For better or worse, perhaps we still see some of ourselves, some of our struggles, in Felissa Rose’s quiet and vulnerable portrayal of Angela.
Author’s Note: In the interest of sensitivity as we explore Sleepaway Camp, I will use they/them pronouns when referring to Angela Baker—a decision that seems appropriate given the question of the character’s gender identity. Be aware that this exploration also includes spoilers.
Sleepaway Camp is possibly the most divisive slasher film of the 1980s potentially surpassing the dozen Friday the 13th films released. Angela Baker’s story secured cult status many years ago for its oddball atmosphere, campy (no pun intended) performances, the creativity with which the obligatory teen victims are executed, and a shock ending that many consider sets the film apart from the rest of the slumping slasher movie subgenre.
These are the elements that initially endeared me to the film after my first viewing back in 8th grade. Fandom for the film is wide-reaching, even beyond the world of genre and exploitation film cinephiles. Allusions to Sleepaway Camp in lyrics, song titles, the film’s imagery in tour posters, and on performance gear was decently common amongst punk and emo bands of the early to mid-2000s, for example.
However, the idea that this low budget 1983 slasher is simple fun, prime for exaltation based on its cult, the borderline trashy flavor does not mean it is above reproach, though, as many members of the horror community criticize the film for its transmisogyny and problematic depictions of queerness (all valid criticisms). By no means is Sleepaway Camp the fairest of LGBTQ representations in cinema. It is quite problematic but, despite that, there still remains metaphors and broad strokes of queer and gender themes that warrant exploration.
Sleepaway Camp Synopsis
Sleepaway Camp stars Felissa Rose as Angela Baker, an introverted young girl living with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and eccentric Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) after her brother, father, and father’s male lover died in the boating accident depicted in the film’s opening sequence. Years after the boating accident that killed her family, Aunt Martha is sending Angela and Ricky off to their first Summer camp (Camp Arawak).
While Ricky stands to have a fun summer with a reasonable amount of popularity, Angela suffers for being different. They are immediately targeted by the bullies led by mean girl Judy (Karen Fields), who viciously and incessantly attacks Angela for their quiet, “peculiar” demeanor (saying nothing of the camp employee who targets them for further sinister intentions).
Surprisingly, though, there are some bright spots throughout the ordeal. Angela does have a suitor in Paul (Christopher Collet), whose feelings Angela seems to reciprocate, or at least enough so that some interest is shown, given the caution they use to interact with their peers. As Angela navigates all the bad and the little good, a killer begins stalking summer camp, picking people off one by one.
In the film’s climax, Angela is revealed as the killer. However, this reveal is further compounded by camp counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) crying out, “how can it be? My god…she’s a boy!” The camera pulls out to Angela, full-frontally nude, with a penis, covered in blood, and growling like a beast.
This is the shock ending that has enthralled audiences for nearly 40 years, and there is certainly much to unpack regarding it. Though being accused of looking “too deep” into a horror/exploitation flick is never ideal (“it’s just a movie,” Twitter shouts), one wonders what this finale means—what is the implication of Angela’s physical appearance and their assumed “real” gender? How is this twist supposed to inform us of everything that has come before, especially Angela’s killing spree?
The Transmisogyny of Angela’s Identity and Bloodlust
For many horror fans, the answers to these questions are laced with transmisogynistic overtones, and there is certainly merit to these readings of the film’s conclusion. In a piece surveying transfemininity in horror, Mey Valdivia Rude identifies the “women who are really men” trope in horror (a trope that rarely distinguishes between a transgender person and a crossdresser, if ever) as overused and harmful.
Rude believes that Sleepaway Camp and other films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs that contain gender-nonconforming villains, slashers, and maniacs may prove to be dangerous.
Especially when one considers that for many, “these characters have been their only pop culture reference points” for trans people and their community. But, if you do not have a trans person in your life to gain knowledge and empathy from, then trying to learn them from the movies doesn’t seem to be the best idea. Though cinema should be the empathy machine that Roger Ebert claimed it was, the movies (especially horror) have historically dehumanized the trans community.
The shocking conclusion to Sleepaway Camp encapsulates this dehumanization of the trans community in all the ways that Mey Valdivia Rude touches upon in the aforementioned article. For example, the ending undos the audience’s sympathy for Angela that director, Robert Hiltzik, cultivated from the audience.
Our hero, the character we were supposed to identify with and root for, suddenly becomes the villain at the end whose bloodlust is only explained as a symptom of their gender confusion. The idea that Angela has been a boy this whole time reinforces the stereotypes that trans women are mentally ill “imposters” who are potentially dangerous, though trans women are more likely to be targets of abuse, in reality.
