Body horror is a genre characterised by what Ronald Cruz calls the “manipulation and warping of the normal site of bodily form and function”. It is a genre which unsettles us through its disregard for the human body as it assaults audiences with distortions of the familiar sights, sounds, movements, and functions of the body. Throughout the eight episodes of HBO’s gothic thriller Sharp Objects (2018), there is a growing unease regarding the body which erupts in moments of supreme shock and disgust. The three central characters – Camille Preaker, her mother Adora and sister Amma – all display the genre’s “gruesome disregard for the human body” in various ways as they exist within the narrow confines of femininity permitted in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri. The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.
The small country town, with its quaint festivals and seemingly neighbourly inhabitants, embodies the traditional and patriarchal. It is a place built on insular relationships and narrow minds, which we see reeling from the horrific intrusion of murder into its community. The murder of one young girl, closely followed by the discovery of another, is what leads Camille back to her hometown in a search for justice and truth that ultimately uncovers the foundations of horror within her own family. The rural setting of Wind Gap embeds the series in the Southern Gothic genre through both its aesthetics and thematic concerns. Southern Gothic uses the grotesque and macabre to examine and undermine the values of the South, particularly its notions of propriety, decency and ‘hospitality’ alongside the racial, religious and gendered tensions of the region. Sharp Objects is a modern exemplar of the genre, especially as it examines the kinds of violence against women and girls that are and are not acceptable according to Wind Gap’s twisted sense of social and moral propriety. The series examines both the suffering of women in the horror of the South’s history as well as their complicity in it, and plays it out against a backdrop of stylised Southern Gothic aesthetics: the rundown town, the baking heat, unsettling characters, and imposing mansions.
Similarly, the legacy of body horror aligns with many of the features of Southern Gothic as its most unsettling aspects often take the form of direct or perceived threat to the body or warped bodily presentation. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an example of this overlap between body horror and Southern Gothic as Leatherface’s gruesome disregard for the human is rooted in the deserted and hostile rural setting. Movies like The Beguiled (1971, as well as its recent 2017 remake) and Stoker (2013) are perhaps more closely aligned with Sharp Objects due to their domestic settings and focus on the unsettling and horrific acts of seemingly ‘proper’ white women. The gothic manor houses of Romantic era Europe, such as the titular Castle of Otranto in Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel or the gothic gloom of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), found new expression in the country manors and plantation houses of the American South, similarly fraught symbols of class conflict, racial oppression and religious division. The rural and small-town settings of these houses, often already stained with the horrific legacy of slavery, make them fertile ground for the gothic grotesquery the Southern Gothic examines. The Crellin mansion in Sharp Objects is revealed to be the epicentre of Wind Gap’s horror by the end of the series as it shelters its two monstrous women: Amma and Adora. Conversely, Camille experiences extreme discomfort within her old family home which stems from the history of abuse and trauma she experienced during her time there. Her flashbacks are a visual representation of the horrific legacies Southern Gothic relies upon for its horror.
Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble (1990), argues that gender is “the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory framework that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being”. This is not an attempt to dismiss the existence of gender, but it argues that gender is expressed socially through a person’s daily acts of performance such as dressing in a certain way or having certain gendered interests. Adora, Amma and Camille all represent aspects of Wind Gap through the way they style their bodies, however hard they try to escape or subvert it. Adora represents the feminine ideal, an old-style southern belle with perfectly curled hair and high heels she only removes to walk on her pristine ivory bedroom floor. She is the gatekeeper of ‘proper’ femininity for her daughters and epitomises the façade of genteel propriety the town wishes to uphold. In contrast, her daughters choose how, when, or whether at all to adhere to the traditional femininity their mother aspires to. Amma stylises her feminine presentation depending on the situation, switching between the ‘soft’ and traditional femininity favoured by Adora and the sassy, sexualised mean girl vibe she prefers with her peers and Camille. She deftly switches her appearance and behaviour from moment to moment, whether for an easy life with the overbearing Adora or to inspire adoration, lust, and fear in her chosen targets. Camille, on the other hand, wholly rejects the traditional femininity of Adora. Her mental illness, hospitalisations and self-harm have already given her outsider status in Wind Gap, a status she embraces as she fully withdraws from any trace of Adora-approved femininity. The single-minded careerism with which she pursues the truth in Wind Gap and her permanent uniform of black jeans and long-sleeve sweaters drive a further wedge of division between mother and daughter.
