It Isn’t About the Dick: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp

I first heard of Felissa Rose on The Last Drive-In.

Joe Bob Briggs had, during a “commercial” segment in his show, phoned her up and consulted her as a “mangled dick expert.”

Yeah. So, between her quips and her obvious charisma, I had to find out more about who she was.

I’ve mentioned on here before that I am not a horror expert. A lot of what I do here is me discovering the old classics for myself, or commenting on strange grindhouse, art, and mainstream movies and stories that speak to me in some way. Sometimes, I will just dissect, or reminiscence about my reactions toward them. Other times, I will create potentially bad revisions of the film stories for my experiments, or even outright homages (read: fanfiction).

But I was intrigued by Felissa Rose and her guest calls on The Last Drive-In. I figured out she was a legendary actress in the horror genre, and I had to check out the film in which she is most known: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp.

Now, before I continue writing, I just want to say the following. When I started this Blog, I was going to begin small. Originally, I would look at some older, perhaps more obscure works, and give my takes on them. And then, Cannibal Holocaust happened. It side-swiped me. It hid in the jungle and blew a dart in me with a complex substance that I couldn’t suck out of my brain, or ignore.

And, in that same spirit, so did Sleepaway Camp.

Yes. Even before this death-dealer loving film returned to Shudder, I watched it. And I felt like I got trapped in the sights of that point of view killer camera angle.

Of course, as with most old films the ending was spoiled for me. As Joe Bob mentions in his interview with Felissa Rose that I finally got the opportunity to see not too long ago, I too believed this is where the origin of the “mangled dick expert” came from. But I, too, was wrong: just differently. You know a word or a concept can mean something ages before, and as time passes it changes. Sometimes, it transforms so much there are legends attached to it, even mythologies or tall-tales? This seems to be one of those times.

See, I’m going to spoil the ending to this 1986 film. I’m not going to do it right now, but when I give you the warning, and you want to watch this, run. This article will deal primarily in looking at this issue, and how it relates to the film.

But before we do that, I just want to say I actually enjoyed watching Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose plays a quiet, shy, awkward, and terrified thirteen year old girl named Angela Baker who goes to a summer camp with her cousin Ricky, and proceeds to get humiliated and terrorized by both her fellow campers, and some of the counselors.

So, here is your first spoiler warning, with a side of violent trigger warnings.

Angela Baker proceeds to kill everyone that has wronged her in the most creative, and brutal ways possible. It is bloody inspiring. We only, for ages, see through the camera as a first-person perspective. I can just imagine it as a video game like Dennis the Menace or Home Alone, except instead of escaping Mr. Wilson, or planting death-traps for Harry and Marv, you get to pour grease on a pedophile cook, stab a malicious counselor in the shower, shoot a child beater in the neck with an arrow, create a death by beehive situation to a counselor on the toilet, Anakin Skywalker some little shits with a machete that threw sand at you after nearly drowning, and introduce a particularly mean girl — intimately — to a curling iron.

Somehow, I don’t think that by even today’s standards, that it would be a game for children, even if it happened to them in this film.

Yes, you can tell how much I enjoyed this movie. Almost every person that dies in it, deserves their fate. And those whose fates you have conflicting feelings about, you can understand why they are killed. You actually emphasize with the killer. You feel bad for Angela, and towards the end of the film and looking back, I know I can totally root for her.

And then … there is the other revelation. So, this is where I am going to put spoilers up, with another trigger warning.

So, in 1975, before the film begins Angela is seen with her brother Peter with their father who gets into an accident due to some careless teenagers. As a result, there are some injuries and Angela is the only survivor. This is not the spoiler, however. What you find out is that Angela’s aunt, one Dr. Martha Thomas — who is so much more terrifying than Angela will ever be — decides that she has a son already, and wants to raise a girl.

To get back to the end of the film, we discover that Angela — who is extremely aquaphobic, has issues with burgeoning relationships and her body image, and won’t even shower with the other girls in her cabin — is biologically male. Essentially, the movie ends with one of the counselors finding Angela — this young, sensitive, introverted child you’ve been rooting for — with the decapitated head of the boy she liked, naked, and grinning like a maniac, with a low animal growl in her throat following the man shouting: “Oh my god! She’s a boy!”

… yeah.

There is Angela, who had been, or is still Peter, naked with a demented grin of utter torment on her face, and her penis is fairly clear with a body possessing visible chest hair.

So yeah. I walked right into this. And I was so sure, like Joe Bob, that Angela — and it is unclear to me whether or not good old Aunt Martha made Peter take his sister’s name along with her appearance in some good old fashioned misgendering for her sensibilities — suffered injuries from that accident, and perhaps this is why her Aunt and family influenced her to transition. And, thus, the origin of Felissa Rose’s moniker.

