Summer camps are fueled by hormone potential in horror movies, and being slaughtered by a masked maniac is a staple of American slasher flicks. With the comfort of parents and home at a far distance, a sweaty summer camp is the perfect place for young people to come into their own and fight for their lives. With Peacock’s They/Them (pronounced they-slash-them), a batch of queer characters face horrors both in the form of a serial killer and the world at large.
A lot of They/Them, written and directed by John Logan, reminded me of the 1999 Jamie Babbit satire, But I’m a Cheerleader. In that film, Natasha Lyonne’s parents send her to a gay conversion camp in hopes that she learns about traditional gender roles and how a woman needs to satisfy and be subordinate to her husband. Logan’s film shows how conservative people have always had the erasure of queer identity on their minds.
A group of queer, transgender, and nonbinary young people arrive at Whistler Camp, and they are greeted by Kevin Bacon’s easygoing and disarming camp leader, Owen. “I can’t make you straight,” he tells everyone, surprising the campers and us, the audience. When he assigns everyone to gender specific bunks, Jordan (Theo Germaine) informs Owen that they use they/them pronouns. Even though the campers have to hand over their cell phones and computers, a general affable atmosphere is introduced.
That affability doesn’t last long for several reasons. The campers are forced to participate in activities designed to “enlighten” them about roles they are meant to take on. Owen wants all the guys to shoot animals while another counselor, Sarah (Hayley Griffith), takes all the girls into the kitchen to instruct them on successful piemaking. Logan wisely mixes up the feelings of those sent to Camp Whistler. Monica Kim’s Veronica thinks the camp is bullshit while Anna Lore’s Kim admits to wanting a different life. Cooper Koch’s Stu is the self-hating, masc-presenting bro that you hate yourself for hitting up on Grindr.
Bacon is an unsettling villain. Not only does he call back to his Friday the 13th roots, but he relies on his charm in a cutting but not obvious way. Carrie Preston, as Camp Whistler’s therapist, has a disturbing scene where she grills Jordan into revealing things about their home life. It’s a key representation of how antiqueer individuals mask their contempt of queer people by presenting a façade of “doing the right thing.” If we had an entire series with Germaine in the lead, sign me up–they are charismatic presence. Queer people are some of horror’s most devout and vocal supporters, so these young actors take the horror genre by the throat.
I originally thought that They/Them didn’t need the physical embodiment of horror with the ax-wielding killer. The horrors of a camp like this–with conversion therapy and threats of violence–is scary enough. Why add a slasher element? I appreciate that Logan uses both, because queer people are not faced with one type of hatred, homophobia, or threat. Queer people must always be on high-alert, because we don’t exactly know if some people, be it counselor, parent, or alleged friend, truly has hate intentions.
They/Them debuts on Peacock on August 5.