Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Is the beloved Summer slasher film Sleepaway Camp transphobic? I think it’s time we all had a serious conversation about Angela and what it is that she stands for.
You’ve been watching an 80’s slasher movie. The popcorn has grown cold and your soda is empty. You are nearing the climax of the film. Up until now, the killer has been a mystery for the entirety of the movie. You have been watching attentively and you find yourself filled with antici… pation. The final kill happens, and the camera pans over to the murderer. SURPRISE! It’s a naked transgender woman. Another character says, “My God, she’s a boy!?” in shock. Credits roll. The film I am describing is, of course, Sleepaway Camp (AKA Nightmare Vacation).
In 1983, Robert Hiltzik surprised an audience of young Friday The 13th fans with the (fake) full-frontal nudity of a teenage trans woman/psycho murderer. The movie’s instant popularity threw the main character Angela (Felissa Rose) into the spotlight forever. No, not really. When Sleepaway Camp hit theaters regionally in 1983 (and again in L.A. in 1984) it was seemingly not well received.
The Chula Vista Star-News called the film, “A tasteless picture…that obscenely blends beheadings, stabbings, pubescent impulses, homosexuality, and transvestism…” Still, the film had enough fans to earn not one, but four sequels! (We’ll save those for another time.) Despite its blatant exploitation of trans people for shock value, the Sleepaway Camp series continues to gain a larger cult following every year and is beloved by many horror fans around the world.
So is Sleepaway Camp Transphobic?
While researching for this article, I read a lot of pieces about why this movie further pushes the “trans people are psychotic” stereotype. These depictions can create a harmful image of trans people to the unknowing cisgender population. While I really enjoyed reading thoughts from other trans writers about why Angela was inappropriately used to “shock” audiences, I noticed a majority of these pieces came from cis-gendered people. With all the gender think pieces accumulating in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel like I was somehow wrong for liking the film.
Filled with one liners like “Eat shit and live.” and “If she were any quieter, she’d be dead!” the movie is obviously not going to be for everybody. I do wonder though, is it harmful for me, a trans woman, to enjoy something that perpetuates negative stereotypes of trans people? I asked some other trans and non-binary friends of mine what their thoughts are on the film.
Generally speaking, they all seemed to like it. A few described their opinions as “empowering” when referring to Angela. In fact, some trans people (myself included) consider this film a favorite. A lot of people even think of Angela as a trans icon and use her image on merchandise making fun of transphobes. So with all of this discourse in mind, I think it’s time we all had a serious conversation about Angela and what it is that she stands for.
Trans-Psycho Murderer or Abused Child Just Trying To Fit In At Camp?
In the very first scene, we find out that Angela’s father and sibling were killed right in front of her. They were all in a boating accident near Camp Arawak when she was a small child. Angela herself was badly injured and eventually was sent to live with her wildly eccentric aunt Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould) and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten).
Using horror movie logic, the trauma of her family being killed would possibly be enough to cause a murder spree on its own. However, that’s apparently not the only reason. During the course of the film, we learn that Angela’s father was gay. Because of this, she has some sort of strange trauma-induced internal homophobia. Sexual confusion AND gender dysphoria? Good thing I never went to summer camp, because these are apparently the makings of a maniac killer. News flash to my cis-gendered heterosexual friends, that’s not how it works.
I have seen Sleepaway Camp maybe a dozen or more times. Something that I never thought too much about (until my most recent watch) is that Angela was actually forced to be a girl by her adopted aunt. In the film, Angela’s Aunt Martha decides that her nephew Peter (Angela’s dead name) should actually be raised as a girl. That’s because, well, she already has a boy and, ”Another simply will not do!” Of course, we as the audience don’t know that Angela is trans until the final scene of the movie.
It is clear, however, from the very first time that we meet Martha, that she is very different. Martha constantly talks to herself, as if she can’t help but say her every thought out loud. Her overly repetitive “My little girl” and strange explanation of how she forged the children’s physicals, leaves you feeling more confused upon the first watch than anything. Yet with all the foreshadowing, there are enough red herrings and dry overacting to leave you unsure who the killer truly is almost all the way through the film.
How Many People Does Angela Kill in Sleepaway Camp?
Angela kills roughly 10 people in the 84 minute runtime of this film, but do any of those murders actually relate to Angela being transgender? Let’s dive right in.
Early on when Angela is not eating the camp food, she is introduced to the most disgusting character in the film, Artie (Owen Hughes) the camp’s head cook. Artie is a blatant pedophile and pervert, making horrible comments about the young campers, from the moment we meet him. While supposedly helping Angela find something she can eat, he takes her into the pantry and begins to take off his pants.
