Logan-Ashley Kisner reflects on the power of autonomy and control in werewolf films, and how they reveal a more personal transgender narrative.
In America, the decision to transition is just as much a death sentence as it is liberation.
Many aspects of medical transition are irreversible. Other aspects are entirely reliant on a person’s financial status and their ability to access halfway decent medical care continually. It’s a process often detailed more in Reddit threads than in any legitimate doctor’s office. While you may think you control your own transition, it’s really up to those around you. It’s up to your state's doctors, therapists, and lawmakers. It’s something that can be taken from you with no prior warning, something that can dash your world to pieces. To transition is a terrifying leap of faith with no guarantees and no promise of a safe landing.
As a transsexual and horror fan, I have spent most of my life fascinated by monstrous figures. The distinction between human and monster is thin and blurry, and I obsess over where filmmakers and writers draw their particular lines. There are hardly any monsters that toe the line between dehumanization and humanity like the werewolf. As a trans person, it’s impossible to engage with these concepts and not see the reflection of my reality. My description of what it’s like to undergo and maintain medical transition is not that far off from what it’s like to be taken over by a lycanthrope. Either way, there’s a lot of hair and fluids involved, and many people see you as a monster no matter what.
The werewolf is a fascinating figure because, much like the vampire, there are no set “rules” for a filmmaker to follow in their portrayal. There are some basics: a slow and painful transformation, religious iconography, and the moon, but the best werewolves have come from throwing silver bullets to the wayside and simply examining what it’s like to live inside a body that betrays you with its very existence. The best lycanthropes are shadowy figures, almost secondary to the social horrors they expose amid their bloody rampage.
John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s Ginger Snaps (2000) may be my favorite example of this, if for no other reason than how closely it mirrors my experience with ‘improper’ femininity and what makes a monstrous body. It is a film that perfectly illustrates how your body is not inherently your own, how it can change and twist and grow in ways that put the effects of An American Werewolf in London (1981) to shame.
The story of sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) is a story of girls who were never meant to be women but were dragged into womanhood kicking and screaming. The film begins with both girls as androgynous children. They exist and communicate in ways that make sense only to each other. They’re rough-at-the-edges bitches, cruel, snide, and bitter. Their rejection of femininity and womanhood, in general, is highlighted by their complete lack of a menstrual cycle, despite both girls being well past the age where one should’ve started. While Ginger’s period (and, by extension, her journey into womanhood) is what kickstarts the plot, Brigitte never gets a period. She is allowed to remain androgynous. While Ginger slowly embraces the femininity that comes with her monstrous transformation, Brigitte continues to rage against the female industrial complex. She may have long hair and wear skirts, but she is not a woman. If anything, her efforts to look like her older sister emphasize their stark differences. Thus, the two sisters engage in a literal werewolf vs. human battle and a metaphorical fight: woman versus non-woman.
This fight is only slightly to do with their own abilities. It is primarily a fight decided by social perception and what is forced upon them by others. That is the silent rule of American society. Women are supposed to be women, and they are supposed to be feminine, but Ginger and Brigitte defy this rule. They say the word woman with a sneer and treat it as if it were some kind of transmittable disease. They express a distaste for the concept of womanhood that goes beyond internalized misogyny. They do not want to be women. Thus, it is no accident that the wound morphs into a vagina-like image when Brigitte becomes infected by the lycanthropic virus. For these children, female genitals are the precursor, the signal of being doomed to transform.
My analysis of the film has changed a lot since I first watched it, just as my own reading of myself has changed. I am not the same transsexual I was four years ago. At that time, I was barely out of high school, sprinting towards medical transition out of a misplaced fear that it was already too late for me. I think every trans individual has those years where they know what they are but that they are in no position to do anything about it. Those years are bleak, to say the least, for all of us. Much like Brigitte and Ginger, I spent my high school years digging my heels into concrete, trying to stop an inevitable change and perception of myself.
