Prior to the turn of the century most people’s knowledge of the transgender population came from movies, in particular horror movies. This genre has been known to exploit the population, resulting in a very negative and inaccurate portrayal. As a result, many desensitized movie goers have the negative association of this community consisting mainly of psychotic killers and psychopaths.
In most slasher movies that have dared to breach the topic of characters changing genders, it has been an overwhelming negative image. This entire category of people has been boiled down to this inaccurate portrayal and demonized.
Fortunately, over the last handful of years many positive role models have stepped forward to lead the transgender movement, shattering these negative images. Movies and television shows are beginning to adapt transgender characters and heroes to their scripts. These changes are slowly beginning to help create a more positive image reflecting the community so many negative movies have established for so long. However, the horror genre has been lagging behind the times and continues to use transgender men and women as villains, and their transition (usually forced upon them by another) as an explanation for their compulsion to kill.
The genre has also tied the theme of abuse and forced gender modification to the transgender population, where this is just not the case. In many of these movies transgender women especially had been abused as children by a family member and in the process have been forced against their will to dress as the opposite sex. This common trope deeply insults and belittles the community and the actual reasons one dresses and lives as the opposite gender from whom they were born; because they were born in the wrong body.
“So what?” You may be thinking. “It’s just a movie. These characters are just created for the sake of entertainment.”
The problem is these fictional characters reaffirm the negative and inaccurate stereotype so many people have of this entire population, and an ignorant America is scarier than any horror movie.
A majority of movie goers will recall Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs as the first time they encountered a transgender character in a film. The scene where the serial killer dons a wig, make up, and hides his penis between his legs as he tries to look like a female shocked audiences worldwide, perhaps more than the act of killing and skinning his victims did. In this brief scene an uneducated audience quickly made the association of wanting to change genders as wrong, disgusting, and disturbing.
While the movie won multiple Academy Awards, it further damaged the image of how people think of the transgender community. However, this movie was not the first to reflect the rigid and damning stereotype, and it certainly has not been the last.
In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock brought us Psycho. In this story a motel owner suffering from dissociative identity disorder (aka split personality) kills innocent guests while assuming the persona of his dead mother. Unfortunately audiences quickly boiled this behavior down to a crazy man dressing in women’s clothing and wielding a kitchen knife. Nowhere in the description of the character did we learn Norman Bates wanted to consciously change genders and live life as a woman, but rather that was his second personality not just emulating his mother’s behavior but believing he was his deceased mother.
The psychiatrist explains at the end of the movie Norman gave half of his own life to his mother, dressing and speaking like her. “At times he could be both personalities, carry on both conversations.” the psychiatrist further explained. When the potential victims who caught Norman asked why he was dressed in a wig and dress the police officer in the room automatically jumped to the conclusion that Norman was a transvestite, but the psychiatrist quickly corrects him. “A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. And when reality came to close, when danger or desire threatened that illusion, he dressed up, even into a cheap wig he bought. He’d walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother. Now he is.” He further goes on to explain how Norman’s mind housed two different personalities, his own and his mother’s, and the dominant personality won out; that of his mother’s.
Unlike transvestites and transsexuals this was not a conscious decision on Norman’s part, but the medical diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder was not as fully understood as it is today, nor was the differences between transsexuals, transvestites, and transgender. The 1960’s was a time that still considered homosexuality to be a disease, and not until 1987 was it fully taken out of the DSM as a mental illness.
1983’s slasher Sleepaway Camp is perhaps one of the most damaging portrayals of a transgender character in the history of the horror genre. After surviving a tragic family accident where her brother and father both died, pre-teen Angela is sent to live with her eccentric aunt. While we attribute the quiet girl’s shy demeanor and mousy ways to her past experiences and neurotic guardian, we don’t fully understand the extent of the situation until the end of the film. In the last five minutes it is revealed it wasn’t Angela who survived the family tragedy, but her brother Peter. After obtaining guardianship of the boy, Peter’s aunt Martha begins dressing him in girl’s clothing and treating him as his deceased sister. She takes away his male identity and forces a female life upon him.
Upon subsequent viewings, knowing the true identity of the killer makes the murders all that much more shocking and symbolic. Many of the kills somehow link to the threatening of “Angela’s” sexuality. Judy, a pretty camper who flaunts her big breasts and feminine wiles to get her way, threatened Angela’s flat chested physique. Later the girl meets her demise when she receives a hot curling iron into what we are left to assume is her vagina by the shadows we see displayed on the cabin wall and her blood curdling scream that follows. Whether this is an act of repressed penis envy since Angela’s aunt emasculated her, or perhaps the writer’s way to take revenge against a camper who has been portrayed as the camp slut, we will never know.
When picked apart, many of Angela’s kills can be linked to her own confusion regarding her gender. The camp chef, heavily implied to be a pedophile and a real monster and threat to the campers, meets his demise after making advances on the young and impressionable adolescent. Furthermore, after witnessing the heterosexual relationship between camp counselor Meg and much older camp owner Mel, Angela kills them both.
As the movie reaches its unexpected climax, the murder of camper Paul, everything is put into perspective. Paul was the only camper who was nice to Angela, and in fact showed genuine interest in her. His actions weren’t vulgar or demeaning, he was truly innocent in expressing his feelings. However, the years of conditioning to take the place of his sister conflicted with the internal chemistry of being born a boy, all of which erupted in this final kill of the movie.
Since it occurred off screen, we aren’t sure exactly what the situation was in Paul’s final moments. However, we are lead to believe the two campers were meeting to explore their feelings for each other. When camp counselors find the two campers, a naked Angel is lovingly cradling Paul’s decapitated head in her lap at the waterfront of the lake. It is here where it is finally revealed Angela was Peter all along as she stands up revealing her male anatomy, an image forever burned into horror history.
Leaving the audience to make their own conclusions why Angela decided to kill, the young camper’s backstory is further diluted by the early witnessing of her father’s relationship with another man in bed. This past experience may have even created questions in Angela’s mind as to how she saw relationships as well as her own feelings for Paul. However, it is strongly implied if Angela wasn’t forced to change genders by her aunt she would have lived life uninterrupted as Peter, not killing innocent people.
A more recent and still inaccurate reflection of the transgender population is Insidious 2 by James Wan. In this movie the Black Bride killer is revealed to in fact be a man, Parker Crane. Crane was subjected to years of abuse and forced genderfication at the hands of his psychotic mother. She renamed him Marilyn and raised him as a girl; dressing him in the most frilly of dresses, forcing him to wear a wig, and decorating his bedroom with flower wallpaper, pink curtains, dolls, and rocking horses. She would punish the young boy whenever he rebelled against his forced identity of ‘Marilyn’. As Crane’s psyche begins to break down and insanity seeps in he dresses as the Black Bride, killing a total of 15 women before being apprehended by police. The authorities found Crane in the hospital after his attempt to castrate himself.
Since the transgender movement has picked up strength and come to the forefront of the news there have been more positive and accurate role models, eagerly trying to dispel and erase these fictional characters. Leaders of the community, many times celebrities in the entertainment industry, have stepped forward and to help mold a new, positive journey for the younger LGBT crowd. Yet horror is still one area where the transgender character, mainly the transgender woman, is seen as mentally ill, evil, and vile. Perhaps over time we will have our first transgender “final girl” step up to the monster and victoriously defeat them as many cis-gender girls have who have come before her. However, until the movie makers are ready to make that step we have to support the transgender community across the world to stand up to the monster of ignorance and negativity.
Read more about the lack of representation of the LGBTQ community in iHorror writer Waylon Jordan’s article here; It’s 2007: Where are the Queer Horror Characters?