The first time I saw Sleepaway Camp, I was having a co-ed sleepover with the kids in my neighborhood, ages ranging from eight to twelve-years-old. We huddled around the gigantic CRT TV that barely fit in my parents’ second-hand entertainment center and did our very best not to cover our eyes as to let anyone see how scared we truly were. We all laughed hysterically when Ricky drops the iconic line, “eat shit and live,” and did our best to stifle screams at every kill.
And then…the ending happened.
Ronnie: “How can it be? My god…she’s a boy!“
We all sat there in complete silence. No one made a sound. We stopped the tape, we hit rewind, and we immediately turned on cartoons to try and cleanse our palate. We never discussed it together but, throughout my entire writing career, I’ve never stopped talking about it.
Released in 1983, the cult-classic Sleepaway Camp is a low-budget disaster remembered for its wildly inappropriate adult camp staff, and the cruelest pre-teen campers ever captured on film. The love and following for the film lie predominantly with the campy nature of this summer camp slasher, but its “shocking” and downright problematic ending solidified its cult status.
The ending of Sleepaway Camp offers two reveals that are wildly offensive to the LGBTQ+ community. Our slasher, Angela, is revealed to actually be a young boy named “Peter,” who has been forced to live as a girl because of his Aunt Martha’s warped views on raising children, a reveal that we only realize after the character stands fully nude with a penis on display. The second reveal is that Peter’s deceased father was a homosexual, revealed in a weirdly erotic flashback that looks like it was shot in a collegiate black box theatre. In less than five minutes, the film is both wildly homophobic and transphobic in one fell swoop.
Is Sleepaway Camp a homophobic and transphobic movie? Yeah, pretty much. It perpetuates the idea that you deserve to be punished for being gay and that all transwomen are just dangerous men in disguise. It’s a super gross narrative that has been perpetuated in horror films for decades (I’m looking at you, Buffalo Bill), but the fact a GLAAD/Harris Interactive poll showed only 16 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender, media representation is often the only exposure a person has to a marginalized community.
My partner is a non-op transwoman. For the uninformed on the terminology, that means my girlfriend is a woman who happens to have a dick (she gave me enthusiastic permission to put that in writing, for those concerned I’m outing my partner). When she’s naked, she looks just as Judy describes Angela, “flat as a board and needs a screw.” Sleepaway Camp tells me that I’m supposed to be afraid of someone who looks just like the person I love the most in this world, and that is a bit bothersome. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Sleepaway Camp is a film that we both watch frequently, and own buttons, patches, and artwork showcasing our love for this trash mess.
Sleepaway Camp is terrible transgender representation, yes, but it’s an incredible metaphor about how forcing gender roles onto someone that doesn’t align with who they are is fucking dangerous.
If Peter had not been forced to live his life as “Angela,” the events of Sleepaway Camp would have been avoided. If he was presenting as male, the creepy kitchen worker wouldn’t have tried to assault him. If Peter was presenting as male, he wouldn’t have been terrified to shower and be “clocked” by his bunkmates. If Peter was presenting as male, he would have had Ronnie as an understanding counselor, and not the awful bitch Meg, which means that Peter also wouldn’t have gotten onto the camp owner Mel’s shit list. The rest of the campers I cannot speak for as they very well may have bullied the aquaphobic Peter the same way they did Angela, but whether or not Peter would have had as much mental anguish from gender dysphoria is not something we could predict.
Don’t worry, I can already hear the fingers typing in the comment section “ArE yOu SaYiNg GeNdEr DySpHoRiA cReAtEs mUrDeReRs?!?!?!”
No, no, I’m not.
But studies have proven that children experiencing gender dysphoria and living in non-affirming homes are prone to depression, thoughts of suicide, and yes, sometimes violent outbursts. The feelings of confusion, pain, and anger that Peter is feeling throughout the film are totally justified.
Even in the ugliest moments of films, there’s always something that can be savored if we can look for the nuance. The horror in the ending of Sleepaway Camp is not that Angela has a dick. The horror is recognizing how abused and mentally tortured this child has been for years, and trauma-informed care teaches us that this child is in desperate need of help.