How Pop Crowned Its Halloween Queen: Kim Petras

Petras’ Halloween-themed albums revel in queer horror, putting supernatural power into the hands of a burgeoning trans pop star.

Kim Petras illustration originally by Lucas David

For one of the most universally celebrated holidays, the music selections surrounding Halloween have always been lacking. Christmas has its carols, but where are the Halloween hymns? The spooky standards? The AHHHHHrias? Sure, there’s “Thriller,” but are we still listening to that after…you know, everything? For so long, all we were left with when curating Halloween party playlists was “The Monster Mash” (which I will not do because I’m 26) and the occasional dark pop classics like the trapped-in-a-haunted-house sound of Britney’s “Gimme More” and the gothic chants of Gaga’s “Bloody Mary.” There just wasn’t much out there in the way of properly creepy Halloween pop.

That is, until two years ago today, when Kim Petras dropped the first of her two Halloween-themed projects, Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1. The album came as almost a complete surprise to fans — after a string of one-off, neon-tinged pop singles like “I Don’t Want It At All” and “Heart to Break” cemented her as a burgeoning voice in the pop game, few could have suspected that Petras’ first proper long-form release would be a collection of gothic, tongue-in-cheek dance-pop.

But Petras’ fight for pop ingenue status has been reasonably untraditional from the beginning. She got her start in Germany, where she initially made headlines after appearing on German television to talk about her experience as a young trans woman. She spun controversy into a career and began releasing her own songs while lending her voice to generic EDM tracks for European DJs. But when Petras paired the irresistibly bratty 80s banger “I Don’t Want It At All” with a matching music video complete with a cameo from Paris Hilton, she threw her hair tie into the ring for the title of pop girl underdog of the streaming age.

It’s worth noting that doors opened much more easily for Petras compared to other trans artists. Not only is she white and skinny, but she’s conventionally pretty and traditionally cis-passing, making pure pop music that barely veers into the avant-garde. In the eyes of the industry, she’s far more marketable than many trans artists who are struggling to break out beyond SoundCloud pages, the same ones who will have a much more difficult time grappling with the closing of small clubs, ones that welcomed unknown artists and open mic acts, due to COVID-19.

But Petras understands this, and it’s clear that after more than a decade of experience as a trans woman in the industry, she knows that when the general public gives an inch that it’s an opportunity to turn it into a mile. This is part of what has made Kim’s left-field turn into the macabre so satisfying — it’s seeing an artist leverage the hype they received from one sonic style to go full tilt into another arguably much more nuanced and interesting one with no warning. Petras harnessed the mild success of her string of bubblegum dance singles and used it to create something completely unexpected and rooted in queer identity.

TURN OFF THE LIGHT album cover, illustrated by Lucas David

Halloween has been a holiday embraced by queer communities since it became widely celebrated in the United States at the dawn of the 20th century when mass amounts of Irish and Scottish immigrants brought the Celtic and Catholic traditions with them that slowly assimilated into American culture. For queer people who spent their lifetimes hiding their identities in the shadows, the idea of wearing a mask and a costume was a natural marriage. For others, it’s the one night a year that they can truly feel like themselves — a time when costumes are acceptable and not to be heavily read into.

For many queer people, including myself, the inclination to tap into a darker side has been a second nature broiling just under the surface all our lives. When you spend your entire life with society and religion telling you that your existence is going to send you to the fiery pits of hell, where you’ll be tortured by the Devil and all of his minions for eternity, you can either rebel against it and try to stay in the light, or embrace the darkness and find the satisfaction, humor, and sexuality buried within it. This is exactly what Turn Off the Light seeks to do for its listeners. It’s a playground of deliciously dark lyrics and throbbing synths with an assortment of references, both to Petras’ popstar influences and horror cinema favorites.

Kim Petras for Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1 by Lucas David

Even though Halloween has been long-embraced by queer people, horror films have almost always found their queer themes shoved between the lines, relegated to moments that keep us guessing if that was for us. We’re experts in finding subtext, and the horror genre is rife with it. Vampires? Do you mean creatures that bite the necks of the same gender in intimate rituals that will bond them forever? Or what about the Phantom of the Opera, a dramatic man in a mask and a cape who runs around a French opera house obsessing over his favorite singer? Come on.

It’s unfortunately even more difficult to find overtly trans narratives in horror, but that’s not to say that there’s any shortage of trans subtext to be mined from the genre. Trans themes have been finding their way into horror films since their inception. Jacque Tourneur’s 1942 classic Cat People depicted a young woman who believes that she’s born with a body that betrays her during sex, keeping her unable to consummate her marriage in fear that she’ll kill her husband. Hitchcock’s Psycho infamously finds the murderous Norman Bates believing he is his mother, carrying out crimes of jealous rage. 1982’s Sleepaway Camp explores gender dysphoria before embarrassingly bungling its trans narrative in the end. Because these themes are seldom overt and they’re even more rarely handled in ways that are accurate and sensitive — but sensitivity has never really been horror’s strong suit.

