Ryan Spahn is an actor, filmmaker and writer. He has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, USA Today, IntoMore, and American Theatre Magazine. As an actor, he can be seen in American Horror Story, Succession, The Bite, Chicago P.D., and Modern Love. Ryan is a graduate of Juilliard and is based in New York City. Go here for more info.
When I was 15, the emotional dynamics in my childhood home were fraught and painful. I was lonely, I felt like an outlier, and I didn’t fit in at my public school. I had this paralyzing instinct that life would get a lot worse if I didn’t make a significant change. Hitting what felt like a personal rock bottom, I found a performing arts boarding school in the woods of Northern Michigan, applied, got in, and frantically began pursuing my recent tunnel-visioned interest in becoming an actor. It was the best decision I ever made. I say “I” because my parents were deeply reticent. But I had to leave. The ups and downs of being an indie queer kid in a mainstream hetero town were heartbreaking, confusing and humiliating. I couldn’t find my voice.
“If you move that far away, honey, you won’t have any friends in town,” Mom said, as I stood outside her bathroom door.
“But Mom, you promised me that if I got into the school, and could figure out how to pay for it myself, you’d let me go.”
She didn’t respond. Her shower water turned off. Drip, drip, drip.
“Mom… I wrote them a letter explaining that I only made $100 this year… so if they needed to base my scholarship on someone’s paystub, they needed to base it on mine. And they … um … Mom?”
Silence. Silence. Sudden sobs.
Weeks later, I moved out of my mom’s house and into Interlochen Arts Academy, returning only for holiday breaks. It was a seamless transition for me, as I wasn’t leaving much behind, save for one person I was smitten with. Her name was Jane. In my gut, I knew it wasn’t a romantic thing. I just didn’t know what it was. Then, at my new school, I met a beautiful boy from Amman, Jordan, who introduced me to what boy-on-boy kissing felt like. That was definitely a romantic thing. I was confused, though, because queerness wasn’t a thing people talked about. Or, if they did, it was in an abusive way. I felt terrified and lost.
During my first trip back in the winter of ’95, I realized Mom’s warning had become fact. Going to school 246 miles north of Detroit did mean that when I was home I was 246 miles south of all my new high school friends. So, I clung to my sisters, Angela and Nicole, and saddled up with Angela’s friends, Beth and Jenny, whenever I returned. I let things fizzle with Jane, as I had this tinge of a feeling that the boy from Amman, Jordan was probably more my speed.
“I’m going out, Mom, and we’re renting a movie.”
“Where are you watching the movie?”
“Why don’t you watch it here? We can make popcorn. It’ll be fun.”
Um, no. Watching a movie with Mom would not be fun because a) nobody wants to hang out with their mother when they’re 15 and b) we planned on getting very, very, very high. And, aside from that, I was trying to assert my newfound independence. Living away from home meant I had a significant amount of it, but I still didn’t know who I was in relation to the world. To the people around me.
I jumped into the backseat of Jenny’s shitty car and we drove off. My sister Angela, the friendliest person you ever met, was riding shotgun. Beth, the cheeriest person you ever met, was backseat-right, cigarette ablaze. And Jenny, the quietest person you ever met, was gassing it toward our local Blockbuster. We lit a joint, hotboxed our brains off, and slowly meandered into the fluorescent safe haven of that famed video store.
“What are we renting?” Beth asked.
“Not Apollo 13,” I grunted.
“Well, we’re not getting one of your weird indies,” Jenny mumbled.
Like a perfectly choreographed color guard troupe, we split down the aisles. Angela and Beth headed for the “New Releases,” Jenny went straight for the candy rack, and I beelined for the “Independent Films” section.
Jenny was right. I liked weird indies. But you know what, I was a weird kid. This section was the only one that had films exploring themes that didn’t idolize the heteronormative mainstream that had sent me running to an arts boarding school to begin with. Maybe one of these movies would give a platform to what I was feeling, as opposed to what the majority was.
“What about this?” I asked my sister, holding up a VHS.
“The Doom Generation? Never heard of it.”
“It looks cool!”
“Why?” Angela scoffed.
I didn’t have an answer, but the video’s art was arresting. The VHS was fire engine red and it had this super hot, teenaged woman with a black bob in a mini-skirt punching her fist toward us. It was basically screaming, “Rent me, bitches!” Behind her were two of the sexiest guys I’d ever seen. I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew I needed to see it, and since everyone else was too stoned to argue, I got my way.
We arrived at Jenny’s parents’ house and she was like, “This better not be weird.” With a mouth full of microwave popcorn, I pressed play and … we proceeded to watch the weirdest movie I’d ever seen.
The Doom Generation is this wild ride of a black comedy thriller directed by a filmmaker I had not yet heard of named Gregg Araki. From the get-go, the movie was a unicorn. The soundtrack, the cinematography, the art direction and the cast were all singular. The film centers on this troubled teenaged couple, Amy (Rose McGowan, in an Independent Spirit-nominated performance), and Jordan (my first major movie crush, James Duval), who pick up a handsome sociopath named Xavier (hot-boy Johnathon Schaech). The three embark on a wacky, utterly violent, 666-laden, sexy, fever dream-type road trip. I had never dropped acid, but I felt like I was tripping balls. The images were blanketed in red tones and everything was dolloped with a tinge of horror and horniness and it sorta felt like … well … it sorta felt like what being a queer teenager felt like. It was as if Gregg had extracted the insides of queer, hormonal youth and placed our gizzards on camera and just let our vulnerabilities scatter about. I was riveted. Oh, and then at one point, the three of them stop at a Kwik E Mart where Xavier accidentally kills the store clerk – and by “kills” I mean decapitates – and when this happened, my friends literally screamed and I … well … I laughed. Weird response, sure, but at that moment, I understood Gregg’s voice. His humor, his rage, his talent and his irony were chaotically on display.
I was a sophomore and I had experimented sexually with both men and women, but I had never seen that kind of experimentation depicted on screen. I felt alone in my experience with the cute boy from my new school, and ashamed, because society wasn’t embracing anything queer. But then there was this Jordan character, played with tenderness by James Duval. He had trouble staying aroused with his girlfriend, but was very stimulated when another male entered the dynamic. In my memory, Jordan read as bisexual, which wasn’t how I’d come to identify, but at 15, it’s where I lingered. In the mid-’90s, the term “bisexual” was stereotypically defined as a gateway toward the inevitable “homosexual.” A stigma, sure, but at the time it was safer than calling yourself homosexual. But in Jordan’s judgment-free curiosity, coupled with James’ winning performance and Gregg Araki’s brilliant, steady hand, I was given permission to think more broadly about my identity. I felt less alone. Less scared.
When I got back to Interlochen, I stepped on campus, took a deep breath, and found the cute boy I was seeing. The one from Amman, Jordan. I asked him if he’d be cool with me kissing him when other kids were around. He smiled, a bit of a blush, and mumbled, “Sure. It’s nice to hear how you feel.”