Lesley Finn | Longreads | July 2022 | 27 minutes (7,517 words)
EXT. SUBURBAN BACKYARD POOL (DETROIT) – DAY
A teenage girl floats in the water, alone. Starfished, she stares at the sky in peaceful, summer idyll. And then the girl rights herself. Something has interrupted her. A small ant scales her arm. Was that all? Her attention tracks to the hedge bordering the yard. There, amid leafy branches, two adolescent boys ogle her.
I see you.
The boys crouch, make a lazy attempt to hide. But they don’t stop watching.
* * *
Plenty of scenes from the 2014 horror film It Follows would give any viewer the chills. The woman splayed on the beach of a Michigan lake, chunks missing from her blood-spattered legs, one red stiletto intact. The nightgowned granny stalking a high school homeroom. For me, the scene in the backyard pool disturbed as much as any other.
No violence, no jumpscare. Not much happens. A girl in a pool, boys watching. She dismisses their attention as though reciting a line from a timeworn game. Tag, you’re it. Hardly worth goosebumps.
But the familiarity of the moment, that second in which a presence is sensed, then the gaze recognized, accepted. The hint of shoulder-shrugging status quo. Boys will be boys.
I have seen more horror films than any other kind. I am the friend you call when you need your hand held through Midsommar, when a trivia question asks if it was in Phantasm II or III that the gold death spheres first appeared. But I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. My viewing habit is more of an ongoing, uninterrogated fascination, a slow tutelage in the form. So I understand that the girl receiving the camera’s early attention in It Follows is the protagonist, and that she will survive. And I understand that the pool, shot from multiple angles, is an important setting that will reappear, with escalating stakes.
Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, would classify the pool in It Follows as the “Terrible Place.” In the horror film schema, it appears early in the storyline as a site of comfort — a “safe haven,” like that backyard pool — but later becomes the place where the victims “survey the visible evidence, of the human crimes and perversions that have transpired there,” and understand their fate.
The Terrible Place is protean. In the climactic scene of It Follows, when the safe haven reappears it does so as an indoor municipal pool the girl used to visit as a child. She has spent the story watched not by a couple of horny boys, but by a menacing, invisible force that has shaped her every choice. In the water, she must confront it.
Watching the film, I felt a deep, unsettling knowing, and it started with that scene in the backyard pool. The girl’s casual, practiced vigilance while in the water — I recognized that. It transported me to the pools of my youth. I remembered being a teenager, a girl. I felt the water’s cold slap, heard the peal of the lifeguard’s shrill whistle. Mostly, I sensed the gaze.
I came to read Clover expecting a handy visual theory I could use to analyze the film and my response to it. What I found was a way of seeing that would help me decode a script I’d been stuck in for much of my life.
* * *
In Baltimore, where I grew up, the summer mix of high temperature and humidity made for air so hellishly stultifying you could cook dinner just by leaving it on the kitchen counter. My neighborhood consisted of small identical brick row houses, each with a shoebox backyard concreted over or given to weeds. Pools were not in our architectural vernacular. We cooled ourselves with lawn sprinklers, a hose, or at the one house with a Slip ’N Slide. Our air conditioning was a single window unit in my parents’ bedroom. On the hottest nights I would camp on the floor, dreaming of sparkling cubes of turquoise, chlorinated water.
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I had a real-life pool in mind: the community one tucked away in the more affluent neighborhood adjacent to ours. It wasn’t a country club, but all the same had a membership roster and a padlocked gate, and if your home fell outside the catchment area, as ours did, you had to pay extra for access. Friends who lived in that neighborhood spent entire summers perfecting their cannonballs and guzzling Capri-Suns, an enviable existence. Eventually, my parents applied for membership. Pictures from that summer we joined show me, 6 years old, thumb in mouth, pouting on the sodden pool deck. I had chronic ear infections, and submerging myself in water gave me terrible pain. I did it anyway. The infections subsided over the next year, but a new discomfort awaited: To celebrate my First Holy Communion in the spring I had gotten my ears pierced, and in the chlorine the holes foamed like the jaws of a rabid dog.
I haven’t suffered an acute trauma in a pool. There is no near drowning, no crack of the head from a bungled dive, no dark blot in my history. I love swimming — in oceans where I can align myself with the current, or in lakes where I can slice through placid water. But the pool was a place I was always uncomfortable. Sunbathing on vinyl loungers, playing Marco Polo, eating Lance peanut butter and cheese crackers from the vending machine — every moment that I associate with summers at the pool was undergirded by a persistent discomfort in my body. The ear canals, the ear lobes, and then, as the years passed and I started middle school, a discomfort with the attention my body gathered, a discomfort that followed me like a haunting. In the blistering afternoons of a Baltimore summer, the pool brought relief. But for a teenage girl, relief comes at a cost.
