Women of Horror

“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. All you have to do…is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.’”

-Shirley Jackson, quoted in Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 389.

Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, and Daphne du Maurier reside at the summit of horror. Few writers, male or female, were able to create such compelling portraits of unease that drew from the foibles and cruelties of humanity. The macabre was cultivated in the minuscule, to show us all how vulnerable we are to enacting or becoming victim to it. These women defied cultural and societal norms in order to create visions of unease and panic, drawn from and dashing the conformity to which their gender in their various eras cursed them.

Shirley Jackson’s work relentlessly explored and thrived upon female interiority and its tremulous relationship to the external world. She was a woman who believed in the ability of superstition to keep psychic disturbance at bay, if only for a short while. A woman who translated all of her frustrations at being a woman, a wife, and a mother who couldn’t quite subsume herself into these traditional roles into visions of horror. She metamorphosed the grief that she felt at her ostensible shortcomings into a vision of panic and supernatural destruction, writ large upon the female psyche. Her most powerful and haunting metaphor, that of the malignant house that fed off the female psyche until it’s destruction, was one inextricably linked to mid-century constructions of womanhood. And this was where Jackson really shone, in her ability to transfer common anxieties and unease onto a supernatural landscape that rendered it both unspeakable and highly relatable. As her biographer, Ruth Franklin explores all the contours of Jackson’s rebellions and her conventions and thus creates an all-encompassing account of a complicated woman whose work was fueled by the world around her.

Similarly, the work of du Maurier and Shelley rendered the danger of the supernatural more human and thus, more threatening. In their lives, they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of femininity while at the same time reconfiguring the whole of horror fiction and what it could accomplish. Their biographers, listed below, prove themselves to be more than up to the task of exploring the complicated and nuanced lives of these women and the dynamic work they produced, forcing us to acknowledge their works as unparalleled in their significance.

  1. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  2. Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay
  3. Mary Shelley: A Biography by Muriel Sparkshirley-jacksonjpg

Marilyn or Norma Jeane?

Before beginning this piece, please search “Marilyn Monroe real voice” and listen to it for a moment just to set the scene.

There has, in recent decades, been a push to recognize Marilyn Monroe as the exceptional comedic actress that she was, a move to resist the narrative of “dumb blonde” and “sexpot” that were designed for her. However, the image of Marilyn as a “dumb blonde” and a tragic, young actress have been incredibly resilient to any kind of reassessment. It doesn’t help that the most enduring image of Marilyn is her swooning in delight over a subway grate as wind rushes up her white dress. But this was not what Marilyn wanted. It could be argued that this was, in fact, what she most feared; she once ended an interview by pleading with a reporter, “Please don’t make me a joke” (Steinem, 38). She was, in contrast to this image, an ambitious and driven woman who was always striving for more. I believe that to remember her in a reductive way is to further compound the suffering that she experienced during her life, to be, in a way, complicit in it. To look at her life and her construction as an icon is a difficult task, but a more rewarding one, it is one that acknowledges the complications and depths of a life and seeks out the realities that the widespread diminishment of her ability and accomplishments had on that life.

The construction of Marilyn was not merely that of sex symbol for its own sake. One of the more virulent, if subconscious, constructions of Marilyn is explored by Jacqueline Rose in Women in Dark Times. To Rose, in Marilyn’s sexuality there was a symbol for post-war America, of all it wished to forget and of all it wished to be. A society haunted by the revelations of a violence run rampant and dominated by a desire to return to normalcy needed a body to project this onto. And thus, Marilyn became Marilyn, her body serving as America’s distraction from itself. Of course, this left her no options. Her image was all-consuming and it was cemented. Because of the importance placed on it, she was not allowed the growth available and necessary to a person. She was not allowed to become other than her image. That was painful to her and, or course, it eventually became untenable. Marilyn was to become a symbol of a new, safe, abundant postwar America, she was to subsume all of the atrocities of war within her image, within her body and it left no room for the actual person inside. Speaking of Don’t Bother to Knock and later, Niagara, two of Marilyn’s dramatic roles, Rose comments, it is “As if in these early films, America can offload on to a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality, without let or inhibition, the violence it cannot reckon with in itself… I counted no less than five earlier images where she is lying prone-whether asleep or fainted-splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction in the script describes her pretending to be asleep in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history-the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget-owes her nation a death. America is denying its own pain. Who pays the price?” (123-124).

