NOTE: Major trigger warnings for sexually explicit content, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and stalking. Do not read this article if you think any of these things may trigger you, or do so with caution.
Sexual harassment is a tricky subject, because it varies so widely, and it rarely comes packed with hard evidence. Sexual harassment can cover anything from catcalling to groping to stalking. And it never carries the weight it should because of that. When you hear that someone is being sexually harassed, you might think that maybe they’re just the victim of some lewd comments or a whistle or two, which makes me wonder if stalking is sexual harassment at all. Where does stalking turn from sexual harassment into some form of sexual abuse?
Stalking is often used in horror movies as a method to create suspense, the lead up to the big scare. But what happens when there is no big scare? The audience would be left with a sense of unease, maybe even disappointed. It’s hard to convey just how psychologically terrifying it is to be stalked. To never know when your abuser might be just around the corner from you. To be constantly waiting for that big scare.
I recently sat down and finally watched Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man which centers around one woman’s abuse by an ex-partner, and heavily features him stalking her. In the film, the main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) leaves her abusive boyfriend only to find out that he’s killed himself, or so they think. Through a series of events, it becomes clear to Cecilia that her ex is using some technology he’d developed to make himself appear invisible. The ex begins to terrorize Cecilia and those closest to her. The film’s big question is whether or not Cecilia will be believed. She has no hard evidence that he’s stalking her because he’s invisible. It makes you look crazy, like you’re somehow the bad guy. Stalking robs you of a normal life. Stalking means looking over your shoulder constantly to see if someone’s following you. Stalking means double checking that you locked a door. Stalking means hiding yourself away from the public so that nothing can reach you. And this film does a great job of portraying that feeling that someone could be following you, stalking you, at any moment. It really captures the fear.
Before I get into my own experiences with stalking, I want to warn you that this is disturbing and could possibly be triggering. Stop here if you cannot handle detailed accounts of sexual abuse. This is your final warning.
When I was about 15 or 16, I was the victim of a years-long stalking and harassment. I don’t talk about it often as it’s one of my biggest PTSD triggers, but here goes. My abuser was known locally for a string of other pedophilia-related offences. He was my next-door neighbour. Our only computer was on the glass-walled sunroom in the back of the house, a window and a chain-link fence separating myself from my torturer. Each night as I was working on whatever homework or trolling the Degrassi forums, he’d come up to the chain-link fence and shine a flashlight into my eyes, blinding my periphery. Instinctively, I’d put my hand up to block it, but eventually that impeded my typing so I had to put my hand down and get my assignment done. And not for a minute would he stop shining the light in my eyes, until I looked towards him. Once he had my attention, he’d shine his light on his member and begin pleasuring himself. If I looked away for one second, or if I left the room, he’d be shining the light at me until I returned.
I was absolutely terrified. I was worried that if I told someone that they’d say that it was my fault for dressing skimpy and being up late at night on the computer (she writes, at 2 in the morning, some things don’t change). I kept silent. Things escalated the more and more I tried to distance myself. He’d hop the chain-link fence and tap on the window. If I went upstairs to my bedroom, he’d follow the lights in my house as I turned them on to figure which one was mine, and shine his flashlight into them. Then his demands got greedier and greedier. He’d flash his light into my eyes until I stripped for him. One time I noticed a red light like that from a video recorder. I’m sure there’s video of me somewhere as a teen stripping in the dark. But, at that point, he was just a shadow-man. A person who only came at night. If I got my work done early, I could ignore him up in my bedroom at night.
In the daylight, he could’ve easily been mistaken for the invisible man. On the surface, everything seemed fine, we were just neighbours and his abusive secret was just that. But I knew that once I was alone and vulnerable under the cover of night, the ghouls would come out to play. I took comfort in knowing that I was safe as long as it was light outside.
But, in The Invisible Man, we quickly see Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia’s ex, show himself. He assaults hospital employees and makes his presence known. It’s no longer just a figment of Cecilia’s mind but a concrete real-life thing. Other people know he’s there. They see what he’s doing. And they do NOTHING. They barely try to fight back against this invisible force which leads to their deaths. They didn’t believe her to a fault, which so often happens in real life.
I never thought my invisible man would expose himself. Then, one day: it happened. I had just gotten home from school. It’s 3pm and I’m making myself an afternoon snack, a grilled cheese sandwich. Suddenly I hear that familiar sound of hopping the fence. Twice. It’s Darren and his friend poking around the rear of our house, peering in windows to see if I’m there. They catch my eye in the window above the sink and I drop like a fly. I crawl to the next room where our landline was and begin to dial 911. I stop myself. What if they think this is somehow my fault, that I was leading them on. A waste of their time. Not to mention I was deeply embarrassed as most teens are. I hang up, sit there and cry until they give up and go away.
