In a horror story, a young teenage girl feels as if she were meant to be a boy. She wears baggy clothes to mask her new curves; her hair hangs lank and unwashed around her face, to which she has not applied makeup; her gait is awkward, lumbering, unfeminine. This girl does not have friends and cannot identify with her peers, with whom she does not share interests. She is alone except for her family, who try desperately to save her.
This is a story that has been told twice this year in different formats. It’s the leading anecdote of Jesse Singal’s contentious reported feature “When Children Say They’re Trans,” which covered the July/August issue of The Atlantic and was released in time for Pride month in June. It also begins Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s debut feature film — a visceral, harrowing horror movie about a demonic cult with an American nuclear family in its grip. The stories share a premise, but they end differently. In Singal’s account, the girl, Claire, is saved when her parents sign her up for therapy, take away her access to YouTube, and guide her to the realization that girls can enjoy short haircuts and still be girls. Aster’s version of the fable arrives at the ‘tragic’ conclusion implied by Singal’s — it ends in transition. The girl becomes a boy.
Anxiety over femininity has long proved robust fuel for horror stories. It powers The Exorcist, in which a male demon possesses a young girl’s body and turns her into a cussing, contorting, self-mutilating Garbage Pail Kid. In Rosemary’s Baby, a woman becomes pregnant, but not with the human child she wants; she’s a host for the son of the devil, and sensing this, she fights back by cutting her hair from a matronly bob to a severe, boyish pixie — a look her complicit husband loudly hates. These films insert Satanic power into puberty and pregnancy, respectively, transmuting periods of hormonal change into stories of demonic infiltration. They employ, in reverse, a formula used by Silence of the Lambs and Psycho: One gender swirled up into another creates a monster.