When I write about werewolves and their close relationship with transness, this is the point that I have triple-underlined in bright blue ink—the horror does not necessarily come from the transformation itself but the lack of control. Ginger is not a monster because she is a woman. I would dare say that womanhood is not entirely the disease in this metaphor. She is a monster because she did not want to be a woman but was forced to be one anyway. The horror of Ginger Snaps comes from the children who are forced into bodies that are not their own, all while the adults assure them that this is normal. Their mother’s statement that “[Brigitte’s] turn is coming too, one day” is far more sinister than reassuring. Ginger and Brigitte’s story is one of being bulldozed by nature, by what you are “supposed to be,” even when it is actively killing you.
The killing blow comes from how completely helpless you are—the trans adult is often constantly at the mercy of outside forces, and the trans child is even more so. You know what you are and what you need, but there are a thousand reasons why you cannot take that first step into the open. I was warped by years of paranoia; I didn’t come out until I was in college. Even now, I struggle to define when it was that I knew. I know when the word transgender first crossed my lips, but that was not the first time I was aware of how painfully othered I felt in my body. I was born a woman and the world did more than heavily imply that I should remain one. Without a vocabulary, guidance, and control, I repressed it until there was nowhere left for me to look for answers.
When the outside world forces you into its rigid views of what binary gender should be—a view without room for transgressions or divergence—you either repress it and suffer in silence or snap. If Ginger Snaps is what happens when control is taken from the trans individual, what is there for when the transsexual takes control back?
Till Kleinert’s Der Samurai (2014) is haunted along its outskirts by a mysterious wolf, although the primary conflict of Der Samurai is between a man named Jakob (Michel Diercks) and a trans woman (Pit Bukowski), referred to only as The Samurai. What this Samurai is isn’t clear for most of the film. She is otherworldly, visibly trans, and most importantly, murderous. Jakob spends a long time pursuing this Samurai, attempting to understand her motives, why she seems hellbent on murdering everyone, and why she appears so closely linked to Jakob’s repressed sexuality. It is not until the final act that Kleinert reveals that Jakob and the Samurai are one and the same, two halves of one person trying desperately to come to terms with who and what they are.
Most films would use this twist as an excuse to institutionalize its protagonist, to ship him off with vague allusions to multiple personalities. However, although the Samurai does not ‘really’ exist and is a construct created by Jakob, she is incredibly real. She represents a split between who Jakob is and who he is capable of becoming. To a much less dramatic and bloody extent, I frequently found myself between two worlds when I was in the closet. I was a typical tomboy at home, while outside the house, I desperately attempted to brush my fingertips against the life I knew I was supposed to be living.
Compare me today to who I was when I was in the closet, unable to be who I knew I was: we are two completely different people.
Kleinert’s intentions for the film were primarily to bring focus to repressed sexuality, but what the film has to say about gender is so sharp and loud that it is impossible to ignore. Although gender and sexuality are individual aspects, they are more closely connected than one might think, especially concerning transsexuals. I am trans and gay, but I have found it almost impossible to go about meeting men in the same way that a cisgender gay man might. My sexuality and gender are handcuffed together, never one without the other. If one were to be ignored or forcibly changed, it would be to both of their detriments.
What Jakob is really repressing is up for debate. Does he suppress his attraction to men because he fears acknowledging his sexuality? Or does the repression stem from his uncertainty about his gender? It seems to be a little bit of everything. Both gender and sexuality seem to influence each other in an endless echo chamber of insecurity and frustration—much like it does in the real world.
The final act of Der Samurai is where everything falls into place. Not only is the Samurai revealed to be a manifestation of Jakob’s repression-fueled rage, but the wolf that the film had seemingly forgotten about for much of the second act makes its return as well. What does the wolf represent? I go back and forth on this answer myself. Whatever it really is, it is just as crucial as the Samurai herself, but the scene I return to, again and again, is the first scene that plays before the title card.
We watch Jakob trek out into the woods to hang a bag of meat and blood from a tree. When he arrives at the spot, there is already a bag torn into and eaten. Jakob has done this before. Rather than hunt down and kill this wolf, he gives it just enough food so that it might stay away from the town and its residents. He keeps what he’s doing a secret from the townspeople. The film almost seems to forget about this wolf for an extended period until the Samurai suddenly tilts her head, looks upon Jakob, and asks the question that the entire film hinges upon:
"Why did you feed the wolf?"
