Why do so many stories center around the mystery of a beautiful dead girl? She’s idealized and is often treated as a mystery to be solved. She’s the supposed focus of the story, but what we’re really seeing is the story of the people around her left alive to pick up the pieces. The portrait of her is mainly a reflection of who is telling the story, and in stories we do get to hear the dead girl’s voice there’s a tension between the angelic memorial and the real story.
Why do so many stories center around the mystery of a beautiful dead girl? The “Dead Girl”-centered film or TV show follows certain common patterns:
She’s idealized – this is true of many people in death, but no one more so than the dead girl whose life was cut short. The perfect, unblemished future that we imagine she would have lived feels utopian, and she’s depicted as an angel – but sometimes this means she’s flattened into a symbol that doesn’t capture the three-dimensionality of who she really was.
The dead girl is often treated as a mystery to be solved, the reality of her personality out of our reach. She’s the supposed focus of the story, but what we’re really seeing is the story of the people around her left alive to pick up the pieces.
Mari Gilbert: “They failed to take their disappearances seriously, and they failed to go after the people who took advantage of our girls.” - Lost Girls
The portrait of her is mainly a reflection of who is telling the story – and perhaps how they would want to be remembered.
She tends to be silent – but in stories we do get to hear the dead girl’s voice, there’s a tension between the angelic memorial and the real story. The messier truth might make us, and surviving characters, face how our own lives aren’t what we pictured they might be.
Here’s our take on the dead girl story, and the loss she really represents in our culture.
The Extraordinary Dead Girl
Turning the character of the dead girl into someone extraordinary is an effective framing device. The higher the pedestal the girl is placed upon, the higher the stakes. Her death becomes that much more tragic, and we become intensely invested in finding out what happened to her.
But this practice turns these individuals into symbols, often standing in for something else that we as a culture are mourning or fear losing. Girl in the Picture underlines this idealization in its central idea of looking at a “girl in the picture” and grieving the lost potential this innocent, pretty little blonde girl’s image represents to us.
Joe Fitzpatrick: “It was important to all of us. This is who she really was. This was her dad. This is her daughter. Here’s where she is. Here’s where she lies. And here’s what her true name is.” - Girl in the Picture
This mythologizing of the dead girl that these crime stories trade in is summed up by their often stock-like titles. As well as Girl In The Picture, there’s Girl In The Bathtub, Girl on the Train, and the historic Lady in the Barrel cold case. This language distills the victims’ essence down to one image which is generic and universal, so that we can project onto it.
This idealization is also present in our shared cultural narratives of high-profile victims of shocking crimes and famous stars who were murdered or had a tragically early death. In Casting JonBenét, the story of JonBenét Ramsay’s life and death is told almost exclusively through speculative gossip by actors auditioning for a part in a biopic, none of whom were directly involved with the investigation – so we watch as this instinctive desire to create a life for the dead girl plays out.
Carolyn Strauss: “That’s the pageant system, and a lot of those girls go on to do great things.” - Casting JonBenet
Another extreme example is Marilyn Monroe who – ever since her death by overdose at age 36 – has become less a person in our memories than an ideal of Hollywood glamour – whether she’s material for pop art, NFTs, or the jumping-off point for the semi-autobiographical film, Blonde, which openly states it’s not trying to be true-to-life.
True crime scholar Jean Murley points out that in crime narratives the angelic beautiful dead girl or missing girl is generally white – something we can see is true in iconic fictional examples from Twin Peaks to The Lovely Bones, as well as in the true crime cases and documentaries that capture the public imagination, like The Keepers, Making A Murderer, American Murder: Family Next Door, and the stories of JonBenét Ramsey or Madeleine McCann.
As Murley puts it, “There’s something about the missing young, beautiful white woman that has a lot of symbolic weight in America. …. it becomes a container for things like the loss of innocence or the death of purity.” The media frenzy and public hunger for stories about white, female victims has even been dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” HBO Documentary Black and Missing draws attention to the unsettling fact that a third of the missing women in 2020 were black, yet these cases are hardly recognized by national media and often suffer from a lackluster police response.
Natalie Wilson: “African Americans remain missing 4 times longer than white Americans.” - Black and Missing
In September of 2021, Gabby Petito’s case made headlines and was followed up on until a conclusion was firmly drawn, but countless other women like Mariah Edwards and Charita Chambers never received that type of public attention.
Because of our culture’s particular, age-old image of the ideal victim, the public is less likely to care about victims who don’t fit that mold for other reasons, too, like being involved in sex work. In Lost Girls, grieving mother Mari complains about the media coverage of her daughter and other victims of The Long Island Serial Killer, and the way they’re almost victim-blamed.
There’s a tacit understanding that the extraordinary dead girl isn’t the real person – she’s the person we prefer to remember, or the person we imagine she’d become.
Jenny Fisher: “She was just super smart. She was in ROTC. She was in science club, she was in the gifted program.” - Girl in the Picture
But in making these girls extraordinary, we also simplify their lives. When they get to speak for themselves, that’s when things get more complex.
The Complicated Dead Girl
The tension between the extraordinary dead girl and the real dead girl is born out of denial. If we deny the dead girl’s truth, maybe we can deny that she’s actually dead and those terrible things really happened to her. We see a portrait of this denial in Shutter Island. Teddy’s inability to face the truth about his wife Dolores has him imprisoned in his own mind, because the truth of the situation is too painful to bear.
