Content warning: references to sexual assault.
I love horror movies. I love everything from the super cheesy ’80s slasher flicks, to the most twisted and intense psychological horrors — provided, of course, that they don’t demonize people with mental illnesses.
But alas, my deep disappointment with horror is the treatment of women and sexual violence. Women’s bodies become ragdolls to be thrown around, either to fuel male emotion or for the sake of pure shock value. Women’s sexuality too often becomes the deciding factor in who gets to survive until the end, with the virginal ‘final girl’ rewarded for chastity while still being heavily sexualized.
Enter Gerald’s Game, the 2017 Netflix horror and thriller based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name. The setup is easy enough to follow: Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), decide to take a romantic vacation to a lake house in the middle of nowhere, as many ill-fated couples do.
The game in question comes when Gerald decides to put Jessie in a pair of handcuffs for some roleplaying. Jessie agrees, then becomes uncomfortable. The two argue and suddenly, Gerald drops dead.
Handcuffed to the bed and totally alone, Jessie could easily be the chained-up prey of any would-be killer from a film more entrenched in the stereotypes of the genre. Instead, Jessie is forced to confront the truth about her life: her failing marriage to Gerald, her history of being sexually abused as a child, and the silence with which she has endured all of it.
Rather than be an object of disgust, horror, or shock, Jessie’s trauma is simply presented as it is, with Jessie’s fear stemming from the silence she has been forced into all her life.
There are some old-fashioned scares as well, with Jessie hallucinating the ghost of her dead husband and being interrupted by a grave robber and serial killer in search of treasures, but ultimately, the movie is Jessie’s journey.
Gerald’s Game is an intensely realistic examination of memory and trauma. The lead female character is never an accessory to another’s story or shamed for her choices.
This is the kind of story we need right now, the kind that knows how to scare you without any cheap tricks or jump scares. The scary monster is, in the end, what Jessie has to live with: silence, shame, and trauma.