“Just by going to the movies I became, like the Final Girl, a target. A target, in my case, for bullies loitering outside the theater after the movie’s over. Having been beaten up under the marquee in sixth grade, I’d become reluctant to attend horror movies. But I had to go, despite the risk. I had to see — to see as the Final Girl sees.”
She’s a virgin who won’t get stoned (Sleepaway Camp II). She does get stoned and plays strip Monopoly (Friday the 13th). She’s not a virgin and wears a tie (April Fool’s Day). She’s a pregnant sorority sister holding tight to her little gold cross (Black Christmas). She’s teacher’s pet and basketball star (Slumber Party Massacre). She’s prom queen, head of dance club and all-around athlete (Prom Night). Yet she wasn’t invited to an important party (Happy Birthday to Me). She knows how to fix a car and disparages capitalism (Hell Night). She’s majoring in psychology (Friday the 13th II). She’s a divorcee who writes an advice column (Schizoid). She’s a naval officer with a mysterious position overseas (Graduation Day). She’s the one who says, “We’re supposed to be mature adults” (House on Sorority Row). She’s the one who says, “We should be prepared to fight” (Hide and Go Shriek). She’s the one who says, “I’ll put the gun down when the police get here” (Hard to Die). In order to protect herself, she pulls the Stalker’s knife from a dead friend’s back (Friday the 13th III). “I don’t feel any safer here with you,” she weighs her options: “I can run cross-country. I’ll get to the highway and call for help” (Blood Sisters). She drags herself down corridors to save herself from the Stalker (Halloween II). She saves herself and her wounded boyfriend from the Stalker (Mutilator). She’s not the Stalker though she seemed to be the Stalker (Curtains; Nail Gun Massacre). She is the Stalker (Night School) and not exactly a girl (Sleepaway Camp). She’s upset about forgetting her chemistry book (Halloween).
Since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the survivor figure in horror has been female. “We belong in the end to the Final Girl,” declares film theorist Carol Clover in her groundbreaking book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). Clover refers to the Final Girl as a “victim-hero,” a character who shifts between these traditionally gendered roles — increasingly toward the masculine (in her argument) as the story culminates. A smart and observant girl who either fights off the killer long enough to be rescued or kills the killer herself, the Final Girl is not typically feminine in her interests/skills, experiences an apartness from other girls, and possesses an active gaze that registers signs of danger others ignore (35, 39-40, 44, 48). For instance Halloween‘s Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), teased by her sex-obsessed peers as the bookish virgin1 who doesn’t date, is first to see the blankly masked man watching from the hedges.
In the opening scene of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), one now might spot Barbara as Final Girl. Director George Romero positions us to identify with Barbara more so than her brother who jokes about the strange man in the cemetery who’s “coming to get her.” He is coming — to get both of them. While her paranoia saves her, her brother’s flippancy gets him killed. After Barbara’s initial ingenuity evading the zombie, alas, she goes catatonic and a male character assumes the hero role. For Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, scriptwriter Romero, responding to feminist criticism of Barbara’s hysterical passivity, revises her as Final Girl. She is now “an active, assertive character, not only within the diegesis but as a narrative agent as well.” In other words, according to Barry Keith Grant’s essay “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead” (1992), she not only takes action to save herself in the story, those actions impact the direction, outcome, and meaning of the story (200).
At large in horror, a revision of the damsel as survivor marks a new era for the genre, and much has been written about it. What’s yet to be addressed, though, is a specifically “sissy spectatorship” of the Final Girl during an era of intense homophobia and misogyny. I grew up with the Final Girl, or maybe I should say that I grew up with the genre fans who primarily witnessed the Final Girl. And I want to embrace fan subjectivity to help elucidate my own queer relationship with horror as framed by the straight audience I sat with. To come back, ultimately, to the very theater in which I sat — watching and being watched.
First off, a brief account of the most relevant theory from the last three decades. Carol Clover’s landmark essay “Her Body, Himself” — chapter one of Men, Women, and Chainsaws — was originally published in 1987, focusing on the relationship of horror’s “majority viewer” (the younger heterosexual male) to the Final Girl. Clover’s theory of cross-gender identification begins by stating that “slasher films present us in startlingly direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body” (22). Clover calls the viewer’s identificatory powers “unbelievably elastic” (45), undermining the longstanding criticism that horror’s gaze is misogynistic and strictly sadistic. Her word choice (“unbelievably”), however, proves discrediting when she recasts the terms as “gender displacement” and “heterosexual deflection.” The Final Girl is then a “transformed male” (52) in “high drag” (59), thereby making misogyny less pertinent and masochism the issue over sadism: “Figuratively seen, the Final Girl is a male surrogate in things oedipal, a homoerotic stand-in . . .” To the extent she means “girl” at all, it is only for purposes of signifying male lack, and even that meaning is nullified by the final scenes. The discourse is wholly masculine, and females figure in it only insofar as they “read” some aspect of male experience (53).
