The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show

By Alice BolinApril 28, 2014

The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show
TWIN PEAKS, David Lynch’s early-1990s noir fantasy about small-town Washington, provided 30 of the oddest and most influential hours in the history of television. It is a relentlessly quirky murder mystery, with its sweet and idiosyncratic hero, FBI Agent Dale Cooper; the bizarre Twin Peaks townies, like the woman who carries around a psychically gifted log (“Who’s the lady with the log?” Cooper asks. “We call her the Log Lady,” the Twin Peaks sheriff, Harry Truman, answers.); the story’s flirtation with the supernatural, including visions, demons, and aliens; and the town’s supremely seductive teenage girls, whose saddle shoes and sweater sets say, “Welcome to Twin Peaks. Please set your clocks back 40 years.”

As Greil Marcus outlines in his essay “Picturing America,” Twin Peaks is manifest from the film noir tradition, a genre which is as much about its setting as it is about its characters. The mid-century detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald are less about the criminal mind than systemic corruption: cities that are growing too fast, both booming from the war and reeling with its losses. “It was the pretentious, provincial city with its fancy nightclub and rough roadhouse, imitation mansions and true flophouses,” Marcus says of “Film Noir City,” “where the most respectable citizen is always the most criminal, a town big enough to get murders written up as suicides and small enough that no one outside the place cares what happens there.”

Lynch’s innovation to the form was to add something more psychologically elemental. Twin Peaks’s plot is sparked by the murdered body of a 17 year old, Laura Palmer, washed up on the bank of a river. Palmer’s corpse is Twin Peaks’s truly memorable image, “a lifeless face as the fisherman… removes the plastic sheeting,” as Marcus writes, “but pristine, unmarked, untroubled, gray-blue from its hours in the river, with dots of water clinging to the skin like beads.” One question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?,” spawned a genre — Veronica Mars, The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, Top of the Lake, and True Detective are notable descendants of Twin Peaks. All Dead Girl Shows begin with the discovery of the murdered body of a young woman. The series’ lead characters are attempting to solve the (often impossibly complicated) mystery of who killed her. As such, the Dead Girl is not a “character” in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.


True Detective is a popular HBO series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It follows two Louisiana detectives, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, as they attempt to solve a series of bizarre murders. The show opens in 1995, with Hart and Cohle inspecting a prostitute’s corpse that has been posed and bound to a tree in a clearing in the Louisiana wilderness, a crown of deer antlers affixed to her head. The story follows two parallel tracks, as Hart and Cohle search for the murderer in 1995, and as they recall the events of their 1995 investigation 17 years later, in 2012. True Detective generated the kind of cult hysteria that only the thirst for a solution to a mystery can. On March 9, the night of the season one finale, fans crashed HBO’s internet streaming service, HBO GO, with their “overwhelming popular demand” for the series.

The cinematography in the series is moody, elegant, and gorgeous. Its A-list lead actors give swaggering, juicy performances. Legendary alt-country producer T-Bone Burnett provides the soundtrack, another of True Detective’s gestures toward being classy, Southern Gothic, literary. This is a brilliant ruse: a generic specimen of cultural Camp pretending to appeal to its audience intellectually. The characters have the monosyllabic bastard-Dickensian names found in every airport paperback: “Rust Cohle”? Episode four takes a weird turn into another region of thriller-ville, as Cohle infiltrates a motorcycle gang he was associated with in his former undercover work and instigates a drug-related shootout in a housing project. Cohle is haunted by the memory of his dead daughter — have you heard that one before? Perhaps in every popular portrayal of a detective ever?

I think True Detective mania mostly owes itself to the complicated power of the Dead Girl Show. The Dead Girl Show’s most notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women. The first is to cast girls as wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from the power of their own sexualities. True Detective demonstrates a self-conscious, conflicted fixation on strippers and sex workers. Cohle prudishly refuses the advances of a prostitute when investigating the first victim. Hart helps to “free” a teenage prostitute from a brothel and, seven years later, cheats on his wife with her.

“How does she even know about that stuff?” Hart asks in 1995 when he and his wife discover sexual drawings his elementary-school-age daughter did. “Girls always know first,” his wife replies. This terrible feminine knowledge has been a trope at least since Eve in the Garden. Marcus compares Twin Peaks’s victim Laura Palmer to the teenage “witches” in Puritan New England who were burned to purge and purify their communities. In the Dead Girl Show, the girl body is both a wellspring of and a target for sexual wickedness.