* * *
One weekend in the third grade I spent the night at a friend’s house, and there saw my first horror film, Children of the Corn. As my friend’s older sister cued up the VHS tape, she didn’t bother to warn us about the impending gore, maybe because violent images were commonplace at the Catholic school we all attended, where crucifixes outnumbered glue sticks, the thorn-mutilated Son of God, in everlasting perfect attendance, judging us from the walls.
I didn’t sleep that night, or the next. It took me a week before I could get Stephen King’s story about devil-worshipping, ritual-killing children out of my head. What exactly was I scared of? The fear that kept me up wasn’t that I was like the children in the film (though Principal Eileen did treat us like we were devil-born murderers) and I was far from being a road-tripping adult like their victims. But the familiar setting tugged horror within reach. My grandparents lived in the agricultural belt of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in a town surrounded by miles of cornfields. We would be visiting soon.
All too easily I envisioned Malachi lurking behind the rows of tender stalks. The moment replayed in my mind again and again, and the resolution was always the same: He was not a character in a film, but a person as tangible as the fallen husks and silk on which he stood. I could smell the resinous ooze as his boots crushed a path toward me, as the screen between us dissolved, all with the ease of water turning to wine. What kept me up at night was the possibility that the film was not fiction, but real life.
Did I avoid horror films from then on? No. In the ’80s basements of our middle-class neighborhood, the only sight more common than knotty pine paneling and an open Doritos bag was a TV playing the latest release on a VCR. Halloween, Carrie, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Damien, Poltergeist, Friday the 13th; all their sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. Catholicism certainly primed me to expect fear and discomfort as life’s constants, and perhaps for this reason I watched, undeterred, the good little supplicant. And yet the cold tingle of fear pleased me. I was drawn to it, for reasons I couldn’t explain.
I could smell the resinous ooze as his boots crushed a path toward me, as the screen between us dissolved, all with the ease of water turning to wine. What kept me up at night was the possibility that the film was not fiction, but real life.
After reading Clover, and her deconstruction of the horror film protagonist known as the Final Girl, those reasons come into focus. Decades after Men, Women, and Chainsaws’ publication, “Final Girl” is practically a household term. Anyone who has watched a horror film knows her. She is the one “who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril.” She is the boyish one, with names like “Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will, Joey, Max.” In the case of It Follows, Jay. She is “not fully feminine,” she displays “apartness from other girls.” She is the character who lives to tell the story.
Like many things in life, my experience of the concept predated my knowledge of it. In those early horror-watching years, I was an androgynous-named, androgynous-looking girl whose bowl haircut and T-shirts and Jams aesthetic practically begged that I be mistaken for a boy, which I repeatedly was. I always had, like any Final Girl, a lonely feeling of apartness.
It can be a thrill to watch yourself, or a version of yourself, on the screen.
EXT. SUBURBAN COMMUNITY POOL (BALTIMORE) – DAY
Parking lot full of Chevy station wagons, windows cocked halfway down. On the other side of a chain-link fence, wet towels slouch on sun loungers. The air holds a mix of chlorine and Coppertone. White bodies in various stages of sunburn and tan splash in the pool, move around its perimeter. Sauntering, running. The harsh whistle of a lifeguard occasionally interrupts the shouts and chatter, but never enough for a moment of true quiet.
Three adolescent girls stand in line at the deep end’s diving board. The first two wear bikinis, tug the tops to get their cleavage just right. They are replicas of Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When they lean forward to squeeze the sodden ends of their long hair, they back their bodies away, as if an errant drop might give them the plague.
The Final Girl wears a one-piece, plain and purposeful as an athletic swimsuit. Her chest, according to the sixth-grade developmental chart, is flat as a chalkboard, and her hair, chopped in imitation of Dorothy Hamill, is too short for the ritual of squeezing it dry. She thinks briefly of whipping her head like the boys do when they climb the ladder from the pool, then lets the water sluice down her back.
Her friends giggle, tug at their bikinis again. They are looking past the Final Girl, beyond her, to a row of boys from their grade. Five of them, a white bench of judges. Legs spread, torsos draped over knees in expectation of a show. The boy on the far right sat across from the Final Girl in art class the previous year at school, threatened her jokingly, daily, with X-ACTO knives. Now, through the tunnel of his swim trunks, his hairless testicles bulge out of the net lining. The Final Girl stands close enough to observe the peach-pit wrinkle of the skin.