Against the Freudian grain, Judith Halberstam’s “Bodies That Splatter: Queers and Chain Saws” (1995) argues that Clover is caught in a gender-lock, her theory tending to “restabilize gendered positions in relation to horror” while horror itself tends “to reconfigure gender not simply through inversion but by literally creating new categories” (139). Isabel Cristina Pinedo’s “And Then She Killed Him: Women and Violence in the Slasher Film” (1997) calls, too, for a break from feminist film criticism grounded on a psychoanalytic model of sexual difference that defines heterosexuality as the norm — which erases the lesbian viewer and the potential for female agency (82-83). “The slasher film creates an opening for feminist discourse,” Pinedo insists, “by restaging the relationship between women and violence as not only one of danger in which women are objects of violence but also a pleasurable one in which women retaliate to become agents of violence and turn the tables on their aggressors” (6). Pinedo seconds Halberstam’s belief in the potential for horror films to allow female viewers to experience productive fear and feminist paranoia (Halberstam 138). I would like to continue in their direction by focusing on a specifically “sissy” reading of the Final Girl not as a metaphor for a gay male experience but as a role model for survival.
To heighten this point, my particular focus is narrowed to “Stalker Movies” — a horror subgenre marked by a point of view that shifts significantly between Final Girl and Stalker. Distinct from slasher films like Psycho, Chain Saw, Visiting Hours, and Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which we see the killers throughout, at least minimally developing their personalities, the Stalker is kept from view and not developed as a personality until the ending if at all. Hockey mask, ski mask, gas mask, joker mask, Groucho mask, motorcycle helmet, bear mascot costume, surgeon’s mask, black gloves with face masked by shadows, all obscure the Stalker’s identity, flattening the Stalker into a cold presence. We may see as the Stalker sees, watch his victims through the foliage of the tree that conceals him (called an “I-cam shot’), but we never see the Stalker’s face. “The killer’s point-of-view shot is not followed by the traditional reverse shot,” film theorist Vera Dika explains, “which not only would reveal his person but also give us access to his humanity” (89-90). In over fifty stalker films made between 1974 and 19902, this camera-marked shifting between the paranoid vision of the Final Girl and the predatory vision of the Stalker is significant because it confirms the paranoia.
And I needed my paranoia confirmed. As did women, of course. Violence against women was epidemic in the 1980s.3 Halberstam says of female paranoia, “It is precisely the fear of being watched, the consciousness that we may be being watched, that saves the woman and allows her to look back” (126-127). Shifting between gazes proves she is justified, and this shifting is crucial to a feminist reading of horror, of Stalker films most of all given the relentless degree to which the I-cam shot — the look that stalks — figures into the story. As a sissy in an intolerant small town in the 1980s, the aggressively straight masculinity patrolling my every move was certainly distinct from that which preyed on young women. And yet I quickly came to read Stalker films as survival lessons. I identified with the Final Girl as a fellow target of male violence, whatever motivates it.
J. P. Telotte says that horror films in general “drive home lessons regarding our resolution of those personal and cultural problems that we are often reluctant to face outside the theater” (115). Just by going to the movies I became, like the Final Girl, a target. A target, in my case, for bullies loitering outside the theater after the movie’s over. Having been beaten up under the marquee in sixth grade, I’d become reluctant to attend horror movies. But I had to go, despite the risk. I had to see — to see as the Final Girl sees.
So as we shift between a Stalker’s target gaze on the Final Girl and the Final Girl’s return gaze, gender becomes a “state of mind,” a “permeable membrane,” and “theater,” according to Clover, but “it is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation” (62). If that were the case there would be as many female killers as male killers or, concerning victims, as much male scream-time as female. Rather, Clover concludes, modern horror privileges the irregular combination of masculine and female over feminine and male (63), correlating heterosexual male dominance (in society, in the audience) and masculine-female dominance (on the screen). It is this correlation on which she situates her theory that the Final Girl is a heterosexual male projection. Queer theorists put forth that “masculine and female” is not automatically correlational with patriarchal masculinity, can count perhaps as a new category rather than an inversion of the so-called normal one. Within the binary logic of psychoanalysis, “active female desire can only be defined as a masculinized position,” Pinedo complains: “If a woman cannot be aggressive and still be a woman, then female agency is a pipe dream” (83).
