Updated at 11:07 a.m. ET on October 25, 2019.
Horror is often a matter of architecture. The crowded cabins of Friday the 13th, the cramped spaceship of Alien, the mansion of Get Out—they are spaces that have ways of trapping people inside. At every turn, the vulnerable characters, who are proxies for the audience, find themselves prevented from escaping the monster, from finding relief from their fear. I recently watched The Shining, and was struck by how effectively the film makes its physical luxuries into a menace: Gilded corridors ensnare people within them. Gleaming mirrors play tricks of vision. There is nowhere to hide at the Overlook Hotel, because it is the building itself that is doing the stalking. The Shining takes horror’s defining claustrophobia to its most anxious conclusion: It makes the environment itself into a monster.
I thought of The Shining when reading a spate of recent books that add new reporting to #MeToo’s ever expanding collection of literature—among them Catch and Kill, She Said, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, All the President’s Women, and Know My Name. The first two books are stories about the stories—details of how investigative reporters brought to light Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuses against women in his orbit. The next two are deep-dive expansions of existing reporting—about the controversial Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, and about the many allegations of sexual harassment and abuse that women have made about Donald Trump. The fifth is a memoir, lyrically told, of Chanel Miller’s own assault on the Stanford campus. These works include stories of revelations made and accountabilities enforced. They are wrapped in the warm comforts of hindsight.
For all those triumphal dimensions, though, the defining mood of these books is not exultation. It’s horror. What the books share is a sense of abiding fear—fear that is, just like the Overlook’s, infrastructural and architectural. Fear that derives not only from the alleged villains themselves, but also from the environments that have given them their power. The memoirs tell stories not only of monsters, but also of the spaces that the monsters roam. The basements with no windows; the hallways with no doors; the rooms that emphasize the utter lack of escape or egress. These books explore how easily familiar places can be made into places of fear—and how readily familiarity itself can transform into an agent of danger. “You can’t get away,” Jack Torrance, a man made monstrous by his surroundings, says in The Shining. “I’m right behind you.”
“He was like an octopus,” Jessica Leeds, a woman from Donald Trump’s ever growing contingent of accusers, has said, describing how Trump allegedly groped her while she was seated next to him on an airplane. In All the President’s Women, Karen Johnson claims that during a party at Mar-a-Lago in the early 2000s, Trump grabbed her from behind one of the resort’s elaborate tapestries, kissing her against her will—the man and the space that contained him grotesquely fused together. (Trump has denied the claims of sexual abuse made against him.) One of Charlie Rose’s former employees shared the nickname that staffers created to describe the unwanted massages he would allegedly offer to some of them: “the crusty paw.” (Rose has denied some of the claims made against him; of others, he noted in 2017, “I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.”) Miller, who until this year was best known as the “Stanford rape survivor,” describes in Know My Name the unique horror of realizing that she had been assaulted while she was unconscious. In the hospital, when Miller is providing evidence for her rape kit—another kind of nightmare—she realizes that she is covered in pine needles. It’s further evidence of what her assailant had done to her as she lay on the ground, unable to speak or move. As Miller walks through the sterile rooms of the hospital, she leaves a trail of pine needles in her wake.
These details double as pleas for empathy. Just as the horror movie establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the characters who fight on-screen for their lives, the stories told in these public accounts engage in small acts of radicalism: They center the survivors. They preempt the impulse to minimize the severity of sexual abuse. The New York Times recently promoted a story about Deborah Ramirez’s allegation against Brett Kavanaugh—he thrust his penis in her face at a party at Yale, Ramirez claims—with a tweet that began like this: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun …” (Kavanaugh has denied the allegation, and the paper quickly deleted and apologized for the tweet.) In Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, the reporter quotes Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, who was overseeing Farrow’s investigation into Weinstein for the network. Oppenheim wasn’t sure, Farrow suggests, that the stories Farrow’s sources were telling him about Weinstein’s alleged predations were, in the end, that egregious. Hearing of the recording Farrow had obtained—in which Weinstein seemed to admit to having groped the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez—Oppenheim asked, in Farrow’s telling, “How serious is this stuff, really?”
The rest of Catch and Kill offers an answer—and a sharp rebuke—to that question. So have many of the other stories that preceded the book’s publication.
He “grabbed me by my hair, holding a fist of it at the base of my scalp.”
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me.”
“I said, ‘No, no, no’ … It’s twisted. A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale.”
“At that point, you’re a trapped animal ... Your life is flashing before your eyes.”
Monsters are reflections of the ages that create them. They give bodily form to a culture’s deepest anxieties—about technological progress, about environmental destruction, about economic collapse and nuclear annihilation and the banality of evil. #MeToo’s monsters are all the more frightening because their stories aren’t told as fiction. These monsters walk among us. They shape our worlds. They exert their will, often, still, with impunity.
