Each month in Horror Queers, queer writers Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ elements, a high camp quotient or both. As a genre, horror has historically been an outlet in which to hide and/or explore subversive narratives. For lifelong queer horror fans like Joe and Trace, there’s a delight in deciphering the lingering glances, identifying with out-and-proud and secretly closeted characters alike and reading between the lines. Join us for a monthly dissection of the ups and downs of queer horror, but know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2 and High Tension to follow.***
Synopsis: Picking up after the events of the first Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2 sees the Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, respectively) moving into Josh’s mother’s (Barbara Hershey) house to recover from their trauma. Little does Renai know that Josh has been possessed by the insidious (heh heh) Bride in Black, and will do anything to stay in the land of the living.
Queer Aspect: It is eventually revealed that the Bride in Black is actually a man named Parker Crane, a serial killer who was abused by his mother for acting male, leading him to murder multiple women as an adult while dressed as a woman.
I imagine that it might come as a surprise to some people that I chose this film for the next entry in Horror Queers. After all, Insidious is not exactly what comes to mind when you mention the phrase “queer horror.” But you know what? Its central villain is a man who dresses up like a woman and kills people before eventually being committed to a mental hospital for trying to castrate himself. I think we have a bit to unload here.
I am a huge fan of the first Insidious film, and I remember being let down by Insidious: Chapter 2 when it was initially released back in 2013. The film certainly has quite a few problems (Lin Shaye’s voice dubbing in the prologue and frequent lazily-written exposition dumps spring to mind), but on a repeat viewing I realized that it does plenty of things right (everything Patrick Wilson, the time travel reveal and the climax). That being said, I don’t think the film works as a standalone film. It’s essentially a 4th act tacked on to the first film and stretched out to 105 minutes. This wouldn’t be a problem if the audience weren’t three steps ahead of the characters for the first hour of the film, but they are and that brings much of the suspense to a grinding halt. I could go on about the flaws of Insidious: Chapter 2 (though I still enjoy it quite a bit), but that’s not why we’re here. We are here to discuss Parker Crane, the queer antagonist of the film.
If you remember, the Bride in Black was in the first Insidious film as a secondary villain and she was portrayed by male actor Philip Friedman. I suppose screenwriter Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) felt that art should imitate life, as he decided to give the Bride in Black a queer origin story about a gender-confused man who was driven insane by his abusive mother who desperately wanted a daughter. Whannell’s screenplay borrows from a lot of other movies: Sleepaway Camp immediately comes to mind with Parker’s backstory, the third act is very Shining-esque and many of the scares are repeats from the first Insidious.
Making your central villain a man with a severe bout of gender confusion is a risky move. If handled incorrectly, it gives off the impression that being confused about your gender will send you running into serial killer land. I don’t think Leigh Whannell’s wrote this film with malicious intent (I’ve seen him in interviews and he seems like a great guy), but it just goes to show that screenwriters need to be a bit more careful when writing villains, especially if they are queer. I can just imagine what a transgender person must have felt when watching this film, thinking it’s about an evil ghost only to realize that it’s actually an evil transgender ghost. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it can be read that Parker Crane is evil because of his trans status (in addition to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother) and that is a problem. That is an important distinction to make
A major weakness of the Insidious sequels/prequels is that we never really learn much about the villains. We don’t need to know about the Lipstick-Faced demon in the first one because it is just a demon with an “insidious agenda.” But the villains in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are ghosts that, I would assume, have a rich backstory that isn’t sufficiently delved into. Chapter 3 is a bigger offender with the The Man Who Can’t Breathe, but Chapter 2 still falls prey to this. A backstory like his deserves careful attention because a surface-level approach makes light of a very serious subject matter. This is a character that needed more screen-time and she didn’t get it.
Joe, this was your first time seeing Insidious: Chapter 2. What were your thoughts on it? How do you think Parker Crane is handled in the film? Do you think the film belittles his queerness or puts it in a bad light? Is Insidious: Chapter 2 queer-phobic? Did we even need a backstory for the Bride in Black? What’s your take?
