‘Thelma’ and the Subversion of the Queer Disabled Monster

Thelma (2017). Anja (left) and Thelma (right) lie side by side in Thelma's single bed, Thelma looking at Anja's back. Anja is sleeping in a white t-shirt, her long dark hair spread on the pillow. Thelma is awake, looking at her, she has shorter brown hair and wears a black vest. Her hands are tucked under her chin, hesitant to touch Anja.

In Norwegian psychological thriller Thelma’s opening scene, the titular character, first shown as a young girl (Grethe Eltervåg), stands in a barren forest with her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelson). He quietly aims his shotgun at his turned-away daughter instead of the deer he set out to kill, confirming the roles for the duration of the film — Trond as the hunter, Thelma as the hunted. 

In a horror movie depicting a young woman who is navigating her repressed queer desires and relapse of her illogical seizures, it’s expected for the lead to follow a tragic outcome — one that could be synonymous with a monster’s. Yet, after her father shifts his aim from his daughter to the ground, Thelma looks back, giving him a knowing glance. She is aware of her unwanted presence, but even more so, the possibility of talking back and rejecting her role of monster entirely.

Joachim Trier’s film, evocative of a modern and queer adaptation of Carrie, follows college-aged Thelma (Eilie Harboe), living on her own for the first time in Oslo, Norway after leaving her Christian fundamentalist parents in her rural childhood home. Elements of horror weave through Thelma’s own self-discovery — both sexual and psychological — as she navigates a harsh world with her queerness and disability. She begins to catch feelings for classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins) as her psychogenic seizures progress, following a coming-of-age narrative that disrupts the typical trajectory of a young woman and rather moulds to that of a monster. 

The monster in film is always a presence to be feared, one that “lies at the gates of difference,” a thesis that scholar Jeffery Jerome Cohen notes in his cultural analysis of monsters. Thelma doesn’t represent a traditional monster, per se — with a white body that is first coded as able-bodied, she resembles an accepted figure in society. However, when her queer sexuality and mental illness intersect, she takes on the role of monster, rejected by various figures through a lifetime of repression, religion, and her family’s unjust treatment.

Thelma (2017). Thelma is lying back as Anja leans in to kiss her, both girls have their eyes closed. The background is pitch black. Thelma's hand reaches up to touch Anja's neck.

Yet, she understands this role’s impermanence when asking the questions: “Why can’t I just be what I am? Why isn’t that possible?” From this point forward, her reclamation of her differences become allow her to subvert her monster identity into one of a superhero, an unexpected take on the queer horror film that makes Thelma a refreshing story of accepting queerness and disability as powers, not defects.

Thelma’s seizures are introduced the first time she encounters Anja, a fellow student at her university. Nervously sitting next to her in a large library, Thelma begins to shake and collapse to the floor as a flock of students come to her rescue and black birds crash into the window from outside. In this moment, it’s not only clear that Thelma has psychokinetic powers, but that they are intrinsically linked to her crush towards Anja. Throughout Thelma, she disrupts everyday life through dramatised elements, revealing how her presence is dreaded by certain people and places. 

This seizure doesn’t stop her feelings from progressing, however; she continues to allow her crush on Anja to grow, even with her strict Christian background. Anja touches her thigh while in the audience of a ballet performance; Thelma shakes, hyperventilates, and even makes the massive chandelier above them move, forcing her to leave the crowded theatre and share her first kiss with Anja. She surrenders to desire only for a minute, immediately leaving her crush to pray her unwanted feelings away. Thelma later goes to a party, ignoring Anja to then enter an alcohol-induced fever dream — an eerie visual of herself hooking up with Anja as a snake enters her mouth. She instantly throws up when she wakes, expressing her own disgust of her queer desires. While her parents are strongly against having a gay daughter, Thelma herself views this trait as monstrous — so much to the point that she needs to erase it with religion and excessive drinking.

Monsters being an allegory for homosexual panic is nothing new — vampires have historically been a symbol of sexual fluidity (like in the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter), and the monster’s tendency to dwell underground and invoke fear is similar to the ways queer people were, and continue to be, perceived. While Thelma exists in a seemingly progressive society — the liberal city of Oslo, located in the most queer-friendly Nordic country — she is still seen as a monster, with her queerness and seizures that are both treated as mental illnesses. However, Trier critiques this expected fate of the monster with Thelma’s essential questioning of identity: can she truly be who she is?

