The pilot episode of “Twin Peaks,” which aired in April 1990, begins with an image at once horrific and strangely compelling, disturbing yet deep-down familiar, the image of Laura Palmer’s washed-up dead body, sealed in a plastic bag. Her face is lifeless, her lips a grayish blue, and yet the blonde teenage girl retains her beauty, looking more like a washed up mermaid in need of a warm bath than a corpse that’s been decomposing underwater.
Before we even meet Laura Palmer, and long before we figure out who killed her, we know her type: The Pretty Dead Girl. In an article for Esquire, Anne T. Donahue recently argued that The Pretty Dead Girl trope, at least in pop culture, began with David Lynch’s cult series. However, our cultural obsession with lovely lady corpses probably began centuries earlier.
Some very early examples of the widespread idolization of beautiful, inanimate women can be found in what are known as “Anatomical Venus” figures, idealized waxen sculptures tucked into glass cases, used in 18th-century Italy to teach doctors, artists and interested citizens about the human form. These figures were less aesthetically bland medical abstractions and more sumptuous, lifelike sculptures of women with golden curls, pearl necklaces and ample breasts ― who happened to have their innards exposed. In an interview with HuffPost, historian Joanna Ebenstein explained that the corresponding figures used to teach male anatomy hardly ever involved skin, let alone other accessories. The female sculptures, however, were painstakingly detailed, even sensual, prompting doctors and students to find pleasure in their dead forms.
But one need not travel to a niche medical museum in Italy to see the Pretty Dead Girl motif in full view. Simply consider the Disney fairy tales so many young girls grow up with. Three of the original Disney princesses were Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, the latter otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty. Of the three, two spend the majority of their narrative lives unconscious. Sure, they aren’t dead, but they would have been, had a handsome prince not kissed them back into life.
In his 1846 “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allen Poe hammered the point home, asserting “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” The theme appears again and again in his poems, most famously in the 1849 poem “Annabel Lee.”
“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side / Of my darling — my darling ― my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea — In her tomb by the sounding sea,” Poe writes. More times than not, when mentioned in the poem, Annabel Lee’s name is preceded by a simple description ― “beautiful.”
The halls of art history, too, are littered with images of the lovely dead, perhaps none more famous than Sir John Everett Millais’ 19th-century “Ophelia.” The pre-Raphaelite painting depicts Ophelia, the character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” who drowns herself after being driven mad by her lover’s violence. She wears a ballgown and clutches a string of flowers ― crow flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples ― her hair tangled up with surrounding weeds and brush.
For Surrealist and pre-Raphaelite artists, hers was an archetypal image of liminal sleep, a trance-like state between life and death, the natural and supernatural. All quite romantic, but, of course, extrapolated from a tale of anguish, mental illness and suicide, dressed up in a flowing gown and tousled red hair. There are countless other iconic portraits of women in various states of deep sleep ― Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus,” Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” Sir Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June,” the list goes on.
Contemporary photographer Gloria Oyarzabal was horrified by the eerie misogyny embedded in this unseemly obsession, though a part of her was also entranced by the image. She worked through her feelings by drawing images of Ophelia, restoring some feminine agency to the lifeless muse. Eventually, representation was not sufficient. Oyarzabal took to embodying the character herself, documenting the act in a series of nude self-portraits.
“I picked up my old Mamiya [camera] and got into nature, into places where I could ‘smell’ tension,” Oyarzabal told HuffPost. She tried to imbue her poses with strength, power and discomfort, rather than eternal rest. “It was like screaming silently,” she said.
Another artist who repeatedly placed herself in the role of a dead woman, challenging anyone who dared look, was the late Cuban-born Ana Mendieta. In art school, Mendieta took to misogynist violence as a subject, blood as a medium, influenced in part by a rape and murder of a female university student that occurred on her campus.
For one piece, Mendieta tied herself to a table and didn’t move for hours, her naked body drenched with cow’s blood. She invited students and faculty to drop by without warning, turning them into witnesses to a “murder.” In a work titled “Clinton Piece, Dead on Street,” Mendieta, lay still in a pool of blood as a classmate stood over her taking photos of the carnage. In “Untitled (Rape Scene)” Mendieta was photographed lying motionless and blood-spattered at various spots across her university’s property.
The artist died in 1985 after falling from the window of her 34th floor apartment. Her husband, artist Carl Andre, was with her at the time; Mendieta was heard screaming “no, no, no, no” just before her body hit the ground. Andre was tried and acquitted for her murder, found not guilty on grounds of reasonable doubt. The defense argued Ana’s death was suicide, and used her haunting artwork to back up the claim. The tragedy was a horrific warning to women who dared to take ownership over images of their own death and destruction
Of course, not all manifestations of The Pretty Dead Girl are fictional. One of the most notorious true crime cases of all time is the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, six years after “Twin Peaks” debuted. Just this year, Netflix released the documentary “Casting JonBenét,” examining the lasting imprint the grisly killing left on the nation’s collective psyche.
“It was the imagery associated with it,” the film’s director Kitty Green told HuffPost, “which was all the pageants and crowns and the dress and the feather outfits that she was put in. I think those images were really haunting. So it was almost like this image of this pageant queen who almost seemed to have it all, but whose life went horribly wrong, or horrifically had it taken away from her.”
Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Short, Laci Peterson ― all are or were real-life women whose deaths were sensationalized in tabloids and on TV, in part because of their pretty faces. Their untimely ends became forms of entertainment, ghost stories disconnected from lived identities, not quite art or fiction but something close. (By some measure, Holloway’s death was treated as fait accompli, even though she wasn’t declared legally dead until 2012.)
Writer Maggie Nelson addresses the American-ness of murder ― particularly, the murder of young, white women, in her book The Red Parts, which chronicles the trial of a man accused of murdering Nelson’s aunt, Jane, a law student engaged to be married at the time in 1969. When recalling watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in a UC Berkeley class, Nelson makes an even more disturbing realization: culture doesn’t just privilege its pretty dead girls. By denying female characters independence, nuance and vitality, so many forms of art and culture create women characters who, even while walking and talking, are virtually lifeless.
“I remember feeling disconcerted by the way Kim Novak’s character seems stranded between ghost and flesh,” she wrote, “whereas Jimmy Stewart’s seems the ‘real,’ incarnate. I wanted to ask my professor afterward whether women were somehow always already dead, or, conversely, had somehow not yet begun to exist...”
Why is it that our cultural landscape is so fixated on unconscious female characters? Do we really privilege women most when they lack agency to such a degree that they lack a pulse? By perpetually returning to images of Pretty Dead Girls, are we accepting the prototype and the warning? A beauty ideal blemished by the violence women face on a daily basis, an advisory to those who still proceed with uninhibited independence?
Shows like “Twin Peaks” have provided depth, darkness and nuance to their Pretty Dead Girl leads, presenting Laura Palmer as a complex person rather than a random corpse that’s easy on the eyes. Yet most viewers, rather than recalling the fact that Palmer volunteered with Meals on Wheels or struggled with drugs, will remember a single, searing image: the first moment her face is revealed, lovely and docile and blue.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referenced the sensationalized death of Elizabeth Smart; we meant Elizabeth Short.