A Transsexual’s Guide to Horror Cinema | Misha Crafts | The Hypocrite Reader

Misha Crafts

A Transsexual’s Guide to Horror Cinema

Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker, 1987

For my own amusement, I have often considered what kind of media might have “turned me gay” in the sense that seems to get conservatives so frightened. My answer – maybe surprising – is horror movies. During my childhood in the early ‘90s I had been told by various descendants of Tipper Gore and the Reagan-era Moral Majority that exposure to certain kinds of “bad” media would turn me into a sexual deviant. Lucky for me they turned out to be correct, but even before coming out as a trans woman, I knew that horror movies made something happen for me that I had trouble articulating. I understood this before I had even watched one. In that classic incubator of filmic obsession, the video store, I distinctly remember the horror section and the box art for Tremors, Candyman, and Alien 3. The monsters of these films had a magnetic appeal, along with the parental injunction “you can’t watch those until you're older.” As it turns out I would watch all of these and anything else I could get my hands on.

My fascination with the genre was so intense that I felt a little suspicious, even nervous, about it. The violence and the misogyny in the films did not reflect my desires in real life or my politics. Still I felt compelled by, even obsessed with, the feeling horror movies gave me. This is interesting to me because there is an assumption among a certain kind of cultural critic (both conservative and liberal) that “we are what we eat” politically speaking. I think this is true in some ways, but I would like to add to it that “we eat what we are.” Nothing “made” me gay; no piece of media has that much power. It was more that I eventually understood myself as trans through a complex process of recognition that remains mysterious to me. It is true, however, that identification played some part in this and presumably I was performing this identification in the media I was absorbing before I ever realized it. Given that the horror genre’s primary goal is often to elicit fear and disgust it makes me wonder what drew me to it as a source of affirmation or recognition. If we are what we eat, what exactly was I eating and why?

For me, desire feels like the hinge upon which my body and my psyche meet, so when I felt that tickle of arousal or embodiment that horror managed to evoke through fear, I knew I was also somehow near to my desires, however mysterious or perverse. The conflation or meeting of desire and fear creates a kind of crisis that animates most horror films. It can make its appearance as the desire of Norman Bates to stab a woman who arouses him, the Blob to consume an entire Midwestern town, or the vampires of Santa Carla to drink blood and live an eternity of teenage rebellion. It can also be a couple’s desire to have premarital sex at summer camp or a group of friends’ decision to embark on an ill-conceived roadtrip through rural Texas. In the world of horror movies these are all problems of a similar origin and scale and the genre renders them and punishes them, within its own rules, accordingly. Desire is the subject of many different genres of film, maybe even most, but what is exceptional in horror movies is the magnitude and spectacle with which desire is rendered as a crisis.

“Jesus Wept”

If it feels perverse to commingle fear and desire, that’s because it is. A film that illustrates this beautifully, and helps me think through the genre generally, is one whose VHS box art immediately drew me in as a kid: Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser. Without knowing anything about the film I, like many, was captivated by the image of Pinhead, the film’s monster. The precision of the pins running along his entire face and skull, his shark-like black eyes, and the bondage-inspired outfit absolutely terrified and fascinated me. There was so much poise and control to something so grotesque: I didn’t need to know anything about the film’s plot or Pinhead’s backstory to be enthralled. Although there is nothing explicitly, textually queer about Pinhead, he is perhaps “queer-coded.” Clive Barker is a gay man, and Pinhead’s iconic look seems inspired by the underground leather and bondage scenes the writer-director frequented in the 1980s. The character’s costume reminds me of my favorite line of writing by Susan Sontag, where she is discussing the aesthetics of sadomasochism: “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”

What makes Pinhead exceptional among some of his 1980s contemporaries is that he is not a slasher but a more dynamic and literary villain in the vein of Faust’s devil: all-knowing and yet ambivalent, as if the horrific events of the film are the inevitable outcome of his appearance. Pinhead and his entourage of Cenobites are extra-dimensional beings who, as he puts it, are “explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” (With this baroque description I guess we could debate whether there is actually textual evidence of their queerness.) The Cenobites are handmaidens of the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box of indeterminate origin that promises to take those who solve it “beyond limits,” where pain and pleasure become indivisible. The man who possesses the puzzle box is Frank Cotton, the real villain of Hellraiser. He is portrayed as a sadomasochistic egoist chasing the permanently receding horizon of the next hedonistic thrill. The man who gives the puzzle box to Frank asks, “What’s your pleasure?” in a sly, menacing tone that lets us know we should be afraid of the answer.