The other message the Dead Girl Show has for women is more simple: trust no dad. Father figures and male authorities hold a sinister interest in controlling girl bodies and, therefore, in harming them. In True Detective, the conspiracy goes all the way to the top, involving a US senator and his cousin, a powerful minister. In Twin Peaks, Palmer’s father is her murderer — sort of. It turns out that he is possessed by a terrifying demon named Bob, who has driven him to rape Laura for years. Sheriff Truman expresses his disbelief in the demon story. “Harry,” says Agent Cooper, “is it easier to believe that a man could rape and murder his own daughter?” — as if this is something that has never happened before, that doesn’t, in fact, happen all the time. As if a large majority of sexual assaults (73 percent) were not committed someone the victim knows, and a significant percentage (seven percent) were not committed by actual family members.

Externalizing the impulse to prey on young woman cleverly depicts it as both inevitable and beyond the control of men. Marcus’s essay is a brilliant meditation on how the Dead Girl Show reflects and appeals to the American psyche, which is imprinted with the memory of two inherited atrocities, African slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. He discusses the familiarity in old murder ballads that tell us that, “America is a country where anyone can be killed at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all.” Murder is something on the air, like a demon — and make no mistake, this is a kind of victim blaming.

True Detective crucially involves history, too. In the first episode, Cohle tells Hart almost admiringly that the murder shows “vision.” “Vision has meaning,” he says, “and meaning is historical.” The show’s ritualistic murders invoke voodoo and southern Louisiana’s unique spiritual culture. Leading into the finale, Errol Childress, the horrifying, inbred, Faulknerian psychopath who is the villain of the show, the self-styled “Yellow King,” says menacingly into the camera, “My family’s been here a long, long time.” But the show is also rooted in a landscape of indeterminacy where history can be destroyed and effaced — they talk about the lawlessness after Hurricane Katrina, hospitals and churches and people that have been lost along the disappearing coastline.

Broadening the effect and the meaning of an individual murder is what the Dead Girl Show is all about. Investigating these murders essentially ruins Cohle and Hart’s lives. When we see them in 2012, Cohle is gaunt and bedraggled, now a bartender who starts drinking at noon on his day off. Hart is off the force too and divorced, drinking again, and working as a private eye. How sad that these murders had to happen to them. The show’s trademark is Cohle’s laughably serious dialogue about the nature of the self and existence. He describes life as “a dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person.” These ruminations recall Plato’s Cave, in which the self is a prison that prevents true insight.

In Twin Peaks, Detective Cooper visits a mysterious red room in his dreams where he has grotesque visions and receives urgent spiritual messages. It is his labyrinthine consciousness made manifest, just as in the last episode of True Detective, Cohle and Hart enter Childress’s lair, “Carcosa,” a creepy series of buildings, outdoor walls, and underground passages, confronting the heart of their own darkness. Cohle even has a hallucination of a swirling funnel cloud in the sky before coming face to face with Childress, hitting home that this is a journey into his own mind. “There’s just one story, the oldest.” Cohle tells Hart at the end of the finale, “Light versus dark.” We see that he has come to a breakthrough, a new understanding, some small peace. As Marcus has noted, in the Dead Girl Show “the story will be over before it begins”; there can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder. Just as for the murderers, for the detectives in True Detective and Twin Peaks, the victim’s body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems.


Pretty Little Liars is an ABC Family show with a giant following among teenage girls. It follows four high schoolers, Spencer Hastings, Aria Montgomery, Emily Fields, and Hanna Marin, as they attempt to solve the murder of their friend and queen bitch, Alison DiLaurentis. A year after Alison’s disappearance, the girls start to receive threatening texts from a mysterious psychopath called only “A.” A is ubiquitous and all-powerful. Over the series’s four seasons, A films the girls, photographs them, listens to their conversations, reads their emails, steals from them, reveals their secrets, locks them in numerous small rooms, fakes Spencer’s boyfriend’s death, and hits Hanna with a car, to give only a very short list.

A’s outrageousness is indicative of Pretty Little Liars’s guiding ethic. The show manically collects characters, storylines, mysteries, and red herrings, so that, at this point, its plot is a baffling web of unanswered questions. Since Alison, there have been at least four more murders, only one of which has been satisfyingly solved. Nearly 100 episodes later, we are only incrementally closer to an answer to the initial mystery. One can assume that the show’s creators are, to some extent, fucking with their audience, but I admire the audacity with which they have dodged and complicated every moment of resolution.

