One of the first media depictions of a woman victimized into insanity was the 1940s film Gaslight. In it, a husband manipulates his wife into thinking that she was slipping into mental instability. Perhaps this is what has sparked our interest in the role of a woman in the thriller genre.
In modern society, women are taught to lock their car doors and to avoid roaming the streets at night. They learn to make weapons of their keys, held tight between fingers and into claws like something from a Wolverine comic. The media reminds women to be skeptical of their drinks at bars and to be careful of hemlines. They are taught to value running shoes over stilettos in running from their attackers, and are trained to have 911 ready on their phones.
The thriller genre, known for exciting plots and chilling suspense, allows women to be confronted with the perpetual danger of their existence. Girls do wind up dead in the ravines and the woods. Their bodies spark national inquiries, directing attention to their lifestyles and relationships. They appear murdered on isolated beaches and inside their homes. The cold reality of women is that once they die, they lose their status as a person, and instead shift into a puzzle.
What makes the thriller genre so wildly compelling for women is that it confronts them with a cold reality. They are either victims, terrorized and stalked, or they become the villain. Take Amy from Gone Girl. Leaving a string of calculated false clues, she manages to gaslight not just her spouse, but an entire audience suddenly invested in her life. An original twist to the concept of toxic relationships, she compels the world of journalism and law enforcement into believing that she is a victim, and her husband is holding a smoking gun. She is powerful in her ability to bamboozle detectives, stringing her relationships along until she has created the perfect trap.
In comparison, The Woman in the Window and The Girl on the Train present narrators caught up in proving a murder did occur, risking their own lives to get answers. In reality, women are constantly dismissed for a myriad of reasons. They are emotionally volatile, distressed with mental instability, or a lone voice opposing the many. Both narrators suffer from extreme gaslighting that makes them slowly unravel, convinced that they have begun to descend into crazed paranoia and insanity.
Women like plunging into the depths of thrillers, exploring the dangers behind their lives. Average internet privacy concerns are examined critically in You, allowing the reader to watch the victim slowly become cornered. In Rebecca, the idea of the victim is constantly altered, switching between the dead wife and the protagonist. Which woman can endure in the story? Which woman can survive, living in toxic relationships and surrounded by menacing figures?
Thrillers are the modern take to fairy tales. Children are taught the value of avoiding strangers in Snow White. They learn that danger exists in the dark corners, and the thriller genre helps to give women their own voices. These are authentic experiences wrapped up in a fictional package. Thrillers tell stories about women; they are mothers and daughters, artists and lovers, as well as complex characters in their own right.
Women want to survive. They want to defy the statistics. Perhaps that is what draws their attention to the dark corners of the bookstore, honing in on the dark covers and gloomy movie posters. Thrillers promise to examine toxic relationships and gaslighting, letting readers identify the signs in their own relationships. The books come to terms with living with anxiety and PTSD, which allow for readers to connect with their own personal experiences.
In reality, dead women act as props. Media can cross-examine their relationships and scream foul when they are exposed with skeletons in their closets. Under close scrutiny, any woman can carry an abundance of flaws that can outlive their lives. The thriller genre, as a whole, restores a woman’s identity and allows them to exist as complex creatures, be it villain or victim.
Interested in some great reads? Check out Alice Bolin’s series of essays in her book Dead Girls or plunge into Woman in the Window before it hits the big screen in 2019.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.