As a prologue to the film’s main drama, Frank opens the box, summons the Cenobites, and becomes their prisoner to be tortured for all eternity. The Cotton family – Frank’s brother along with his wife and daughter – move into Frank’s recently-abandoned house, which seems to be constantly surrounded by unpleasant English weather. The whole film unfolds there like a bad dream, mostly occurring within its ugly and barren rooms. Within this family there are many crises of desire unfolding in parallel: the story of the unhappy marriage between Julia and her husband Larry (Frank’s brother), the taboo sexual relationship between Julia and Frank, the tense stepmother dynamic between Larry’s daughter Kristy and Julia. Again, the puzzle box seems to formally echo both the labyrinthian house and the family’s complex relationships of power and sexuality. The film seems to ask, about the box as much as the family, “How do we solve this? Do we want to?”

In any case, when a few stray drops of Larry’s blood find their way into the floorboards of the house, Frank is resurrected, but only in a half-life as a fleshless corpse. Frank’s crime, and what makes him the antagonist, is not so much his hedonism as his inability to accept the consequences of his desire. His escape from the Cenobites sets the film’s horror into motion and his attempts to elude their torture produce the violence that follows. This is the moral of Hellraiser, if there is one: you must pay the price for gratification. Through pure sexual magnetism Frank convinces Julia to resume their extramarital affair and to help him by using her sexuality to tempt men into the house, where Frank can devour their flesh to rebuild himself. Eventually, the couple decides to murder Larry and replace him with Frank. Within this Freudian mess, the Cenobites are hardly the only enemy, but more a force that overshadows the whole narrative and reminds us of the awful and fascinating things that lurk beyond our limits. They are representative of the way desire hangs over us all as something both terrifying and often impassive. We must make deals with it, negotiate with it endlessly to keep it at bay while still keeping it sated.

This is precisely what final girl Kirsty does when she discovers Julia and Frank’s plan to kill her father. She accidentally opens the puzzle box and makes a deal with Pinhead and the Cenobites, promising to take them to Frank in exchange for sparing her and her father. The intricate complexity of the plot is a compelling aspect of Hellraiser and what makes it so tantalizing. While horror movies are known for being formulaic – as we will see, some of them are intriguingly, even ingeniously so – Hellraiser is anything but. Here everything is slippery.

Hellraiser especially – but horror more generally – situates desire as something totalizing, overwhelming, and ungovernable, and so destabilizes our expectations around how and where we are supposed to identify. One could read Hellraiser, and many horror films, as conservative in some sense, about the consequences of desire and the problems desire creates for society, but what this misses is that there is pleasure in punishment. There is satisfaction in the process of watching characters both succumb to and attempt to overcome desire. Hellraiser represents this explicitly in the scene when Frank is finally caught by the Cenobites at the conclusion of the film. As he is being pulled apart by hooks and chains Frank stares at Kirsty and licks his lips lecherously, smiling. “Jesus wept,” he says, right before exploding spectacularly into gore. This quotation of John 11:35 deployed in such a grotesque moment is a wonderful inversion that evokes another troubling theme of the movie: what is holy can be profane, and what is profane can be holy. Pain can be pleasure, and vice versa. What is bad can also be good.

This is a perversion that is ambient to all horror films. Once we understand that what is terrifying can also be attractive (as in my case as a child wandering through a video store), it opens up all kinds of interesting doors that invert and destabilize the normative. Transgression is not transformation, but it’s a start. We begin to seek out the things that scare us and even begin to become them. What we are told we shouldn’t want, or be, is ultimately what we need to live. We shouldn't, however, mistake horror movies as something inherently optimistic or liberatory in their approach to desire. Hellraiser is ambivalent about the morality of desire but it is clear about the power and fear we should ascribe to it. It can make you an otherworldly Cenobite, or it can turn you into Frank. In what is arguably the most disturbing sequence of an extremely disturbing movie, Frank cuts off Kirsty’s father’s face and wears it, snarling “Come to daddy” as he attempts to rape her. He truly takes this inversion “beyond limits” and literalizes the incestuous relationships the film has been toying with throughout.

