Lizzie Borden as Gothic Heroine in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975)
Times is hard, folks. This blog is dedicated to the horrifying -- and what's more horrifying these days than the dreaded job search? Yes, your hostess is on an epic quest to find a full-time job to support her writing habit. In the process of finding a job in the legal field, I have become a fearsome combination of paralegal, carnival barker and travelling salesman. Still, as impressive as "Horror Movie Critic" and "Internet Smart-Ass" look on a resume, the overcrowded job market has rendered this search difficult. There are a few things keeping your hostess optimistic, however. One, is the astronomical crime rate here in Dead River, nicknamed "The Hidden Diamond of Dixie" (or "The Diamond in a Pig's Ass" as some of our detractors like to refer to it). All those stabbings are not only weeding out job candidates and freeing up positions, but they're generating a need for legal professionals! Otis Calhoun is finally back on the streets, on parole for shooting his daughter after she refused to bring him another beer, so there should be no shortage of criminal defense work. Something's gotta give or your hostess may embark on a spree slapping legal secretaries. I'd rather face Freddy Krueger than one more chain-smoking, condescending, Talbots-suited pitbull armed with an associate's degree in secretarial studies from Jefferson Davis Community College and a hate-on for snarky paralegals.
And speaking of women on a spree, there's nothing that warms my twisted heart more than a high-strung woman hacking her way through her dysfunctional family with an ax, so today we're going to talk about Lizzie Borden. Or the legend of Lizzie, rather. Legends abound in Dead River too: we've got swamp witches, voodoo queens, a plethora of ghosts and this area was even a hotspot for Bigfoot sightings until we discovered it was just a shirtless Otis Calhoun before he bought his Hair-Off Mitten. But anyway, whatever the truth it's the legend that lives on in our imagination. Many forget that Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the infamous double-murder of her father and stepmother. However, in nearly every fictional portrayal, Lizzie is the culprit. As natural storytellers, we are constantly reframing our experience to fit a conventional narrative so perhaps we can make sense of it and bring order to the chaos of life. Lizzie Borden seems eternally cast in the role of The Gothic Heroine. The basic facts of her life just seem to be a checklist of Gothic tropes: Lizzie lives - or is trapped, rather - in an Old Dark House, practically a prisoner of a Wicked Father and Spiteful Stepmother until she is finally driven to madness and violence due to social constraints placed upon her by her gender. The most famous of these fictional dramatizations is probably the made-for-television THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975), featuring an outstanding performance by ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY as Lizzie.
As the film opens, something is clearly wrong at the Borden house as the Bordens' Irish maid, Bridget (Fionnula Flanagan, THE OTHERS), runs to fetch a doctor. As the Bordens' neighbor, Mrs. Churchill approaches to find out what the commotion is all about, she sees Lizzie standing frozen at the screen door with the strangest look on her face. "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come in," she says calmly. "Someone has killed Father."
The film uses District Attorney Hosea Knowlton's (ED FLANDERS of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and SALEM'S LOT) investigation and prosecution of Lizzie as a framework to gradually reveal the tormented history of the dysfunctional Borden family through a series of flashbacks (fragmented editing reflecting Lizzie's fragmented state of mind). Family patriarch, Andrew (a chilling FRITZ WEAVER, CREEPSHOW), once a mortician and now prominent businessman is controlling, so miserly he forces the family to continue to eat spoiled mutton broth, and cruel. He's the kind of father who hacks his daughters pet pigeons to death with a hatchet just so the neighborhood boys can't get at them. "Papa, they were mine!" Lizzie cries but to no avail. He curtly informs her that everything on the property is his and he will do with it what he sees fit. Andrew follows the Wicked Father trope of Gothic fiction, more spiteful authoritarian than nurturer, Lizzie more a prisoner than a daughter.
Stepmother Abby (HELEN CRAIG) is resentful, bossy and penurious, spitefully referred to by Lizzie as "Mrs. Borden" or "that old sow." All of Lizzie's actions are met with disapproval and recrimination from Abby. There is no love or affection in this family, only blame and shaming.
Despite Andrew's wealth, the family occupies a claustrophobic, decaying house with no indoor plumbing. It is the Old Dark House of the Gothic, a prison for its inhabitants where madness festers. Lizzie's only source of stability is patient, long-suffering older sister Emma (wonderfully played by KATHERINE HELMOND of TV's SOAP) who has taken on the role of mediator and surrogate mother.
Many remark at Lizzie's lack of emotion. During the trial, Knowlton refers to her as "sphinx of coldness." Lizzie, like most products of abusive or chaotic homes, has detached from her emotions in order to survive. She also indulges in kleptomania and compulsive spending. Mark Rutland in MARNIE (1964) would remind us, "When a child - of any age - can't get love, it takes what it can get."
