“I Am The Thing That Monsters Have Nightmares About”: Thank You Letters To The Scooby Gang

I’ve watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was eleven years old. At twenty-seven, I reflect.

Thank you Willow, for showing that while society may ostracize you as a shy, socially awkward, bookish computer nerd, there’s nothing wrong with you; those are, in fact, your strengths. People who value and uphold you exist out there, somewhere, even amongst a literal hellscape. Thank you for figuring out your passions and sexuality openly and without shame; for demonstrating female friendships as the most inspirational, grounding, and empowering of all; that there’s redemption from the soul-consuming darkness of grief; that loving other women is normal, natural, okay.

Thank you Anya, for reassuring a girl who never allowed herself to display rage, who always felt out of step with expected humanity, it’s okay to be angry, bitter, and vengeful. To never reconcile centuries-long distrust of men, and never have to. To keep living after the douchebag you trusted leaves you at the altar.

Thank you Tara, that compassion and acceptance and the internal power of witchcraft are as transgressively affecting as physical strength.

Thank you Sineya, Kendra Young, Nikki Wood, and Xin Rong, for proving the saviors of the universe aren’t only white blondes.

Thank you Dawn — despite the will of the oppressors, you alone are capable of deciding your future; your body is more than someone else’s desire.

Thank you Cordelia — being the popular girl who crushes on boys and cares about prom doesn’t make you shallow, vapid, or worthless, and there’s always room, and time, to grow.

Thank you Joyce —a lesson in cherishing every moment with your mother.

Thank you Giles — a father figure who realizes the best thing for his surrogate daughter is letting her choose freely.

Thank you Faith, Darla, and Drusilla — embodying the power of societal non-conformity, embracing their goals without regard for opinion, rejecting the “good girl” image because it is neither condemnation or limitation.

Thank you Angel and Spike, for teaching me early the stereotypically pretty boys you crush on can, in an instant, become privileged, hateful, violent, and abusive. Thank you Xander and The Trio for proving even the seemingly kind male friends can be the same, and the worst of all enemies.

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Thank you Buffy Anne Summers. For showing that wearing miniskirts, nail polish, and lip gloss never negates your strength. That a girl isn’t the hapless victim, but a hunter. For fearing, failing, crying, and fiercely, unrepentedly loving while simultaneously snapping off witticisms. For losing herself and running away. For refusing to run. For crumbling against unthinkable expectations. For getting up again, bruised and bloodied and fearsome.

For telling a pre-teen girl when you lack weapons, friends, and hope, all that’s left is you, and it’s enough.

For making every woman a hero — even though we already were, just without superhuman abilities. We don’t need to be Chosen according to the rules of some inexplicable preordained destiny, because we make our own. All of us are powerful. All of us are Slayers.

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“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

Thomas Harris, Clarice Starling, and Me

The name Hannibal Lecter was a constant in my household. Long before I was cognizant of the context, I knew the infamous character and his creator, Thomas Harris, were held in reverence. My mom and sister vociferously devoured (pun intended) the 1981 novel Red Dragon and its fame-eclipsing sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, on constant repeat. When the trilogy-ender Hannibal was published in 1999, I was nine years old, and vividly remember the ecstatic family furor leading up to its release. That haunting, grotesque cover of harsh reds and blacks, depicting a snake-like creature devouring an agonized man, is one of the iconic images of my youth.

I wasn’t allowed to read them, of course, despite my growing interest in crime fiction. The most I managed was sneakily skimming the first fifteen pages of Hannibal at my sister’s kitchen table. I was entranced, to say the least; the seed of fascination had been planted through osmosis.

Four years later at thirteen, I’d already seen my fair share of violent R-rated movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day under parental supervision, Halloween by myself one late night in a darkened basement. My parents knew what I gravitated toward and cautioned rather than forbid, unless something struck them as inappropriately explicit for adolescent minds (i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). So when I begged my mom to let me rent a VHS copy of The Silence of the Lambs from our local rental store, she allowed without issue. She even let me watch it alone, unsure of her own interest given her devotion to the novel.

Every cinephile remembers the moment when a specific movie blew their minds apart. Nothing would touch the effect Silence of the Lambs had on me for at least a decade.

For ages I didn’t understand why, or how, or even the full extent. I just knew, like a lightning strike to my bones, something had switched in how I understood the language of film, the crafting of it; its potential to challenge, inspire, prophesize. Clarice Starling, and by extension Jodie Foster, was the definitive heroine of my formative years. Thomas Harris became a literary icon, once Mom granted me freedom to consume the books. I rented it over and over and over again, wearing out the tape that didn’t belong to me; I pored over TVGuide schedules so I could record it off a movie channel onto a blank VHS; it was one of my first DVD purchases when I had enough earned money in my pocket.

I watch it around Valentine’s Day every year (not an idea I take credit for— the film was released on February 14th, 1991), and I’m never not enthralled anew, even as I’ve memorized every frame, every cut, as every music cue strikes goosebumps of remembrance.

The best part? It isn’t about the good doctor.

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We Need To Talk About Split

(Spoilers from word one.)

M. Night Shyamalan and I have always had a complicated viewer-filmmaker relationship. He directed three of my most beloved movies — Signs, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable, the latter an underrated masterpiece. He also made one of my most loathed, The Last Airbender, a tone-deaf white-washed adaptation of the stunningly progressive animated series of the same name, not to mention a run of uncharming B-movies. But it’s impossible to deny his talent for suspense, atmosphere, and emotionally satisfying genre payoffs (I even love the much-reviled The Village and argue it was ahead of its time), so I’ve spent years rooting for him to have a career renaissance.

Looking at the reviews and box office numbers for Split, you’d think this is his long-overdue win. It isn’t.

