Lonely Girls: How Being Unseen Creates Horror

Dedicated to Carrie, May, and Pearl.

When Ti West’s film Pearl was released in theaters a month ago, one scene in particular went viral on TikTok. Pearl, played brilliantly by Mia Goth, yells at someone she is dating when the person turns cold on her. Due to commenters reposting and remaking the scene, A24 eventually released an official clip. Audiences, even before the film’s release, related to and associated themselves with Pearl and found themselves rooting for her. Even though viewers had been introduced to this character in the previous film, X, there’s something about Mia’s portrayal of young Pearl that created an attachment to this character.

Pearl tells the story of an isolated girl who lives on a farm, tending to her paralyzed father while being raised by her strict mother. She dreams of one day being a dancer and moving far away from her homestead with her husband, who was sent to war. It’s definitely a matter of relatability (and Mia Goth’s insanely amazing acting) that makes us love Pearl – but for those who’ve seen the movie, it is more than that.

Before I go further, I want to quote Lady Gaga and say “I don’t believe in the glorification of murder. I do believe in the empowerment of women.”

loneliness in horror 1
Mia Goth as Pearl in Pearl. (COURTESY: A24)

When researching depictions of loneliness in horror films, the word “isolation” tends to appear quite often. As we know, there has to be isolation in order to heighten fear and create a sense of tension. Although lonely characters are situated in isolated spaces, loneliness as a feeling or a state of mind in horror is different than just isolation itself. Pearl is isolated on the farm, yet her sense of internal loneliness stretches far beyond the external location. And we already use several different definitions of loneliness based on experience and personality. A lack of intimacy and social connection form a state of mind that becomes emotionally destructive within and outside of us. Loneliness births a perception of extreme internal and external isolation.

Through characters like Pearl, horror paints a picture of loneliness simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Ti West calls Pearl’s nearly 9-minute monologue on her emotional and psychological state – during which she pretends to speak to her husband, Howard – the climax of the movie. One of the first things Pearl mentions is her hatred of Howard for leaving her to go to war; elsewhere, Pearl talks about how all she really wants is to be loved. The monologue literally speaks volumes about Pearl’s loneliness, but is also only the most prominent of many moments that address the theme. And after viewing Pearl, I couldn’t help but notice thematic similarities with two other films, both of which I also love: May, released in 2002, offers similar examples of suffering and going without love; in the same regard, Pearl also has a great deal in common and takes heavy influence from 1976’s Carrie.

This piece is less about psychological and/or personality disorders, or even (in Carrie‘s case) telekinetic powers. That isn’t my area of expertise; if you want an analysis of Pearl, Carrie, or May’s possible disorders, you’ll have to look elsewhere. What I’m interested in is these characters’ state of mind when under the influence of loneliness and how our ability to relate to them creates characters for whom we ultimately root or in whom we seek comfort. Because all three characters, whose experiences are not exactly the same, become sympathetic anti-heroes thanks to the way their loneliness is depicted on screen. Pearl, Carrie, and May’s vulnerabilities; insecurities; idealizations; and humiliations are on full display. We go knee-deep into and get intertwined with their relationships. We become hopeful that they will find the connections they crave – and also scared that they won’t. Yearning for connection as a human being is a given: human connectivity is a need as well as a shielding comfort. It’s innate to want to feel wanted. Loneliness warps the world around us, turns it monstrous. Each film’s constant depiction of the world as a place unfit for lonely people makes them that much more horrifying.

loneliness in horror 2

Sissy Spacek as Carrie in Carrie. (COURTESY: Red Bank Films).

The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King‘s first novel, Carrie, is directed by Brian DePalma and adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen. Sissy Spacek stars as the title character, a bullied teenage girl who develops telekinetic abilities. Living with her mother, who is unstable, emotionally abusive, and a religious extremist, Carrie becomes isolated, with no support from her peers or her home life. A popular girl, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), gets her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt) to ask Carrie to prom. Unbeknownst to Sue, Tommy, and Carrie, other bullies are planning to prank her if she agrees. After Tommy asks Carrie to prom, Carrie begs her mother to let her go, because she has to start getting along with people more. Carrie tells her she wants to be a new person. Her loneliness and isolation are compounded by her mother’s severe abuse, which isolates her even further.

Carrie’s determination to change her external and internal worlds motivates her to say yes to Tommy. Her eagerness for something different and her being tired of being alone pushes her to trust Tommy, Sue, and Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), who also is supportive of Carrie. In the aftermath of the prank, in which pig’s blood is dropped on Carrie’s head, she realizes her safety and trust have been broken, and everyone blends together. Everyone, no matter if they were or not, is against her. Her internal feelings become validated that EVERYONE will laugh and EVERYONE is against her. The idea of being laughed at becomes a trigger for Carrie, after she tells her mother she wants to be taken seriously and her mother tells her she won’t be. Carrie’s alienation and sense of loneliness are for protection, leading her further away from people due to the potential for rejection.

Carrie’s avoidance of people is only heightened after years of volatile bullying. Both Carrie and Pearl’s mothers are emotionally, verbally, and/or physically abusive towards them. Though I don’t want to dabble too far into any diagnosis, as mentioned, Carrie likely suffered from depression due to her chronic loneliness and extreme verbal and physical abuse from her home and school. Carrie’s alienation is for protection, leading her further away from people due to the potential of rejection, and this is one of the reasons why she didn’t trust Tommy initially. Her feeling unseen is heavy throughout the film (which reminded me of May, and not because Angela Bettis also appeared as Carrie in a TV adaptation).

May, written and directed by Lucky McKee, stars Angela Bettis as May, a young woman who seeks connection, yet is only able to connect with her glass-enclosed doll, Suzie, which she received as a young girl. May soon meets Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto), attaching herself to him and becoming infatuated with his hands. May, enamored by perfect body parts, soon becomes comfortable with Adam, showing him her truest self – and that’s a little too weird for him. May’s only friend, Suzie, is unable to give her real connection, hence her feeling unseen, and though May was almost intimate with Adam, he does not understand her and judges her for who she is. With constant rejection and seeing no way towards making a friend, May decides to… make a friend in the most literal sense of the phrase. After finding the perfect body parts, she kills Adam and a few other people, creating a perfect version of someone to love her. The last line of the film, after she cuts out her own eyeball in order for her zombie-friend to see, is “All I want…is…see me.” May’s existence in the world is invisible to most people, except for those who want something from her. All she wants is to be seen. All she wants is to connect. 

loneliness in horror 3
Angela Bettis as May in May. (COURTESY: Lion Gates Films)

Mirrors and reflections are used both by Carrie and May, Carrie’s anger and isolation are so intense that her telekinesis breaks her reflection. May also use reflections and mirrors to showcase her loneliness. In the end, as she looks at herself, she reflects on needing to be seen. Mirrors reflect our world back to us – nothing can be avoided, and nothing can be undetected. When seeing our reflection, all of our imperfections are unhidden. In Carrie, when Miss Collins tries to show Carrie that she is beautiful, she puts her in front of the mirror. In both Carrie and May, the mirror and the glass reflections become cracked, an indication of not only change but also the reaching of a breaking point.

Pearl, Carrie, and May are similar in the way that there’s a slither of hope within these characters. Pearl, Carrie, and May are able to connect to someone, even romantically, for a moment in time, until they get too comfortable. Comfort occurs when loneliness seems a little further away when we find something we can possibly attach ourselves to. The comfort dissipates once we’re reminded that we’re not safe. Pearl and May were reminded why they couldn’t romantically connect to anyone – for fear of scaring them away – and Carrie, being the victim of a prank, was reminded why she never previously opened up to anyone.

Shifting away from loneliness becomes more difficult when we are validated by experiences that show us why we believe we feel lonely. It becomes an expectation, giving us reasons as to why we should distance ourselves. It becomes the loneliness loop, a vicious cycle that is unending and reinforces our perceptions. The loneliness stops often with hope. The little ounce of hope these characters had provided them with something to hang onto, something they could grasp at. In all three films, they nearly reach their dreams. Carrie goes to prom and she thinks people finally see her. May meets someone she really likes who she thinks is weird just like her, and she thinks she’s finally seen. Pearl finally gets the audition of her dreams and the stage she’s always wanted to be on, and she thinks she is finally seen. Both of the sequences in Carrie and Pearl are similar, very dream-like versions of their dream come true, and we, as the audience, sympathize with both characters. We know Carrie will be pranked, we know Pearl may possibly be rejected at her dancing audition, and we know May’s zombie friend will never actually be a real person. 

The ending of the films leaves us with the darkest version of these characters. Carrie’s ending is fatal. May’s need for the perfect “person” to connect to, ends with a mummified version of all the parts of people she wanted a connection with. Pearl’s ending, though it leads to a sequel, ends with her husband coming back from war, seeing her in her full glory after killing her parents. Yet, though these endings seems to be the darkest, we find endings that could be perceived as what these characters wanted or needed the most. Though Pearl’s dance was rejected, her husband is finally home and the audience knows he stays because of the sequel. May’s zombie friend finally “sees” her and she finally has the connection she sought, however bleak it may seem. Carrie’s fatal situation can be perceived in multiple ways – although she isn’t alive anymore, some could argue she’s at peace from the horrifying people in her life, though her ending could have been avoided. 

In all three films, I’m emotionally affected by the visuals as well: Pearl in her red dress and ax in hand above her head, Carrie wearing a bloodied prom dress with fire blazing behind her, and May, eyeless and hugging her zombie friend at the end. As the world unforgivingly gives up on them, these visuals emphasize both rage and anger, as well as loneliness and sadness. Three characters who only wanted to be seen in a world that grossly rejected them. The horror of their loneliness is something we all can relate to. It’s relatable to fear not getting the things we want out of life, of being unseen and ignored, and then being discarded and forgotten. The idea of never being enough or having the “right” qualities for people to love you, as Pearl talks about in her monologue, is always heavy on many of our minds, even if we don’t want to admit it. 

Like this article?

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Related Posts