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Friday, September 16, 2022

‘They/Them’ – How the Conversion Camp Slasher Fails to Meet the Moment

I didn’t want to write this. “I was rooting for you!” as Tyra Banks would say. It had the perfect setup. Clever title, great concept, brilliant casting. How did a horror film about the queer experience written and directed by a gay man go so wrong on almost every level to the point that They/Them completely fails as a narrative and insults its audience by totally misreading the moment, dismissing very real and ongoing threats while reinforcing both homophobic and transphobic tropes and beliefs?

It’s hard to even know where to begin. But let’s start with intent. I am giving director John Logan the benefit of the doubt that this is not how he wanted his directorial debut to be received. While the film has a 1.7 score on Letterboxd, 3.3 on IMDB, and 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, the biggest sting has got to be knowing how his film has been almost universally rejected by the queer community. I am not going to pretend that my interpretation of this film is a definitive one. I’m genuinely happy that some can see things differently. But there are several baffling choices that make me question how Logan approached this film.

First and foremost, if you’re setting out to make a queer-positive slasher film at a summer camp, the most obvious thing one could do is learn from the lessons of the notoriously problematic 1983 film, Sleepaway Camp. Since its release, the film has been vehemently derided, discussed, and even reclaimed by some within queer horror circles. Everyone knows the ‘shocking’ end; “WTF she has a PENIS?!?! I could forgive all the twisted and perverted murders but this is just one step too far!” Sleepaway Camp was written and directed by cis heterosexual man who has denied any intent on trying to make any kind of social statement. He just wanted to make a silly, messed up little horror film. Which is good for him, I guess, but the only thing worse than making a “wrong” choice is making an apathetic one.

The most contentious issue in Sleepaway Camp frames a presumably trans body as a monstrous one. On its surface, one could interpret the film as mocking the trans experience. But is Angela really trans? After a freak boating accident, Dr. Martha Thomas forced her nephew to assume the identity of her now deceased niece. While an ideal, healthy upbringing for a trans child would be allowing them to explore and self identify their gender with their caretaker’s love and support, the emotionally dystopian trauma of being forced to live in opposition to your true self is sadly indicative of far too many people’s actual experience. For some, this allows for Angela’s violent murderous backlash to provide a rallying cry of catharsis.

The notion of a character’s gender revealed to be a malicious and deceitful betrayal is an extremely common and harmful trope throughout cinema depicted in films such as Dressed To Kill and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The horror and humor relies on a transphobic view that trans people are lurking in society just waiting for the opportunity to entrap and molest a poor, unsuspecting potential sex partner. This belief literally gets people killed – all the time. Yet in They/Them, the gender ambiguous character of Gabriel (hardy har, get it?), seduces fellow bunkmate Stu while luring him into a torture session at the command of evil chaperones.

Witnessing this honeypot trope being deployed in a film like They/Them, it genuinely shocked me to think that in the year 2022 a filmmaker would double down on this dangerous and toxic insult. Did John Logan watch Sleepaway Camp? Has he even seen a horror movie?

They/Them slasher peacock

With more than 300 proposed legislative bills targeting and tormenting queer youth this year alone, the conservative right has misappropriated the sexually predatory term of “grooming” to apply to all queer people and even those who accept and support them. This has created a violent and destructive witch hunt that is crippling our educational institutions, ripping families apart, and subjecting children to increasing harassment and abuse. It should not be news to anyone that there is a mutual panic and despair amongst the queer community. Healthcare is being stripped away, and the constant pressure of being degraded and vilified is adding to an already well established red alert of queer youth suicide rates. A film like They/Them could have been an opportunity to not only represent them in a mainstream film, but offer the validation of having their very real fears acknowledged with a sympathetic view and empowering allegory.

