For Halloween week, we tapped one of the best writers of creepy, compelling, can’t-look-away horror fiction we know…Ania Ahlborn! The author of Brother, Within These Walls and The Bird Eater joins us to talk about that special something that makes a female villain so fascinating and haunting…
What characterizes the perfect villain? Is it their amorality, the deprivation that drives them to hurt, maim, and kill? Or is it their complex backstory, the details that—in their eyes—mark them as the hero of their own story rather than the evildoer those around them see? Women, it seems, are the least likely to be pinned as wicked. After all, a woman is typically portrayed as the victim, the waif that suffers at the hand of a deranged killer. But what creature is more complex than a woman? According to men themselves, there is none. If complexity is the key to a successful antagonist, it seems, then, that women are ripe to be the perfect storm of evil.
What makes women villains creepy is that engrained caregiver role. Be it a nurse that kills her patients, a wife who poisons her husband, or a mother who murders her own child; the ghastliness of the crime doesn’t quite fit the gauzy nightgown. These girls embody a depraved sort of femininity, a toxic gentleness that’s rotten around the edges. And the thing that makes them truly terrifying? The fact that no matter how awful their crime, they believe themselves to be utterly justified.
Remember Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes? All she wants is for Paul Sheldon to give her favorite literary character, Misery Chastain, an alternate ending. And honestly, after saving his life, the least Sheldon could do is oblige Annie’s request. A nurse by trade, Annie is the epitome of the caregiver-gone-crazy. Driven by both her obsession over the Misery series and her self-professed love of Sheldon himself, Annie feels that—as Paul Sheldon’s number one fan, and now his savior—he owes her a debt, and she’s determined to cockadoody collect.
Perhaps Annie took a page out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nurse Ratched reigned supreme over the Salem, Oregon state mental hospital. While Annie Wilkes was driven by fixation, Ratched was far more into power than she was into fiction. Ruling over her patients with an iron fist, it’s only when Randle McMurphy arrives that Nurse Ratched’s domination is truly put to the test. When McMurphy rebuffs Ratched’s standard doses of strong-arming and humiliation, Ratched is quick to pull the trigger on the ultimate solution. She has McMurphy lobotomized. Problem solved. Because there’s no better way to force someone into submission than scrambling their brain. Though, if you don’t have access to an orbitoclast, you can always use a wire hanger, right Joan?
Perhaps the scariest thing about the legend of Joan Crawford is that she was a real person. We can only speculate whether her daughter Christina’s claims ring true, but it’s hard not to be biased if you’re familiar with the quintessential nightmare of the mother Joan Crawford was made out to be. Between bouts of screaming, hair pulling, midnight hysterical gardening, and flat-out child abuse, we tend to forget that Crawford adopted both her children because she wanted to be a mother. Mommie Dearest is a terrifying cautionary tale—scary, because Joan placed herself in what turned out to be a personal hell, all out of the goodness of her own, bursting, baby-loving heart.
Similarly, it could be argued that Carrie White’s mother, Margaret, only wants what’s best for her daughter. Carrie’s antagonist, like Joan Crawford, is an abusive and hysterical character with two key differences: she’s fanatically religious, and she has the power of telekinesis. Both disgusted and terrified by her own power, her fear is only amplified when she catches her infant daughter, Carrie, levitating a baby bottle. Margaret White doesn’t see herself as a villain. She is simply a mother protecting her child from the wiles of the devil; a mother who wants her daughter to be saved by God.
All of these women are driven by what they genuinely believe is right. Annie Wilkes is owed a favor for saving Paul Sheldon’s life. Nurse Ratched demands respect as the queen bee of the hospital, refusing to be disregarded by those who are clearly insane. Joan Crawford wanted to be the perfect mother only to be given two ungrateful children. And Margaret White wants what’s best for her little girl—purity, modesty, and the strength to reject the evils of the world. They are still caregivers, even if—in their twisted realities—that care equates to hobbling someone’s legs, subjecting them to electroshock therapy, beating children with hangers, and locking their kids in closets to pray. These are women who are the heroes of their own stories. And that, perhaps, is the scariest thing of all. Because when the wicked believe themselves to be good, there truly is no stopping them. And when the wicked is a woman, there’s no telling how far she will go to save the ones she loves most.