He calls her name, spreads his legs wider.
The bikini girls inch closer to the other boys, flirt-talk with them; the Final Girl looks away, wants to close her eyes and hear nothing. He calls her name once more. She hates diving off the board, the spectacle of it, the water pounding her ears, yet there she waits her turn. She doesn’t know why she is in line for what she doesn’t want, only that this is how a summer day is spent.
* * *
In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that women, in the process of being conditioned to focus on appearance rather than action, internalize a system that is not their own: “Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of a woman in herself is male.” I cannot think of a pool from my past without imagining myself as the object on the other side of a lens. It is as though I am remembering myself, for somebody else.
Perhaps the layered awareness isn’t surprising given I spent so many hours of my life watching films that were about me, but not for me. Slasher films from the ’70s and ’80s, the body of work Clover studies and the body of work I grew up consuming, were written about women, but by and for men. The male writer knew that the male viewer wouldn’t be interested in seeing men as victims, nor in seeing men fail in their quest, and so the Final Girl was born. As a protagonist who suffers hit after hit, horror after horror, she provides a proxy; male viewers can distance themselves from a drawn-out narrative of victimhood and at the same time feel secure that a Joey or Charlie saved the day. The Final Girl is part denial, part projection. She allows the male viewer to leave the cinema feeling entertained, unthreatened.
The male writer knew that the male viewer wouldn’t be interested in seeing men as victims, nor in seeing men fail in their quest, and so the Final Girl was born.
Film over, out in daylight, how did I feel? Stuck in the first act, like the Final Girl having a backyard soak, watched by and awaiting some looming terror. I didn’t identify with the triumph of beating the evil; besides, in film after film, the evil came back. The story always rewound to the beginning, and started again.
What happens when the unconscious viewer becomes the conscious subject of another’s narrative? It’s not a simple case of wires crossing. When I consider the roots of slasher films and the Final Girl I saw myself in, the wires seem more like marionette strings.
The Final Girl lives to tell the story. But whose story is it?
* * *
EXT. SUBURBAN COMMUNITY POOL (BALTIMORE) – DAY
The annual eighth-grade graduation party. The Final Girl is a teenager. Just. The topography of her body has changed, and therefore, according to the sartorial rulebook of Sports Illustrated, finally merits a bikini. But she will not be swimming at the party. Preserving sprayed bangs, frosted eyelids, and the drugstore perfume on her wrists takes precedence to cooling off in the water. The girls she calls her friends move in a swarm up and down the concrete deck. June sun electrifies the blue rectangle, its water no longer a source of cooling comfort: It is background lighting for the runway, a magnifier for a one-way gaze.
Boys sit — not on benches, but on the tops of picnic tables, elevated. They wear T-shirts, except for a few who go bare-chested. All of them in baseball caps, fixed backward. Clots of them around the pool.
At the front of the group of girls, the first to be seen is the skinniest. Her pace is slow, almost regal; she breathes heavily. In the winter of that school year she’d started bringing sliced peppers to lunch instead of sandwiches. Her refrain: “I’m not hungry.” The other girls, including the Final Girl, lamely offered cookies, never asked questions other than, “Want some?”
The Final Girl has only seen bones this prominent in a Thanksgiving turkey picked clean. But squint and make the hard lines blur, this girl looks like a model from a magazine. She delivers herself for viewing. And the boys are watching.
Look pretty, be nice, be liked. There are yearbooks to be signed. The Final Girl passes a table of boys and one of them calls her over, asks to swap signatures. A couple of months before when he’d asked her out, she’d agreed, though they never went anywhere, did anything. Where would they have gone? To the empty parking lot of the shuttered-up video store? For a few weeks he held her hand in the hallway at school. She had the sense that something was expected of her, but if the boy wanted something, he never said.
Now, she trades her yearbook for his. Have a great summer, she writes. Signs her name, then draws a smiley face next to it.
He has just finished writing and, not smiling, hands her yearbook to her. She hasn’t been this close to him for months, and notices that his face has grown hair, a proud sling of it beneath his chin, which he scratches. Darker patches bloom beneath his arms. A wave of jealousy slaps her: he has the liberty to show what she must shave.
She turns to leave but he asks, now grinning, “Aren’t you going to read what I wrote?”
She opens the page, finds the spot.
You are a bitch and an ice queen. Have a great summer.
