally colors metaphors like this. Jake is already calling himself a “fag”; his queerness is not the problem so much as the ostracism and violence he experiences because of it. When Jake is mulling over murder, it’s presented as the logical response to a world that wants him dead. Chucky only dispatches Lucas after Lucas threatens to kill Jake if he talks about being gay again. When Chucky is encouraging Jake to murder mean girl Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), he warns him to “kill the bitch before she kills you.” Chucky is a coming out story by way of The Velvet Rage.

The conflation of homosexual and homicidal desire is not a particularly progressive notion, but the show is consciously appropriating a trope that has suffused the horror genre for decades. You could, in fact, go back even further — to Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or Strangers on a Train (1951), in which homoeroticism and murder go hand in hand. William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising, about a serial killer targeting gay men at leather bars, made the connection even more directly: the killer’s stabbings are intercut with flashes of men fucking. Another Hitchcock movie, 1960’s Psycho, helped birth the slasher genre and introduced Norman Bates, whose gender fluidity was an intrinsic aspect of his murders. Slashers took the trope of queer-coded villainy and ran with it, giving us a number of killers grounded in trans identity and same-sex desire. The allegory reached its pinnacle — or nadir, depending on how you look at it — with 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a film that feels like the Chucky TV series’ most obvious influence.

In Freddy’s Revenge, Jesse (Mark Patton) is haunted by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who is trying to take over the teenager’s body to go on a killing spree, or as Jesse puts it in the movie’s double entendre–laden script, “He’s inside me and he wants to take me again!” Like Chucky with Jake, Freddy turns Jesse into a reluctant participant in his carnage. “I need you, Jesse,” Freddy tells him. “We got special work to do here, you and me.” Their joint enterprise is dripping with queer subtext, with Freddy emerging from Jesse’s body to strip the leather-daddy gym coach naked, whip his ass with a towel, and slash his bare back with his signature finger blades.

There’s no question that the urges Jesse is working hard to suppress are as much about his queer desire as they are about murder. Freddy is an unsubtle metaphor for gayness — the monster in Jesse’s closet — as he pushes the effeminate teen away from heterosexual love interest Lisa (Kim Myers) and toward hunky classmate Grady (Robert Rusler). “It was early ’80s, pre-AIDS paranoia,” Englund said in a 2010 interview with Attitude. “Jesse’s wrestling with whether to come out or not, and his own sexual desires in that film was manifested by Freddy. His friend is the object of his affection.” But the key distinction between Freddy’s Revenge and Chucky is that while the former was written with homophobic intention, the latter has no qualms about queerness. Jake’s crush on Devon isn’t just portrayed as normal — it’s something to root for.

Chucky is playing in the same sandbox as its thematic predecessors, but it’s doing so with a gay creator at the helm and a far more modern perspective on the spectrum of sexuality. The show is deliberately taking a harmful horror allegory and reclaiming it. And if there’s any doubt that Mancini is evoking this trope on purpose, one need only look at his work on an earlier entry in the Child’s Play franchise: the campy, critically derided Seed of Chucky. While gay identity has endured a number of cringe-inducing depictions within the genre, the trans-coded killer has served as an even more insidious and omnipresent trope, both within horror and beyond. It shows up in mainstream thrillers like Dressed to Kill and Silence of the Lambs, and in cult films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Sleepaway Camp. In Seed of Chucky, Mancini took the much maligned cliché of the trans-slasher villain and turned it on its head.

Bride of Chucky ends with Chucky’s doll girlfriend Tiffany (voiced by Jennifer Tilly) giving birth to a baby, and Seed jumps forward to introduce that child, Glen (voiced by Billy Boyd). Despite the serial-killer lineage, the kid abhors violence and is deeply upset by blood — at least, that’s what Glen thinks. Over the course of the film, Glen discovers another persona within, the homicidal Glenda, who shares Chucky and Tiffany’s penchant for pain. While the movie never assigns a particular gender identity to Glen/Glenda, Seed is ultimately a coming out story for Chucky’s child, who ends up embracing both their killer instincts and their gender fluidity.

There are moments in Seed of Chucky that knowingly evoke the trans villain trope, down to the climactic reveal of a murderous Glen/Glenda in a wig and a wedding dress. But the movie is committed to compassion for its central character, treating their nonbinary identity less as a shocking twist than as necessary character development. The butt of the joke is not Glen/Glenda, but Chucky, who comes across as out of touch in his struggle to accept his kid for who they really are. (The doll’s acknowledgment of Glen/Glenda on Chucky shows just how much he’s evolved.) Mancini — who wrote and made his directorial debut on Seed — knows exactly what he’s doing here, diving headfirst into problematic waters for a reimagining of a queer-phobic allegory.

Seed confounded critics and audiences when it was released in 2004 — not to mention the studio executives who called it “too gay,” per Mancini’s recollection — but the Chucky TV series is arriving in an era of broader queer representation in entertainment. Nevertheless, the slasher as a genre is still working hard to catch up, with more recent mainstream releases like Fear Street and Freaky doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of exploring gender and sexual identity in a progressive way. To really move forward, Mancini’s work seems to suggest, horror needs not to bury its questionable past but to dig it up. Chucky recontextualizes the metaphor of films like Freddy’s Revenge, and writes a new story where queerness is something to be championed rather than feared. In doing so, the series has given us — at long last — the tortured gay slasher hero we deserve.

Chucky Turns a Tired Horror Cliché on Its Head