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Most horror movies feature some element of romance, but even among the (often tragic) love stories that make it onto the screen, finding any queer ones is a hard task as much of it being relegated to subtext — if not to simply a queer reading. But Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy changes all that, as it places its lesbian love story front and center within the films' narrative, propelling the story across all three movies.
Spoiler Warning: The following article discusses all three of Netflix's Fear Street films, so please proceed with caution.
It all starts in Shadyside in 1994 — the first of the films based on R.L. Stine’s book series of the same name — when Deena, her ex-girlfriend Sam, and the rest of their friends are forced to fight back against the curse of a dead witch named Sarah Fier, which is causing a terrifying roster of formerly dead murderers to come after them and killing various other townspeople in the process. Their tale then continues in 1978, and later in 1666, as Deena must continue to grapple with Sarah's spirit now possessing Sam (and later Deena herself), both threatening their newly rekindled relationship and the future of Shadyside as they know it.
"That was one of the earliest decisions," director Leigh Janiak (Scream: The TV Series) tells SYFY WIRE about the choice to have all three movies revolve around Sam and Deena’s love for each other. "This idea of generational trauma and history repeating itself and time cycling and the idea of soulmates, all of these things were really interesting to me, and made sense within the mythology that we were creating about Shadyside that had been traditionally full of outsiders and people that were marginalized. So being able to privilege a relationship at the center of that just made sense and felt organic to the story."
But even within Deena and Sam’s relationship, they’re at different points in their respective journeys as young queer women when the films first begin. While Deena is more out and proud of who she is, Sam is not at all open about it. Therein lies some of the conflict that first caused Deena to break up with Sam before the events of 1994 start to take place.
According to Kiana Madeira (The Flash) who plays Deena, despite their differences, both characters have more in common than it would seem on the surface, and that what draws Deena to Sam is all her little quirks and the fact that she’s a bit awkward.
"Deena has such a desire to want to protect and take care, that she sees this girl who is not there yet in terms of being open with who she is and how she identifies. But Deena can see past all of that and just wants her to embrace those things that make her special and make her beautiful," says Madeira. "They challenge each other in certain ways and they learn from each other. There’s such a softness beneath all of the craziness that I really love."
Deena and Sam’s love story is also mirrored in the past, as we learn that Sarah (Deena’s ancestor), had feelings for Hannah Miller (Sam’s ancestor), both of them even seizing a moment to act on it in 1666. For Olivia Scott Welch (Marvel's Agent Carter) who plays Sam, this offered a chance to play a nice contrast.
"They’re at the beginning of their relationship," says Welch. "Because in 1994, [Sam and Deena] are in strife as is without the whole curse and stuff. They’re kind of in a bad place already. But then with Hannah and Sarah, they’re just starting to really like each other. It also kind of makes you fall in love with Sam and Deena even more.”
There’s also a contrast between both of Welch’s characters, with Hannah in 1666, being the bolder one who initiates her and Sarah’s first kiss. "She very confidently knows that she’s in love with Sarah," notes Welch. "Sam always knew she was lying to herself and repressing herself… She literally had to get possessed by the devil to just drop it, which is such an extreme thing. She always knew she wanted to be with Deena, but then you have to go through killing each other a few times till they really decide to make it work, which is so funny."
Both Madeira and Welch view Sarah’s possession of their characters as a link between the queer characters of the past, and the ones in the future of 1994. For Welch, it’s Sarah’s attempts to reach out to people who might understand her story. For Madeira, it’s a chance to understand that you’re not alone — especially when fighting a bigger, more powerful foe as Deena and Sam are doing for all of the movies.
"We never really get the opportunity to travel back in time and re-experience people’s experiences, but it’s interesting to know that those things really did exist in our history," reflects Madeira. "To take the time to do research or watch, even the Salem witch trials and everything that happened in times of slavery. Just knowing that for a lot of us that’s in our ancestry and in our blood, helps us to find a sense of identity and who we are today and how we have a responsibility to be the next generation to create change."
Of course, being teen slashers, the Fear Street movies definitely do not shy away from the fact that teenagers have sex, even including a few sex scenes between the teen characters in all three films. However, what’s notable here is that the ones between Madeira and Welch’s characters are depicted with the same level of care and nuance as is shown to the straight characters.
"Sex is a really realistic element of being a teenager so it felt important to put in there," says Janiak of how they approached that aspect of the films. "Everything came from that place of keeping it grounded and really raw and emotional and intimate and just showing that desire is here even when destruction is lurking all around."
She goes on to add, "My writing partner Phil, who grew up gay in the ‘90s, was always there to guide us and remind us that the love [Sam and Deena] are sharing is universal and it is something that anyone who has been in love can recognize, but also it’s a queer love story. It’s not just a straight love story that has two women in it. They’re dealing with things that are specific to feeling like their love is other or maybe not good enough, and so that was really important to preserve."
But perhaps the biggest subversion that Fear Street holds up its sleeve is that unlike with many other horror films in the past which often see the queer characters killed off by the end, both Sam and Deena get a happy ending, with their love for each other even going on to save the day.
"Honestly, that feels to me like something that was only possible because we were able to make these three movies at once," says Janiak. "To really give a full, happy ending and a message of hope and this feeling that you can change things and the story that you’ve been told your whole life. You can write your own story and change what people are telling you."
All three Fear Street movies are available to stream on Netflix.