Teddy Daniels: “I can’t take knowing that Dolores killed our children.” - Shutter Island
This denial is really an act of self preservation for the still living. In Twin Peaks, it’s beautiful blonde homecoming queen Laura Palmer who’s set up as the extraordinary dead girl. But as the layers of the story pull back, they reveal almost surreal levels of dishonesty and debauchery in Laura’s private life - and the brief recordings of Laura’s voice we hear aren’t anything like what we might expect from that single picture of her we were first introduced to.
Eventually it becomes clear that Laura’s perfect ‘good girl’ image is something the town has created and reinforced as a way to protect themselves from their own dirty secrets. The more real our idea of Laura becomes through her murder investigation, the more real everyone else in Twin Peaks becomes, and the more complicated the story of their town is
Bobby Briggs: “She said people try to be good, but they’re really sick and rotten, her most of all.” - Twin Peaks
Similarly, in Thirteen Reasons Why, we see how the students have begun to memorialize the recently dead Hannah, turning her locker into a shrine. But the tapes she leaves behind restore her agency after death. Through them she gets to guide the story, reveal that her death wasn’t as simple as people thought, and cause chaos for the community
This tension between truth and reality gets even more loaded in stories involving the messiness of relationships - and the figure of the dead wife is often framed as monstrous. In Rebecca, the titular character’s ghost stalks the halls of the mansion where her widower Mr. de Winter lives with his young new bride.
At first the new Mrs. de Winter finds it impossible to live up to their society’s and the staff’s impossibly idealized image of Rebecca as unbelievably refined, beautiful, and socially graceful. But this image is eventually replaced by an opposite memory of her – it turns out her former husband hated her, viewing her as destructive, promiscuous, even evil.
Maxim de Winter: “Her parade of men. Even her own cousin… She relished it. Playing the part, the perfect wife. Knowing that I would never divorce her.” - Rebecca
Though the fact that he was Rebecca’s killer should cast doubt on his reliability, ultimately we’re left with two completely contradictory ideas of Rebecca and no true picture of who she was.
In Inception, Dominic is haunted by his former wife Mal in his dreams, and her presence in his subconscious is an actual threat to his safety – because she’s trying to convince him that the world he’s living in isn’t real and he should just give it up.
In Gone Girl, Amy’s disappearance is immediately met by the media idealizing her achievements and speculating about her husband’s guilt. But when we get her side of the story, and learn how she’s orchestrated all this, the idea of her as an innocent victim gets far more complicated.
Amy Dunne: “Gone. And my lazy, lying, cheating, oblivious husband will go to prison for my murder.” - Gone Girl
Part of the complication of the dead girl is in how life goes on without her. She leaves an absence, and it’s an absence that needs to be filled — either by uncovering her secrets, or imagining how her life would have gone on. Perhaps without that absence being filled, people would get stuck in grief.
In The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon’s spirit is still lingering in our world, to a degree that she’s the story’s narrator. It’s only after her family figures out what happened to her that she’s able to move on, so there’s a sense that these lost girls aren’t at rest until the people they’ve left behind can get closure
Life After Death
After death, relationships still live. And not only that – they can still be formed, and grow. But for this, the dead person doesn’t need to be preserved in amber as an ideal of a person. We can get to know the real person better, and celebrate that. In Deja Vu, the father of a woman found washed up on the shore of New Orleans knows that, if her death is to be solved, she has to become a real person in the eyes of the man investigating.
Claire’s Father: “Go through ‘em when you get a chance.”
Doug Carlin: “That’s really not necessary.”
Claire’s Father: “Yes it is… I need her to matter to you.” - Deja Vu
In The Investigation, a dramatization of the police investigation of journalist Kim Wall’s death in 2017, we slowly gain a fully rounded picture of who Kim was, as the show drip-feeds us information about her life and her career.
Author Hallie Rubenhold’s true crime book The Five attempts a similar exercise for Jack The Ripper’s victims – while they’ve often been framed in the past as mysterious dead girls, The Five tries to present who these victims really were in a three-dimensional way.
In Promising Young Woman, Cassie’s story is driven by a sense of responsibility to get justice for her deceased friend Nina. But it’s not about whether Nina was extraordinary; it’s about the fact she was a human being who deserved to be treated better in life.
Cassie: “She was just… Nina. And then she wasn’t.” - Promising Young Woman
In the end, Cassie becomes “the dead girl” herself too – but she’s far more than an abstract idea to us, as we’ve spent the whole movie in her perspective, and we’re still cheering her on as she manages to take down her and Nina’s attacker from beyond the grave.
In Drive My Car, Yusuke’s response to his wife Oto’s death is to use his work as a way to better understand her, even if it causes him pain. When he casts the man she was having an affair with to play his usual role in his production of Uncle Vanya, there’s a kind of silent interrogation going on. Rather than abstractly memorializing his wife, he accepts that there were complicated parts of her he maybe didn’t know, and is willing to learn about those, and learn about her
So much of dead girl stories seem to be focused on imagining what their life would or could have been. But if our stories of death and grief flatten the experience into one generic thing, they’re not truly paying tribute to the person who was lost. If you accept the dead girl as the person she was in life, the relationship you have with her doesn’t have to die, too. You just have to change what that relationship is.
Mari Gilbert: “It is our job as mothers and sisters to make sure these girls are not forgotten.” - Lost Girls
Ernest, Maya. “Marilyn Monroe Wears Balenciaga and Fendi in These NFTs.” Input, 21 June 2022 https://www.inputmag.com/style/marilyn-monroe-nft-modern-fashion-cr-fashion-book-balenciaga
Rosner, Helen. “The Long American History of “Missing White Woman” Syndrome.” The New Yorker, 8 Oct. 2021 https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-long-american-history-of-missing-white-woman-syndrome