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Friday, August 21, 2020

‘Sleepaway Camp’: The Elephant in the Room [Trapped By Gender]

Hey y’all! It’s been a while since my last article here. I’ve gone through many life changes and now that I’m feeling better I can write again. For the longest time the words just wouldn’t flow. So during some of my downtime recently I’ve re-watched the Sleepaway Camp series and have decided to take a closer look at it and why I personally love it while exploring some of the underlying themes and unpacking some issues that many trans people have regarding this classic series. There are major spoilers ahead for the whole series so consider this your warning.

While I’m diving deep into the franchise as a whole, I’ve decided to omit Return to Sleepaway Camp for reasons of clarity in the storyline. It was filmed in 2003 but not released until 2008. It is set 20 years after the first film but completely ignores the other sequels. This would presuppose there are two Angelas. So you’d have the amazing Felissa Rose’s Angela in an institution during the equally amazing Pamela Springsteen’s Angela’s (who may be a copycat killer) rampage. Return to Sleepaway Camp is a partial remake, with new character names and situations, but there are MANY parallels to the first film. The only things it really adds to the storyline are that, after 20 some years, Ricky and Angela are still alive and kicking, and also that Angela loves gender-bending disguises as she uses a male cop as hers. She’s also still a homicidal maniac. For the amount of time she was in it, it was nice to see Felissa Rose back again.

But let’s go back to the beginning…

In the beginning of the original Sleepaway Camp, Angela and Peter are with their father and his lover at the lake having a day out when a boating accident kills Angela. Peter, who now has a massive dose of trauma after seeing his sister die right in front of him, is sent to live with their Aunt Martha. She decides in her infinite wisdom as a doctor to make Peter into the little girl she always wanted. She had a boy named Ricky already and wanted another child; just not a boy. So she forces Peter to become Angela. About eight years of brainwashing go by and cousins Ricky and Angela are sent to Camp Arawak where they encounter numerous bullies, pedophiles, and general jerks.

One of the most interesting and accurate parts of the entire film is Felissa Rose’s masterful portrayal of a young trans girl. Angela rarely talks and she seems very uncomfortable at all times. For the majority of the early part of the film she has her hands hanging down covering her genitals and you can see her trying to disappear and hope no one notices her. She barely says a word. I cannot begin to tell you how accurate this is to the lived experience of so many trans women I know, myself included. I’ve totally been like this in the past. You feel this neverending discomfort that you can’t even tell where it stems from. There are no words to describe how you feel; you just feel… wrong. You stop talking, you try to hide and cocoon until you feel like you’ve transitioned enough to go back out like a butterfly into society.

Throughout the film it’s a mystery as to who is the killer. You don’t find out until the very last scene who has been dispatching campers and counselors alike. There is a theory that Ricky was in on the killings too that I think has merit, but for the purposes of this article I’ll stick to what’s fully on screen. My reading of the film is that Angela has been brainwashed over a number of years, she’s right near the place her sister died plus there’s the non-stop bullying from all angles. This pushes her into an unhinged rage and she loses complete control of her mental faculties and begins to take people out until the final climactic and legendary ending that EVERYONE knows. It’s as uncanny valley as all get out, the sound that emanates from Angela is amazingly monstrous, and it’s a genuinely uncomfortable and scary ending to the film.

The movie is steeped in queerness, especially when compared to its contemporaries. In its day it took a deeper look into the subject matter than that of other films. Angela and Peter’s Dad is a closeted gay man, there’s forced gender bending (which is abuse rather than queer but people will see it as such), and the majority of the scantily clad people in the film are men with all those very short shorts that leave little to the imagination while there is little skin shown of the feminine variety. There’s also a great surreal scene showing Angela and Peter seeing their Dad in bed with their gay lover and experimenting with each other and their bodies flickering back and forth. Who’s the girl here? Are they both gender queer? It gives you something to think about.

When you consider the context of the time that Sleepaway Camp was released into, it does at least provide some representation during a period where there wasn’t much at all; however there’s also a lot of transphobia within the picture, as well. It comes from simple things such as saying, “she’s a boy,” a transphobic statement to make based on seeing the genitalia alone. Genitals and chromosomes do not a gender make. It’s a lot more complex than that and trying to conflate the two does an injustice to the beauty of the human body in all its permutations and the actual science behind the issue. If genitals and chromosomes make the person than what does that make people who are born intersex or those with hormone disorders? It’s all about how one identifies their own gender. It is not about genitalia even though it’s a component in the discomfort felt. Even if a person isn’t intersex or has a hormone disorder, identity should still be respected. XX and XY mean literally nothing in the grand scheme of gender. I’ve seen people on message boards saying over and over that Angela is just a boy, but it’s like they’re ignoring the other elephant in the room: the sequels tell an entirely different story to their interpretation. Angela stays a woman and lives in society as a woman. She uses binary feminine pronouns. Angela considers herself a woman. Going through therapy isn’t going to enforce a gender of your choosing, it’ll bring out the true gender and force you to face hard truths about yourself. So despite Aunt Martha being insane, she just happened to stumble upon a person who was already a girl; and it was an accident that her brainwashing worked.

