The Gothic Heroine’s Second Act
Quarantine art is marked by dread and claustrophobia, characteristics that have always been predominantly female
The future may or may not be female, but quarantine is. Six months into the global pandemic that has brought American life to a crashing halt, we can now spot a trend of seemingly era-defining works, all of them by women. There’s Fiona Apple’s long-awaited Fetch the Bolt Cutters, recorded entirely in her home, on cheap GarageBand software, which “sounds like 2020 feels.” There’s Taylor Swift’s Folklore, an album of downtempo, social-distanced piano music written and recorded miles away from her closest collaborators. To this growing canon, we can now add Amy Seimetz’s film She Dies Tomorrow, which critics have called “the most 2020 movie of 2020.”
More unites these works than just the gender of their creators, of course. They all possess a hushed and quiet tone, equal parts creeping claustrophobia and lingering sadness. It’s the mood you hear in the muffled pops and thumps behind Fiona Apple’s voice when she whispers, “I’ve been in here too long,” or the foggy black-and-white deep woods Taylor Swift wanders through in her album photography.
That spirit of melancholy also imbues She Dies Tomorrow, which premieres today on VOD. She Dies Tomorrow was conceived and shot before the Covid crisis, but its parallels to the current moment are unsettling. The plot revolves around a woman, Amy (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), who is convinced she has only a day to live. When she turns to a friend for help, that friend develops the same delusion — and every time the friend wanders into a birthday party or a hospital, looking for solace, everyone there becomes infected, too.
A pandemic of fear! The idea sounds pulpy and silly, like a spiritual sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s universally dunked-on The Happening. What makes She Dies Tomorrow feel current is the quiet, understated nature of its dread. There are no big action sequences in this film, nor are there any jump scares. Nearly all the dialogue is delivered in a whisper. We’re simply asked to witness Amy’s unraveling: walling herself up in her house, drinking too much wine, and weeping into her floorboards. It feels familiar, to say the least.
It’s probably not a coincidence that all the works I’ve mentioned are by women. Their internal, hushed quality is not new, nor is it even specifically a response to the coronavirus; Apple and Seimetz were working on their respective projects long before it hit. You can find traces of the mood in earlier, happier things: the “microbeats” of Björk’s Vespertine, her 2001 album about domesticity that she described as “being on your own in your house with your laptop and whispering for a year,” or cottagecore, an internet aesthetic about living in a 19th-century fairytale cottage with no internet. (“Every time there’s been a spike in [Covid-19] cases, there’s a spike in cottagecore,” a Tumblr trend expert told Vox.) Yet there’s a darkness to these new works that undercuts their quietude, and a snarling rage beneath their cozy exterior, like Scandinavian hygge gone feral. The genre really being evoked here — that of being trapped in the house, going quietly crazy, battling invisible threats — is the Gothic, and the Gothic has always been female territory.
The great Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th century catered to women as readers, and were frequently written by female authors like Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Brontë. (Jane Eyre, which features a woman literally trapped in her own attic, is referenced in two separate songs on the Taylor Swift album.) There’s a quarantine-like dread even in Gothics: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, about being trapped inside a house until time itself loses all meaning, now has added resonance. So does Nicole Kidman’s mounting resentment and terror in The Others, as she struggles to keep her two light-sensitive children from being killed by an enemy as intangible and all-pervasive as daylight.
The average Gothic heroine is boxed in and gaslit by her whole society; she is a powerless pawn trapped within larger structures she can never fully know or control. That describes just about all of us, in the present moment. Women have historically excelled at making art about it, though, because this position — and the more basic problem of being stuck in the house all day — used to be considered a solely female problem. Men are encouraged to behave as if they’re in control, even when they’re not. When men are afraid, they’re told to suck it up and tough it out and go out into the world and conquer their enemies. Women have more cultural permission to speak about helplessness, about what it feels like to face a problem much bigger than you, which you have no chance of solving on your own.
No matter how well organized our lives are, death will upend them.
Which brings us back to She Dies Tomorrow. What makes the movie so insidious, and frightening, is that the monster’s victory is inevitable — in fact, the monster is inevitability itself. Each character is torn apart by the unshakable conviction that they will die, soon, and they can’t do anything to stop it; one character compares this knowledge to knowing that a plate will break if you drop it. The movie is fictional, but that terrible knowledge is very real. We all understand, logically, that we’re going to die, and that it’s going to happen sooner than we’d like; we just manage not to dwell on it. Then something like a pandemic hits, and we remember that we have never been in control of when or how death happens: “Everyone dies some time,” one character says. “Why not tomorrow?”
It seems impossible that one of the scariest events of our lifetime would also be one of the quietest. Yet that’s exactly where we are with Covid-19: living under threat of terrible and painful death, yet unable to see the thing that is killing us, expected to keep grocery shopping and educating our kids and going for walks while the Grim Reaper shadows our every move. If we feel haunted, it’s because we are. All of the by-now-familiar tropes of quarantine life — texting your ex, writing your novel — are ways of dealing with that terrible fragility. They’re small tasks, meant to ensure that, if we die tomorrow, we won’t leave the most important things undone. Yet no matter how well organized our lives are, death will upend them. The curse is never broken; the (haunted) house always wins. That sense of being rendered small and powerless by your circumstances is at the heart of the Gothic.
And if something darker courses beneath the surface of our quietude — the blood-spattering third-act violence that breaks the otherwise placid surface of She Dies Tomorrow, Fiona Apple’s voice-shaking rage as she catalogues abusers who have gotten away with it — well, women are in a good position to talk about that, too. Women have never been able to express their feelings as loudly as they experience them. They’re expected to keep smiling and behaving as if everything is fine while the world puts them through hell. In this moment, when every reopened school and crowded restaurant patio is a sign of how profoundly our leaders have failed us, that struggle to keep behaving normally while consumed by anger is very relatable. Covid-19 has brought us face-to-face with a lot of stereotypically female experiences, chief among them this: what it’s like to want to scream, need to scream, and also to know that screaming won’t help.
This year will pass. Coronavirus will come and go, and some of us — though not all of us — will still be standing. Even then, though, that sense of being trapped and helpless, consumed by anger and fear and grief that can never be fully expressed, will continue to define life for many people. The political uprising of the oppressed is a recognizable quarantine reaction, too: People seem to have decided that, if they have to die, they don’t want to die in a world this unfair or this broken. If there’s one thing we can gain, from this year of being trapped in haunted houses, it’s the commitment to hear one another when the scream finally comes.