In order to depict desire as a thing of terrifying gravity, horror movies often occupy an amoral or politically ambivalent position where desire (that thing that we don’t understand, can’t control, and therefore should fear) seeks to hurt us. Horror movies are fantasies first and foremost, and if there is any overarching moral to the genre it is that desire is problematic. Desire is the problem. It is never truly beaten and it never disappears completely. The final shot of almost any horror movie will remind you of that. What complicates things is that desire is also the road to pleasure, even fulfillment. What horror gives to desire is its proper stakes and its proper magnitude. In this sense, it is easy to see how the genre can relate to queerness. To understand a non-normative desire as an identity is something we might shorthand as queerness, and to identify with horror movies is to identify with a crisis of desire itself.

“The Seams And Sutures In Yourself”

All of this helps me to understand the strange recognition I experienced in horror films before coming out. Although I couldn't have described it in such clear terms back then, now, while navigating my own medical transition, “the crisis of desire” feels like something I can identify with in the most literal way. Still, I worry that the way I loved horror movies while I was still in the closet, or an “egg,” reflected an internalized self-loathing. I was the monster and the crisis of these films. The fear and disgust that these movies attempted to elicit at these creatures or situations was also my own terror at my own queer desires. But this is too simplistic a formulation. I enjoyed being scared and disgusted by these films, so it couldn’t be that my attraction to this genre reflected only my own negative attitude towards myself and my repressed wants. Or if it did, this was incidental and my self-loathing was intimately tied up with my own pleasure and need to transform myself.

After all, there is a power and pleasure in being a monster. As horror critic Charlie Fox puts it, “A monster is a fear assuming a form.” If this is the case, in order to properly understand these monsters, we must ask whose fear? Most queer people already know the answer to this question because it always seems to be the same. That fantastical, yet hegemonic, normal person. This person is not real or fixed, but historically determined and a convenient avatar of ideology. It is the same person who is so frightened of desire, and for whom its existence presents an unsolvable and terrifying problem. A queer attraction to horror movies makes even more sense in this context because it is queer people who are on the political receiving end of this fear on a daily basis. In some ways this fear is what gives queerness its form and coherence as an identity. Viewing a horror film from this perspective, the monster begins to look less like a villain and more like a sibling. Desire is not a crisis for queer people in and of itself, it is simply a fact that makes us who and what we are. However, other people’s perception and moral judgement surrounding our desire is a crisis. This is the dialectic within many horror movies that is part of their pleasure.

There is a long history of queer and trans people finding liberatory politics in the negative terms of horror and its monsters. My favorite is Susan Stryker’s landmark lecture My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix, written from the point of view of Frankenstein’s monster and delivered by Stryker in a kind of genderfuck drag. It’s not incidental that, just as in horror films, the fear that gives Stryker’s monstrous self (and her text) their form is that of the cisgender audience they are directed toward. She directly ties together the figure of the transsexual with Frankenstein’s monster, reclaiming this figuration from TERFs and transphobes. She ironically aligns her text with a lineage of bigoted second wave feminists like Mary Daly and Janice Raymond who have painted trans women as “monsters” in a pejorative sense, as something medically “made” and therefore artificial, unnatural, abominable. She inverts this lineage to, as she puts it, “lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself. I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual and therefore I am a monster.”

While this text is rightfully read as an expression of rage from a transsexual woman toward a transphobic society, I always find striking the way in which Stryker claims the position of the monster as not so much an identity itself, but as a rejection of the politics of identity: “Because transsexuality more than any other transgender practice or identity represents the prospect of destabilizing the foundational presupposition of fixed genders upon which a politics of personal identity depends, people who have invested their aspirations for social justice in identitarian movements say things about us out of sheer panic...” She implies that identities are always necessarily artificial and constructed through political struggle, but naturalized through an elaborate rhetorical and historical sleight of hand. All identities are as artificial and social as the monster is artificial. “Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with desire…you are as constructed as me…I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine, I challenge you to risk abjection…and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.”

Stryker rejects the terms upon which much contemporary queer struggle for inclusion and rights hinges. If identity is not fixed, as transness shows, how can identity and visibility be the winning political strategy for queer liberation? I hear an echo of this sentiment in how horror movies function and how I experience them. They are not easily read within the common contemporary logic of media consumption. Indeed, who should the audience identify with, or even empathize with, in a horror film? This is important for me personally to understand, because if the causality between what we watch and who we are politically were uncomplicated, I would be in trouble. Although there is a dearth of depictions of trans women in movies broadly, one of the few places we are inordinately well-represented, and in the least positive terms imaginable, is in horror movies. Can these phobic texts about trans women be read as something affirming?

“She’s A Boy!”