* * *
How I felt watching horror films was how I felt at pools. Drawn to them, sensing, but confused by my role in them, by an unidentifiable yet understood imperative to comply. My real-life pools were Terrible Places in a distorted, phantom translation of the horror trope. I recognize this, my body told me. Beware.
There wasn’t a mass grave beneath the community pool. There wasn’t a murderer cornering me in the deep end. But tell that to the body. Those years of discomfort after discomfort: Maybe my body was telling me to get the hell out of the Terrible Place, and I just didn’t know how. But how do you act for yourself when you’ve been conditioned to do the opposite?
The male gaze on the female body isn’t without consequence, not in any setting, especially not in a pool. The culturally endorsed surveillance of the gazer creates the culturally endorsed hyper-vigilance of the watched. Intuition and power drain from a woman’s body as a result. Horror films know this. The viewer is safe in his seat; the viewed is not.
What does it mean to be the body that bolsters someone else’s narrative? Not all horror films depend on a Final Girl as a character, but they do depend on the female body. Clover’s chapter on occult films — horror that focuses on the paranormal — outlines this cinematic “standard scheme” that puts “the female body on the line only in order to put the male psyche on the line.” The Exorcist provides a classic example. We think the film is about the possessed teenager Reagan, but Clover writes that her story is “significant only insofar as it affects the lives of others, above all the tormented spiritual life of Karras,” the priest. Reagan’s story, she explains, is an “accessory” story. A grotesque spectacle of projectile vomit to contrast the male’s sacred inner journey.
The seeming reticence of American horror to move past this standardized narrative makes me wonder what larger, offscreen force is keeping us frozen, rooted in our spot.
Plenty of years have passed since 1993, when Clover published her book — and plenty of horror films have been made in those decades that disrupt and redefine female roles in the genre. We’ve moved past those slasher paradigms, right? The female character isn’t always the subordinate protagonist, projected onto, granted narrative agency only in order to put the male psyche on the line. But many of these films, like Jennifer Kent’s Babadook and Julia Ducournau’s Raw, are not American. In Australia, France, and elsewhere, filmmakers are using horror to explore a female perspective for its own value — not in relation to the imagined male gaze. The seeming reticence of American horror to move past this standardized narrative makes me wonder what larger, offscreen force is keeping us frozen, rooted in our spot.
Putting the female body on the line only in order to put the male psyche on the line: Clover might as well be describing the culture of American patriarchy.
Have a great summer.
* * *
INT. HART SENATE OFFICE BUILDING (WASHINGTON) – DAY
A large wood-paneled room heaves with government officials, reporters, cameras. In her testimony for the sexual assault hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, professor Christine Blasey Ford talks about a pool — a private country club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she was a member of the diving team. Most of her teenage summers were spent there, including the day she attended a gathering at a nearby home, where, as she states in her testimony, Kavanaugh assaulted her.
Watching the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I had no trouble picturing the pool in Chevy Chase. I’d never been there, but had been a guest at comparable country clubs in Baltimore. The gatehouse. The parking lot filled with European cars, rear windows stickered with names of expensive private schools. These are places of extreme privilege, but inside the privet hedge the story that unfolds is the same one that unfolds inside chain link.
One of the first exchanges Ford has is with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who in a terse but respectful manner asks her to speak up. In an action that a fictional narrative would foreground to establish character, Ford attempts to adjust her microphone to accommodate Grassley’s request. It refuses to move, stuck at the level of her breastbone, but instead of insisting on a replacement, Ford offers to lean forward and down so the senator can hear her. “Is that good for you?” she asks in a beseeching voice, head submissively lowered. Throughout the next three hours of her testimony, she must assume this stooped posture to be heard. The behavior is in keeping with Ford’s flexibility when questioned; she often replies to interlocutors that she is happy to discuss traumatic events further. “Whatever you want,” she says on one occasion. She wants, as she says repeatedly, to be helpful.
Watching Ford speak about that fateful teenage summer, I remembered being 15 and the mother of my private-school boyfriend telling me, in flinty disparagement, that I was “nice, for a public school girl.” I’m pleased I never reached the lofty standards of the country club set, but I recognized the accommodating behavior I saw in Ford at the hearing all the same. It was the same behavior I practiced any time I went to a pool. It was a character note in a shared script.
