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Horror Imagery in
I May Destroy You
by Graham Williamson
One of the secret handshakes that horror fans enjoy is the ability to watch or read something that’s been described as a dark drama, or a psychological thriller, or a gripping suspense narrative, and recognise it immediately for what it is – horror.
Recently I belatedly watched one of the biggest TV success stories of the first lockdown, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (BBC, 2020). Told in twelve half-hour episodes, I May Destroy You is one of the few modern pieces of auteur television that deserves the label. Coel is the writer, executive producer and co-director with Sam Miller; she also plays the lead role. Since its release, the series has won two BAFTAs, two Emmys and two Independent Spirit awards.
Coel has talked openly about how I May Destroy You was inspired by her experience of sexual assault, fictionalising it in the story of Arabella Esseidu, a hotly-tipped young writer whose world falls to pieces when she is raped on a night out. Despite this autobiographical inspiration, Arabella is not an authorial self-insert. At times, she can be surprisingly unsympathetic, most notably in the ninth episode, ‘Social Media is a Great Way to Connect’.
This episode deals with the aftermath of Arabella’s decision to go public with her story of sexual assault, which leads to her being hailed as a feminist guru. Yet as the public acclaim pours in, she becomes increasingly cold and judgmental towards her friends, addicted to the high of being seen as a moral arbiter. It is hard not to wonder if Coel, who has been rightly hailed for her bravery and honesty in speaking out about sexual violence and its aftermath, wrote this as a warning to herself: do not let the acclaim turn you into this.
Before we discuss I May Destroy You’s horror strain, we must discuss how it has been received by mainstream critics. What limited negative commentary there has been about I May Destroy You often centres on a plot strand that comes to a head in this episode, regarding Arabella’s friend Kwame (Paapa Esseidu). Kwame is a gay man who we have seen – in one of the most disturbing moments of the series – being sexually assaulted by a man he met on Grindr.
He copes with the aftermath by experimentally dating a woman called Nilufer, whose demands for rough sex trigger traumatic flashbacks of his assault. When Nilufer, played by Pearl Chanda, finds out he identifies as gay she reacts furiously, claiming that his deception is equivalent to rape. In an article for gal-dem, Leyla Reynolds sums up the end of Kwame and Nilufer’s plotline as follows:
‘…in one of his final scenes Kwame is being condemned for displaying a fake identity. He is portrayed as selfish and fraudulent for not disclosing his sexuality, despite his sexual partner’s own refusal to read Kwame’s reluctant body language, also stating that gay men are “major appropriators of the female identity”.’
One of the ways in which Coel uses the expanded space of television (as opposed to theatre or film) is to explore characters’ worldviews more thoroughly, even when those worldviews are repellent. Even the character inspired by Coel’s own rapist is allowed a speech in the final episode, where he decries Arabella’s feminism as vain and first-world-centric. Considering the combustible subject matter of I May Destroy You, it’s not surprising that some have accused her of indulging rather than exploring these viewpoints.
Reynolds’s reaction is her own, but I would quibble with one word of it: ‘portrayed’. Rather, Kwame is described as ‘selfish and fraudulent’ by a character who we’ve already heard fetishise and stereotype his Blackness before she hypocritically accuses him of fetishising her womanhood. There is simply no way that someone with Coel’s politics and life experiences wants us to see Nilufer as authoritative, and when Arabella joins in with the criticism of Kwame she is meant to be seen as similarly unreliable.
We know Arabella should be seen as unreliable here, not just because of the storyline concerning her growing reliance on social media, but also because she is dressed as a demon for most of the episode. The textual reason for this costume is that it’s Halloween, but by episode nine I had noticed a recurrent thread of horror imagery around the edges of the show.
It’s not just that rape is horrific – I would struggle to describe The Accused (US, Jonathan Kaplan, 1988) as a clandestine genre film. It’s not even that the series depicts Arabella’s trauma in ways that are more expressionistic than standard realist drama, with Arabellas blank, nervous smile filling a distorting lens as terrifying machine-gun bursts of POV flashbacks interrupt her reality. It’s not even the film’s colour palette, which soaks each scene in enough neon light to rival a modern throwback horror like Bliss (US, Joe Begos, 2019).