Long before I realized I was a woman my favorite horror movie was Sleepaway Camp. If you don’t know the film, it’s a fairly generic 1983 slasher with one of the most infamous final scenes in horror history. Sleepaway Camp is not a “good” movie by any measure. In fact it is a “bad” movie in every sense of the word. It is a low budget, hastily produced film, derivative of other golden-age slashers set at summer camps like The Burning or Friday the 13th. Sleepaway Camp is a cult classic, however, revered by horror fans for most of the same reasons it is reviled by culture at large. The dialogue is absurd but quotable. The acting is awful but inimitable. The murders are gruesome but cheesy. This is the story of many horror films: something seemingly middling and poorly made is celebrated for its particularities by die-hards of the genre. This trend slots devoted horror audiences readily into Mark Booth’s classic definition of “camp people”: those who are committed to the marginal with a fervor perhaps greater than the marginal merits.

Perhaps more damning than the quality of the film is its derogatory portrayal of queerness and especially transfeminine identity. Much of the famous final scene’s shock comes from the revelation that the film’s shy female protagonist, Angela, is in fact assigned male at birth. In the final shot we see Angela naked holding a severed head and a bloody knife as the camera pulls back to reveal her penis. Camp counselor Ronnie exclaims, “Oh my god! She’s a boy!” It turns out Angela has been the killer terrorizing Camp Akwanta through the entire film. Her motivations for this killing spree are so overdetermined they feel confusing and add to the film's campiness. Did Angela murder the campers because they were bullying her? Is it because she accidently saw her father in a homosexual tryst with another man when she was a child? Is it because the boy pursuing her confused her sexually? Is it because her father and sister were killed in a boating accident? Is it because her mentally ill aunt who adopted her decided to forcibly raise her as a girl? Any one of these things would be enough to motivate a serial killer in a regular slasher film, but Sleepaway Camp chooses to suggest all of them.

Like many horror films, Sleepaway Camp attempts to clumsily psychologize its monster in order to give audiences some crude insight into a crisis of desire. However, this is mostly just pretense: the audience is not here to learn about what makes a monster, but to be scared by one. This is where the film excels. The ending of Sleepaway Camp is not funny and this is part of why it is so effective. While the rest of the film tries to be scary and only manages to be absurd, the final scene suddenly becomes legitimately horrific. Instantaneously we see Angela transform from a sweet girl into an actual monster, growling in an animal tone with her face frozen in some kind of unholy rigor mortis. The low quality of the special effects, which clumsily superimpose Angela’s head onto a nude male body, actually adds to the impact. We don’t see a realistic depiction of the transfeminine body but an exaggerated and awkward caricature invested with all the terror and confusion a transphobic gaze might endow it with. The film needs to be transphobic in order to render this searing final image. We need to be transphobic, or at least live in a transphobic society, in order to understand her as the monster the film wants us to see.

This final scene is made complicated, however, by the way Sleepaway Camp presents Angela. She seems to be only incidentally or hesitantly cast as the villain. Up until the final scene we truly do not suspect her as the killer and in fact we have probably identified, or at least sympathized, with her. After all, when presented with the variety of sadistic campers, who is the audience supposed to feel empathy towards? The bodacious and cruel Judy who manipulates the boys for her own amusement and torments Angela? The camp cook who attempts to molest Angela in the walk-in freezer? The various teenage bullies around camp who harass and taunt her mercilessly? The ambivalent or impotent camp counselors who allow all this violence to transpire? Or the shy, misunderstood Angela who is teased for being “a carpenter's dream! Flat as a board and in need of a screw!” and ultimately just wants to be left alone by her cruel peers. It is hard to feel much but a sense of justice as these various victims, or villains, are killed off.

Angela, Sleepaway Camp, 1983

This is because, despite Sleepaway Camp’s failings, what it does do very well is render in exaggerated but convincing detail the abattoir of gendered difference adolescents often encounter in “coming-of-age” contexts like high school or summer camp. As puberty approaches and parental supervision recedes, “men are from Mars and women are from Venus'' transforms from a theory into a practice that produces cruelty, ostracization, confusion, and alienation among young people. This part of the film feels very queer to me. Most teenagers fail to fit perfectly into the adolescent gendered order, but for queer people these homogenizing heteronormative expectations are often especially violent or alienating. Sleepaway Camp gives this real-life nightmare all the spectacle and depravity the genre has at its disposal.

