The horror genre has long accessed a universal fear of losing control of our own bodies, in various ways. Proto-zombie joints J’Accuse (1919) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) brought concepts of “the living dead” and mind control together on the big screen, to monstrous effect. People, separated from their realities and their own flesh in order to do someone else’s bidding. It’s the stuff of nightmares. As the genre grew legs and began to crawl, that nightmare branched off into subgenres that reflected their tumultuous times. The emergence of the cult horror film carved out a place for women spectators to behold onscreen a reflection of gendered frustrations about male control of their bodies, from Rosemary’s Baby‘s appropriation of a pregnant woman’s womb to The Stepford Wives‘ loss-of-identity allegory. Writer-director Sean Durkin’s 2011 mystery/thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene takes a next-level approach to the theme. While his film is more muted in than most, it remains a cult movie and connects with the terror of having someone else lay claim to all that you are.
Durkin’s film is a snapshot of recovery, following the first two weeks after the titular young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a dangerous cult. After a nervous phone call, Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) picks her up from a random bus stop and takes her to her Connecticut home with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The rest of the film’s two hour runtime is spent observing Martha’s attempts to re-acclimate to normal life, and to reclaim her body and person-hood from a group that dominated both.
The story begins with the system in place. A large homestead with men, women and young boys. Martha sets a table. That evening, the men eat dinner as the women wait patiently. Only after they’re finished do the women and children eat. The men rule the roost.
Then, the escape. There’s little fanfare; no music beyond the symphony of morning crickets as Martha opens the front door of the “family” cabin and peeks outside, eyes wide. The coast clear, she eases the door shut with all of the care of a parent closing their sleeping child’s bedroom door. She holds her life’s belongings in a canvas backpack. Her eyes scan the commune: left, right, left, right, back and forth until she reaches the treeline several feet away. Offscreen, the same door can be heard opening before a male voice booms, “Marcy! Marcy May! Where you goin’?!” It’s more of a warning than a question; it’s clear that the voice isn’t concerned for her safety. She doesn’t look back; even without any other context, it’s immediately understandable why. Following a tense confrontation at a nearby diner, she is free.
Is she, though?
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, past and present intertwine in a non-linear narrative to provide context to Martha’s paranoia and problems re-assimilating after she flees the farm. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the answers to the question that Lucy continuously asks: “What is wrong with you?!” Her boundaries are vague and weird: she unthinkingly skinny-dips at a lake frequented by families. She purposely walks in on Lucy and Ted having sex and tries to share the bed. She asks for Ted’s permission to go swimming.
The flashbacks explain: for years, Martha has no sense of a private self. Upon arrival at the farm, she meets Patrick (John Hawkes) who immediately severs her connection with her past by giving her a new name, Marcy May. It’s right out of the cult playbook: isolate, isolate, isolate. Your old life is gone; I’ll dictate everything you are now. And he does. Hawkes’ performance finds the manipulator’s sweet spot between domineering and warm. Patrick seems carefree, but it’s clear that he’s methodically deconstructing each woman that comes his way by endearing himself, asking for trust, then love. Control comes soon after.
Everyone on the farm shares everything: chores, clothes, sleeping quarters. It’s common to lay next to a couple as they have intercourse. Within that, there is a definite hierarchy. The male members of the family exert control, acting as enforcers for Patrick’s rules. It trickles all the way down to the dining room table; men eat first, women get leftovers. In a vaguely ominous line, Martha tells a newcomer who asks about the lack of baby girls, “We only house boys.” That evening, Martha drugs the newcomer’s drink and prepares her for the same “first night” ritual that resulted in her own rape before. The rape scene is also shown: she is awakened from her sleep to find Patrick forcefully thrusting into her.
Worse yet is the role women play in continuing the abusive system. Following Martha’s sexual assault, multiple women comfort her with platitudes and gaslighting. With smiles and glassy eyes, they swoon, “You’re lucky. I wish I could have my first time again.” “You have to trust me that it was good. We have all been there, and we wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t good. We all love each other very much.” Durkin succeeds in depicting the line between love and possession, and the manipulation that blurs it. Martha’s transition from independent person to commodity (and her stumbling efforts to re-adjust after her escape) is fully believable as a result. These experiences all taint her sense of reality, and so seeing manifestations of that from bed-wetting to a lack of boundaries, is heartbreaking but understandable.
It’s the same uniquely feminine horror that permeates Rosemary’s Baby, a film made by a man (Roman Polanski) fifty-one years ago. Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow in top form) possesses what her neighbor Minnie Casetevet calls a “healthy, young” body, and thus makes a perfect candidate to bear the devil’s child. Her sleazy husband Guy (John Cassavetes) pimps her out to a satanic coven in their Manhattan apartment in exchange for the stardom he’s forever craved. After serving her drugged dessert, Guy lays her down in bed and steps aside as the devil rapes his wife. It’s a surreal nightmare of a sequence, entirely subjective through Rosemary’s eyes. The next morning, she awakens with claw marks along her back which is dismissed as being hot to trot on Guy’s part. “I didn’t want to miss baby night” he croons, showing her his freshly-clipped fingernails. The fact that his supposed marital rape is shrugged off with a bit of side-eye from Rosemary and nothing more adds further disgust to the whole ordeal. There may be witches and devils and conspiracies, but for many women viewers, the source of dread is located specifically in the horror of having one’s body appropriated towards someone else’s endgame.
These horror films resonate because they tap into a vast human experience, and in many cases, a feminine one. For many women, our bodies are at times foreign, rebellious and parasitic. But they are our own, and nothing is scarier than losing than ownership.