Everything about Adora is stylised to be the height of traditional Southern femininity, at least on the surface. Her manner of dressing, movements, soft-spoken voice, fragile disposition and prolonged mourning for the death of her child Marian means that, for most of the series, she remains above suspicion for the murders in the town, at least from the townsfolk. Adora frequently complains of headaches and nerves, and scolds Camille for discussing the dark and unpleasant things going on in the town. The camera lingers on evidence of her apparent psychological weakness, such as pulling out her eyelashes in moments of distress or worry, as well as her slow and graceful movements around the family home she rarely leaves. However, this framing is radically challenged at the climax of the series in what the audience believes is the final twist of the whodunnit: the revelation of her decades of child abuse as a result of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The audience is naturally expected to interpret this as confirmation of her role in the more recent murders, having acted as a mentor to both girls. Adora’s graceful, elegant ideal of femininity, already brought into question through her repeated moments of conflict with Camille, collapses rapidly into a monstrous figure, so consumed by motherhood and caregiving that she enacts a slow, subtle, insidious violence on her daughter’s bodies to prolong their dependence on her. The horror of Adora is the horror her body and studied physicality attempt to conceal, but betray through small disturbing acts of mutilation like her eyelash-pulling. But the most disturbing part of Adora’s actions is that they are condoned, or at least ignored, by the people of Wind Gap. By the end of the series, it’s clear that multiple prominent figures in the town were aware of Adora’s sickness and previous murder of her daughter Marian, including her husband Alan, friend and town gossip Jackie O’Neill, and chief of police Bill Vickery. The willful impotence of these figures in the face of Adora’s crimes stems from her dangerous respectability: the fact that her violence and horror is a twisted result of her feminine yearning to mother and provide care, alongside her elevated social standing in the community, means that her horror is deemed appropriate for her position or politely ignored.
Whilst Adora is not quite monstrous from the first she is undeniably cold to Camille, who she variably treats as a casual visitor or dangerous interloper. (“The house is not up to par for visitors I’m afraid” she remarks when Camille returns home for the first time in years.) This uncomfortable, if a little heavy-handed, evidence of her emotional abusiveness frames her as a ‘bad’ character from the off and is only confirmed more as the series progresses: in the fifth episode, she tells Camille, in the form of a twisted apology, that she never truly loved her. This tension between Adora’s self-conception as a perfect mother and her obvious failure as a parent builds rapidly throughout the scenes of physical abuse she visits on Camille and Amma as the series draws to its end. Her bathing of Camille, who she has rendered almost catatonic through poisoning, is the high point of tension in the series. Adora relishes in the regression of her adult daughter to a childlike state and revels in the opportunity to take care of – and finally “fix – her wayward child, whose body she previously viewed with shame and disgust because of its unfeminine presentation and copious self-harm scars. The bathtub scene is an exploration of both the tender and deeply unnerving sides of motherhood portrayed in the series, and creates a nexus of horror in the bodies of Camille and Amma under their mother’s care as we witness their bodies succumb violently to malfunction through their sickly, sweat-sheened faces, vomiting, and eventual collapse.
There seems to be something particularly terrifying to our collective consciousness when the mother becomes monstrous. The mother is frequently a figure of fear, violence, or disquietude in the horror genre, from classic pieces such as Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Carrie (1976) to recent hits like The Babadook (2014) and Hereditary (2018). Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ‘uncanny’ can go some way to explain why. As Freud states in his essay ‘Das Unheimliche’: “the uncanny is that class of the terrifying that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. And what could be more familiar than a mother? This is a particularly productive lens through which to situate Sharp Objects in a lineage of maternal horror when we consider the scene where Adora makes “The Blue”, the homemade “medicine” she uses to poison her children, The camera focuses on Adora’s hands as she slowly dances in a trance-like state, mixing antifreeze, prescription pills and rat poison as, her husband’s music fills the room and muffles the sounds of suffering upstairs. The dappled light and soft focus as she twirls her hands, crushes pills, and mixes the solution, almost (but not quite) in time to the music, would be genuinely beautiful if we didn’t know the context. The bliss of creation as she mixes the poison goes hand-in-hand with – and even recreates, in some ways – the bliss of motherhood itself. This is connected to a kind of joy Adora feels in the destruction of the bodies of her daughters, for destruction begets fixing and caring, creating both physical dependence on her ‘medicine’ and emotional dependence on her caregiving and love, in a seemingly endless cycle of bodily abuse and horror which began in Adora’s own experience of childhood abuse.
Sharp Objects draws sharp parallels between the horror and violations of the body which are condoned, ignored, or even celebrated, and the kind of violence we shrink from, condemn and punish. Unlike Adora, Camille does not really attempt to perform traditional femininity. Instead of the stereotypical dresses, bows and high heels worn by Adora and Amma, Camille opts for black long-sleeved shirts, jeans and boots. Such attire is practical for her job as a reporter, as she is often tramping through the woodland of Wind Gap, but also for hiding the copious self-harm scars which litter her body and mark her out as an ‘improper’ or ‘fallen’ woman in Wind Gap’s collective mindset. The body horror Camille inflicts upon herself through self-harm gives her a scarred and, to her mother, horrific appearance. To those in Wind Gap it is believed that Camille has destroyed her best asset as we hear repeatedly that she could have been a model and was the prettiest girl in town. This self-mutilation begins in adolescence when she shears her hair short in an act of defiance that foreshadows and escalates into her later self-harm. Camille’s violence against her own body is condemned and viewed as deviant because of the autonomy of the act, as she purposefully makes herself less desirable. However, women’s bodily sacrifice and horror is also celebrated in Wind Gap and becomes increasingly evident as the series progresses.
