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Why M3gan is already a camp horror icon in the making

How a beautiful murder doll left us no choice but to stan.

M3gan, the star of M3gan.
Universal Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When it comes to horror movies, I’m a scaredy cat. I watched The Strangers and was checking the locks on my front door multiple times a night. I saw The Blair Witch Project, and that was really just a nail in the coffin when it comes to camping, an activity I was already skeptical about. Poltergeist — nope, absolutely not. Those things do not respect boundaries.

So imagine my surprise when I, of my own free will, found myself deeply obsessed with M3gan, a Blumhouse-James Wan movie about a pretty doll that murders people. Since the initial trailer release in October, I’ve wanted nothing more than to watch this beautiful mean-girl animatronic cheerleader kill things, wreak havoc, and terrorize Allison Williams. And while glamorous women who dance and are capable of homicide appeal directly to my homosexual tastes (I love Chicago!), I couldn’t figure out why I desperately needed to see this movie.

I wasn’t alone, either. All over the internet were fan-made videos of M3gan dancing as well as declarations — from people who hadn’t even seen the movie — that M3gan was coming for the crowns of fellow murder dolls Chucky and Annabelle. A lot of that love was from queer people who were already (ironically and unironically) anointing M3gan as a queer icon, not unlike the way we’d done for Ma’s Ma, or the mother in Barbarian, or the Babadook, or Pearl from X, or Scream’s Ghostface.

To help figure out the obsession, I spoke with Joe Vallese, a professor at NYU and the editor of It Came From the Closet, a collection of critical essays about the intersection of queerness and horror movies. We talked about where M3gan fits into the long history of killer dollies on screen, why LGBTQ people love the genre (hint: because it subverts real life), and how horror can give queer people an escape that they might not find anywhere else.

I can’t fully explain it myself, but as a flagrantly homosexual man, I feel like this movie has triggered some kind of synapses in gay brains. Like we [gay people] must see this movie with this murder doll. I worry because I’m in this homosexual bubble that I might be imagining things, and I just want to know if you’re seeing the same thing.

I think that as soon as I saw that trailer, and I saw that dance, I was like, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen here.” You know, it was very clear to me that it was going to be sort of instant gay iconography.

Regardless of what the film actually contains narratively, she was going to be a meme. Like, her dance will be on TikTok. It’s kind of a time and place situation for a trailer like that and a dance like that to ignite the way it has.

It feels very much like we’re assigning context and meaning to the visual before we even know what it is, and that is what gay and queer men of our generation have always done — that gayness and queerness are sort of an act of reclaiming and recontextualizing.

Is that part of the reason you think M3gan has resonated with queer people, and gay men in particular?

I think it comes from what we’re told isn’t for us. For queer men, as kids, that probably meant being feminine, anything girly. That’s obviously incredibly true with dolls. So it makes sense that the gay or queer men’s sensibility is gravitating toward this beautiful Amanda Seyfried-like killer doll.

Hopefully Gen Z is seeing less of this happen within their families, but when we were kids, we were told that you can’t play with the Barbie but you can have the GI Joe. Like, you can play with the doll if it’s destructive but not if it’s beautiful.

M3gan is beautiful and evil, so there’s a subversion that some gay men might be responding to when they see something like that. We’re seeing the story of this doll being told with this particular lens. And whether the movie is good or bad, I don’t know if it matters so much when it comes to the reaction.

I definitely snuck into my sister’s room to “borrow” her Barbies. When I did, I felt like I was doing something bad. I guess sneaking into someone’s room is bad. But the idea of “playing with pretty dolls = bad” probably stems from what boys are “supposed” to like and how they’re “supposed” to behave.

So … I guess there’s something devious and attractive about a killer doll hacking people to death with a giant paper cutter blade.

We also see the M3gan doll in the trailer drop onto all fours and sort of run like an animal, to attack somebody. I don’t think there’s any subtext. I think it’s just text. It’s an obvious juxtaposition.

I will say that I don’t think M3gan could have crawled or ran without Chucky walking. Chucky is definitely like a perversion of [the toy] My Buddy, mainly because they resemble each other. My Buddy was this little boy who wore overalls and he was a doll that boys could have, because he wasn’t too feminine. And then you get the Chucky doll who gets possessed by this, you know, foul-mouthed, vicious serial killer.

M3gan dares to ask an important question: What if it’s the child’s vibes that are off?
Universal Pictures

And the creator of Chucky is a queer man. I don’t know if you’ve watched the TV series …

I haven’t! But I’ve heard that it’s queer and Jennifer Tilly is in it , and something about Chucky being the father to a nonbinary kid?

Well, the main character is queer. It’s an incredibly queer show, which makes sense because it’s the only direction it could have gone in after the introduction of Tiffany [voiced by Tilly], the bride of Chucky. And they have an androgynous child and they really leaned into this. They basically have a queer killer doll family, and they’ve gone that route with it, which, you know, maybe takes some of the spook out of the original.

