Her Body, Beautifully Mutilated - The Transsexuality of Horror and Montage
By Samantha Peetz

Much of trans academia lives in the shadow of Frankenstein. The story of a mad scientist constructing the monstrous body (monstrous for the fact that it is constructed, ie. artificial) has been analyzed again and again by trans academics as it is immediately arresting and relatable. The plight of Frankenstein’s monster is the plight of trans people. This trans reinterpretation of Frankenstein, as well as the text’s omnipresence within trans academia is demonstrated beautifully in Carmilla M. Morrell’s thesis, Built bodies: Representations of monstrous transsexuality in the Frankenstein film, 1945-1975. I would be remiss if I did not pay particular thanks to her work and this particular text of hers for revealing to me the transness of the Frankenstein monster. To be frank, reading her thesis was in no small part the impetus for me doing this research. Morrell writes, “the Monster’s symbolism as a constructed boy, its identity crisis in the wake of its revival, trying to understand who or what it is and why its body is so strange, was deeply resonant with me as someone who had only just realized that she wanted to be a woman.” (12). Or consider how again the story presents itself to renowned trans academic and historian Susan Stryker, “The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” (Susan Stryker, My Words to Victor Frankenstein 237 qtd. In Morrell 43).

I argue however, that there’s something inherently transsexual about the act of tearing flesh apart and sewing it back together as Stryker says. Whereas Morrell uses the Frankenstein narrative as a lens to which one can find transsexual narratives in horror films, I think that broadening the focus to the simple narrative of a disfigured body becoming itself a disfigurer reveals even more transexual narratives in horror cinema that may not have previously been apparent. Admittedly, Morrell already does present a broad sense of what constitutes a Frankenstein narrative for the purposes of her research; electing to focus on narratives in which there is a scientist who creates a monster, but in my mind it is the act of disfigurement that appears particularly transsexual to me. I have selected three different films to analyze as transsexual texts; Frankenhooker, Audition, and Funeral Parade of Roses. My basis for selecting films was looking for horror films in which a disfigured female becomes herself one who disfigures. Some of these films may very well fit into Morrell’s Frankenstein framework, whereas others assuredly wouldn’t. My focus then is on how the text renders itself as being ripe for transsexual readings, as well as the filmmaking itself, particularly in regards to editing being its own act of disfigurement and suturing of a kind of flesh.

In Siegfried Kracauer’s book Theory of Film he begins his “Basic Concepts” chapter by saying, “Like the embryo in the womb, photographic film developed from distinctly separate components. Its birth came about from a combination of instantaneous photography…Added to this later were the contributions of other nonphotographic elements, such as editing and sound.” (Kracauer, 113). Kracauer uses the image of an embryo to assert his theory that film derives from two separate, contrasting tendencies (i.e. the realistic and formalist tendency). By using the image of an embryo, he implicitly reasserts that these two contrasting tendencies come about quite naturally, and so too does their synthesis within quality artistic film as he conceptualizes it. Kracauer writes, "Is it by sheer accident that the two tendencies manifested themselves side by side immediately after the rise of the medium?" (115). Kracauer's argument is based on a binary conception of biology, claiming that these tendencies are both natural and oppositional to one another, essentially gendering the two tendencies.

Fascinatingly, Kracauer is far from alone in conceptualizing film by evoking the image of the embryo. In Sergei Eisenstein's essay, "Beyond the Shot", he argues against Pudovkin's conceptualization of the shot as a montage element or brick, instead he theorizes it as a montage cell. He writes, "What then characterizes montage and, consequently, its embryo, the shot? Collision. Conflict between two neighboring fragments. Conflict. Collision." (Eisenstein 18). Again, the imagery evoked is that of a binary between sperm and egg joining to create something new, i.e. montage. Eisenstein, similar to Kracauer, is a purist and readily admits, "Cinema is, first and foremost, montage." (Eisenstein 13). And thus, when he uses the image of the embryo as a metaphor for the creation of montage, by extension he and Kracauer are both using the image of the embryo as a metaphor for the creation of film as an artistic medium.

