Sex and subservience disrupt cliches in 2020's most terrifying horror movies

In Saint Maud and Shirley, the role of subservience in female characters looks and feels remarkably different.

by Katie Goh
13 October 2020, 4:07pm

Subverted domesticity looms large in a pair of movies that have shaped the standards for psychological horror in 2020: Josephine Decker’s Shirley and the British hit Saint Maud. “A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” says Shirley Jackson, the famed writer behind the book that inspired Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, in the new fictional biopic that bears her name.

Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass, takes place in a mansion on the outskirts of the English seaside town of Scarborough, where a young nurse (the titular Maud) starts a new contract with an American dancer-turned-socialite named Amanda, who is dying. Something -- we’re not sure exactly what, though flashbacks suggest it was bloody -- happened to Maud at her last job that was so traumatic it forced her to quit, change her name, become a private carer and find God. Meeting Amanda, Maud (or is it God?) decides that she must save the dying woman’s soul -- no matter the cost. Cooped up in the shadowy house, Maud and Amanda begin a psychological game of real and performative devotion.

In Shirley, however, that twist on the standards of domesticity is more covert. Newlyweds Rose and ambitious but average husband Fred arrive at Shirley Jackson’s house, invited by her husband, the literary professor Stanley Edgar Hyman. Stanley has hired Fred as an assistant for the semester and, at first, the domestic arrangement is temporary: they’ll stay with Shirley and Stanley until they find their own place. But like a gothic fairytale, the newlywed couple find it increasingly difficult to leave the house, as an alternative arrangement is made: Rose becomes a housekeeper and nurse to the agoraphobic Shirley, who hasn’t left her home in months.

Initially, Rose and Shirley stand at opposite ends of the womanhood available in the late 1940s. Rose, the pregnant housewife, cooks and cleans, while Shirley, now free of the burden of playing house, gives herself up to her creative process, starting work on a book that will become the author’s gothic novel Hangsaman. But with their husbands out of the house all day, soon the two lonely women begin an unlikely courtship, with Rose taking on the roles of carer and muse to Shirley. In return, Shirley offers an alternative model of womanhood to Rose, one that goes against the 1940s idea of the perfect housewife.

“There’s a way of being that Rose feels circumscribed to,” Decker explained to The Playlist about the women’s relationship. “Being around Shirley, [Rose] realised there is another way. Sometimes Shirley is even encouraging her to let go of all that care-taking she’s doing. [It] is an unlocking of a much more vibrant, embodied sexual being.”

Queer subtext begins to ooze through the cracks of Shirley’s house. “It’s such a rare thing to find someone who doesn’t merely feed you but anticipates your needs day after day, to sate your hunger, who stokes your appetite and leaves you feeling filled,” says Shirley to Fred while her foot moves up Rose’s leg under the dinner table. This erotic yearning and gratification moves beyond the confines of the house. In the garden, Rose sinks her hands into earthy soil before rolling her face in it, and later, while sitting on a swinging bench, Shirley skims her legs through Rose’s legs who, in return, lifts her skirt. But it’s during a pivotal scene, in which Shirley feeds Rose mushrooms that may or not be poisonous, that the erotic caregiving takes on a dangerous edge. An intense codependency is established between the women, despite, or, perhaps because of the fact, that Shirley has the power to harm Rose. From then on Rose begins to shed her former identity of the contented housewife, choosing to smash eggs rather than cook them; a perfect model for Shirley’s new book about “lonely girls who can't make the world see them".

Lonely girls are also at the forefront of Saint Maud too. In fact, to Amanda, Maud “must be the loneliest girl [she’s] ever met.” Suffering from untreated PTSD from her nursing job, Maud has turned to Catholicism for a sense of purpose. Cutting herself off from old friends, she devotes herself to the very act of devotion -- to her God and to caring for Amanda. And initially, Maud makes a great nurse, carefully bathing her patient, making cups of tea and helping to do Amanda’s make-up for one of her hedonistic parties. The women make an odd pair but soon a kinship forms with Amanda’s droll cynicism acting as a perfect foil to Maud’s wide-eyed piety. Amanda even seems to welcome — or at least entertain — Maud’s unusual form of worship that involves what resembles orgasmic encounters with the holy spirit.

Like in Shirley, it isn’t long before a sexual attraction forms between the two women. Gentle touches during physiotherapy and longing looks - not to mention Maud’s rapturous form of worship — points to a yearning for erotic intimacy. When a female escort disrupts the house’s domestic bliss, whether it’s jealousy or a desire to save her patient’s soul, Maud is determined to get rid of her, leading to a violent outburst and escalating dogma. In Saint Maud, religious fervour turns the idea of the devoted carer on its head, as Maud becomes willing to do anything for her patient — no matter the cost.

The overly ardent nurse has long been an established trope in the horror genre, but one that has typically come with queasy gender dynamics. In Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Wilkes, an obsessive fan and nurse, holds her favourite author hostage under the guise of taking care of him after he is bedridden in a car crash and cinema’s most infamous caretaker, Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, more recently, her own Netflix series, dominates the men of her ward in a mental institution. These nurses emasculate their male patients and their unhealthy devotion to care-taking is portrayed as a ball-busting attempt to put men in their places. More recently, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the gendered power dynamics of caregiving are more nuanced - and erotic - as a relationship is rekindled by cyclical, consenting mushroom poisoning in a now iconic movie nursing scene, one that Shirley references with its own fungi.

But even when nursing is used to subvert heteronormative power dynamics as patriarchal figures are brought to their knees by their female carers, it still relies on — and arguably reinforces — the trope of the devoted female nurse. The queer, codependent relationships in Shirley and Saint Maud then, allow their respective filmmakers to pull apart this trope through the eyes of the caretakers, whether that’s Rose rejecting the 1940’s conventional codes of femininity through Shirley’s mentorship or Maud’s devotion becoming her own downfall. These films use psychological horror to heighten the very real fact that women are still expected to sacrifice themselves for others. Given that we’ve only seen this increase with women taking on the brunt of childcare and housework during lockdown, these sharply realised, feminist horror films couldn’t have come at a better time.

Saint Maud is out now in UK cinemas. Shirley is released on 30 October in UK cinemas.