As women, we are born screaming, and I’m pretty sure we all die screaming (will check on this). In between these events, if we are not literally screaming, somewhere inside, we are for sure screaming; it’s the only appropriate reaction to being a woman and being alive. Unfortunately, our screams have been profoundly misrepresented for decades.
Most TV shows and movies would have you believe that women scream in a consistently elegant manner, as if we have been practicing for the inevitable moment when we will be surprise-murdered. Onscreen, and usually in horror films, women wail in a bell-like, Disney Princess high A. Even in the throes of despair and/or fatal danger, we must remain appealing and cannot emit any sounds that might be considered “weird.” This was especially true of the Scream Queens of yore, all of whom were violently pursued in their domestic environments by men, in films directed by men, and screamed like they were simultaneously having an unexpected orgasm: Shelley Duvall, chased by her husband, who is possessed by the spirit of a hotel; Janet Leigh, stabbed in the nude; Fay Wray, poked in the boob by a huge gorilla; Neve Campbell, nearly murdered by her own boyfriend while wearing a sensible sweater. This is not a knock on these women, whose performances are incredible, but rather, a knock on humankind, which has created a society in which women have to be sexy while dying.
Recently, however, I have witnessed two cinematic screams that were neither sexy nor Snow White–y, but instead guttural and visceral and bizarre — and so vulnerable that I felt like a bit of a creep watching them. The first, which has already launched one thousand memes, sprung from the goddess lungs of Meryl Streep on Big Little Lies.
This scream is not cute. It’s a scream of desperation and rage and potential insanity, complete with a primal chest-beating and a low-key re-traumatization of Nicole Kidman. Watching it, I felt both refreshed and disturbed, like I had just jumped into a mountain stream on a hot day and found it full of human bones. There are several elements that coalesce to make it absolutely and perfectly fucked up. First off, we’ve got Meryl’s teeth, which are simultaneously tiny and gigantic. They protrude subtly, as if to say, “Yes, we’re here in Meryl’s mouth, but we don’t want to talk about it.” When she opens her mouth to let out her unholy wail, we see the tips of her teeth as her lips curl back, her tongue lolling forward.
But most impressive is the way Meryl warms up for the scream. She calmly addresses the two small, blond agents of chaos sitting across from her at dinner: “My friends’ sons had not a patch on your dad. Not a patch. I’m so angry, angry, that their mediocre, second-rate, pudgy, balding, middle-management sons are still alive … I wanted to scream,” she says. “So you know what I did? I did scream. Wanna hear?” She looks at her grandsons indulgently, like she’s about to hand them a plate of warm cookies and milk. She takes a deep breath in through her nose. She rolls her shoulders, prepping for the free throw. She hangs her head against her chest, roughly jerks it backward, opens her mouth, and lets out her raw caterwaul in stages.
The first stage is a classic horror shriek, high-pitched and terrified. It’s a red herring of sorts. Watching it, you’d be forgiven for thinking, Oh, this is going to be a normal scream. But it quickly descends into the filthy depths of hell, climbing back up again to form a sort of combo-pack scream, both tinny and sepulchral at the same time. Briefly, the scream takes shape, forming words — “Oh, oh, oh” — before Meryl begins ramming her fist, hard, against her own chest. By the end of the scream, she’s wrenching with sobs — and then suddenly, she’s laughing. “What, my grief is too loud for you?” she giggles at Celeste, who’s utterly rattled.
The second cinematic scream takes place a few times over the course of a two and a half hour film, and is infinitely more upsetting and about 400 percent less fun than Meryl’s. Florence Pugh’s tour de force performance as Dani in Ari Aster’s Midsommar is built around this scream, a career-making yell that will haunt me for the rest of my days.
We first hear the scream during the film’s intro, a slow-burn-horror reveal that culminates in a despondent Dani dolefully howling into her freaked-out boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) arms. We hear it again when Dani reaches the Swedish compound where she’ll be spending a few blisteringly sunny weeks: peer-pressured by her useless boyfriend and his fuckboy friends, she pops some mushrooms and quickly proceeds to fall down the dark rabbit hole of her own mind. She races away from the group, searching for some sort of release from her consciousness. “You’re fine,” she tells herself. “It’s almost your birthday.” But she isn’t fine; she can’t outrun her grief, and it overcomes her. She doubles over, a baroque moan escaping her lungs. The scream changes pitch as she breathes in and out, alternating between ragged, rough inhales and foghornlike exhales. It’s the animalistic scream of somebody who’s come totally and completely undone.
Dani emits this shocking, profane sound several times in Midsommar. Each time, it’s equally jarring, especially because we’ve rarely seen a woman allowed to make a sound like this onscreen. (Aster must appreciate the sound, because Toni Collette got her own catharsis wail in the director’s debut, Hereditary.) Florence’s scream seems to come from somewhere else, somewhere outside of the human body — a supernatural anguish. It has levels. It made me wonder about the capacity of her lungs, and also about whether she has some sort of demon living inside of them. It is, in a word, metal.
At the end of the film, after Dani discovers Christian thrusting uncomfortably atop a cult member in a floral crown, she runs across the compound, thoroughly devastated by the direction of her life. Pursued by dozens of female cult members clad in white, she hurls herself on the ground, weeping. The sound begins again. This time, the women around her begin to imitate it, each emitting their own thunderous yells. When Dani inhales violently, the women inhale violently. When she groans from somewhere deep inside her gut, they do the same. They form a cacophonous chorus of grief, a hellish symphony of collective catharsis.
I was deeply affected by Dani’s palpable agony, but I was also seduced by the empathetic way the murderous cult members grieved alongside her. I found myself desperately wishing that — deranged death cult aside — our society would figure out a similarly healthy process for dealing with grief and fear and loneliness. (This is definitely the wrong takeaway from Midsommar, but please let me live.) After the film ended, I found myself pining for a culture where, rather than pushing down our most unruly, ugliest feelings — or forcing each other to make them tolerable and cute — we felt comfortable exposing and confronting our hideous beasts together. As Meryl herself puts it in Big Little Lies, “We should scream! We should scream and beat our breasts and tear our hair. Don’t you feel angry?”