The (Transgender) Evil Dead
Upon conception, the protagonist of the Evil Dead series was named Ashly. By the time the film was finalized, he was known as Ashley, or, more simply, as Ash.
In fact, most know him as Ash. Ash Williams, made iconic by his chainsaw hand and his quips, has helmed three films and a TV show all about his fight against an ancient evil with the ability to possess anyone it wants. He is known primarily for his brash projection of masculinity; much like Indiana Jones and Han Solo of the same era, he exudes so much of what society views as peak masculinity that he’s become one of horror’s most well known figures.
And I just so happen to think there’s a lot of legitimate evidence towards the idea that he’s transgender.
Like, legitimately. Not only is there surface-level character bits that pull in that direction, but a lot of Ash’s later development strongly supports the idea that he’s not necessarily cisgender. And while that idea was almost certainly never intended on the part of Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell, you can still find a lot of people online who are hopping on board with this reading.
So, in laying out my evidence, we will start at the beginning: Ash Williams in the first Evil Dead is nothing like his character in the series going forward. Instead of being brash and rude and ready to charge headlong into a fist fight, he is instead incredibly meek, almost intentionally written to be against type for the typical male hero. To take a quote from myself:
“While Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness depict him as a dim-witted but mostly undeniable badass, the Ash of The Evil Dead is typically the character you would expect to die fairly quickly, in a standard horror film. The secondary male lead, Scott, is the one who takes the most direct action against the demons throughout the film [up] until his death; Ash, meanwhile, often stands frozen with terror in the corner. He’s almost taken out by being trapped under an empty shelf twice.
An argument could almost be made for Ash as Evil Dead’s own spin on the “final girl”, as he mostly stays far away from the traditional masculinity seen in leading men. While he eventually evolves into a pseudo-parody of masculinity in later series installments, the first film gives no indication that that is the path the character is destined to take. Even his name- Ashley; not Ashton or just Ash, but very specifically Ashley- tells the viewer that he should not be looked to as the traditional leading male.” — Evil Dead 1981 vs. 2013
As previously stated, Ash doesn’t get any of his iconic moments until the second and third films, and those films do very little to explore Ash’s personality or his past. Due to rights issues, Evil Dead II and Army Of Darkness erase the existence of the likes of Cheryl and Scott from the opening recaps. Though still technically canonical, the characters and characterizations of The Evil Dead were a somewhat separate entity from the rest of the series.
That is, until Ash vs. Evil Dead.
Airing from 2015 until 2018 and spanning three seasons, Ash vs. Evil Dead followed the titular protagonist on his continued adventures against evil, while also aiming to truly expand on the character for the first time; this meant exploring the effects of the films on his mental state, as well as examining his familial relationships or lack thereof.
Further still, it made an effort to make all three films canonical, despite their slight differences in continuity; this meant that the gentle, soft-spoken Ash and the crude and loud Ash were a part of the same character, the same timeline. And this is when we really get into Ash as a trans-coded character.
Prior to my recent rewatch, the third and final season had been my own personal favorite; but with the series now fresh in my mind, it’s the second that instead holds much of my primary appreciation. It’s the season that does the most with its references, with its characters, etc. But that’s its own separate piece for a different time.
To expand on the second season in particular (the first season is great, just ultimately focuses on establishing its characters, rather than on growth and expansion, especially in comparison to the second), this is the season that explicitly examines Ash’s family ties. While information about his mother is still minimal- within the story, it’s because she left when Ash was young; in reality, it’s probably because writing female characters are not Raimi’s strong suit- the relationship between Ash and his father is quickly established.
Much like Ash, his father, Brock, is a rude, narcissistic sexist who gets his kicks from antagonizing others. It’s obvious right away that he is the blueprint for Ash’s understanding and execution of masculinity. And the two knock heads as if no time had ever passed between them. The conflict between the two stems primarily from Brock’s belief that Ash ran from the town after the events portrayed in The Evil Dead, instead of standing his ground and defending himself against the claims that he’d murdered his friends and sister in cold blood. Quite literally, in the eyes of Brock and the town, Ash took his daughter away from him; and that’s loaded language if you’re reading the series with a transgender lens.
