The Queer Horror of “Chucky”: Episode 1, “Death By Misadventure”

Each week Joe Lipsett will highlight a key scene or interaction in Don Mancini’s Chucky series to consider how the show is engaging with and contributing to queer horror.

There are plenty of thrilling moments in the premiere of Don Mancini’s Chucky series on Syfy. In addition to homages to both the series’ films and other horror classics, “Death By Misadventure” also positions queerness and queer horror as its focal point. Spoilers ahead.

As Horror Queers listeners know, there’s more than one way to queer a horror text. It may involve queer talent in front of and behind the camera; the narrative can focus on queer characters in significant and meaningful ways; and/or it can include content that appeals directly to queer audiences, such as casting particular actors beloved by the community or embracing a story’s camp potential.

Thus far, Chucky is engaging with all facets of queer horror. The long running franchise was created by out gay man Don Mancini, who has brought back his frequent collaborator, friend and queer icon Jennifer Tilly (she’ll turn up later in the season). The Syfy series notably also has a queer protagonist – Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) – front and center.

Additionally the first episode focuses on bullying, with Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) seemingly protecting and even penalizing those who would do Jake harm. This is part of Mancini’s interest to explore issues that are relevant not just to teens, but more specifically, queer teens. 

In keeping with the tropes of Young Adult texts (which Chucky is, in addition to being a horror series), the family narrative is one of tragedy and loss. We learn that Jake’s mother died in a car accident, which has caused – or at minimum contributed to – Luke’s alcoholism, as well as expanding the rift between father and son. 

It’s clear that Jake related more strongly to his mother, who was also an artist (hence his interest in art, represented in the pilot by his macabre doll sculpture). Jake’s art is an attempt to work through his own grief and maintain a connection to his deceased mother. 

It is unsurprising then that, following an uncomfortable family dinner with his more successful twin brother Logan (Sawa), sister-in-law Bree (Lexa Doig) and seemingly perfect nephew Junior (Teo Briones), Luke destroys the sculpture. The demolition of this work epitomizes Luke’s desire for Jake to stop his “effeminate” activities (playing with dolls, making art like his mother, etc). The use of a baseball bat, a symbol of America’s national pastime and a conventionally masculine sport for boys, is a visual reminder of how, in Luke’s opinion, Jake fails to conform to acceptable gender behavior.

This comes to a head in a dramatic, violent confrontation later in the episode that evokes the worst fears for queer youth: Jake’s father physically assaults him when Jake proudly announces that he is a f*g. It’s significant that Mancini uses the worst contemporary slur for gay men in this encounter; not only is it shocking and confronting, but Jake has a clear understanding of its effect on his father. By using this word, Jake appropriates its hateful power and seeks to verbally wound his father, effectively turning Luke’s outdated discrimination against him.

In response Luke punches his fourteen year old son in the face and threatens to kill him. 

There’s no doubt that any audience will see this as shocking and abusive parental behavior. For queer audiences, however, Luke’s response plays into one of the most significant fears we have about the coming out process: that our parents will disown us, hate us, throw us out or, at worst, murder us. Mancini quickly subverts by giving Jake the agency and strength to fight back against his father, which plays as the ultimate wish fulfilment for queer teens. Unfortunately the ramifications of this interaction aren’t lingered on because the threat of Luke’s violence is quickly removed when Chucky kills him later that night.

For most audiences, the violence between Jake and Luke will be little more than a brief, fleeting interaction. For queer audiences, however, Mancini and Chucky have dramatized the very real emotional and physical risk of coming out to an unsupportive parent. It’s not as tangibly scary as being murdered by a doll or as entertaining as telling off haters during a talent show, but it’s an understated moment of queer horror in “Death By Misadventure” that suggests intriguing things to come. We’ll find out next week in episode 2, “Give Me Something Good To Eat.”

Chucky airs every Tuesday on Syfy. For more coverage, see Meagan’s review of episode one.