The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
*CONTENT WARNING: mentions of schizophrenia and other mental health issues *
What does it mean to “Single White Female” someone? You may have heard it used in everyday vernacular to refer to someone’s (often a man’s) current, or past girlfriend when she has been deemed too needy, too clingy, too “crazy,” or has demonstrated any other behaviour considered to be unacceptable. Anybody using the term in this way clearly hasn’t seen the film that we get this phrase from because it’s not just about romance! Single White Female is all about the profound jealousy one woman has for another and the ways in which deep rooted trauma and desperation can create a “monster” out of a mentally suffering woman.
We begin with heartbreak. Allie (Bridget Fonda) has just split from her fiance Sam (Steven Weber), after discovering that he cheated on her with his ex-wife. In this moment of vulnerability, the loneliness that comes with unexpectedly living alone in her big empty New York City apartment proves to be too much to bear, so Allie puts out an advertisement for a roommate. Enter Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who Allie later nicknames Hedy. The two seem to be complete opposites with Hedy appearing to be timid and scattered in both behaviour and appearance and Allie being incredibly put together with her style, career, and home. All that’s missing for Allie is everyday companionship, which she swiftly remedies with the addition of Hedy into her apartment. Where Allie immediately and definitively resolves any hint of discomfort in her life, Hedy wallows in it. However, Hedy approaches Allie in a rare moment of weakness, crying on the kitchen floor over the loss of her relationship, and it’s because of that these opposite personalities are able to glom on to one another.
The friendship becomes further solidified when Hedy shares some more painful details from her own life, including the fact that she had a twin in utero that was stillborn, leaving her with a lifelong sense of loneliness. This moment is essential in the development of their friendship because they are both responding to each other’s trauma and they bond by sharing the worst parts of their lives. Hedy is able to secure her position as Allie’s roommate because she caught her experiencing a moment of trauma from the loss of her relationship. Now that Hedy has shared her own trauma in the loss of her sister, their bond is made that much deeper because they have access to the other’s feelings that they likely don’t share readily with just anybody.
Trauma as a concept is a nearly constant theme in the horror genre as a whole. From classic slashers like Friday the 13th or even Scream to more recent installments in the genre like Midsommar or Us, so much of horror begins and ends with trauma. There is inherent trauma that comes as a result of witnessing murder, bloodshed, and any of the other atrocities sprinkled throughout most horror movies. Additionally, characters in all the movies listed above begin the film with their own history of trauma that directly impacts their actions. Even in films like Single White Female that stray away from excessive violence and gore, there is deep psychological trauma present that can leave the same scars. As consumers of horror, we see trauma turn people into cold blooded serial killers but we can also see the ways that trauma can bring people together when it is shared.
Because their friendship was forged by this specific sort of bonding through trauma, Allie and Hedy develop a strong desire to be protective of one another, and their relationship becomes very intense, very fast. This intensity quickly turns sinister when Hedy takes her protective tendencies to the extreme as she begins intentionally muddling in Allie’s life. She deletes voicemails from Sam when he is trying to make amends; she becomes hostile when Allie doesn’t tell her when she will be home; she throws out her mail; and even goes so far as to kill the beloved puppy that they share. At the core of all of these extreme and despicable actions, it becomes clear that Hedy does not want to see Allie happy because if she achieves happiness, they lose the foundation of their relationship. Sharing vulnerabilities and past traumas is certainly a way to make fast friends with someone, and can lead to really fulfilling, lifelong relationships, but Single White Female demonstrates what can be so dangerous about friendships built on the grounds of trauma.
Hedy is now in a position where she wants to see her friend suffer, and whether it be intentional or not, that is not the basis for a healthy relationship. With a friend like Allie however, it is difficult to find the elements of her life that she is unhappy with, and as Hedy soon learns, it’s even harder to maintain that sense of unhappiness within her. Allie is a beautiful woman with a great job, nice clothes, a stunning apartment, and supportive friends as demonstrated by her upstairs neighbour, Graham (Peter Friedman). Her fractured relationship with Sam is the only element within her life that Hedy can find any cracks in, and despite how she tries to chip away and turn that crack into a fissure, Allie resolves the issue herself, once again reclaiming her position as the “perfect woman.”
Once Hedy runs into this resistance against her attempts to ruin Allie’s life, she expands her efforts to trying to somewhat take over her life. As this obsession becomes more obvious to Allie, her suspicions grow, leading her to discover personal documents revealing that Hedy’s sister wasn’t really stillborn as she had claimed. She actually drowned playing in a lake with Hedy when they were both nine. It’s implied that Hedy developed survivor’s guilt from being unable to cope with the incident which led to her troubling behaviours as an adult.
In the same way that trauma is ever present in the horror genre, we also often see mental illness as a reason to villainise characters in horror. Mental illness and trauma can easily turn someone into a “monster,” in the eyes of other characters and even the audience. Take Jennifer’s Body where Jennifer (Megan Fox) survives a horrific attack, only to be turned into a succubus, a literal monster, as punishment for the torment she endured. To touch on mental illness more directly, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the monster of the Psycho movies and at times it’s hard to tell if the characters are more afraid of him because of the murders he committed or because of his potential schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. It’s all too common to hear some variation of “they’re CRAZY,” followed by a dramatic music sting as explanation for a killer’s behaviour. While today we can sometimes see mental illness investigated in a more productive and interesting way in horror, that foundation of demonisation still remains and is as evident as ever in Single White Female.
When Allie presents the information of Hedy’s mental illnesses to Graham, he responds by saying, “She’s a lunatic, you have to get rid of her,” and Allie agrees. Overhearing this plan, Hedy later attacks Graham, sleeps with Sam while disguised as Allie, and murders Sam with a stiletto heel. After taking these steps, Hedy once again has Allie where she wants her; feeling the loneliness that Hedy herself has experienced for most of her life. However, it’s safe to say that their friendship is unable to pick up where it left off, no matter how lonely they both are. And that’s a real shame because it seems like Allie would have been receptive to the sort of emotional bonding through trauma that Hedy was looking for. If Hedy had only told the truth about her past from the beginning, there could have been a real friendship here and all of this death and destruction could have been avoided. Part of the tragedy of this movie comes in then because it’s pretty clear that Hedy was in no safe place mentally to access that part of herself and never had the necessary support to experience a reciprocal relationship like that.
All of this culminates in a fight to the death between the two women. Allie ultimately gains the upper hand and kills Hedy with a screwdriver, in turn getting the opportunity to take her own life back. And of course, this leads the audience to think of all the ways this situation could have gone differently and how this outcome could and should have been avoided. While the potential for friendship did exist between Allie and Hedy, the accumulation of situations and events both avoidable and unavoidable lead instead to a possessive, manipulative nightmare, and the birth of the original “Single White Female.” As evidenced by the genre staples of both trauma and mental illness, It seems like it requires a very scenario to create a genuine Single White Female, and they really aren’t as common as the use of the phrase may make you think. She’s not a “crazy ex-girlfriend,” she’s not just any woman you don’t like, she is a desperate, suffering, neglected woman, determined to destroy the thing she most wants to be no matter the cost.
by Riley Cassidy
Riley (she/her) is a lover (code for nerd) of all things horror. She loves writing about all of the greatest final girls, killer ladies, and everything in between. She can be found most days rotting on the couch consuming just about any kind of media and dreams of starring in her very own 12 film slasher franchise one day. Just a few of her favorite films include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Descent, Sleepaway Camp, and It (2017). You can find her on Twitter @RileyCassidy1