Pauline Parker is marked by love. The sort of love that erases the crackles in the mirror, wipes clean the grime of family pain, cares not that the boy in class won’t look over. The love between women exists as both bridge and binding: it can elevate you and it can rip you in half.
When you think of these girls, they are not pretty, they are touched in some way that circumvents pretty: crooked eyebrows, a red mole, jelly-thick arms, cornbread hair with a firm middle part. Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) is not pretty so much as sharp and pale-lipped. What is it John Waters says? “A face should jolt, not soothe.” Juliet is jolts and sparks and hiccups. You’ll never forget her.
I worship the power of these lovely two
With that adoring love known to so few.
’Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel,
That two heavenly creatures are real.
So wrote Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) in the journals that would incriminate her. She was fourteen when she found herself in a candy-colored courtship with Juliet Hulme. Pauline the small and meek, Juliet the bold and brash. They were New Zealand schoolgirls, Juliet a rare British import, and they were delicious and divine, drunk on their collaborative self-importance. They were both real people, infamous in New Zealand lore, and the subjects of Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh set out not to regurgitate courtroom articles, but to tell a true crime story through the fairytale lens of adolescence. They had diaries full of opulent fantasy worlds, fantastical poetry; rich clay to mold. Pauline and Juliet made a Fourth World they called Borovnia. It is so succulent, you might know it yourself. It exists in the fold of space where we dwell and don't know it: In the euphoria of passion, the deep rigors of self-hatred, the swoony curtains of sleep. When you are young and female, the lines blur so that Borovnia might be any other place. As accessible as a store in the mall.
The hysteria of female puberty is told with much inspection, the subject of fervor and myth. What is now synonymous with religious extremism and misogyny—like the Salem witch trials—is still a perplexing truth. Young girls in the early turmoil of transition invite suspicion and danger, because suspicion and danger feed them. Bloodlust is a poison and a pleasure to preteen girls, when hormones are slushing about and sticking to sides. We have it with Pauline and Juliet, and we had it again with the 2014 Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier were two girls so filled to the brim with whimsical obsession that it translated, in some frenzied form of miscommunication, into violence.
Any girl imprisoned in a blossoming mind might recall the status of those years. Legs against legs on the bus, sleepovers with junk food and movies, faces so close that you might kiss your best friend instead of listening to her. Every sweat-stained moment is one of passion. Sex is everywhere but less formal than it is with boys. It’s seen not as penetration, but in the labia petals of tulips, the semen-sweet summer air, the syrupy blood of a dripping popsicle. For many, that first foray into pleasure is through the oblong portal of female friendship. In a form familiar but out of body.
Peter Jackson, as a grown man, found the delicacy of this layered-cake union in Heavenly Creatures. Take, for instance, the montage of Pauline and Juliet’s coming together. As Mario Lanza’s “The Donkey Serenade” spikes buoyantly in the background, the girls dance in costume through the Hulme living room, read books at the seams of the school courtyard as other students mingle in sport, zoom with airplane-arms through a stretch of lawn, mold clay figurines that will later populate Borovnia. There is no irony in this teenage happiness. Colors are rendered brighter with the other one around. Strangeness feels less strange. When Pauline, played with dewy-eyed importance by Lynskey, later sleeps with a man, at the height of their should-be joint pleasure she imagines Borovnia and its blue-stone castle, flowers and clay people, with Juliet in centerfold sunlight.
Carol Morley’s 2015 film The Falling shares plenty with Creatures. It is another depiction of obsessive female friendship among uniformed schoolgirls. A deep-throated blonde, Abbie (Florence Pugh), is Juliet not in eyebrow or gloating spirit, but in the way she corrupts the mundane Lydia (Maisie Williams). The Falling is more oblique and outright devotional than Creatures, but in their spirit is the same love spell of feminine youth. High skirts and tight plaits and freckles and long hair and the mutual desire for female flesh. Abbie dies mysteriously and a fainting spell breaks out among the girls at their private school, headed by Lydia. It is girlhood sex as a contagion, less a fable and more like history.
Emma Cline wrangles with a similar superstition in her 2016 novel The Girls, about a plain girl named Evie and the mysterious Suzanne, who lures Evie into a Bay Area cult that resembles the Manson Family. “No one had ever looked at me before Suzanne, not really, so she became my definition,” says Evie. “Her gaze softening my centre so easily that even photographs of her seemed aimed at me, ignited with private meeting.”
Cline’s words provide a thesis for these related works: Women know the interior secrets of other women. Young women, yet untainted, see these secrets more boldly, and, because they don’t yet possess the proper worldview, more dangerously.
The less informed tend to reconcile with these actions with thoughtless accusation: they are insane, they were neglected, they are gay. The complexities of female sexuality are diagnosed instead of examined under less sterile conditions. It’s what allows the danger. It’s what permits the heinous acts. We fail their stories by regulating them.
The great success of Heavenly Creatures is that it arrives at no foregone conclusion. We see the selfish, ridiculous Pauline and the aching, heartbroken Pauline. We see the crude, manipulative Juliet and the immature, lonely Juliet. Jackson shines them through a prism instead of caging them in a box. “Creatures” is an accurate description. They are made intangible, they are unfiltered, but in the end there is no wrangling with what it means. The film ends with the murder of Pauline’s mother and a postscript that tidies up the facts: they went to prison, they were released, they never saw one another again. (In 1994, the public learned that Juliet Hulme assumed the pseudonym Anne Perry and became a successful crime novelist in her native England.) It is a perfunctory way of reasoning the truth without dictating its progression. In the end, it is merely a tragedy of separation. A code to be cracked.
“We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius,” Pauline Parker wrote in her diary. Another will think this, and then another. They will crystallize into a greater lore. For another time or meant to be forgotten.
Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago.