Haunting the Family: Crip-Trans Ghosts in Paranormal Horror Films
“Disability, especially mental illness, figures into the critiques of such “bad” trans depictions, especially as they are seemingly “bad” because they are “mad”…”
Dylan Holdsworth and Tom Sandercock
Dylan Holdsworth ([email protected])
Dylan Holdsworth is a casual academic at Deakin University and is a researcher in the areas of disability studies, dystopian literature, children’s literature, and gender and sexuality studies. He is the author of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on disabled representation in literature and film.
Tom Sandercock ([email protected])
Tom Sandercock is a casual academic at Deakin University and is a researcher in the areas of gender and sexuality studies, children’s literature, literary studies, and television and film. He is the author of Youth Fiction and Trans Representation (2022).
Horror and thriller films often entangle crip and trans depictions to elicit fearful responses from audiences. While often evaluated negatively, we contend that the variety and breadth of representations requires closer analysis. This paper focuses on three supernatural haunting and possession films that depict traumatised and violent trans ghosts, Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), 32 Malasaña Street (2020) and Kanchana (2011). Having been traumatised and rejected by their families, these ghosts haunt and possess the living to enact their desires and/or seek justice. While each film still features trans revelatory backstory sequences, and exorcism scenes, they each negotiate crip-trans afterlives in different and nuanced ways.
Disability; transgender; horror films; possession; family; trauma
Transgender people have habitually been “the psychotics, the murderers, or the criminal geniuses who populate the movies” (Bornstein 1995, 60), often being “associated directly with castration, madness, murder and monstrosity” (Phillips 2006, 85). In short, trans people on screen have often been “mad, bad, and dangerous” making “the connection between gender variance and serial murder seem obvious and inevitable” (Halberstam 2018, 92). An aspect that is often overlooked is how disability, especially mental illness, figures into the critiques of such “bad” trans depictions, especially as they are seemingly “bad” because they are “mad”. There is plenty to critique in how trans and disabled, or “crip”, depictions intersect, especially given that “psycho-trans” killers (Phillips, 85) reflect a “reversal of reality” by painting trans people as victimizers rather than more often victims (Ryan 2009, 191). Although “mad, bad” depictions are highly problematic, we explore how they are also varied, potent, and in some cases, potentially transformative. Concerning terminology, we use “crip” and “trans” as inclusive umbrella terms to refer, respectively, to disabled and transgender people and experiences, although we use more specific terms where relevant. In this paper we signal the varied ways that cripness and transness intersect in films intended to horrify and thrill audiences with a focus on supernatural haunting and possession narratives.
Horror films that depict “diabolic possession” (Wood 2018, 89) by ghosts or other entities can be read in relation to crip and trans identity and experience. Broadly, the disabled body on screen often engenders fears over the “order and mastery associated with the nondisabled body” which reveals that the “fantasy of bodily control among audience members [… is] a fiction deeply seated in the desire for an impossible dominion over our own capacities” (Snyder and Mitchell 2006, 163). More specifically, “various types of possession and bodily invasion are typical horror film scenarios that represent a loss of autonomy and self-determination” (Krzywinska 2002, 19) and resonate with mental illness taxonomies (Friedman et al. 2014, 448). The obsessive and compulsive behaviour of ghosts with singular “unfinished business” that they must complete (or repeat) in response to trauma similarly speak to generalised understandings of mental illnesses. Likewise, possession narratives with competing or new identities in a body pair with stereotypical understandings of trans identity, such as being in the “wrong body.” In short, the “invasion of the body has provided filmmakers with a potent metaphor to explore the terrors and ecstasies of irrationality and split identity” (Krzywinska 2000, 35). This may reflect stigmatized understandings of crip and trans lives but can also afford screen time to minoritized groups to inform and redress injustice. To illustrate this, we discuss three contemporary horror films, Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), 32 Malasaña Street (2020), and Kanchana: Muni 2 (2011), which depict trans-crip ghosts who, while alive, were alienated from and traumatised by their families. Our attention to the family as a source of trauma correlates with Robin Wood’s claim that “the connection of the family to horror has become overwhelmingly consistent” and that the “monsters” of contemporary horror films are often “shown as products of the family” (2018, 90). For Wood, the basic formula of the horror film is “normality is threatened by the monster” (83), where “normality” for Wood equates to “the heterosexual monogamous couple, the family, and the social institutions…that support and defend them” (84). Adam Lowenstein develops Wood’s claims but critiques his dichotomous approach by advancing his own concept of “transformative otherness”, contending “normality and monstrosity are variations on self and other that cannot be fixed but are instead always shifting, always metamorphosing” (2022). Lowenstein’s notion of “transformative otherness” is useful for our examination of possession narratives which (can) collapse distinction between the possessor and possessed, especially as these films, to different degrees, seek to rationalise, if not humanise, their violent ghost antagonists.
The American film sequel Insidious: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Lambert family’s haunting. After the events of the previous film, protagonist Josh is possessed by the ghost of Parker Crane, a serial killer known as the Bride in Black for murdering in a black gown and wig. The film is primarily focused on the revelation of Parker’s backstory and his childhood abuse as well as exorcising Parker’s spirit from Josh’s body. The Spanish film 32 Malasaña Street, set in 1976 against the backdrop of the Spanish transition, follows the Olmedo family as they move from a small village to an apartment in Madrid for a better life. While adjusting to their new life, the youngest son Rafael disappears. They eventually discover the ghost who haunts the apartment, a trans woman named Clara, has kidnapped Rafael. The family turns to a disabled medium to help exorcise Clara, with tragic consequences. The Tamil-language Indian comedy-horror Kanchana follows protagonist Raghava who disturbs unmarked graves and is then haunted and possessed by three ghosts murdered by a corrupt politician and wealthy landgrabber. These ghosts include a man named Rahim, his developmentally disabled son, and their adopted family member Kanchana. Kanchana is a trans person (Dhusiya 2018, 144) who describes herself as a thirunangai, meaning “respectable woman” in Tamil, a term variably used in contrast to the North Indian hijra (Nataraj 2019, vi), although the trans community in Tamil Nadu is also referred to as aravanis (often thirunangai aravanis) with aravanis referring to “transgendered ritual specialist associated with the worship of lord Aravan” (Nataraj, v). Mithuraaj Dhusiya explains Kanchana “narrativises the predicament of the aravanis” (151), but notes the film has tensions between honouring and abjectifying trans people (157). The film explores the possession of Raghava, Kanchana’s backstory, and the ghosts’ revenge.
While these horror films have been produced in different cultural contexts, an in-depth discussion of these contexts, with their attendant national cinemas, traditions, and folk histories, is beyond the scope and aim of this paper. Rather, our focus is to examine possession narratives, selected from a preliminary global review of horror films, as a unique space for reflecting and transforming shared understandings of disability and gender variance and to consider the strengths and limitations of their approaches to crip-trans representation.
Backstory sequences in each film reveal to audiences the abusive family histories of each trans ghost, explaining their violent behaviour as stemming from significant trauma. In Insidious: Chapter 2, Parker’s mother feminises him as a child, forcing him to wear a dress and wig, and to use the name Marilyn, physically abusing him when he resists. This signals a troubling correlation between childhood abuse and trans expression paired with a palpable hostility towards women evident as Parker cross-dresses to murder them. Despite the revelation of Parker’s abuse, audiences are not positioned to view him as sympathetic or redeemable, unlike the ghosts in the other films. Despite a lifetime of cross-dressing to kill women, at no point while possessing Josh does he attempt to cross-dress. Seemingly, possessing Josh enables Parker to reclaim and experience normative masculinity denied by his mother. The insistence by Parker’s mother that he be a girl, against his desire to be a boy, significantly parallels the negation of trans identities in the other films.
In 32 Malasaña Street, the Olmedo’s eldest daughter Amparo locates Clara’s sister, Susana, and learns of Clara’s abuse in childhood due to her trans femininity. The confusing incidents of haunting in the film are explained as reflective of Clara’s childhood abuse. Susana explains that Clara’s abuse and neglect continued into adulthood, and she was isolated in the apartment with Susana moving away and refusing any contact. This seemingly transforms Clara’s desire to be a mother into an obsession andthe reason she kidnaps Rafael and demands Amparo’s unborn baby. After learning of Clara’s abuse, Amparo expresses trans affirmative attitudes and criticises Susana and her family’s cruelty. Like Clara, Kanchana defies gender expectations resulting in familial rejection, however before her death, Kanchana finds a family, lives openly, and becomes a mother.
In Kanchana, the revelations of trans identity, childhood trauma, and murder are narrated by Kanchana herself. As a child, she was kicked out of home and publicly humiliated by her father. She was taken in by Rahim who cares for and affirms her identity. This motivates her to help another thirunangai, Geetha, supporting her to be educated and become a doctor who dreams of opening a free hospital. Kanchana’s support of Geetha’s ambition is tied to her being murdered and to her subsequent acts of violent revenge. Unlike 32 Malasaña Street, Kanchana depicts trans youth being (eventually) embraced, connecting this to societal improvement. While Kanchana’s story is tragic, Kanchana acknowledges adversities while not locating trauma as the definitive trans experience. Trans behaviour, childhood trauma, and later acts of violence are imbricated in each film, although audiences are encouraged to respond differently in each case.
Each film features ghosts who possess human bodies but are exorcised in each closure, with “order” being restored in distinct ways. Insidious: Chapter 2 includes parallel sequences where the displaced Josh and his allies enter the Further (a limbo spirit realm) to destroy the memory of Parker’s mother, while Parker in Josh’s body (Parker-Josh) attacks the Lambert family. After witnessing a memory of Parker’s mother feminising and abusing her son, Josh is attacked by Parker’s mother. She grabs his throat and pins him to the wall, threatening that “little girls need to learn to be good.” The scene reveals her desire to dominate, infantilise, and feminise, underlining the motivation for Parker’s misogynistic murders and subsequent possession that threatens the Lamberts. While possessing Josh, Parker takes up the role of husband and father, suggesting a desire to live a heteronormative life. This life is interrupted when Josh’s wife Renai discovers that he is possessed, and Parker-Josh then attacks his family. In a frenetic sequence, Parker-Josh chases them to the basement and overpowers Renai, before attempting to kill one of their sons. In both scenes discussed, mothers are the target of violence, although only one is deemed as deserving. Parker’s mother is a domineering and feminising single parent, in contrast to the nurturing and married Renai. By killing the memory of Parker’s overbearing single mother, the ghost of the cross-dressing serial killer Parker is exorcised, and Josh regains his body.
In 32 Malasaña Street, Lola, a quadriplegic medium, helps exorcise Clara’s spirit. This scene also coincides with a backstory and trans reveal sequence. Clara possesses Lola’s body (Clara-Lola), levitating out of her wheelchair, using Lola’s limited verbal functions to communicate. Clara-Lola demands Rafael, repeating “Mine!” before hurling family members out of the way and pinning them against walls. As she levitates towards Rafael, the pregnant Amparo enters and Clara-Lola turns her attention to her, demanding her unborn child. Amparo consoles her, saying, “I know what they did to you was awful. You deserved a better life, not all this. I’m sorry, Clara”, although she refuses to promise her unborn child. Amparo shows empathy for Clara but refuses to help actualise her maternal desire. Amparo threatens to kill the foetus to force Clara to leave the house. This disrupts Clara-Lola’s telekinetic hold on the family, giving Amparo’s stepfather Manolo an opportunity to tackle Lola’s body out of the window. Manolo dies and Lola survives, but the heroic act ultimately does not remove Clara, although his life insurance frees the Olmedos from their mortgage on the apartment, permitting them to leave the city.
Kanchana deals with exorcising ghosts in a different manner to the other films. After possessing Raghava throughout the film, with Kanchana making Raghava behave in ways typical of a woman, the ghosts are eventually exorcised, during which Kanchana tells her story. Moved by Kanchana’s plight, Raghava lets the ghosts re-possess him to exact violent revenge on the final landgrabber and reclaim the land for Geetha’s hospital. Unlike Parker and Clara, Kanchana’s violence is framed as legitimate justice and tied to supporting alternative kinship and enriching lives through accessible healthcare. In the end, Kanchana remains partially in Raghava, able to emerge in times of crisis. The film ends with Geetha opening the hospital and Raghava reuniting with his love interest. The dis-order the crip-trans ghosts bring is resolved unevenly across the films, but each film nonetheless has past buried traumas revived and recognised, underlining the family home as a space of possible harm.
These haunting and possession narratives are bound up with severe trauma from familial abuse interconnected with gender variance. The haunting presence of violently agential crip-trans ghosts offers a fantasy of enacting vengeful justice, however uneven. While fraught, these films offer “powerful and seductive narratives of transgression and fantasy which can be turned to a counter-cultural use” (Krzywinska 2000, ix). While the films contain harmful ideas, they can also be re-viewed to consider their usefulness as potentially radical and liberatory texts. Despite some promising features, though, each film ultimately reinstates the value of family, the individual, and home in the closure, although in different ways.
In Insidious: Chapter 2, the crip-trans ghost is expelled and heteronormative nuclear family life is restored, while in 32 Malasaña Street, the family can return to their village and Amparo keeps her baby, relegating Clara to exist alone in the apartment until new tenants arrive. In Kanchana, Raghava reclaims normative masculinity and his heterosexual relationship that was disrupted by being possessed, although Kanchana does remain if she is needed to protect the hospital. In contrast to Clara who was shamefully hidden away, Kanchana, who was once publicly humiliated and spurned by her father for her thirunangai identity, is now memorialised by her community through the naming of and shrine at the Kanchana Hospital, celebrating an alternative family inclusive of crip and trans differences.
While ghosts are sources of horror in these films, the familial abuse, rejection, and trauma these trans-crip ghosts experience is perhaps most abhorrent. Although these films feature trans characters who are to some degree “mad, bad, and dangerous” (Halberstam, 92), these depictions compel audiences to recognise the complexities of gender identity and expression and trauma and to, unevenly, celebrate or relish crip-trans “monsters” who seek justice beyond the grave and/or who persist in manifesting desires denied to them in life.
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