These hateful beliefs persist today in the form of detractors and bigots. Some of their abhorrent excuses include not wanting trans women to use “female” public bathrooms. Their excuse is that a trans woman is nothing more than a mentally ill man pretending to be a woman, looking to express their perversion in public.
They think that trans women may even attack “normal,” innocent women and young girls by having free access to their space. This is the exact scenario that allows Angela to appear innocent and remain in the shadows as they commit heinous acts.
It is very likely that Robert Hiltzik wanted a gender-bending villain purely for the shock that such a reveal promised without much, if any, consideration for what Angela’s confusing gender identity meant for the character and audience perception of trans people.
This is why the ending is played entirely for exploitative entertainment. Then there are the flashbacks of Angela’s father and his male lover in relation to their psychosis. Specifically, the flashback of the two men embracing and kissing in bed, spied on by young Angela and Peter.
This flashback occurs as Paul kisses Angela, who recoils from the kiss. So what are supposed to surmise when Angela encourages Paul to meet them on the beach for a romantic meeting later in the film with the intent of actually killing the boy after reliving this moment from her young childhood?
Hiltzik has called these elements and the general gay undertone of the cult classic foreshadowing. Since the director has never expanded on this, one can only assume the director was attempting to partially explain how seeing their father in a homosexual relationship warped Angela’s mind into that of a murderer.
The concern with all of these problematic plot points is that when there are so many anti-trans arguments in the general zeitgeist it becomes difficult to manage a wide spread understanding of the trans community. Many Americans first encounter the concept of transgenderism through media. So with a film like Sleepaway Camp, which offers no counter-perspective, continues to perpetuate misinformation and negativity towards a community already struggling to achieve mainstream acceptance it becomes a constant uphill battle.
This isn’t a blanket statement suggesting everyone watching this film is unable to separate fiction from reality, but more that any example of transmisogyny in film and media does nothing to help battle ignorance or hate for trans people in the public eye, which keeps the community in danger and out of the mainstream.
Sleepaway Camp’s Continued Cult Film Status
Given the troubling depiction of the trans community in Sleepaway Camp, one has to wonder why the film remains celebrated amongst queer horror fans. The film consistently makes “must see queer horror movies” lists, and you can be sure to find it playing at any number of repertory theaters as a part of countless LGBTQ genre film retrospectives and festivals.
This must be because there are elements in the film queer horror fans can identify or symapthize with layered underneath the more problematic elements—brush strokes of actual engagement with the difficulties of growing up queer that color and enhance Sleepaway Camp’s complexity and enjoyment.
The question of Angela’s identity and pronouns relates to this discourse. In the last flashback before Ronnie’s now infamous “she’s a boy” line, we discover that it was actually Peter who survived the fatal boating accident that played out in the beginning, not Angela. However, Aunt Martha not only wanted a girl, but believed the surviving, traumatized child should be a girl, so Peter was raised as Angela instead.
Just as the film’s transmisogyny has risen to surface, so does the effect that Aunt Martha’s misguided and outrageous parenting has on Angela. This relates to the larger scope of the trans community and gender roles in our society, despite Hiltzik maintaining that this was not the intent.
Regardless of intent, Aunt Martha forcing a gender identity, and corresponding strict gender roles, on Angela is undoubtedly a metaphor for a common dilemma that trans youths have always faced. Though the question of Angela’s true gender identity is a sensitive subject due to the insensitivity with which this conflict is treated in the film.
Angela came to Aunt Martha after a severe trauma already identifying and presumably living comfortably as a boy, as Peter. Aunt Martha demands different of Angela, though—Aunt Martha demands that Angela conform to her idea of who they should be, to live as the girl she knows they should be for no other reason than it’s what Aunt Martha wants.
This brand of parental narcissism that breeds love with conditions is painfully familiar to trans youths first coming out to their parents. When a young trans man or woman’s identity is in direct contention with what their parents want and expect from them, it creates an unhealthy, abusive environment. Unfortunately, for countless trans kids whose identities are rejected, they are not allowed to be who they truly are with their family and loved ones, who do not respect them enough to use their preferred pronouns and chosen names.
Just like when Peter arrived on Aunt Martha’s doorstep and was told that he would not be accepted as a boy and would be forced to be Angela, so too does a young trans girl, for example, come out to her parents only to be told who they really are simply won’t do. How they feel does not matter.
Maybe this is why queer horror fans continue to celebrate Sleepaway Camp, even with its problematic use of the “trans villain.” For better or worse, perhaps we still see some of ourselves, some of our struggles, in Felissa Rose’s quiet and vulnerable portrayal of Angela.
In a way, enjoyment of this film as a queer artifact in cult film history may be in spite of its overt negative portrayal of the trans community that is solidified by its ending. The supposedly unintentional metaphors for the issues that trans people must actually grapple with in their everyday lives that attracts queer horror enthusiasts to this peculiar 80s cult classic.