Ultimately the film leads, or perhaps tricks (suggesting another transphobic trope) us into identifying with the transgender protagonist of the film even as it renders her as something monstrous and abject. Historically the best monsters are relatable. They compel audiences to recognize themselves where they would rather not. So then the terror in the final scene of Sleepaway Camp is also our terror at ourselves as an audience and what is potentially “wrong” with us. What this “wrongness” might be is almost as overdetermined as Angela’s motive. Perhaps it is our own immoral bloodlust at enjoying watching a group of teens at a summer camp be gruesomely murdered. Maybe it is the “wrongness” of taste that allows us, the audience, to enjoy something as “bad” as Sleepaway Camp. Maybe it is the “wrongness” we felt in our own adolescence when we were bullied and alienated in a similar fashion to Angela. Or maybe, as in my case, we are literally a trans woman.

If this feels like a stretch or an overly generous reading, it might be. I would love to derive a satisfying queer politics from Sleepaway Camp if for no better reason than how it ironically managed to make me identify with a transfeminine character long before I knew anything about my queerness. Remember, however, that the film does not invite a normative reading. Most of the audience who appreciate it are “camp people” who are already reading it askew for its “bad” qualities. In its overeager attempt to meet the slasher genre audience’s commercial expectations, it explodes them into something accidentally insightful into both the genre and the appetites of its audience. In any case, I always joke that trans visibility will have won its war of inclusion when we are finally allowed to have a transfeminine slasher who is not a negative stereotype. When we simply have a murderer who happens to be a trans woman and this facet of her identity is not the cause or explanation of her murderous desires but somehow completely incidental to them. I am kidding but I am also serious, a little bit like Sleepaway Camp.

“Fear Doesn’t Discriminate”

I do not think that Sleepaway Camp could be made today. I feel ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I’m happy there is greater consideration on the part of filmmakers or producers about making content that is transphobic and shows queer people as less than human. On the other hand, this consideration doesn’t seem to be slowing real-world legislative attempts to strip trans people of rights. Additionally, my own experience of Sleepaway Camp reminds me that how we read a film is at least as important as what we read. We may not even know or be able to identify the message we are taking from a text. Sleepaway Camp can be transphobic and also say something relatable and satisfying about non-normative desires, the violence of gender, and queerness. I think it's essential to remember with Sleepaway Camp, as with Hellraiser, that horror films are ultimately fantasies. They have no aspiration to show us how to live as other genres might.

For mass audiences, it may be difficult to understand the appeal of a fantasy that is designed to scare you more than please you and yet, for some of us, it is the oblique path to pleasure and identification that is necessary. Our fantasies do not conform to normative expectations and other genres’ more literal approaches do not accurately represent our realities or meet our needs. This is maybe also why horror fans often seem insular, more obsessive and community-oriented than those of other genres. We “camp people” have a sort of secret language or collective acknowledgement of the various rules that condition the pleasure they take from these ugly and strange films. There’s a reason it’s called a “cult” film. The horror community reminds me sometimes of the way I experience queer community, as a solidarity surrounding a thing some people deem disgusting. A literal or straight-ahead reading attempting to derive an obvious politics from the fantasies horror movies portray will often produce an interpretation that is flat or incoherent. Worse still are horror films that are made to be read in this way.

This is the case in 2022 when the explicitly queer horror film They / Them was released which was bad in an entirely different way than Sleepaway Camp. They / Them has a promising setup: a slasher film about LGBTQ characters set at a gay conversion camp. This cleverly synthesizes a classic setting of the genre with a queer one. Unfortunately, the film is an unremarkable slasher without much to interest audiences besides the queer content. If Sleepaway Camp’s ending is considered by some to be one of the scariest in horror history then They / Them’s may be one of the least inspired. Faced with an opportunity to take revenge on the sadistic camp counselor (Kevin Bacon) who has been literally torturing the queer campers throughout the film, the nonbinary protagonist Jordan chooses love, and spares him. Despite their show of mercy, Jordan still confusingly allows the slasher who has been killing the staff, a traumatized former camper who was enacting her revenge, to murder Bacon before she is taken away by the police. The moral here is a liberal platitude: “when they go low we go high,” complete with a carceral flourish.

