Artwork by Mina So

The Bride of Frankenstein’s iconic beehive is chipped. Her sculpted hair shows milky under the black paint. Her bandage-swaddled right hand broke off years ago, and was never reattached. The body, also wrapped by tiny bandages, is worn where I’ve gripped her, mostly at the sides and neck. She comes with two heads, both damaged, but the craftsmanship is evident. She’s the exact of Elsa Lanchester.

I got the Bride at age nine, as part of a 3-monster collector’s set from Universal and Sideshow Toys. This was the 90s and early 2000s, when the sets weren’t so expensive. I paid for them with money from local commercial shoots, or received them as gifts. I have nine figures total, in various states of disrepair. They were my prized toys, even though I should have kept them sealed, lest I degrade their value. I didn’t care. I wanted them as friends.

When I moved for college, it made sense to leave them behind. They were damning evidence of my childhood, when I was even more imperfect and delusional, and didn’t know how to take care of things. I came back to them years later, haunted by an absence of community, unsure how much I’d degraded my own worth. I saw myself as undeserving because I’d let the objects of my passion fall apart. I wasn’t careful or diligent enough to belong.

It was a long time before I started to wonder, why did I want to belong at all? And what exactly were the standards – who decided on them, and why do we hold them up, fearfully and violently, like the subjects of an angry god?

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One of my first published articles, for the now-defunct Blumhouse.com, detailed my ambivalent relationship with The Lost Boys. The movie is homoerotic as fuck, and this had an effect on me when I watched at fourteen, off my mom’s recommendation. I loved it as much as she did, for many of the same reasons, mostly having to do with Jason Patrick and Kiefer Sutherland. I didn’t understand why at the time. After some years of reflection, the article was easy and obvious to write, even if the film is also homophobic.

After Blumhouse.com published my troubled love letter, the editor told me to look at the comments. Though they’d been moderated once I got there, I still found death threats, claims of insanity, drug use and general stupidity, all in reaction to a personal essay. Grown people on Facebook couldn’t handle the notion that a film made by a gay man was full of gay subtext. It’s no surprise in hindsight, but it hurt at the time, to realize so many people thought this way. And it isn’t just fringe viewers – the knee-jerk assault seems endemic to our viewing culture.

This happened in 2017, when I moved to LA for the first time. I hoped to earn a place in its horror community. I’d been lucky with the festival circuit, which boasts some astounding people, who offered me encouragement and advice. I had no idea that the LA faction, a logical haven for outcasts, operates on the same inflexible standards as those who took such offense to my essay.

What is the mysterious rubric that they follow? I doubt there’s an official version. My experience with it suggests a consistent tenet: you must love your favorites more, and better, than anyone else. If this means memorizing, researching and consuming every related piece of content, so be it. The practice of deep-diving into favorite content is a thoroughly enjoyable one, though I noticed the goal, more often than not, leaned toward winning rather than learning. And if you deep-dive into the wrong content, your knowledge is of no value.

Competition is intrinsic to the genre scene. I remember going to trivia events, attended by the royalty of LA horror, that devolved into yelling matches over the most obscure questions. This is hardly unusual. At Fantastic Fest, they host trivia brawls staged as boxing matches. But is that the reason we love movies, to argue about them? Is our taste meant to be a set of rules, rather than guidelines to help define ourselves?

When first defining taste, I figure, it’s necessary to distinguish what you do and don’t like. But what happens when you get stuck on that stage, and use your preferences as weapons? This aspect of nerdom is not passive. They want to eradicate anything outside their preferences, it seems, and replace it with copies of what they consider The Best. I know the feeling. I’ve wrapped myself in superior garb before, though it never felt right, and it never convinced anyone. Ultimately that attitude felt like a defense against lack of control, a fear response. It does no one any favors to obsess over finding that “Real Perfect” or “True Best” – though if we did find it, the thought process taunts, we’d be protected from all the nastiness of life; we’d be exempt.

The LA genre scene is full of lovely, intelligent and supportive individuals. Horror draws a special sort of person, often wide open to new strange ideas, whether by choice or experience or a combination. Macabre fiction allows us to look at the nastiest elements of our existences without getting too close; experience them without succumbing. Only, nerd culture seems to fear these things the most.