Dual-natured darkness is embraced by Petras on Turn Off the Light for a thrilling journey to the underworld that finds a trans protagonist at the wheel, gleefully skipping down each circle of hell to embrace her otherness. Gone is the need to scavenge for crumbs of queerness, instead, Petras puts her transness front and center to create a vampiric narrator who seeks nothing more than a dastardly discotheque where sweat-glistened flesh is served alongside drinks mixed with blood.

Volume 1 of Turn Off the Light finds Kim Petras crafting her macabre pop world with horror references that are as sinfully delicious as they are wonderfully campy. The album opens with “o m e n,” a mostly-instrumental track that immediately recalls John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme. Petras’ breathy voice cascades like graveyard fog against the pulsating synths before we’re thrust into the modulated vocals that open “Close Your Eyes,” arguably one of the finest pop records of the last decade. The song finds Petras and her oblivious, would-be suitor getting further into their night together, with Petras’ demonic desires becoming more and more difficult to suppress. She winks to the brand she crafted for herself when she sings “You know I got designer taste / and your design’s too good to waste.” She tells her date to close their eyes, whispering in their ear before moving into an absolutely walloping chorus. She completes her transformation by the final refrain as she howls “I feel it coming on!” ripping into the song and her date, tearing them apart. Like Julie Benz’s conniving vampire Darla in the Buffy pilot or Anna Paquin’s lycanthrope in Trick ‘r Treat, “Close Your Eyes” is the story of a woman using her perceived innocence against men to indulge in devilish delights.

Each track on both Turn Off The Light volumes feeds into the next, with “Close Your Eyes” leading into an instrumental dance break named for Count Vlad’s hometown styled as “TRANSylvania,” which finds Petras’ signature “Woo-Ah!” tag against a propulsive, foreboding bass. Next up, “Turn Off the Light” boasts production reminiscent of Britney’s Blackout and a spoken-word feature from The Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira. “Embrace your fear, don’t dare to run,” she instructs, “only then will you be what you’re meant to become.” Petras’ lyrics about the natural vulnerability in accepting one’s true identity paired with a verse from one of the campiest characters to ever grace the screen make it completely clear: this is dark pop with unapologetic transness and queerness on full display for the world to see.

Volume 1 closes out with “In The Next Life,” an unrepentant brag track where Petras realizes her curse is actually her blessing and letting her demon half remain at large, wreaking havoc on this world while exalting herself as a Divine Evil. “I am the greatest God created / I am a sickness, I’m contagious,” she sings before threatening to “cut you open for entertainment.” Just when you think you’ve got this singing succubus pegged, Petras does the second verse in her native German, like an even more menacing Nosferatu: “Deine Zeit ist abgelaufen / Ich bin dein Alptraum, ich bin dein Omen” (“Your time is over / I am your nightmare, I am your omen”). “In The Next Life” is the comprehensible answer to Lady Gaga’s “Scheiße,” which found stadiums full of superfans shouting along with gibberish German when the song closed out her Born This Way Ball shows.

Kim Petras for Turn Off The Light, Vol. 1 by Lucas David

Volume 1 begets a Volume 2, and Petras excited fans once more last year when she confirmed that a second installment would follow the first by posting another series of illustrations by artist Lucas David. David, who also drew the album’s cover art, has been a fixture of the queer art scene for quite some time. His illustrations draw from the darker side of fame, depicting pinups and pop culture icons with morbid sensibilities: gaunt frames with long, pointy appendages, razor-sharp manicures, blood dripping from nostrils, and whited-out eyes. His attraction to the ghastly side of fame and love of illustrating pop stars made him the perfect choice for the Turn Off The Light’s promotional art.

But instead of being known as Volume 2, Petras merged the new set of tracks with the first eight to create the quintessential Halloween album, TURN OFF THE LIGHT, freeing herself from the obligation of crafting a new volume annually. With expectations high, Petras delivered on another set of masterfully menacing songs, slightly more experimental than the first. “Massacre” interpolates the melody of “Carol of the Bells” for a hauntingly fun song where an insatiable Petras declares that “one taste of blood is not enough to satisfy / …gotta die to feel alive!” “Death By Sex” delves into electro trap, proclaiming that her hypnotic supernatural delights are so good they’re lethal for anyone who dares to get too close. “Everybody Dies,” the track that closes out the complete collection, moves into a midtempo to reflect on the fragility of life and the courage it takes to live confidently in one’s identity. In the song, Petras tells listeners to “give me all my roses while I’m here,” a line that plays almost as a reminder to celebrate trans people as often as possible in a time where trans lives, especially the lives of Black trans women, are under constant duress.

With its lyrical ruminations on transness and queerness, TURN OFF THE LIGHT is the sonic response to religious fundamentalists who still insist being queer is a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. These 17 horrifically fun songs see Kim Petras flashing a wicked, fanged smile and saying, “meet you there.” What initially seemed like a hard pivot in Petras’ discography has become part of her brand, earning her a spot on any good Halloween playlist for years to come. It’s an album sent straight from the ninth circle of Hell, and all you have to do is write your name in blood in its liner notes and brace yourself for a wicked good time.

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Coleman Spilde

Coleman Spilde

culture and media writer for hire. interested in indie film, electronic music, and creating beautiful, memorable experiences. contact: cspilde@gmail.com