Villainizing transness and pathologizing gender fluidity in horror, especially among men who seek to “become a woman”, is a very old and ugly song.
J.K. Rowling’s newest book, Troubled Blood—in which a cis man dresses “as a woman” in order to murder cis women—is so pathetically derivative and unoriginal that I simply have to laugh. Transphobia, and transmisogyny, in particular, has been a fixture in the slasher serial killer and mystery crime thriller subgenres of horror for far longer than she has been living her miserable transphobic life. I will never stop reminding anyone who is willing to listen to me rant that horror stories are inherently about collective societal fears. As such, the horror genre has often been home to queerphobia, especially the kind of transmisogyny that Rowling’s book utilizes and that is amplified by her personal crusade against trans women, painting them as encroaching upon and endangering cis women’s spaces.
We understand queerness as a deviation from and subversion of normative bodies, relationships, sexualities, and orientations. Historically, queer folks have been made into monstrosities and terrorists through colonial thought and that has always manifested itself in horror, even as far back as classics like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). This is why I argue that—while I understand that some are skeptical—the adoption of Mr. Babadook or any other horror monster as a queer icon is subversive and important. To me, it means LGBTQIA+ communities are embracing the monstrosity that horror has so often ascribed to queer people and our bodies, and finding a way to reclaim it. To find a home with the monster, to even find joy in its embrace, is a giant middle finger to the queerphobia that has tried to relegate queerness to an existence that can only be monstrous in the worst ways. I think that’s incredible to witness.
I regard Ed Gein as one of the most significant and influential queer figures of the 20th century because of the impact Gein’s story has had on the horror genre (and I don’t say this with any admiration for what was done or with disregard for the victims). When Gein’s macabre interests were discovered, the spark it created was enormous. It led to Psycho (1960), and later The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and later The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It’s my belief that without Ed Gein, we wouldn’t have Psycho, and without Psycho pushing the envelope in the way it did in 1960, we wouldn’t have seen Halloween in 1978, Friday the 13th in 1980, or A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. All of these helped lay the groundwork for beloved modern features like Scream (1996), which in turn laid its own groundwork for something like Cabin in the Woods (2012) to become a critically-acclaimed horror fan favorite. Each of these films have had individual and collective cultural impact that shows up in our everyday lives.
In 1957, Gein was discovered to be a serial killer and a grave robber. The Gein homestead was not only hiding the mutilated bodies of two women who had been missing in Plainfield, Wisconsin; it also housed a plethora of human remains used as ornamental additions to the furniture, precious keepsakes, and even skulls fashioned into soup bowls. Among these was also a mammary vest—the beginnings of a “woman suit” made of skin.
One of the things that unnerved people the most was Gein’s desire to “become a woman,” imagining life in a “woman’s” body, and even speaking about the possibility of what we now recognize as gender confirmation surgery. All things considered, I believe Ed Gein should absolutely be understood as queer and almost certainly understood as trans—genderqueer, at the very least. Moreover, if Gein had lived during a time where gender fluidity was more socially accepted and trans care was easily accessible, the murders may never have occurred at all.
The murders, the grave-robbing, and the home decor made of scavenged human remains certainly made Gein a monster in everyone’s eyes, but the thing that has been focused on the most in horror narratives inspired by this story is Gein’s queerness.
This desire to “become a woman” functioned as the inspiration for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer who attempts to make a “woman suit” from the skin of victims after being denied gender confirmation surgery. Of course, the even more infamous transphobic film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. Gein’s abusive and toxic Oedipal mother-son relationship is reflected in the dynamic between serial killer Norman Bates and his unnamed mother—later named Norma by A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-2017) reimagining. Bates is revealed to have a separate personality (his mother) when killing, which he does in response to experiencing forbidden sexual attraction, having been raised under his mother’s puritanical rule which made him violently ashamed of natural sexual urges, like Gein. But thirty years before Psycho, Hitchcock waded in transphobic waters with Murder! (1930), in which the murderer is revealed to be a feminine circus performer who often cross-dresses for his trapeze act.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) is full of both homophobia and homoeroticism. The campy cult classic follows the Hitchcockian tradition of using transmisogyny to create a twist. Its killer is the product of childhood trauma and abuse, a boy forcibly socialized to perform as a girl by an aunt for her own selfish reasons. Dressed to Kill (1980) is another fairly well-known thriller that follows this trend by having a man with a fractured psyche respond to taboo urges to “become a woman” by killing. There are numerous other films which conceive of their monster as a man who “dresses as a woman” while murdering or who was forced to “dress as a girl” by an abusive parental figure—Homicidal (1961), Freebie and the Bean (1974), Terror Train (1980), Deadly Blessing (1981), Cherry Falls (2000), The House at the End of the Street (2012), Insidious Chapters 1 and 2 (2010, 2013).
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In these films and more, transness—specifically trans womanhood—effectively functions as either the result or cause of a character’s murderous insanity or duplicitous actions. Even the stories in which the characters are not strictly trans, their cross-dressing and femininity are understood as abominable by everyone within their universe. As one of the oldest tropes in slasher and mystery crime thriller writing, it is among the absolute lowest of hanging fruit and also one of the most dangerous myths to perpetuate. Its logics continue to influence social policy against and mistreatment, profiling, and murder of Black trans women especially.
Villainizing transness and pathologizing gender fluidity in horror, especially among men who seek to “become a woman” in some fashion, is a very old and ugly song. Not only is it grossly unimaginative at this point, but it is also actively contributing to the harm of one of the most marginalized groups of people in our world. The question of whether or not J.K. Rowling is a transphobe was answered for us long ago, and all she is doing with Troubled Blood is providing further evidence to confirm what she continues to deny about herself: she’s a terrible fucking person.
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