If you love horror films, you’ll want to watch the classic Thirteen Women (David Archainbaud, 1932). It’s a little-known film that, four decades before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Halloween (1978), mapped out the contours of the slasher plot.
Myself and Gwen have recently written an article about the film: “Thirteen Women (1932): An Unacknowledged Horror Classic,” published in the Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 (Spring 2016). I’m just hitting a couple of the highlights here, so if you want more analysis, that’s the place to go.
We didn’t conjure our idea up out of thin air. Some film critics had already nodded to Thirteen Women’s anticipation of the slasher sub-genre. For instance, in his review of the DVD, which was released as part of the Warner Archive Collection in 2012, John Beifuss notes that Thirteen Women is “not exactly a horror film,” yet he goes on to map numerous of its “horror themes,” drawing a line to both Friday the 13th (1980) and the Final Destination franchise (2000-2011). [i] We disagree with Beifuss’s hedging: Thirteen Women is in fact a horror film.
Based on the best-selling novel by Tiffany Thayer, Thirteen Women was produced by David O. Selznick for R. K. O. Radio Pictures, and released in September, 1932. It features a vengeful killer stalking members of a sorority, all of whom had attended St. Albans Seminary in northern California. Several years after graduation, the women start sending “round robin” letters to keep in touch with each other, and after one of them mentions the famous astrologer, Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), they all write to him for their horoscopes. Unbeknownst to the women, however, the Swami is under the influence of their former classmate, the “half-Hindu” Ursula Georgi (played absolutely brilliantly by Myrna Loy), who re-writes the Swami’s horoscopes in order to exact her revenge on the sisters who refused to allow her to join their sorority. The Los Angeles Times summed up the film in this way: so great is Ursula’s “fury” at the “snubbers,” the reviewer writes, “that she devotes her life to revenge. Years later she tracks them down one by one and proceeds to wreak her murderous wrath upon them and their families.”[ii] Sound familiar?
The undeniable center of the film is the monstrous “half-breed” Ursula Georgi. Thirteen Women renders Ursula inhuman in the implacability of her revenge (think Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger). As the protagonist Laura (Irene Dunne) asks in her final confrontation with Ursula: “What have I done, what has anyone done, to make you so inhuman?” Ursula is indeed, “inhuman,” the murderous force behind her victims’ self-immolation. And Ursula’s monstrousness also lies in her being what Noel Carroll calls “categorically contradictory”: she is a “mixture of what is normally distinct” (32-33). She is an inhuman monster who is also a beautiful woman; she seems white and yet she is a racial “other,” an “invading” Asian, the kind of person against whom Americans were busily crafting anti-immigrations laws in the early decades of the twentieth century.
-(1) She is a powerful woman, capable of submitting women and men to her hypnotic gaze, bending them to her will. Through the course of the film, she subjugates two different men, getting them to do exactly what she wants and then discarding them when they’ve served their purpose. She even hypnotizes one man to leap under the wheels of an oncoming train. Ursual is still more powerful than that other famous female “monster” of classic horror—the Countess Marya Zaleska of Dracula’s Daughter (1936)—and Thirteen Women precedes that film by four years.
(2) Ursula is, moreover, a non-white woman. She’s described variously as a “half-breed type,” “half-Hindu, half-Javanese or something,” a “Hindu dame,” and “half-caste Indian,” and she calls herself “a half-breed, a half-caste.” She is visually aligned, moreover, with India/Hinduism through the mis en scène—notably in her proximity in several shots, when she is alone, to statues of Hindu deities. And yet as much as Ursula embodies the “yellow peril” about which Americans became rather hysterical in the early twentieth century, she can (and does) pass as white—which, of course, only makes her still more of a threat.
And, finally, (3) drawing on the implications of both her gender and her race Thirteen Women is an early rape-revenge film, an important sub-genre of horror. In her final confrontation with Laura, Ursula suggests that she was sexually victimized. What follows are, I think, utterly radical words in the history of the horror film:
“When I was twelve-years-old, white sailors . . . ” Ursula says, her sentence trailing off. And later, she asks Laura, “Do you know what it means to be a half-breed, a half-caste, in a world ruled by whites? If you’re male, you’re a coolie; if you’re female, you’re . . . well . . . The white half of me cried out for the courtesy and protection women like you get.”
In exacting her revenge on the white sorority women for refusing to let her “cross the color line,” Ursula is also punishing them for contributing to her sexual exploitation and implied rape by white sailors. The sorority women didn’t just refuse Ursula safe harbor as “white,” then, but, more specifically, they denied her the protections of a “white woman,” without which she is left utterly vulnerable.[iii] The film’s complexity, then, in terms of how it represents the intersection of gender and race when it comes to sexual violence is just stunning.
Plus, did I mention it’s just a really good film!
[i] Senn, Normanton, and Erickson all mention Thirteen Women as an early horror film.
[ii] Muriel Babcock, “Fantastic Story Told on Screen,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1932.
[iii] In her recent Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas writes (in a paragraph that constitutes the only other scholarly discussion of the film): Ursula “makes it clear in the film’s climactic confrontation that rape—and the absence of protection from it—lie at the core of her vendetta.” Ursula tries to “feign whiteness” for protection but is “thwarted by racist fellow students,” Heller-Nicholas continues—and those women are “not only far from innocent, they are to some degree complicit in the acts of violence that Ursula suffered by refusing her ‘the courtesy and protection’ of women like themselves.”