I do find Eisenstein's evocation of conflict and collision to be compelling however. In a way, I'd like to think of Eisenstein's theory of montage, and his use of the imagery of embryos, to be Frankenstein-esque. Eisenstein believes film's legitimacy as an artistic medium to come from editing, an inherently manual/mechanical process. If we are to consider the collision between two shots to be the creation of an embryo, then we must think of the act of editing and splicing shots together as being inherently surgical. Thus the montage embryo is surgically induced, an arguably artificial creation of life.

Supporting the Frankenstein-esque image of the editor, is Rudolf Arnheim's essay, "The Complete Film". Arnheim warns us of the advent of the complete film, as if he were, similar to Mary Shelly, telling a horror story. He imagines the stereoscopic, full color, fully immersive complete film, in which he states, "every cut in the film strip will be mutilation." (Arnheim, 146). It is enlightening that all three of these film theorists liken the act of editing, and filmmaking, to the creation of life. Arnheim in particular likened it to mayhem and mutilation.

Contemporary film theory likewise finds the act of editing to be surgical, Frankenstein-ian as well as a key feature of trans film studies. In their 2019 book, Shimmering Images, Eliza Steinbock analyzes early cinematic phantasmagoria as early examples of transsexuality on film. They are particularly fixated on Melies using editing tricks to create the illusion of actors and actresses changing gender, a recurring motif throughout his filmography. Again, Frankenstein appears in trans academia when Steinbock writes, “The figures of scientist, surgeon, and filmmaker enfold in an orchestration of animating the light bodies—each can claim, in the voice of Dr. Frankenstein, ‘I made it with my own hands,’ but also the anxious declaration of ‘it’s alive!’” (Steinbock 17) Then in much the same way that classical and contemporary film theorists argue for an intersection between editor, surgeon, and mutilator; there too must be an intersection between mutilator of the body of both character on screen, and film strip itself.

From my vantage point, the transsexuality of Frank Henenlotter’s 1990 film, Frankenhooker, is undeniable. A modern retelling of Frankenstein in which Jeffery Franken reanimates his recently-deceased wife, Elizabeth, using his estrogen-based serum as well as the parts of dead prostitutes. It fits well within Morrell’s framework for what constitutes a Frankenstein narrative, though existing outside of the period she focuses on, it does warrant its own mention in her thesis. In her chapter dedicated to bride narratives and the construction of “the perfect woman”, she writes that, “Bride narratives will feature frequently the Doctor trawling countryside, catacomb, and city for only the most optimal parts from which to construct his creature, literally reducing women to pieces of meat, with Brides comprised only of prime cuts. More often than not, especially in films set in their present day, the Doctor will acquire these materials by killing sex workers and models—a trope taken to its greatest extreme in the 1990 Bride narrative Frankenhooker…” (Morrell 128). And to Morrell’s credit, the word “parts” is used explicitly by the film’s character Jeffery saying to the decapitated head of his wife, “I can make you into anything you want…I just need the right parts”. This has an eerie resemblance to the ways in which medical transition has been gatekept by doctors engaging within heteronormative frameworks of passing and attraction. “All surgical candidates in the gender clinic were required to visually pass as their desired sex to some degree—it depended on the breadth of a given clinician's idea of what someone of either gender looked like.” (Julia Serano, Whipping Girl 122, 135, paraphrased by Morrell 99) “Needing the right parts” then can be re-interpreted as a doctor requiring his trans patient to pass or to fit a narrow set of conventions in order to even be considered for trans-affirming care.