Yeah, this was certainly an interesting pick. I really enjoyed the first Insidious, particularly its reverence for updating and simultaneously paying homage to Poltergeist. I’ll confess, though, that I’m much more of a fan of The Conjuring films, which may be why I opted for the first entry of that franchise over this back in 2013 (I forget).
It’s interesting that I had a similar reaction to you on your first viewing, which is to say that I didn’t like this very much. The film’s most successful elements felt cribbed from the first film and the pacing left me more than a little bit sleepy; I also felt legitimately bad for Rose Byrne, who is basically given nothing to do aside from trip over baby toys and get smacked in the head a lot.
The film’s queer angle is certainly…curious. It’s introduced in such a matter-of-fact, nonchalant way by Carl (Steve Coulter) that I wouldn’t be surprised if a large portion of the audience missed it. In close-up, you can definitely tell that the Bride in Black has facial characteristics of a man, but those could easily be mistaken for an older woman’s. When it finally comes out that Wilson’s Josh has been possessed, for a little while I actually thought that he was taken over by both Parker and Parker’s mother (hence why Elise was able to beat the mother in order to dispel Josh’s possession). I almost would have preferred this because it would have introduced a more interesting queer interpretation.
As it stands, Leigh Whannell’s script is totally problematic, especially for such a contemporary film. The unfortunate fact is that cross-dressing and trans killers are tried and true staples of the genre. The killer cross-dresser list includes Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (1980), while the trans killer list includes the aforementioned Sleepaway Camp and, most famously, Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In all of these cases, the implication is that these people are crazy, deviant or both and that is a contributing factor to the murders.
This may be slightly less problematic for people who cross-dress because it is shaming their sexual fetish, not their entire identity; for trans people, it’s on a whole other level. I can’t imagine struggling with the realization that my sense of self doesn’t match my physical body, then seeing a terrible fucking message equating my struggle with being a murderer projected on the big screen by some of Hollywood’s most influential directors. And in case anyone doesn’t think that this is a narrative that trans people internalize, check out this blog post by trans writer Mey Valdivia Rude, who raises the harmful effects of these kinds of representation by literally referencing Insidious 2.
The difference between older, but still problematic portrayals and Whannell/Wan’s Insidious 2 is that a ton of work has been done in the 2000s around gender and identity and the legitimacy of trans rights. As you point out, Trace, the film dedicates virtually no time to unpacking its villain, so all that we’re left with is a hollow explanation that conflates abusive mothers with cross-dressing, being trans and becoming a murderer. That’s not only overtly simplistic (and lazy writing on Whannell’s part), it’s blatantly false.
Trace, do you think Insidious 2 encourages a reading that excuses Parker (and his subsequent villainy) because of his victimization by his mother? What do you make of the fact that we learn that (seemingly) all of Parker’s victims were women, but his focus upon possessing Josh is to focus on the family? And, finally, a big loaded question: is there a way for horror to even feature a queer killer that isn’t offensive or problematic?
First of all, both The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2 did come out in 2013, but they were released 2 months apart. You had enough time to see them both! No excuses. But no, 2013 was not the best year for Byrne (a vastly underrated actress…the woman can do anything). She had this, the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn comedy The Internship and the little-seen but actually quite good not-a-rom-com I Give It a Year. 2014 and 2015 were kinder to her, but I digress.
I’m glad you asked if there is a way for horror to feature a queer killer that isn’t problematic, because I think it is possible. Just have that person’s reason for killing have nothing to do with their sexuality. Look at films like Jennifer’s Body (I bring that one up because I just re-watched it this week and it’s aged extremely well) or High Tension. The protagonists of both of those movies are queer but their urge to kill doesn’t stem from their sexuality. They are killers who happen to be queer. The former’s Jennifer (Megan Fox) is possessed by a demon and Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is driven by revenge. The latter’s Marie (Cécile de France) is simply a psychopath. None of that has anything to do with their sexual orientation. I’m sure there are other examples out there (probably on that list of queer horror films we compiled for this series) but those two immediately jumped out at me.