To further complicate dominant notions of her, one can look to the stories that detail Marilyn’s dedication. Numerous accounts from her early days as a model have her questioning photographers about the processes necessary to create a quality image. She was interested in learning all of the facets of a discipline in order to make the most compelling or successful product. Similarly, in acting school, she was always interrogating scenes; how they worked, why they worked, breaking them down into pieces so that she could assess them for their successes or failures. Her fervent adherence to interrogating her life through psychoanalysis as well as her consistent attempts to examine every step of the systems with which she worked in order to learn the most effective ways of performing and being a star illustrate for us not a vacuous bombshell, but a determined woman, intelligent, alert, and savvy.

But her desire to be understood as more than just a sex symbol was not allowed by the desires that she evoked in others. She wanted to expand and hone her acting, she wanted to study, to educate herself and the public mocked her for this striving. This would have given her image depth, contour, and shading of which she would be in control. But, of course, this is not allowed of a symbol, whose purpose is to be flat, static, uncomplicated. It would have confused her essence, that of, as Gloria Steinem, in Marilyn: Norma Jeane, writes, “a magical, misty screen on which every fantasy could be projected without discipline or penalty, because no clear image was already there” (161). The avid studying and the learning could have been her way out, a freedom from the pain she had suffered and the strictures that bound her. Her inability to have any depth beyond her image was a damaging proposition. The larger society wouldn’t allow her to cultivate or explore an identity that could have been all her own. No wonder she was wracked with mental and emotional pain. No wonder she kept running into herself.

I asked you to listen to Marilyn’s real voice at the beginning of this in order to illustrate the degree to which Marilyn was a construction. I could repeat this again and again, but hearing her real voice and the way it contrasts with the breathy, simpering voice she used in her films, is to really, fully and viscerally, understand that Marilyn was not a person. Norma Jeane was a person and Marilyn was the ready-made construction, cobbled together of the hopes and desires of a nation hellbent on concealing its pain. Marilyn was the symbol that eventually consumed her and, in a painful piece of irony, still lives on. To understand this distinction is to finally, in some minute way, change her story. I want to end with an anecdote that Steinem recounts in Marilyn: Norma Jeane. “By the time she had become a star, this artificial creation of a woman called Marilyn Monroe had become so complete and so practiced that she could turn it on or off in a minute. Actor Eli Wallach is one of many colleagues who remember her walking down the street completely unnoticed, and then making heads turn in sudden recognition by assuming her famous mannerisms. ‘I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,’ she would explain” (241).

monroe-reading-leaves-of-grass-photography-by-john-florea-1952

Rose, Jacqueline. Women in Dark Times. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn: Norma Jeane. Open Road Media, 2013. PDF.

A Crack in Hollywood’s Veneer

Whether you are considering Technicolor spectacles like Singing in the Rain or a more subdued film, it is plain to see that Hollywood is an industry that delights in its own myth making. It has devised for itself the image of the enterprising underdog, idealistic and saccharine. It is obviously false, it has always been false. It’s history is littered with maligned women, individuals manipulated, consumed, and left to disintegrate within their own pain and suffering. It is a rare individual who makes it out of Hollywood unscathed. This is especially true in what is referred to as Hollywood’s golden era, roughly encompassing the 1930s through the 1960s. It is an era of films that can be defined by an idealistic, overly constructed veneer that often belied the grueling realities of movie-making.

As such, I find the films listed below particularly compelling for their resistance to this narrative. Made inside of the existing Hollywood system, they adeptly weave a narrative that shows the kind of exploitation that can occur within a notoriously callous and fickle industry, focused solely on appearances and superficiality. These films are shockingly candid. Two of these films star Judy Garland and Natalie Wood, women who, I believe, embody the psychic violence and related tragedy that Hollywood could wreak. This casting lends these films an additional level of resonance, an undertone of impending misfortune. In a culture that applauded beauty and perfection at any cost, it is no coincidence that the films that were made reflected those things. Actors were often put on strict regimens that controlled their weight and appearance, saddling them with arduous schedules, and pumping them full of drugs until they were no longer deemed desirable, at which point they were on their own. These films explore the darker sides of Hollywood and do so with a candor and delicacy that is both rare and refreshing.