What’s more, by having the film be so particularly focused upon sex workers, as well as the plight of sex workers in the context of the crack epidemic, repositions the film in the context of social problems that trans women are extremely familiar with. According to The National Center For Transgender Equality’s 2015 study, Meaningful Work, about 13% of transgender people reported participating in the sex industry, trans women are twice as likely to participate in sex industry vs trans men and 69.3% of sex workers reported experiencing job adversity in the traditional workforce. What these statistics reveal then, is that trans people, particularly trans women, increasingly find themselves in the sex industry in part due to how the trans body is fetishized, and for the way in which it is discriminated against in the traditional workforce. This systemic propulsion into the sex work is in part symbolized within the film. Elizabeth, now reanimated as the titular Frankenhooker, has false memories of being a prostitute due to the prostitute parts her body is now made up from. In a trance, she struts the streets of New York, looking for Johns. Although they exist only in the background or as visual gags, we can see in certain shots male actors dressed in streetwear, evoking the reality of transfeminine presence within sexwork. That is not to say that this is an empowering or meaningful portrayal of trans women within the sex industry. However, with the deliberate inclusion of pro sex work politics such as decriminalizing sex work and warning about the crack epidemic’s harm done onto this vulnerable group, as well as the mention of trans women likewise belonging to this vulnerable group, the film’s portrayal of sex work comes of as much more raw and authentic than its contemporaries such as Pretty Woman.

Frankenhooker is mundane in its editing, however, there are nuggets of Eisenstein’s theories regarding montage and conflicting images creating new images to be found in the film. In the scenes where Jeffery is drawing out plans for rebuilding Elizabeth, he has a cut-out photo of her face pasted onto an anatomical drawing of a woman’s body. The headshot of Elizabeth is in color whereas the anatomical drawing is in black and white, and what’s more, the scales are off. The contrast between the two images in terms of their scale, creates an illusion of an oddly proportioned woman, constructed by the suturing of contrasting images. This motif of a head sutured onto a contrasting body is seen throughout the film. Later, Jeffery presents to Elizabeth’s decapitated head several collages he’s made of Playboy center-folds, with photos of Elizabeth pasted onto their bodies. Or the film's end, where Elizabeth regains consciousness, and trading her sex worker garb for a lab coat and scrubs, revives Jeffery by suturing his head to the body of a woman. The special effect is extremely poor, it’s clear where the actor’s real head ends, and where the silicon puppeteered woman’s body begins. However, it is the contrast in all these images, of the head and the body that creates the perfect visual symbol for transness. The male head attached to the female body, or the photo collage between medical drawings and photographs with different proportions, to put it simply, these figures of femaleness are clocky. The contrast between these images, mashed together in a way that's not dissimilar to Eisenstein’s theory of montage and contrasting images, creates a transsexual image. In his analysis of Japanese hieroglyphs as a practical example of montage he writes, “each taken separately corresponds to an object but their combination corresponds to a concept…the intellectual formulation of the concept produced by the juxtaposition of hieroglyphs are here blurred, the concept blossoms forth immeasurably in emotional terms.” (Eisenstein 14-15) Applied here, the individual images are of bodies cut from their original context (i.e. mutilated either literally or figuratively), and sutured together. The contrast reveals the emotional truth of a trans female body, contrasting anatomies, mutilated beautifully, ready to be sexualized and objectified. Speaking in symbolic terms, the head which does not match the body it’s attached to is its own juvenile figure for gender dysphoria as it is understood broadly (ie pink brains in blue bodies, blue brains in pink bodies).

Takashi Miike’s 1999 horror film Audition fits squarely outside of Morrell’s Frankenstein framework, yet the way mutilation of the body is presented in the film as well as other key aspects of the text, render it a transgender text. The plot is very simple. Shigeharu Aoyama is a widower who stages a phony casting audition for young women, promising them that they’re auditioning for a lead role in a film, when the reality is they’re really auditioning to be Aoyama’s wife. Aoyama falls for Asami Yamazaki, a young woman who appears docile and pure despite her mysterious past. In the climax of the film, having been revealed to have mutilated genitalia as a result of brutal childhood-sexual trauma, she likewise reveals herself as a maniacal sadist, drugging and physically torturing Aoyama in scenes of extreme gore and torture.

