ESSAY: On Women Screaming

by Mary Thompson

I see screaming women all the time. I see them every time I turn on the television. They are open mouthed, facing the camera as the monster approaches. They will die soon. They scream because they know.

Hereditary  (2018)

Hereditary (2018)

I have always been enthralled by screaming women. In their pain, I am shocked at these women appearing so loud on screen. I have some sense of affection for them as if I, too, am impossibly entangled by the same forces. The screams grow stale though if all that is portrayed are screams of pain, death gasps, mocking cries. This horror-genre cliché takes the instantly evocative and makes it routine. Slasher films are filled with the cries of women who only seem to scream, run, and fall.

Tenebrae  (1982)

Tenebrae (1982)

These screaming women are helpless; they are women-to-be-saved. They are almost always white women. Often they are saved by a man who is stoic and decidedly not screaming. They are, in equal measure, hunted by a man. The gender boundaries appear superficially strictly binary within the horror genre. Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, explores the slasher genre’s complicated relationship to gender, noting: “A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller.” Scream queens are nearly as famous as the monsters they share the screen with, but that is only “nearly as” and that is only if they survive. Their presence in the film indicates the sublime nature of the monster and movie, masculine all around. In her essay “Scream Queens,” critic Katrik Niar explains how the “close-cropped image” of such a scream is a sight that “indulges and shapes a cultural fascination, the ability to extract from women’s bodies a visible testament of their subjection to the awesome powers of men whether as filmmakers or film monsters.” The sight of the screaming woman, not simply her sound, has been countlessly replicated and reproduced, rarely moving beyond this initial gesture.

When watching these women, I struggle as I move from shock to boredom and back again, unclear at why I find an image and sound cliché in one instance but entrancing in another. I wrestle with my desire to keep looking and my impulse to look away. I wonder how well I fit into the cliché of victimized white women. Their screams shape my understanding of the role of whiteness and gender in the piercing sounds of film.

Psycho  (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Perhaps the most famous film scream is given by Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the primogeniture of the slasher genre. The scene is frenzied, cut to appear gory while filming under censor restrictions on violence. Her scream acts in time with the soundtrack and the cut shots. To get around censors, Hitchcock cuts frequently to close ups of Leigh’s mouth between shots of the knife slashing up and down. Leigh’s mouth becomes the final, gaping wound. Her mouth, teeth, and cries become the substitutes for what Hitchcock cannot show, the true demonstration of the violence and pain. Hitchcock was a manipulator of his actresses, treating them brutally to get his desired reaction on film. He views his audience in a similar light. They are people to be tricked, like playthings programmed to give just the right reaction for his own satisfaction.

I watch the scene over and over again as I type. I see the smart shots. I feel Hitchcock’s shadow behind each moment. I know that I am supposed to think that his control is the cleverest bit of movie magic. Marion Crane’s scream works on the audience in the same way. We are made to believe that Mrs. Bates is the killer and our sympathy turns to Norman. The scream distracts and adds truth to his manipulation. She is screaming for her life, but more than that, she is screaming for this trick. Hitchcock is pulling one over on us. Under his direction, our protagonist dies, and we get a new one, her killer, though we do not know that fact yet. Her scream carries with it the power of the film prowess and our willingness to see women in pain and be completely overcome by it. Marion Crane’s scream becomes the score. Her last sign of life, last use of her voice is simply just another mechanism of a technical shot. Her screaming stops and her last few moments are silent as we watch her blood flow down the shower drain.

Turn down the volume on Crane and Hitchcock’s violins, but keep them there, low and on repeat. It’s a scene I’ve seen many times — this exact one and many exactly like it. We have seen so many duplications of it that our initial shock wears thin. Audiences laugh at the girl who drops her only weapon, who falls when attempting to run away from the monster, who just stands there and screams. Or maybe some people are always laughing at these screaming women, no matter how they might defend themselves. Perhaps my judgement is skewed.

Psycho  (1960)

Psycho (1960)

In a Seattle theater a few years ago, I was watching The Shining with my sister. She had never seen the film before. The theater was packed, but largely silent for a film that I am sure most of the audience was well familiar with. By the time Jack Nicholson started chasing Shelley Duvall around the hotel, the silence broke.

