The history of queer people in the horror genre is one fraught with stereotypes, death, and violent transmisogyny. Films like Dressed to Kill and Sleepaway Camp are among many that have helped to paint the myth of transgender women as mentally disturbed crossdressers. There are no transgender people according to the horror film, only murderous psychopaths in drag. This trend has continued into the 21st century with films like Insidious: Chapter 2 and Tales from the Lodge. And though there has been a push in recent years for better transgender representation in all areas of film, the horror genre has been particularly slow to show evolution from the transmisogyny of its past. Most recently, Assassination Nation and The Craft: Legacy both featured female transgender characters, but both girls were little more than undeveloped background characters. And neither had characterisation outside of their transness.
Enter Bit, a 2019 horror film written and directed by Brad Michael Elmore, and the first feature-length horror film to centre a transgender protagonist. The film follows Laurel (Nicole Maines), a transgender girl who moves to Los Angeles after her high school graduation, and finds herself at the centre of a group of feminist vampires who have only three rules. The most important one? No boys allowed. A wholly unique dive into the queer monster story, what makes Bit so special is not only how it handles it’s queer subject matter, but also in how it addresses horror’s history of transmisogyny and transphobia.
The bulk of Bit follows Laurel as she is plunged into the underground world of vampires, while still trying to cling to what normal life she had before. She is romantically involved with Izzy (Zolee Griggs) and also grows close with Duke (Diana Hopper), the designated leader of the group. The characters of Roya (Friday Chamberlain) and Frog (Char Diaz) unfortunately remain underdeveloped background characters, but their distinct appearances help round out the look of this queer girl group. The joy of the film comes primarily from the relationships between these women. Although nothing forces them to stay together, they maintain the group for the sake of protection and for friendship among their kind, much in the same way many friend groups between gay and trans people form in the real world. And, in spite of the group being prone to constant toxicity and conflict, the girls are quick to band together against outside threats: male vampires, vampire hunters, and predatory Twitter users alike.
What makes Laurel unique as a horror protagonist is her transness. Despite being explicitly transgender, she is never whittled down to that one trait (in fact, the word “transgender” is never said once in the film). Elmore went to great effort to properly walk the line of acknowledging Laurel’s gender without defining her by it. Compare this again to films like Dressed to Kill and Sleepaway Camp, where the transgender character in question has no personality outside of their transness, which in and of itself is only utilised for the sake of a cheap twist. Angela Baker of the Sleepaway Camp series only gains her quirky personality in later sequels; in the first film, she is little more than quiet and meek. She is a blank slate for a plot twist to be projected upon; unlike Laurel, whose transness is not the driving force behind the plot, but merely one aspect to her characterisation.
As far as the horror angle goes, monsters such as the vampire and the werewolf have long been accepted metaphors for queer people (both are creatures who live in hiding, only to emerge in the night as they transform into something “other”). In the 2016 article Not Just Dead, But Gay! Queerness and the Vampire, William Tringali explains the unique, queer nature of the vampire: “[The] horror of the vampire is sexual. Worse, it is sexual in all the wrong ways. It is beautiful, charming […] but definitively abnormal. This allows the vampire to become a conduit for cultural anxieties concerning queerness within society. As a creature that straddles the binaries of life and death, drawing attraction and repulsion, the vampire queers both gender and sexuality”. Under this reading of the vampire, Laurel and the other girls are both metaphorically and textually queer monsters. They’re all either lesbian or bisexual, and while Laurel is the only explicitly transgender character, Duke and the other girls are heavily coded to be as well. Elmore understands the history of queer people as monsters and delights in drawing direct attention to it in his script: ““We’re made to be monsters, so let’s be monsters””.
It would have been easy to make a film in which Duke and the other girls were all secretly pure evil, and Laurel would have to be the “good one” and kill them all. It would’ve also been easy to make a film too far in the other direction, where the girls were infantilised or put otherwise beyond criticism. But though Duke becomes a formidable secondary antagonist for Laurel to struggle against, she is not the villain. She is not evil, but simply flawed. At the end of the film, the only true villain is still the male vampire directly responsible for Duke’s turning and trauma. The film takes the Ginger Snaps approach to its male characters: the men do not solve the problems, they just create more of them. That’s not to say that there are no redeemable male characters- Laurel’s brother Mark (James Paxton) is a decent example- but the men don’t really matter. Bit gives all of the juicy characterisation to the women, while the male characters are either one-dimensional victims or damsels to be saved. It takes the usual traits given to men and women in horror and flips it.
Bit is an entire film dedicated to taking the usual tropes of horror and flipping them. It takes the usual narrative beats of transformation horror (the ‘normal’ life before, the initial change, and the slow descent into a new world) and puts them through the lens of transition. It’s a film that is more kind to the idea of transition and transformation than most other horror films tend to be. This transformation is not some betrayal of the body, but an unlocking of one’s true, queer self. And it’s a film where the queer characters are no subjected to copious amounts of onscreen abuse; Duke’s trauma is portrayed carefully, getting across what the audience needs to know without sexualising or glorifying what she goes through. Partnered with the aforementioned fact that Bit is the first full-length horror film with a transgender protagonist, the end product is more akin to a love letter than something patronising.
Because of where it sits within both horror and transgender film history, Bit seems to transcend classifications of either “good” or “bad”. How do you truly quantify the quality of a milestone achievement based on subjective elements? But above all else, Bit is the long overdue response to decades of transphobia in horror. An escapist fantasy into a world of neon and endless night. A celebration of transformation and transition. A promise that your people are out there in the shadows, waiting for you.
by Logan-Ashley Kisner
Logan-Ashley (he/him) is a writer and student currently working on his BA in English with a minor in film. You can always find him writing, whether it’s critical analysis or an original screenplay. His favorite movies are Ginger Snaps, Evil Dead 2, and Little Women (2019). You can find him on Twitter and on Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films
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