The pool is central to Ford’s account of her assault. She notes that on the night of the attack, her assailant “had a hard time” as he tried to strip her naked; having been at the pool earlier, she was still wearing a one-piece beneath her clothes. This detail haunts me. Saved by a one-piece. I find it difficult not to dwell on the sequence of that day. Diving practice, then sexual assault. Few sports require so much sheer trust in the body and one’s conditioning. To walk out on the board, the platform, to be so focused in the moment. To have that amount of control and self-possession. The consequences of poor technique or misstep so disastrous and painful.
Then and now, the narrative was set: Her story was an accessory, one that would put the male psyche on the line, but ultimately at rest. The experience was hers, but not the narrative.
Horror films are rife with misstep — and a gender discrepancy built into that misstep. Clover again: “Boys die, in short, not because they are boys, but because they make mistakes. Some girls die for the same mistakes. Others, however, and always the main ones, die — plot after plot develops the motive — because they are female.”
In the Senate hearing, you see the psychic weight unloaded onto Ford all those years ago. Then and now, the narrative was set: Her story was an accessory, one that would put the male psyche on the line, but ultimately at rest. The experience was hers, but not the narrative.
Kavanaugh’s opening statement gives a clear hint; its rhetorical stance isn’t beseeching, but imperative. Look at this, ask yourself, tell me: He commands us to do and see what he wants. He portrays himself as a meticulous documentarian upholding patrilineal tradition, having kept a calendar of his daily life from high school onward, just like his father. Even his questions are orders: You want to know what happened on a certain date? Look in my calendar. There is only room for his version.
But in the course of the hearing, other documents are brought to Kavanaugh’s attention — documents that do not align with his self-designed narrative. His yearbook entry, for example, paints a portrait of partying excess riddled with pride in sexual crusades, not of the illustrious academic achievement and hard work Kavanaugh indefatigably invokes during the hearing. He dodges questions about the entry’s authenticity by saying that he wrote something and submitted it to the yearbook editors, who may have taken liberties. I find this astonishing, that a teenager who listed every lawn mowed and weight lifted in hard copy calendars that he still has to this day, who annotated the events he listed in those calendars because they were “forward-looking as well as backward-looking,” would yield to a yearbook editor who — as Kavanaugh insists — decided to misrepresent the entire school as a combination of Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The hearing shows in a glaring light what a man used to controlling his story looks like when he has to endure counterinterpretations. We see him bristle at the slightest suggestion that his version is not blindly upheld as gospel.
In the end, though, the male psyche is restored. He is challenged, but vindicated. He makes it to the third act of his journey with ever-expanding power. He sits on his bench.
The Ford-Kavanaugh hearing was my horror film of 2018. Just like the presidential debates between Trump and Clinton were in 2016. My brain knew the difference, but my body didn’t. Scythed-out stomach, fist in throat, pulse-roar in ears — I could have been seven years old, watching Friday the 13th. It’s the feeling that accompanies the moment the female will be slaughtered for the sake of the male’s story. It’s a feeling that, for so many women, has become normalized, if not expected. Slash slash.
* * *
The Final Girl is full of agency, but it’s not hers to exercise. At the core she is passive because she is a character devised for male safety and pleasure. Am I still talking about the Final Girl of horror films? I don’t know. At some point the line blurs. At some point we begin talking about real women, real bodies. The Final Girl is fiction and yet her story, her script, bleeds into real female experience.
So how do we escape the script?
If the surveyor of a woman in herself is male, maybe we begin by averting our eyes from our own male-directed gaze.
* * *
INT. UNIVERSITY POOL (PHILADELPHIA) – DAY
The Final Girl and her friend walk through a labyrinth of vinyl-tiled corridors to the women’s locker room. They change, the Final Girl fussing with the adjustable straps of a bikini two sizes too small, the friend in street clothes one minute, ready for laps the next breath. Her racing one-piece is simple, unadorned and functional, like the silicone cap into which she tucks her hair.
As they walk to the pool, the Final Girl keeps her focus on the concrete deck; head down she is more likely to avoid an awkward run-in with a professor. She checks to make sure a tuft of hair isn’t sticking out of her suit’s crotch seam and lowers herself into the slow lane, several away from the friend. The cold water stabs at her pores, and she throws herself into a loud, uncoordinated breaststroke. What was she meant to do with her hands — close the fingers or spread them? Her muscle memory is devoted to policing pubic hair, not recalling proper swimming technique.
There is no such misallocation for the friend. She swims in peace and efficiency. The water sluicing over her cap, over her shoulders as they turn in unhurried, rhythmic rotation. Her fluttering feet make no splash, only carve a fleeting sculpture on the water’s surface. She doesn’t stop, not even once — not to adjust the seams of her suit, not to fix her hair, and certainly not to scan her surroundings to see if she is being watched.