It turns out, we were both wrong.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned that the twist ending of Sleepaway Camp has not … aged well. And I see their point. The transphobic elements from the 1980s are pretty clear. Certainly, the fact that Angela and Peter’s father had been gay, or involved in a gay relationship before their accident adds some homophobia and the implication of this arrangement affecting Angela’s sense of identity adversely to this mix.

I don’t think at this point I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know, or can’t read elsewhere.

Personally, between you and I, I like other takes on this film. Certainly, BJ Colangelo, and more extensively her partner Harmony M. Colangelo on their Dread Central and Medium articles respectively, look at Angela Baker as a young victim of misgendering in a social system of transphobia and bigotry. Harmony M. Colangelo goes as far as to say that Angela is something of a Frankenstein’s creature: a symbol of transgender rage against a social order that maligns her because of her sense of identity.

Colangelo isn’t the only writer that identifies Angela as such. Daniel Sheppard sees Angela as a supposed antagonist that he identifies with as an LGBTQ+ man who had been a fifteen year old boy struggling with gayness. In addition, he ascribes to Angela something not out of place in The Queer Manifesto and Queer Ultra Violence: Bash Back! but draws the idea from Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster.” Sheppard argues that the “queer monster” functions as a symbol of anger, and pain, and radicalism to which LGBTQ+ audiences can relate their anxiety and fear: something that the “normalizing” queer identity can erase for the sake of assimilation and hetero-normative comfort. In other words, the “queer monster” or ” queer radical” isn’t all about “gayness” as “happiness” but as a symbol of every terrible negative feeling an LGBTQ+ person is forced to feel in a system that is supposed to be “natural” or “no longer an issue.”

It’s easy, the argument goes, to claim that representation has been achieved, and there is no need for the radical another, but often the image of the radical or the “monster” makes you look at just how flawed society truly is: even when it seems to be “fixed” — and often isn’t. So when you look at Angela in that light, and consider her utter torment, and the discomfort of watching a young human being in their formative years twisted into something that barely resembles a human anymore, having sympathized with her and — literally — seeing her actions from her perspective, perhaps finding themselves complicit in the impetus that forced her to this point, in a dual juxtaposition that all comes together traumatically at the end of the film, it hits home just how utterly fucked up this situation truly is.

Did Robert Hiltzik and his crew intend this reading — this subversion — of transgender and LGBTQ+ exploitation? I don’t know. However, I was curious to know what Joe Bob and particularly Felissa Rose — who played Angela in every scene except for the murder perspectives, and the nude display of the character at the end — had to say about the issue.

It is already complicated. You have a cisgender girl playing what seems to be a transgender character, but when take away the time period and prejudices of the time in which the film is made, and you really look at the film: just what is Angela’s identity? How does she identify? Is she still Peter in her mind? Is he still there? Are they, beyond arguably functioning as a symbol of both “the danger of the queer infiltrating straight spaces” as Harmony M. Colangelo put it, or the radical image of LGBTQ+ pain striking back against “the heteropatriachal norm” as Sheppard states even transgender? What pronouns would they have? Do they even know? Does this character even know what, or who they are at this age where their aunt has proceeded to “convert” them into her perspective of the female gender?

Does this character, does Angela, like Arthur Fleck in Joker except from a gender identity slant even exist beyond working as a cipher for what others project onto, or see reflected in her portrayal?

Felissa Rose seems to think, from her interview with Joe Bob, that in that scene when Angela and Peter are facing each other after seeing their father and his boyfriend together, they are exploring their own concept of sexuality: a situation that gets disrupted with their father and sibling dies. It isn’t about the genitalia of Angela, or however or whoever this character identifies. Felissa corrects Joe Bob, and says that the character’s body is intact, which leads Joe Bob into making her The Last Drive-In‘s resident mangled dick expert. Rather, I would argue that what’s mangled is Angela’s mind and soul from a lifetime of trauma, and gender projection and enforcement.

Joe Bob says it best, I think. He tells Felissa Rose that he believes that it had been totally unnecessary to state that “She’s a boy!” That image of Angela, if you can even call her transgender — beyond any idea she may represent to audiences — growling deep in her throat, her face twisted into a death-head’s grin, her adolescent body covered in hair and blood, cradling the head of a boy she had confused and conflicted feelings about, is an image that will certainly haunt me far more than any ghost or spectacle ever could.

A Visceral Response to Lifers: Horror Fan For Life

I wrote another version of this, but like many films — horror or otherwise — I feel like I lost the plot. I tried to be too clever about it, which is something I’ve been accusing other creators, in other media, of being. But this isn’t something to try to be smart about. It’s something I wish I can say directly, and as clearly as possible. It’s how someone else’s story — and the experiences of others — hit me under the umbrella of the horror genre.

A few months ago, about a month into life beginning to stand still thanks to the Pandemic, KreepazoidKelly: a makeup artist, model, interviewer, and general good will and ambassador for horror media and the community mentioned that there is an article about her in Fangoria Magazine. At the time, I thought she had written something for Fangoria, but it is a piece created by the writer and actress BJ Colangelo from many of their interactions about KreepazoidKelly — or Kelly Barlow — an ultimate horror fanatic: a “lifer.”

BJ Colangelo’s article about Kelly, titled “Lifers: Horror Fan For Life,” can be found in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue 7. It talks about her life, her influences, her achievements, and her struggles with brain cancer and its associated maladies, along with the emotional toll its taken on her, while at the same time relating it all back to their mutual love of horror. Both Colangelo and Kelly are cancer survivors as well as horror fanatics, and I can’t and won’t speak for their experiences, but there are two things in the article that really hit home for me: that stabbed me in the gut.

Before I go into that, there is a way that Colangelo frames her entire article that really appeals to me, because it’s something we all do: not just in the horror fandom, but in all geek circles. Interspersed throughout her writing is an ongoing, short form dialogue with Kelly comparing and contrasting different horror characters, and asking for her favourite films and moments, and why. It’s something I actually want to engage with on my own, because as I read it, some of my own answers came to mind as I imagine they did with a lot of Fangoria readers.

Quick! Without thinking! Who would win in a chainsaw fight, Leatherface or Ash, and why?

Colangelo explains why they do this, and I can understand it as well. For Kelly, and others like her, it is a way to distract from the constant of daily pain. It is the reason why someone with chronic and/or terminal illnesses — or someone associated with them, someone knowing or watching someone they love go through them — can enjoy, and even embrace, horror. It’s better than dwelling on it, or being overwhelmed by the despair of that helplessness, of not being able to do anything about the inevitable beyond simply continuing to fight, to exist, to keep engaging, and going on for as long as you can.

Kind of like I will be in this article.” I will tell you. “Because as of this writing I haven’t seen Chainsaw Massacre yet, but while I know Ash from Evil Dead is far more intimate with his chainsaw out of necessity, Leatherface’s is his love, and I will have to go with Kelly on that answer because, seriously? Ash can barely focus on the things that matter. Like, you know, that mystical spell that comes from The Day The Earth Stood Still? Klaatu barada, um … oh damn. I’ve lost my train of thought, and I’m dead now. Because Leatherface.

Kelly is someone who, with the chainsaw of her beloved genre, could eviscerate a person like myself who lost something, and tries to fill that void with the remnant of what came before that loss, literally and metaphorically opening me up to realization that there is still so much left to feel, and discover. She has done enough horror makeup to know how to make it look like her insides are on her outsides, and taking what is inside of her and projecting it externally: expressing it, accepting it.

Quick! Without thinking! Friday the 13th, or Halloween and why?

I’m terrible at not-thinking. Grief makes it even worse. I’m at a loss. I am only starting my journey in horror with fans around me, while Kelly, and Colangelo, and others have been in it for ages. I know, as I write this, I am putting myself into the conversation — not just between the two of them, but between the dialogue that has been happening with so many people in the horror fandom and the industry for years. Even so, it tugs at the corners of my blackened, twisted heart.

I’ve barely seen either horror series.” I admit to you all. “But while I love Halloween because it’s how I truly found and interacted with the Drive-In Mutant Fam for the first time with my story prompt, Friday The Thirteenth makes more sense to me because Jason Voorhees is dead, and even though that isn’t always true in continuity, it makes more sense that he has supernatural powers and can survive anything compared to what should be a simple lunatic like Michael Myers. 

It affects me, because I know I might not ever be able to have this conversation, because I wish I could. I’d seen Kelly in passing on Twitter ages ago through mutual horror followers, talking about her illness, receiving support from so many people whose lives she touched, or who just heard her like I had. I also left my support. It wasn’t until a little while ago that I’d seen her post again, and after some interaction we added each other on social media. I began to look at her interactions with others, fans and creators, and her own Live-Tweets during The Last Drive-In on Shudder. What I saw — which Colangelo also states in her article — is someone who promotes both mainstream industrial and independent horror productions and works, a person who attempts to keep engaging with a community: a truly beautiful being, inside and out.

