Rage, Control, and Rituals of Violence in ‘Sharp Objects’

‘Sharp Objects’ deftly contrasts two kinds of female serial killers and the generations of ritual abuse that tie them together.
Sharp Objects
By  · Published on August 27th, 2019

Spoiler level: This piece contains full spoilers for Sharp Objects Season 1, as well as a frank discussion of disturbing topics including self-harm, child abuse, and serial murders.

The locals of Wind Gap, Missouri, are superstitious. Town children spook each other with ghost stories about the “Woman in White” coming to take them. The town places great reverence on their local holiday, Calhoun Day (not-so-subtly a story of Confederate pride). And when a young girl’s body is found in a creek, snagged in some rocks by the clothesline tight around her neck, they take those rocks out to the edge of town and smash each one, as if that might prevent such a horrible thing from happening again. But Wind Gap is defined by its secrets and the way it lets these secrets fester for generations underneath its small-town charm.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée opens many scenes of Sharp Objects from a distance — over a shoulder, peering around a corner — to give the feel of an outsider observing these small-town rituals before being drawn fully into the scenes. Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) dives into that toxic environment when she is forced by her editor to return to the fictional Wind Gap, her hometown, to write about what seems to be serial killings. Though she comes from St. Louis to cover these crimes, she is far from an outsider. In fact, the horrors of Wind Gap strike far closer to home than she ever could have expected when she took the assignment.

Camille’s sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) is openly callous to these tragedies — except around her mother Adora (Patricia Clarke) — stealing and playing with mementos from the memorials for the missing and murdered girls. Just how deep does her lack of empathy go? Are these the actions of a typical teenager reacting to an overbearing mother and the deaths of her peers, or is there more beneath the surface? The police suspect a male perpetrator due to the violence of the crime; this assumption is not unreasonable since statistically, most serial killers are male. No one expects that a young girl could be capable of such savagery; they underestimate Amma’s hidden rage.

As defined by the FBI, serial murder is “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” While there is no single profile that covers all serial killers, there are traits that most have in common including “sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior.” This classification has proved useful to law enforcement agencies to identify trends and help law enforcement to identify and catch killers.

Amma fits many of these criteria. Many serial killers suffered from childhood abuse. Without good parental figures to steer their development, they escape into elaborate fantasies. This detachment from reality can lead to stunted or absent empathy. Amma obsesses over her dollhouse, trying to replicate every detail of the lavish southern mansion they live in down to the ivory tiled floor of Adora’s bedroom. However, no more than Adora can be the perfect mother she tried to advertise to the world, Amma can never achieve satisfaction in her dollhouse. It will never be perfect.

Her modus operandi (M.O.) changes through the series based on the situation of each killing. However, she has a disturbing signature — she extracts and keeps the teeth of her victims. This ritual goes beyond the physical act of murder; it fulfills an inexplicable psychological need in Amma. At home, she is controlled by an overbearing and abusive mother, but through these killings, Amma exacts complete control over Wind Gap. Throughout the series, Amma worries Camille by wandering around town late at night while a killer is on the loose. It strikes her older sister as adolescent arrogance, but in truth, Amma knows that she has nothing to fear once she leaves the house.

Adora is a killer, too, but she expresses a subtlety that her daughter lacks. As a result, she has gone decades without getting caught. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MBP, or the current name Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another [FDIA]) is a disease of abuse in which a person inflicts symptoms on someone under their care in order to bask in the attention of caring for them. It is generally inflicted upon children, usually by their mother.

Although Adora does not have enough victims (yet) to qualify as a serial killer, she shares much of the same behavior. Like serial killers, Adora has her own signature rituals to follow. She mixes her poisons (including antifreeze, prescription drugs, and rat poison) by hand into lovely apothecary-like bottles before hand-feeding them to her daughters. After they fall ill, she plays the attentive mother and dotes on them. Like serial killers, she has a deep deprived need that cannot be satisfied and so she cannot seem to stop herself. Because of the cyclical nature of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, it is common for the victims to die under their care.

In a newspaper article featured in the eighth episode, “Milk,” Camille writes:

“If she [Adora] was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage — overcare, killing through kindness. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Adora fell on that sword spectacularly. Of course, she never did explain the teeth. That kind of naked rage a person, man or woman, would need to do something like that.”

She even suffers from the same fantasies as Amma. Not unrelated to Amma’s dollhouse, Adora dresses Amma in childish dresses and tries to shield her from the “nastiness” of the real world. She keeps the room of her deceased daughter Marian (a victim of her FDIA abuse) in perfect condition as a shrine to her perfect, favorite child. Amma intuits this at a young age:

“Is that why you want me to stay little? So I’ll be like Marian? [. . .] You can never be as good as someone dead.”

Despite her crimes, it is possible to spare a moment of sympathy for Adora. She tells Camille a story of her mother Joya taking her out to the woods in the middle of the night and leaving her there. She was seven. Abuse is transmitted from mother to daughter, growing through the generations like a vile weed. In a fundamental perversion of the mother-daughter relationship, all of Adora’s daughters suffer under her care. Marian eventually died from her poisoning. Camille relives her trauma every day and copes with rituals of her own — drinking and cutting. Amma hurts others.

Rage and control are the two features that define the killers of the Crellin family, though they manifest in different ways. Adora’s dysfunction stems from neglect and abuse as a child. She demands absolute control over every aspect of her household. Like a classic narcissist, when given what she wants, she lavishes attention and love on her family. If they ever dare to defy her, she responds with cruelty and neglect. Amma suffers under that control and responds by unleashing her rage upon her community. While MBP and strangulation are very different types of serial murder, both women are inflicting ritual violence on proxies to assuage their own deep psychologic trauma. Sharp Objects is the story of that trauma and how it transmits and amplifies through the generations of the Crellin family.

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