Karine Jean-Pierre
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This Year’s Salem Horror Fest Is So Queer It’s Scary

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Brian De Palma’s Carrie is considered one of the greats of the horror film genre. However, for Salem Horror Fest director Kay Lynch, catching it on late TV one night it was more than great, it was life-changing. “It was one of the first films I can remember ever feeling validated by,” she recalls. “The body horror in the shower, the insecurity, and rage. I felt so connected to her... I’ll never forget the palpitation in my chest. It was an emotional catharsis. That’s when I realized that horror could be a healthy way to face my darkness.” And for Lynch, the film festival, which is celebrating its fifth year this October, offers audiences an opportunity for that same kind of emotional outlet. 

The festival, which screens a mix of repertory and independent premieres, first began as a response to the 2016 election. “I was angry, hurt, and scared. Knowing that there were millions of others who felt the same way, I wanted to devote myself to something that would foster community, creativity, and critical thinking,” Lynch, who saw it as an opportunity to fulfill the need for a specific kind of catharsis, said.. “[It’s] for anyone who reads the news and needs to scream bloody murder in a safe environment.”

Salem Horror Film Festival Poster

Also near and dear to the festival director’s heart is her mission to elevate the voices of marginalized creators in the genre. “There’s no shortage of queer filmmakers with the passion and skill to tell their stories, but there is a profound deficit in the opportunities granted by those who are in a position to fund their projects,” she explains. “We’re here to demand more and do whatever we can to encourage people to pick up a camera and fulfill their own visions. We deserve to see ourselves both on the screen and behind the lens.” Horror as a genre is uniquely suited to that cause because it’s one of the most budget-friendly. “If you can fear it, you can rear it,” she says. And there are plenty of films for LGBTQ+ horror fans to keep an eye out for at the festival. This year’s queer interest films include: So Vam, Alone with You, Bad Girls, Lair, Brain Death, “as well as a two-hour block of wild shorts,” says Lynch.  

Kay Lynch

On a more personal note, this year’s festival is a particularly poignant one for Lynch, as it’s the first year that Lynch has been able to attend as her true, authentic self. “So much of my work is the result of trying to avoid self-harm. My default headspace for the longest time had been a constant static of anxiety and depression. I couldn’t acknowledge myself in any tangible way,” she recalls. “Being entrepreneurial allowed me to escape and channel my thoughts into something more productive but it still felt like I was on the run.” 

Cassandra Peterson at the Salem Horror Film Festival

That all began to change, however, with the understanding and acceptance of her gender identity. “Accepting myself as transgender seemed like this sort of mystical thing in the beginning,” she recalls. “I genuinely believed that I was physiologically unable to experience joy or pride. But the further along I go through my transition, the more... I am now more aligned with who I truly am. And for the first time in my life, I like who she is and am excited to see what she’ll achieve. I’m ready to flourish.” 

While Lynch herself is in a better place this year, holding an in-person film festival during the pandemic presents unique challenges, which she’s approaching with a mixture of caution and understandable frustration. “We’re hosting this festival amidst an outbreak of outrageously stupid and selfish people so masks and vaccines will be required. We’re also limiting attendance to allow for proper social distancing. We’ve always done what we can to scare off conservatives, so we expect a cautious and courteous audience.”

Cinema Salem

For those unable to attend the event, which takes place throughout the month of October at​​ the Cinema Salem, in person, ​​there will be a virtual program streaming live and on demand throughout the final week of October. 

Salem Horror Fest badges are on sale now.

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