No, it’s things like the apparition of a lank-haired, demonic Arabella, straight out of Ring (Japan, Hideo Nakata, 1998), that hovers over her bed at the start of ‘Social Media is a Great Way to Connect’. The spectre appears on screen for a second longer than the apparitions of Pipes in Ghostwatch (UK, Lesley Manning, 1992), but it’s still fleeting enough to have viewers expecting a naturalistic drama rewinding, wondering what the hell they just saw.
Personally, I began to suspect a hint of the occult around the edges of Coel’s London in episode two, ‘Someone is Lying’, where Arabella goes to hospital following her rape. She is approached on a balcony by a fellow patient, who has been allowed out of her bed despite her hospital gown being soaked in blood around the crotch. This is implausible but not necessarily unreal; the tell comes when, after reassuring Arabella and asking if this is her ‘first time’, the stranger cryptically intones ‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’.
Readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five will recognise this as the epitaph on the grave of Billy Pilgrim, who in the course of an intermittently beautiful and frequently painful life becomes ‘unstuck in time’, thrown helplessly across different time periods and planets. Both Vonnegut and Coel use the phrase in a way that is bitterly ironic, but Coel also wants viewers to recognise the allusion to Vonnegut’s extraordinarily imaginative novel. The woman in the bloodstained hospital gown might just be a fan of Vonnegut, but she might be something stranger; one of Pilgrim’s fellow drifters through time, perhaps, or even a kind of guardian spirit of sexual assault survivors. The feeling that this character exists outside the parameters of most of Arabella’s story is compounded when she returns in the series finale, which breaks completely with any kind of realism – except psychological realism, which has been Coel’s main concern all along.
Why does I May Destroy You keep returning to this surreal, horrific imagery? One answer might be that its ‘tweener’ status – not a full-on horror series, but not strict realism either – allows it to avoid the pitfalls of tackling this difficult material in a rigid format. I suspect that many Horrified readers will agree with my belief that social realism has an undeservedly exalted status in British film and television, too dedicated to looking as drab as possible to get inside the emotional reality of trauma with the visceral, expressionistic force Coel and Miller display in I May Destroy You. But tackling race, rape and sexuality in a horror format has its risks as well.
There’s a moment in the documentary Horror Noire (US, Xavier Burgin, 2019) where the director Rusty Cundieff enthuses that ‘we gotta flip the scales and make horror redemptive’. If you can achieve it, it’s a remarkable trick, and the success of Get Out (US, Jordan Peele, 2017) proves it’s not impossible. But horror has not, traditionally, been a redemptive form, and the racially charged horror that has come in Peele’s wake – films like Antebellum (US, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, 2020) and Karen (US, Coke Daniels, 2021), as well as TV series like Them (Amazon Prime, 2021) – have been excused of exploiting rather than venting Black pain, revelling in the mutilation of Black bodies and the torture of Black psyches rather than offering hope or even catharsis.
Sometimes this is valid criticism – the first act of Antebellum really does have nothing to say other than ‘slaves got raped and branded a lot’. Equally, though, even the cosiest horror film will still involve some level of violence and cruelty, and it’s worth questioning whether this is the best genre for the redemptive work Cundieff envisages.
I was thrilled by the sudden appearance of horror elements in I May Destroy You, and in the unlikely event that Coel is reading this article looking for ideas for her next project, a full-on dark urban fantasy in the vein of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere would be both surprising and strangely logical. But it is neither a full-on horror series nor a full-on social realist drama, and it gains strength from treating genre noncommittally.
That said, the final image returns us to genre territory. After spending the whole episode coming up with possible endings for her story, Arabella breaks the fourth wall and smiles into the camera with a strange, ambiguous effect. It has inspired many readings, but a genre audience will immediately think of similar closing images in The Omen (US, Richard Donner, 1976) and Psycho (US, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Except here it conveys the promise of a better life or at least a kind of survival that didn’t seem possible at the start of the series. Maybe Coel really has flipped the scales here.
Reynolds, Leyla, ‘Why I May Destroy You’s ending destroyed my love of the show’. Gal-dem, 23 July 2020
Pre-orders are now open for Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror History by Lauren Jane Barnett