CW: stalking, domestic violence
Your stalker is invisible. They can interfere with your life. They can let you know they’re there without ever hinting it to anyone else. They can track you. They can ruin the relationships you have with your friends and family. They can make you feel reaching out will put others in danger. They can make people disbelieve that you’re even being stalked in the first place. They can make you disbelieve yourself. None of this is science-fiction. This is the reality we live in.
Read up on the women stalked and harassed through Gamergate – Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian, just to name a few. Groups including the alt-right use sites like 4chan, 8chan, and especially Kiwi Farms to stalk, harass, doxx, and threaten women. Stalking of one target is often coordinated across multiple people to cover multiple bases: physical proximity, social media, financial security.
How can a modern movie about stalking engage this while still being at its core a traditional horror movie? I’ve worked with groups that research and collect information about stalkers, and the bulk of this is a paper chase. It’s about vetting information, tracking clues back to who someone is, how dangerous they are or have been, what communities they’re part of and how dangerous those are. What resources do they have? What’s their physical access to their target? What’s their notional, or social online access? You can make a paper chase into a horror movie, but you may lose the brunt of something you’re trying to communicate along the way.
How do you create a metaphor for a stalker who can terrify you, but who for all intents and purposes is invisible because of the tools they use? You can just make them invisible. You can have them sit in the chair in the corner, like your phone or computer might, having access into your life. You can have them follow you unseen, just like cheap spyware a cyberstalker can employ. You can have them hear all your conversations, just like bugging tools that can be installed remotely on your devices.
When you’ve worked with stalking victims, hearing the phrase, “I think they can hear my conversations,” is reasonable. What I did was research, not tech, so it often meant getting them in contact with specialists in removing spyware from personal devices.
When you don’t know the extent to which tools like this can be simply employed, hearing that phrase will make you think the person being stalked is overreacting, losing their hold out of fear. What is very legitimate in their life becomes an outlandish and emotional overreaction to you.
They may even explain that the stalker has contacted them in disguise and made references to private conversations. When you look at the email they’re referring to, you might just see an ad, a newsletter, a piece of phrasing that’s just a coincidence. The person being stalked sounds even more as if they can’t be believed, despite what they’re referring to being very real.
This is designed. It’s had evolutions, iterations, and now that stalkers and cyberstalkers have places in which they share knowledge and experience, where they can find someone else to help them cover their deficits in certain ‘skills’, stalking has become a skill share community.
If that’s frightening, it’s because it is. I’ve been stalked. The first time was 19. The most recent time was 2017 and may still be ongoing. It sucks. It’s disempowering. The solutions to it are sometimes chaotic and rely on systems of response and community response that haven’t been reliably realized yet.
That’s a lot of words about what “The Invisible Man” intersects without talking about the movie. It’s all to say that, as a metaphor, the invisible stalker as a concrete presence in a horror movie feels disturbingly real. It feels relevant. It feels honest.
“The Invisible Man” isn’t a paper chase movie about proving the man exists. It’s a horror movie that’s just as much about a community erasing and disbelieving the stalker’s victim as it is about her and him going toe to toe.
“The Invisible Man” is a conventional B-movie that’s so good at what it does, it’s better than most A-movies. That still means it relies on a number of B-movie conventions. There will be a moment or two where you might start doubting if you have to think about a precise mechanic too long. The movie tends to know this, rushing you into the reaction to it as quickly as possible.
Two things make this approach work: the first is Elisabeth Moss’s performance as stalking target Cecilia Kass. It is rare that you get a central performance in this type of film that’s this nuanced and that speaks to the subject at hand in a deep way. Most horror movies relying on slasher tropes use the central (usually woman) figure to communicate desperation and a lack of answers. When they begin to fight back, it’s as if something clicks and they shift personality into someone who’s strong. That has its value as a storytelling device.
Yet the reality is that someone who’s already strong can be overwhelmed by a stalker. They have answers, but the community around them frustrates those answers. The community around them replaces the victim’s desperation with their own determination for normalcy. When the victim is recognized as beginning to fight back, it’s not because something’s clicked and they shift personality. When they begin to fight back, it’s only because they’ve been fighting back this entire time and part of that fighting is to get the community around them to recognize reality. What flipped personality wasn’t the victim; it was the community.
It’s comforting to imagine that moment a community finally recognizes the problem is the moment when a woman began fighting back. After all, how could the community have known before that moment? That tells a lie, because the victim was fighting the whole time. It’s just that the community around them would rather not acknowledge that what the victim’s been fighting back against is – in part – the community’s own resistance to recognize what’s happening.
