Everything I Know About Queer Community I Learned from Swamp Thing
As a child with no access to queer or trans stories, I turned to "The Return of the Swamp Thing" for the message that I would be okay
I spent my childhood wondering what I was. I grew up in the ’90s in a sheltered evangelical home in Portland, Oregon, so I didn’t know trans women existed until I was 15. I was not like some other women, the ones who know from an early age who they are, trying on Mom’s pearls and pumps, begging for Barbies instead of Transformers. I did not understand what my gender was or how to perform it at a young age. I knew the way I was supposed to be (boy, sports, short hair, go run around outside) but I couldn’t make it fit, and I had nothing to replace it with. It was an emptiness. My body was like a floating amorphous blob with no ground to tie to and no form to fill. There was no Laverne Cox or Pose or Hunter Schafer or Transparent or Janet Mock or SOPHIE or Steven Universe or Teddy Geiger or Jen Richards or even Caitlyn Jenner to show me the way. All I knew was the ogre who lurked behind me and whispered into my ear, “Something ain’t right.”
I made it my mission to figure out what I was.
I read comic books and sci-fi novels in order to go someplace else (anywhere else) but also as research. Every movie I watched and book I read was a possibility. Maybe I was an alien. A mutant a la X-Men. Possibly a fifth Ninja Turtle. Might have been a mermaid who’d lost her tail. I thought for sure I was something monstrous. The trans person as a monster is a tired trope, foisted upon us by society—we are not monsters, we are simply humans with a complex and dynamic relationship to our gender—but there is a reason I gravitated towards these types of stories. When I was young and saw no one like me, when I had no idea who or what I was, when I thought I was the only one who felt this way, I did feel monstrous.
I don’t remember the first time I watched The Return of the Swamp Thing. It’s one of those movies that seems like it’s always been in my life. My parents recorded it onto a blank VHS tape for me when a local TV network ran it one night. I watched it so many times I still remember many of the commercials that aired during the ad breaks (including a terrifying trailer for one of the Chucky films). To me, the movie always felt like it was made for people who feel monstrous, a portrayal of a monster’s survival and eventual happiness.
The sequel opened the possibility that my parents’ home under evangelical rule wasn’t where I was meant to be. I wondered if there was a place that could be my swamp, the place where I belonged. Swamp Thing fits perfectly in the bayou, like they were made for each other. (He is, after all, half-swamp.) The bayou is otherworldly: murky water, vines descending from trees, and moss painting every surface. Here, Swamp Thing seems like the most natural thing in the world. His body made of twigs, moss, roots, vines, leaves, and grasses blends into the dark browns and greens of the swamp. In the bayou, it’s the humans that are out of place.
I wasn’t interested in Swamp Thing’s origin story, so I never cared for the original Swamp Thing, a movie with barely any connection to its sequel. In fact, I was never interested in the origin story in any of the monster/alien/superhero books or movies. I didn’t care about how the creature became monstrous. I wanted to know about the After. I turned to these stories to confirm that if I did turn out to be a monster, everything would still be okay. For me, the most interesting parts of these stories were the moments between the fighting, when the monsters were back on the spaceship making tea or lying in bed in the lair. I wanted to see how Alec Holland lived once he became the half-human-half-plant bog monster known as Swamp Thing. I wanted the intricacies of it. Did he build a home in the swamp? Did he befriend other swamp creatures?
How does he make a life for himself as a swamp thing?
I can see now why young Emme was obsessed with a movie where a monster is the hero and most of the humans are monsters. The villains are all straight, cis, and rich, and so what is typically heralded as the default becomes the monstrous. The Return of the Swamp Thing was my introduction to the notion that being the default does not automatically mean you are good and that being different doesn’t make you a monster. The most grotesque of the villains is Anton Arcane, the mad scientist from the original Swamp Thing. He is tan, hair turning dark gray, handsome. In another movie, he could be the striking lead, but those are only appearances, which, in my 8-year-old mind, did not matter in The Return of The Swamp Thing. Dr. Arcane seeks immortality. He splices the genes of humans with creatures from the swamp, transforming humans into half-human-half-cockroaches, humans with trunks for noses, and other monstrosities. Occasionally, the mutated creatures escape the lair and terrorize the swamp, but even then, they are not the true villains. They are more the victims, unsure of what to do with their newfound monstrosities. Dr. Arcane is the one who uses gene splicing to destroy their human form, and to this end, the man is the monster.
