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2014.26_Patricia Piccinini, The Gathering

Patricia Piccinini

The Gathering 2007
DVD, colour, sound; 3 minutes 33 seconds
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2013
Monash University Collection

Like many of my generation, my earliest memories of queerness intruding into the fabric of my suburban childhood are structured through the prism of horror; specifically, the Federal Government’s 1987 Public Service Announcement (PSA) for AIDS. This famously morbid ad showed ‘everyday’ Australians being mowed down en masse by the wrecking ball of AIDS, dispatched from the skeletal hand of a menacing Grim Reaper. The affective force of the ad is focalised in the figure of a small girl who, on encountering the reaper, bursts into tears and reaches for her mother in a futile bid for protection or reassurance. Moments later hers is one of many dead bodies piled on the ground. If the brief was not to educate, so much as ‘scare the hell out of Australia’, the ad’s macabre imagery and chilling narration had the intended effect.[1] The campaign generated widespread panic and seared itself into my six-year-old psyche, instilling a deep-seated sense of anxiety and dread.

While the campaign was careful to position the syndrome itself as the public threat, critics noted that the ad had the unfortunate effect of symbolically aligning gay men with the monstrous figure of the Reaper. Dovetailing with mainstream media accounts that framed gay men as witting accomplices rather than victims of AIDS, the campaign inadvertently reproduced this idea of queers and queerness as monstrous and malevolent. While certainly fuelled by the AIDS crisis, this notion of ‘queer monsterity’ had a much longer history in public discourses, finding its most explicit, and literal, articulation in gothic and horror genres.[2]

As summarised by Robin Wood, the ‘basic formula’ of horror is, ‘normality is threatened by the monster’; with normality chiefly understood as heteronormativity and the monster representing that which is repressed or ‘othered’ within this heteronormative paradigm.[3] Because this concept of sexual otherness sits at the heart of horror, Harry M. Benshoff suggests we might view the genre as fundamentally concerned with ‘the eruption of some form of queer sexuality into . . . a resolutely heterosexual milieu.’[4] Patricia Piccinini’s The Gathering, 2007, itself an instance of gothic horror, might be seen to stage precisely such an eruption. Here a skulk of small monstrous creatures emerge from the dark recesses of a suburban bedroom, seemingly summoned by, or to, a young girl asleep on the floor. With their ambiguous fleshy fur-covered bodies and grotesque monstrous cavities, these creatures bespeak a perverse sexuality, reading quite straightforwardly as embodiments of sexual abjection.

André Loiselle notes that the term ‘monster’ derives from the latin monstrare meaning to show or reveal, and this suburban bedroom scene might be read allegorically as a moment of queer revelation—a child’s coming to (pre)consciousness of an emergent queer sexuality and desire.[5] Like the Reaper ad, The Gathering seems to stage a symbolic encounter between childhood and queerness through the trope of monsterity, though here the terms of engagement are reconfigured. While Piccinini’s monsters may be unsettling they are simultaneously cute and disarming, and they seem to be motivated by curiosity rather than callous predation. Unlike the PSA, where queerness is rendered a malevolent threat, here it seems to emerge as a locus of fascination. Presenting a kind of countertext or corrective to the Reaper campaign, The Gathering offers a means of symbolically reframing an early encounter with queerness not as an experience of abject terror, but rather a kind of perverse pleasure.

Maija Howe is a lecturer in Creative Practice & Theory at AFTRS.


[1] Noel Magnus, quoted in Marinella Padula, ‘The AIDS Grim Reaper Campaign (A)’, Case Program, The Australia and New Zealand School of Government, 27 May 2007, https://www.anzsog.edu.au/preview-documents/case-study-level-1/192-aids-grim-reaper-campaign-the-a-2006-90-1/file.

[2] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1997.

[3] Robin Wood, ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’, in Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (eds), American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Festival of Festivals, Toronto, 1979, p. 14.

[4] Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet, p. 4.

[5] André Loiselle, Theatricality in the Horror Film: A Brief Study on the Dark Pleasures of Screen Artifice, Anthem Press, London and New York, 2019, p. 1.