by Julia Torrico
On a hot summer day, I lingered around my local Barnes & Noble bookstore looking for something new to read. Aisle after aisle, all I find are books about girls who were killed…killed in ways that makes me dizzy and nauseous like the moment you see someone in a movie being chased down by the monster. Panic bubbles inside my chest, and my mind spins at the thought of countless female bodies piling up, shoved under mounds of earth, the dark abyss of the river pulling these bodies into a forgotten place. I imagine bloodied hands of a man wiping them clean, and I quickly rush towards the entrance of the store.
Suddenly, I stop in front of a book display, the book titled Mr. Tender’s Girl, inspired by the case of the Slender Man stabbing. I remember hearing on the radio how Payton Leutner, a young Wisconsin girl, at the age of 12, was lured into the woods by her classmates/friends, Anissa Weier, 12, and Morgan Geyser, 12. Weier and Geyser stabbed her nineteen times. Their reason for attempting to murder their friend, Leutner, was to become Slender Man’s servants. Thankfully, Leutner lived, but if she was not found in time, she would have become another dead girl—or maybe she has, possibly in another way. While this attack was committed by young girls, it was influenced by a male monster—a monster that only exists as an internet phenomenon (Associated Press).
For years, Americans have been obsessed with tales of horror, terror and mayhem, and no doubt, this obsession includes dead girl stories. These stories always have distinct qualities in portraying female characters. The female characters are constructed as victims who are weak and overly dependent on male saviors. They become “damaged” by violent and psychological acts committed by one man or many men; the premise of the story is always the same; the woman is attacked brutally and killed by a male murderer—a misogynistic male who always has the face of a monster—and this is where her story, as a person and human being, ends.
In America’s mass appetite to consume these dark and enticing stories about murdered and/or sexualized women or young girls, it seems we, as readers, tend to forget we are allowing ourselves to be entertained by a woman’s pain and brutality. When reading these stories, the dead girl—as a human being-—remains, ironically, dead in our memories as she does in the start of the story. We never ask ourselves if we truly understand that this popular story misrepresents US society. This issue does not only appear in books, but it has spread across various forms of media, especially in films and shows such as True Detectives, Twin Peaks, Unsolved Mysteries, and Law & Order: SVU.
Like horror, dead girl stories are not a simple subject to understand, and readers may be quick to assume it is a genre solely for entertainment. Many dead girl stories are inspired by true events. Unfortunately, readers tend to forget this fact—or wish to forget this for escapism purposes (I am guilty of this from time to time). Dead girl stories are a popular vehicle that allows writers to create a male protagonist who forces his depraved fantasies upon a female victim (Chocano). The entire story is about the male protagonist and their manhunt for the killer. It is never about the women (living or dead), and this perception has caused dead girl stories to depend on criteria that are a tradition and prerequisite to writing these tales.
List for Writing a Dead Girl Story:
Below, I have created a list to present the common features found in a Dead Girl story. This isn’t a real checklist for writing these stories, but the point of this list emphasizes how these stories have fallen prey to the criteria of writing these horror stories. Not only have these stories fallen into this criteria trap, horror has become pigeon-holed into this circumstance as well.
Please mark a check next to included feature
__ Young white female dead girl
__ Misogynist Male Killer
__Violent killing of female(s)
__ Naïve Male Cop/Investigator
__Overly Dramatic Screaming
__Dependency on Male Saviors
__Other Female Victims
__Sexualization of the Female Body
Congratulations! You have just created a story
that continues the practice of sexualization and
violence against women and young girls.
