3/1/2022 0 Comments
Atticus Spicer (they/he)
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the power that is Carmen Maria Machado speaking. A good friend of mine, who runs a very queer and very delightful “bookstagram” account, invited me out to go to Machado’s talk on a cold Friday morning, when the sidewalks were lined with ice and I nearly slipped four times. It was free to attend and I had been absolutely stunned by Machado’s gorgeous memoir “In the Dream House” and graphic novel “In the Low, Low Woods” when I read them in the summer of 2021. Naturally, accepting the invitation to listen to one of my favorite authors' talk was almost an instantaneous decision–dangerous walk there and all.
As part of the wonderful Zell Visiting Writers Series, Machado’s talk focused on “stories that stand still,” analyzing and paying respect to narratives with interesting uses of time and space. A temporal deep dive, her mini lecture featured several hidden gems in the form of short stories that directly inspired her writing. We were sent home with a small stack of printed out readings, a handful of whimsical writing exercises to try out ourselves, and a newfound appreciation for sedentary protagonists simply introspecting for the whole story. But of course, because it was a speaking event with a brilliant modern writer, Machado also built in time to talk about her own writing, anticipating that folks would have things to ask about her personal body of work.
Overjoyed as I was to ask her directly, in person, in the flesh, outside of my dreams, about one of my favorite things I’ve ever read, it was part of an answer to another question that made me pause. I jotted down a quote in the moment: “Horror or sex, that’s all I can handle.”
If you’ve followed my writing for “The Gayly” recently– first of all, thank you very much– but secondly, you may have noticed a trend. I, too, am primarily interested in engaging with media that’s either going to scare me or thrill me in a different way; sex and horror are just about the only things that sound appealing at this current moment. Occasionally I’ll make an exception for media that’s really good, but my standards are unfairly high. I just don’t have the energy or mental bandwidth for anything that isn’t about sex or schlocky horror films.
Hearing Machado echo that sentiment, I felt completely seen. It was a revelatory moment that combined the excitement of being in the same room with a modern day trailblazing queer writer, said author verbalizing the same media preferences I had floating around in my head, and a reawakening of my appreciation for these two areas of study. It represented a gentle reminder for me to return to this series and my continued line of questioning about queer horror, so here we are.
As indicated by the fairly open ended conclusion of the last installment in this series, there’s still a good amount to be said about trans and gender nonconforming representation in horror. In that essay, I discussed the consequences and validity of reading Norman Bates, from Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho,” as trans. That film serves as a decent marker for the beginning of popular representations of trans and gender nonconforming characters in horror, yet it’s not all inclusive in terms of the ways these coded characters function in horror. Norman exemplifies one of the more exhausting and harmful tropes featured within trans horror– the transfeminine slasher– yet there are several different, often more interesting ways trans or gender nonconforming characters have appeared across the horror genre as well.
For the remainder of this article, I want to take a short break from the unfortunate and more transphobic understandings of trans and GNC horror, and instead explore fascinating, alternative readings absent of straightforward vilification. Aside from the transfeminine killer, represented by the likes of Norman Bates, how do trans-coded characters present possible sources for identification, reclamation, and interpreting literal bodily transformation, in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel like giving into unfortunate or damaging readings? Surely not all horror subgenres approach its trans characters in the same way. In applying queer readings and a gender identity-specific perspective to horror, I’ve found two fascinating ways that horror has approached trans and gender nonconforming identities: via body horror and horror involving possessions.
The Body as Horror
On the most primal level, humans instinctively know that there are, in fact, fates worse than death. Some of the most intense, visceral horror– the kind that forces its audience to look away in a type of commiserative pain– deals in exploring the limitations of what a body can withstand and what would make death feel merciful. Horror movies that investigate these boundaries often include a great deal of torture and can very easily venture into exploitative territory; they’re routinely nasty, reliant on a gross-out factor, and not the least bit mean-spirited.
But, in a similar style of terrifying and visceral exploration, horror also delights in having another subgenre that takes on the same elements of body-centric fears and develops them beyond just the revulsion of seeing intense gore and drawn-out torture. These movies, of the subgenre “body horror,” emphasize the horror and discomfort of a body in transformation. Often, they question the limits of a body’s adaptability and examine whether a character remains themselves if their body is disturbed and broken in ways that make them question their own identity. Granted, this subgenre still contains plenty of examples of that gross-out factor: the “shunting scene” from “Society” (1989) is downright bizarre and disgusting, and “Martyrs” (2008) loves to play trapeze artist on the line between incredibly gratuitous and “torture porn”-esque.
However, the real distinction between body horror and horror that simply takes liberties with inflicting violence against a body is the way body horror theorizes the process of deconstructing a body. In this subgenre, transition means everything. The fear these films evoke prove more than skin deep; they rely on the discomfort that losing one’s own sense of themselves and their physical presence, often in a drawn out way, elicits. As a result, these films are effective only when the audience has a vested interest in and empathy for the character undergoing a bodily transformation. Which is to say, the audience must care about a character in order to care that said character feels profoundly out of place in their own body. In terms of how this might intersect with a trans and gender nonconforming reading, body horror has an amazing capacity for providing some semblance of a sympathetic narrative for trans-coded characters, whom the audience relates to, pities, and works to understand as they watch that character lose themselves.
Admittedly, body horror doesn’t always provide a neat, infallible mode for interpreting being trans, the process of transitioning, or even what exploring one’s gender expression feels like. These horror movies are significantly more gruesome, often incredibly sad, and the destruction of a character’s human body usually transforms them into a monster; comparing that transformation to transitioning, it’s easy to assume that this metaphor condemns transitioning as a sort of monstrous awakening. But as essayist Nadine Smith points out,
“When a horror movie crosses a line to where it’s like the body is not just something that’s being operated upon, or in danger or under threat, but it’s like that [the body itself] is what the danger is, whether that’s you as a person or a force that’s transforming you that you can’t really control. [For] anyone who has struggled with any level of dysphoria, the metaphor there is pretty apt...That’s maybe what is so appealing so often to queer and trans audiences and artists about body horror, these are very explicitly about the changing of the body because feeling like your body and your identity aren’t in your control, those are so much about the queer experience.”
The metaphor is not entirely about the result of the body horror’s transformation, but the inherent tension of the distressed body and the discomfort accentuated by the painful transition. It’s about the horror of a changing body, of an external that doesn’t necessarily reflect the internal understanding of one’s self. For horror to provide protagonists, whose bodies betray them in very physical and jarring ways, it means that there are horror narratives in which those who feel similarly detached from their own physical presentations can identify if they so choose.
The Body, as Possession Horror
As much as body horror deals with the transition from one physical body to another, it also often focuses specifically or solely on the external components of a physical transition. It centers the process of the character losing themselves to their physical form and the bodily discomfort that comes from experiencing gender dysphoria, sometimes without truly reflecting on the mental anguish of being uncomfortable within one’s body. Exceptions exist, of course, such as David Cronenberg’s masterpiece “The Fly” (1986), in which the main character Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) undergoes a transition that is exceptionally visceral and tragic. His character completely loses himself by the end, descends into madness, and begs for death to end his physical form because he has become so monstrous and unrecognizable to himself. This horror does a phenomenal job at consistently reflecting on the mental aspect of dysphoria, using the entirety of the film’s runtime to steep in Brundle’s bodily discomfort, increasing gradually to a dramatic end when he cannot return to (or even hope to achieve) the body he wants.
Importantly, “The Fly”’s unique insistence on examining the mental anguish of Brundle’s dysphoria relies heavily on investing screen time in his transition. Often, body horror can fail as a means of reading trans and gender nonconforming characters because of the abbreviated nature of its scary elements– it’s difficult to read into body horror as trans representation rather than something trans and gender nonconforming individuals can simply independently identify with because the process of destroying a body often happens quickly in horror movies. Films like “The Fly” and trans readings of longer term body horror exist, but they’re not nearly as common as more drawn out/substantial trans readings of other subgenres, such as possession horror.
In a slower, more meditative manner, possession horror also focuses on the destruction of a body, or, more pointedly, the disconcerting separation of a person’s body and their self-understanding. Again, the idea of there being a boundary or distance between what one considers to be themselves and their corporeal form immediately evokes the idea of dysphoria. Numerous parallels can be drawn between them: the idleness of being trapped in a body you don’t identify with and the slow-burn nature of a possession taking hold; the isolating nature of having an internal struggle over gender identity that’s difficult to explain to others and the literal internal demon of a possession; the building urge to externalize your feelings and the need for the possessed to expel what’s been inhabiting them.
Perhaps that last point is a bit of a stretch, or perhaps all of them are. These comparisons are not exactly one to one, but it’s still worthwhile to think about them as an interesting perspective on reading trans and gender nonconforming media representations. It loosens the horror genre up for more inclusive understandings of a common scenario, as paranormal and specifically possession horror comprise one of the most popular subgenres. Of course, the narrative of trans and GNC folks being trapped within their bodies, or “the wrong body,” doesn’t necessarily resonate with everyone. Even so, this particular phrase and narrative has been a useful way to understand and describe the experience of dysphoria for many trans and GNC people. Possession horror represents a new medium with which to explore these narratives. There’s just something simultaneously compelling and terrifying about the idea of identifying with these possessed characters, characters who struggle with some force complicating their understanding of themselves from the inside.
In considering films in which the focus is on this internal force versus external presentation, or internal force versus self-actualization and self-preservation, the horror often results from the loss of oneself as related to bodily autonomy and the habitability of a body. (To that first point, it’s worth noting that a lot of possession horror are applies well to the idea of womanhood and femininity in a misogynistic society, e.g. “Rosemary’s Baby” being an allegory for a woman’s anxieties over motherhood and commentary on reproductive rights.) It’s fascinating to reconsider possession through a queer lens, leading to the realization that an incredibly well known subgenre of horror actively explores the relationship between one’s identity and their ownership of their body. It’s a unique type of friction that feels tragically familiar to trans and GNC people.
In realizing that possession horror has the capacity for this type of reading, it almost appears as if the horror genre itself has great potential for presenting mass audiences the option to reconsider the ways in which they view their body: as something they can rely on, a grounding aspect in their lives, or as something to be reckoned with. Overall, possession horror may not be a perfect metaphor at all for what being trans or nonbinary is like, but it’s still an opportunity for wider audiences to see portrayals of conflict related to the intersection of a body and identity.
As always, in trying to come to a full conclusion about the state of trans and gender nonconforming– or any queer– representation, I find myself lamenting the lack of authentic or accurate portrayals in horror. Some might criticize my fixating on this: why even bother with searching out proper representation in the horror genre of all places? I’ve touched on this a little before previously in this series and intend on addressing it further in a future article, but horror and its ability to validate the distress queer people feel in their everyday lives, or to provide a source of identification in general, could be invaluable. There’s just something reassuring about a genre that explores and magnifies the scary feelings unique to queer communities– the horror of dysphoria, the horror of being “other”-ized, the horror of being trapped within oneself. It’s a lamentable issue, in my opinion, to not have many legitimate examples of queer representation in horror, especially considering the ways that even just subtextual representation in certain subgenres of horror, like body and possession horror, are fascinating, bizarre, and unfamiliar to many.
Accordingly, my conclusion to this article is the same as all previous, and likely all future, articles in this series: the queer community deserves better horror representation, which is likely to come about only through more queer filmmakers being given the chance to make horror themselves. In choosing to read mainstream horror, like “The Fly'' and “Psycho,” through a trans and gender noncomforming lens, I just find myself constantly circling back to the idea that it would be much more worth my time– and yours, as a reader– to simply have access to straightforward representation. Having representation to theorize in a consistently constructive way because it’s at least real would be significantly better than what currently exists. Without a doubt, queer horror fans deserve as much.
So, as always, to filmmakers: give me more queer horror, and I will analyze it for this series. I look forward to a time when the horror genre will readily give me that chance for trans and gender nonconforming identites.