In the first part of our in-depth series on transphobia in horror, we explore common trans tropes in media and why poor representation is so harmful.
Every time someone posts an article about transphobia in horror films (that’s right, this isn’t the first one), there’s always that one commenter who comes crawling out of the woodwork to complain.
“But Buffalo Bill isn’t actually trans, Hannibal Lecter clarified that in the movie! And Norman Bates wasn’t trans either, he had a split personality!” Then, presumably, they’ll go on to point out that Frankenstein was the name of the doctor and that sparkling white wine is only champagne if it’s made in the Champagne region of France.
Yes, I will accede that neither Buffalo Bill nor Norman Bates, nor any of the other common examples of “trans women” in horror were actually trans. But (*sips my sparkling white wine that isn’t actually champagne*), it doesn’t matter.
Because films like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Dressed to Kill all fuel the transphobic belief that any divergence from the gender binary is sick and wrong, and it’s getting trans people killed.
That may sound like an exaggeration. After all, people should understand the difference between fiction and reality, right? Well sure, when it comes to things like zombies, unicorns, and altruistic billionaires.
But what happens when the fantasies you see on TV aren’t challenged by reality?
So if someone’s only exposure to the trans community are comedies like Ace Ventura or Naked Gun 33 ⅓ , where the main characters vomit in disgust after learning the woman they were attracted to is trans (or any of the horror films I’m about to discuss), is it any surprise they would genuinely believe that men in dresses are trying to pray on women and trans women are trying to “trick” heterosexual men? Is it surprising they might believe the appropriate response to such an emasculation is revulsion and violence?
Of the 40 horror films I watched in preparation for writing this piece, very few of them knew the difference between a trans person, an intersex person, or a cross dresser. Do you honestly think the average American knows which is which?
Let’s take a look at some of the most common trans tropes perpetuated in Western horror films and examine exactly why they’re so harmful.
A QUICK TRANS 101
Before I get into the meat of this article, let’s go over some definitions, keeping in mind that people who identify as any of the following may define these terms differently. And and like all words, the meanings can change with time. Transgender is currently the most commonly accepted term in the trans community to refer to those who don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.
For example, if a baby was born with a penis and testicles and the doctor put male on the birth certificate, that baby would be assigned male at birth. If the baby then grows up to be a man, he would be cisgender, someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. If the baby grew up and turned out to be a girl instead, she would be a transgender woman.
Transexual is an older term that used to be used refer specifically to trans people who took hormones and/or had gender confirmation surgeries (once called sex reassignment surgery), as opposed to those who did not. Some trans people still prefer to use “transexual”. But it’s become less popular for the same reason “sex reassignment” is now called “gender confirmation,” because being trans is about gender identity, not sex.
Transvestite is an archaic word now widely considered offensive. Historically, it described people who enjoyed wearing clothing typically associated with the opposite gender, what we now call cross-dressers. Cross-dressing, a form of personal gender expression, should not be confused with drag which is done by performers for entertainment purposes. Drag kings and queens can be either cisgender or trans.
Someone who is non-binary or genderqueer is neither trans or cisgender. They can identify as both genders, neither, a third gender or fall somewhere in between.
Finally, there are intersex people, those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit into the typical definitions of “male” or “female”. Historically such individuals were misidentified as hermaphrodites, which is defined in biology as an organism with complete or partial reproductive organs able to produce both eggs and sperm. While hermaphroditism does exist in other species, it is physiologically impossible for humans. And using it to describe intersex people is considered offensive by most in the intersex community.
This is just a very rough overview, so if you want a more in-depth explanation of the trans and non-binary communities, the lingo, or the concept of gender identity, check out the Trans Literacy Project, Trans Equality, Planned Parenthood, or this comprehensive trans 101 article for a basic overview for beginners.
The genderbread person is a helpful infographic for beginners that explains the basic differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation (though it doesn’t include everything) if you’re a visual learner like me.
The Intersex Society of North America has a lot of great info on being intersex, including the difference between being intersex and trans. The WHO (the World Health Organization) has an informative entry on the science behind sex expression and gender. And finally, GLAAD Media has a very useful glossary of terminology.
HORROR MYTH 1: MONSTERS AND MUTANTS
A lot of horror conflates masculine and feminine in their monsters as a sort of body horror. Androgyny is often a weapon in [horror movies] …. there has been very little actual trans representation in horror at all. You know, besides shit like Buffalo Bill–which is also a way to conflate trans representation with being an abomination.” – Persephone Valentine (The Broke-Ass Transwoman)
There’s nothing scarier than the unknown; the monsters that hide in the dark, the creatures that lurk deep unknown, and what someone may or may not have in their underwear. Ranking right up there with eldritch abominations, haunted hospitals, killer clowns and the bogeyman are people who don’t fit into society’s narrow definition of gender.
A study done by researchers at St. Louis University found that trans and gender non-conforming individuals are considered super scary because they threaten people’s personal identities. i.e. the “distinctiveness threat”. Because our personal identities are defined to such a degree by what groups we belong to, anything that changes that definition is perceived as a threat to our very identity.
So “individuals who highly value a binary system of gender, and who define what it means to be a man or woman very rigidly, would be more likely to experience distinctiveness threat when faced with gender nonconforming behavior from either cisgender or transgender individuals, but especially from transgender individuals.” (Psychology Today)
So, to create a truly terrifying movie monster it needs to either threaten the protagonist’s safety or their identity.
Or better yet, it can do both, like Queeny, from Corbin Nash. Then the hero can be in actual danger AND feel insecure about his masculinity. Played by cisgender actor Corey Feldman (who I think was trying to go for a Divine-esque look but ended up resembling “Baby Jane” Hudson instead), Queeny was turned by her vampire boyfriend, Vince, after a suicide attempt brought on by her transphobic parent’s rejection.
Despite the sympathetic backstory, the movie makes no other attempts to humanize the blood-sucking couple who spend their days kidnapping, torturing, and murdering humans, in addition to sexually threatening to the titular hero’s rigid heterosexuality. Queeny is as vain as she is vicious, and Vince thinks all women are whores (with the exception of Queeny of course).
Just in case the audience still hasn’t caught on to just how monstrous Feldman’s character is, other characters frequently refer to Queeny as an “it”, though not because she’s a vampire, and Corbin Nash screams “You’re no woman! You’re a freak!” during the dramatic finale.
Queeny isn’t the only gender non-conforming vampire out there. In Cyndy Hendershot’s article, Vampire and Replicant: The One-Sex Body in a Two-Sex World, she argues that Dracula’s androgyny is part of what makes his inhumanity so frightening, because he threatens heterosexual, cisgendered masculinity.
In case vampires still seem too human, you could always take it one step further by making a hermaphroditic monster.
Case in point, the Ravenna Monster from Aristotle’s Masterpiece, or the Greek Lamia, a serpentine creature with a feminine face and breasts and a penis who and seduces men and devours infants. (Alban) Lady Sylvia, the seductive, immortal snake woman from Lair of the White Worm, who spits venom and wants to sacrifice virgins to a snake deity, was most likely inspired by the Lamia myth.
When young Hugh Grant and his buddies go searching for Sylvia’s snake god, the monstrous D’Ampton Worm, they stumble upon cave paintings that depict a ritual involving people with breasts and penes (I bet you didn’t know that was plural of penis) leading Grant’s character to crack some super mature dick jokes and take a shot at women’s lib.
Then there’s the creepy newborn human/xenomorph hybrid from the much-maligned Alien Resurrection who was originally designed, per director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s request, to have “genitalia which resembled a mix of male and female sexes”. Thankfully this was digitally removed in post-production.
The “other” is frequently correlated with monstrosity. It’s what popularized freak shows and made monster movies so scary. Some trans horror fans are reclaiming the idea of the “monstrous trans person” and even use werewolves and their monthly metamorphosis as a metaphor for being transgender. There’s a whole genre of self-published books on Amazon focused on were-women, men who turn into women when the moon is full.
Non-binary musician, Totally Knuts, wrote a song about a transgender Remus Lupin, and non-binary author Hal Schrieve has two transgender werewolves in his new book, Out of Salem.
But it’s one thing for people to proudly reclaim the monster or “freak” title for themselves, it’s quite another for others to labeled as such outsiders, and is probably one of the most dehumanizing and othering things you can do to a person.
Treating a group as subhuman only makes them that much easier to hurt and kill. White slave owners saw their Black slaves as only three-fifths human. And there’s a long, racist history of comparing Black people to primates. In WWII, the Nazis rounded up Untermenschen (subhumans) into concentration camps and the Japanese performed human experimentation on maruta (logs), their name for their Chinese prisoners.
When calling for the genocide of the Tutsis Leon Mugesera, a senior politician in the ruling Hutu party, referred to them as inyenzi (cockroaches). And trans people are being murdered because they’re still seen as “its” and less-than-human “freaks”.
HORROR MYTH 2: KILLER CROSSDRESSERS
“…though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom. The so-called bathroom bills that are popping up all over this country do not keep children safe, they force trans people into using bathrooms where they can be beaten and or murdered. We are not predators, we are prey.” – Lilly Wachowski (Director, writer, and producer)
Even more popular than gender non-conforming monsters are gender non-conforming serial killers. Because trans people are still scary, even without supernatural powers. Making murders effeminate and trying to creep out the audience by having them dance nude in makeup and jewelry to Goodbye Horses seems to be a tried and tried method in horror cinema.
The “cross dressing killer” trope was first popularized by in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 famous horror thriller, Psycho, and would continue to show up for decades in everything from grindhouse flicks to award winning pictures like Silence of the Lambs. Most of those movie murderers were based on Ed Gein, the grave robbing killer from Plainfield Wisconsin whose life and crimes would fascinate the public for years to come.
On November 16th, 1957 the Waushara County Sheriff’s department discovered the body of Bernice Worden, the Deputy’s Sherriff’s mother, beheaded and hung upside down in Gein’s shed. A subsequent search of his home turned up the body snatcher’s morbid collection of clothing and home décor fashioned from human skin and bones.
The bizarre nature of Gein’s crimes made headlines across the country. Life magazine ran an article on the Ed two weeks after his arrest which explained that Gein expressed how he “often wishes he were a woman” and that psychiatrists believed “he is a schizophrenic or split personality, torn between love and hate for women- and perhaps also suffering from a savage form of necrophilia, or love of the dead.”
The public’s fascination with the morbid details of the case would inspire several books and films.
Of course, Neither Norman Bates nor Buffalo Bill were trans — the movies confirm as much.
The therapist who examines Bates clarifies “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.”
Hannibal Lecter makes a similar assessment of Buffalo Bill. “He’s not a transsexual, Clarice. He just thinks he is, and he’s puzzled and angry because they won’t help him”.
But even if they aren’t truly trans, their gender non-conformity still makes them threatening.
Then there’s that study, Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery that TERFs and conservative news outlets love to quote that supposedly suggests that transwomen “retain male-pattern criminality”.
One New Zealand TERF group called “Speak Up for Women” (don’t worry, they explain in their “About Us” that they’re totally not transphobic, it’s just that trans women are probably violent rapists because being born with a penis makes you uncontrollably violent) claimed the study proves that “transwomen were 6 times more likely to commit any crime, and 18 times more likely to commit a violent crime, than female controls”.
So if society lets little Timmy wear a skirt (not including kilts, longyi, sarongs, pteruges, etc.), he’ll probably grow up to become a healthy, well-adjusted adult because his family and friends loved and supported who he was. But he might also grow up to be a serial killer. You don’t know!
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another famous film based on the Ed Gein case. But unlike the other examples it manages to avoid any form of transphobia.
At least until the 4th installment in the series, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, where Leatherface suddenly starts crossdressing. He even graces the film’s poster in red stockings and a silk nightgown while the tagline declares “If looks could kill, he wouldn’t need a chainsaw”. I don’t know if the film makers thought it would make him creepier (it doesn’t, he’s actually kind of adorable dressed like a granny) or to emasculate him. But both options are equally offensive.
Well, at least we get to see him chainsaw people in the… oh wait, never mind. Matthew McConaughey is the villain in this movie, chewing up every bit of scenery he can get his teeth on. Leatherface, on the other hand, has gone from a hulking, mostly silent killer to a submissive crybaby with a bad mullet who gets bullied by the others and spends most of the film cowering and screeching. Not an intimidating screech either, a “three-year-old throwing a tantrum in the grocery store because mummy won’t buy him candy” screech.
Apparently, wearing pearls means you’re not allowed to be a bad ass.
Just to add insult to injury the Sawyer clan are no longer cannibals. Now they kill people for the Illuminati…or something, I don’t even know. Oh, and Renee Zellweger stars as the final girl.
At least Death Head, the killer clown from Rob Zombie’s 31, and Dark, the rival serial killer in the low-budget direct-to—video film Hunting Humans got to be just as intimidating in tutus and dresses.