There is also an undercurrent of sexual perversity in this fictional presentation of the Borden family. There is an almost necrophilic regard for death: Andrew implores a terrified young Lizzie to touch one of the corpses he is embalming in his basement workshop to assure her that death is not something to be afraid of (remarking sensually how "smooth" and "cold" the dead flesh is to the touch). As an adult, Lizzie kisses the corpse of her father on the lips. There is implication as well that both Borden girls are haunted by the death of their mother (in Elizabeth Engstrom's novel LIZZIE BORDEN, Emma even worships her dead mother with a fervor normally reserved for saints). Like most families in Gothic fiction, the shadow of death constantly looms over the Bordens.
Lizzie, however, dreams of glamour, travel, a fashionable house "on the hill" (the neighborhood where the elite live) and status. She does not understand why with the "Borden means" she shouldn't be able to have an alternative to the dismal life she has now. But the one thing Lizzie really wants that is denied to her is freedom. "Flyyyy," she cries to the pigeons that are able to escape her hatchet-wielding father. For despite her family's wealth, Lizzie's options are extremely restricted. She cannot escape her family and her "ugly, old house" through education and career as those options are not open to a woman in Victorian New England. Marriage is a more traditional means of escape, but also denied to her most likely because her unstable family and unwelcoming home prove a deterrent to prospective bachelors ("We can't even entertain properly," Lizzie tells her father) or perhaps because Lizzie is wary of ending up in a relationship with another controlling man. Her only hope is of inheriting which is promptly destroyed when Abby badgers Andrew into changing his will so that she will be the sole benefactor, successfully disinheriting his two daughters. It's ax-wielding time.
Fictionalized Lizzies are generally used as a metaphor for the constraints of traditional gender roles and the further marginalization of women who choose not to adhere to them. In Elizabeth Engstrom's LIZZIE BORDEN, in addition to being trapped by her family's dysfunction, Lizzie is a lesbian and fears expression of her sexuality will be met with rejection from the church-going people in her community. The other women in this novel have been denied opportunities and emotional expression as well: Abby, rather than the unsympathetic harridan that is portrayed in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN, is an unhappy woman in a loveless marriage, long ago stripped of her voice and unable to communicate her feelings to others; Emma lives a divided life, a proper New England spinster who travels one town over to indulge in self-destructive sprees of binge-drinking and rough sex; and The Widow Crawford, who befriends Lizzie in church, is forced to prostitute herself to keep her two sons in school. Engstrom's novel incorporates supernatural elements (another trademark of the Gothic) as well and Lizzie's repressed sexuality and rage creates a wrathful spectral second Lizzie that ultimately becomes responsible for the murders. In Sharon Pollack's play BLOOD RELATIONS, Lizzie is driven over the edge not only be her and Emma's disinheritance by their father, but her father's desire to marry her off to a wealthy widower with children (therefore making her another Abby). She proclaims to Emma that she never wants to marry or have children and declares this makes her "an aberration." Therefore, despite her real-life acquittal, Lizzie in fiction is always guilty (the only exception I can think of is an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS called "THE OLDER SISTER" in which Emma is the real murderess, protected by a long-suffering Lizzie), a sympathetic murderess whose acts of violence are the only way of freeing herself from a life of abuse and imprisonment.
It makes perfect sense that THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN would place Lizzie Borden's story in this context as it was written and produced during the feminist movement. Domineering male authority and constrictive feminine roles will only lead to madness and violence. To D.A. Knowlton's horror, his wife expresses sympathy for Lizzie, explaining, "You have no idea how heavy these skirts can be at times."
"I'm 32-years-old and nearly a prisoner in this ugly, old house," Lizzie laments. Had she not resorted to parenticide, Lizzie may well have become Madeline Usher.
Sex and death are often linked in Gothic fiction and THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN is no different. Lizzie commits the double-ax-murders in the nude, giving them a perverse overtone. While this could be explained for pragmatic reasons - no blood-spattered dress, no evidence - Lizzie literally lets her hair down and the murders become a venting of repressed and savage emotions. This is the first time Lizzie has ever completely let go. At the end of the film, acquitted, Lizzie exits the courthouse. As she smiles up at the pigeons flying off the courthouse roof, we know murder was her only means of escape.
Ironically, the patriarchy that constructed the walls of her prison sets her free; it seems so impossible that a respectable, upper-middle-class woman would do such a horrifying thing. With their inheritance, Lizzie and Emma ("We're free! At last we're really free!" Lizzie exults) may live autonomously in the house "on the hill" much like Merricat and Constance Blackwood in WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. But like those two sisters, the shadow of death still looms over them.