This video essay is based on the 'videographic PechaKucha' exercise in The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy book. The creative parameters for this project are 'ten video clips of precisely six seconds each, coupled with a continuous one-minute audio segment, all from the same film'.
I chose Thirteen Women (1932) because it is an example of a sorority slasher film made more than half a decade before the term became common currency.
However, in making this video, I realised that what actually makes this film truly unusual is the way it represents race.
Thirteen Women follows Ursula (Myrna Loy), a young woman determined to kill each of her former sorority sisters. They discovered that she was "passing" as white, and then they rejected her. Throughout the film, Ursula is variously described as “Asiatic,” a "half-caste Indian", “half-Hindu, half-Javanese or something". This racist stereotype of the monster as "exotic other" can be seen in a number of 1930s horror films, including Werewolf of London (1935) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).
In the audio extract I have chosen, Ursula gives a speech to her former schoolmate, Laura. It is a damning account of racism and white privilege that still has relevance today. However, Ursula is portrayed by Myrna Loy, who according Emily W. Leider, was of "Celtic ancestry" with "freckles and red hair". The Los Angeles Times confirms that Loy was typecast in "pseudo-Asian" parts throughout the 1930s. This was typical for a period when very few Black and Asian actors were cast in significant speaking roles in horror films.
This where my interest in Thirteen Women lies. Everything about this film is problematic. It is an outright horror film made when the genre was barely establised as a critical and industrial category. It is slasher film thirty years before Psycho, which is usually considered the progenitor of this subgenre. Then, it explicitly explores the impact of racism and white privilege, but it does so with a white actor playing a woman of colour. Nearly a century after its release, Thirteen Women remains a fascinating and contradictory text.
Content warning: the audio in this video essay contains racist language and racial slurs.
Dawn Keetley and Gwen Hofmann, Thirteen Women (1932): An Unacknowledged Horror Classic, Journal of Film and Video Volume 68, Issue 1 (2016)
Episode 83: Thirteen Women - It's in the Stars, Good Mourning Nancy podcast (2021).
Emily W. Leider, Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (2011)
Gina Marchetti, Romance and the "Yellow Peril": Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (1994)
Robin Means Coleman, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present (2011)
Some Notes on Thirteen Women, Warner Official Archive (2012)
Burt A. Folkart, From the Archives: Myrna Loy, Star of ‘Thin Man’ Films, Dies at 88, Los Angeles Times (1993)
Made by Alison Peirse
All aspects of the video essay data collection and manipulation are in accordance with the UK ‘fair dealing’ policy, specifically section 30 ‘Criticism, review and news reporting of Chapter 3 ‘Acts Permitted in Relation to Copyright Works’ in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
THE COLOUR LINE (2022)