If we simplify the narrative then we get this; a man is looking for a partner, finds a woman who appears perfectly feminine, discovers her genitalia is disfigured or wrong, and thus she is rendered to him as monstrous, a psychosexual threat to himself and his maleness. In many ways this plot mirrors the narratives evoked by the trans panic defense. The film explicitly plays upon, and in hand criticizes the irrational and misogynistic fears of men entering the dating world, specifically the fears of finding a woman who appears to be perfect, chaste, virginal and pure; and discovering that she is disfigured or deflowered by previous sexual encounters. In Asami’s case, her previous sexual interactions that render her literally and symbolically disfigured, took the form of childhood sexual abuse, calling into question the ways in which men such as Aoyama fetishize virginity, youth, and purity. The way in which she is discovered to be impure and by extension, monstrous, is through a scar leading up her leg to her genitalia. This mirrors Morrell’s analysis of 1957 film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, writing “The result is an eponymous teenage Frankenstein that is physically perfect in every way except for his face, which bears the scars and disfigurement…” (Morrell 105) So then there is a consistent motif in transexual narratives where the monstrous transexual is rendered perfectly, save for their slight disfigurement or scaring. We can interpret this one individual flaw in their figure as being scars indicating gender-affirming surgeries, or in the case of Audition, due to the placement we can read into her disfigurement as being the presence of a phallus, something extra that Aoyama is horrified to discover.

Through the film’s editing and use of montage, the sexual objectification of women and girls is critiqued, and likewise Asami’s torture and body is portrayed as being distinctly male in certain regards. The film uses several montages of disjunctive editing to in part to disorient both viewer as well as Aoyama, creating a nightmarish effect as space and time are bent and mutilated. These montages likewise, take after Eisenstein’s theories in terms of how the conflicting images and shots exist not only to disorient, but to also make complex arguments using image and contrast rather than text or dialogue. For instance, in various sequences of montage, we’ll cut from images where Asami is presented sexually, but her actress will be replaced with Asami as a child, or the camera will cut to shots of Asami as a child. This horrifies and shocks Aoyama as he is in various states of sexual embrace with adult Asami. The film then makes a biting critique of how the over sexualization and objectification of women, particularly for their purity and virginity, has serious implications for how it fetishizes and sexualizes youth in girls. 

These montages are used most effectively during the torture scenes. Asami begins this sequence by sticking 8-inch long needles into Aoyama, suffering from a drug-induced paralysis. As she pushes the needles into his flesh she happily sings, “deeper, deeper, deeper…” thus making the penetrative and phallic qualities of the needles apparent. Later in the scene she wraps piano wire around Aoyama’s leg and alternates between pulling the wire from left and right hands, sawing his leg off. While she is sawing his leg off, we cut to shots of her sexual abuser masturbating, the motion of her sawing with the piano wire and her abuser masturbating are a visual match. Through montage, Asami’s role as mutilator is again coded as being indicative of male sexuality. It is through montage, mutilation of the film strip, that Asami’s mastery of her mutilation, her reveal as herself, a mutilator, is presented as being undeniably phallic. Steinbock writes, “The stop-camera edit provides a view of gender that is based on montage and assembly, de-parting from the naturalization of a body’s gender that exists without a noticeable, conspicuous cut.” (Steinbock 40) In the context of Audition, we can look at this quote as being applicable not only with regards to the film’s use of editing cuts, but the literal cutting of Aoyama’s bodily limbs. Cutting his leg off is a symbolic castration, approaching this from a psychoanalysis view, this is a way of transexualizing his body. Even more broadly, thinking about how film cuts, as well as cutting of the body, can be read as transsexual; consider then how cultural attitudes (ignorantly) conceptualize trans surgery as “cutting off a penis” or “cutting off the breasts”. “Most people are surprised when I tell them that the surgeons don’t really cut the penis off.” (Serano, Whipping Girl, 230) It is cutting, removing, and resuturing the flesh, be it a film strip or a body, that renders it transsexual. Asami’s monstrosity is rendered then not only through her mutilated genitalia, but likewise through the distinctly phallic violence she causes onto Aoyama. In this regard, she is rendered as a monstrous transexual figure.