The meaning of Clover’s term “victim-hero” seems slippery to me. Her essay’s last words describe the Final Girl rather generously as a “physical female and characterological androgyne . . . not masculine but either/or, both, ambiguous” (63). Nonetheless, Clover applies the term throughout the essay as if it should read like a one-way shift toward masculinity. “Again,” Clover claims, using Texas Chain Saw Massacre II (1986) as a representative example, “the final scene shows her in extreme long shot, standing on the ledge of a pinnacle, drenched in sunlight, buzzing chain saw held overhead” (49). Her conclusive use of this example suggests all Final Girls get irredeemably cocked: “The moment at which the Final Girl is effectively phallicized is the moment at which the plot halts and the horror ceases” (50).
But the Final Girl is not simply a female character masculinized for the last scene, is never exactly “Finalized” by the aggression she invokes to save herself. Most endings, on the contrary, include a denouement in which the Final Girl reunites with someone or expresses grief that she cannot be reunited. And the many false-security endings imply that the Final Girl lets her guard down too soon: like when the supposedly dead killer opens his eyes at the last moment (freeze-framing and cutting to credits as in House on Sorority Row), rises to kill the Final Girl after all (as in Blood Sisters), or, if nothing else, disappears so as to be set up for a sequel (like Michael Myers in Halloween). When Romero, sensitive as always not to glorify militarism, revises Night‘s Barbara, she shifts continually between response-modes to the crisis at hand (Grant 203). She is active in a way that saves her life, and emotional in a way that preserves her humanity. As put by yet another critic, “Even if she [the Final Girl] is a more capable fighter, her emotional nature remains unchanged” — going so far as to claim that the Final Girl cannot operate at full capacity without her emotional grounding.4
A sissy reading of the Final Girl is less likely to focus on her masculinization, which could reinforce the superiority of the masculine. If she has been important to queer fans, it is not because she necessarily symbolizes a gay male experience or stands in for the lesbian; it is because she occupies — indeed defends — a space in which she can be — must be — more than female and more than masculine. A new sum. A new type.
And she is not the only one in the Stalker subgenre shuffling gender identity and biological sex. A sissy, nerds galore, cross-dressers, a transgendered teen, and revenge on bullies, these are the most queer-relevant aspects of the Stalker subgenre. My intention is not to prove that these movies are not sexist or homophobic, but to explore how the movies could lend themselves to queer consciousness and, in particular, to an empowering “sissy spectatorship” that is informed by, distracted by, and heightened by real-life homophobia in a real-life audience.
Tommy (Brian Andrews), a sixth-grade sissy much like I was, is an overlooked character in Halloween. In J. P. Telotte’s essay about Halloween, discussing adulthood as a time when we have been “conditioned by our culture to see less and less,” he credits Tommy and his neighbor/friend Lindsey with an ability to see more than their adolescent babysitters who see slightly more than their adult counterparts (122). There is even more to be gained by looking at how “seeing” functions in Halloween if we consider Tommy not just as a child but also as a sissy. On Halloween morning, our introduction to the Final Girl coincides with our introduction to Tommy, who, in my reading, is also a Final Girl. Their relationship is sincere, even intimate, marking Tommy rather immediately as different from most boys. Tommy’s gender outsiderness — reinforced by being pals with Lindsey and by being a bully’s target at school — is not the only characteristic to mark him as Final Girl. Tommy is first, before Laurie, to exhibit the paranoid vision most characteristic of Final Girls. As they walk together, past the old Myers house where Laurie’s realtor dad asked her to leave a key, Tommy pleads with her to stay back: “Awful stuff happened there,” he declares, referring to Michael Myers murdering his sister fifteen years earlier. Laurie doesn’t take his paranoia seriously, especially as Tommy quotes the bullies who are always trying to scare him. Only for the audience is his paranoia confirmed — by an I-cam shot from inside the house. As Laurie puts the key under the mat, Myers watches out the front door window.
After school, parallel scenes reveal that Tommy and Laurie are both anxious about males: Laurie is anxious about having to date guys, Tommy about bullies on the playground. The bullies who corner Tommy on the playground taunt him repeatedly, “The boogeyman is coming! He’s gonna get you!” (much like Barbara’s brother says to her in Night), pushing him to fall on and crush the pumpkin he is carrying. The Stalker, having seen Tommy with Laurie that morning, watches Tommy through the schoolyard fence and from a stolen car he’s driving. As for Laurie, walking home with Lynda and Annie, their conversation turns quickly to the homecoming dance, and they tease Laurie about her usual lack of a date. Soon after, Laurie spots Myers in a generically dark mechanic’s suit and pale, featureless mask. “Annie, look —” Laurie insists, nodding toward the hedges. “I don’t see anything,” says Annie, investigating with a “Hey creep” and, finding no one, tricking Laurie into thinking there is someone there, someone who wants to take Laurie to the dance. These early scenes inextricably link Bully, Boyfriend, and Stalker (Tommy calls him Boogeyman) as male figures to be anxious about. This anxiety, however unarticulated, bonds Laurie and Tommy.