It would have been much easier if Jakob had killed the wolf. If he denied it food altogether, forcing it away from the town. Likewise, it would have been much easier to have arrested or killed the Samurai when she began having outbursts of violence. Jakob does none of these things. That tiny bit of rebellion is perhaps what keeps him alive despite how much he has kept down.
Why did he feed the wolf? The wolf and the Samurai exist because Jakob cannot express his gender and sexuality in a way that is authentic to who and what he is. The Samurai becomes this conduit for his rage and frustration, wielding a samurai sword as a symbol—a powerful phallus. She wields the confidence that Jakob cannot. She lashes out and murders those that Jakob only wishes he could, and the wolf is free. The wolf is frightening and unknown, but it possesses freedom that neither Jakob nor the Samurai has.
With all of this in mind, I think whether or not you view the ending of the film as tragic or happy depends entirely on whether you are cis or transgender. Although Jakob kills the Samurai, her death does not mean the death of Jakob’s true self. It doesn’t mean he’s killed his transness or chosen a life of repression. By the end, he wields the sword. That is the extent of Jakob’s transformation, but that is all he needs. He has learned to wield his rage for himself and has taken back control of himself.
Der Samurai is, admittedly, a departure from the traditional werewolf narrative. Jakob isn’t bitten and does not break out in fur and claws, but the crux of a werewolf narrative hinges upon its handling of a physical and emotional transformation. In Ginger Snaps, the transformations involve both. Ginger unwillingly undergoes physical changes, while Brigitte must grow out from under her sister’s shadow and gain control of herself as an individual. Jakob’s transformation is some combination thereof. While his physical evolution may be subtle, by the end, he is an entirely new person from who he was at the start of the film. He is a werewolf.
The werewolf rests closely with my heart because it understands the need for painful change better than any other creature. I love a good vampire or niche cryptid. Still, I repeatedly crawl back to this beast that is not recognizably human, a monster that shows an undeniable need for change, a need that cannot be repressed, ignored, or cured—a need that will find its way out eventually. The first screenplay I wrote that I truly loved focused on werewolves and on what made them monsters in the first place. The horror hung on the uncontrollable, not simply on the appearance at the end of the transformation. Werewolves are monsters because they force us to reconsider who and what we are.
Did the bite turn you into this unrecognizable thing? Or did the bite hasten the process through which your transformation was already unfolding?
Control is not something that a person can hope to keep forever. It is not something you get once and hold indefinitely. The transition seems to be defined by losing the battle to win the war, giving up control and little bits of yourself with the hope that you will someday get it back—that the periods without control will steadily shrink until they’re no longer so frequent. I finally seem to have plateaued in my transition. While I still hold out hope that my Armenian genes will eventually kick in to give me a decent beard, like the rest of the men in my family have, I am otherwise done with physical transformations. I have changed all that needs to be changed, yet control is still not always mine. Doctors are tricky, fickle, and frustrating. I have spent the last year off hormones more than I have on them. Insurance dictates where I am allowed to go and what I am allowed to receive. So little of this transition is steered by my own hand.
There are moments I could have come out of top surgery scarless. My surgeon even seemed excited for me at this prospect. Instead, I asked him to give me the pectoral scars anyway. They are now the first things I see when I look at myself in the mirror, and they are beautiful. They are purple, slightly raised reminders that the worst years of my life were not for nothing, that I was able to choose my transformation, and that I won the war.
Horror thrives on the various ways in which it can depict a gruesome demise. Still, the actual lifeblood of horror comes from its survivors, the chosen, cultivated few who can regain control of their world's senseless chaos and make it out alive. I have always been drawn to survivors who are physically marked by their experiences, like Ashley Williams and Nancy Thompson. Or like Brigitte, who wields the yonic symbol on her hand like a war wound. Or Jakob, who remains covered in his own blood, and the blood of the meat that hung from the tree. To feed the wolf is to choose to live, and to live as a creature transformed means to carry those marks forever.
Why did you feed the wolf?
Logan-Ashley Kisner is a transgender historian and a contributing critic, screenwriter, and essayist based in Las Vegas, Nevada with a focus on dissecting transgender narratives in horror cinema with bylines in Hear Us Scream and Blossom Magazine.