I recall reading an article from Indiewire a few years back on the “best horror films of this century (so far!)” or the like. Populated by some of the usual suspects—The Babadook, The Descent, It Follows— as the list reached its end it became stranger, and less obviously horror. In its final stretch, it opts for Time of the Wolf, Under the Skin and Mulholland Drive as its top three. These aren’t really horror films are they? Sure, they have some moments, some of the style, but as genre pieces? I brought it up to a friend, who thought for a second, then agreed with the article: “Mulholland Drive did change what I think is scary.” I’ve thought about that a lot since: maybe it’s not how the film feels, but how it makes you feel.
Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s tough but important adaptation of the memoirs of Garrard Conley, fits this bill. It tells the story of Jared (Lucas Hedges), who is given the “option” to attend a gay conversion camp—the real life Love in Action—by his very loving but highly traditional baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). A cursory glance at some reviews, both from major critics and audiences via Letterboxd, sees some repeated usage of certain descriptors. “Dark. Disturbing. Horrifying. Like a horror film.” These words aren’t wrong: Boy Erased is unflinching in its take on the abuse perpetrated by these institutions.
Sing-song phrases like “pray away the gay” and “bible thumping” are given clinical and violent weight by Edgertons counsellor Victor Sykes— a raw, real Nurse Ratched-as-Sunday-school-teacher; both terrifying and sad in his headstrong evangelical approach. The therapy offered is hauntingly realistic, and ranges from the perverse and seemingly benign—encouraging athletic ability—to the decidedly less so—beatings, humiliation, performing mock funerals. Group remedial discussion and the “moral inventories” the attendees must complete have two aims: uncover any existing trauma and doubt in the individual, and exploit it to encourage a behavioural change. They attempt to find a point of blame in Jared’s past; link his natural existence to something external and abhorrent and “erase”, or much more accurately “repress”, both. The bleak reality of the story is one reason for the “like a horror” moniker, however, the film is also constructed with beats that we’ve come to expect from such films.
Edu Grau’s cinematography is unflinching and always holding—scenes wait to breathe and don’t look away no matter how difficult the action, emotional or physical. The editing assists this, always smooth and deliberate, lingering until the most impactful moment for change. Grau and his team also embrace the darkness of the world; the lighting is minimalist and naturalistic, often leaving characters against a backdrop swathed in shadow. Watching one of these dark tableaus, you almost expect some horrible release— the emotion to rupture, the characters to stop holding their breath. In another film, the monster would suddenly appear. Instead, it holds. It feels designed to unnerve, and is successful in doing so. Even the colour schemes evoke a sense of unsettling heaviness: the vast paleness of the LIA centre feels suffocating, artfully working with a desaturated, hollow world.
This constant sense of unease code-shifts the film somewhere between the visceral drama it is, and the psychological horror it feels like. There are real benefits to employing aspects of the latter. If Boy Erased were more raw and invasive, more realistic and less consciously filmic, it may just be too difficult to watch. There’s a certain detachment that filmmaking naturally brings to a real story, and the slick technical execution here allows just enough cinematic detachment for the themes and the emotion to come through clearly, yet allow Boy Erased to be consistently watchable. And being watchable is key: the audience can understand Jared’s pain and absorb the message, without feeling anger over what the film put you through to achieve this.
The best horror stories are usually those that act too as a cautionary tale on human behaviours; for Boy Erased, this behaviour is rigidity of beliefs and the misguided use of love. Edgerton has, in interviews, stated the film is by design aimed more towards the parents of the young individuals scarred by these ex-gay camps. The monsters of this film aren’t something big and allegorical, they’re people: real, familiar and multi-faceted. The terrifying thing is that each one, be it Jared’s parents or Sykes, are acting out of a genuine—if deeply misguided—sense of love. Edgerton respects each of the central characters enough to let them believe their idea of good is true and objective good, and allow them to act off their own moral code, however dangerous or skewed. Yet, inside the confines of the LIA camp—much like the light filtering in through its stained glass windows—their sense of morality is diffused and morphed into something between passively harmful to downright cruel. They unknowingly wield compassion as if it were a weapon.
The moral of Boy Erased is not just for the Jared’s of the world to learn that they are deserving of being loved for who they are; no, it is for the adults of the story. For the parents, the counsellors of these institutions, the manipulators and the pious: to understand their complicity in the trauma of the people they claim to help and heal; the trauma they themselves can inflict. It is a scary thought: to realise you have hurt those you care about and want to protect through the very means they seek to protect. The moral for these characters is to see the sheer damage their version of love can cause to those they love, and to reconcile it with a new form of love, something truly unconditional.
The harm that conditional love can cause— that is the horror of Boy Erased.