The bond is a shifty one in the narrative, though, as the paranoid vision they have in common they never seem to have at the same time. That Laurie is older than Tommy is only one reason that they would differ in when and how they “see”; another might be the fluctuating degree of outsiderness each feels at given moments. Early that night, Tommy, still dwelling on his run-in with the bullies that afternoon, asks Laurie, “What’s the Boogeyman?” We expect Laurie to allay Tommy’s anxiety, but their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Annie, who’s got Laurie a date for the dance — no kidding this time. At this exact point, Laurie’s character shifts from Tommy’s fellow outsider to typical teen girl. Twisting her hair, resistant to but absorbed by the possibility of a date, the camera backs away from the gabbing Laurie (the sound of her voice fades too) and refocuses on the alienated Tommy, who, upon looking through the front blinds, sees a menacing figure shadowed in the yard across the street. “The Boogeyman’s outside,” he pleads with Laurie to look. She doesn’t see anything.
Related to her living up to her adult role as babysitter, or to her paranoia being blunted by the distracting possibility of a date, Laurie tells Tommy that Halloween is just about “people playing tricks on each other,” promising she’s “not about to let anything happen.” Their alliance seems less reliable now, despite her promise, but Laurie soon enough realizes that the Boogeyman is real. At the height of the movie, with Laurie locked out of the house and the Stalker closing in, Tommy is the one who opens the door. “Hurry!” she pushes Tommy and Lindsey toward hiding places. Laurie stabs the Stalker with a knitting needle and thinks he’s dead, but, as Tommy cries, “You can’t kill the Boogeyman.” The Stalker rises, in this movie and in sequel after sequel, in copycat flick after copycat flick.
In Halloween, if Final Girl means a protagonist sensitive to being a target but active to avoid becoming a victim, then the only way in which Tommy is less Final Girl than Laurie is in his not being the central character.
After Halloween, unfortunately, there are no more sissy Final Girls. As close as we’ll come to the sissy is the “nerd.” In The Burning (1981), Alfred as the nerdy boy hates swimming and avoids sports, but he never gets emotional. He refuses dirty magazines, but eyes a girl in the shower. Furthermore, he does not bond with females like Tommy; instead, he turns to an older and valiantly masculine camp counselor. In this film, the nerdy boy is not aligned with the Final Girl, but outright replaces her in the narrative. Clover footnotes this as evidence of “the essential maleness of the story . . . supporting a reading of the Final Girl as a boy in drag” (52), but the physically weak and socially awkward nerd character occupies a range of narrative positions in the Stalker genre: female Final Girl (Halloween), male Final Girl (The Burning), male victim (Happy Birthday to Me, Slumber Party Massacre), female victim (Prom Night, Blood Sisters), male Stalker (Slaughter High), cross-dressed male Stalker (Terror Train), transgendered Final Girl/Stalker (Sleepaway Camp).
The reason the nerd-type is so common in horror can be linked to the self-identified nerdyness of many horror writers/filmmakers, to the dramatic tension afforded by the underdog, and to the ubiquity of teenager awkwardness. Since male nerd characters are “less than” masculine and female nerd characters are “less than” feminine, they are easily shifted into the variety of narrative positions listed above, aiding their prominence in the subgenre. But that doesn’t explain one crucial difference. A nerdy Final Girl is marked as heterosexual. Nerdy victims are marked as heterosexual. But when the nerdy character turns out to be the Stalker, he is biologically male and his identity queer’d.
To elucidate, I will analyze three of the movies mentioned above in which nerdy male characters become avenging stalkers, queer’d by plot twists. Their feeble male bodies are exposed in these films to an ambivalent gaze: are they victims, heroes, monsters, or all of the above? Terror Train (1980) and Slaughter High (1986) open with pranks on class nerds going too far, inviting their wrath as Stalkers. What compromises a queer sympathy for these two male nerd characters, Kenny and Marty, is how earnestly they aspire to be one of the guys, partly by treating females as sexual conquests. The pranksters take advantage of this weakness, convincing attractive popular girls to entice the nerds into setups. In Terror Train, Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) is a hazing victim who finds himself lured by a sorority pledge into embracing a corpse — borrowed for the event by pre-med students. The body falls apart in his arms, and Kenny reels away crazily as Sigma Phi peers laugh.
In Slaughter High, Marty (Simon Scuddamore) is a chemistry wiz with the standard nerdy eyeglasses who is lured into the girls’ locker room showers by a senior babe. Marty is exposed full-frontal to a large group of male and female teens spraying him with a fire extinguisher, taunting him about his penis size, poking his ass with what looks like a javelin, all while videotaping him. His humiliation also involves electrocution and swirlies. One would think him saved when the Coach interrupts, but this male authority figure shows zero concern for Marty. The minor detentions he gives the other kids only eggs on their follow-up prank — leaving Marty disfigured in a chem-lab fire.