The Shining  (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The audience was laughing, not at Nicholson’s manic acting, but at Duvall’s screaming. Jack Nicholson is wild in these moments. He is chasing Duvall with an axe, chopping down doors. He is yelling out, “Here’s Johnny!” I am sure the audience was laughing at his over-the-top acting, but it was Duvall’s screams that got the loudest and longest response. Duvall is so good at looking so very startled with her huge eyes and long face — she is Munchesque. Maybe the audience had seen this scene so many times they were immune to her cries. (The Shining is another film in which our screaming actress was tormented by a male director. The screams might be less acting and more signs of real torture.) My sister sat there in disbelief at the crowd’s reaction. She began muttering, “It’s not funny. It’s not funny.” I seemed to be the only one who could hear her over all the laughter.

The laughter of the audience changed my perception of the film. My seat was suddenly uncomfortable as Duvall’s screams and the crowd’s laughter mixed together. The Shining is, in a way, a film about the horror of domestic violence. Duvall screams out of fear for her life, but also at the terror of someone who she loved becoming a monster. Her reality has become unspeakable. As Jack Nicholson chops down the bathroom door, she screams at each axe swing, pleading to escape the nightmare of her own life.

The audience that night might have had a more complicated relationship between seriousness and humor in horror than I did. Carol Clover claims audiences frequently have similar outbursts due to slasher films’ “rapid alternation between registers—between something like "real" horror on one hand and a camp, self-parodying horror on the other.” The slasher and campy cult classic meet at the crossroads of “intentionally outrageous excess.” The Shining is excessive, but I found the laughter reductive to Duvall’s pain. Their laughter distances a character who we are meant to understand and empathize with. I know I have done the same before to keep fictional pain separate from myself.

Outside of the horror genre, I feel less guilty for laughing at screaming women; the cliché is made into comedy. These women scream at nothing. They scream at the wrong time. Their screaming makes us ask, “When is the right time to scream? When I can make this noise? Only in the face of death?” In comedy, the screaming woman is the ugly woman. Her screams cue our laughter.

The horror genre’s archetypal helpless screaming white woman can be found in another context— camp. Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) is a film about competitive ballroom dancing overflowing with sparkles and shrill screaming, particularly from Gia Carides’ Liz Holt. She shrieks every time her dance partner, Scott Hastings, performs his own dance moves. She screams while dancing, her blond hair sprayed stiff and upright, her mouth frozen open. One of her screams stands out: after Scott has refused to return to the standard dance routine, she stomps into the middle of the dance rehearsal and unleashes. The camera closes in as her eyes scrunch until she is just bright blue eyeshadow and an open mouth. We hold there for several beats until she can finally articulate exactly how Scott has wronged her.

The screaming woman cliché becomes laughable when the slasher context is removed. The screamer is overly dramatic, and the scream is overwrought. In campy horror movies, we laugh as the woman gets murdered because she stopped to scream rather than continued running. In Strictly Ballroom, Liz brings a response made for horror violence to much duller stakes, a dance competition. Every character is over the top, but she is exceptionally so. She barely speaks but to yell. She can’t contain her mouth.

A woman’s inability to control her own body has been viewed as gender-wide character flaw since antiquity. Anne Carson traces the portrayal of loud women and their relationship to monstrosity from Ancient Greek to contemporary literature in her essay “The Gender of Sound.” The masculine virtue is one of self-control — of knowing when to speak and how to speak. Women do not have such power. Our sound reveals our insufficient being. Classic literature depicts it as a dividing line. Our noises tell too much or, according to Carson, “Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography.” Our bodies cannot hold our insides in so we are censored for our revelations. We make the fatal mistake of showing our internal selves.

Liz is meant to be garish, especially in contrast to the character of Fran, who has our sympathy from the onset. Fran speaks quietly and rarely says what she is feeling or what she wants. She is the virtuous woman. She stays by Scott and, in the end, “wins” his love. Liz, on the other hand, wants too much and speaks too much far too loudly. She is humorously off-putting but annoyingly so. Her screams mean nothing because she screams at nothing. She is the girl who cried wolf.

Twin Peaks  (1990)

Twin Peaks (1990)

Liz’s repetitive and meaningless screams remind me of another scream scene, one filled with a different type of irony and a sense of dread that haunts me. All of David Lynch’s work has screaming, long cries, and loud, sudden noises, but the screaming and sobbing of Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, on the pilot episode of Twin Peaks (1990) remains notable. Lynch’s depiction of whiteness, victimhood, and distance makes one grieving mother a foray into a greater discussion of race and gender.

