Living with HIV Is About ‘More Than Taking Medication’: Actor Mark Patton

Mark Patton may be best known for his role as Jesse Walsh in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but to many fans he’s much more than the face of a character who once fought Freddy Krueger on the big screen.

He’s also a hero who’s faced down horrors of a different kind in the real world.

Today, Patton is not only celebrated as the horror genre’s first male “scream queen,” he’s also an outspoken advocate who works to raise awareness about HIV and LGBTQ causes in surprising places — at horror movie conventions.

However, the horror sequel that earned Patton his crown wasn’t always viewed as the cult classic it is today.

In fact, “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” (a film rife with gay subtext) was viewed very differently when it was released in 1985.

Surviving an epidemic

‘Nightmare 2’ was a movie that was supposed to launch Patton’s career to new heights — but it ended up putting it 6 feet under instead.

“What people don’t usually realize is that when that movie was released, in 1985, Hollywood was very homophobic and very AIDS-phobic… which made them even more homophobic because gay people were being blamed for the spread of the disease. We were being [vilified],” Patton told Healthline. “So, when this movie came out, with blatant gay subtext, people started talking.”

While Patton was out to close friends in the 1980s, he worked to keep his sexuality a secret from the public.

But his role in ‘Nightmare 2’ had caused this aspect of his life to be intensely scrutinized, quickly affecting the trajectory of his career.

After a resume that included dozens of appearances in commercials, guest-star roles on a number of popular TV series, as well as parts in Broadway productions and 2 feature films, Patton decided to retire from acting.

“I’d just had enough,” he said. “Friends all around us were dying of AIDS and all these people cared about was whether or not I could tell people I was straight if someone in the press asked me about my sexuality. It was heartbreaking.”

“So, I walked away,” he said. “I had to.”

Believing his acting career was over, Patton eventually moved to Mexico where he met and married his husband and the two of them opened an art store together in Puerto Vallarta.

But 2 decades after Patton left Hollywood in his rearview mirror, he got a second shot at stardom when he was asked to appear in 2010’s “Never Sleep Again,” an expansive documentary on the entire “Nightmare on Elm Street” series.

It was then he learned how the film that once killed his career because of its heavy gay subtext was now being embraced for that very reason by a new generation of fans.

A return to the spotlight and the rise of an advocate

Mark Patton (center) poses with fans at Comic-Con International. Image courtesy of ‘Scream, Queen’

Patton soon began making appearances at horror conventions, and seeing the potential impact he could have, made the decision to reveal he was living with HIV in 2013.

He also spoke openly about why working as a closeted actor in the 1980s was something more frightening than Freddy Krueger. And he was candid about the role that ‘Nightmare 2’ (and homophobia) played in the demise of his career.

Patton said he initially found being able to address the “dark side” of his Hollywood experience therapeutic, and sharing his HIV status gave him a renewed sense of purpose at fan events.

“It’s interesting because horror films — and I think this is part of what draws a lot of gay fans to [the genre] — are often about overcoming fear, right? Facing fears, your fear giving monsters power, that sort of thing,” Patton said. “Watching a character face their fear, face something like Freddy and survive, that can be a very powerful thing for a lot of people.”

Patton said he understands how advocates can help inspire people in similar ways.

He believes being able to put a human face to something like HIV can be a profound way to fight stigma and squash irrational fears that continue to persist about the disease today.

“It’s almost like a spiritual experience at these conventions sometimes,” Patton said. “People will come up to me and they’ll be crying and they’ll tell me all sorts of things like, ‘I’m HIV-positive too and you’re the first person I’ve told,’ or ‘I’m lesbian and nobody knows,’ or ‘I had an uncle who died from AIDS and my family never talked about it.’”

“And it’s like, you can see this weight that lifts off of them because a door has opened and they feel like they can finally talk to someone who isn’t going to judge them,” he continued.

After coming forward, Patton’s story and activism work caught the attention of 2 filmmakers who approached the actor about the possibility of filming a new documentary detailing his experiences.

Patton jumped at the chance, knowing what he’d shared was only the tip of the iceberg. But soon after they began filming, something unexpected happened.

“I began having panic attacks, really severe panic attacks,” Patton said, “My life had just gotten huge at that point and I knew I was carrying a lot of weight, but I’m a strong person and I’ve dealt with a lot in my life. This kind of shocked me and it was, quite frankly, a very scary thing.”

What Patton said he didn’t realize at the time was the “building of trauma” that was happening inside himself.

In addition to his busy schedule and the heavy subject matter he addressed in front of audiences at conventions, Patton had also begun opening up about the most traumatic events in his life for the documentary he was filming.

This included how one of the people Patton lost to AIDS at the height of the crisis was his romantic partner, fellow actor Timothy Patrick Murphy.

Murphy (who’s perhaps best known for his role as Mickey Trotter on the TV series “Dallas” from 1982–83) and Patton kept their relationship a secret from the general public, but shortly before he passed away, Murphy was outed by a tabloid.

He was photographed, near death, in his home, and Patton said Murphy’s sexuality and battle with AIDS were exploited to sell papers.

“What they did to him, it was awful. Just awful,” he said.

On December 6, 1988, at the age of 29, Murphy died from AIDS-related causes. Patton had lost one of the most important people in his life, yet the phobic atmosphere of the time made it impossible for him to properly grieve.

Even years later, trauma can impact mental and physical health

Kurt Oaklee, MA, MFT, founder of Oaklee Psychotherapy in San Francisco, California, said Patton’s reaction to sharing his trauma years later isn’t surprising and happens more often than many people realize.

“There is a common misconception that once one ‘opens up’ and talks about past traumatic events, they will experience a sense of peace, freedom, and healing. That is not necessarily the case,” Oaklee said.

“People often keep emotionally dangerous memories and experiences locked away for a reason,” he added. “For some people, reliving these events can actually lead to re-traumatizing. This can bring some significant emotional suffering and a decline in mental and physical well-being.”

Oaklee also pointed out that having to process trauma while in the public eye adds additional stressors to an already challenging task.

“Most people need to devote significant concentrated energy and time to processing trauma. This necessity is limited, if not impossible, for those in the public eye,” Oaklee said.

“So, the trauma of losing a loved one is difficult enough. Not being able to openly process that trauma can hinder, or even halt, the grieving process,” he added.

After he began having panic attacks, Patton said he sought medical help — but rather than diagnose the totality of his mental and physical health at the time, the doctor simply wrote him a prescription for Ativan, a fast-acting benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety.

For the next couple of years, Patton said he used Ativan to treat his anxiety symptoms, and slowly over time had begun to take the drug more frequently without realizing it.

“Over the course of the years I’d been taking this drug, I’d become addicted to it and I had no idea,” he said.

Patton sought help immediately, but it took 4 months before he was able to completely detox from the medication. During that time, he experienced a number of withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, muscle cramps, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of memory.

Patton said his experience pulled into focus the need to raise awareness of the importance of both mental and physical health in long-term HIV care, especially for those who are older.

“Living though AIDS in the 80s, it really was like a war. That’s a metaphor that is absolutely applicable to my generation. I think many of us — who are lucky enough to still be alive — probably have post-traumatic stress disorder to some degree and may not even realize it,” Patton said.

“I mean, losing the number of people we did, all the death and even the guilt many people feel about living, being one of the few who survived. How could you live through that and not be affected?” he added.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, NYS licensed psychologist at Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in Forest Hills, New York, agreed with Patton’s assessment.

“[Experiences like Patton’s] could leave someone with post-traumatic stress disorder if they lost a person or multiple people close to them. If they were someone living with HIV and were lucky enough to survive that time before advances in antiretrovirals, they will undoubtedly remember feeling ‘shame’ from having ‘that disease,’ and living in fear that people would see their medication or somehow find out,” she said.

Hafeez also pointed out the additional emotional and mental health stressors people with HIV would’ve endured in the 80s and early 90s.

“At that time, being discovered as HIV-positive could have led to job loss, being shunned by friends and family, being abandoned by significant others, and even having medical professionals unwilling to provide medical care. It was a horrific time for those who suffered from the disease and for those who lost people to it,” she said.

Mark Patton (right): “Watching a character face their fear, face something like Freddy and survive, that can be a very powerful thing for a lot of people.” Image courtesy of ‘Scream, Queen’

Helping usher in a new era of HIV awareness

Once Patton had fully recovered, he was able to finish production on the documentary he started, and on September 22, 2019 “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” had its official world premiere at Fantastic Fest — the largest film festival in the United States that specializes in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and action movies from around the world.

“Reactions to the film have been overwhelmingly positive and I’m thrilled it’s finally out there, that people are getting to hear [my whole story] for the first time,” Patton said.

“It was really traumatic to go back and live all this stuff again, but I discovered things all along the way,” he said. “I think being able to finish this film has been a tremendous healing experience for me and today I’m happy to be able to say that I’m doing very well.”

While some individuals can experience an increase of anxiety symptoms in the retelling of traumatic events as Patton did initially, Oaklee said that once people are emotionally prepared, the exercise is often a healing one.

“Retelling our experiences can help the memory become less triggering. It also can reduce shame that we may have associated with the trauma. Just ‘coming out’ and talking about it can bring significant healing,” Oaklee explained.

Patton said it’s also been “rewarding” to see the positive impact sharing his story is having on others.

“I’m amazed at the number of young people who’ve come up to me after seeing the film and they say, ‘I had no idea it was that bad.’ They have almost no knowledge of the AIDS epidemic or what it was like for gay people at that time,” Patton said.

“So, if there’s one thing I hope younger people get out of this film, it’s ‘know your history.’ If you know your history, you can hopefully avoid traps and stop something like that from ever happening again.”

Patton also hopes that sharing what happened to him behind the camera while filming “Scream, Queen!” will help others realize that long-term HIV care is about “so much more than taking medication. It’s about taking care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally.”

Republished with permission from Healthline