What I truly loved about The Return of the Swamp Thing, the thing that fed my obsession, was the love story between Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane, Dr. Arcane’s stepdaughter. We first meet her in Los Angeles, worlds apart from the swamp we see in the opening scenes. Abby mists the leaves of her indoor plants and laments her dating life, wondering, “Why can’t men be more like plants?” The camera pans to show the name tags she’s written for each of her potted plants: Jimmy. Annette. Murray. Tommy. Abby determines that she’ll never find love until she confronts her stepfather about what happened in her mother’s mysterious death. She goes to the bayou for answers. When she is attacked one night in the swamp by moonshiners, it is Swamp Thing who saves her. At first sight, Abby is slightly repulsed by Swamp Thing. When we encounter the unknown it is often repulsion or fear that finds us first. Swamp Thing towers over her, his body made of plant matter, but there is a glint in Abby’s eyes. Right away, we know they’ll be in love soon. The next day when Swamp Thing saves her for a second time, she announces he is her boyfriend. Who can be surprised? After all, he is the manifestation of her desire just days before. A man who is more like a plant. She doesn’t find him attractive despite the fact that he is half plant, half human. It is exactly the half-plant aspect that she desires. Swamp Thing offers her a vegetal pod from his hip. They each take a bite. The camera lens shifts into soft focus. Light glitters on the edges of the swamp. Swamp Thing has disappeared, and now, it is Abby Arcane and a handsome blond man. What is happening is not exactly clear, but I think they hallucinate that Swamp Thing is in his human form so they can have sex.
The notion that someone like Swamp Thing could find love and build a home fed me so much hope as a child. It didn’t matter that some people found him monstrous. Swamp Thing was far less monstrous than most of the humans in the movie. He was caring and delicate at times. It was the After I had been craving. The part post-mutation, where we see he has carved out a home and finds love. He is revered.
The Return of Swamp Thing didn’t show me who I was. How could it? I am not a monster. I am not a mutant. I am not a science experiment gone wrong. In fact, with HRT, I am science doing what it was intended to do. But The Return of the Swamp Thing did teach me that no matter what I discovered about myself, there was a place for me on this planet and there would be people who loved me for my swampiness.
In the end, Anton Arcane does not become immortal. Instead, he is betrayed by his scientist/lover and dies in a fire in his lab. Swamp Thing and Abby return to the bayou together. Here, a lesser movie would have removed Swamp Thing’s monster status, but Swamp Thing does not revert back to his human form. There is no curse to be lifted, because being half human, half plant is not a curse. It simply is. Nor does Abby convince Swamp Thing to return with her to Los Angeles. Why would she? His home is in the swamp. Rather, she stays with him. They embrace on the marshy floor. The camera pans down to show a flower bloom growing out of Abby’s left foot.
So many of the monster movies of my youth ended with curses being lifted or lovers parting ways because love between a monster and a human is not supposed to work. But in The Return of The Swamp Thing, not only does Abby join Swamp Thing, she becomes something like him—not because she has to, but because she wants to. The two lovers could eat another vegetal pod and hallucinate Swamp Thing in his human form, but in this movie, it is better to be half-swamp than it is to be human. The last image is of two swamp things’ silhouettes walking arm in arm into the sunset. When I watched the movie for the first time in 20 years, this image was one of my most salient memories from watching it as a kid. It is clear. Happily ever after.
Watching the movie now, a part of me is sad this was the representation I gravitated towards. But what other option did I have? I was so sheltered in a home ruled by an evangelical church that nearly nothing got in. Sometimes I’m surprised The Return of the Swamp Thing made it through. How would something with queer characters or trans women even make it into a house like that? Impossible. So I watched The Return of the Swamp Thing over and over again. I watched him make a home and find love in the bayou. I watched it because it helped me understand a little bit about myself, made me understand that someday I’d know what the ogre meant when he whispered, “Something ain’t right,” and no matter what I was, someone out there would love me for it.
In the 30 years since The Return of the Swamp Thing was released, I have ended the search for what I am, coming to understand my gender and sexuality. I have found my form to fill, have tied myself to the ground. I have a community of friends who surround me like family, who love me not despite my gender but because it is a part of who I am—not all of who I am, but a part. We meet at the park or bar or bookstore or my living room and we laugh and we cry and hold each other. We are each at home in our swamp, our bodies overrun with vines, roots, and moss, and gradually, we burst into bloom.