“The Invisible Man” has a strong sense of this, and while there are extremely tense horror set pieces, it at least leaves many male-oriented tropes behind. Cecilia is fighting the whole time, in so many different ways. In this case, she’s trying to escape a controlling and abusive ex everyone else thinks is dead. It’s the community around her that – despite knowing what she’s already gone through – cannot manage to believe her. They support her, but only to a point, and they’re willing to break that support and stop listening to her far too quickly. There’s no point in the movie when a switch flips and she begins fighting back. She is doing it from the very first scene.
That’s what makes “The Invisible Man” different and tense. Even when the writing falters or a set piece arrives just a hair too coincidentally, it’s all played with a forthright determination to show Cecilia fighting back. She doesn’t have to grow into it. She just has to overcome a world that would rather erase her as an inconvenience than recognize what she’s fighting against.
The second part of what makes this all work is the direction. I can’t help but wonder how certain things might play differently if it were written and directed by a woman. That said, director Leigh Wannell has a keen sense of presenting terror. The pacing, both through cinematography and editing, are patient. The sound design ratchets up the tension unbelievably.
Scenes are allowed to breathe and develop. This is a film with a dozen Chekhov’s guns – elements you notice that you know will be relevant later on. It also has a lot of plot progression that you’ve seen in a film before. There isn’t a surplus of red herrings and misdirection. What you guess is going to happen in terms of a jump scare, chase, or horror element in a scene usually happens. “The Invisible Man” shows that this can still work well if you can be patient about them and time them right. Horror can be a lot like comedy this way – you may know the joke, but if it’s told really well, the director will still get the reaction they want out of you.
Being able to do this with patience, and with the priority on Cecilia (and thus Moss’s performance) allow the film to steer clear of feeling derivative. Its sci-fi elements are also introduced slowly and in a way that feels believable within the film’s world. Wannell also wrote the screenplay and it’s not up to the level of the performance and direction, but when the performance and direction are this good they make up for more than enough.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “The Invisible Man” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass. Harriet Dyer plays her sister Emily Kass. Storm Reid plays Sydney Lanier. Renee Lim plays Doctor Lee in a brief role.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Cecilia and Sydney talk about Sydney’s future academic plans. Cecilia and Doctor Lee talk very briefly about her health.
Obviously, that’s not a spectacular amount of women talking to women. The movie often focuses on Moss acting opposite (and often around) someone who’s invisible. Moss is in every scene, and many scenes involve very little talking.
The cast is small and the story keeps things very tight on the main players. Almost the entire film centers on Cecilia avoiding or running from her stalker. That also means that most of the conversation in the film is about the stalker and her situation.
The film could have done better here.
How does it do when addressing modern concepts of stalking?
I can speak to how “The Invisible Man” engages this, up to a point. It feels honest and needed. It feels cathartic. I remember as I walked out I began to hug the wall for no reason. I met someone’s eyes in a car in the parking lot when I glanced up. Before I knew what I was doing, that sensation of measuring my own safety and assessing everything around me returned. The film had obviously triggered me and my experiences being stalked more deeply than I realized. It took part of the day to shake off, but at the same time it felt somewhat cathartic.
I’m not upset that that happened. It needs to activate those things in order to tell its story and engage its subject in a way that feels honest.
At the same time, I’m a man. When I go to others and talk about being stalked, I don’t encounter the same obstacles or resistance in people believing me. Therefore, its honesty about a woman being stalked is a core piece in “The Invisible Man” that I can’t speak to. Even when a threat made me feel alone, I still had greater access to others’ belief and the resources and community that belief allowed. Society still treated me and my engagement of that threat differently. The people around asked what aid I needed and suggested recourses. I had options that helped blunt the effect. While it was still isolating and there were moments and situations where I felt unsafe, I’m a man. Even strangers will stop and listen to me if I need help in public. When I was being stalked, others were willing to listen. Were I a woman, I don’t know that they would have done the same.
Additionally, when I worked with people who were stalked in order to research their threat, I was the resource. I wasn’t going through their experience and there was specific training to make sure we didn’t start trying to inhabit their experience. We were most useful if we were able to avoid becoming anxious ourselves.
My being able to say it creates both a metaphorical and literal plot about being stalked that feels accurate is limited by not having gone through the experience as a woman. I can say that many aspects of this feel like they’re handled well, particularly in Moss’s performance of carrying trauma even as she fights back against a stalker and community erasing her. Nonetheless, I can’t speak for whether these aspects when covering the experience as a woman are handled as well, so take that assessment with a grain of salt.
The film may be triggering at points if you have been stalked or threatened. Horror is my favorite genre and it’s taken me a while to grow comfortable with it again. It actually felt like something of a step to watch a horror movie about being stalked, something that I’ve avoided for more than two years.
It may also be triggering in other ways. Some fight scenes are essentially representations of domestic abuse, and plot elements refer to sexual violence.
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