* * *
When I left Baltimore for college, I left behind those summers at the pool, but carried the learning from them with me. The first friend I made was someone also versed in pools, but in a different language. She was a skilled swimmer who grew up in Canada. When one day she suggested we visit the university pool together, I was reluctant — it was the brittle end of winter, my eczema was flaring — but I was also intrigued. She’d told me, in our walks around Philadelphia, about the years of cold 4 a.m. mornings, the muscle pulls, the mania and stillness of the team meets. I’d never seen a trained swimmer at work. It can be a thrill to see someone operating in her element.
She had short hair too. An athletic build. But she was not a Final Girl; she was someone in possession of herself. You can be in the mold of a Final Girl but resist the definition. And the pool for her was not a Terrible Place, but a site of physical strength and accomplishment.
In a 2019 New York Times piece, Amanda Hess notes that filmmakers are increasingly reframing the pool not as “a straightforward tool for satisfying the male gaze,” but “a place where a woman can be the complicated subject, with her own issues and her own fantasies.” The projects that achieve this narrative recasting — films like Eighth Grade and television series like Shrill — are not in the horror genre, but the paradigm of the gaze is similar, as are the questions raised. What happens when a female protagonist in a pool creates meaning not to satisfy male expectations, when she doesn’t flee from the force that threatens to harm her? What happens in that story — and whose is it?
Perhaps the true Terrible Place is where the self of one’s creation faces the self of internalized systems. How do you battle that invisible monster? How do you disentangle your own story about yourself from the one you are told, the one you’ve embodied?
When my daughter was 13, she asked me to tell her the story of her birth. The question, which she’d asked many times before, was in this instance context-specific. We had just finished watching the first episode of The Umbrella Academy, and I suspect its opening scene lingered in her mind, as it did in mine.
INT. GYMNASIUM POOL (SOVIET RUSSIA) – DAY
A sleek teenage girl, suited and capped for swim practice, flirts with a similarly clad boy as they wait for an aqua exercise class to finish. She plants a kiss on his cheek and runs off, leaping into the water. Seconds pass without her resurfacing. Blue water gurgles red. Finally, with a gasp, the girl surfaces, but she is no longer sleek: She is nine months pregnant, and in the throes of a tormented labor.
Tell me the story of my birth, I remember asking my mother. I remember the way the story smelled of alcohol, as if every unpleasant detail had been rubbed clean. Birth stories, especially as told to one’s own children, are narrative acts — often acts of narrative compliance, narrative editing. One must follow the script. Laden with gendered expectations, the laboring female body isn’t so different from the teenage female body.
EXT. LONDON – DAY
January, a bleak palate of grays. The Final Girl is overdue by a week. Fluid pools at her ankles, yeast infections haunt her like poltergeists. She has received much guidance on how to usher the birth along: dust skirting boards, eat spicy foods. A family friend swears that watching the latest James Bond in a movie theater instigated her childbirths. The Final Girl sits through Casino Royale with not even a Braxton-Hicks. Pleased to have cleared herself of debt to the franchise, she tries again a few days later with another film. The only one that fits her schedule is almost too ironic to induce labor: Children of Men.
Her first contraction flares halfway through the film. She gives birth the next morning.
* * *
I was six months pregnant when I moved to London, and desperate to find a place to live that fell in the catchment area for a local hospital with a decent obstetrics ward. By chance, I ended up renting down the street from a pool, the newly opened London Fields Lido. With a climate arguably committed to oppressive clouds and rain, London didn’t strike me as the ideal place for outdoor aquatic enjoyment. But in the 1930s there had been a lido in that same park, and the city, as I learned, had a long history not only of outdoor swimming, but wild swimming.
I’d never thought of swimming as a wild act. Londoners had: For a hundred years the ponds in Hampstead Heath had offered year-round water access to bathers, including a pond reserved exclusively for women. In the later Victorian era endurance races in the Thames were popular, celebrated events. The most famous competitor from the time was Agnes Beckwith, a 14-year-old who attracted cheering crowds as she swam 10- to 20-mile races along the city’s river. She was hailed as a model for women — admittedly not because of her ambition and skill, but because Victorian doctors endorsed swimming as childbearing preparation. Healthy women gave birth to healthy men; a woman swimming was a woman exercising for the Empire. Still, the swimming culture in London departed from the script of suburban pools I knew.