I’m not quite as bothered by Whannell’s script as you are (as evidenced by this post I wrote before Chapter 3 came out), because I don’t think Whannell meant for it to be read that way. In fact, I’m sure we will get some comments saying that we’re simply looking for something to complain about but, as evidenced by the blog post you linked to, some people did read it that way. Some people will watch this film and believe that Parker is killing because he is trans. Like you said, the film implies that being trans leads to becoming a serial killer. The film could have done a better job of establishing that the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother is his reason for killing. Had it done that the film would be better for it, but as it stands we are given just one scene to showcase his mother’s abuse:
It’s just not enough and I see why people dislike the whole Parker Crane arc. I take him killing women as anger that he can’t have what they have: a vagina. I am surprised he didn’t perform some kind of genital mutilation on them though. I suppose we can thank(?) Whannell for not going there.
One last thing I wanted to bring up that doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie itself but rather more on the subject of political correctness: writing this article has been a learning experience for me. I know most of the PC terms to use for most members of the queer community, but I was at a loss as to what term I should use for Parker Crane. I didn’t know if cross-dresser or transvestite were considered offensive or appropriate. In cases such as these I often seek my husband’s advice because he is usually more “woke” than I am. He informed me that transvestite is inappropriate and the best phrase would be cross-dresser. Of course, I failed to remember before re-watching the film that Parker attempted to castrate himself, which would make him trans since, by that point, he viewed himself as a woman. I bring this up only because I know we will get those comments asking what is and isn’t appropriate to say (as evidenced by some of the comments in our last article) so I wanted to A) open that up in the discussion and B) show that it’s always okay to ask for clarification! Just don’t be a dick about it.
Either way, I think Insidious: Chapter 2 is a serviceable sequel. It is lazy and by-the-numbers, but I can’t hate it. I do think it works best when paired as a double feature with the first one, but I completely understand the poor reception it received back in 2013. Joe, are you going to give Chapter 3 and The Last Key (my review) a shot? Or has Chapter 2 completely turned you off of the franchise?
I love that you opened up the can of worms that is High Tension right at the end! I will totally take your point about Jennifer’s Body (and I’m looking forward to revisiting it with you later this year), but I disagree that Marie’s murder spree in High Tension is solely because she’s a psychopath. I won’t dig into it because I’m sure that High Tension will also appear in a future installment, but I always read the film as a dark manifestation of Marie’s inability to admit her lesbian desires. I guess we’ve got some stuff to work through down the line.
But back to Insidious: Chapter 2. We’re in agreement that Whannell could – and should – have handled Parker in a different fashion. It’s interesting that he’s such an underserved villain considering the film barely requires any exposition or character development, seeing that it’s a direct sequel to the original and all of the groundwork was already laid. I understand wanting to give Patrick Wilson and Barbara Hershey as much screentime as possible (and letting Wilson go full-Jack Torrance) rather than padding out a backstory for your villain, but maybe don’t lean on a problematic queer crutch! Why not just have a pair of mother/daughter villains instead?
As for future installments of Insidious, I’m definitely not turned off. I’m enamored with the franchise enough to check out the other two, if only because I agree with a lot of critics that Lin Shaye is a treasure and I want to see her back the spotlight (her departure in Chapter 2 definitely contributed to my lack of enthusiasm). In hindsight I can totally understand why they pivoted away from making Chapter 3 another direct sequel; Chapter 2 certainly didn’t do any future entries in the series any favors!
That closes the book on our discussion of Insidious. I feel like I should apologize in advance for half of next month’s pick, Trace. You don’t know what you’re in for with DeCoteau. Ha ha ha!