Twin Peaks  (1990)

Twin Peaks (1990)

Sarah knows that her daughter Laura is dead before she is told. She is on the phone with her husband Leland when he receives the news. As Leland melts into Sheriff Harry Truman’s arms, Sarah lets out a long, punctuated scream. We see her screaming and then we hear her screaming over the phone, dropped onto the floor, an extended shot as her sobs cut between her louder bursts. The camera cuts back to Sarah as she teeters out to a fading “Oh… oh… oh…” and then gives one last long scream before the story switches to a new character and chapter.

The scene, as with much of Lynch, feels like it goes on forever. The camera slowly focuses on Leland’s fallen phone receiver as Sarah screams, making her cry a mediated, disembodied one. On a show teetering on the brink of another dimension, her scream feels like the entrance. Her scream is pitiable, extreme, and uncomfortable. Her grief is palpable but, as with the rest of Twin Peaks, the scene is filled with too much too-muchness to be simply a moment of pathos. Her scream, like Laura’s in the Black Lodge later in the series, seems to have some sort of power, mystical and at the same time ironic, a perfect play on the soap opera parody the show is built around. Sarah Palmer becomes the shrieking woman for the rest of the series, like a banshee, a harbinger of death.

The first episode of Twin Peaks is filled with crying. Sarah’s cry sonically matches the rest of the episode — moments of lingering silence pierced with long screams or loud noises. Sarah Nicole Prickett, in her review of Twin Peaks: The Return, defines this repeatability and mechanics of sound in Lynch as part of the general “laws in the world of David Lynch’ [that] are unnatural but do not lead to order, and things disordered lapse into ‘thingness.’” Sound, especially repeated, non-linguistic screams, approach this thingness, devoid of any particular meaning, becoming something like a talisman. A talisman of noise might open a door for us into another realm of grief and victimhood, the kind played out on a soap opera and belonging to a particular kind of victim, a white woman.

The cliché of the helpless screaming woman in films I’ve mentioned here is bound up in ideas of whiteness and femininity in a stereotypical gender binary. Any sympathy a viewer is expected to have for these victimized characters is in direct relation to them being white women. Sarah Palmer is a prime example because of how Lynch plays with whiteness. Prickett notes that one of Lynch’s defining features is his “appropriat[ion of] whiteness in a manner all at once glib, unstudied, and tender, superficial and earnest, well-intentioned.” Lynch shows whiteness as the superficiality it really is, a nearly empty performance. Sarah Palmer’s scream is no exception. Prickett calls this depiction of whiteness as “something like a skull mask worn over the face, a skeleton worn over the body on Halloween.” I think about the Scream series and its white Ghostface masks. What kind of noises am I granted behind my own white mask?

In Psycho and mockingly in Strictly Ballroom, the helpless white female is played to archetype. She is looking for a hero. Her scream is emblematic of her role in society as something in danger and needing protection. It is the twin noise of the small voice saying “Help me” as we zoom up to Laura’s eye on the found VHS tape in the second episode of Twin Peaks.  

Ganja and Hess

Ganja and Hess

There are many reasons these women scream, but our perception of their screams has to do with their whiteness and femininity. White women sit on the pedestals that white men circle, barking their dominance (sometimes literally, as when Bobby barks from behind the bars of his holding cell in the Twin Peaks pilot) and shouting out their protection. White women are meant to symbolize purity and femininity in response to monstrosity and violence. Their screams mark a deviation in patriarchal order, a perversion of white male dominance. Still white women get to scream their demands, voice out their horror, and we are made to witness it, while others are silenced. Even when these women are voicing their pain, we must question why it is these women who are screaming out.

I do love screaming women. Not their pain, but the sight and sound of a screaming woman sends a thrill through me. It seems indecent. It’s the indecency that excites me. Lynch has women scream all the time, sometimes for no obvious reason. I’d like to see more of this and I think I will, but in new ways and from new voices, a fresh generation of more diverse directors and writers who are ripping open the horror genre and making us listen.

Most of these women are screaming out of pain, but the portrayal of their screaming echoes an even larger cultural pain, a wound deep within the mask of whiteness and its oppression of others. All these women screaming on top of each other, cut and pasted from various parts of my memory as I watch these scenes repeatedly, gets to be too much. I turn off a film midway through and tell myself no more, until the next day when I find myself in front of the screen, thrilled anew.

Scream  (1996)

Scream (1996)