Bear with me here, but I guess you could call me kind of “lucky” that my stalker was a pedophile. I grew up and as such, he lost interest. Others don’t have it so lucky. Others have to deal with their stalkers for the rest of their lives. In the movies, women get to kill their stalkers, their abusers, their rapists. In reality, most victims won’t see anything close to such justice. The less evidence or proof of a crime, the less likely it is to be charged, and even then the best case scenario is an order of protection. Like Cecilia, it’s his word (or lack thereof) versus mine. Cecilia was looked at as crazy for thinking that her supposedly deceased abuser had come back to stalk her, as if he were a ghost haunting her, and we all know ghosts aren’t real.
Legally, stalking is a misdemeanour crime, which means it does not generally carry very significant sentences. First we’re going to look at the state my experience took place in, New Jersey, which has the most severe punishment for a stalking charge. In New Jersey and most other states, there are two classes of misdemeanour that a stalking charge can take. Fourth degree is for a first-time offender, whereas third degree is reserved for repeat offenders or offenders with another misdemeanour or who are on parole or if the victim was a minor. As per the NCSL, New Jersey Statutory Citation §§ 2C:1-4; 2C:43-3 states that a fourth degree stalking charge can carry up to eighteen months jail time or up to a $10,000 fine; a third degree stalking charge can carry up to five years jail time or up to a $15,000 fine. New York Statutory Citation Penal §§ 70.15; 80.05 states that a Class B stalking charge can carry up to three months jail time or up to a $500 fine; a Class A stalking charge can carry up to one year jail time or up to a $1000 fine. California Statutory Citation Penal Code § 19 only has one General classification, which carries up to six months jail time or up to a $1000 fine. For your state’s sentencing guidelines in regards to stalking, you can find the information here.
All of these charges seem quite short and disappointing compared to the psychological damage stalking can incur. Victims can experience PTSD, anxiety, or even depression as a result of their stalking. Stalking can occur for weeks, months, even years before police intervention, so to give it such a light sentencing can feel like a slap in the face to the victims. On the bright side, there is at least something we can do, legally, about stalking. We are not completely powerless. Abusers can face jail time, fines, and even an order of protection.
In The Invisible Man, Cecilia takes this one step further and actually murders her abuser. While this is satisfying in terms of story and in the fantasy Leigh Whannell created, it’s unsatisfying in that most people who are actual victims cannot do that. I’m sure we all in some way wish we could, but most people are aware of the legal ramifications of murder and choose not to commit such a crime. In the movies, it’s easy to get away with murder. Movie magic makes it seem like if you’re clever enough, you can turn a surveillance camera in the opposite direction and clean a murder scene up and bada bing bada boom, you’re golden. It’s satisfying and validating but it’s unrealistic. If you do choose to murder your abuser, you’re looking at life in prison. While that seems unfair to some, it’s just the reality of life. Part of me wishes that we had an alternate ending where she goes to jail for the murder, or where she presses charges and obtains an OOP, just to give the people who relate to the film some realism. It could have been very powerful to see Cecilia win in court, and then have him not fully go away, because an OOP can only do so much, adding to the fear and the reality that stalking never truly ends.
But, without The Invisible Man, I probably would never have come forward with this story. It would have remained in therapists’ notebooks and private messages to people I once trusted. It helped me make my invisible man visible. And hopefully me sharing my story will encourage others to break their silence. It’s time we give ourselves a voice and we stop allowing these men to be invisible. Fuck the invisible man (but not The Invisible Man, that was a great film and was very validating, thank you Leigh Whannell).
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 14 in 1000 persons aged 18 or older have been victims of stalking. That statistic relies solely on reported cases. It doesn’t take into account cases in which the victim is too scared to come forward, doesn’t think they’ll be taken seriously, or simply isn’t aware of the legal repercussions of stalking. I want to raise that awareness and encourage victims to stand up and fight back. You can do something about the harassment and abuse you endured; you can win against your invisible man.
by Erica Kay
Erica Kay studied Television and Digital Media at Montclair State University and freelances as a production assistant on film and TV sets. They are also a screenwriter in their spare time, focusing on horror. Their work has previously been featured on NoisePrn.com. They also host a Twin Peaks etc shitpost podcast called Is It Future or Is It Podcast. They love B movies, David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai, and any giallo. You can find them on Twitter @ginlucgodard or @ericamariekay if you’re feeling fancy.