The veneration of motherhood is one example: in a scene where Camille meets with her old high school friends she is bombarded with their tales of the glory of motherhood, one even saying wistfully that she didn’t really “become a woman” until she felt her child growing inside her. Camille sits alone opposite the group in what looks like both an interrogation and intervention. This reverence for reproduction and motherhood is presented as the normal state of femininity in Wind Gap: it is so highly prized that it is politely ignored when it goes wrong, such as Adora’s monstrous mothering. But even when it goes right, the act of childbearing and birth can be seen as a site of body horror when viewed separately from its traditional social and cultural connotations: a gruesome and mutilating experience reminiscent of many hallmarks of the genre. The fact that this is celebrated in Wind Gap, and wider patriarchal society, is again testament to the kinds of female bodily experiences and horror that are acceptable. However, the most disturbing way Wind Gap supports the bodily suffering of women is its annual celebration of Confederate General Calhoun, in particular the sacrifices made by his wife as she “submits” to rape and molestation by Union soldiers. This is grim enough in its symbolism, but the town also wilfully turns a blind eye to the stars of the high school football team reenacting the town myth every year by ritually raping cheerleaders for entertainment. This is portrayed powerfully through Camille’s disjointed childhood flashbacks, highlighting the trauma her own rape by mimicking the symptoms of PTSD in the narrative and visuals of the series. The fact the players are taking on the role of the villains in the story – i.e. the Union soldiers – doesn’t seem to cause any self-reflection: the point of the myth isn’t that the Union were evil rapists, but that women’s bodies are made to be sacrificed for the health of the community. The disturbing vision of high schoolers playing out this narrative at the heart of community celebrations every year highlights the strange contrast between acceptable and unacceptable violence, acceptable and unacceptable bodies.
Amma represents a very different aspect of Wind Gap’s expectations and experience of femininity to Camille. Amma is presented as the darling of Wind Gap: on the surface she is the virginal daughter of the town matriarch, symbolic of all young girls whose honour and life should be protected at all costs against the killer loose in the town. However, just as Adora unsettles the maternal ideal, Amma unsettles what the town believes a young girl should be capable of. At home she is a living doll for her mother and embodies the perfect girlhood of pretty bows, dainty cardigans, and early curfews. Outside the grand mansion, Amma sheds this image, becoming the roller-skating, mini-skirt wearing, tart-tongued rogue with her clique of adoring followers. Her repeated metamorphoses back and forth between these two modes of femininity is an explicit break from the restrictive roles Wind Gap allows for women. However, it is also evidence of her instability of self, which causes audiences to view her with increasing suspicion. Throughout the series there are subtle hints of Amma’s disregard for the body and her enjoyment of its potential for destruction. When Amma suggests she could connect the broken lines of a cut on her arm to make a ‘C’ for ‘Camille’, disturbing to see her treat Camille’s self-harm like an affectation to be borrowed or a style to be imitated. Camille’s scars come from years of unresolved trauma and mental illness, a diary of her suffering and pain carved out on her body, whereas Amma appears to view it as an accessory. Looking back at this scene with knowledge of the series’ end we see a hint of the complete disregard for the body which drives her stylised brutalisation of it.
When Amma is revealed as the true killer in the final moments of the series it decisively links body horror to the feminine. In the final scene, the camera follows Camille around the apartment she now shares with Amma, a comfortable and domestic setting where we watch the mundane activities of their everyday life. However, the audience are unsettled by a jump-scare when a picture falls off the wall and the strangeness of a piece of Amma’s doll house furniture in the bin. Camille tries to replace the discarded miniature quilt back into the doll house, but in the process finds one, then all the rest of the teeth removed from the Wind Gap killer’s victims. Whilst this revelation is relatively bloodless and calm compared to previous scenes of body horror in the series, dread and unease mount throughout the scene and climax in nauseating uncanniness as Camille finds a perfectly pearly and intact human tooth a doll house version of their family home, its façade of domestic innocence exaggerated all the more in toy form. She discovers the replica ivory floor of Adora’s bedroom has been tiled with teeth, human anatomy devoid of life transformed into arts and crafts by Amma. The model house, representative of the soft and traditional femininity venerated by Wind Gap, turns out to be made from dead girls. It is the horror and violence of Wind Gap distilled to its most visceral form and reflected mercilessly back at those who choose to ignore it.