“If you can’t find a friend, make one.”
Sometimes movies bomb not because they’re bad or failed to sell themselves effectively, but solely because of lousy timing. The Thing, celebrated today as one of the all-time greatest science fiction horror movies, was initially a commercial failure because it had the misfortune of competing with more rousing sci-fi spectacles like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Tron, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that audiences were clamoring for 1982. Despite being one of the best movies ever made about American astronauts, First Man hit theaters during a time when the heyday of NASA was not at the forefront of anyone’s mind and an infamous dimwit put it at the center of a pointless jingoistic culture war.
So imagine you’re Lucky McKee, fresh out of film school, your only other feature being a super-low-budget exploitation film. You get the opportunity to really make your mark with a unique kind of horror movie that has an actual budget and professional actors. It’s sort of a slasher but more of a character study with maybe some psychological and surrealist elements mixed in, and its main theme is an exploration of the mentally corrosive effects of loneliness. What would be the absolute worst window of time to release that movie?
May Dove Canady has been lonely for a long time. She was lonely as a child, ostracized because of her strabismic amblyopia, with a mother who was… no, “abusive” isn’t the right word, but you don’t have to be an abusive parent to leave your children woefully unequipped to deal with the grown-up world, do you? May is still lonely as an adult earning a meager living as a veterinary assistant. Her only “friend” at the outset is Suzy, her mother’s homemade doll, and even from the start, she knows she needs a real friend. But unlike dolls, human beings are complicated. It’s why dating “hacks” and similar grifts are so popular; actually approaching a stranger and trying to connect with them on an emotionally intimate level is really hard to do, and people are willing to pay handsomely to learn that “one weird trick” promising to make it less of an ordeal or download the next app that promises to gamify the process.
Despite immediately crushing on him, just approaching the cute auto mechanic Adam and talking to him is so daunting for May. Polly at first seems to share her odd proclivities but even then, May can’t seem to handle more than brief interactions with her. To compensate for the emotional hardship of accepting their personalities and complexities, she simplifies them, narrows them down to her favorite body parts of theirs; “You know when you meet someone, and you think you like them, but the more you talk to them you see parts you don’t like?”
Adams hands, Polly’s neck… these become fetish objects for May. Contrary to popular assumption, fetish is not a synonym for “kink.” A fetish is a replacement for something deeper missing from one’s life as a means to mentally soothe and distract that person from reckoning with the full impact of its absence. She knows she’s missing relationships with others, missing friends, missing a lover. But because the Suzy doll has been her only reference point for what that is, she can’t comprehend another friend as anything other than another doll to construct from her favorite “parts” of others.
We’re introduced to May as a young woman seemingly starved for human connection, but by the end, it’s clear that her isolation has left her finding genuine prolonged human contact literally disorienting. Frightening, even. So instead of finding a friend… she makes one. Just like her mother told her to.
The worst window of time to release May was shortly after 9/11 but before the trend of extreme gore/torture movies would really take off. The first decade of the 21st century sucked in so many ways, but one part of it I look back on with no small sense of nostalgia was how the immediate aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack in human history motivated a sense of sustained camaraderie and interconnectedness among seemingly everyone around me to a degree that I have never witnessed before or since. This is, of course, a deceptive memory – if you were a Muslim living here during that time, you felt no such solidarity with millions of Americans who assumed you were involved in the attacks somehow. But the fact remains that most casual moviegoers probably could not relate to a movie about a disturbed woman driving herself mad with her own social awkwardness and isolation during a time when everyone was singing songs about joining hands and standing together against terrorism. Even worse, its theatrical release was sandwiched between The Ring and Saw popularizing horror trappings that May didn’t fit into at all.
I can’t help but wonder how May would be received if it was released twenty years later than it did. Despite the explosion of so-called “social” media as an integral part of our day-to-day lives, most of us feel less connected to others now than we did back when the “Letter of the Eight” was published (thanks again, Zuck!). The number of adults eschewing romantic commitments, widespread feelings of loneliness and isolation in public opinion polling (and, by extension, the negative health outcomes associated with those feelings), and partisan conflicts breaking up friends and families are all on the rise.
Rather than having a cripplingly lonely person fixate on the most attractive parts of us, we now take the initiative and hack them off ourselves for our idealized, curated identities on social media. Nowadays, we can just hide the parts of ourselves we don’t like rather than risk being rejected because of them. Right-wing influencers are becoming more vocal about abolishing no-fault divorce and marital rape laws, because after all, what is a wife other than a submissive maid/babysitter/sex slave with no desires or agency of her own that the other partner has to respect? Heck, why even have human relationships at all? May’s best “friend” was a doll, and that was before the advent of complex A.I. algorithms. Over twenty years after May failed at the box office, tens of millions of Americans have now become its eponymous character, yearning for human connection with no understanding of how to get it.