These scenarios assertively mark male nerd characters as heterosexual, yet they are targeted and punished for not being heterosexual enough. I may not identify with them when they try to conform, but I do identify with them when they suffer for not succeeding. Marty suffers the kind of prank that just exists in the movies, one reviewer muses: “Too elaborate to be very practical to execute, too cruel to be a satisfactory substitute for the simpler severe-beating type of prank that was more popular in my high school days.”5 What pains me is that the assault on Marty is more than a humiliating sexual situation; the prank on Marty is an elaborate sexual assault on his body.
All this reminds me of the Stephen King quote with which Clover introduces her gender-analysis of horror. He reflects on Carrie‘s revenge narrative as something “any student who has ever had his gym shorts pulled down in Phys Ed or his glasses thumb-rubbed in study hall could approve of” (4-5). His comment is too lighthearted, really, as the assault on Carrie in the girls’ locker room by other girls (throwing menstrual pads at her, naked in the shower) and the assault on Marty are far more traumatizing than having one’s gym shorts pulled down.
Elaborateness aside, such assaults did occur. In 1992, several males at a Utah high school raped an underclassman by holding him down and forcing a broom handle into his rectum. This case drew national attention, with Phil Donahue on his show reproaching schools for treating it and unreported cases as mere pranks. In the mid-1980s, my high school P.E. coach had us playing a version of dodge ball he called “Smear the Queer.” The losers had to line up, facing a wall and bending over, so that the winner could throw the ball at the rear-end of whomever he wanted to target as the queer. Such sadism was considered totally acceptable in the homophobic ’80s. This is why a homophobic undertone registers for queer spectators of the assault scene in Slaughter High, regardless of the sexual orientation of the male victim.6
Other than humiliation versus assault, the difference between Marty and Kenny is how they return or, rather, how they are gendered when they get revenge. Marty stalks a high school reunion in a joker mask, while Kenny, though not as queer’d as Marty by the “prank” on him, returns nonetheless as a queer force — surprising a graduation party as the magician’s apparently female assistant. Recurrently exploited as a plot twist, the cross-dressed Stalker finds origin in, and departs from, identity-split serial killers in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). In House on Sorority Row (1982), the Stalker is the full-grown product of a botched fertility experiment who dresses like his mother and, with her cane, kills sorority girls. As a child humiliated by his mother’s being a prostitute, the Stalker in Blood Sisters (1986) dresses like her and kills sorority girls. Tittering ridiculously in a negligee, the hairy-chested Stalker in Hide and Go Shriek (1987) kills off partying teens staying all night in a furniture store. Of Terror Train‘s nerdy Kenny, Dika claims that “having lost his manhood in the earlier sequence, he now [as Stalker] appears in drag” (97).
Audiences in the ’80s got big kicks reading the Stalker’s cross-dressing as indicative of his core crisis. In Terror Train, though, Kenny’s female identity is the only female one of several. He maneuvers the costume party in a Groucho mask first, and, wearing the masks/costumes of victims, he assumes an array of identities, however mutely. In House on Sorority Row, the Stalker dons his dead mother’s clothes to disorient the sorority girls who inadvertently killed her (their housemother). Otherwise he hangs around in a jester costume like the perpetual child. In Blood Sisters, the sorority members think the Stalker a female ghost in an abandoned brothel. And in Hide and Go Shriek, the Stalker wears the clothes of female and male victims to confuse and ensnare remaining teens. So cross-dressing is not the mark of a submerged identity — as in Dressed to Kill — but mere camouflage, predatorily chameleonesque. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions, the cross-dressed Stalker can be read as a cautionary tale of sorts that de-essentializes gender: To trust the appearance of gender is naïve because gender is basically a manipulation of appearance.7 Marty’s single mask serves him not nearly as well as Kenny’s manipulation of gender as yet another mask. This gives Kenny greater capacity to move among his one-time victimizers without being their victim again, and to move among them — now potential victims — without being recognized as a threat.
The Final Girls in Terror Train and Slaughter High participated in the original pranks, but, feeling remorse, they turned away from cruelty. For viewers, how can this not influence a shifting sympathy? How much do we sympathize with whom if the victims have been victimizers and the victimizer has been a victim? If a Final Girl can be read as a victimizer turned victim-hero, then surely Kenny and Marty can be read as victim-avengers who are antiheroic.
