We Need to Talk About the Conversion Camps in ‘Wednesday’
There’s something rotten at the heart of Nevermore Academy and it’s not just Gomez Addam’s atrociously placed lace front. In fact, this has nothing to do with the Addamses at all. Instead, we need to take a look at poor little Enid Sinclair, Wednesday’s colorful werewolf roommate.
Well, almost werewolf. See, Enid has been struggling to fully transition into her wolf state. She can grow her rainbow claws, but the rest of her development seems to be perennially delayed. She is the werewolf equivalent of a late bloomer. But in the world of Wednesday, this has potentially dire consequences. Because if she can never make the full change, she will be kicked out of the pack and abandoned by her family. Doomed to roam the earth as a “lone wolf.” Why that is, is never explained in the show, but it is Enid’s biggest fear.
This fear has also been consuming her well-meaning, if overbearing, werewolf mother. When her parents arrive for the “Parents Weekend” visit her mother showers her with pamphlets for various summer camps designed to “encourage” (read, force) the werewolf transition. In fact, they go so far as to repeatedly refer to them as conversion camps.
But let’s take a step back.
What do werewolves represent?
The unstoppable transition, the body hair, the grotesque and extreme physical changes, the uncontrollable urges, the hunger – werewolves have long been a metaphor for both sexuality and puberty. In the Universal monster classic The Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr plays Larry Talbot, a man cursed to murder a woman he loves when he transforms into the wolf, unable to stop the raging beast inside him. In An American Werewolf in London, we see David, a young man plagued by guilt and haunted by the ghosts of the people he has consumed when he becomes the wolf. They are men who are unable to control their extreme outbursts of, basically, toxic masculinity. And in campy classics like The Howling, The Howling 2, and Cat People, the female protagonists’ transformations into monstrous beasts are explicitly tied to their sapphic, same-sex attractions. Ginger Snaps, the 1990s cult classic, brings together both worlds when we watch Ginger embrace her changing body and her own burgeoning teenage lusts when she becomes the wolf. The wolf is the representation of both the changes of adolescence and teenage sexuality.
What is conversion therapy?
Now let’s look at conversion therapy camps. The horrific institutions of pseudo-science and torture were developed in the 1960s with the development of “aversion therapy” but some of the practices, including lobotomies and hypnosis, date back much to Nazi experiments on gay men in the concentration camps. Many camps employ electric shocks as their means of “aversion,” and other tortures like sleep deprivation, sexual assault, and waterboarding alongside overt evangelical Christian ministering. The camps have been used to try and turn queer kids (and adults) straight, and transgender and non-binary people cis.
And while Conversion camps have now been widely denounced and banned in some states, many still exist underground or are heavily masked. Recent films, like the iconic cult staple But I’m a Cheerleader, Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and even the well-intentioned but misguided horror film They/Them all tackle the horrors and violence of conversion therapy camps.
Why is this a problem in Wednesday?
Let’s get back to Wednesday. In Wednesday, lycanthropy as we see it focused on Enid, is explicitly a metaphor for puberty and the onset of adolescence. She is described as a later bloomer, her claws pop out when her emotions shift or she becomes sexually excited. However, as we’ve seen her so far, Enid is heterosexual. Her romantic interest is the gorgon boy Ajax. She is also hyper-feminine. She dyes her hair pink and decorates her side of the dorm room with rainbows, stuffed animals, and soft, feminine frills.
And so when her mother brings up the topic of a lycanthropy conversion summer camp, a camp designed to help her bring out the full wolf transformation the metaphors become muddled. The audience is meant to be horrified. After all, we all know the words “conversion camp” and what they mean (or at least, that they are bad.) And we know the stakes of Enid’s failure to transform. That she will lose her family.
But if lycanthropy is puberty, or essentially for Enid confirming her nature and her gender, the camp is trying to force the change to occur before she is ready. But that is not what conversion therapy camps are about. Conversion camps are about changing someone’s nature. About forcing them into a closet. Lycanthropy is about freedom and the things that we cannot control – our bodies, our aging, and our attractions. Lycanthropy is the unleashing of our truest, darkest selves, the self that cannot be controlled by society. Conversion camps are meant to rigidly control people according to the terms of hetero-Christian society. There is no conversion camp dedicated to encouraging our transformation into our fullest selves. Yes, Enid should be allowed to develop and come into her own on her own terms, but bringing in conversion therapy… it makes no damn sense.
The metaphor doesn’t add up. Instead, it makes apparent one of the main problems of the show. It wants to use hot-button topics like conversion therapy and colonization but it doesn’t understand how to work them into the metaphor. In fact, it barely knows how to work with the basic metaphor of “monsters” and how they function in the horror genre in general. In storytelling, the monster or the freak has always been the stand-in for the societal outcast. For the person who can’t be controlled by the dictates of polite society. They are the subtext for the outcast. But Wednesday makes the subtext text by literally splitting the characters into “outcasts” and “normies.” And yet the outcasts, the monsters and freaks who live on the fringe, are also the privileged and elite. Nevermore is not a military school, a harsh pre-juvie environment meant to reform these outcasts before they end up in prison or on the street. Nevermore is an expensive and luxurious Hogwarts-esque boarding school. A sanctuary for the monstrous teens.
Are the teens outcasts or are they the privileged elite? Why are there werewolf conversion camps except that the writers of Wednesday thought that transformations of any kind could be interchangeable and that they could capitalize on a trendy topic? The result feels cynical, crass, and hollow.
Enid, and all of her furry brethren, deserve better.
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]