Instead, the film portrays four out of the six villains as queer, thus reinforcing several homophobic views: that closeted gay people are dangerous and will sexualize and prey upon your children, and perhaps most heartbreaking, that the violence being committed against us is perpetuated by our very own. That we have no one to blame but ourselves. The film tries to counter this notion by making the audaciously misguided decision to not kill a single teen character in a self proclaimed slasher film. Presumably this choice is to spare us from being triggered or being “unnecessarily” unpleasant, but it dismisses any and all threats that queer people face, actual or allegorical. In terms of a narrative, it obliterates any semblance of having stakes, thus prompting us to ask, “why should I care?”

Throughout all of human history, we have told stories, factual and embellished, that serve as cautionary tales. They serve as a practical tool for survival, and a way to frame our fears as something more manageable to understand and relate to. Much has been said about a genre that appeals to those who feel different or have been othered by society. Horror has a way of depicting a world of dread that is very real for many of us. Despite the morbid implications, it can feel quite reassuring to know that we are not alone in that viewpoint or experience. For me, Carnival of Souls and Cat People have given me a lifelong gift to process my own personal trauma, fears, and questions of identity. They don’t provide answers, but they do offer glimmers of hope. That’s catharsis. 

In a story about a gay conversion camp, the horror is already there. People are forced to survive this tragic situation every day. We don’t need to be told it’s scary. We’re well aware. By placing the narrative in a slasher film, there are certain conventions that come with it. The most notable being the concept of a Final Girl. For all of my issues, the one thing no one can ever detract from this film is that it is the first and only horror movie to feature a non-binary protagonist. That is significant and important. 

What does it mean to be a Final “Girl”? Most typically, it’s the unassuming, well-meaning person who is placed in an impossible roulette of danger beyond their fault or control. As the people around them are systematically dispatched by an amorphous and unstoppable evil, the ‘Final Girl,’ or Final Person in the case of They/Them, has to collect their wits and find the strength and will to survive and stop the villain from being able to perpetuate its wrath – until the sequel, of course. Queer people, regardless of gender, have identified with the Final Girl for as long as the slasher subgenre has existed. We are survivors, and while some like to romanticize that fact, we didn’t deserve to be forced into this situation to begin with. So when the Big Bad gets its comeuppance in the end, it provides a fantasy that we will rarely ever get to experience in the real world. The characters in They/Them aren’t survivors. They simply lived long enough to see the credits.

They/Them slasher

Kevin Bacon’s character as the camp’s ring leader is never punished by those he abused. In many ways, he’s portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic figure. By introducing him as a seemingly reasonable, and affable guy, it disarms the audience’s expectations, which would be kind of brilliant had the film bothered to subvert those expectations by the end. Instead, our Final Person, Jordan is faced with a decision: to either end the cycle of institutional torture or punish an abuse victim who is justified in their desire for revenge even if Molly’s actions aren’t entirely noble. When she claims that they are strong enough to kill the man who has been torturing them and so many others, Jordan pathetically responds, “No, I have the strength not to.” A galling stance for a community that wouldn’t have any rights today if a bunch of queers hadn’t picked up a brick to fight back against violent cops during The Stonewall riots of 1969. If Jordan called the shots, Pride would have never existed.

Over the course of 100 years of cinema, there are less than ten explicitly queer horror films released by a mainstream studio. The entire queer experience has been forever banished to the shadows of subtext. We search for clues as a means of comfort and re-appropriate stories out of necessity but have never been truly acknowledged as valid or even seen. It is unfair to place so much pressure and responsibility on any one film to cure centuries of neglect. It is my genuine hope that we could one day have dozens of terrible and misguided mainstream horror films with queer stories and characters if it meant some really good ones were also being made. But that is not the case. They/Them fails to meet this moment. Instead of a rallying cry of self actualization, we got a Halloween episode of Glee that is actively regressive at a time when the queer community needs an angry Laurie Strode now more than ever. 

Kay Lynch is the festival director and founder of Salem Horror Fest, film producer (Bad Girl Boogie, Saint Drogo), and events manager for the George A. Romero Foundation. 

The post ‘They/Them’ – How the Conversion Camp Slasher Fails to Meet the Moment appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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