Like many American readers and horror buffs, at a young age, I believed that horror was a type of entertainment genre that was to see people shrink in pure terror. I once perceived the dead girl stories as horror to keep me awake past bedtime. However, horror does not only give readers a chance to enter a world filled with terrors and monsters for the purpose of scaring you. Dr. Cynthia Freeland, a philosopher of horror, states, ‘“horror involves a severe violation of our sense of moral, natural, and social order”’ (Tallon 39). Horror plays a role in our understanding of morality, natural order, and society, and dead girl stories should follow this philosophy.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Tonya-Marie Howe, Chair of Literature and Languages and Professor, on her interest in horror films and genre-fiction. In high school, she watched a lot of horror movies with her friends and her step brothers. The experience of watching horror movies with a particular audience allowed her to see these movies in different perspectives. Later on, she developed an interest in film history and production, and “gravitated towards a self-reflexive component,” or a feeling that was campy, or unusual.
Julia: How does the horror genre and violence against women reflect American society’s morality and values of the expectations and role of women? Is this an accurate representation of American values today?
Howe: “Horror—like any genre—isn’t a monolithic category, signifying in the same way all the time, for all viewers. There is a scholarly tradition that looks at the way horror represents the collective unconscious, or subconscious fears and worries, and this changes over time.” Horror is about our fears, as individuals or a collective whole, which—to add what was previously stated on the role of horror-—in understanding of individual and collective morality, natural order, and the reflection of society. Horror shouldn’t solely focus on the purpose of sensational terror and fears change as society changes. Think of horror as many puzzle pieces that we must put together in order to see the full picture. However, this concept is barely shown in dead girl stories. Furthermore, this monolithic concept downplays the true values of US women as a collective whole and the fight for stronger and better representation of US women.
Most of the dead girl stories begin with a female character brutally murdered, and the male detectives finding her body. The moralistic implication from these stories is the desire for the men to solve the murder of the dead female character and to stop the male lunatic who carries out the same vicious act on other women. The moral aspect is to enact justice on the evil that is prying on the women, however, where is the morality in ignoring a person that was once living? Isn’t this female considered a human being rather than just a body? Kristen Martin, author of “Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories,” explains her early interaction with the murdered female subjects in stories. As an adolescent, she wanted to understand why girls and women were murdered, she says, “but the more I got sucked into these stories, the more I lost the thread of the victims themselves, who were eclipsed by the hunt for evidence and the murder’s motive” (Martin). The reader is sucked into a place that only focuses on the men running around, halting each other, and rushing to solve the case of the dead girl, and this always leads to the same result: the case is solved and closed. Is this how American society truly thinks of solving cases of murdered women? Are we, as a society, supposed to ignore who the dead girl was before the murder and just focus on closing the case quickly? Does this truly represent the U.S. sense of justice and perception of women?
If so, then the U.S. sense of morality is a half-constructed concept of justice, especially when we apply it to murders inflicted on women, and this particular understanding of morality forms the idea that women need to be saved and protected by men. Julia Kristeva, a philosopher in horror, explains “the drive toward matricide as a kind of original, generative anger, expressing a need to destroy the mother [or female], the origin place, to become an individual self. This is messier than an Oedipal reading of history, as the will to matricide is born in confusion and creates only chaos” (Bolin 22). Kristeva brings an interesting point to matricide being an element to becoming an individual self. This particular idea might be why dead girl stories center around the men; in the chaos of solving the case, the men are forced to face a darker side of the self (i.e., the male murderer or the madman).
The root cause of these murderers committing acts of violence and death on female victims is due to their struggle with their relationships with their mothers (think of Norman Bates from Psycho). These murderers end-up breaking the maternal bond with their mothers by brutally killing them, and, from some dark magic in the universe, they have obtained the power to inflict their power and corruption upon innocent female victims. However, are both male and female writers considering this idea of morality and matricide reflecting America’s concepts of true terror when writing these stories?
It’s not clear if writers, either male or female, are thinking about this when they’re writing, and it would be too strictly demanding to request writers create stories that are not traditional dead girl stories. Most readers would say a writer should limit how much truth is included in the dead girl stories, and how much the writer should be prohibited from constructing a world that reflects our reality. However, this demand for a writer to follow the audience’s rules, and force them to construct stories to shield readers from facing their fears displayed in horror stories. Some writers may assume that it is necessary to sexualize women to make point about the deranged insanity of the male killer. Moralistically, this is wrong. This sexualization demonstrates a limited and singular concept of women, which states that women are just bodies to fetishize and fantasize with.