1969 experimental horror film Funeral Parade of Roses is possibly the most obviously trans film in terms of textually being about overtly trans-feminine characters, even electing to use trans-feminine actresses to portray such characters. However, through the film’s use of mutilation both of the body and of the film strip, it further demonstrates how mutilation within a filmic text calls for a trans reading. The plot revolves around Eddie, as well as other trans fems living in Tokyo, Japan. Eddie works as a hostess at a gay bar specializing in the employment of trans fems. The manager of the bar, Gonda, begins having an affair with Eddie, and promises to one day replace the bar’s current madame, Gonda’s partner Leda, with Eddie. Leda commits suicide and Eddie becomes madame as well as Gonda’s official partner. While Eddie is taking a shower Gonda looks through Eddie’s posessions, discovering a photograph of Eddie as a young boy, it is then that Gonda realizes that Eddie is his son whom he abandoned as a child, Gonda then commits suicide. Eddie, upon discovering Gonda’s body, and realizing that Gonda is their father, stabs out their eyes and wanders out into the street.

It would be an oversimplification to call the film an adaptation or reimagining of Oedipus Rex. Though that is the basic main plot, the director likewise uses disjunctive editing, jumbling the timeline of events, parodies Hitchcock (in particular Psycho), uses documentarian interviews with the trans feminine actresses, and pays reference to several other experimental and art house films and aesthetics throughout the film.

Though the film’s main plot renders Eddie, the key trans fem character in a psychosexual incestuous narrative, the film’s documentarian interviews with Eddie’s actor Shinnosuke Ikehata (stage name Peter), contrasts the monstrous depiction of trans femininity. The interviews humanize the actual gay and trans-feminine actors in the film, allowing them to speak for themselves in regards to their identities and gender presentations. This is further contrasted with scenes that directly reference or parody scenes and elements of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Psycho is significant for making audiences afraid of two things: 1. The shower, and 2. A man masquerading as a woman invading that shower. The film is significant for being one of the very first and most enduring images of a trans feminine psychotic killer, complete with a clinical and pathologizing explanation as to what Norman Bates is. Though it may not be intended to represent trans women, the fact of the matter is it has created a long-lasting effect in terms of how trans women are viewed culturally, as perverted psychopathic predators, wishing to enter women’s spaces to do unknown harm to them.

It is then through Funeral Parade of Roses’s collage of references and parodies to Psycho, as well as telling its own disjunctive psychosexual thriller narrative, in tandem with humanizing documentary footage, that a contrasting and illuminating image of trans femininity is formed. These conflicting accounts of trans femininity, presented both as being distinctly human and authentic, yet also in the context of cinema, monstrous and horrific, on one hand discredits and disrupts Hitchcock’s blatant transmisogyny, as well as complicate the image of transfeminity. Ultimately I read the film as a parody and critique of the psychosexual thriller’s stranglehold on depicting the psychotic transsexual, though even that feels as an oversimplification of these contrasting images of trans femininity. In the context of Eddie’s self mutilation, the gouging of their eyes specifically, one can wonder if the answer then is to not look at all. The object that reveals Eddie’s incestuous relationship (which is what renders them as monstrous) is afterall, a photograph, a shot, a montage cell in Eisenstein’s theory. Then within the context of film theorists often likening the act of editing to mutilation or surgery, we can read into Eddie’s self-evisceration as not only a refusal to look at the image of themselves as an incestuous monster, but taking the reigns of surgeon and editor of their own body themselves. This act of self-mutilation, along with parodies of Psycho, and allowing real transfeminine actresses to speak for themselves, collides and contrasts to create a radical argument for trans feminine people to take control of their image within cinema.