And they use shared spaces to their advantage. The writer E. Jean Carroll, who alleges that Trump forcibly penetrated her during a chance encounter in the mid-1990s, says that he did so in a tiny dressing room in the Bergdorf Goodman department store—where it was extremely easy for him to pin her against the wall, with little recourse. (The president has denied her charge.) Farrow and the authors of She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, describe the almost scientific precision with which Harvey Weinstein transformed his hotel rooms into hunting grounds: He’d lead women who thought they were there for business meetings ever farther from a means of escape. (Weinstein has denied through representatives “any allegations of non-consensual sex.”) Matt Lauer recently denied that his office at NBC had a button he could push to lock his door remotely. In Catch and Kill, however, Farrow describes Lauer using that button after Farrow visited the former anchor in that office in 2016—before Lauer’s own #MeToo reckoning. The escape route, closing at Lauer’s behest.
That alleged abusers would use physical confinement to their advantage is not a surprise; the architecture contributes to the horror. Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary that shares the stories of two men who accused Michael Jackson of molesting them when they were boys, includes details about the layout of the Neverland mansion. A network of corridors and closets, where children could be hidden from their families, even as those families were nearby, helped enable Jackson’s alleged abuses. (Jackson, throughout his life, denied the accusations; his family maintains his innocence.) A recent episode of the Cut on Tuesdays podcast told the story of a woman, Alison Turkos, who was allegedly raped and sexually trafficked by her Lyft driver—another kind of confinement, another kind of helplessness. Alison describes trying to escape his car, the doors refusing to open. She suspects the driver used child-safety locks to hold her captive until he decided she would be freed.
The horror abides. The fear extends. When Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her allegations of sexual assault* against Kavanaugh (which he denies), one of the reasons the professor was able to document her claim—through notes taken by a therapist—was that she and her husband had gone to counseling while fighting about a remodel of their home in Palo Alto, California. Ford had insisted on including a second means of egress in their bedroom, and her husband couldn’t understand why she’d need such a thing. Ford remembered a time when she had been trapped—when she thought Kavanaugh, drunk and used to getting what he wanted, might crush her under his weight. The feeling of raw helplessness lingered long after Ford finally made her escape.
The doorless hallway comes in many forms. There are so many ways to be confined. “He often tried to control every aspect of my life including who I would see and where I would go,” Tracy Sampson, one of the many women who have accused R. Kelly of a range of sexual abuses, has said. “I’ve been carrying this since 2003,” Lanita Carter, another Kelly accuser, said earlier this year. (Kelly has repeatedly denied the claims against him; “I didn’t do this stuff,” he told CBS This Morning’s Gayle King during an interview in March.) And one of the arguments common to both She Said and Catch and Kill is that alleged abusers have become savvy at using the law to prevent survivors from fully escaping them. Nondisclosure agreements, which Weinstein and his expansive legal team used for so long, function in their own way as traps.
Rowena Chiu, a former Miramax staffer who says she was assaulted by Weinstein in 1998 at the Venice Film Festival, describes wearing two pairs of tights in anticipation of what Weinstein might do to her. But she alleges that even that measure failed to deter his advances. “In the end,” Chiu writes, “I was able to wriggle off the bed and leave; I believe this is because Harvey thought there would be another night to play the game, and half the fun was the chase—the opportunity to prolong a situation in which he could exert power.” Chiu left the company, and in the process signed a nondisclosure agreement that involved such punishing terms that, until recently, Chiu did not reveal her story even to her husband. Unable to explain her abrupt departure to prospective new employers, however, and still wanting to maintain a career in entertainment, Chiu eventually returned to Miramax for a stint. “I lived in constant fear of Harvey’s abuse, control, and power,” Chiu writes; “that the story would come back to haunt me; that I would inadvertently slip up on my promise to never speak of this.”
This is why so many survivors eventually regret coming forward. This is why #MeToo remains an urgent movement. “Systemic dread” is how the writer Rebecca Traister describes the stories told in Catch and Kill. A 2017 New York Times investigation documented rampant harassment and abuse at two Ford plants in Chicago. The horrors faced by the women who worked at those plants were pervasive. They were environmental. They were inescapable. “Those who complained said they faced retaliation from co-workers and bosses,” the investigation noted. “Some women were frightened after harassers warned them to watch their backs. An Army veteran who accused a man of groping her was physically blocked by his friends from doing her work, she said. Later she found her car tires slashed in the parking lot.”
Horror, traditionally, does not ask its audiences to question the motives of the monsters. The monsters are what they are. They do what they do. Their abuses are tautological. This is another way the logic of horror makes its way into our world. “Boys will be boys” remains a common refrain among those inclined to prefer excuses over accountability. Power still protects itself, constructing narrower hallways from which the relatively powerless will try, and fail, to escape. “He’s the money man. He can do whatever he wants,” a young woman says about Donald Trump in All the President’s Women. That is another element of the horror that lurks: She was, in spite of it all, correct.
* An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Brett Kavanaugh.