Thelma (2017). A tight close up on Thelma's face as she is lying in a hospital bed with white sheets. She is staring wide eyed at the camera, and has lots of wires with sticky metal pieces on the end attached to her head.

Her initial diagnosis and treatment of her psychogenic seizures prevent this possibility. One of Thelma’s pivotal points showcases the character’s hospitalization as doctors attempt to figure out why she is having these seizures in the first place. They intentionally provoke a seizure by asking her to fixate on her “unpleasant” feelings — her desires for Anja — which lead to two horrific events: an unwanted diagnosis of “psychogenic non-epileptic seizures” and a supernatural disappearance of Anja. She is forced to return home with a confusing diagnosis, isolated from her community and separated from her romantic interest due to her uncontrollable psychokinesis.

Returning to her parents’ oppressive home gives viewers little hope for a comeback. She becomes a tragic, disabled figure, unable to control her seizures and queer desires due to her father’s treatment. This perception of her goes back to childhood — her identity becomes more horrific as we discover that she used her unknown powers to accidentally kill her baby brother when she was only six years old; she has always been a monster. This lifelong panic forces her father to go straight to medication, a strong sedative that strips Thelma’s agency and her ultimate sense of identity.

Her treatment is twofold — it prevents Thelma from having the power to carry on her seizures and other supernatural abilities, but it also is an attack on her queerness, which her father views as a mental illness. The reason for treatment then becomes blurred, and we question if her father wants to cure her homosexuality or her disability more. Thelma tells her parents about her seizures; Trond responds with, “We know what’s happening to you, Thelma. We’ll help you.” Analogous to a coming out scene gone awry, Thelma does not have the capacity to accept her queerness and disability in this moment; rather, she is forced to take drugs that act as a “cure” to her queer, disabled body.

Thelma (2017). A distanced birds eye view shot of Thelma in a white night dress which is soaking wet, as is her hair. She is lying on a patch of grass outside, covered in bits of dirt and leaves, sprawled out like a corpse, but her eyes are open.

The possibility of Thelma not taking up this so-called “cure” is bleak throughout Thelma’s gradual downfall, where she can no longer perform basic functions on her own (like bathing, for example). Her identity is entirely repressed, matching exactly what a society would want from a dangerous monster, but Thelma, although manipulated by drugs, finally understands that life doesn’t have to be this way. To refuse the monster label and accept her sexual and psychological differences is a radical act, and Thelma takes that risk to become the superhero a queer horror lead deserves to be.

In Thelma’s most climactic moment, Thelma talks back by gaining control over her supernatural abilities and setting her father on fire through a rage-filled sleep, reminiscent of the angry and queer-coded act of Megan Fox eating boys in Jennifer’s Body. She uses her disability as her superpower to eradicate the oppressive figure in her life and ultimately brings Anja back through yet another dream sequence — a Thelma favourite. She swims through a lake to find Anja at their campus swimming pool, and as they kiss, Thelma wakes up on shore, coughing and aware of Anja’s final return. Her ability to kill her father and summon Anja — ending her mistreatment and embracing her queer sexuality — is a way for her to reclaim madness as a superpower and live as her true self.

Her powers continue to strengthen her identity through the film’s ending scene, one in which Thelma envisions Anja kissing her neck to become her reality only seconds later in her campus’s courtyard. The camera pans out on the two walking and holding hands, turning the expected destiny of a queer, disabled monster on its head. Trier’s film opens a world of possibility through Thelma’s ending, revealing how she can live a fulfilling life with the two traits that once deemed her monstrous. She might still be perceived as one in a world that still frames disability and queer sexuality as disorders that need to be cured; however, Thelma’s self-discovery and ultimate acceptance paint Thelma as a queer horror that thankfully does not end in tragedy and instead in freedom.

by Natalie Geisel

Natalie (she/her) studied gender and sexuality studies at George Washington University and currently writes on queer culture and media. Her interest in queer cinema grew when she was able to attend Prague’s Mezipatra Queer Film Festival in 2019 for one of her university courses, where she got to view one of her favorite films, And Then We Danced. Her other favorites include Portrait of a Lady on FireFrances Ha, and But I’m A Cheerleader. She leads the queer platform of Camp Thirlby, and you can find her on Instagram and Twitter and read more of her work here.

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