Author’s note: the following piece deals heavily with sexual assault including, specifically, child sexual assault, and while not graphic it could be very upsetting and potentially triggering for some people.
Maybe one of humanity’s defining features is a desire for confession, a desire to express the things we’ve done wrong to others, a desire that may supersede fear or any degree of consequence. When you feel guilty, ashamed, there’s a sense that the reckoning you might face for your actions once they’re out in the open will never be as great as keeping the crime you committed hidden, and we want others to know, even obliquely, what we have done. We often dream of a peace of conscience after we confess; this is the Catholic cycle of confession, obviously, but it’s broader than that in its scope. A secret festers, like a piece of rotting meat in a sweltering, humid forest, eventually becoming so putrid that even the vultures can’t make a meal of it. We want to get things off our chests, to announce and hopefully exorcise wrong-doings from our spirits, to make ourselves “clean.” This is the dream of a guilt-free life, and the only two things that assuage the guilty are rationalization and admittance, acknowledgement, forgiveness.
Jeepers Creepers is, in many ways, a horror film broken down to the barest of clichés. Two young people witness a monster doing bad things, and that monster follows them relentlessly with the aim of bloodshed. If you wrote out the plot beats, that would be more or less it, a constant pursuit of two innocent parties by a malevolent evil, every hope dashed by the inertia of evil. But, seeing it at least once a year since I was 16, I want to say the devil (quite literally) is in the details, moments that are as memorable as they are disquieting: Not every horror film includes a descent down a dark tunnel into a basement filled with the petrified bodies of past victims. Not every horror film aims to make a silly old-time song into something of physical, assaultive menace. Not every horror film includes a scene where the monster obsessively smells his victim’s clothes. And that’s because not every movie is a confession of sexual assault.
Victor Salva directed Jeepers Creepers. Victor Salva also sexually assaulted a twelve-year-old boy and videotaped the encounter. Victor Salva also owned videotapes and magazines of child pornography, as police found in his home during the investigation of said sexual assault. And, unlike fellow (alleged, as I have to say for legal reasons) pedophile Woody Allen, he did time for these crimes, serving fifteen months of a three year sentence after pleading guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct, oral sex with a person under fourteen, and procuring a child for pornography. Since being released, he has directed eight feature films, with a ninth to come this year, despite the protests of his victim, Nathan Forrest Winters, and calls for accountability. And when he made Jeepers Creepers in 2001, Victor Salva, consciously or not, put himself on the screen.
Except, unlike many self-inserts, Salva was not the good guy that comes in swinging, the man with the plan who will make everything right. He was, as fans of the two films in the series call him, the Creeper, a malevolent being who piecemeal steals body parts from young men and women and buttresses his own decaying body with their youth (it’s a darkly ironic coincidence that the word “creeper” is its own slang often meaning precisely the kind of predator Salva is). The Creeper is relentless, unstoppable, and seemingly impervious to all harm, surviving dismemberment, bullets, and being hit by a car (repeatably), feverishly focused on a life that involves no motive beyond the fulfillment of a desire.
The first time I watched Jeepers Creepers, something seemed off about its central monster, in a way other movie monsters didn’t seem off to me. There was something upsetting, something strange, something different about the way he pursues the two main protagonists, siblings Trish and Darry, across miles of empty highway. He wasn’t “fun” the way Freddy or Jason were, even if the cheeseball pile-up of horror clichés that surrounded him might’ve been. There was an obsession I couldn’t place and still wouldn’t see for a few more viewings (but I think intrinsically understood from that first time) and it clicks in a scene where the two take refuge in a diner only to have the Creeper follow them there: the Creeper breaks into their car and then rips open a bag of laundry Darry was bringing home for his mom to do. He wants Darry’s scent. He smells Darry’s clothes, and, as the movie points out, specifically his underwear. He is forcing intimacy. The Creeper is a rapist.
One thing that can be hard for me to explain to people who aren’t trans women is the way many trans women relate to sexuality, be they straight, bi, gay, or otherwise. I didn’t come out to anyone until I was seventeen; I didn’t tell my parents until I was eighteen; I didn’t become “open” about it until another year after that, and even then I was cautious with how I presented, and to who. I’d known, on some level, ever since I was a child, who I was, but the possibility of that reality didn’t show itself for years, and the fear over how that possibility might pan out didn’t get suppressed for years after that (a fear that still quietly lives in every moment I have to see strangers, every moment I have to be in a place I am not innately accepted).
Every time I looked in the mirror to brush my teeth, I felt hideous, I felt ugly, I felt like a lie. What I wanted was someone to justify these part of me I was keeping secret, a person who would look at me, in clothes I kept hidden, and see me as something other than freakish or grotesque, the way I’d been taught by the culture at large to think of myself. When the only sexuality you’re shown you can have is one of your own humiliation, it seems like the only option to feel wanted, to not be discarded, to not be alone. So, maybe you can understand why so many trans women “participate” in the fetishes of others who degrade them, why so many trans women end up abused in terrible relationships but cannot leave, why so many trans women end up in places they never imagined in their nightmares being, simply because someone says something like: I desire you. Which is how I ended up in His house when I was seventeen.