With its bizarrely powerful villain and its bizarrely complicated plot, Pretty Little Liars reminds me of nothing so much as a fairytale. Marcus discusses the importance of Twin Peaks’s forest setting. “For as long as anybody can remember, woods have been mysterious places,” he quotes Lynch as saying. The woods figure importantly in Pretty Little Liars too, with the show’s lead characters meeting in them, being chased in them, pursuing a girl in a fairytale-friendly red-hooded coat who looks so much like Alison through them — is she dead or isn’t she? The woods are shadowy, uncertain places, sympathetic to secrets, magic, transformations, and cruelty.

Fairytales are weird, distilled expressions of our inherited desires, and the Dead Girl Show, and its idyllic, uncanny small-town setting, is absolutely in the same tradition. Dead Girl Shows often experiment with the incest taboo. Characters on Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars, and Top of the Lake all have romances with characters who they later learn could be their half brothers. This goes back to Freud’s favorite myth, Oedipus, in which a prince is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, and the psychological metaphors of Gothic literature, and the imposing persistence of patriarchal authority. My bad dad is your bad dad, it’s as if to say, is everyone’s bad dad.

And characters on Dead Girl Shows often experience frustrating lacunae in their memories. Laura Palmer’s father doesn’t remember anything he does while the demon Bob controls him. Duncan Kane, whose sister, Lilly, is the Dead Girl on Veronica Mars, suffers from a strange mental illness in which he has violent episodes that he doesn’t remember later. Both Alison’s brother, Jason, and Spencer on Pretty Little Liars had substance-related blackouts on the night of Alison’s murder, making them question their own innocence. These memory gaps are related to Freudian repressions, evoking the fraught landscape of the unknowable self.

Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty how Freud’s centralizing of the Oedipus complex structures the human psyche around a question of personal guilt. “He […] placed the questions ‘What have I done?,’ ‘Am I a criminal?,’ […] at the heart of self-inquiry,” Nelson writes. In the two great feminist Dead Girl Shows Veronica Mars and Top of the Lake, the female protagonist is both trying to solve the mystery presented by a Dead (or missing) Girl and to solve her own rape, making the question not “What have I done?” but “What happened to me?” Nonetheless, memory and the self are presented as riddles to be solved.

But there is an alternative to this mystery-solution model of the human wound. As Nelson points out — and as is borne out by the glut of Dead Girl Shows and their incredible popularity — our most basic myth would seem to be not Oedipus’ patricide, but matricide and violence against women. Where is Cinderella’s mother, and where is Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? The philosopher Julia Kristeva, in her theory of the abject, has explained the drive toward matricide as a kind of original, generative anger, expressing a need to destroy the mother — the origin place — to become an individual self. The abject is messier than an Oedipal reading of history, as the will to matricide is born in confusion and creates only chaos. Nelson explains, “the abjected maternal returns, via horror, repulsion, the uncanny, haunting, melancholia, depression, guilt.”

Inasmuch as Pretty Little Liars is a Dead Girl Show taken to its logical extreme, the trespasses, sexual and otherwise, of its male authorities are too numerous to name: there are untrustworthy fathers, teachers, doctors, and police officers. It is also notable among other Dead Girl Shows in its absence of a strong protagonist or pair of protagonists, heroes on a quest. All Dead Girl Shows betray an Oedipal distrust in male authority figures, but in Twin Peaks and True Detective, the central characters are male authority figures. These shows glide to a single, comprehensive solution, reflecting the Freudian model of existence that, according to Nelson, “turns our lives into detective stories; our innermost selves, into culprits.” At every moment, Pretty Little Liars refuses the unified answer — with its four protagonists, with its many villains and many victims, the way it multiplies with mysteries, with its Dead Girl who refuses to stay dead.

Since the first text from the ambiguously named A, the main question of Pretty Little Liars has been not who killed Alison, but whether she is dead at all. In her friends’ memories of her, she is terrifying and manipulative; a major theme in the series is how she controls them even after death with the secrets she knew. The girls often have ambiguous, vivid visions of her. As the abjected maternal returns, so this Dead Girl persistently becomes a presence in a story that was supposed to be about her absence. What would seem to be Pretty Little Liars’s worst faults — its unwieldy plot, its lack of consistency, the culpability of so many characters — are actually instructive. Its creators have made a Dead Girl Show that is not about a journey instigated by a Dead Girl body toward existential knowledge, but the mess, the calamity, and the obscurity that are the consequences of misogyny.


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 Alice Bolin is a contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls, an essay collection forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins. She is the nonfiction editor for Electric Literature’s weekly literary magazine of short things, Okey-Panky. You can follow her on Twitter.


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