Ricky busts in at the perfect moment and takes Angela away from him. Shortly after that, Artie is pushed into a 5-foot pot of boiling water and rushed to the hospital. As far as we know he survived the attack. I think he may have gotten what was coming to him, but I don’t feel like revenge has much to do with being transgender.
At the “social” nightly dance, we meet resident stoner Kenny (John E. Dunn). His perfect mullet, mom jeans and Blue Oyster Cult tee, makes it easy to imagine him wearing a Wayne’s World hat and making guitar noises with his mouth. Kenny & his goons walk over and mock Angela right to her face, calling her “looney tunes” and a bunch of other insults. However, Ricky and Paul (Christopher Collet) intervene and start a big fight in front of everyone. This is where Paul starts to have feelings for Angela. Later that night Angela drowns Stoner Kenny in the lake. Gender related? Once again, not really. Later on, another kid named Billy (Loris Sallahain) gets killed by bees for throwing a water balloon at Angela. Doesn’t she seem just a bit dramatic?
At this point in the film, we have seen camp counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) a few times. Her strange disdain for Angela doesn’t really seem to make much sense. She constantly rips on Angela for not partaking in sports and not talking enough. An important interaction in the film though is when Meg picks up Angela and throws her into the lake. This moment is particularly triggering to Angela because her family was killed in the lake, but also because she is extremely uncomfortable with her body and doesn’t go swimming with anyone. (Other than to kill them, I mean). After she is pulled out of the water, several younger children throw sand on her and laugh.
It feels, to me, like the writer really wanted to convey Angela’s discomfort with swimming and possibly even wearing a bathing suit. Of course, the writer doesn’t seem to have much to say about trans women other than “girl has dick.” In this scene, however, I did feel the connection with that insecurity and dysphoria that Angela so clearly experienced. Meg, of course, gets stabbed to death in the shower that night. I noticed that the shower area had a huge Loverboy poster on it, which I found hilarious for some reason.
*Working For The Weekend plays in my mind during the murder.*
After that, things get really unhinged. Angela murders 4 children, the ones who threw sand on her earlier in the film. Yeah, I guess she was really pissed about that one? Another supposed gender relevant murder comes next. Judy (Karen Fields) has done nothing except terrorize Angela and flirt with boys the entire film. She made fun of Angela for refusing to shower with the other girls, saying “You queer?” and “You don’t have your period?” repeatedly making fun of her for not having hit puberty yet.
I can’t even make up some of these lines like “She’s a real carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and needs a screw!” Seriously, there is some transphobic rhetoric straight outta JK Rowling’s journal entries in this film. So what do you do when someone is being transphobic? Fuck them with a hair curler, obviously. While the actual murder isn‘t directly shown, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened.
It doesn’t stop there, friends. Camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) spends most of the movie blaming Ricky for the murders. When his creepy date with young counselor Meg is ruined by her Psycho shower death, he beats Ricky to the ground, only to receive a well shot arrow through the neck. Tough break.
Last, but not least, we have Paul. During their first kiss on the beach, Angela has a flashback to her dad and his assumed boyfriend in bed together. Apparently, Angela is confused because she is sort of homophobic and, while she is a trans woman, the writer of this film still thinks that is somehow gay. There is some clear confusion from our straight cis writer/director Robert here.
When asked about a homophobic scene he said, “That’s called foreshadowing!” This just furthers my point that, according to this film, being gay and being transgender is the same thing. For those of you who think those are the same, you might want to do a little research and come back to us.
Sleepaway Camp Twist
So, we find ourselves at the end of the film. Angela decapitates Paul and stands naked on the beach. Assumedly, she took off her clothes before killing him and he freaked out. The murder is once again, not shown on screen, so we get to use our imaginations on that one. Some of the other people are out searching for survivors and Ronnie, (Paul DeAngelo) who is also one of the driest actors in the film, delivers the final line, “My God, she’s a boy!?” This leaves the audience with very few questions answered, the credits roll.
I can’t help but imagine some confused, secluded, cis-gendered boy from rural Indiana seeing this film and thinking that all transgender people are socially inept murderers. Sometimes it seems like the only representation I get in these films is a cross-dressing murderer or a caricature side character with two lines. I know we’re talking horror here, but what about our final trans girls? What about a trans man who saves his family from the demons in his house? How about a non-binary zombie killer?
Maybe I like this film so much because I’m just happy to see a trans character in a movie at all! The truth is, I can relate to this character, even if she is problematic. I can enjoy this film and still recognize the negative stereotypes. Sleepaway Camp may be transphobic, but that doesn’t mean the fans are. So just remember, if you ever mess with me or my friends, I’ll call up my girl Angela. She doesn’t take no shit.