Gender Roles at the Movies: Which of These Classic Horror Films Got It Right?

A new film, 'They/Them,' revises classic portrayals of gender in horror

Part issue movie and part throwback slasher, Blumhouse’s new horror film “They/Them,” out Aug. 5 on Peacock, aims to flip the script for how queer characters are treated in horror films onscreen. Since the gender-bending twist in “Psycho” (and partly due to that 1960 landmark film’s influence), horror has provided some of mainstream cinema’s most overt explorations of transgender themes, dealing with trans or trans-adjacent figures in fraught but often rich ways.

Directed by veteran screenwriter and playwright John Logan (who is openly gay) and set at a conversion camp for LGBTQ+ youth, “They/Them” spotlights a diverse ensemble of characters led by nonbinary actor Theo Germaine as Jordan, squaring off alongside an ensemble of their peers against Kevin Bacon’s Owen Whistler, the camp’s warmly unsettling proprietor.

Here, the film’s central concern isn’t the existence of LGBTQ+ people as an affront to the “normality” of a conservative society: a dynamic the late queer critic Robin Wood has often described as driving much of the last century’s horror films. Instead, the film’s threats stem from the power and prevalence of conservative actors who would treat queerness as an aberrant threat and a problem to be reckoned with, even solved. By making queer people its subjects (even as they’re targets), captives surviving through a combination of resourcefulness and solidarity, “They/Them” feels like an exception in a genre with a pattern of treating trans and nonconforming characters as ones to be feared rather than understood, much less granted agency.

Film history has played host to trans and gender-nonconforming characters, though it’s often had to do so in quiet, covert manners. In horror, that’s been less the case, and not for ideal reasons; the genre, ever rife with queer killers, has always made a space for whatever mainstream society fears. In this context, queerness has rarely been depicted as a lived reality, pitched instead as a frightening late-stage revelation. Across the genre, it’s long been common for a character to be revealed as both queer and murderous at precisely the same time.

“It was the late act reveal that a character wasn’t who they were supposed to be, and it was the demonic femininity of men in dresses and lace that became the lasting image,” explains trans critic Willow Maclay, who points to “Psycho” as a starting point. “The killer behind the blade was a man who thought he was a woman, and genre filmmaking [has] been milking this for all its worth ever since.”

In light of this trend, what follows is a brief examination of some of these horror works — all directed by cisgender men — that deal with varying effect in trans themes.

‘Psycho’ (1960), director Alfred Hitchcock

“We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out,” muses Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, an innkeeper and serial murderer who does his killing in his late mother’s old clothes. Though he’s ostensibly talking about geography rather than gender, his words easily resonate beyond that. So, too, does his burnt air toward the cruelties of his era’s psychiatric approach, lending his eventual fate a tragic air that a chillier, more distanced depiction wouldn’t grant.

Even so, “Psycho” draws a hazy boundary around Norman’s compulsions, conflating dysphoric experience with dissociative identity disorder, positing Freudian roots for what it treats as an eventual psychic break. In elaborating a succession of repressive mental gymnastics which allow Norman to assume the identity of his matricidal victim (and deny his role in her murder), the film’s coda with a psychiatrist strives to establish Bates as singular, not representative of anyone else. This conflation of trans-coded acts with murderous impulses at least singles out repression as a problem, too, allowing for the possibility that Bates’ actions stem from social realities bigger than himself.

‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980), director Brian De Palma

Laying out a complex relationship between looking, aspiration, desire and gender identity, “Dressed to Kill” consciously reiterates the blend of dissociative and repressive psychodynamics seen in “Psycho.” Engaging openly with transgenderism as a subject while still retaining hints of multiple-identity frameworks from decades earlier, the film distinguishes itself by linking its flashes of violence to a kind of cognitive dissonance in such a way that its outward drama becomes an expression — though hardly an accurate or representative one — of a deeper conflict within its key figure. With a twist revealing Michael Caine as Bobbi, the film’s femme-presenting killer (living publicly as Dr. Robert Elliott, a prominent psychiatrist in everyday life), the film finds a bit of truth when it suggests that heterosexual desire and a deeply felt, essential womanhood need not be perceived as at odds: a reality Bobbi struggles to accept.

Despite this stroke, De Palma’s regard of the medical processes of transitioning — discussed within talk shows, office settings, and dinner-table discussions — can feel at times prurient and leering. Like many films before and after, “Dressed” tightly links breaches of traditional gender identity with violent impulses, enmeshing them with the more concrete, still-evolving difficulties of pursuing gender-confirmation procedures. (In this, it treats trans experience as both alien and sympathetic). Across all this, a razor becomes a visual symbol and a kind of fulcrum for Bobbi’s conflict, nodding to the socially embedded aspects of gender performance and the means by which such constrictive roles are both enacted and enforced.

‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), director Jonathan Demme

Engaged with gender as a constant pressure from its opening moments, “Silence of the Lambs” finds Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine) in a desolate, isolated place. Having been rejected by numerous hospitals in attempting to transition, his choice to take matters into his own hands through a brutal series of flayings and killings — all in pursuit of “transformation” into a more outwardly femine form — becomes, troublingly to viewers then and now, a driving force toward violence.

But Bill’s relationship to transness proves contentious, both within the film and in its reception since. “Billy is not a real transsexual,” insists Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in one scene. Shortly prior, Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling says “there’s no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence,” using what she now acknowledges as dated terminology. At the same time, the character’s coding feels adjacent to transness, and Bill’s psychiatric diagnosis by Lecter and other unrelated cis characters registers in retrospect as eerily paternalistic.

While a perpetrator of monstrous acts, not only brutalizing women but displaying swastikas around his home, Bill’s framing by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto seems psychologically attentive in a similar way to the rest of the film’s head-on portraiture of Lecter, Starling, and everyone else. At the same time, his treatment of Bill’s body differs in key ways, particularly in the film’s infamous tucking scene, which renders Bill’s form as something evoking an obscure, nearly alien interest. Such tensions run basically unresolved throughout, with characters insisting that anything now monstrous about Bill was “made” rather than “born,” seemingly by what Robin Wood deems “the worst excesses of patriarchal culture” in his writing on the film. Rife with contradiction and ambiguity in its depiction, Demme, Levine and Fujimoto’s portrayal of Bill signals an effort, at least, to understand him, never wholly discounting the life of the character’s mind.

‘They/Them’ (2022), director John Logan

Logan’s new film happily sheds most of this cultural baggage, responding to it all the same. Even as its LGBTQ+ characters prove victimized by both physical and emotional forms of violence as captives at the camp, they retaliate in ways that are more wiley than rough themselves, with Logan’s screenplay avoiding even retaliatory forms of queer people inflicting harm. [Readers, note: spoilers follow] This tendency comes to a head — and maybe a breaking point — in the film’s climax which features a sympathetic character (whether they’re queer is never quite laid out) — harshly exacting vengeance against those responsible for the camp’s history of queer suppression. What Logan gives his queer cast is not so much revenge or firm agency but rather a way out of a longstanding representational trap, seeking to put daylight between the possibilities of the present and a troubled history of queerness in the genre.