Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Translucent Dahlia (Or — A Short Story That Should Stay Short)

Elizabeth Short died at only twenty-two years old, her list of accomplishments numbering few. I don’t count an arrest in Santa Barbara for underage drinking as a resume-worthy, but in her brief, mostly unremarkable life, it serves as a high point, sadly enough.

Of course, most people know her, in a sense, because in death she became the Black Dahlia, one of California’s most famous murder victims. And to this day, her killer has never been identified. Given that her mutilated body was found in 1947, it’s quite likely that Short’s killer has also died. But her legacy lives on, mostly as a result of the infamously grisly state of her corpse, the sensationalist reporters who covered the investigation and later writers who cobbled into her story a considerable amount of fiction.

And this, I say, is fucked up.

I've written here before about the strangeness of taking creative liberties with Short’s story — only one of the many problems I had with the 2006 Brian de Palma movie, The Black Dahlia. But I was reminded of this awkwardness again last week, when I watched American Horror Story. Yeah, I’m still watching it, not because I think it’s scary but mostly because I’m curious to see what campy heights (depths?) the writers will take the story.

On last week’s episode, Short, played by Mena Suvari, showed up as one of the ghosts haunting the Murder House. (Yes, that’s what I’m calling it, in the same way that I called Lost’s setting Four Toe Island. I simply don’t have a better name for it.) Not that the house needed a resident spook, exactly, since at least thirteen others were already hovering about, and since I'm nitpicking, where the hell was she in any of the preceding episodes? Lost in the linen closet? It’s not that big of a house. Whatever the case, she’s there in Los Angeles County’s single most problematic piece of real estate, rubbing elbows and other body parts with Moira the Nympho Hag, Jessica Lange’s ghost children and the crazy-eyed sister of the girl playing Lisbeth in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Awkward Christmas for the Mara family.) As a character, Ghost Dahlia is a little superfluous, maybe, but superfluity is tough to gauge in a Ryan Murphy creation.

Irrespective of American Horror Story’s status as the most Karo syrup-y campfest this side of Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, I have two main objections to Short’s inclusion as a character.

First, it wasn’t necessary to present her as the Black Dahlia when they could have just made her a Black Dahlia, so to speak. I understand that the writers have enjoyed riffing on historical crimes in Southern California history. That’s a good instinct on this sort of show. I didn’t have a problem with the second episode’s introduction of the R. Franklin character — the psycho who killed two women in the house in 1968, back when it was a dorm — because they futzed with the details of Richard Speck enough that the plot didn’t directly piggyback off Speck’s real-life murders. That’s what makes the Black Dahlia’s appearance “as is” seem so awkward. They could have easily made her a Black Dahlia-like character in the way R. Franklin was a Speck-like character. Why spare the victims of one tragedy the indignity of becoming camp caricatures but throw Elizabeth Short on the sofa with Moira (hot Alex Breckenridge version) for some titillating lesbi-action?

Secondly, in placing Short’s ghost in the Murder House, the writers had to explain that she died there. All the house’s ghosts were humans who died within the property boundaries, apparently, so it was deemed necessary to show her getting gassed unconscious by a dentist and expiring while the good doctor screwed her on the operating chair. The problem I have with American Horror Story inventing a character to be Short’s killer is the same problem I had with the The Black Dahlia revealing a histrionic Fiona Shaw as the culprit. It’s shitty. It gives the viewer a false sense of closure about a real-life murder, when the person who most deserves justice — the dead girl — doesn’t get that. It’s in bad taste. Again, I know — Ryan Murphy project. But there’s a difference between an eye roller of Glee musical number and appropriating the tragic end of some poor girl for the purposes of cheap entertainment.

