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Looking back at 'The Virgin Suicides': The horror in the drama

31 Days of Halloween

Looking back at ‘The Virgin Suicides’: The horror in the drama

The film posits the sisters as both Gothic heroines and vengeful monsters.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and share and recommend various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Death by impalement, imprisoned girls, and young  boys lured into a house of death. Sounds like something out of a Victorian gothic film, but it’s not. All these things and more punctuate key moments in the coming of age drama The Virgin Suicides.

Based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides was released in 2001. It is interesting to watch nearly twenty years later. It’s a different world. We are more politically correct, more aware of mental illness, and cognizant of the many levels and forms of sexual harassment and abuse. While the film is about a family of sisters who ultimately kill themselves as a form of liberation, the film offers a more sinister point of view. The film posits the sisters as both Gothic heroines and vengeful monsters.

Coming of age and horror go hand in hand. One of my favorite novels is To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a tradition to read and watch the film adaptation during the fall and summer. After all, growing up is a scary time and the coming of age genre makes children confront the harsh realities of life, which in itself is horrific. Harper Lee’s Scout and Jem Finch learn about the terrors of racism and injustice, while contending with their own machinations of Boo Radley.

Yet, the horror presented in The Virgin Suicides is much more direct, less subtle, and at the same time swept  under the rug to showcase the tribulations of teen life. In this case, the coming of age seems to veil the horror. They story takes place in the 1970’s in a suburb of Michigan in a seemingly idyllic neighborhood. The Lisbon sisters, are always under surveillance by a group of young boys on the brink of adolescence. Giovanni Ribisi narrates the film as the voice of the boys, all of whom remain nameless. The narrator speculates and obsesses over the lives of the five sisters. 

Looking back at 'The Virgin Suicides': The horror in the drama

The girls are talked about as they are mythical, distant beings, almost preternaturally beautiful. “We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” While all the five sisters are viewed as alluring, it is Cecilia and Lux that are the most distinguishable. 

Cecilia is the sister whose suicide attempt starts the story. Danny DeVito plays the psychiatrist who warns the parents that the sisters, who really aren’t allowed any social interaction outside of school,  need to have more social interaction with their peers. The parents concede to let them have a party where the Ribisi boys are invited. It is a strange party held in the Lisbon’s basement. Mother and father played by Kathleen Turner and James Woods are overly present and the boys invite an intellectually disabled boy to the party to entertain the girls. 

The boys seem to have good intentions with the arrival of the guests, but upon arriving, the guest is asked to perform. All sisters are amused except for Cecilia. This act of unassuming cruelty seems to be the last straw. She leaves the party and a small snip of sound is heard and panic sets in. The party runs outside to see that Cecilia has flung herself onto the iron railing fence outside their home. Viewers are spared the true horror of this scene as Mr. Lisbon holds up the body so the thirteen year old corpse seems to hover peacefully above the fence. 

Lux is the most rebellious of the sisters. She is the most flirtatious, she knows she is beautiful and untouchable. She enjoys making boys uncomfortable with her humor and sexuality, making her the most charismatic of the sisters. Both bewitching and dangerous, Lux, seemingly the All-American girl next door, also conveys a sorceress-like level of beguilement. 

Looking back at 'The Virgin Suicides': The horror in the drama

Lux quickly becomes the subject of school rumors, making her legendary in the promiscuity department. She eventually falls in love with Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), a boy who pursues her tirelessly, abiding her father’s strange rules, and even procuring dates for all the sisters. At the school dance, Lux loses her virginity to Trip, who in turn abandons her after successfully getting what he wanted from her the whole time. 

This is where the story takes an even darker turn. After breaking curfew, the girls are on complete lockdown. They are taken out of school and confined to the inside of their home. Their belongings are destroyed. Lux tearfully clutches her records as her mother forces her to throw them into the fireplace. This is all played off as overprotective parents crossing a line, but there is a very monstrous aspect to this. The girls are completely cut off from the outside world. 

Lux, in true gothic fashion, bucks patriarchal rules by inviting boys onto her roof for sex. The neighborhood boys, of course, continue their role as voyeurs. They make it a nightly ritual to watch her. Knowing she’s being watched, Lux and the girls find an outlet in contacting the boys. The boys lovingly play records for them over secret phone calls and communicate through flashing lights in rooms from across the street. The trap is set. 

Finally, Lux invites the boys over. They agree to break them out and take them out for a night of fun. Lux opens the door and invites the boys in. They are hesitant, knowing the house is  like a prison. Lux places her hand on the smallest boy’s belt buckle. This move is menacing and helps reel in the now reluctant boys. As soon as the boys enter, they encounter a horrific scene. Sisters are dead all over the house. The boys scream as they encounter body after body. Lux has lured them in to see her dead sisters while she slips away to kill herself in the garage.

Looking back at 'The Virgin Suicides': The horror in the drama

The girls, most specifically, Lux, has given them front row seats to their gruesome end. From victims, to vengeful witches, the innocence is ripped from the boys. This appears to be personal and intentional. While death seems the only way to escape their creepy parents, the Lisbon sisters become Boo Radleys. Maybe it’s vengeance against Trip’s use of Lux, or maybe it is on the boys for peeping and spying. Perhaps they are mad at the boys for being silent bystanders to their living nightmare. The invitation of the boys to a house of the dead completes the final turn of this coming of age story to a full on horror film.

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