  1. In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray (1950)
  2. A Star is Born, directed by George Cukor (1954)
  3. Inside Daisy Clover, directed by Robert Mulligan (1965)Daisy Clover

On James Dean

I have only watched James Dean in Giant three times. It is a comparatively small number of times when I think of how much time I have spent gazing adoringly at him in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. In my youth, I thought the latter films were better just by virtue of the fact that there was more total screen time devoted to Dean. But I was wrong. Giant is incredible and Dean is incredible in it. We see him as the outsider (naturally), looking in at all the things he craves that are just out of reach: love, money, respect, adulation, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. That longing, that intense loneliness is not only evident through blocking, or where Dean is placed within a scene, but through his body. He staggers under the emotional weight of his isolation and despair. The emotional pain is made physical through and informs his every movement, simple tasks become jarring and strenuous, difficult to watch. He is almost incapacitated by his longing. It is an incredibly tender and evocative physicality. A stunning testament to an actor whose beauty often overshadows his immense talent. This physicality is no doubt present in his other films, but it reaches its apex in Giant. The characterization of Jett Rink hangs on this exploration. He has dialogue, of course, but the audience only really understands his misery through his body. Through the time he devotes to his movement and thus to the interiority of the character, Jett is rendered vulnerable to such a degree that it is nearly painful to watch him. I say nearly because it is actually captivating. It creates a depth and an implicit understanding with the viewer that no amount of expertly crafted dialogue could have accomplished. Even when Rink exposes himself to be the closest thing to a villain that the movie has, we remember the depths of his sorrow and, while it doesn’t justify his behaviors, it explains them. Dean’s last scene in the film is a dedication party for his new hotel. Everyone has left the party early after a drunken brawl between Dean and Rock Hudson. Dean stumbles to the podium. We see that after acquiring all of the wealth and the adulation of a community, all of the things that were supposed to give his life value, he has found himself in exactly the same place as he was when he was a despised ranch-hand working on Reata (Hudson’s ranch). All of his acquired bravado has failed him. He is raw. He stumbles up to the banquet table, sits in despair, his hands searching his face for a temporary solace. He stands and begins to address a crowd that is not there, mumbling both incoherent and belligerent. As his final act, he leans into the table and it comes crashing down on him. He is undeniably and unutterably alone. It is a moving, deeply tragic scene. While the film was being edited, Dean died in the infamous car accident and this scene, found in editing to be inaudible, was overdubbed by another actor. I find this an interesting anecdote with which to end a discussion of Dean’s work on Giant. The voice, arguably not his own, isn’t a memorable aspect of his performance. It and the dialogue has become superfluous. What makes the impact is his body, the way he uses it to convey the darkness and agony of his character. It is the most impactful thing about Jett. In the nearly three and a half hours of epic vistas and grandeur, it is the thing that stays with us because it is the one thing that rings true.

Giant

1970s Disaster Movie Bingo

About a month ago, I was watching Earthquake (1974) and had the realization that all disaster movies are, fundamentally, the same movie. With this realization, watching the movie became more interactive. I began to think of all the necessary elements that make up a disaster movie and then it hit me: I could make a disaster movie bingo card. It was a fun little project for the day and it made me realize that a lot of the movies that I enjoy follow silly formulas. So, I’ve started making these bingo cards for many different kinds of movies. Every once in a while I will post one on here. Again, they are movies from a particular genre or subgenre that follow a pretty standard formula. I’ll also let you know which of the films I think are the best. So, without further ado, 1970s Disaster Movie Bingo!

Disaster Bingo

*Airport (1970)

*The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

*The Towering Inferno (1974)

Picasso and Kerouac, and Salinger, Oh My!

“Pablo’s many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar [his former wife and lovers], as well as their continuing presence just off-stage in our own life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum. But he didn’t cut the heads entirely off. He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill.”

-Françoise Gilot, My Life With Picasso, 218.