I’m not the first to write about this, and won’t be the last. Erian Mathis on Geeks of Color takes a clear stance in his article “You Are Not A Fan” – “These are the people who think they own the content they consume, and cannot fathom any world-fictional or not-that does not need them.” Mathis wrote this article in 2018, when white nerd culture rose to complain about the industry’s “politicization.” This claim is rather silly, as it assumes that all non-white non-straight identities are political ideas, not actual beings, and the inclusion of them in content is unnatural. It allows for easy dismissal and denial.

Shameless passion for media and art can be a healing, rewarding practice. It can empower someone in their experience. The problem is, we only allow so many experiences to have a voice. The nerds behind the scenes, driving the decisions in media, are mostly of one type. They are white, straight and cis – and male, most often – and they feel a right to defend their opinion as a universal standard. It isn’t just preference if it’s enforced.

In the era of Big Tech and IP wars, nerds are no longer fringe outcasts. Between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, they largely control what we consume, and can erase anything that doesn’t suit them. Their priorities suggest a discomfort with difference, anything that contradicts their protected beliefs. It comes from a genuine place, maybe, but the damage is irreversible. How many voices have been disregarded into silence, just because they didn’t fit the rubric?

The motives I’m suggesting aren’t much different from mine, when it comes to enjoying and discussing movies. I remember clinging to movies like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, in addition to the Universal monster catalogue, as safe havens for my peculiarities. My queerness alienated me from those films, because their worlds allowed no place for me, not unless I quashed my differences. I’m not sure that alienation occurs for the nerds in power. They might have been bullied in high school, and never let go of the trauma in adulthood – even when they achieved power themselves, they were still being persecuted. Even more ironic that they worship the most obvious content, not some obscure indie film, but the pillars of the industry. Their movies aren’t niche or overlooked, and neither are they. This single-minded defensiveness is very high school, too, even if it has real consequences.

A colleague of mine, S.R. Mandel, compared this to the outcries of fundamentalist Christians, “as if they’re still being thrown into the gladiator ring.” Of course these same people tell the Black community to get over slavery, it’s been a few centuries. They’ve griped about oppression since their birth, even after they became the world’s most powerful force.

The same monotheism that drives Christianity is alive and well in Internet chatrooms, whether it comes from incels or meninist fanboys. Their way of communicating allows no agreeable contradiction, and so the culture cannot grow without igniting a civil war – we can’t advance without resorting to extremes. The aesthetic of supremacist nostalgia is their tomb, and I fear we all may end up buried inside.

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There are many ways to be a nerd. And there are separate forms of nerd-love. One comes from personal curiosity and the enjoyment of collecting facts, experience. Another from the desire to prove a worthiness, turn a shameful preoccupation into glory, become the king of something. One is internal, one is public – one peaceful, one defensive.

We don’t have to subscribe to obsessive and outdated modes of evaluation. Nerdiness, though often shared in beautiful ways, is an individual experience. My chipped and handless Bride of Frankenstein has no value on the market, but she represents an aspect of myself. The collectibles I’ve kept, with their imperfections and missing pieces, are evidence of my existence. For that reason they’re invaluable to me, like language and imagination are. Convincing people of this won’t make it any more or less true. Prescribing and enforcing value is fascist, but this is how we’ve been taught to behave.

It’s taken me this many years to admit it, and will take as many, at least, to put it into action. To avoid an utter negation of my individual knowledge, I have to define a new way of belonging. It won’t really look like belonging at all – more of a separate togetherness, aware of difference and overlap at once. A responsible, attentive and shifting way of engaging with the world, defined by respect and distinction of its groups, a simultaneous awareness of variation and honor of self.

We arrive at our favorite content from a variety of angles, at sporadic times, but it’s always the same content. Our ways of loving are distinct, yet their shapes resemble each other, and that’s something that connects us. It goes no further than that. I hope nerd culture at large keeps this in mind, before everything turns to dogma, where the only love we know is worship.

Ben Larned (he/they) is an MFA candidate at The New School, focusing on queer horror across mediums. His work can be found on Daily Dead, Screencraft, and in The Book of Blasphemous Words. His short film ‘Payment’ is streaming on ALTER.

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