Who’s Afraid Of The Big, Bad Trans* Woman? On Horror and Transfemininity

I love watching horror movies. There’s a great rush of adrenaline that comes from sitting in a movie theater with a bunch of other people sharing in the build up and release of all that tension. It can even be an extremely therapeutic experience. I’m able to feel scared and get my heart pumping without being in any actual danger. When the movie is over I no longer have to be afraid. I no longer have to worry about what was on the screen. Recently, I watched Insidious Chapter 2 hoping for this kind of experience, and at first, I was having a ton of fun watching a throwback haunted house/possession movie. But then the characters said something that made me scared in a different way (and here come some slight spoilers). A few of the characters were in an abandoned hospital, and they walked into one room where a psychic said he could feel an especially strong source of energy. Another character, who used to work in the hospital said that she remembered the person who stayed in that room, and when she gave the reason that he was hospitalized, my heart sunk and I was immediately pulled from the fantasy of the film. She said that he was hospitalized for “attempting to castrate himself” which set off some major red flags in my mind. Those fears were realized when later in the film, we saw flashbacks where that man was being forced to dress as a girl by his abusive mother and then later when he dressed up like a woman to commit a series of murders. No longer was this just a horror movie with scary ghosts and spooky locations, it was a movie where someone, who to the uninformed eye was like me, was evil, was frightening and was violent.

The Bride in Black from Insidious Chapter 2

The Bride in Black from Insidious Chapter 2

As the movie was ending, I sank down into my seat, hoping that no one would notice that I was trans*. I was afraid that if someone realized I was trans*, they might make the connection between me and the serial-killer-turned-ghost in the movie. After all, if you don’t know me, you might see me and (incorrectly) think that I’m just some man who is dressed up like a woman. According to the filmmakers behind Insidious Chapter 2, that makes me creepy, insane and dangerous. And they’re not the only ones who portray trans* people (or cinema’s idea of trans* people) this way. Unfortunately, this has become a tired old trope in the horror genre. The movies that use trans* people or crossdressers as a scare tactic don’t bother to make a distinction between the two. Because of this, for many viewers of these movies, these characters have been their only pop culture reference points when a trans* woman is mentioned. That means that when they hear that someone is a trans* woman, they have a list of characters that are lumped into this general category of “women who are really men” and that category is filled with psychopaths and serial killers.

Angela from Sleepaway Camp

Angela from Sleepaway Camp

Three of the most notable examples of this are 1960′s Psycho, 1983′s Sleepaway Camp, and 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs. In Psycho, and again, here come some spoilers, motel owner Norman Bates has a split personality where he dresses up and commits murders as his mother. When we see Norman dressed as his mother wielding a knife with a twisted smile on his face we’re clearly supposed to see him as a terrifying figure. Not just because he’s been killing people or because he’s holding a giant knife, but also because he’s dressed like a woman, which is supposed to show just how crazy he is. Similarly, in the final scene of Sleepaway Camp, one of the campers, Angela, is revealed to be “Peter” who was raised as her dead sister by a cruel aunt and, as a result, has gone crazy and started killing other people at the camp. When we see her standing naked, covered in blood with her mouth agape, and we see that she has a penis, we see an image that is widely considered to be one of the most shocking and disturbing final scenes in horror movie history. Perhaps the most famous instance of a trans* woman being used to scare audiences is The Silence of the Lambs. When we see serial killer Buffalo Bill in their most famous scene, it is meant to be one of the most jarring and disturbing moments of the film. We see someone who is presented to us as a man tucking their penis between their legs, wearing a wig made from a woman’s scalp, swaying and dancing to music. Growing up, I remember many times hearing that this was one of the strangest and creepiest scenes in modern film. This action of putting on makeup and a wig, tucking and trying to look as beautiful and feminine as you can is something that a lot of us trans* women can relate to. It’s something that a lot of us trans* women have done. And here it is being presented as the epitome of horror.

As you can see, several of these movies are considered classics, and for good reason. Psycho and Silence of the Lambs have incredible acting, great direction, they’re intensely scary and they’re incredibly influential to the films that followed. These movies aren’t just little films made by no-name directors and actors. One recent movie that borrowed heavily from Sleepaway Camp, House at the End of the Street, stars Jennifer Lawrence and Silence of the Lambs won Jodi Foster an Oscar for her acting. Insidious Chapter 2 had the biggest opening day box office in September history and Psycho was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This makes them perhaps more dangerous for trans people. Because they are so influential and so many people see them, they help widely spread the idea of the “scary transsexual.” The characters in the movies are icons of American film. It could easily be argued that Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill are two of the most famous trans* characters in all of pop culture. It’s dehumanizing to realize that when you tell someone that you are transgender, there’s a good chance that the first people that will pop into their mind is the villain from a horror movie.

Another shared feature of these films is that they portray trans* women as being seriously mentally ill. In basically all of these films the murderer either dresses like a woman because he is “crazy” or they have become “crazy” as a result of them dressing like a woman. Silence of the Lambs and Dressed to Kill, which are the only movies that use this trope to actually feature characters that we know identify as trans*, heavily rely on the idea that trans* people are mentally ill and that is the cause of their transness. In fact, it is the idea that these transgender people are insane that drives the entire plot of these movies. The same insanity that causes them to be transgender is the thing that causes them to become serial killers, and causes them to be seen as frightening. This has been a very popular narrative for those arguing that we shouldn’t accept and support trans* people. While it is becoming less and less popular and accepted, there are still places that promise to “cure” you or your child of their transness. Hate groups argue that transgender people should be institutionalized and even will say that bad parenting can traumatize children and lead to them thinking that they are transgender. Horror movies like these just reinforce these ideas in the overall culture.

Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs

Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs

These movies do three main types of damage to trans* women. They present trans* women as mentally ill. They are people whose desire to be a woman is seen as just one part of what makes them crazy. They present trans* women as impostors. Even when the characters identify as transgender or transsexual, they are still seen as men who pretend to be or dress up like women. Finally, they present trans* women as dangerous. These “men in dresses” are serial killers, they are frightening and they are coming to get you. It is because of views like this that parents don’t want their children to go to school with trans* students. It is because of views like this that trans* women who just need to go to the bathroom are accused of being perverts. It is because of views like this that trans* women like Islan Nettles and Dominique Newburn back in August and now Eyricka Morgan on September 24th are brutally murdered. When people look to pop culture and see trans* women portrayed as dangerous impostors that they should be afraid of, they cease to see trans* women as people and start seeing them as monsters. In the fictional world of movies it may be the trans* women who are frightening and menacing killers, but in real life, those trans* women are far, far more likely to be the victims of horrific and violent murders.

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Mey is a lesbian, Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans* issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally. She's a selfie princess and Nerdy Bruja Femme.

Mey has written 124 articles for us.

26 Comments

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    There are many things I would like to say but I will start with this: I am not trans or gender queer identifying so I most likely have no right to talk in this situation–feel free to smack me down if need be or to correct my ignorance! :) Second, this is very well written and it’s sad to see that an exciting and ever societal/politically reflective genre such as horror can be reduced to transphobic tendencies; perhaps that is what makes it so negatively reflective though. And last but not least, I had to touch on the bit about Norman Bates. Unfortunately, the scenes that involve Norman in a dress can be interpreted by smaller minded individuals as “scary man in dress is killing so man in dress is always bad”, as you said much more eloquently a lot of crazy parents would teach it to their children that way. However in the case of Norman, he was not a trans character or meant to be portrayed as one. He killed his mother many years before the events in the film took place and as a coping mechanism to the guilt, he developed a split personality. When he wears the clothes, he truly believes he is Norma Bates. Norman bates does not exist, not because he feels he his not a man, but because he is his mother in his mind. Does that make any sense? I completely understand all of the other examples but as a huge horror fan I had to point out Mr. Bates’ back story. Unless of course you already knew it too, I apologize for insulting your cinematic knowledge!! Hopefully this does not come across as an attack, I do not mean it to. And thank you so SO much for reading this if you do. :)

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      I’m a cis lady as well, but it seems to me like it is not so important whether Norman Bates specifically identifies as trans* — to the ignorant, an amab wearing a dress for any reason is all under one umbrella of “ick.” So whatever gender Bates is meant to be actually their portrayal is fucked up.

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        I can see that. It’s an unfortunate that this twisted yet intricate tale of a person who killed their only living family member can be simmered down to perpetuating more transphobia. Perhaps you’re saying he could have killed a member of the family of the same sex and that should have been used because of the mass media and mass audience?

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        I agree with Vy; it isn’t the only movie or TV show to use DID as a way to justify someone AMAB in traditionally feminine clothing being their serial killer. In the end, the “umbrella of ick” cashes in on the idea that regardless of reason or gender identity, people who do that are mentally ill and dangerous. The reason there’s so much pay off is not just that society already holds these views, but because the trope exists. (Hannah, this is a partial reply to your reply to Miriam as well.) think of it as similar to standard “ominous” music. It works because it invokes feelings of suspense, but also because it’s a recognizable cue to the audience, established by every movie before it. And at this point it’d be hard to untangle the two. I hope that analogy made sense.
        I could argue that in Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill is profiled as only thinking that they are trans*, because their self hate makes them wish they were someone else, and therefore since the serial killer wasn’t trans, this movie is not offensive to trans women. But, um, I’d be missing the point. I use this example because I actually did that once until I realized what I was doing. I don’t know how bad Norman Bates was, since I never saw that movie, so I’m not saying it’s the same level of bad, you just raised some good points I wanted to put in my two cents about!

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          I really appreciate all the feed back and well thought out explanations. Thank you Casper, Vy, and Miriam. :) I suppose it’s always a bit harder to find problematic things within the stuff you love but it’s healthy to admit it! Also, I think this expanded on and simultaneously simplified the article for me. I again also can’t expect everyone in an audience to just focus on the context of the character when the unfortunate “umbrella of ick” exists. I guess that expectation comes from the actor and performance geek in me!

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      While it’s possible to pick apart the politics of an individual film (*cough*), the power of a trope is in repetition. And it goes beyond the trans* serial killer: how many action movies are basically a gruff man’s man beating up a weak, vaguely feminine man? ]

      To me, tropes are just bad on an aesthetic level. They’re used to convey information in place of actual storytelling. And while shorthand is necessary sometimes, when it’s used too much(and in Insidious 2, it’s the entire plot) it gives the impression that the writer isn’t invested in the story. And, if the people telling the story don’t care, why should I?

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        That sounds fair. Although forgive me for being slow, what exactly do you mean by a trope? So said tropes can bring down the politics of an individual film with it because of how harmful they are? In this case, one little piece of the puzzle won’t change the big picture? Thanks for the responses. :)

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          In this case, a trope is a narrative device in which one specific example of a class, through unwavering repetition, eventually comes to represent all the members of that class and becomes embedded in the viewing public’s mind. Here, the ostensibly trans woman who is a dangerous villain comes to represent *all* trans women. Lacking positive example of trans women characters, lazy writers always portray trans women as that villainous character, never anything else, partially because that is the only way the audience relates to trans women.

          Mey summarizes it more succinctly above: “When people look to pop culture and see trans* women portrayed as dangerous impostors that they should be afraid of, they cease to see trans* women as people and start seeing them as monsters.”

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    You could write a whole essay on the gender politics of Insidious and Insidious 2.

    The villains in Insidious were, effectively, the father and the oldest son (who, traditionally, assumes the role of “man of the estate” in the absence of the father). Even more: they weren’t consciously aware of it. It was channeled through them. And represented by a grotesque, masculine figure.

    In the end, they’re saved by an Earth Mother, her two vaguely effeminate assistants (in ancient times, they’d be eunuchs), and Carl, a kindly father figure who might as well be the archetype for the feminist “new man”.

    That’s completely reversed in the sequel. The main villain isn’t Parker Crane, but his mother, a domineering female who forces the young Parker to assume a female role. Eventually, he succumbs to his mother’s will (metaphor: consumed by femininity), and becomes violently destructive as a result. It’s the traditional sexist fear of femininity.

    In the end, they don’t kill Parker, but his mother. They’re aided by a young Parker, who you could say still retains his masculinity. The Earth Mother is relegated to a completely passive role. Carl and the two assistants are nothing but comic relief. And father and son take turns rescuing not just each other, but the women in their family.

    The two films are like a mirror image of each other.