When an artist becomes an icon, they are stripped of all of the mundane and relatable things that make up a human life. They become a synthesis of metaphor and myth, one that often becomes complicated with and by their work. They become untouchable, their influence rarefied, overbearing, and unstoppable. For this reason, I seek out the books that defy these insurmountable mythologies. They are not written by biographers, who, I feel, often feed needlessly into this type of hagiography. They are written by intimates of the artist. These accounts offer us sketches that restore the former icon to human status, complicating their legacy, and offering us glimpses of their foibles. These are messy, complex, and sometimes grueling stories, but they offer refreshingly life-like portraits that make us question the foundations of veneration and the veracity of certain societal and cultural myths. Finally, they urge us to face the human expense of objects generally referred to as great works of art. These books cover the works and lives of Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, and Pablo Picasso, including their contexts and their influence. They are written by women close to the artists, which, I believe, serves to highlight the expectations that we, as a society, foist upon women, forcing them to become caregivers in service to the often preposterous egos of men. These books reassess those paradigms and force us to complicate our interactions with works of art, seeing the works of these men not as static, but as fluid and variable and deeply complicated. The books that I have listed below accomplish that without sensationalism and with a deftness that, I like to imagine, would inspire envy in their subjects.

  1. My Life With Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
  2. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
  3. At Home in the World: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard13tmag-francoise-slide-8I4B-superJumbo

 

In Defense of Tuesday Weld

Tuesday Weld was supposed to be just another beautiful and charming young blonde, like Sandra Dee or Hayley Mills. An ideal, whose tranquil presence would lure an unwary public into the movies. She was to be a symbol of an innocent era, a romantic dream of conformity and prosperity. But the problem with an ideal is that the inevitable cracks in their veneer show us how illusory they always were. From this Weld was no exception.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tuesday Weld was everywhere. In 1956, at 13, she starred in Rock, Rock, Rock! The film, with not even a paltry script, served mainly as a showcase for recording artists. However terrible it is, the film is interesting for the attention it focuses on an emerging teenage culture and the attempts made to create media to market to said culture. The film was a success and, as a result, Tuesday Weld became a part of this culture. During this era, she starred opposite Frankie Avalon in I’ll Take Sweden and secured a recurring role as Thalia Menninger on the television show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. In these roles, she is a vision of perfection, of an idealized mid-century American teenage girlhood, a saccharine symbol of suburban normality. But, as hindsight has taught us, that image of normality concealed a malignant anxiety that infused all of mid-century American society. The story was no different for Tuesday Weld.

Weld had been forced to work from a young age. After her father died and her mother required another source of income, Weld became a model. She was three years old. As a teenager, her mother moved them to California so she could pursue an acting career for her daughter. What followed is a harrowing story of fleeting success coupled with drinking, affairs with much older men, and a sexualization by the larger society that is still appalling. She is quoted in one New York Times article circa 1971 as having turned down the role of Lolita in the film adaptation because “I didn’t have to play it; I was Lolita.” The article goes on in a rather tone-deaf fashion, calling Weld “the frisky teen-age sex kitten of the fifties,” and an “erotically angelic blonde,” further perpetuating her image as “a feather-brained man-chaser, a predatory pubescent, a dizzy blonde,” and describing her roles as “haunting portraits of deadly delicious nymphets…” The author completely ignores the gravity of her statement. It has not even registered. This article, published when Weld was 28, refused to see Weld as she was at present or to acknowledge the truth of her experiences. Rather, it chose to delight in the memory of her sexualization, to relish the vision of her as created by a studio, the vision of her as object.

Weld, understandably, became known for being difficult on-set. This, paired with her refusal to star in films that would later become cultural touchstones, such as Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, led her career to flounder and her celebrity to become largely forgotten. However, I believe that some of her later work, in particular Pretty Poison and Play it as it Lays, confuse these assumptions and illustrate how talented and unique an actress she really was. Additionally, they highlight her willingness to take the risks necessary to make interesting, complex film.

Pretty Poison tells the story of a man, played by Anthony Perkins, recently released from a mental institution. He becomes infatuated with a teenage girl, played by Weld, and tells her he is a member of the CIA. They go on counter-espionage missions together and, predictably, disaster ensues. It is a bastardization of the image that was cultivated for Weld in the earlier part of her career, that of the idealized, innocent, blonde. The film utilizes a beautiful pastel color palette to accentuate the contrast between suburban, domestic banality and the danger that lurks beneath it. It is a stunning movie; visually delightful and intricate in its characterizations. Similarly, Play It as It Lays addresses the complex interiority of a woman. Based on the Joan Didion novel of the same name, this film stars Weld as Maria Wyeth, an actress struggling with depression and overwhelming feelings of futility. It is a stark exploration of the superficiality and exploitation of the movie industry and its effects on a woman. In this tragic story, Maria finds herself grasping at any shred of life that might sustain her. The fragmented visuals follow her similarly fragmented interior monologue, creating an overall feeling of compelling disquiet. These films were not successful when they were released, but I believe they are truly great. They showcase Weld’s ability as an actress and also complicate the narrative that was created for her.

