SLEEPAWAY CAMP and the Horror of Enforcing Gender Roles

Sleepaway Camp. 1983.
Directed & Written by Robert Hiltzik.
Starring Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Thomas E. van Dell, Loris Diran, John E. Dunn, Willy Kuskin, & Desiree Gould.

Rated R / 84 minutes.


★★★★Sleepaway Camp - Angela StareThe opinion on Sleepaway Camp was always divided. In today’s sociopolitical climate there’s probably wider disparity between the camps of people who love this slasher flick versus those who feel it’s an offensive piece of cinematic trash of the highest degree. I personally believe this 1983 classic is up there with the greatest of its sub-genre. Not only that, looking back at the story and its whopping finale plot twist from current day, it’s a movie with plenty to say.

As a preface, I don’t identify as trans, but I do identify as queer. There may be aspects of this article with which other members of the LGBTQ+ community might not agree, specifically those who identify as trans. This close reading of the movie’s story is only an attempt at honestly viewing it in a more positive light than certain other dismissive takes. Here at Father Son Holy Gore, all opinions are welcome. It’d be a pleasure to hear from anyone in the community with other analyses.

Sleepaway Camp is gnarly slasher horror, never holding back on its kill scenes and equally as adamant about being a hilarious mirror of what being a teen in the 1980s was like for young people. There’s also nuance in what, at first, feels like an exploitative twist at the very end right before the credits start rolling. Some see it as shock value doubling as transphobia. The big reveal actually suggests the screenplay’s focused on psychological damage inherent in enforcing gender roles on children, as well as how growing up can be absolute fucking torture in general.
Sleepaway Camp - Creepy AuntBeing young is the same as being vulnerable. Twice as worse for girls and young women. The nature of being young is, essentially, being prey – “a sweetlooking little cupcake” – while everyone around you is a predator, to one degree or another. Whether it’s the paedophile camp cook, a demented aunt bent on turning her nephew into her niece, or the other asshole kids at your summer camp picking on you— youth’s a battlefield.
Even Mel, looking after the kids’ best interests, conceals the truth from his campers, and, in doing so, makes them further susceptible to predators. He continually insists on the deaths being “an accident” and concerns himself solely with “bad publicity” from the murders. No matter where a young person turns at Camp Arawak there are only predatory animals.

The danger of youth’s accentuated by the gruesome quality of the kill scenes. One discovery of a dead camper is strangely familiar, possibly drawing on A Bay of Blood with a corpse’s open mouth revealing a snake slithering out, bringing to mind a scene from Bava’s movie where an octopus crawls across a decomposing body. Other deaths involve boiling hot water burns, a bee hive, stabbing, one fiery curling iron, and more. While there are other worries for the young people at Camp Arawak, the grisly serial killings are chief amongst them making painfully clear the anxiety of growing up with danger at every turn.

The whole movie’s a metaphor for teenage anxieties and the trials of growing up. It’s just as much an allegory about how our society enforces gender roles and stereotypes to a damaging extent. If Angela were allowed to live her own life she’d have been a boy and probably never would’ve been driven to kill. But her aunt – representative of societal control in general – applies the gender and inherent roles she sees fit, just as so many do to people everyday by misgendering men and women, not respecting the identities they’ve known themselves their entire lives.
Sleepaway Camp - Boiled Chef

“Eat shit and live, Bill.”

Sleepaway Camp - CorpseThe policing of gender drives Angela to isolation, further leaving her vulnerable to all those predators lurking out there, finally leaving her with one option: murder, murder, murder— technically three, but they’re all the same. Sleepaway Camp isn’t the height of enlightenment on gender studies. It’s not attempting to make anyone transgender out to be a killer or a freak or anything in that vein, either. The story’s symbolic of the violent, brutal, and relentlessly confusing process through which so many people go while grappling with the difficult idiosyncrasies of growing up questioning one’s gender simultaneously.

A major reason why the story feels suitable to commentary is the side plot concerning Angela’s father being gay. In a flashback, she and her brother giggle as they see their dad in bed with his boyfriend. The opening scene where dad and one of his children are accidentally killed also depicts the boyfriend as part of their lives. It’s safe to assume the boyfriend was a normal part of Angela’s life, and, though she giggled at him and her father in bed it was clearly, at some point, an accepted notion.
We don’t know all the details. It’s again safe to assume when Aunt Martha took Angela in this is when the trouble with gender began on more than a corporeal level. Martha’s house was a space of enforced roles. After she began moulding her nephew into Angela what the child saw as normal – a gay relationship – became abnormal, forever leaving Angela with a misshapen psyche.

What’s significant about the gender roles ingrained in Angela is how things go for her at summer camp. Because she’s actually a boy, she doesn’t act like society expects a girl to act provoking anger and confusion from both the boys and the other girls. The boys want to get in her pants, whereas the girls can’t understand why she won’t take her pants off. One particular scene of interest sees Angela receive a kiss, provoking unease appearing as the typical awkwardness of youth. We discover the true unease at the end when Angela’s whole truth is revealed. She shies away from kissing a boy, though earlier on she’s caught staring at one of the other scantily clad girls, so her sexual preference is a separate issue unto itself.
Sleepaway Camp - Unknown Killer

“Yo, Angela—
how come you’re so fucked up?”

Sleepaway Camp - Angela's DickWhatever you think of Sleepaway Camp there’s nothing like seeing it for the very first time. I first saw this flick many years ago as a younger man, only caring about its shocking end and all the brutal, bloody kills. It took another 20 years before understanding other elements at work in the screenplay. It’s only gotten better, and the movie’s as compelling as it is nasty.

In 2019 and beyond, others definitely see it differently. The evidence remains, and it’s easy to see how this is more than just an excuse for the hack n’ slash format to get used again, another random title on a conveyor belt of horror movies being churned out during the heyday of the ’80s. Angela will always be one of the sub-genre’s best villains, albeit she and the franchise change moving forward through the sequels.

Sleepaway Camp has enough blood and gore to satisfy horror hounds. For anyone who likes a few tablespoons of commentary, the story tackles the detrimental effects of pushing gender roles on kids, which one way or another leads to disaster. Those kids in real life won’t turn out to be serial killers like Angela— that’s why this is a movie, a cinematic allegory, and one with sharp, angry teeth.

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