How Horror Helped Me See Myself

Writer-director-actor Dawn Storey on the pivotal role her new short, Dooley Does Murder!, played in her becoming herself.

How deep does your love for horror movies go? More interestingly, how much of your art or identity is informed by the films of your adolescence and fandom? As a filmmaker, this is a question I ask myself subconsciously every time I sit down at a keyboard or sit to be interviewed, but not until very recently had I asked myself this question from a personal, reflective space.

In November 2021, I set out to film my second film, Dooley Does Murder!, which is about a mild-mannered door-to-door perfume salesman who taps into his psychopathic murdering ways after a life-changing sale. It sounds sinister, but it’s truly about becoming you, no matter who or what that is. I decided early on that I would take on the task of not only directing, co-producing and writing the film, but I would also portray the character onscreen – not because I had to, but because I felt drawn to it, although at the time I didn’t know why.

D. Storey and actor Reid Schmidt on the set of Dooley Does Murder!

Feeling compelled or called to play a character usually means there’s some sort of similarity between yourself and them; in this case, I was blind to it. On paper, the only similarities between myself, a thirty-something woman storyteller, and the protagonist, a male door-to-door salesman and killer, are few and far between … unless you look a little closer. In the film, we explore identity and the catalysts that force a person to take a real look at who they are deep within, and what it is that drives you to take the mask off and revel in the real you. My producing partner Maritta Kachele informed me that all my projects are in some way about identity, self-acceptance and self-actualization. At the time, I thought it was just a really cool coincidence, but time and my experience making Dooley afforded me a much more transparent and honest insight into the stories I was telling.

Horror is highly relatable to everyone, but especially the queer and trans community, because most of us have been or felt demonized or victimized in our lifetimes, and the main characters in horror films tend to have dealt with a similarly fucked-up circumstance. Most of the movies that speak to me now, or did during my youth, have a heavy sense of camp … and victory in the end. This oftentimes allowed me to see myself as the main character, and it allowed me to feel a sense of belonging, but not until I portrayed one of these characters did I really apply this to my reality. Dooley Does Murder! and my love for horror films changed my life, the way I live, the way I see myself and the films I’m allowing myself to make moving forward.

D. Storey’s painting of Dooley.

Oftentimes horror, especially campy horror, is written off as the last resort of a filmmaker’s career, but I happen to believe horror is as important as any other genre of film, despite it not being recognized as such. Horror not only scares the crap out of you, but it can bring people together, and more importantly create space for underrepresented people. Some of my favorite films of the genre are Sleepaway Camp, Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, The Faculty, Carrie and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

When I saw Psycho, I felt as much like Norman – who has a double life as his deceased mother – as I did Ms. Marion Crane, a banker turned thief who feels she needs to escape her life to start a new one. Being a trans person growing up in the streets of Compton in the ’90s, I did not feel like I had any real support, so while I felt like I had a secret life, I also related to wanting to escape everything at any cost to start anew. I needed and wanted to belong to something, to somewhere.

Another horror film that I related to was Carrie. The film centers on a lonely teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) who is tormented by bullies and her religious zealot of a mother. I would bet you any amount of money that anyone who was bullied or ostracized felt a deep sense of recognition watching what ultimately happens at Carrie’s prom night. Revenge is served bloody, fiery and cruel. When watching movies like this, one doesn’t necessarily think about right or wrong, but the hurt and the need to feel vindicated. Carrie vindicated me. Her actions told me in so many ways that there would be a time for me, a time to shine.

D. Storey and Keva Walker in Dooley Does Murder!

On day one of the Dooley Does Murder! shoot, we got to do most of the blood work you see in the film, which included a lot of artificial gore and bashing of Dooley’s victims. I went in unsure of how well I would do, since I had not performed in front of a camera in years and I’d never had the pleasure of working with fake blood. Surprisingly, I was a natural. And it felt really cathartic portraying a character as lost and confused as Dooley was. It felt nice to slowly transform into this unapologetically confident human. Admittedly at the time, I realize I too was experiencing some of the same confusion in my own life. In the movie, we watch Dooley slowly descend into psychosis as he becomes more self-aware and more and more successful. He starts off unsure of himself, confused and insecure, but as he makes more sales, and reaches more “wins,” he begins to find himself. The voice in his head begging him to live his truth not only rang true for him, but also for me. I began to realize that the movies I adored were less about getting revenge and more about self-actualization and acceptance. You can’t expect the world to love and accept you if you don’t love and accept yourself. It became very clear to me that the script I wrote was this fun, campy horror short, but it was also a cry to my internal being. While filming Dooley, I revisited one of the greatest campfests ever, Sleepaway Camp, and that’s when the realization happened for me.

After wrapping Dooley, I surprised myself when I decided to take off my mask. I was following in the footsteps of Dooley, Carrie, Marion and Norman. I no longer wanted to fit in the box society had put me in, the safe space. I’ve known I was trans since as far back as I can remember, but I kept that side of me hidden. I lived a secret life; some might even consider it a double life. I was shocked at how quickly I decided to socially transition and how quickly after wrapping I tossed aside every fear I had about embracing who I truly was internally. My fears had shifted and I was now more afraid of not living my truth than being judged and or crucified for it. The truth about horror villains is that they embrace themselves, no matter how screwed up they may be. There’s a haunting beauty in that.

Dawn Storey today.

As a trans person, I feel and know my responsibility to the stories of my community, but as a filmmaker, I plan to break every rule society seems to have when it comes to the level of success I’m allowed to have and the stories I choose to tell. After deciding to finally release Dooley Does Murder!, I feared the judgment, I feared the confusion of the audience. Who is that on the screen, why do you look different, and when did this happen? Thankfully, I’m trapped with amazing friends, family and supporters who reminded me that it’s OK to grow, and it’s OK to celebrate who you were while becoming who you are and who you want to be. This is why Dooley is being released. I’m proud of the work I did while discovering myself, and it’s inspired me to challenge myself even more.

Horror movies are important! They give the voiceless a voice, in a nonconventional way. These movies teach us to not only love one another, but also to love and stand up for ourselves, and for a very long time I thought I was doing both of those things, when in fact I wasn’t doing either of them. What these films taught me about my identity was to fear myself, but that’s because I wasn’t in a place to accept the true message. Playing Dooley seemingly gave me permission. I thank horror, I thank camp, I thank Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven, I thank the horror fans who stand up and ride or die with these kinds of films, and for the support I’ve received as a filmmaker in order to continue on my path. I thank everything that drew me into the genre and allowed me to believe I could tell a story that could stand alongside the ones I loved.

All images courtesy Dawn Storey.

Dawn Storey is an actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker from Los Angeles, California. While she wears many creative hats, she identifies overall as a storyteller. Her latest film, the campy horror dark comedy short Dooley Does Murder!, will be released on April 19. Her directorial debut, LiME, won Best Short at San Francisco Black Film Festival 2019, screened at over 14 festivals during its circuit run, and ended at the Los Angeles Outfest Fusion Festival 2020. Her upcoming projects include the feature film Boys Like Us.