And what exactly did I know about being pregnant, about childbearing? Little, other than that everyone had an opinion on what I should and should not do. Gestation brought with it constant judgment, constant inspection of my body. A nine-month-long, eighth-grade pool party.
At the time, water births were popular in the U.K. The general sentiment among pregnant women and midwives was that the method provided more agency, and in turn led to better obstetric outcomes. You could do the water birth in hospital, or call the National Health Service and have a temporary birthing pool installed at home and give birth there. Having recently moved from New York City and out of the American health care system, I couldn’t begin to absorb this scenario of government-funded options, not even when I registered at the local hospital and was given the grand tour of the “Aqua Suite.” Its large bathtub looked nothing like a pool, but afterwards, when the nurse led me back to the small examination room where she took my blood pressure and ushered me on the scale, she made the connection: “Mums love the pool. Some wear bikinis, like they’re on holiday. You’ll think about it, won’t you?”
Gestation brought with it constant judgment, constant inspection of my body. A nine-month-long, eighth-grade pool party.
I tried to visualize the labor there, but all I knew was the preferred narrative from the birth classes I had started to take, which was at once hazily sketched and defined by harsh borders. No drugs, a puff of gas and air if you must, avoid the bed at all costs, keep in constant movement, squat, crouch, did we mention no drugs — so the stage directions went. But it was easiest to remember the birth narratives from films I’d seen. I tried to put myself in the pool in a bikini, breathing steadily, but then I saw myself in a gown from waist up, sweating a little, just enough that my cheeks were pleasingly flushed. The hair around my face beginning to curl. And then the camera pulled back to me propped in a hospital bed, smiling, holding a cooing, swaddled infant in my arms.
I told the midwife I wasn’t sure. She patted my arm and advised me to keep the Aqua Suite in mind when the time came. But I didn’t. Prioritizing women’s comfort in a pool? I couldn’t conceive of it.
* * *
INT. HOSPITAL WARD (LONDON) – NIGHT
The Final Girl hobbles through the automatic doors with a birth plan. Printed on paper, folded and tucked into her overnight bag. Only it isn’t a plan. It is somebody else’s script.
She hands the paper to the nurse, who thanks her, perfunctorily slips the paper beneath the intake sheet on her clipboard, and never refers to the paper again. It was as though the Final Girl had handed the nurse a pile of yarn and called it a hat. Here was another woman with absolutely no clue.
To have a clue, you need to understand your options, your risks. You consult yourself: If I feel x, I will do y. The Final Girl had written down commands, but hadn’t asked herself. She had accepted the story without asking if it was the one she wanted.
In childbirth, she is not in a pool but she is in a Terrible Place — the most bodily concentrated pain of her life, face to face with a story she doesn’t want.
* * *
If I edit for my daughter, it is to add back in all that decorum and conformist values would prefer I leave out. The broken intercom that played a Spanish radio drama for the first several hours of labor and that I swore at incessantly. The contractions that swarmed in my lower spine, not anywhere close to my abdomen, as women are so commonly told. How I finally begged for an epidural but because of the late stage of labor and my scoliosis the relief was muted. The paper bowls of vomit lined up along the bedside table, the smear of shit on the mattress that spread as I tried to push out what felt alternatively like a prize-winningly giant watermelon and a saber-length Rambo knife, and which was in fact a tiny human head fracturing my tailbone.
“Maybe it would have been better to jump in the pool like the girl in the show,” my daughter says.
Maybe. Sometimes we accept and hold onto the wrong story — someone else’s story — and for too long. We are the most dangerous to ourselves when we are not consuming consciously, when we are not scrutinizing what we have consumed, when we follow a narrative without understanding its potency. Stories are seductive like that, be they horror films, social standards, myth. But stories are also malleable. If narrative can be an act of compliance, it can also be an act of creation.
* * *
I don’t offer a birth story to align resolution with reproduction. Nor to align birth with female identity. It is an event, like any other, of potential meaning-making, but because it has at its center the body of a woman, the narrative becomes contested, public domain. It is an event where internalized conditioning that might come from films as much as from real life skews choice, and with troubling consequences. A woman’s body, but whose story?
Two years after my daughter’s birth, I was pregnant again. This birth would not be a rerun of the last; my body demanded a revised perspective, and I listened. A placental complication required induction on the due date. There would be no sudden strike of labor, and, I decided, no martyred withholding of pain relief. I was determined to narrate this time, to assert my agency — this birth would be by me.
I did keep one element constant: watching a film the night before labor. As much as I had been tracking the gestational calendar, I had been tracking the release date of a horror film that I knew little about except that it was Swedish, and that I was driven by what felt like an instinctual need to see it.
