The Transgender Cabal

Well… sort of. Transgender movie-based-on-the-book-Cabal, anyway.

Tonight, my housemates and I watched the 1990 horror cult classic Nightbreed.

Have you seen this one? Pretty good FX for the time, spectacular makeup, and strangely Canadian – being set in, and partly filmed in, Alberta. I was probably techincally too young the first time I saw it, but liked it even then.

Filmed in 1989 as it was, it was one of the last of the ’80s horror’ subgenre, but an unusual one. There’s a sleepy little town and outside it a necropolis of a graveyard; there’s a whole underground warren of monsters and a beleaguered population in fear of their lives; there’s a psychiatrist and a serial killer – except all of these common enough tropes were turned on their heads. The monsters lived in the graveyard, yes, but they are the beleaguered population; the serial killer is the psychiatrist who manipulates his disturbed patient into believing he, the patient, committed the crimes; and the ‘monsters’ aren’t the ones dealing out violence at their whim – that’s the police and the townspeople, at the behest of the soft-spoken well-dressed murderer with a doctorate.

As metaphors go, it’s not subtle – there’s a visible Star of David on a few of the prominent set pieces and props, for example, and they even called themselves the Lost Tribes at one point – but it works, and it doesn’t just work for that most obvious comparison. Even when I watched it when I was too young, I didn’t just feel for the ‘monsters’, the Midianites, I felt like one of them. Never quite part of the world, always treated like something they wanted to get rid of… and now?

Now that impression is all too real. Every single day I am exposed to message after message in the right-wing, right-leaning, and even centrist media, calling for people like me to be at best carefully managed and kept at arm’s length from society, or at worst outright exterminated. Within the last couple of weeks the Federalist even posted an op-ed literally using the phrase “the transgender question” to mean exactly what it sounds like, the dogwhistles so loud that wineglasses were shattering for miles around. We’ve seen cops who were quite a lot more politically extreme and trigger-happy than the ones in Nightbreed giving interviews about the precincts they run, and the ones in the movie reminded me deeply of the guys I see proudly bloviating online about what damage they’ll do to us if they catch us daring to use public facilities, sometimes in excruciating detail. The metaphor rings very true; we are what we are by accident of birth, not choice; we don’t want to hurt anyone; we look strange or uncanny, except (even more terrifying to those who hate us) those of us who can appear ‘normal’; and we are absolutely, utterly, not wanted by society.

This is not a deep cut. The metaphors here are subtle as a sledgehammer. The point here isn’t my amazing insight as a media critic, but rather how personal it feels now. This is a movie about monsters being murdered, and I see myself and my demographic in it, because the public calls us monsters and wants to murder us.

And while I know I’m not who the metaphor was intended to be about originally, Hebrew symbology aside, I’m pretty sure I’m not so very far off it. Nightbreed (and the novella it was based on) was written and directed by Clive Barker – a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic, who had just lived through the Reagan and Thatcher administrations.

I think perhaps he knew a thing or two about being treated like an underground monster deserving of death.



  1. says

    i feel like the name “Midian” was intentionally similar to “midden.” another canadian aspect is the shrink with a mask and a nightbreed-murderin’ kink was played by david cronenberg, like, what are you doing acting, man? interesting little movie, but i can see why it didn’t have the lasting impact of hellraiser.

    barker wrote comic books that brought together characters from nightbreed and hellraiser as well. the plot recast the cenobites as servants of order and discipline, the nightbreed as servants of chaos, and a prophecy they were going to have a big war. i only read a bit, don’t know how it ends or if it’s worth reading in its entirety.

    sorry ’bout the world of menace you endure. as i often wish i could remove the hopeful part of my brain and squish it into my boyfriend’s skull, i’d gladly lend you a few neurons as well. good luck, long live the fighters, and all my usual hashtaggery.

  2. Jazzlet says

    I’ll take your word for it Abbey, my brain likes to use the imagary of any horror film I watch as fuel for nightmares, so I just don’t watch them.

    I am so sorry that you, that anyone, is in this vulnerable place, I can’t iagine the effect it must be having on you. It is however good to hear from you, just so horrific it is in this context.

  3. says

    @1 G. A. Satan

    I love to bits the fact that that’s Cronenberg, but that would have distracted more than a little from the thrust of the above. He’s actually got quite a few acting credits, it’s just not the thing he got properly famous for. I believe he’s acting as a psychiatrist again now, on Star Trek: Discovery, and I keep wondering if that’s meant as an oblique reference…

    Hellraiser is my favorite horror franchise, I know the comics quite well… I’m not sure Barker did much of those, though. The ‘servants of order’ thing is something I like a lot but it also goes directly against the themes that were being explored in ‘The Hellbound Heart’, so ymmv. But I have to say I’m looking forward to the new Hellraiser. The new “Pinhead”‘s a trans woman, so that’ll definitely be extra terrifying to some people…

  4. says

    @1 G. A. Satan

    Forgot to add: ‘Midian’ is a Biblical reference, they even mentioned that in the movie. It’s the country Moses lived in self-imposed exile before the burning bush business and returning to Egypt to free the Hebrews, among other things. Whether it also felt like a good reference to ‘midden’ I don’t know; I’m not quite familiar enough with Barker’s novels to know how much he used oblique wordplay – but if he DOES, then Midian becomes an even better name because of possibly referencing ‘midden’, ‘meridian’ (relating to midday or high noon), and ‘median’ (the most common) – the last two ironically.

  5. says

    alright then, learned some things. i haven’t seen the movie in a many years. i only read hellbound heart for the first time i think last year? jamie clayton is super lovely, her voice is enchanting, and the costume design on her was excellent, but everything else in the trailer looked pretty dull to me. if i see enough good reviews, maybe i’ll check it out.

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