When I watch her early films, I am left with the feeling that Tuesday Weld was being set up to become a star. But she was never as commercially successful as she should have been. She was being sacrificed to the status quo, forced to become a symbol of the decency and innocence of mid-century America, a decency and innocence that never really existed and that she never really knew. It almost consumed her, but in her very marrow she refused it. She was being groomed to be one thing but she became something completely different based on stubbornness alone. She became something tough, resilient, unruly, and difficult. She survived. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Cavett confronted her with a story of her former behavior. As Cavett tells it, she was 14 years old and smoking on set. An adult walked past and berated her. She shot back, “if I’m old enough to have a baby, I’m old enough to smoke.” Weld, 1971 Weld, throws her head back and laughs. “Right on,” she says. I like to think Weld still lives with this unruly former self and I hope she cherishes her.

Flatley, Guy. “Most of All, Tuesday Remembers Mama.” New York Times (New York, N.Y.), Nov. 07, 1971.

I’m Back!

Hey y’all (if there is even a y’all out there to say hey to),

It has been years since I have posted anything on here, and even then, my output was lackluster at best. For the past three years, the world has been shit, a relentless, anxiety-producing mess. As we have been told, with varying degrees of severity, to quarantine, I began to think about how miserable I have been the last couple years and how I have done very little to negotiate my way through the sense of isolation and anxiety surrounding me. As the idea of being isolated out of necessity loomed, I became determined not to wallow in the feelings of helplessness (there will probably be a little wallowing, it seems inevitable), but I also believe that looking to the beautiful things that I love will offer a balm, a project will offer a balm, and, I guess, I offer that to you as well. It isn’t a lot, but it is genuine.

The format will vary wildly but I plan to post every Wednesday and Saturday. I will be writing short essays, as well as recommendations based on a theme. There will also be visual components and whatever I can dream up between now and the time that this begins to feel like a chore.

I look forward to it all,

Pacia

Bette Davis typewriter

 

Sleuthing Sweethearts

  I’d like to introduce you to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, amateur sleuths stumbling  into mysteries and espionage plots with wit and a sense of cynicism both endearing and intriguing. Through the duration of four novels and one short story collection, Agatha Christie charts in real time the lives of Tommy and Tuppence as they fall in love, get married, have children, all the while solving mysteries. There is a glamour in their humor and their curiosity and there is a sweetness and intimacy in the playful slights they direct at one another.

    In their first novel, The Secret Adversary, their penchant for adventure becomes apparent when they take out an advertisement in a newspaper. Referring to themselves as “The Young Adventurers”, they soon become embroiled in an espionage plot related to the sinking of the Lusitania. They are woefully unprepared, but shrewdness, intuition, and a touch of arrogance sees them through their travails and infuses the plot with humor. Similarly, the third book in the series, N or M?, finds Tommy and Tuppence embroiled in a World War II espionage plot at a seaside resort. Partners in Crime, my personal favorite, is a set of short stories taking place between the two aforementioned novels. Set after their marriage, the stories recount their exploits as they take over a detective agency, Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives. Still arrogant and only slightly less unprepared, Tommy and Tuppence prepare themselves by stocking their bookshelves with their favorite mystery stories to read and study in between cases. They jokingly emulate the most popular fictional characters of the day, parodying Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as well as Christie’s own Hercule Poirot. They often adopt their signature phrases, mannerisms, and hobbies as a blueprint for the mysteries before them.

    Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are continuously searching for adventure well into their old age. They are equally dissatisfied with the normal order of things and determined not to become resigned to it. They are lovable and ever so slightly ludicrous, with a sense for adventure that lasts them well into their seventies, with the novel Postern of Fate. Tommy and Tuppence stagger through their dangerous exploits all on a charming whim, reminding us that there is much adventure and witty galavanting to embark upon in this life. The level to which they adore one another is clear through the intimacy of their humor and jest. Their bond is undeniably a product of their mutual love of mystery-laden escapades and laughter, something that becomes more charming the longer they are together and something that the reader is invited to share alongside them.

 

(Sidenote: They are similar to Nick and Nora Charles and that is part of the reason why, I believe, I have become so infatuated with them.)