I don’t know exactly how old he was; mid-forties, if I’d guessed then, but I’ve never been good with ages, and I can’t (or won’t) remember his face anymore. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember how long it took for him to drive me from my hometown to his house; I think it was something like a half-hour, but each way felt longer than that in my starting fear and my ending shame. The point is, he should have known better. He did know better. He knew he was too old, and he knew I was too young. He’d searched enough of my email details to find my Facebook, the Facebook that said I was still in high school (it’s strange the details you remember: I remember it was a month where everyone changed their profile pictures to be Pokémon. My profile picture was Mew). He paid money for the clothes he wanted me to wear, because I had told him that as a high school student I didn’t have much disposable income, and I didn’t have the exact clothes he wanted to see. I didn’t have the exact underwear he wanted. The underwear I wore to there, and the underwear he kept. The underwear he smelled when he told me to take it off.
Even today, my own shame makes me hesitate to call it rape, even though if it had happened to someone else that word would be unequivocal to me. Rape. But, I say to myself, I’d said yes to meeting in the first place; I’d said yes to getting in his car; I hadn’t said, with my words, for him to stop; I had told him I’d enjoyed it, even though as he touched me, even in the dark I closed my eyes and imagined something else, because I knew that if I didn’t respond to his touch he would be angry, or upset, and I didn’t know what that would mean, but I knew that this far from home, alone, I didn’t have another option. I remember the exact words he said to me when I hesitated too long, words I won’t repeat here. I remember the skirt I wore. It was plaid, and the buttons were fake little jewels that looked like rubies. I remember it sitting at the bottom of my dresser drawer, underneath my underwear. I remember throwing that skirt out because when I touched it something inside me felt like vomiting.
The Creeper licks Darry’s face before he takes him; the Creeper fumbles towards the intimacy he desires, uncaring about whether the other person might object to what’s about to happen. I guess we’re supposed to think that Trish is the intended victim, and I guess that the Creeper’s desire for Darry is supposed to be a twist of a kind, but from the loving shots of Justin Long, sweaty, shirt slashed, clothing sticking to him, from the naked young man Darry finds in the Creeper’s dungeon (underneath a church, no less), it’s never fooling anybody. Darry is the goal, and the Creeper will not be stopped in his pursuit, be it by car or by shotgun or by a psychic who knows precisely where he’ll strike but is unable to stop the damage anyways (do I need to even explicate the ways this is so distressingly similar to how sexual assault victims are called liars, how the police refuse to believe them, how conviction rates for rape are so staggeringly small that many victims are advised against even reporting?). Demons don’t feel guilt. They only feel hunger.
Victor Salva is that predator. Victor Salva is that demon. Every shot of the film might as well be shot from the gaze of the Creeper, every desperate pan of Darry, every hold on his terrified face (eroticized even then), every dashed hope and voyeuristic sense of control. I don’t know if Salva knew when he was making it precisely what it was, if this was subconscious or a part of the script, but it’s undoubtedly a confession, painted with the poetry of horror. A unstoppable pursuer, a helpless victim, impotent authorities, an eventual physical debasement (the final shot shows us Darry’s eyes removed, and then shows us the Creeper looking at the audience through them, an act so loaded with symbolic resonance that Salva would have to be some kind of magical machine of denial to not at least feel the significance of). It’s my story, so many parts removed; it’s his victim’s story, told by the man responsible. It’s sickening.
And I watch it every year. I put in Jeepers Creepers around Halloween, without fail, and I watch it, without fail, looking for something. It’s become so normalized it’s hard to even feel it anymore, but its rhythms, its confession, it strikes my own desire for confession. A confession that I’m like Darry. A confession that what happened was wrong, that even a mess of early-2000s horror stock tropes like Jeepers Creepers recognizes it as such, that even the villain of the piece at least knows he’s the villain. Did He know what he was doing to me when he did it? When he touched me, when I shrunk from that touch, when my whole body tensed up, did he know that? Does the Creeper even know that boundaries exist? They’re both driven, intensely, by desire, a desire that overwhelms and suffocates. A desire that maims and kills. I don’t want to think of Him as a monster; I want to see something whole in him, something that might justify his actions, something that would make me feel it made some kind of sense. But all I see back are the Creeper’s dead eyes staring through my own, ending it as it began—somewhere deadly, somewhere toxic, somewhere I don’t want to be, but somewhere I know can’t leave me. Some kind of scar that doesn’t fade like another, even when things are added on top of it, a wrinkle in the topography of my heart.
Directed by Victor Salva; written by Victor Salva; Starring Justin Long, Gina Philips, and Jonathan Breck; 90 minutes.