02 September 2018

Women in Peril

Janice Law’s article inspired today’s column…

Just the facts, ma’am.

Nancy Drew’s fan base loved women in peril. Encouraged by old man Stratemeyer, Mildred Wirt Benson (aka Carolyn Keene) wrote Nancy as an independent, impulsive, and headstrong 1930s girl. I'm not sure how this factors in, but when Edward Stratemeyer’s daughters took over in the 1960s, Harriet rewrote the first three dozen novels making Nancy less impetuous, less independent, and women-in-peril continued to attract readers. Why?

Evidence suggests we become more engaged and outraged when a pretty girl is killed. Outrage sells movies. It sells books. It stirs our emotions. Could The Virgin Suicides have been written about five brothers?

M-F homicide deaths 7:2
Besides violence toward women tearing at our hearts, we may take extra notice because, despite a plethora of movies and television shows to the contrary, female homicide victims are considerably less common. Of every nine people murdered, seven will be male. [2010] Perhaps it isn't fair to suggest Poe’s and Clark’s women-in-peril stories ramp up violence or actual homicide.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Higgins Clark apparently scored emotional bullseyes. They knew how to play upon our fears, male and female. Protectiveness of loved ones is hard-wired in male DNA. So often when one gender feels strongly about something, the opposite sex experiences the mirror image.

What if political, patriarchal, anger-against-women motives don’t drive the industry? Could something deeper be going on?

Our Inner Cave(wo)man

An explanation offered by psychologist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, offers spellbinding insight. She asserts the innermost mind is anything but politically correct. She articulates it in talks and texts better than I, but she says the secret pleasures that turn us on at night are the same we protest during the day.

Perel’s field centers upon our hidden, primitive, self-subversive psychology. When the lights go out, we change. We revert.

Biological components have been recognized since forever. Danger… fear… jeopardy fuel concupiscence. The underlying theory goes that great risk of life ignites a need to procreate, to ensure survival of the species.

Once in an agony column, a husband wrote in, worried about his wife. Immediately following a car accident, she wanted to rush home and make love– cuts and scrapes be damned. Had the accident damaged her mentally? Of course not. Faced with mortality, her survival instinct kicked into gear, a strong, healthy response.

Wars embody the most frightening fears. They’re irrational, society has gone mad, the rules have shattered. Death could arrive in an instant. Population figures show a leveling of growth when heading into a war, but once existence is somewhat assured, survivors mate— often. The term ‘Baby Boomers’ wasn’t idly selected.

US population growth chart

Movie makers discovered early on a simplistic formula: fear=aphrodisiac. Teens didn’t flock to drive-in horror movies for the production qualities, but reproduction qualities.

My friend Crystal Mary, the staunchest feminist I know, loves slasher films, flicks I, God help me, can barely watch between my fingers. Her eyes brighten, her neck flushes, and she bounces home in an ebullient mood. Never for a second would she approve of violence toward women. What’s happening? Me, a diet of slasher movies would give me nightmares, but Crystal Mary’s able to connect with an uncomplicated, elemental part of her being. The premises of Mary Higgins Clark and Edgar Allan Poe she could understand.

What is your take? Could Clark and Poe have stumbled upon the secret that our fears drive the most rousing plots? Can you stomach blood-n-guts horror films better than Leigh? Are you able to serve as designated driver?


  1. I will not watch slaser films or films with any graphic violence, especially torture. Guess that comes from being a former homicide detective. As for women in jeopardy - I feel the most beautiful humans are female. OK, all babies are beautiful and men can be pretty handsome, but girls and women are, to me, the most beautiful and the death of beauty is horrendous.

  2. Great post, Leigh, as usual. I don't mind most of the violence in movies, but I'm with you--I can't watch the slasher films.

  3. I'm with you, O'Neil - I don't watch slasher flicks, serial killer as hero flicks, or anything with graphic violence/torture. BTW, while "women in peril" has always been a trope, beginning with Perseus and Andromeda, throughout most of history, the focus has been on how the heroine survives, the hero's journey, and the killing of the villain. That has changed (and to some extent I blame Holmes' Moriarity), and now the idea of the uncatchable supervillain has become way too common. I think it also might be a variation of the zombie motif - you can't kill them or stop them. Which is very strange, because again, myth and story and legends are, in the immortal words of G. K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

    What are we telling our children when we tell them that villains can't be stopped? Or killed?

  4. O'Neil, our words echo one another. To a male, women are always beautiful, all women. I can't abide torture, the primary reason (along with unending betrayals) the Fox television series 24 disgusted me. It has to be worse for a homicide detective.

    Thanks, John. I simply don't 'get' slasher films. For me, their entertainment value's not even zero, but somewhere in negative numbers. I just learned New Line Films built a DC/Marvel-like House of Horror shared universe. How can I be shocked?

    Eve, great contribution, thanks. I learned quite young that I can't abide hopelessness in stories, zombies included. I liked Lovecraft as a kid, but not the Cthulhu stories. That was the most disturbing aspect of 1984, that the ruling Big Brother party had an unbreakable lock on society. Likewise, end-of-tne-world tales leave me feeling bleak.


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