Dr. Howe gives an example of misogyny in mainstream shows, which further represent the US’s perception of women in society. She says, “one place where I do think misogyny is on full view is in syndicated mainstream television shows like CSI or Law and Order: SVU where the female body is only there, for the most part, to be fetishized as victim. The methods of consumption, there, too—it’s on every day, all the time—reify the dominant message”. I remember in high school the craze of watching Law and Order: SVU and CSI. The students were so moved in watching a show—a show that focused on solving the crime and hunting for the attacker who has repeatedly attacked various women and CSI—well, it almost has the same focus as Law and Order: SVU. To be honest, I was never interested in Law and Order and CSI. How could I have lived most of my life without watching these shows that are considered amazing? Most viewers consider these shows as great examples for teaching people about the judicial system of the United States. But overall, and realistically, the show continuously displays women as just bodies, not people. Nor are they shown decently as human beings, and this is what has always bothered me about these shows. Furthermore, these shows rely heavily on scripts that fabricates over-dramatized scenes that would never fly in a judicial court, and the solving of the cases of women who have been violated or murdered is, for most of the time unrealistic. Shows like this makes me grind my teeth, and I wonder how U.S. society could accept a show that devalues women and the nation’s current values on justice and morality as a whole.
For years I’ve stayed away from dead girl stories, and I try numb my senses to trailers or commercials that portray these dead female bodies as things rather than people. I try again and again to tell myself: I am not a body. I am a person. People should respect me as a person—a human being! I am not someone’s fantasy or object to toy with. But, like most audience members—like Kristen Martin had experienced—I get sucked into the stories, and I forget my everyday mantra. At the end of watching or reading these stories, I mentally berate myself for continuing to feed this problem of the sexualization and violence inflicted on women and young girls. But, as a reader, we can’t always be politically correct. Maybe leaving the dead girl story behind, as most scholars and academics have suggested, is not entirely the answer.
Shows like Twin Peaks and Law & Order: SVU were released within the 90s—a time where people freely wrote and produced without fear of societal backlash. These shows are still stuck in 90s concepts, and we, the audience, want the show to reiterate our current values as a nation that has changed over time. However, maybe this approach is wrong; wrong as forcing a writer to produce what we believe, as a collective whole, is morally right on the subject of women. Instead of trying to add in our moralistic values of women in the middle of the problem, we need to pull the problem apart. We’d have to deconstruct and reconstruct to remedy the issue of sexualized female bodies and violence against women.
Martin explains that the novel, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, debunks the traditional construction of all dead girl stories. The story centers on the death of Susie Salmon, the dead girl, and how a seemingly normal person/neighbor murders Susie. The solving of Susie’s murder and/or the catching of the murderer is not the center of the story. The focus is on Susie, as one of the dead, and ultimately, to explore how her family and other characters are impacted by her murder (Martin).
Sebold demonstrates Susie as a person who was once living. It does follow the dead girl concept of a murdered young white girl, but she’s writing what she is able to write. She is deconstructing traditional dead girl features and constructing a story that is beyond entertainment or escapism. In the film, her father, Jack Salmon, seems the most affected, and he even lashes out violently, unsure of how to cope with his grief. Other people in Susie’s family cope differently with the loss of Susie. Her mother, Abigail Salmon, uses psychological treatment and time away from her family to deal with her grief. Her sister, Lindsey, pushes to solve Susie’s murder, to the point that she almost risks putting her body and life in danger. The people of the town are affected in some shape or form by the loss of Susie, and even George Harvey, Susie’s killer, has to be careful of drawing attention to himself.
Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties, has recently deconstructed dead girl stories in a way that makes reader’s form their own significance towards the subject of sexualization of the female body. The collection blends horror, noir-fiction, fantasy, and experimental fiction. I’ve read only two stories in the novel so far, and it’s quite a difficult collection to digest for a reader, and some readers have even reviewed the novel as disgusting. However, Machado is purposefully doing this to make us feel uncomfortable with a subject has always looked away from. If we can watch in Law and Order: SVU female bodies being sexualized and fetishized by male characters, then why can’t we accept the deconstruction of this idea? Machado presents strongly the concept of women having ownership over their body, and they can choose what can or cannot be done to it. Also, she criticizes beautifully society’s concept of women’s sexuality and sexualization of female body in different perspectives.
One story that criticizes the misogyny in Law and Order: SVU is Machado’s “Especially Heinous.” Even by the title of the story, she is strongly suggesting how unrepresentative the show is to females everywhere. The story centers on snippets of narratives or small explanations of 272 episodes of Law and Order: SVU, and the narratives are divided into seasons, like the show. It’s formatted somewhat like a character with dialogue. The most striking features are that the males in the story are demonstrated as constrained, uncaring, over reactive, ill-mannered, complainers, and, at times, weak. Some of the female characters are not free from this scrutiny either. For example, an attack occurs against two underage models:
“‘Or Just Look Like One’: Two underage models are attacked while walking home from a club. They are raped and murdered. To add insult to injury, they are confused with two other raped and murdered underage models, who coincidentally are their respective twins, and both pairs are buried beneath the wrong tombstones”(65).
The short narrative is simple, two underage models are attacked, violated, and murdered. But then there seems to be confusion happening as we continue to read this small narrative, and this is where readers get lost in Machado’s work. The confusion and frustration lies within the reader’s desire to know what Machado exact message, which overcomplicates the story—and her other stories in the collection. It is not necessary to watch Law & Order: SVU to understand the story. Returning to the narrative, the underage models are confused with two other models because someone assume these bodies are the same. With making this assumption, the bodies are buried under the wrong tombstones. There is no detail on facial or body structures that set the four models apart, and there is no distinction between each model’s personality. However, Machado wants us to realize that Law & Order: SVU depicts murdered women to place emphasis on the issue of the repeated attacked female body and the societal illusions of the female body. This effect instills in us fear. She maintains over-dramatization to remind us that this is a show; it is reflective of society’s values and individual morality on women as human beings.
Dead girl stories have fallen into generic criteria that require female bodies to be sexualized and brutally violated by male murders. Many books and shows use this technique to draw readers in, but that does not mean that it is reflective of what US values should be. There are women, like Machado and Sebold, who are deconstructing traditional dead girl stories. These women force readers to think of women as human beings rather than just bodies. This strategy is not only found in literature, but movies, other TV shows (i.e. Sharp Objects), and, possibly, comic books/graphic novels. This effect no longer demonstrates dead girls for entertainment, but for exploring the depths of morals in society. US readers should not conform to the continuation of sexualization and violence against women as sheer entertainment. Like all of us, women are human, and these stories are, at times, a story; some are good, some are bad, but they don’t speak entirely for us as individuals and a nation.
Bolin, Alice. “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show.” Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. William Morrow, 2018, pp. 13-24.
Chocano, Carina. “Coming of Age–and Becoming a Writer –in an America Obsessed with ‘Dead Girls’” NYTimes, 29 August 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/books/review/alice-bolin-dead-girls-michelle-tea-against-memoir.html
Machado, Carmen Maria. “Especially Heinous.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 65-123.
Martin, Kristen. “Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories.” Literaryhub, https://lithub.com/why-we-love-and-need-to-leave-behind-dead-girl-stories/. Accessed 13 December 2018.
Associated Press. “Slender Man case: girl who attacked classmate gets 25-year hospital sentence.” TheGuardian, 21 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/21/slender-man-case-anissa-weier-sentenced
Tallon, Philip. “Through a mirror, darkly: Art-horror as a medium for moral reflection. The Philosophy of Horror. Edited by Thomas Fahy, University Press of Kentucky, 2010, pp.33-41.