Falling Hard for the Bent-Neck Lady
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #111. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
I’d like to nominate The Bent-Neck Lady for greatest ghoul of all time.
I’m not saying she’d win. The competition is way too — ahem — stiff. But having now seen Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, I think she deserves to be in the conversation.
Let me back up a bit. As a kid, nothing scared my little sister more than Zelda from Pet Cemetery. Her exaggerated deformity from spinal meningitis is, to this day, singularly terrifying to her. My other little sister was horrified by a true-life photo of a little girl disfigured by fire that we saw once in a book. We called her Burnt Girl and tortured our sister with it for years.
The Bent-Neck Lady is a nearly ideal combination of those two terrors, and one of my perfect-world goals for 2019 would be to get my sisters to watch, at the very least, the episode named after her. They’ll probably never allow that nightmare to unfold. But a big brother can dream.
Horror movies (in this case, a streaming television miniseries, but who’s counting these days?) rarely, if ever, scare me. The Bent-Neck Lady doesn’t scare me. But she manages, in one magical, mind-bending scene, to do something so horrifying it’s poetic. She gives us one of the most mesmerizing moments in filmed horror history, a scene that brings a decades-old haunting full circle and condenses it into just 49 seconds of pure madness.
I’m not sure of the exact moment it dawned on me but when Nell hangs herself, it’s just too well done to be called a reveal. More like a revelation. Nell ascends the spiral library staircase, following a dream of her dead mother, and when her dead mother hands her a locket necklace, Nell latches it on and begins to choke. In the waking world, Hill House is dark and deserted, and the necklace is a noose. Competently done, as these things go, but fairly typical of the genre.
And then she falls.
This is when I start my count.
First fall: Her neck snaps as the rope runs out. She swings lifelessly from the staircase in the library of the abandoned Hill House.
And then she falls again. And again. And again …
Second fall: Into the snack-machine hallway at the motel from just a few scenes before, a jump scare for her adult self, who falls to the ground screaming at the site of the apparition.
Third fall: The rainy street, where living Nelly, on a stopover to buy her twin brother $20 worth of heroin, sits in her idling car staring in terror.
Fourth fall: Into her bedroom on the night of her husband’s gruesome death.
Fifth fall: Back in time, to her childhood, hovering above herself as a small, frightened girl, too scared to sleep in her bedroom and instead lying on a couch.
Sixth fall: Into that same frightened girl’s bedroom, the haunting that spooked her out of it in the first place.
It’s a revelation and not just a reveal because there isn’t one moment where it becomes clear; it’s with a series of moments, packed with screams and the word “no” repeated again and again that the truth emerges: She was The Bent-Neck Lady all along. She had been haunting herself.
It’s a long con, so evil, so macabre, so splendid, one only possible in deepest depths of hell.
The Bent-Neck Lady: Maybe not the greatest ghoul of all time. But a sure-fire horror flick Hall of Famer.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.