How 'They/Them' turned real-life conversion therapy into one of the year's scariest scenes
Conversion therapy stories aren't for the faint of heart. For decades, thousands of LGBTQ teens and adults have shared horrifying tales of so-called experts trying to forcibly "change" their sexual orientation using emotionally and physically traumatizing methods, ranging from electroshock treatments to hypnosis. Organizations like GLAAD have called attention to the harm that this discredited practice has caused, reporting that it contributes to higher rates of suicide and drug abuse among young people who identify as LGBTQ.
As an out gay man, writer/director John Logan has read a lot about conversion therapy, and the practice frightened him enough that he felt he had to include it in his new horror movie, They/Them, which premiered on Peacock earlier this year. Set at a remote conversion camp, the film follows a group of LGBTQ teens who soon discover that the seemingly tolerant owner, Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), is anything but.
In the movie's most chilling sequence, Owen lures one the kids — resident jock, Stuart (Cooper Koch) — into a cabin where he receives his own Clockwork Orange-like dose of aversion therapy, enduring electrical shocks as he's shown images of buff, shirtless men alternated with snaps of lingerie-clad models. As Logan tells Yahoo Entertainment, it's a scene that's all the more terrifying because it's rooted in reality. (Watch our video interview above.)
"One of the things I did is that I talked to kids who had gone through conversion therapy and they told me their stories," explains the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Gladiator and The Aviator. "What I learned was they are subjected to physical brutality — things like forced marches, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and psychological assault — where identity is questioned, at first perhaps gently and then more severely. So the idea of physical hardship is definitely part of the so-called conversion camp experience, and I thought it would be inauthentic not to represent that."
Logan does caution that the scene in They/Them represents "an extreme horror version" of aversion therapy, the mode of conversion therapy in the film. At the same time, though, some of the stories he's heard from survivors are just as scary ... if not more so. "It's not far beyond things that I've heard about actually happening, which is blood-chilling. But one of the things we do in cinema — and particularly in horror movies — is we provoke. We provoke ideas."
As the person being tortured, Koch says that it wasn't the "most fun experience" to shoot that extended sequence. But the out gay actor understands why Logan pushed to include it in the film. "I think that's the real horror of the movie. It's not necessarily the jump scares or the masked murderer, it's all the ways that they're trying to convert us." He also credits his co-stars Bacon and Darwin del Fabro — who plays Gabriel, the duplicitous teen that lures him into the cabin — with keeping the mood light on set. "Darwin was putting the wires on me," Koch says, laughing. "I love when we go to those dark places," Del Fabro chimes in. "It was hard for me to see my friend [be hurt], but it was fun to play those characters."
Reflecting on that sequence, Bacon says that he admired Koch's commitment to completing such an intense scene. "It's not the most pleasant thing to shoot," says the actor, who had a breakout role in the 1980 slasher favorite, Friday the 13th. (His daughter, Sosie Bacon, is currently starring in the horror hit, Smile.) "Everybody was trying to create a space where people felt safe, which is something I'm a big proponent of. I'll do anything and go anywhere as long as I feel people are truly not getting traumatized or physically hurt in any kind of way. That's just not worth it."
For Bacon's co-star, Carrie Preston — who plays Owen's wife and the camp's supposed mental health expert, Cora — words proved scarier than actions. Early on in the film, Cora delivers a blistering monologue to non-binary teenager, Jordan (played by non-binary actor, Theo Germaine), that includes some extremely triggering and NSFW language.
"When I first read the script, I thought, 'I can't say those words!'" the actress admits. "Before we even started shooting that day, I checked in with Theo to make sure they were okay. I also said, 'I'm sorry about what I'm getting ready to say to you.' I wanted to take care of them, because they are the one that that's really receiving all of these harsh and unpleasant things. Theo is an amazing actor and person and they seemed okay, thankfully."
Logan praises the entire cast for subjecting themselves to his "extreme horror version" of a conversion camp. "The actors so believed in the mission of the movie," he says. "Every single one of these performers deeply believed in the characters and what the movie was trying to say. And they through themselves into it one-hundred percent, including Darwin and Cooper went into the aversion therapy process with teeth bared."
They/Them is currently streaming on Peacock