Nerdy underdog Angela (Felissa Rose) in the cult classic Sleepaway Camp (1983) proves to be a more audience-challenging mix of victim and victimizer. This is due mostly to the film’s transgender plot twist. But before analyzing the finale in which Angela is exposed as male, we should first look at how Angela is coded Final Girl and how camp and homo-subtext coincide with a feminist sense of justice to warp our identification with the characters.
Angela seems a vulnerable outsider at summer camp from the get-go, targeted by both male and female bullies. Protected by her masculine cousin Ricky, whom she’s lived with since her father and her twin died eight years earlier, she electively mutes herself with most people. Angela is all look, a look both investigative and paranoid. Two older girls chastise her for staring, shake her by the shoulders, and throw her into the lake. Several older boys throw water balloons at her and call her a fruitcake at the dance. Response shots of Angela are always similar. Usually sitting as her harassers stand over her, looking up wordless and wide-eyed, she is shown in a medium shot, positioned in the lower part of the frame to exaggerate her vulnerability and provoke our sympathy.8
Of the killings, they ring with a quasi-feminist justice. The Stalker disfigures a pedophilic cook, drowns a potential date rapist (not the date), locks a male bully in the john with a hornet’s nest, and smothers a female bully while penetrating her with a curling iron. Like the leader behind the Kenny prank, whom Terror Train‘s Final Girl accuses of “not being able to have a good time unless he’s hurting someone,” such characters in Sleepaway Camp deserve what they get — so seems the narrative rule. If true, the Stalker can be deemed a vigilante acting on her own behalf and on behalf of other victims too. Finding out that Angela is the Stalker might not fully compromise her status as a sympathetic character. And the Stalker might still be deemed antiheroic even if revealed to be female. But finding out that Angela is the Stalker and not a biological girl? That queers everything.
But everything is already queer’d. I mean, really, campy is a doubly perfect word for Sleepaway Camp. “Bad” acting and low-budget gore smack gleefully of trash auteurs like John Waters and Paul Bartel. Ricky’s hyper-bourgeois mother is overplayed much like a drag queen. And toying with gender expectations is a motif established in scene one as someone called “The Doc” turns out to be a woman and a father of twins has a male lover. The creator of SleepawayCamp Movies.com comments on the homoerotic vibe in the film as a popular area of intrigue for fans. Writer/director Hiltzik and his co-producer, wife Missy Hiltzik, have more male bodies on display throughout the film than Waters and Bartel have in all their films combined. The visible surface is homoerotic just as Sleepaway‘s plot is homo-subtextual. During Angela’s first romantic encounter with Paul, she flashes back to her childhood — giggling at daddy’s bedroom door from where she and her twin see him in the arms of their other daddy. Giggling is hardly a sign of traumatic witness, but the memory breaks the moment with Paul.
Asked about the homoerotic element to the film, the director answers in only three words, “That’s called foreshadowing!”9 In anticipation of the last scene, he means, when Angela goes skinny-dipping with Paul and then decapitates him on the waterfront. Though notable that she’s caught not by the bullies who’ve shown contempt for her but by two camp counselors who’ve felt sorry for her, her male body is nonetheless rendered completely monstrous by her now animal appearance: hunched posture, gaping mouth, and growl. The moment suggests to many that a homosexual panic brought on by Paul’s advances provoked her psychotic break, though it’s more likely that it was Paul’s homosexual panic upon seeing her naked that provoked her. Homosexual panic did not, after all, motivate her earlier premeditated attacks on more deserving victims. Instead we find out from a final flashback how orphaned Angela was forced by her guardian aunt Martha — who already has one son — to live as a daughter. What Sleepaway Camp‘s ending emphasizes, then, is the idea that forced feminization makes boys into monsters. Not homosexuality. Not even being transgender by nature or choice. And yet it’s highly doubtful that such distinctions would have been made by viewers and critics in the 1980s.
Over the last few years I have watched and rewatched over fifty first-wave stalker films, some of which I saw — prior to VCRs — at Rodgers Theater in my southern Illinois hometown. Being able to watch the videos at home now, I admit, feels nothing like watching the films in the theater then, when so little was required to spur the homophobic response of those around me. And it only got worse as the ’80s wore on and the Stalker subgenre wore down.
In 1987, Hide and Go Shriek features a blatantly gay stalker and is strident in its appeal for laughs at his expense. The story’s familiar: A small clique of graduating high schoolers (white, middle-class, coupled) throw themselves an overnight party, this time in a furniture store owned by one of their fathers. In a basement room, an ex-con newly employed at the store watches TV, sleeping there until he can afford an apartment. The teens, upon finding the first dead body, assume this lower-class tough-guy (replete with snake tattoos) to be the Stalker. Though we have seen the sometimes negligee’d Stalker in the shadows upstairs and we know they cannot be the same person, the filmmakers may have garnered a few laughs by suggestion alone. The film climaxes when the ex-con saves the remaining teens from the Stalker, who is exposed in full light, in full makeup, and gay-coded by his black leather S&M outfit — a costume change out of nowhere. The duel plays out, in front of the gawking teens, as a lovers’ spat between former cellmates. The Stalker claims “they” (the teens) are “coming between us”: “Why don’t you want me anymore?” he cries his mascara silly. The ex-con declares, “We’re not in there anymore, Zach . . . I told you it was over and now you kill people!?!”
