If there is one type of horror movies that I could not bear watching, it is doll movies. By this, I do not mean I get very scared by the iconic Chuckie or Saw killer doll movies, rather what give me the creeps are the demon-possessed doll movies. I do not mind blood or gore or vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens – just no dolls. They just get under my skin so easily, and I guess there are two main reasons why I find them creepy. First is that they are flawed imitations of the “normal” human person. As toys, we would not really mind them being like that. But when we look at them for what they are, we see humanoid things that would be considered freaks if they were to come to life. Second reason is that they seem harmless because that is what they are made to be. When this harmlessness is subverted, the monster doll can easily attack us at where we are most vulnerable – our kids or our homes.
Considering all of this made it just more difficult for me to qualify or disqualify May as a doll movie. A few minutes into the movie, when the doll appeared, I immediately got the impression that it is about a cursed doll or something. I immediately assumed that it would be the monster. However, further into the movie, the role and the nature of the doll became more and more obscured. One can interpret that the doll is a symbolic figure that represents May’s internal, repressed character. One can also interpret that the doll is a mysterious driving force that shaped May’s character in the movie. At the point where May dresses up like the doll, it is hard to distinguish whether she is imitating the doll or is the doll “possessing” her – what is only certain is that there is a unity between May and the doll at that point.
The doll can be interpreted as a mere symbolic figure or as a mysterious monster. The only thing that is certain is that, if we are looking at the film as a horror film, the May character is the monster. However, the May character can also be seen as a doll using the two description I placed above: she is considered a “freak” although she looks (and tries to look) normal and she is originally harmless. This is why it is also hard to tell at which point did the doll really “come to life” – whether it is at the point where May found her “ideal person” or at the point where May internalized the doll character.
This confusion is not to be taken against the movie. In fact, it is a testament to its brilliance. It has woven a concrete and solid narrative, yet it is still very open to various interpretations at different dimensions. If you are like me who is wary of doll horror movies or have biases against them, I think May is a good doll-but-not-quite-doll horror movie for you.
Warning: The succeeding discussion includes some spoilers.
We can talk about the May character-monster within the context of “Othering”. May was born with a lazy eye that made her an outcast within her age group and peers. It is not certain whether May became maladjusted as an adult due to a defect in her inherent personality or due to her faulty upbringing complemented by being an outcast due to her physical defect, but we see that May struggles to grasp the “normal” adult behavior, particularly in dealing with intimate relationships. Perhaps it is a yearning for intimacy coupled by circumstances that pushed May to the limits of what we would consider normal in a relationship (i.e., she met a guy who is apparently into weird sensual movies; her lesbian coworker has a crush on her). By considering May as an “Other” in different levels, we can see how a wide range of “queerness” in different dimensions (whether in depiction or reception) can manifest in the movie. More specifically, “queer” characters are those that tend to threaten or question the dominance of the heterosexual masculine. Aside from having the homosexual character (Polly), the presence of May who seem almost clueless about the relationship of homosexuality with the “normal” amplifies this subversion of the heterosexual male dominance.
The movie itself is also framed in a way that the “normal” is the villain. Beyond the characterization of the dominant male heterosexual (Adam) as a douchebag, the movie takes upon the point-of-view of May (the monster) for the most part. It is framed in a way that the audience is to sympathize with the monster and to feel that the “normal” is evil. The also does the same with May’s love life. It is framed in a way that May’s homosexual relationship seemed to be better (or more fulfilling) than May’s heterosexual relationship. However, even it failed due to its own unique imperfection that reflects how society views homosexual relationships as promiscuous.
Towards the end, it was more clear that perfection is what May had been seeking all along and that her disdain for imperfections became May’s driving force in her monstrosity. Perhaps this is in line with the use of the doll trope, since an alternate way of looking at dolls is that they contain a more perfect form of the human beauty (with its perfectly symmetrical figure and that it does not age nor worry about skin aberrations). In this respect, May becomes comparable with the Frankenstein movie in that May and Frankenstein took it upon themselves to create perfection. The difference is that Frankenstein’s monster was created without attachments (purely out of scientific inquiry), while May’s monster was created out of May’s subjective preference and longing for intimacy.
Harry M. Benshoff, “The Monster and the Homosexual.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).
Paul O’Flinn, “Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).