Living for the Dead brings together a squad of queer occult experts, and continues a tradition which stretches back for centuries – from lesbian mediums in Victorian England to orgiastic rituals in Weimar Berlin
Executive produced by Kristen Stewart, Living for the Dead is a new ghost-hunting show which brings together an Oceans 11-style team of wise-cracking queer occultists: there’s Ken the tarot reader, Alex the tech expert, Fox the paranormal researcher, Juju the witch and Logan the medium ( “I get to came out twice: for being gay and for talking to dead people,” as he quips in the trailer.) Stewart recently described it as “the most gayest, most funnest, most titillating queer ghost-hunting show ever”, which for lack of competition is probably true. While the tone is campy, the show does feature some terrifying locations (you couldn’t pay me to stay at the Clown Motel) and it looks like there will be a few heartwarming lessons learned along the way – think Queer Eye for the Dead Guy.
While it seems like kind of a niche idea, Living the Dead is continuing a proud tradition of queer occultism. For centuries now, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been drawn toward the weird, eerie and uncanny. In a world which was often hostile and oppressive, the supernatural provided queer people with a sense of refuge, along with possibilities for subversion and resistance.
The Spiritualism movement, which emerged across America and the US in the 1850s, saw tens of thousands of people attempting to communicate with the dead through mediums and seances. This was not a fringe phenomenon, but something which enjoyed a degree of mainstream respectability; it was supported by a number of leading scientists and became a popular hobby among the affluent middle and upper classes (including Queen Victoria.) According to historian Marlene Tromp, the Spiritualism movement also had a raunchy side, allowing for “profoundly homoerotic acts between women” in an otherwise stultifying society.” In Queering the Séance: Bodies, Bondage, and Touching in Victorian Spiritualism, she writes, “The séance could be an awfully queer place. Female mediums might be bound together on a mattress in a darkened room, or a female medium and spirit might invite a third woman into their private space, disrobe, and invite that guest to touch their bodies.”
As time went on, the occult became more explicitly and openly erotic. Towards the end of the Victorian era, infamous mystic Aleister Crowley brought the concept of “sex magick” to Britain. While Crowley mostly slept with women, he was an enthusiastic proponent of queer sexuality. He dabbled in it himself, often engaging in elaborate homosexual rituals; his 1898 poetry book White Stains featured explicit depictions of gay sex, and he once argued that a gay or bisexual person “must not be ashamed or afraid of being homosexual if he happens to be so at heart”.
Crowley’s enthusiasm for orgies, Satan worship and black magic earned him the moniker “the wickedest man in the world”, but his opinions on sexuality were almost unbelievably progressive for the period. Since queer sex itself was a kind of blasphemy, it made sense that some gay people would reject Christian morality entirely – if you were already a sinner, you might as well have some fun, maybe indulge in the odd orgiastic ritual from time to time or try your luck with a pagan deity.
Queer occultism really took off in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, a licentious, free-wheeling and experimental period before the Nazis rose to power. Many students at the Bauhaus art school experimented with the occult, which often came alongside an interest in gender fluidity and sexual experimentation. As historian Mel Gordon writes in Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic Life of Weimar Berlin, the German capital was a place of “dank chambers and communal embankments of sex-mad gurus and cultish mystery-sects”, where “supernatural fate and deviant desires had become intertwined.”
According to Gordan, there was a thriving scene of lavish orgies, gay sex parties and occult rituals. One German occultist, Fedor Mühle, argued that homosexual men brought moral and spiritual refinement to humanity and – owing to their combination of male and female attributes – possessed unique skills as mediums and healers. As Mühle saw it, gay men deserved to be elevated to an exalted position in society – and as a gay man, I agree!
Throughout the 20th century, LGBTQ+ people maintained an interest in the occult in different ways. The Radical Faeries, a movement which emerged in New York in the 1970s, aimed to create a new secular religion which combined Paganism and spiritual rituals with drag, radical politics and a camp sensibility. This was a rejection of both straight society and, as many Faeries saw it, the emptiness and consumerism of mainstream gay culture. In 1978, Gay Liberation Front member Arthur Clark wrote Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: in this book, Clark examines how Western civilisation and Christianity have punished gender and sexual deviance throughout history, arguing that embracing the occult can be a way of resisting these forces.
“Kristen Stewart has described having experienced ‘spooky, spiritual feelings’, and once told Vanity Fair that she regularly speaks to ghosts”
Interest in the queer occult is as strong today as it’s ever been, even if the forms it takes are quite different. Tarot and witchcraft are both thriving on social media, attracting a new generation of practitioners. Despite what some right-wing pundits might have you believe, Satanic worship doesn’t seem especially common, but ghosts continue to be an enduring preoccupation. Writing in the New Yorker, novelist Nell Stevens argues, “there is something about the act of haunting that, whether this is intentional or not, can’t help but speak to the way that queer people of the past have always been ghosts, haunting the histories they’ve been written out of. It’s hard, as a queer person today, not to feel haunted by them: by the people who suffered immense cruelty for living their true lives, but also by the people who did not – whose queer lives were never lived at all.”
We can see this fascination play out today in all sorts of ways. There is now a burgeoning genre of ‘LGBTQ+ paranormal romance’; songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has used ghostly imagery, both in her personal aesthetic and lyrics (“We’re not alone / I’ll find a new place to be from / A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends / No, I’m not afraid to disappear”) and queer artists, filmmakers and writers continue to revisit themes of haunting and possession.
Kristen Stewart herself has also starred in a ghost story, Personal Shopper (2016), which hints at sublimated queer desire, and has a keen interest in the paranormal: while filming Spencer (2021) she described herself as having experienced “spooky, spiritual feelings”, maybe even a “sign-off” from the late Princess Diana, and once told Vanity Fair that she regularly speaks to ghosts. At a time when the LGBTQ+ community is becoming more alienated from mainstream society, it’s understandable that many queer people are drawn to the supernatural, and the sense of distance, dislocation and existing in between which it captures. As the trailer to Living for the Dead asks, why be normal, when you can be paranormal?