Though campy and over the top, the camera in Hide and Go Shriek! hardly elicits sympathy for the former lovers. In contrast, the camera tells viewers to disdain these two characters by positioning us to share the shocked teens’ gaze on them in the fight scene and, afterwards, literally looking down on the ex-con’s last words as he lays dying on the ground: “I tried to stop him. I tried to be straight. I’m sorry.” So a clear line is drawn between the film’s typical teens, who are presumed to mirror teens in the theater, and the film’s social outcasts. This dynamic of Hide and Go Shriek! brings us to my last consideration — related to groupness and horror spectatorship.
The audience for ’80s horror, as Vera Dika notes, was youngsters in the 12 to 17 age bracket (9). “With regularity, the audience of the Stalker Film responds as a group,” Dika claims, “regardless of the class or the social background of that audience” (17). But I watched these movies as anxious about the Stalker on the screen as the Basher in the balcony. An interloper on demographically defined turf, I was constantly looking over my shoulder much like a Final Girl. After the movie, I lingered inside to avoid bullies lingering outside, daring each other to start something, anything. I wasn’t going to be caught by them again, I’d tell myself. Obviously I felt more than alienated by the “group” of filmgoers Dika assumes unified. I felt physically threatened by them.
So I’d like to try something that’s not been done before by applying “group socialization theory” — not as complex as it sounds — to a film, specifically Sleepaway Camp. Judith Rich Harris10 builds a strong case against the Freudian concept that children tailor their behavior to that of the same-sex parent, asserting instead “that children identify with a group consisting of their peers, that they tailor behavior to the norms of their group, and that groups contrast themselves with other groups and adopt different norms” (264). And the larger the number of kids (at school, for example, or summer camp), the more ways for kids to be categorized. Categorization decreases differences within a group while increasing the sense of difference between groups:
The way we categorize ourselves depends on where we are and who is with us, and even a very young child has a choice: she can categorize herself either as akid or as a girl. If the age category is salient, the gender category automatically becomes less so. When a grown-up is being conspicuously grown-upish . . . it makes age categories come to the fore and gender recede into the background. If you give school-age children another way of dividing up — into ability-based reading groups, for instance — gender will become less salient to the degree that the reading groups become more so. (233)
Sleepaway Camp provides an interesting opportunity to consider groupness in action, first in the narrative and then in the audience. At camp, three age groups are established right away. Central to the narrative are junior high kids Angela, her cousin Ricky, her suitor Paul, and others in their early teens. Their nemeses are high schoolers, specifically the bigger, meaner teens. The camp counselors and other adults are furthest removed from the camp’s social sphere. No other junior high kids pick on Angela, only high schoolers, counselor Meg, and the pedophilic cook, achieving a group contrast effect: difference between younger and older becomes salient, especially between junior high kids and high schoolers.
When high schoolers are being conspicuously high schoolish, to echo Harris above, age categories come to the fore and gender categories recede into the background. There may be a larger group of older male bullies, but only their alpha male is really in focus, whereas there are two female bullies in focus — evidence of how the film stresses older teens as bullies, not male or female teens. As for female bully Judy, her verbal attack on Angela stresses physical development as the significant difference between them: “How come you never take showers when the rest of us do?” she interrogates Angela. “You queer or something? You haven’t reached puberty yet? I bet you haven’t even got your period!” She turns to the other girls in the cabin to say of Angela, “She takes showers when no one can see she has no hair down below! She’s a carpenter’s dream — flat as a board and needs a screw!” Actually, Angela is the cook’s dream; he refers to the younger campers as “baldies.” Sleepaway Camp touches on an adolescent groupness truth beyond Freud, something Judy Blume characters and maybe even the South Park kids could appreciate: Who cares whether or not you “lack” a penis when you don’t even have pubic hair!
Sleepaway Camp was popular with sub-teens specifically (Clover n47), the appeal probably in the realistic way it addresses groupness: how kids think of themselves when away from parents and teachers, how different a seventh grader’s behavior is from a sophomore’s, how physical stages of development are more visible during the skimpy summer months. Film theorists often sum up horror’s appeal to younger audiences as an appeal to their anxiety about becoming adults in an aggressive world, their parents’ world, but maybe not so much. Kids in their own world must negotiate aggressive peers, scrutiny of difference within and between groups, and even kid-on-kid violence. And the related anxieties, for each young moviegoer, are different depending not only on the social groups in the theater on a given night but also the social groups represented on the screen.
