Justice for Mary Shaw: ‘Dead Silence’ Fifteen Years Later

“Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. If you see her in your dreams, be sure you never, ever scream or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.”

Dead Silence is a polarizing film but not in a way most films are. People either like this one because it’s good, cheesy fun or they’re lukewarm on it, not finding it to be anything special at all. The film received a middling response upon its release, and to be completely fair, it was earned to an extent. The studio butchered the film completely, wrecking the vision of two brilliant young horror filmmakers and reaping what they sowed with poor reviews.

James Wan and Leigh Whannell were fresh off making the now legendary film Saw. One would think that the studio would trust the newly come masters of horror that were Wan and Whannell to perfect their own movie and trust in their implicit creative vision. However, this was sadly not the case. The script was botched by a “script doctor” hired by the studio. Creative control was wrestled from Wan and Whannell’s hands. This left a particularly bad impression on Whannell, who has been graciously open on how painful that experience was. One thing is for certain — even with a premise that was thoughtlessly squandered by uncaring executives, Mary Shaw (Judith Anna Roberts) is a villainess for the ages. She deserves respect, re-evaluation, and maybe even a reboot. 

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The Hammer horror-esque gothic horror film atmosphere of Dead Silences’s Raven’s Faire provides a most apt backdrop to introduce Mary Shaw and her many dolls. She was the town’s once-beloved show person turned vengeful specter. It’s easy to believe that a gaunt ghost of an older lady would be walking among the fog of the town looking for revenge. At least the set design and cinematographer understood their part of the production even if the studio didn’t. The claustrophobic terror of the small town collapsed in on itself allows Mary to thrive. She’s become their greatest fear and their greatest shame. This has allowed Mary’s ghost to fester. This part of the film is done exceptionally well. The smalltown terror is immaculate. Mary’s become folklore, a scary story for the children to whisper to one another at slumber parties. 

In life, Mary Shaw had been a talented ventriloquist. People traveled far and wide to watch her perform until one day when a little boy in the audience offended Mary. The boy disappeared, and Mary was naturally blamed for his abduction. The men of the town took it upon themselves to seek justice and murdered Mary by ripping out her tongue. Of course, Mary was guilty of taking the boy, killing him, and subsequently turning him into a human-ventriloquist dummy hybrid, but there was no way the men of the town would have known that at the time. The viewer doesn’t learn that she took the boy until later even. 

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In earlier versions of the script before it was mangled, Mary Shaw was a victim of domestic abuse. Her dolls were her coping mechanism after she lost a child due to her husband’s abuse. It was her husband who cut out her tongue after Mary talked back to him one day. Mary took her life after the incident and rose from the dead as the ghostly figure that audiences currently know and love albeit with a different motive and backstory.

The plot was a richer take on Mary’s backstory. Now those in the know can only dwell and wonder “What if?” The melancholic version of a woman wronged, seeking out horrible men and exacting revenge would have been utterly delicious and a much more pertinent and timeless take on the trope of the scornful female ghost who leaves a trail of carnage in her wake. Regardless, Mary Shaw stands as a truly underrated villain even with a backstory that pales in comparison to that of the original script. 

The Mary Shaw that has haunted audiences for 15 years now is no less creepy or menacing, even if her backstory is lackluster in comparison to what could have been. She has a dramatic flair that pairs with the film’s gothic aesthetics. Mary wanted to be transformed into a ventriloquist doll herself upon death, a wish that was horrifically honored by the town mortician. Plus, she was buried with her dolls. Even if she didn’t return as a ghost, she would have still been legendary for the amount of extra she exuded in her final wishes alone.

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Mary Shaw was a showstopper in death as she was in life; one can only hope to live up to that level of terrifying spite and melodrama. One of the more memorable moments of the film is when Mary’s body is found post-preparation by the mortician’s son and the audience gets to see her horrific doll-like features that look so gloriously wrong on a human person’s face. Meat puppet Mary isn’t soon to be forgotten. 

When talking about the sheer horror that Mary Shaw invokes, one cannot forget the tongues. Tongues are an integral part of Mary Shaw’s ghost. She goes about stealing them, after all. If a victim screams, Mary will unceremoniously rip out their tongue in a gnarly fashion, leaving them dead and with a gaping mouth wound. There’s something about tongue trauma that is unsettling, and Dead Silence doesn’t skimp on the gory details that come with that tongue trauma. Gaping tongueless maws abound. Mary’s nursery rhyme even revolves around how she will rip the screamer in question’s tongue out at the seams. This little ditty is burned into the minds of every pre-teen and teen who had the misfortune of meeting Mary Shaw at a tender age. 

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When discussing Mary Shaw, it would be a mistake not to pay homage to the actress who portrays her. Judith Anna Roberts brings Mary Shaw to life with a certain amount of maniacal glee that fills the viewer with dread. She embodies the vindictive skeletal ventriloquist with ease in a captivating way. She makes it easy to like Mary as a villain. If a malicious ghost can be charismatic, Roberts makes her so. 

While Wan and Whannell understandably didn’t have fun making Dead Silence, Roberts seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly. She’s chewing the scenery and making the most of every speck of screentime. With some actors, this would make the film taxing for the viewer. But with Roberts, it’s the opposite. She helps to enliven a film that was dead on arrival due to studio meddling. She’s memorable even if the film around her fails to be so. 

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No matter if one is a Dead Silence evangelist or a Dead Silence decrier, Mary Shaw is one of the most underrated horror villains out there. She stands apart from the others, her concept one that sadly slides under the radar. The bones of an even greater villain were formed in Leigh Whannell’s original script for the film. However, in this age of reboots, remakes, and requels, it’s difficult to believe that it’s curtains for this still beloved ventriloquist.

Mary Shaw’s goopy vicious greatness, as well as how intriguing the original premise for the film still is, is a good argument that perhaps the world of Dead Silence is worth revisiting. Maybe one day, audiences will get to see Mary Shaw in all her glory on screen once again. Maybe it’s not too late to redeem the vision James Wan and Leigh Whannell had in mind. One thing is for certain: Mary Shaw will continue to haunt the dreams of viewers for years to come. Just make sure not to scream. 

Interested in the original screenplay? A second draft version can be found here. 

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