I know biopics reinterpret the lives of important people. As I write this, I could run out to a theater and watch fictionalized, dramatized takes on both Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover. But while these two earned their place in history as a result of how they lived, all Elizabeth Short has is how she died. (Seriously: Off the top of your head, how much do you know about her?) I don’t care that it’s been more than fifty years since some tossed the wreck of her body into some brush on the side of the road. I don’t think I want to see a fictional solution to her enduring mystery.

Alas, I’ve read that Suvari will be back for at least another episode, playing Elizabeth Short and not, like, Sharon Tate, though I would not blink if Murphy were to pull such a move. I can only hope the writers find a way to artfully intertwine her story with that of the other real-life personage who appeared in last week’s episode: the Pope. Yes, the Pope is a character in American Horror Story. I only hope he was majorly weirded out when he watched this episode.

Stray thoughts:
  • Upon appearing on this show, Mena Suvari can now count American Pie, American Beauty and American Horror Story among her credits.
  • Fiona Shaw from The Black Dahlia happens to be the same actress who played the female heavy in the Super Mario Bros. movie. Neat, huh?
  • I couldn’t think of a way to artfully work in “She looks just like that dead girl,” that infamous line from The Black Dahlia, spoken more than once about Hilary Swank’s resemblance to Elizabeth Short, who in the film is played by Mia Kirshner. I’d just like to point out that Swank looks no more like Elizabeth Short or Kirshner than she does Lucille Ball, and I’d like to point out that Suvari doesn’t much resemble Short either.


  1. I've been watching this show myself and was wondering what your thoughts are on it. I really feel that they're almost trying to reboot this show with every episode. (As you pointed out, there are a lot of ghosts and more seem to be introduced each episode).

    Do you have any idea why the maid was so upset about having the gazebo built over her? At first I thought that the show was implying that she would be free if her body was moved, but now that doesn't seem to be the case? Can the ghosts pass over if they want to, and why do some of them have partial memory loss?

    After investing time in this and Glee, I feel like Falchuck/Murphy are good at creating premises but weak at their execution.

  2. I have mixed feelings. It's interesting that people are watching a show that delivers so much batshit craziness on a regular basis, and in that sense, I kind of like it. But I just wish it could focus more on a natural story progression rather than trying to stuff so much into every episode. And I'm not sure who to root for. I think I like the ghosts better than the central family, but even then the majority of ghosts have only received minimal development.

    I don't know why Moira was upset about the gazebo, but I do know that she can't move on. In the second part of the Halloween episode, she "moved on" her mother but seemed distraught that she herself had to stay.

    And yeah -- I gave up on Glee and I doubt whether I'd want to watch the second season of American Horror Story, which has already been commissioned. Even that's kind of a sticking point for me, since it would seem to imply that this season won't end with, like, the destruction of Murder House.

  3. Anonymous12:53 AM

    I agree that Elizabeth Short's death is not justified with the representation in this show, but that's not what I have a problem with. Fine, they used a historical reference and created their own story, happens all the time. Most of the viewers watching it probably won't be able to figure out the reference anyways.

    The Problem for me is this new reference for the antichrist... after insinuating that Vivien may be carrying the antichrist is a little too much. This show already has so many different daring elements that this part of it is just too much. I really wish they would just pick a story line and continue with it instead of bringing up huge controversial subjects. For example does Tate even know his sister is dead yet? that happened like 4 episodes ago, and what's going on with Constance's fourth child?

    The beginning sequence of the show with the scientific jars, white night gown, and the burning photos of babies was enough to make me stop watching, but I too have become way too enthralled to see where the fuck murphy is going with this. It's going to be interesting to see how the manson murders, black dahlia, the adulterous gay couple with a domestic violence issue, beau, hayden.... like seriously you know a show is covering too much material when the last show was all about her and in this episode she was not mentioned, and god knows what else is going to appear out of that basement in the next few episodes, all have to do with armageddon.

  4. Well, this latest episode proved to me that if Hollywood plays its cards right ghosts could become the new vampires. But then again it could get annoying if every teen drama had an M. Night Shamalan twist.