In her article, Colangelo mentions how in October of 2019 Kelly found out that her cancer is terminal.

Quick! Without thinking! If you could keep any horror monster as a pet, who would you keep, and why?

I’ve been thinking about how I wish I could talk with her. I know that Kelly has many people leaving her well-wishes and even in a best case scenario, being well-rested, and comfortable she can’t get to us all. A major part of me, after everything, wishes I found her before now, even wishes I’d gone further into horror more than a year ago. But it’s not just because of Kelly.

I mentioned, earlier, how there are two elements in Colangelo’s article that stood out at me, that stabbed me directly, and went for the killing blow. One of these things, was dealing with the question of why someone who was dying or suffering from a serious chronic illness would still want to surround themselves with horror. Colangelo seems to state that horror can take the terror someone is feeling toward their own sense of mortality and put it on the outside, allowing it to be faced tangibly. Perhaps there is also the catharsis of it, the purging of all those volatile emotions and fears into something resembling meaning against the backdrop of the senseless and unfairness of a chaotic and arbitrary world.

And then BJ Colangelo, while listing the wide array of Kelly’s ailments related to her cancer, mentioned scleroderma.

I would also choose Bob from Creepshow‘s ‘The Finger.'” I admit to all of you, my face bowed down. “He’s a mess and he kills massive amounts of people. But he’s loyal. You never doubt his love for you. Ever. He would be the best pet ever. I wonder if you could order him to kill a nation, or an entire world for you. But I think I already know the answer to that. Such a large love from such a small, beloved, monstrosity.

My former partner, Kaarina Wilson, had been sick for a long time. She passed away in April, from complications due to various auto-immune disorders: including, primarily, scleroderma.

Going into our relationship, I knew Kaarina had been an advocate for auto-immune awareness. She led workshops, went into marathons to raise money for treatments and education, and throughout all that agony she would present herself and attempt to help others. Horror, to her, was what she was experiencing, what she was feeling from the that place of the inside turned out. When she experienced the horror genre, when she engaged in it, it allowed her to glorify that part of her mortality: to accept it. And while I can’t speak for for her or Kelly, or anyone, I’ve always gotten the idea that horror — in illustrating terrifying death — shows the vitality and voraciousness of that need to live: to truly do something, to be something, with whatever you have left.

I remember when I spent more time with her, Kaarina would look down at her finger. Scleroderma hardens and tightens parts of the skin, and bodily connections. It often has other illnesses like Raynaud’s associated with it that affect circulation. It got bad. Often, she would say that she would lose that finger.

She never did.

For me, horror isn’t so much dealing with the prospect of my own mortality, even during the current Pandemic, but processing grief, and that sense of a loss of time. That melancholy has always been there in me, and I imagine in a lot of other people — fans or otherwise — but my focus on the genre at this time, with my own interest in story and the darkness of the world, is something driven by my own sense of pain and loss, in an attempt to give me some meaning — and to reach out to others — in an extremely lonely time.

It’s why I began interacting more with the Mutant Fam, and participating in the Last Drive-In. And, in so doing, creating this Blog, then finding Kelly again, reading the Fangoria article about her, and writing this entire response. It comes full circle, like the limited spheres of social interaction we are supposed to have now in this time of the Pandemic, the bubbles we are supposed to isolate within to prevent the spread of disease, like the repeating psychodramas of things inside our heads that are hard to ignore during this time of trauma we are only beginning to know that others have been living with far longer than ourselves.

I am taking the bad, and the ugly in me and putting it out there, and projecting it. I know that. I think everyone of us in horror at some point or another does something like this. I don’t know when it will stop. I don’t know if it ever will. It’s like, I am writing for two instead of one. I am reaching out into the darkness to find a light that is similar to my own. To capture what is lost. To hold onto someone or something that won’t always be there, and should never be taken for granted.

Quick. Without thinking. If you could only watch one more horror movie before the end of your life, what would you watch and why?

Once, that would have taken me forever to answer. But I would choose Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, because every reality and every life is a cycle, and they be both beautiful and horrific, and sometimes the most heartrending beauty is that moment when you have to say goodbye and let go — to abandon the familiar cycle of desperate nostalgia and fear, and embrace the terrifying, yet exhilarating vista of the unknown.

Like I’ve said before, and especially now on this Blog: I am no Doctor. I am just a student of horror. And KreepazoidKelly — Kelly — if you are reading this:

Quick. Without thinking. What is a piece of horror, literary or cinematic, fictional or no, that really hit you where it hurts? And why?