There is no Final Girl in Let the Right One In. The film follows the bullied, adolescent Oskar and his relationship with Eli, a new neighbor in his suburban Stockholm apartment building. Shy, reclusive, androgynous, Eli happens to be a vampire, one linked to a string of deaths in town. Despite the dangers of befriending someone who survives on human blood, Oskar forms a bond with her. Theirs is a mutually supportive connection: Oskar accepts Eli’s vampiric ways, and Eli shares in Oskar’s pain of being hunted.
In the climax of the film, the most sadistic of Oskar’s torturers — a male teenage jock — drags him into an indoor pool and pins him beneath the water’s surface. Such is the reasonable retaliation in jock world for the minor infraction of breaking a hockey stick. Underwater, choked, Oskar struggles for air, and as the seconds tick by it seems impossible that he will escape. A horror film’s male protagonist in need of saving; who, or what, could possibly intervene?
Enter Eli. Perfect turquoise water turns ghoulishly turbid as she feasts on the bully and his sidekicks, hauling them around the pool, sating herself and, in the process, saving her friend. I stood my pregnant body up in that movie theater and cheered. Eli is not the Final Girl who suffers hit after hit. Eli is the Hero-Monster who gets the job done. She wasn’t going to swap yearbooks with the bully and write, “Have a Great Summer.” She was going to eat him alive.
I awoke the next morning, optimistic and lighthearted.
* * *
INT. HOSPITAL WARD (LONDON) – DAY
I request drugs at the first screech of back labor. I recline in a bed. I even wear a gown.
My doctor, a middle-aged woman with a severe buzz cut and an art teacher aesthetic, calls herself the Dragon Lady. “I get what I want, and it scares people,” she offers by way of explanation.
The Dragon Lady checks in now and then. To my left, the window projects a rectangle of honeyed April light onto the floor. The daily crossword is spread on my lap, my husband sits by my side. After a few hours the Dragon Lady asks if I feel ready, and I do. I am present, in tune with my body, unfettered. I destroyed the crossword. I have never felt stronger.
I labored not in anyone else’s character; I labored as myself. I was not Oskar tossed into a pool, needing to be saved. Maybe I was a bit like Eli, slaying the opposition: the baggage of a difficult previous birth, my skewed perceptions of how a body should weather the process, the assumptions about the pain I should, as a woman, endure. And though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was slaying my inner Final Girl too. How right that a horror film helped me do it.
After a few hours the Dragon Lady asks if I feel ready, and I do. I am present, in tune with my body, unfettered. I destroyed the crossword. I have never felt stronger.
Narrative is a powerful thing. In the Middle Ages it was thought that the words and illustrations on a page worked their way into their readers’ bodies, and that from those images and concepts, embodied as they were, people were able to comprehend and derive meaning from the world around them. I know I had experienced something like that process in that night before the birth of my second child, as the image of Eli and the bloody pool replayed in my head. I know I had experienced something like that, too, all those years ago watching slasher after slasher before I could understand what was narrative structure, and what was life. Where the Final Girl ended, and I began. What narrative I wanted to choose, or craft for myself.
Clover writes that the Terrible Place for Final Girls is “a site of self-awareness, of knowing who they are and what they face.” In this definition, the Terrible Place sounds, well, not so terrible. It’s a place I needed to discover. It’s a place I want my daughter, in her final months of eighth grade, to find, and emerge from unscathed. The Terrible Place can be the start of a good story, if it’s one that you direct for yourself.
In the last few years, I have taken to wild swimming. To flinging myself into ribbons of swift water, grass-clotted ponds, the raging sea, and — my favorite — a still, black lake. Places that resist man-made framing. Places with undetermined depths, boundaries the swimmer decides for herself. Places lifted right out of the horror film schema. Terrible, terrible places.
EXT. MOUNTAIN LAKE – NIGHT
Limbs extended, I float in moon-polished water. Starfished. I have drifted away from my small group of friends, out into the lake’s middle. What peaceful, summer idyll. Cool air kneads my bare skin. I drag in its scent of dried pine, study the midnight sky, its sugar smear of stars. The only sounds are the watery swish of my arms and legs, my steady breathing.
This is not the story of a murderer lurking on the shore. Of an evil, benthic dweller waiting to attack. There is no generalized male viewer to entertain or put at ease. This is the story of a woman alone, safe, her attention unscripted.
Finally, terribly, she is her own subject. And she is the lens.
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Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands