Monday, June 10, 2024

Books of 2024: Week 24 - Sleepaway Camp

Cody checks out a book that digs into the 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP by BJ and Harmony Colangelo

The 1983 slasher movie Sleepaway CampSleepaway Camp is one of the most strongly enduring horror films of the ‘80s, and the main reason why the film has kept a place in the public consciousness is its final moments. This movie has a shock ending that some found horrifying and others found hilarious, and I have been witness to both reactions. I clearly remember the first time I watched the movie, rented on VHS in the ‘80s. I was around preschool / kindergarten age, and I was watching it with my older brother, who has ten years on me. When the ending came up on the screen, my brother started laughing hysterically. Being a little kid, I didn’t understand what was going on and had to have him explain what the twist was. A decade later, we would take in another viewing of the movie with the woman my brother ended up marrying, because she considered the ending of the movie to be one of the most disturbing things she had ever seen. That viewing with my sister-in-law might have been the second time my brother ever watched Sleepaway Camp, but it wasn’t my second time. The movie had been part of my viewing rotation ever since the first time we watched it, as I have been a horror fan since the age of 3, slashers are my favorite type of horror movie to watch, and Sleepaway Camp is an awesome slasher.

I think the final moments of the film are a great, tragic way to end the story, and they stir up a lot of sympathy for the character at the center of it all, Angela Baker. A biological male character, born Peter Baker, who was forced to live as a girl named Angela by their mentally ill caretaker, Aunt Martha. Once we know this kid was raised in such an abusive situation and forced to hide the secret of their own gender, we can fully understand why Angela was so quiet, shy, and resistant to participating in certain events with other campers at the titular sleepaway camp. That behavior never seemed all that weird to me, being a quiet and shy person myself, but it resulted in Angela being targeted by multiple bullies... All of whom turn up dead over the course of the film. In the end, it’s revealed that Angela is the killer. Not only that, but she’s found on the beach with a decapitated corpse, fully nude, penis exposed for the world to see. Although Angela is played by 13-year-old Felissa Rose throughout the film, in the exposed penis moment the character is played by an anonymous local college student wearing a Felissa Rose mask. And because of this memorable moment, Sleepaway Camp is also, of course, seen as a problematic and potentially transphobic movie.

As someone who has been a fan of Sleepaway Camp for nearly forty years and has always felt a lot of sympathy for Angela, seeing Aunt Martha as the true villain of the story, I was interested to find out how the film was interpreted by “the Wives Colangelo,” BJ and Harmony Colangelo, especially since Harmony is a transwoman and the couple would have deeper insight into the complicated subject matter than I have as a straight cis man. I understand that reactions to Sleepaway Camp could go either way within the trans community; the movie could be embraced by trans fans who take it as an entertaining piece of slasher entertainment that also shows the dangers of forced mis-gendering, or it could be seen as something offensive and hurtful. The Colangelos acknowledge both reads of the film and they’re both valid... but as a fan, I was glad to see that they are also fans who count Sleepaway Camp among their favorites and consider it to be a special movie in their lives. (Even if, understandably, Harmony gets tired of being asked to talk about it all the time just because she’s trans. She would rather talk about her #1 favorite horror movie, Tremors.... another excellent choice.)

Over the book’s 140-or-so pages, the Colangelos recap the events of Sleepaway Camp, with some amusing observations along the way; they discuss their first viewing experiences; they dig into the cinematic history of cross-dressing killers; they cover Sleepaway Camp fandom, retrospectives, and the film’s reputation among trans viewers; and they take a deep dive into the making of the film. I have also written about the making of Sleepaway Camp (in a less intensive way), so I was impressed by how extensive their research was. I’m a fan of doing research, so I’m always appreciative when other writers put in the time and effort to do their research.

I went into this Sleepaway Camp book concerned that it would be a condemnation of a movie I have always enjoyed, but what I found was a celebration that doesn’t shy away from the troubling aspects of the movie. The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t skate by so easily in this book’s pages... but I like Sleepaway Camp way more than I like The Silence of the Lambs, so I don’t mind seeing that one condemned so much. It won Best Picture at the Oscars; it can take the heat.

Going over everything from the making of the film to how it’s seen by members of the trans community, if you’re interested in knowing a lot about Sleepaway Camp, this book is a great resource.

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