Most notably for this piece, Brock is one of the very few people who ever call Ash by his full name of Ashley. Up until this point, Cheryl, Ash’s sister, had been the only major character to refer to him as Ashley; I think it’s important to draw attention to the fact that both of these characters are in his immediate family. In contrast to this, the other people that Ash reacquaints himself with in his hometown refer to him as Ash and not Ashley; even those who held decades-long grudges against him and would have reason to attempt to humiliate him.
He is only Ashley to his family, and further still, only Ash once he has earned back the respect of his father. There is a moment where Ash explicitly tells him that he knows “I’m not the son you wanted”.
In season three, Ash is revealed to be a father (note that this is not impossible for transgender men, both in terms of being able to physically carry a child, in regards to embryo and oocyte banking, and in regards to partner-assisted reproduction methods). During the finale, his daughter, Brandy, reflects aloud how terrible it must’ve been to “[go] through everything you did” and have nobody believe that it was happening.
This is also the season that reveals Ash’s full name, previously only known as “Ashley J. Williams”:
That above exchange is also incredibly trans-coded, in case you were wondering.
Around the age of my first Evil Dead, I was first starting to realize that maybe I wasn’t so comfortable in my own skin.
It’s weird, actually, how much this series has overlapped with my own self-realizations and transitions. I watched the original film around the age of 12, around the age where I was effectively at emotional rock bottom, and I didn’t have the words to articulate how I felt yet. In 2015, when the first season of the show aired, I made the first step and admitted to myself, for the first time, that I was not cisgender. And by the time the show was cancelled in early 2018, I had finally come to terms with the fact that I was a trans man.
Oddly enough, though I had seen Evil Dead and Army of Darkness multiple times, I did not watch Evil Dead II in its entirety until sometime in 2019, which was already well into my transition. And up until that point, though I was always fond of the series, it wasn’t something that I had a total dedication to. That came with time, as it slowly wormed its way into my day to day thoughts more and more, and I found myself revisiting it more, subsequently.
Ashley Williams is an asshole. He’s more consistently sexist than he is not. He’s really not a character that you should watch and decide “yeah, I want to be just like him”. But he’s also a character who’s survived trauma forced upon him for seemingly no reason; and even when it’s revealed that this suffering was predestined, he still fights it at nearly every step. He’s a character “chosen”, for reasons beyond his control and comprehension, to live a life he would’ve never otherwise picked; nobody chooses to be transgender, it is something thrust upon them.
Much of the final moments of the show revolve around Ash’s bitterness towards being the “chosen one” of sorts. As the end of the world is closer than ever before, he initially balks at the momentous task before him. He sits before his daughter and asks “why me?”, lamenting that he’s just a nobody from Michigan, who never asked to be chosen. But by the end, Ash admits that he must “for once, own up to who the hell I am”.
Now, replace “chosen one” with “transgender”.
For as long as I have been at odds with my own gender, Evil Dead has been a part of my life. And for as much as Ash Williams has effectively turned into this satirical caricature of men, I still desire to emulate him in some form or another. There is nothing more LGBT-coded than the found family trope, and Ash vs. Evil Dead holds that trope near and dear to its chest; that’s another reason why the second season is my favorite, for how it portrays Ash’s relationship with Kelly, Pablo, and even Ruby, to an extent. Even in the face of the abandonment from his biological family, and the town he was raised in, he is never without love and support. Family is not just who you’re related to, and no group knows that more than LGBT people.
For the rest of my life, I will have Ashley Joanna Williams tattooed on the outside of my arm. He will rest just underneath my Wolverine tattoo, both men who shaped my identity as it stands today. As this is written, my paperwork to legally change my name to Logan-Ashley is currently sitting in my county’s family court, waiting to be approved. Evil Dead and I will forever be shackled at the wrist with each other.
I’m a person who, in the face of an ever-expanding catalog of explicit transgender and LGBT media, somehow always comes back to the coded stuff, the stuff that was never made for me but that I’ve made my home in nonetheless. Evil Dead was my home before I even knew it, and it will continue to be for a very long time.
And for that, I can only say thank you to both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell for their part in bringing Ash Williams to life, and for coding him in such a way that allowed me to project myself onto him. It’s a groovy journey to be on.