“Don’t Go Into The Basement And You’ll Be Safe” And Other Lies Men Tell

In May Alex and I went to see Ex Machina and we’ve been talking about it, on and off, ever since; that movie really got under our circuit boards, so to speak. Lots of critics pointed out that the movie alludes to the French folktale of Bluebeard’s wife, particularly in one very, very disturbing scene involving CLOSETS in a SUBTERRANEAN BUNKER. It’s gross. And great!! You should watch it if you haven’t.

Bluebeard’s wife is one of those original fairy tales I heard when I was really young and have never forgotten, for reasons I think were always instinctively about self-preservation. To recap: Bluebeard literally has a blue beard, probably because he’s evil and girls should really be able to just LOOK at him and see that, but somehow he manages to keep getting (and mysteriously losing) wives. He gets a new young hot wife, because of course he does, and leaves her alone in his castle with a ring of keys. She can go anywheeeerrreeeeeeee in the house, he tells her, EXCEPT THE BASEMENT. No basement allowed. He still gives her the basement key, just…because, I guess? And so of course she’s curious, and she opens the basement door, and duh, all of his previous wives are in there, they are dead, there’s so much blood in the room that it even gets on the key when she puts it in the lock, he murdered them because he knew, from the bloody key, that they opened the basement door!

In some versions the wife is saved by her brother, and in other she saves herself, and like most old folklore passed down like a game of broken telephone the meaning isn’t entirely clear: “don’t trust old guys with lots of missing wives” seems like a safe one. But there’s a slight Eve-and-the-apple moral present, like, “women just can’t help themselves!” or something.

My personal reading of this myth, and perhaps the reason I’ve held it in my head for so long, was unexpectedly bolstered by this part of the Wikipedia entry I read to refresh my memory:

It is not known why Bluebeard murdered his first bride; she could not have entered the forbidden room and found a dead wife.

Bluebeard is, and always has been, someone who…kills his wives. And that’s it! There’s nothing our protagonist could’ve done to stop that from happening. He killed his first wife for some unclear motive, and ever since, he’s been setting traps for subsequent wives to somehow justify their death.

One of the best things about Ex Machina is that we don’t really know who, in this updated idea of the fable, the “new wife” is supposed to be. It should be the robot bride the megalomaniac genius built for himself, but it’s kind of also his young protege, who belongs to an assembly line of employees contractually married to their boss, and he’s the one who unlocks those forbidden basement doors, so.

But the myth shows up in any creepy or scary story that asks us to align our sympathies with the new wife: Jane Eyre discovering the original Mrs. Rochester chained in the attic, the unnamed heroine of Rebecca finding traces of the recently deceased Mrs. de Winter. I haven’t seen Crimson Peak yet, but from the trailers I’m kind of like, girl, come on, for SURE you are one in a long line of wives sacrificed to that ghost house. As a trope, there’s always some hot old guy, and he would be totally great, as long as you just don’t go into his secret room for totally normal and not at all terrifying reasons, don’t worry about it.

Mr. Rochester and Mr. de Winter don’t kill their wives, but their insistence that the women they claim to love just keep their mouths shut and stop asking so many questions is the kind of narrative foreshadowing nightmares are made of.

A man with a secret is never a good thing, in literature or film (or life, lol). Rarely do those brooding depths hold anything nice: he’s quiet because he’s thinking about me so much! He’s hiding something in that room and it’s a shrine to how much he loves me!, wrote no one ever. The sense of dread that comes from being forbidden to go somewhere, or ask about something, by the person who is supposed to be the love of your life, is, again, one that comes from a deep need to save yourself.