Stories of conversion treatment are not for the weak of heart. Thousands of LGBTQ youth and adults have been sharing gruesome stories of so-called specialists trying to "alter" their sexual orientation for decades, utilising emotionally and physically traumatic techniques including hypnosis and electroshock therapy. The harm that this debunked practise has inflicted has been brought to light by organisations like GLAAD, which has claimed that it raises the rates of drug usage and suicide among young people who identify as LGBTQ.
Writer/director John Logan, who is openly homosexual, has researched a lot about conversion therapy and was compelled to include it in his latest horror film, They/Them, which debuted on Peacock earlier this year. The story, which takes place at a rural conversion camp, centres on a group of LGBTQ teenagers who quickly learn that Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), the camp's proprietor, is anything but tolerant.
The scariest scene in the film involves Owen luring resident jock Stuart (Cooper Koch) into a cabin where he undergoes aversion treatment a la A Clockwork Orange, receiving electrical shocks while being shown pictures of robust, shirtless guys alternating with pictures of lingerie-clad models. According to Logan, the fact that the sequence is based on actuality makes it all the more horrifying. (See our interview in the video above.)
The Gladiator and The Aviator screenwriter, who has been nominated for an Oscar, says that one of the things she did was speak with children who had undergone conversion therapy and listen to their tales. "I discovered that they are victims of physical cruelty, including forced marches, starvation, sleep deprivation, and psychological assaults where identity is questioned, possibly softly at first but eventually more harshly. So, physical hardship certainly plays a role in the so-called conversion camp experience, and I felt it would be untrue to leave it out."
Logan did note that the scenario in the movie They/Them resembles "an extreme nightmare version" of the form of conversion therapy used there, aversion therapy. However, some of the survival stories he has heard are just as terrifying, if not more so. "It's just terrifying how close it is to stuff I've heard of actually happening. However, one of the things we do in movies, and especially in horror films, is to provoke. We arouse thought."
Koch claims that filming the lengthy episode wasn't the "most pleasurable experience" because he was the one being tortured. However, the openly gay actor is aware of Logan's motivation for insisting on including it. "That, in my opinion, is the genuine scare in the film. It's not just the murderer in a mask or the jump scares; it's all the ways they're attempting to convert us." He also gives gratitude to his co-stars Bacon and Darwin del Fabro for keeping the atmosphere light on set in the role of Gabriel, the deceitful kid who lures him inside the cabin. Koch chuckles, "Darwin was putting the wires on me. Del Fabro adds, "I adore when we get to those dark areas. Although it was difficult for me to watch my friend get harmed, it was enjoyable to play those characters.
When thinking back on that scene, Bacon says he was impressed by Koch's dedication to finishing such a dramatic scenario. The actor, who had a breakthrough performance in Friday the 13th, a classic slasher film from 1980, says, "It's not the most pleasant thing to shoot." He presently has his daughter, Sosie Bacon, in the smash horror film Smile. "Everyone was attempting to create a secure environment, something I strongly support. As long as I believe people aren't really suffering from trauma or physical harm of any type, I'll do anything and go anywhere. Simply said, it is not worth it."
Words turned out to be scarier than deeds for Carrie Preston, who plays Owen's wife and the camp's alleged mental health specialist, Cora, and who co-stars with Bacon. Theo Germaine, who plays the role of Jordan, a non-binary youngster, receives a scathing monologue from Cora early on in the movie that contains some incredibly triggering and NSFW language.
The actress says, "When I initially read the script, I thought, 'I can't pronounce those things!'" "I checked in with Theo that day before we even began filming to make sure they were all OK. Additionally, I apologised for what I was about to say to you. They are the ones who actually receive all of these harsh and nasty things, therefore I wanted to take care of them. They appeared fine, which is fortunate because Theo is a fantastic performer and guy."
The entire cast receives kudos from Logan for participating in his "extreme horror version" of a conversion camp. He claims that "the actors so believed in the objective of the movie." "Each and every one of these actors had a strong sense of commitment to the plot and message of the film. And they gave it their all, putting 100% of themselves into it. Darwin and Cooper both entered the aversion therapy procedure with bare fangs."