*SPOILERS FOR HEREDITARY (2018), MIDSOMMAR (2019), AND US (2019). READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
When I was a senior in high school, I took a film class that had five students in it. Four out of those five students were boys. I was the only girl. Fortunately, I got along great with all the boys in the class; we always had thoughtful, analytical discussions where everyone was able to equally express their opinions on storytelling and film technicalities, and they never once complained or rolled their eyes whenever I would go on one of my feminist tangents (which I did a lot.)
Somewhere in the middle of the school year, my teacher taught a segment on director Stanley Kubrick, and the first of his films that we watched in class was The Shining. As a budding horror geek, I was excited to finally view this classic with so much cultural significance in both American film history and iconography. Of course, I was absolutely terrified upon the first viewing, clutching at my oversized flannel like a child with a teddy bear anytime little Danny turned a corner on his tricycle in the Overlook Hotel’s seemingly never ending hallways. However, there was one character that really struck me as a true standout among the typical archetypes you would find in horror, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to look away or cower anytime they were on screen. That character was Wendy Torrance, played by Shelley Duvall.
While everyone else in my class gave endless praise to Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as Jack Torrance, I believed that it was Duvall who captured the true essence of pure, unfiltered terror in The Shining. There was something captivating about her almost cartoonish demeanor throughout the film, especially in the latter half. Her screams and cries were raw and untamed, a descent into madness that could only be achieved through prolonged isolation and pain at the hands of the one she trusted most – a man she once knew as her loving husband. Duvall wasn’t there to bring sex appeal to the film, or be the damsel in distress who needed to be saved by a man. She was there to capture a feeling, and that feeling was primal fear. In those final moments, I was Wendy, terrified by a predicament that I couldn’t even begin to process.
After finishing the film, my teacher explained some of the history behind the filming of The Shining. When the subject of Duvall’s performance was brought up, he described how her animated cries came from a very real place, as they were the result of excessive abuse on set at the hands of none other than Stanley Kubrick: Constantly isolating her, telling others on set not to sympathize with her, gaslighting her, and forcing her to reenact her iconic baseball bat scene over 100 times, Kubrick’s abuse caused her performance to be anything but sensationalized. Her red eyes and exhaustive pleas were 100% real.
Upon learning this, I felt angry. I felt confused. I walked home from school that day furious and deeply hurt. Most of all, I felt Wendy Torrance’s fears. Fortunately, I have never experienced anything quite so traumatizing, but in that moment, I felt her trauma. The trauma that comes from simply being a woman with little power. It made me want to scream, and it made me just slightly less trusting of those around me. It was horror. Real life horror.
I will level with you all for a bit: Life has not been simple lately. Yes, life is never simple, especially as we grow older, but I have faced many struggles in this past year that have really tested my patience and affected my well being. These negative feelings that have built up inside of me sometimes make me desire to be anything but that cute, sweet woman that I present myself as in front of a camera and on the internet. When the feelings grow overwhelming, I want to go completely feral. I want to tear my clothes off, run into the deepest neck of the woods, and scream until my veins pop out of my head. I desire to be that unhinged Wendy Torrance, releasing those feelings without an ounce of restraint.
The problem is, that isn’t exactly doable in the real world. If I release primal screams in the home that I live in, I’ll surely cause quite the stir from my neighbors. I don’t have any sort of isolated woods in my vicinity, and if my peers or online audience were to catch me in such a ferocious state, then I’d have to spend the rest of my life proving to them that I am still the kind, good-natured girl that they’ve come to know, just with strong feelings, too.
So, what is a girl to do to cope with all of these wild emotions that she’s supposed to keep in check? Well, she turns to the women she watches in horror, of course! Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend in modern art-horror films, and that is that they are all told through the perspective of a woman with an already fragile mental state.
Some examples: Maika Monroe as Jaimie in It Follows. Essie Davis as Amelia in The Babadook. Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch. Toni Collette as Annie in Hereditary. Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide in Us. Literally every woman in The Descent. And, most recently, Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar. I like to kid that these ladies have been my saviors in the year of 2019, but to be frank, there is truth to that statement.
While I adore all types of women in horror films, I’ve found that their roles have changed considerably over the years. The damsels, monstrous feminines, and scream queens are sort of becoming things of the past, or at the very least, redefined. In my opinion, these were women created for the purpose of voyeurism. We weren’t supposed to be put in their shoes, only participate as spectators, watching their inevitable demise at the hands of creatures and masked male murderers, or in some cases, male heroes in charge of putting an end to vicious vamps and temptresses alike.
Now, women in horror are finally starting to represent us. Lady leads are facing actual real life horrors that we can actually relate to. Grief, sexual abuse, fear of abandoment or replacement, co-dependency, gaslighting, sexism. These are all actual things that women face every day, and they’re not pretty or glamorized on the silver screen. They’re every day horrors, just pushed to their extremes. Of course, people of all genders face these issues as well, not just women, but for the purpose of this particular blog, my focus is on women.
When characters like Dani in Midsommar or Amelia in The Babadook release the screams they’ve been building up for the past two and a half hours, I feel a sense of catharsis. They are no longer screaming because they’re trying to escape something bigger than them, they are screaming because they have fucking had enough. They refuse to hold back their emotions anymore, and they don’t care who is watching. They’re allowed to be ugly, feral, and unhinged. I firmly believe that they are inviting us to scream with them.
When Annie in Hereditary released her anguished sobs after the death of her daughter, I sobbed with her. When Dani in Midsommar wailed after catching her boyfriend sleeping with one of the Harga, I imagined myself on the floor wailing along with her and the other women of the cult. When Adelaide in Us shrieked while strangling her doppleganger to death in order to protect herself and her family, I felt her burning anger. Even if the circumstances were completely different from mine, I still perceived their pain as if it were my own.
I hesitate to call it “female empowerment,” but these roles have certainly given some level of agency to the women so they feel like more than just objects meant to be exploited. As strange as it sounds, it is oddly comforting to me and I can’t help but smile and shed a tear of joy any time I watch a scene where a leading lady covered in blood goes completely barbarous.
I would love to see this trend continue in modern horror, but I would especially love to see more of these types of films written and directed by women. If we can find relatability in Dani, Adelaide, Thomasin, Annie and Wendy Torrance, then imagine how much relatability we can find in a leading lady or “final girl,” created from the mind of someone who has truly experienced their female-specific traumas? We found it through Amelia in Jennefer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, and I am confident that we can find it again. It’s time to start letting female filmmakers be as messy and vulnerable as female leads, and I am more than willing to be one of those filmmakers somewhere along my career.