The Devil is a Woman

by Ria Woodburn

Gillian Flynn is a champion at writing wicked women, and none are as great as the characters in Sharp Objects (2018). Adapted from her debut book of the same name, with creator Marti Nixon at the helm, the acclaimed HBO miniseries Sharp Objects follows journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) as she goes back to her hometown to report on the murders of two teenage girls. Camille is one of a trio of ill-adjusted females, all related, two of which are killers. Through this hazy psychological thriller, Sharp Objects is a lesson on how to write women, when they embrace the dark and are intent on evil. And guess what, they don’t look like monsters. 

Under the guidance of her newspaper editor, Camille reluctantly arrives at the scrap of a town Wind Gap, Missouri to her mother Adora, stepfather Alan and teenage sister Amma. Forlorn and wrecked from decades of self-harm, she is intent on getting to the heart of the unsolved tragedies of schoolgirls Anna Nash and Natalie Keene, both murdered a year apart. Memories of her sister Marian’s (Lulu Wilson) teenage death, along with the suicide of her friend whilst in rehab, ebb in and out of her dreams and her reality. As Camille navigates through the town causing tension, she picks holes in the investigation which undermines the local Police Chief Bill Vicary (Matt Craven). Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) assists the case, an out of towner who forms an unlikely alliance with Camille, which leads to a stunted romantic relationship. Whilst Camille tentatively keeps her self-cutting at bay, alcohol is her closest friend with vodka making a regular appearance, through the guise of an Evian bottle.

‘My demons are not remotely tackled; they are just mildly concussed.’

- Camile (Amy Adams) 

Sharp Objects gives us an unlikely protagonist rarely seen, as Camille courageously internalises her pain with a private burning rage. But despite her fractured life experience, Camille is blessed with the gift of perception. A natural and proficient journalist she sees people for who they really are. As a viewer, this is an insight that can’t be gained by following the police investigation alone which is hellbent on seeing the killer as male. Amy Adams who was also an Executive Producer of the series plays Camille with a gritty realness and despite finding her emotionally challenging to play, Adams was adamant that Camille would not be a victim. Instinctively when women are raw and restless we want to know more, whether they are admired or despised. When they are written, and when they are watched they have a truth and a spirit about them, they are magnetic. 

Que Adora Crellin (Patricia Clackson), Camille’s mother, a statue of matriarchy and aristocratic wealth that rules over her and Wind Gap from a sprawling pink Victorian mansion. Camille yearns for her mother’s love, but Adora has no intention of giving it. Immaculately dressed and posed with an Amaretto Sour in hand, she is relentlessly cold towards Camille, a sharp contrast to the overwhelming love she has towards her other daughters Marian and Amma. 

‘God has given me another sick baby’ Adora (Patricia Clarkson) Sharp Objects.

 

However, as the series progresses, we find that Adora is increasingly inserting herself into the police investigation, goading the Chief to keep her up to date with recent breakthroughs. We also learn that both Anna and Natalie were receiving tutoring from Adora, taking them under her wing. Being privy to her cruel nature through Camille, we are left flirting with the idea that Adora is Wind Gap’s child killer. And our assumptions would be partly correct. As the relic family mansion, unchanged since Camille’s childhood, unearths the bigger picture of the mystery of Marian’s childhood illness, it is then we realise that her mother Adora holds a secret. Commonly known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), Adora had slowly poisoned Marian to death, acting as both her saviour and destructor all in one. A cycle she is mirroring with her other daughter Amma.

Sharp Objects' writers, Flynn and Noxon, have given us a killer with a very specific but easy to inflict modus operandi. Though shocking to watch, her role as a mother makes it effortless for her to kill, as she menacingly mixes home-based poisons in her kitchen like it is her vocation. It is hard to accept mothers harming their children, which by default might make their crimes more difficult to see. As well as this, Adora’s power and influence over the town made it impossible for anyone suspecting her to be heard, gaslighting witnesses and hindering potential police investigations. Given the chance and more willing daughters, Adora could have most probably killed more. Adora is the start of all of her daughters’ pain, it begins and ends with her and she is always at the epicentre.

 

The other female in Camille’s life is her half-sister Amma played flawlessly by Eliza Scanlen. This fifteen-year-old, bouncing around on roller skates comes into Camille’s life as a stranger, and as they study each other a bond between the two blossoms. Amma possesses two personalities, delicately doll-like under her mother’s watchful eye by day but by night (and if she has an opportunity in the day) alcohol drinking, drug-taking, and asserting her sexuality. In a gobsmacking gruesome finale, she is unexpectedly exposed by Camille as our serial killer. 

‘I get funny ideas sometimes.’

- Amma (Eliza Scanlan)

Not only is Amma a killer she is a child-killing children, evolving from her mother’s crimes. We and Wind Gap were all blinded, blinded by her innocence, her charm, and her youth but serial killers have to start somewhere right? And why not like Adora, keep it simple and stick to what you know? Her murders are familiar, the girls are the same age and are her friends that she has known all her life. Amma’s reasoning for murder is slight, a juvenile jealously for the attention that Anna and Natalie were getting from her mother.

 

It seems that after allowing Adora to make her sick for so long, this redirection of affection was too much for Amma to bear. The forced removal of the victim’s teeth become decorative keepsakes that adorn her Doll House floor, an act so violent it distracts us away from her. It all doesn’t make sense to us but Amma is a murderer, a budding serial killer, and most likely a sociopath. Even her age and beauty cannot take that away from her. 

Sharp Objects shows us that women make great killers. They possess far more social advantages than men, being able to have wider access to vulnerable members of society and environments. Social expectations mean that females can manipulate more freely, whilst hiding in roles of mothers, carers, and friends. With women killers you have more scope- the shortage of them means as a writer you can be more adventurous. With the plethora of male serial killers in our consciousness on and off-screen, we know their style; but the public lack of understanding of why women kill creates a void and an interest to be filled. With women killers, our imaginations can run free. 

‘I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.’

– Gillian Flynn 

Flynn by letting us see these undesirable women in the light of day is often accused of being anti-feminist. It seems we only want to see an exalted view of what it means to be female. Not only is this dangerous – it puts pressure on women and creates false narratives of their experiences. In Sharp Objects, the reason why Adora and Amma were not initially seen as suspects, is precisely due to our misconceptions of women. However, these misconceptions can make a great story, and spellbinding protagonists and antagonists. Lucifer was the ultimate fallen angel and what is more fitting than a young woman carving words into her skin, a doting mother slowly poisoning her beloved child to death and a beautiful teenager massacring her friends in a jealous rage? Surely there can’t be a more horrific and glorious fall from grace? So, the next time you are racking your brain trying to write your master villain, remember that perhaps, just maybe the devil is a woman. 

Ria is a graduate of Falmouth University's MA Writing for Script and Screen programme where she earned a first-class honours degree. A horror and thriller enthusiast, these are her preferred genres to write. Regularly updating her blog, she is currently writing a gothic horror and resides in the Midlands, UK.

 

Find Ria online: 

www.writerewrite.co.uk 

Twitter @riawoodburn 

Instagram @ria_joan