For the original Sleepaway Camp audiences, the Stalker served as an agent on behalf of younger teens and sub-teens who, I’m sure, must have savored — and felt more unified — watching the film’s older teens get their comeuppance. This de-stressing of gender sets us up for a gender-distressing last scene, of course, so when it turns out this agent on our behalf is a boy living as a girl, then groupness gets reset. In a snap it’s the normals against the queers, and loyalties are reevaluated as the scrutiny of gendered behavior becomes even more fraught than it was before the movie started. This may sound speculative, but trust me when I say that — more so than with any other Stalker movie of the era — I would not have wanted to be outside the theater after Sleepaway Camp.
If there was ever a group of queers in the audience, at least in the audience in my small town’s theater in the 1980s, we didn’t know each other as a group. I have to wonder, ultimately, how all the “elastically” gendered figures in horror as a collective onscreen group — including Final Girls above all — influenced my sense of femaleness and maleness, my sense of masculinity and femininity, my sense of myself and the possibility of queerness in the world outside the theater?
Twelve and under the marquee, where I was punched in the face for the first time in my life. I remember the shock of blood, the lights, everyone looking, the way it was. The bully who beat me up had brothers and a hefty sister just as mean. If I didn’t know about them at that point I found out soon enough. Inside, there’s only one Stalker on the screen at a time. But out here, you really got to watch yourself.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1990.
Dika, Vera. “The Stalker Film, 1978-1981.” American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987: 86-101.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. NY: Anchor Books, 1991.
Grant, Barry Keith. “Take Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film.” Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Grant, Barry Keith. Austin: University of Austin Press, 1996: 200-212.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1995.
Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption — Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More. NY: Free Press, 1998.
Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Telotte, J. P. “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror.” American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987: 114-128.
- If a character is to survive, according to the neo-stalker flick Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), she cannot have sex or do drugs. Still, as the list opening this essay evidences, not all Final Girls are truly such good girls. Halloween‘s quintessential Laurie never once judges her friends for being sexually active. What’s more, she shares a joint with her friend Annie while driving to their babysitting gigs. [↩]
- This time span includes the first modern movie to make significant use of the Stalker point of view shot (Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, 1974). However, wanting to relate to the increasingly conservative atmosphere of the 1980s, I focus more on Stalker movies 1978-1990. [↩]
- “[S]ex-related murders rose 160 percent between 1974 and 1984,” says Susan Faludi in her 1991 bestseller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. “[B]attering was the leading cause of injury to women in the late 80s” (xiv, xvii). [↩]
- See James H. Wiles’ “Identification of Subcategories within Carol Clover’s Final Girl Model of Slasher Film Heroines” at <http://kyudenryu.tripod.com/lazyjames/james_final_girl.htm.> Accessible as of Aug. 2012. [↩]
- For quote, see Tyrannorabbit’s review at http://www.geocites.com/tyrannorabbit/_20slaughterhigh.html. Accessed July 2007; not accessible as of Aug. 2012. [↩]
- Simon Scuddamore, who played Marty, committed suicide for unknown reasons shortly after Slaughter High‘s release. A keyword search on Scuddamore led me unexpectedly to sites like “malestars.com” that offer galleries of stills from male nude scenes. Stills from Marty’s assault scene are included along with the likes of Richard Gere in Breathless. [↩]
- Gender is ultimately manipulated by filmmakers themselves, of course, wanting to mislead viewers as to the killer’s identity. In the first Friday the 13th (1979), the Stalker turns out to be Mrs. Voorhees avenging the drowning of her son Jason at the camp years earlier. In Night School (1980), the Stalker is a jealous girlfriend. Curtains (1982), Girls’ Nite Out (1982), and Nail Gun Massacre (1985) are similar in their whodunit tricks. [↩]
- Angela’s response shots: First she is presented in the lower corner of the frame, then in the lower middle of the frame, then in the lower middle of the frame but higher up, then central and taking up the whole frame. In the final shot her gaze is direct but monstrously so. [↩]
- For interview, see Jeff Hayes’ “The Mysterious Mr. Hiltzik” at <http:www.sleepaway campmovies.com>. Accessed Aug. 2012. [↩]
- Harris is a former writer of child development textbooks who, by having to represent the various “sides,” came to doubt all of them. Her eye-opening first article on group socialization theory won an award from the American Psychological Association. The title of her renegade yet ever-reasonable book, published in 1998, says it best: The Nurture Assumption — Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More. [↩]