Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.
Before he directed The Ruins, photographer-turned-director Carter Smith adapted Scott Treleaven’s story “Bugcrush” from the book Queer Fears II. Like the source material it is based on, this half-hour movie follows a teenage boy whose curiosity about a new classmate leads him and the viewers to a dark place. Grant (Donald Cumming) is the alluring new student whose mystery and defiance catches the attention of Ben (Josh Cara), and when Grant reciprocates those feelings, Ben’s troubles truly begin.
The horror genre is a source of comfort for people everywhere, and the reasons vary from one fan to another. Generally, there is something about seeing characters trapped in dire situations, where they often only have themselves to count on, that can be empowering to watch. Catharsis comes in waves, victory is celebrated, and against all odds, the survivors persevere and emerge ideally braver and stronger than before.
Yet with scarring horror like Bugcrush, finding consolation is complicated. The initial frustration I feel when watching Ben’s nightmare unfold is further followed by unavoidable reflection in light of my own similar experiences.
The excitement is evident as Ben accepts Grant’s invitation to his house one fateful day. The only hitch, however, is Grant’s two pals tag along for the “date.” Once they all arrive at the outlying location, Grant seduces his guest with endearments first and then a suspicious anecdote. In this amatory account of his, Grant details the chance encounter with an unusual bug whose bites induce immense ecstasy and sedation. It’s not long before Ben and Grant are alone somewhere else with a conspicuous bed on the floor. The nervousness of the scene is swiftly replaced with outright dread as Ben feels a sharp bite on the back of his neck. Using an embrace as cover, Grant applied one of the aforesaid insects to his admirer in hopes of relaxing him. Ben’s panic subsides momentarily before he realizes what’s in store for him as Grant’s friends now enter the space.
What happens next is unmistakable even without direct confirmation. It is also disturbing because of the fact we never see anything beyond a series of ominous signals before the end credits roll. The focus on Grant’s unbuttoned fly as he hovers over his subdued prey, Ben’s isolated and paralyzed stare as he is helplessly flipped onto his stomach, and a din of disembodied, guttural grunts from the perpetrators – everything here suggests the final scene finishing with a gang rape. Young queer stories frequently chronicle the malicious side of coming out, or the violence inflicted on someone for simply existing as their authentic selves; Smith and Treleaven uphold the tradition with severity. What we ultimately wanted to happen between Ben and Grant, never does, and for that, we as the audience feel guilty for encouraging the encounter in the first place. Never did we want such a thing to happen to Ben, but perhaps we were more invested in our own entertainment than his actual safety.
This achievement in unexpectation also winds up being a discerning study of a gay teen who seeks approval among his straight peers. Like so many of us raised in heteronormative cultures where being seen as different can have adverse consequences, it only makes sense Ben tries to fit in as a way to not stand out. He has to traverse the confusing social landscape that is high school and gauge how to act around different groups there. He can be fairly open with close friends, but with people like Grant, Ben treads carefully. He approaches the object of his affection with temperate eagerness and becomes silent when his lackeys teasingly ask him if he likes girls. Although pretense ebbs once Grant shares his tale of autoerotic discovery in the woods, Ben still tries not to overstep his bounds in this circle of seemingly heterosexual males; even if both sides were testing the waters earlier on to see what unspoken rules have some flexibility.
When growing up in a conservative area without a visible safety net of queer friends and allies, you may learn to toe the line and never loudly oppose the implicit agreement that heterosexuality is the de facto norm. Relatedly, Bugcrush is set in an average small town that appears rural but is still developed despite Treleaven noting the area hadn’t made the same “giant social strides” as the big cities. Given that detail and words of caution from friends when he tells them he likes Grant, discretion is a must for someone like Ben because one false move could get him ostracized or hurt. He wants to follow his heart like any other lovestruck teenager, but there are caveats like his needing to be with someone he can trust with his secret. Of course, Grant ends up taking advantage of Ben – emotionally and physically – and that betrayal is why this story is accessible to anyone caught on the receiving end of duplicity.
In the absence of touchable closure, Bugcrush ends abruptly without making the victim’s fate known. Other stories about sexual violence are prone to showing some kind of resolution, whereas here, we see a person robbed of his agency, then dehumanized again and again until the screen cuts to black. This might read like a case of showing torture for entertainment, but so much of what befalls Ben can be applicable when trying to communicate a singular and devastating experience to those unaware. Following such trauma, it can be difficult describing those specific feelings felt during, much less years after the fact. So it is jarring how vividly Smith captured that distinct elixir of hopelessness, shame and terror which, for some people, will never quite go away — but it may become more manageable with time and help. How Ben would cope is something we will unfortunately never know.
Bugcrush does not make an easy play for comfort, and any solace it does inspire, may just be incidental. At best, the movie’s irresolute conclusion can urge others in a roundabout way, including myself, to close those chapters of our lives that keep us feeling so very haunted. And for my own sake, I hope to start working toward the ending I only wish Ben could have had.
I compare a movie as open-ended and contestable as this to a recurring bad dream which stops at the same place each and every time. Just as it gets to the most intense part of the sequence, I wake up to a flurry of unsettling emotions and thoughts now needing context and appraisal. My interpretation of such a raw and brutal story won’t be the same as someone else’s seeing as how I personally identify with Ben’s ordeal, but without a doubt, Smith’s push for harsh uncertainty will bring out a visceral reaction in everyone as they watch a hapless ‘bug’ get crushed.