What I see in They / Them is an attempt to make a horror film that is explicitly political and politically correct and therefore boring, saying very little about actual queerness one couldn’t get from an episode of Queer Eye or Drag Race. It is unsure whose fear it is rendering and therefore unsure who its monster is. I’m not sure what characters a queer viewer is supposed to identify with – I suppose the victims who are generically likable and gay in the most obvious and commercial ways. Ultimately the only thing the film has to say about queerness is that the identity has won enough political acceptance that a mainstream horror film with a medium-sized release can feature LGBTQI+ people as its protagonists. It says nothing about desire itself and does not provide me with the same kind of sustaining fantasy as other horror, because it refuses to suspend morality and therefore create the conditions for the subversion or transgression that necessarily informs my identity and should be a place of nourishment rather than shame. More insulting, it strips monstrousness from queerness, and therefore robs it of the kinds of politics that Pinhead, Stryker’s Frankenstein, and Angela grant it. There are no political revelations in They / Them you couldn’t find on a bumper sticker. We live in a time when the horror movie has finally been hailed as a serious genre of film. The same reasons They / Them fails for me and Sleepaway Camp might be dismissed as a “bad” film, may be buried in the terms and conditions of this current popular uptake.

Hellraiser, 2022

I like the 2022 Hellraiser remake infinitely more than They / Them, but it shares similar problems. Comparing it to the original Hellraiser, we see how horror has changed its approach to representing queerness. Much was made of the casting of Jamie Clayton, a trans woman, as Pinhead. I was initially excited by this choice, as it felt like an acknowledgement of the original film’s queer subtext. It was especially pleasing to see this manifest in the Cenobites, the monsters of the film. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do anything particularly exciting with this connection. The film does not give this female Pinhead much dialogue and Jamie Clayton doesn’t get an opportunity to bring any new interpretation to the cold and commanding personality established for Pinhead in the original. The Cenobites are reimagined in a more fleshy style, more H.R. Giger than ‘80s bondage, and this seems to be the film’s principle reinvention. In fact, the remake seems more fascinated with the puzzle box than Pinhead or the Cenobites themselves. It creates a more complex taxonomy for the puzzle box and its configurations but empties out the Cenobites, who become unremarkable horror movie monsters dutifully chasing the protagonists through the increasingly dull script.

The problem is that the original Hellraiser has something exciting to say about desire, pleasure, and pain that can relate directly to the experience of queerness, rather than just the identity of queerness as understood through the political grammar of liberalism. If horror movies are fantasies, then the fantasy itself must give us some insight into our condition, into our various crises of desire both personal and social. This re-imagining of Hellraiser does, however, in its obsession with the puzzle box’s configurations, make sense as a metaphor for how queerness seems to be represented more broadly in media at our moment. In an attempt to satisfy contemporary liberal audiences' expectations regarding visibility and identity there is an emphasis on the taxonomies that mediate queerness conceptually rather than the experiences (or crises) of desire that produced these taxonomies. I wonder, does queer representation look like an ever-expanding vocabulary for desire, and a growing roster of self-identified queer media, or does it require a more fundamental confrontation with desire itself and the ideological and material conditions that interpellate us and produce us as subjects, objects, and monsters? Ultimately, a tiny bit of transfemme representation in a mediocre remake feels like a sorry prize compared to the work the original did.

In the place where fear and desire meet we are able to reckon with things we cannot in any other place. The way that horror refuses easy or obvious morality is not a weakness but a strength. What I see in the contemporary impulse to “elevate” and litigate the genre is a nervousness about this aspect of horror and an old, but always itchy, question about how we make desire conform to existing political discourses or transform fear into something moral. We can’t! To make desire political is a messy and always potentially terrifying proposition. To make fear moral we must necessarily make it less scary or we must create something didactic. This is part of why I teach my students that genres exist to “serve a social need.” They often dislike the word “need” because it seems hyperbolic. We debate alternative wording like “social want” or “social demand,” and while these may be accurate, I insist on the word “need” because I want to emphasize the gravity of genre. It’s not just entertainment and the expectations of a genre are not arbitrary. These forms serve an essential function.

I push this point because it has certainly been true for me in the case of horror. Genres can build community. Genres can help you understand what your politics are. Genres can help turn you gay, or reveal that you were gay all along. Horror movies can and should remain a realm of fraught fantasies and troubling conclusions. This is their social utility and part of why queer people are often drawn to them. What is so deviant about horror, ultimately, is that it inverts the normative at every turn. We should avoid things that cause us fear, but instead we want to experience them for the pleasure they bring us. We should be disgusted by violence but instead we are entertained by it. We should hate monsters, but instead we are compelled by them. We shouldn’t want to become the monster we see on the screen, the expression of taboo desire and the object of society's terror, but it turns out we already were.