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In Praise of the Shy Girl: Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Women In Horror Series)

What’s a Women In Horror series without Jamie Lee Curtis?

Not just the most famous Final Girl in cinema history but one of the most influential and a main originator of the term, Laurie Strode is, for me, the queen. Future horror heroines would emerge from the building blocks of Laurie’s character and develop in more progressive directions (see Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, and Sidney Prescott), but without Laurie, would they exist? For all of Halloween’s flaws when it comes to portrayals of women in general, she should never be dismissed as just a simplistic Final Girl, or only the trope’s codifier.

The reason Halloween remains successful is because its terror stems from a deliberately simple premise: unexpected violence in a suburban neighborhood. Laurie spends Halloween day going through the motions of her daily life: school, home, friends, work. She feels listless, bored, and unsettled — only for her routine to suffer disruption from a serial killer. That’s something that could happen to any of us, the monotonously predictable grind of existence uprooted just because someone decided, without discernible reason or motive except their own sadism, they wanted to kill us. Specifically, a man with hatred for the female body. Laurie expects a typical night babysitting, not a fight-to-the-death situation, and it happens so fast she isn’t granted more than seconds to plan any sort of proactive, autonomous attack of her own — exactly how it would play out in real life if someone broke into our home. She’s alone, in a house not her own, lacking any parental supervision or assistance. Within this context her reactive, defensive nature is perfectly acceptable, and doesn’t define her as a victim. How many of us wouldn’t cry and scream and panic at the realization we’re being hunted to our deaths?

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Paranormal Activity and the Perils of Male Hubris (Women In Horror Series)

Widely lauded for its slow burn tension and practical effects, Paranormal Activity is at heart a cautionary tale: don’t fuck with supernatural forces. That’s not a new theme in horror, nor does it offer a particularly inventive take on the subject, but the film does do something rare with its haunting/possession premise: deconstruct masculine arrogance and the harm it inflicts upon women.

Filmed in same found footage style made famous by The Blair Witch Project (and responsible for single-handedly repopularizing the genre), Paranormal follows young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). Their house is haunted by a demon that’s appeared intermittently in Katie’s life since her childhood, and Micah decides to document the supernatural occurrences with his expensive new camera. Of course, that’s the absolute worst thing to do—a psychic warns him that engaging with the demon grants it energy to grow stronger. Micah ignores this advice despite Katie’s pleas to the contrary, leading to an escalation of violent occurrences.

It’s very common for characters in horror movies to make bad decisions. Scream’s genre-savvy heroine Sydney Prescott explicitly calls the trope out: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” In this situation Micah’s the girl running up the stairs (or toward the source of the mysterious noise, or down a dark hallway), but it’s not just a case of convenient genre foolishness — his actions are inseparable from his arrogance. From start to finish he’s the epitome of male privilege, a walking fountain of bombastic machismo. He taunts the demon into action (what, are they gonna duke it out like bros?), assures Katie he’s the only one who can help her, and tosses out declarations like, “nobody comes into my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” In order to maintain and elevate his own sense of self-confidence, he dominates: overruling Katie’s wishes, undermining her actions, and brazenly challenging the demon to “do its worst.” He might as well ask it to compare penis size with him, his attitude is that frat boy stereotypical. And not only does his aggressive bravado allow the demon to terrorize, inhabit, and ultimately destroy Katie, all because Micah thinks he’s invincible, his words indicate an attitude of ownership — he views Katie as a possession to control.

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Fairy Tales and Final Girls: The Female-Centric Suspiria (Women In Horror Series)

Love him or loathe him (or somewhere in between), Dario Argento is the king of giallo, and 1977’s Suspiria remains his masterpiece — an operatic, surreal, feverish exercise, the closest cinema has come to capturing a nightmare on film. Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) stars as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student enrolled at a prestigious German dance school. After several students are brutally murdered, Suzy suspects there’s something supernatural afoot within the walls of Tanz Academy — specifically, witchcraft.

Arguably most famous for its lavish color schemes and unsettling cacophonous score, Suspiria is a tricky one when it comes to women. First, the good.

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Through a Mother’s Eyes: The Babadook and Examining Trauma (Women In Horror Series)

Mothers get a bad rap in horror movies. They’re either defined as the angelic defender, seen in The Exorcist, The Shining, and Poltergeist, or an inherently corruptive evil: Carrie, Psycho, Friday the 13th. That latter characterization evolved into a prominent sub-genre, the Bad Mother, a force of terrifying violence born from an inability to conform to the socio-political qualities associated with motherhood. While some of these characters are impressive figures, few challenge their old-fashioned interpretations by offering complex, honest portrayals of mothers. Even less originate from the perspective of the parent — which is where director-writer Jennifer Kent’s masterpiece The Babadook makes waves.

The film follows Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a widowed mother whose husband died the night her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born. Seven years later Amelia exists in a profound state of mourning. Exacerbating her turmoil is Samuel’s frequent misbehavior: he’s unpredictable, prone to temper tantrums and causing trouble in school. Despite trying so hard to be the perfect, patient mother, Amelia can’t find a moment of rest or privacy. She’s perpetually exhausted and stressed, nerves shredded to their utmost, especially when Samuel turns unexpectedly violent in the wake of reading a disturbing children’s book titled Mister Babadook. Convinced the Babadook is real, Samuel’s outbursts intensify, and in tandem Amelia’s emotional and mental stamina frays — leading her to wonder if there actually is a demonic entity haunting her house.

There is, of course. The Babadook is a real creature, its book foretelling the violence that occurs when it possesses the mother of a child. Beyond the immediate physical danger it represents, the Babadook serves as a triple-threat subtextual allegory for grief, depression, and motherhood.

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