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    Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill were actually both based on IRL serial killer/grave robber Ed Gein who had a very very unhealthy relationship with his mother that turned pathological after her death. He made masks out of human faces and a ‘woman suit’ out of female body parts.

    I don’t actually have any relevant commentary except that I agree whole heartedly about dangerous characterizations/pathologizations of trans* folk, women in particular. I just think everyone should go read about Ed Gein bc he’s super interesting but obvious trigger warning for murder, description of body parts, really fucking creepy shit.

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    cheapo exploitation of existing uneasiness to make emotional impact. vide 30s-50s take on cannibals, mexicans in westerns and so on.

    I somewhat can bear only one of the serial killers – Angela from Wire in the Blood. I don’t particularly like the acting – sloppy shit that – but kinda would grudgingly admit the character[isation] is fine and nobody disrespects my gf in writing her.

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    Growing up in a small town, the only representations of transgender people I saw were in the media. They were either to be feared like the ones you describe, to be laughed at (Bosom Buddies, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc), or to be repulsive (The Crying Game and any number of 80′s college sex comedies). This all contributed to my own internalized transphobia, leading me to hate myself for years before I finally worked through all of that to adore myself enough to transition.

    So, I’d like to add to your (very accurate) list of consequences that portrayals like this can also lead trans people towards self abuse.

    Thank you, Mey, for another thoughtful article!

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      Cosigned. Adding my experience, growing up in a big city at the time I did (Chicago in the 80s) was not any better either.

      But I also wanted to amplify Brooke’s comment: Thank you again for another awesome article, Mey!

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    Leaving aside the fact that we could look at these examples as outliers if it weren’t for the depressing lack of positive portrayals, there’s also the stunning lack agency in these characters. Honestly, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing trans women as villains *only if* there was a critical mass of trans women characters who were portrayed positively and, this is key, protagonist or antagonist they were in charge of their lives. Like, all we have as characters are trans women who can’t even make the rational choice to be diabolical villains because of mental illness or whatever external factor. We are not even allowed to own that.

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    Thanks for writing this. There’s a lot of older/classic movies I haven’t seen so it shocked me that the themes in these are so hateful. In high school we read a murder mystery novel (sorry, the title escapes me) where the killer ended up being a trans girl. It was used to illustrate how many books of that genre reinforce societal norms, but the implication was that this was an okay thing and simply a hallmark of that writing style. It really bothered me because I liked the genre but the message was so obviously damaging.

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    Hello everyone. First of all , I am like u Mey. I am a Trans woman and I enjoy horror films. :-). And this is a great topic. But I have to disagree with you at some extent. Yes this film and others like it put Trans women in the “bad guy” spotlight but like u said, it’s a movie and we leave the theater not feeling those emotions anymore. What about other movies like tootsie or kinky boots or dresscode where the t-girl is the hero and not crazy at all? Also, to go back to the horror psychopaths, what about the crazy doctor that kills or the mentally ill photo shop clerk in 12 hour photo or the mentally unstable boy in Halloween? I’m not gonna be afraid of prom queens now that I saw Carrie. All of these characters, including the Trans person in Insidious 2, all had a traumadic experience that made them mentally ill. That’s what makes them scary. The fact that they r doctors or prom queens or drag queens just makes that character specificly unique to that story. Now, it would be a shame if someone saw insidious 2 and ran out and committed a hate crime against one if us Trans girls but that, in turn would just make said person a mentally ill candidate himself.

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      I think I see where you are going with this comment, but don’t forget that there are plenty of examples, in film, of healthy successful doctors and young white boys. People see constant reminders that this is ‘normal’, so when they see a ‘crazed’ doctor or young man, they have context to know that the ‘sick’ person is an outlier.

      However, when trans women are portrayed in film, there are no examples of the average transwoman (I realize there is no average transwoman, but I hope you know what I’m getting at), so people are more likely to believe that the ‘crazed and damaged lunatic’ is the norm for transpeople. There is nothing to compare it to.

      These roles wouldn’t be so damaging to transwomen if there were an abundance of average and successful transwomen in film.

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    Hi Mey! I’m in a film class right now and we just watched “Dressed to Kill.” I was so upset by the portrayal of Bobbi. I found your article while looking for articles that respond to the transphobia in the film. Do you mind if I share your article with my class?

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