As demonstrated, mutilation either of cinematic, textual, or physical bodies engenders an opportunity for a transexual interpretation. To edit a film, or a body, is to in some way trans that body. My decision to focus particularly on narratives in which the mutilated woman, othered for her mutilation, becomes a master of mutilation herself, is due to the current state of affairs. More specifically, with the advent of increasing bans on trans healthcare for minors, as well as proposed bans on trans healthcare for adults, as well as the overturning of Roe. v Wade by the supreme court; the fact of the matter is that our bodily autonomy is under threat in this country. These films, in tandem with this analysis of them, then argues for a radical reclamation of our bodily autonomy. In our current political climate, and possibly even more so in our future one, to claim one’s bodily autonomy will appear violent, grotesque and monstrous. With the advent of transition healthcare being banned or denied to an increased number of people, there has likewise been an increase in arguments supporting DIY transition. Running parallel, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, we will almost assuredly see an increase in at-home or unsanctioned abortions performed. Within the rising tides of fascism and authoritarian policies placed upon our bodies, we must then become mutilators ourselves, ready to mutilate and suture our flesh against the wishes of the state, so that we can reclaim our bodily autonomy. We must mutilate and render ourselves monstros to normalcy and the state.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. “The Complete Film from Film as Art.” Film Theory and Criticism Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, pp. 144–148.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “Beyond the Shot [The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram].” Film Theory and Criticism Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, pp. 12–23.

Fitzgerald, MPA, Erin, et al. Meaningful Work Transgender Experiences In The Sex Trade, National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Basic Concepts from Theory of Film.” Film Theory and Criticism Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, pp. 113–126.

Morrell, Carmilla M. “Built Bodies: Representations of Monstrous Transsexuality in the Frankenstein Film, 1945-1975.” DePaul University, 2020.

Movement Advancement Project. "Equality Maps: Panic Defense Bans." https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/panic_defense_bans. Accessed 12/22/22.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2016.

Steinbock, Eliza. Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change. Duke University Press, 2019.

In These Times: Meet the New Queer Archive Creating a Home for Trans Films
By Meggie Gates, Hana Urban

"While trans rights are under attack globally, Otherness Archive is creating a revolutionary space for artists that shows their “full, glorious complexity".” - Meggie Gates, Hana Urban

Into More: Otherness Archive Makes the Past Present
By Juan Barquin

"With no archive out there existing as a singular resource for transmasc film collections, its accessibility and ability to grow exponentially sounded magnificent." - Juan Barquin

By Sweatmother

The archive roulette button’s icon features the rating system NC-17. Read here why this is Otherness Archive’s icon.

The Motion Picture Association of America created NC-17 (No Children Under 17 Admitted) in 1990, to replace its previous highest rating X and the “stigma of pornography” associated with it. However, most mainstream cinemas in America refuse to screen NC-17 films; which lead to older work being blacklisted, which meant no distribution and little to no life after a film's creation. This prevented art house films, experimental moving image work, new queer cinema and erotica from reaching real financial success. NC-17 and X rating have a history of being used specifically against “representations of otherness” such as trans, lesbian and gay films, especially Black queer moving image work, preventing them from reaching mass audiences and being easily accessible.

These rating systems may not make themselves aggressively known to those who exist outside the film industry, but they demand an acknowledgement of the queer culture they have repeatedly censored.

This is why the NC-17 logo has become a symbol for Otherness Archive to remember censored/ erased/ forgotten history but also as a way to subvert its original function and reclaim it as a symbol of transgression which is the ethos Otherness Archive stands for.

  • Written and icon created by Sweatmother, 2022