To celebrate Women in Horror Month, I will be highlighting some of my favorite undersung female characters in horror films each day this month. These posts will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movies mentioned, do yourself a solid and check them out before reading all the way through.
Today I’m celebrating Wendy Torrance from the 1980 The Shining.
Wendy finally seems to be getting a sort of reappraisal, but I have always adored Shelley Duvall’s Wendy. As I have written previously, I know it can be frustrating to watch her reactions to Jack if you cannot identify with her at all. Fortunately, I have never been in an abusive relationship like Wendy. Unfortunately, I do identify with her tendency to freeze up, try to pacify, and to people please. It is a defensive reaction that is upsetting to see but realistic, which makes the movie all the more horrific and tense.
Wendy is clearly someone who has already been wrestling with trauma and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. Jack Torrance seems unhinged as soon as we meet him, and likewise Wendy already seems meek and subservient to her tormented husband’s dangerous mood swings. She likely doesn’t have means to just leave him and provide for Danny. It is so sad to see someone trying to be positive and light in the face of such stifling negativity. She wants so badly to believe in Jack, and that hope leads her to agree to spend the winter at the Overlook.
Even as things slowly get worse and worse, she keeps trying to support and pacify Jack till it is far too late. When she cries and half-heartedly swings a bat at Jack as he advances on her, Wendy’s palpable fear and heartbreak is much more realistic than her suddenly slugging him like she is a member of the baseball gang from The Warriors. We are so used to bombastic, defiant action from our heroines we forget how terrifying and tragic it would actually be to experience what Wendy goes through over the course of the film.
Despite her incredible predicament, Wendy does eventually fight back. She manages to knock Jack out, and she locks him in the kitchen’s storeroom. She is still struggling with how sinister her husband has become, but doesn’t cave even when he feigns a head injury.
When Jack escapes and comes after them, Wendy helps Danny escape and tells him to save himself. The only time she snaps back at Jack prior to him physically attacking her is when she believes he has hurt Danny again. Wendy’s love for her son Danny is clear, even as she continues to try and find ways to pacify Jack’s behavior and make the best of an increasingly dangerous situation.
Shelley Duvall’s beautiful, strange, and poignant performance has created a character that reminds us of how fragile our lives can be, and how making ourselves small for others does not keep us safe.
Hats way off for Wendy Torrance and Shelley Duvall for bringing her to life despite an incredible difficult movie shooting experience. It hurts me and diminishes my love for one of my favorite movies to imagine the things Duvall dealt with on set. I am so incredibly thankful for this character and Duvall’s commitment to bringing her to life.