Another transphobic issue within the film is people thinking that Angela killed only because she was transgender. This issue lays more with the audience but the film doesn’t really dispel the theory until the sequels. Obviously this is a huge point of contention and has been an argument for many many years within both the trans and horror community and I expect it to continue for many more. When you look at the surface text of the film there are so many things that would make anyone act insane and kill people. Thinking that the ending is something as simple as this boiling it down to a person being transgender making one homicidal and unhinged does a disservice to the entire film itself. Though I wouldn’t blame anyone who thinks this way because transgender people are rare. Not as rare as you might think, but we’re still a rarity. We’re good at hiding in plain sight. Familiarity makes us a whole lot less scary…depending on who you meet, but that’s the same for any human being. It’s easy to make trans people into a scapegoat. When you’ve got no experience with a person you can use them as a blank slate to project your fears onto.

When Sleepaway Camp first burst onto the scene there was barely any transgender representation. It was conveniently forgotten that there was a gender and sexuality organization that fought for the rights of homosexual and transgender people that began in the late 1800s but the Nazis promptly bombed out of existence and that the Stonewall Riots were started by trans women. Some people seem to think of trans people as a new phenomena. We’re not, we’ve always been here. However in contemporary times the majority of the world decided to ignore our existence up until the 1980s or so because by that point there was enough activism and movies that showed us as being actual people that they could no longer ignore it. The movies that were out at the same time period involving transgender individuals weren’t great and to be completely honest, Sleepaway Camp is one of the better representations of that era.

Over the years this flick has been a huge point of contention between me and some of my other trans friends. Many new viewers of the film see it out of the context of the time period and unfortunately through the lens of current sensibilities it is one of the worst depictions of trans people in horror. It has alienated many trans people that I know personally from further pursuing the horror genre. It’s very easy to see why other trans people may have a hard time enjoying it. Many of them like summer camp movies but the whole trans killer trope ruined the experience. They have dealt with so much transphobic crap that gets hurled at you each and every day just for existing. It can be hard to find enjoyment in this because this kind of ostracization is our daily existence. We’re treated like a joke on many occasions as well as treated as if we are some other creature and not human; it will suck the life out of you. So it’s not as much fun for certain people. The entire twist of the movie hinging on genitalia makes the majority of trans people dysphoric. Dysphoria is an uncomfortable feeling of incongruency between your gender and your physical sex. Angela at the end of the first film is seen as a monster with a different body than is shown throughout every previous scene. She’s very muscular and broad shouldered which causes some trans people distress. She’s emitting an inhuman scream which further otherizes her and makes it easier to see her as a monster than as a human that needs help. One thing that really causes issues within the trans community is that many, many people believe trauma causes someone to transition. Even though Peter was forced to transition into Angela she stayed as Angela forever. She went through gender therapy, surgery, and took hormones.

My experience with this film tends to differ from others like me. I personally view it as a revenge fantasy. If you look in the comment sections for my previous articles you can see how transgender people are treated daily. It’s not kind. To be completely honest, the comments right now that are left over are pretty tame compared to what was there before. The comments were so bad that the mods deleted many of them. People go out of their way to try to make you feel like you need to fight for validity because they think you’re trying to make a point and change their mind about trans people. I’m not here to change your mind, just here to show you a different perspective. I write because these are movies I love and I find that it’s always interesting to read a different perspective on a piece of art than it is to listen to the same things said about these movies that have already been analyzed and discussed to death already. None of this is about condemning it, it’s just looking back and reassessing how we used to view things. Then seeing the ways in which we’ve grown since then. So I am dehumanized in the comments section of my own articles by those in my own community but here’s a movie that I can watch when I’ve had enough of the world beating me over and over when I’m already down. It feels good to see this trans girl take out the pedophiles and bullies over the course of the film. Sometimes I just NEED this movie. Sometimes I’ve had a really bad day and I just need to see a pissed off trans girl kill a bunch of people. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy.

As to the sequels, I personally don’t feel the representation is too terrible. There’s some misgendering weirdness throughout like people calling Angela “she” but then also “he” IN THE SAME SENTENCE! Other than people telling the legend of Angela throughout and the weird misgendering going on the representation is leagues better in the sequels. Angela is just a woman going through the motions, killing people who don’t live up to her impossible standards. The usual.

After the events of the first film, Angela is sent to an institution to ”get better”. There she receives what passes for care in the 1980s for her gender issues such as hormone replacement therapy, talk therapy, and gender reassignment surgery; but the institution doesn’t seem to have done anything for her homicidal tendencies. At least she went to a good gender clinic. It’s a sad state of affairs when the same “care” used in the ’80s to treat trans people is still used nearly 40 years later. Eventually she gets a job with a slight name change. Now named Angela Johnson in Sleepaway Camp II, a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills. The camp is about 60 miles from Arawak which I now assume is closed and basically cursed on the market due to Angela’s rampage. Basically in these sequels Angela’s MO seems to come from her Aunt Martha’s insane standards for people. No one can live up to them so she begins to kill anyone and everyone who doesn’t meet them. Of course, she gets away in the end with no issues. The deaths and everything are really over the top, there’s some pretty good jokes, and who could forget the “happy campers” song? This is the sequel where they deal the most with Angela being transgender. She talks about how at the institution they fixed her up all better and gave her surgery. It’s pretty clear that in this, she kills not because she’s trans but because she’s just straight up insane.

Sleepaway Camp III occurs a year later. Angela takes the identity of a camper named Maria, killing her on the way to Camp New Horizons. Camp Rolling Hills was bought up by a couple on the cheap due to the previous year’s murders. I guess it was cheaper than Camp Arawak. They turn the summer camp into a program that brings together rich and poor kids attempting to give them different perspectives on life. Over the past year it seems that Angela has become more unhinged and begins to kill people for little to no reason. This one goes even more over the top than the second one. Angela continues her killing spree until she comes up against a cop working at the camp whose son she killed the previous year. He figures out her identity and after a standoff and a little bit of luck she is able to kill him. She then shows off her kills to the last few kids a la Michael Myers and one girl escapes after stabbing Angela in the leg. Angela is in an ambulance, kills everyone within and gets out to kill another day. Like the previous film there is some weird pronoun usage of both “she” and “he” in the same sentence but the focus is again not on gender.

Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor is a hack job that never truly got completed, it was just sorta cobbled together. It began filming in 1992 but had to be shut down due to legal issues. Around 2012, John Klyza, the person who runs the official Sleepaway Camp website, helped to track down the footage that was shot and pieced it together with footage from previous Sleepaway Camp movies and released it within a big box set that brought together all the Sleepaway Camp flicks. Basically the plot boils down to this girl who has amnesia going to the now abandoned Camp Arawak and she has these flashbacks of kills. This “movie” ends as this girl realizes that after the end of the third movie Angela killed everyone in the ambulance and there was an accident giving her amnesia; and now she remembers who she really is.

As you can tell by the quick sequel descriptions, gender didn’t come up a whole lot. There’s not a whole lot to talk about regarding the sequels and gender. Even though the gender representation that is there is still not the best look for today’s sensibilities it’s a huge improvement on the first flick in the representation department. As time goes on, people learn more about minorities and it works its way into later films. Film will always take little steps with representation but eventually I believe it gets there in the end. Nothing is ever perfect but improvements in production are always made and other points of view considered.

So like I said I watch Sleepaway Camp for the revenge fantasy. Does it have good representation? No. Did it have representation when there barely was any? Yes. Before a minority is accepted they are at first otherized and turned into monsters. This was that moment in transgender history. After othering comes understanding and acceptance. That’s been popping up in recent years like with the horror adjacent flick Assassination Nation. Representation first comes in horror flicks. People are scared of what they do not understand, so they’re used in film to process what they are scared of. Then they know of the existence of trans people. They may be scared of them, but they know we’re out there. More movies are made with trans killers and the like, but slowly bit by ever slowly moving bit the representation gets better. The most prominent example of it getting better but also not being great is Silence of the Lambs. However, I’ll save that for another article. I have much to say about that film.

Anyway that’s my take on the classic horror franchise. I hope at some point a trans person is able to get their hands on the licensing rights and makes a Sleepaway Camp for modern viewers. I’d love to make it myself.

One last thing, within the past year or so there have been rumblings and a crowd-funding for a Sleepaway Camp documentary to focus on the entire series. It’s said to run four hours and will have the majority of the cast from all the films back for interviews. Hopefully they can get Pamela Springsteen to come out and talk about her experiences on these films. I’d love to hear her perspective too.

Be safe out there y’all. Much love and care to you. Stop touching your face and wash your hands regularly. Have a wonderful night.

Your Horror Tran, Alice Collins.


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