When it comes to “taking out the spook,” I think If you look at the way horror movies of late — Barbarian, Malignant, Ma, Annabelle, and even The Babadook — there’s been this act of anointing them as queer movies and those monsters as queer icons. And when these villains become queer icons, it becomes less scary and maybe more enjoyable.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s the long history of queer people being called monsters and then queer people gravitating toward these “monsters.”

Well, when it comes to character tropes in horror movies, we’re always left with the final girl and the villain. And the final girl has been wrapped in a sort of heteronormativity for so long, right? She’s cis, straight, very modest, very wholesome. The villain is usually the diametric opposite. And so when a lot of us look at that, we think, we can’t be Nancy so we’re Freddie. We can’t be Laurie, so then we’re Michael. It might be hard for someone to be a Pinhead or a Cenobite.

We’re breaking away from it now, but I think that final girl/villain binary sort of dictated the role that was left over for queer people. And also the villains are just more interesting. You know, like, if villains weren’t interesting, there wouldn’t be franchises, there wouldn’t be multiple films, there wouldn’t be these attempts at backstories and reboots. Like the Scream films!

The Scream movies really try to break those binaries. I think in the first movie we get characters talking about how it’s sexist to assume that the killer is a guy. If you look at the chatter on the internet, there’s a joke but maybe not a joke that Ghostface (the killer) is inherently queer.

When it comes to Ghostface, although there’s someone under that mask, they’re always draped in this very billowing, flowing robe. Even though they can be clumsy, Ghostface is basically gliding around and dancing. It’s very, what’s the word …

Flamboyant?

Yeah. It’s super flamboyant. We don’t think about it that often, but it’s there. And then, no matter who’s under it, they always look so huge in the costume. Like the Emma Roberts reveal (Scream 4) — it’s so funny because realistically that’s probably a 5-foot killer, but it doesn’t matter because anyone who’s under the robe is always going to be larger than life, and intimidating and fabulous.

Well, the whole thing about Scream is that anyone can be under there. That’s sort of queer and inclusive in its own kind of way.

And then of course in the first movie it’s these two bumbling, maybe-gay-for-each-other guys who are the killers, right?

No, like completely gay-for-each-other guys.

Because Scream was created by a gay man and because I think Wes Craven was a very astute, inclusive person, Craven understood that there was something queer about what horror does and understood the subversiveness.

When it comes to the idea that anyone can be Ghostface, I think that a lot of the fun in those movies comes from us simultaneously thinking about what we would do to escape, and also thinking about what we would do if we were Ghostface. How would I stalk my prey?

What would my Ghostface calls be like? Could I be as bitchy as Ghostface?

I want to ask you about this sort of triangulation that we keep talking about. Like there’s a connection between horror, queerness and camp. And I feel like the threshold between what makes horror terrifying or campy is a queer sensibility. I was wondering if you felt the same way.

I feel like, more than any other genre, in horror you have to find new ways to surprise and subvert expectations.

When horror crosses over into camp, I think it’s often an earnest attempt to surprise people and give them a visual they’ve never seen before, which is really difficult to do right. You know, in the beginning I said that queer culture is partially about reclaiming and recontextualization. But I think there’s also this element of showing us something that we haven’t seen. I think that’s kind of why the border is really hazy and it’s not always successful.

But more than any genre, I think horror has the ability to be really, really good and really bad, but then so bad that it loops back into really good.

Well, I mean, everyone at the end of Barbarian is deeply invested and rooting for the 8-foot subterranean-dwelling woman to live, which is not what we probably envisioned ourselves doing at the beginning of the movie.

Well, you know, that 8-foot subterranean-dwelling woman didn’t ask for what she is. Like, she didn’t ask to be born in this fucked-up, incestuous life? If you press too hard on it, it falls apart because none of it really makes sense. But from a bird’s-eye view, that woman didn’t ask for this life and she shouldn’t have to die.

M3gan supports woman-in-STEM Allison Williams.
Universal Pictures

The escapism of horror films — I feel like it can be empowering. If you’re not queer, you wouldn’t necessarily understand what’s exhilarating about a monster or a villain, and maybe it’s one of the things that’s not even totally explainable. But queer people have spent so much time having to explain ourselves that I think this is one place where it’s okay if we don’t.

It’s really not that different than loving our little M3gan murder doll, right? She didn’t ask to be born into this world. She didn’t ask for this life.

I’ll be really curious if you do love your M3gan murder doll when you see it. Like, I wonder if it is just like a great charade, and if the movie’s gonna suck, and if it’s gonna be totally forgettable.

But in speaking to you, even if it does suck, it almost doesn’t matter. We’re still going to have our own interpretation of M3gan and this was something that we love, and we’re gonna love it ironically or unironically.

Yes, she’ll still have offered something memorable! And I’m all for strange and stranger entries into horror, and there’s not enough doll horror out there.

Annabelle?

I don’t know if Annabelle is anybody’s favorite doll movie, you know? It’s all very obvious. In the first Annabelle movie, she looks scary and they want to throw her out with the garbage but they can’t. If Annabelle is the top killer doll movie, we need M3gan or someone to dethrone Annabelle. Give us a new kind of doll to be scared of.