Then there’s Zack from the extremely 80’s Hide and Go Shriek. Despite killing off a half-dozen horny teens in an attempt to win back his old prison boyfriend (I wonder if that’s ever worked for anyone), the filmmakers presumably felt he wasn’t creepy enough. So Zack is revealed to be a very femme leather daddy — because why not throw in some homophobia for good measure?
Not to be outdone, Switch Killer (aka Transamerican Killer) actually makes the killer trans — or rather, they decide to become female because their girlfriend left them for a woman (and because said killer is an abusive asshole), and it’s apparently very easy to get gender confirmation surgery in their universe.
Somehow managing to be even more shocking and offensive than the slasher from Switch Killer is the “family values” serial murderer from exploitation horror-comedy Terror Firmer, whose combined vagina and penis causes everyone assembled to recoil in disgust.
Of course, being a Troma film, the entire movie is meant to be as over-the-top, gross, and shocking as possible, while simultaneously mocking every group out there — especially moral guardians — like a disturbing love-child of South Park and Cards Against Humanity.
So it’s hard to tell if Terror Firmer is parodying the trans killer trope, like how it mocks misogynist film makers who add pointless rapes to their movies, or playing it straight to add just another gross-out scene to the countless others throughout the film.
While it’s certainly possible Gein was LGBT and/or gender non-conforming, the original sources that reported Ed engaged in cross dressing weren’t exactly reliable. Life magazine made claims about Gein’s mental state and gender identity in their article, which they supposedly got from the psychiatrists who spoke to him. It’s an odd claim since Gein hadn’t actually spoken to any psychiatrists yet.
In fact, much of the media coverage regarding his mental state and crimes seemed to be sensationalized and not entirely accurate. I guess murder, stealing bodies, and making human skin lampshades wasn’t exciting enough on its own. Then there’s his confession. Gein was so eager to please that the polygraph specialist, Joe Wilimovsky, found he had to be very careful of not putting words in Ed’s mouth.
When Wilimovsky interrogated Gein regarding his desire to wear women’s clothing and become female, he ended up asking loaded questions, making it unclear as to whether Gein actually did what’s being suggested or was simply agreeing with everything being said. (Schechter)
One of the psychiatrists who actually examined him, Dr. Warmington, suggested that Gein was not actually trans, but was instead creating his “woman suit” out of a “desire for a substitute for his mother in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely.”
Even if Ed Gein truly was trans or gender non-conforming (and there really isn’t any way to confirm it one way or the other), then he’s an outlier in the trans community.
Yes, obviously trans women and men people are capable of murder, just like every other population. But it’s exceedingly rare. In fact, while researching this article, I uncovered less than a half-dozen examples of trans women committing murder in the US and UK in the past few years. Out of the 17,284 murders committed in the U.S. in 2017, only two seem to have been committed by trans women, Paris James McConville and Jessica Winkler.
And yet, anti-trans blogs act like there’s a rash of trans killers out there, frequently quoting that study I mentioned earlier. You know, the one that supposedly states trans women “retain male-pattern criminality” — except, it totally doesn’t say that. And if definitely doesn’t say anything about trans women being more likely to commit violent crimes.
See, this is why you need to actually know how to read data, kids. Because the people who keep misquoting it clearly have no scientific literacy. The study doesn’t look at what type of crimes were being committed, just the conviction rate. And during the 1970s and 80s, trans women were convicted of crimes as frequently as cisgender men.
For some reason, people assumed the convictions was referring to murder and rape, when in reality the researchers were including anything you could get arrested for (like petty theft, prostitution, drug use, and other crimes linked to a lack of options and resources). But the crime rate for trans women suddenly drops between the 1989 to 2003 group.
“The difference we observed between the 1989 to 2003 cohort and the control group is that the trans cohort group accessed more mental health care, which is appropriate given the level of ongoing discrimination the group faces. What the data tells us is that things are getting measurably better and the issues we found affecting the 1973 to 1988 cohort group likely reflects a time when trans health and psychological care was less effective and social stigma was far worse.” – Dr. Cecilia Dhejne
In her interview with Transadvocate Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, the lead research of the study, shared her frustration about people misrepresenting her work. She expressed similar annoyance during a Reddit AMA.
Look, you’re probably going to die from heart disease or cancer, not murder. And if you do get murdered, it will be at the hands of your spouse or significant other, not some random trans person. Trans and gender non-conforming people are much more likely to be the victims of violent crimes that the perpetrators — and the only people they’re likely to kill are themselves.