Whenever a Woman Masturbates in the Movies, Someone’s About to Be Murdered

A cinematic trope.

We all know what happens in a classic slasher flick: the teenagers who have sex pay the price. But a “psychological thriller” is a little different. In this genre, you might find two women crossing paths — often thrown together in the same house, slipping into one another’s clothes, and seeing their reflections all around them (whether in a dressing room’s vanity mirror, a dark subway window or a swimming pool). Oh, and there’s usually a masturbation scene before someone gets murdered. To wit, five examples from the ’90s to the present:

Single White Female (1992)

Among other quaint throwbacks — the newspaper ad for a roommate, the belted blazers, the Mac II — this movie about Upper West Side transplant Allison (Bridget Fonda) relies heavily on a few cultural relics, like the bottle of meds on Hedy’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s) dresser, to up the creep factor. As Hedy begins to adopt her new friend’s style and encroach on her love life, the middle-of-the-night scene where Allie spots her in the throes of a solo orgasm works to heighten the sense of dread. (That Hedy later kills Allie’s boyfriend with a stiletto in the eye and duct-tapes her to a chair proves the point.)

Fairly explicit for the time, the masturbation scene taps into a specific fear underlying the story; as Hedy later tells Allison: “I never met anyone so scared of being alone.” But there’s also a little irony surfacing elsewhere in the film, namely the suggestion that women might know and protect each other in ways that a man can’t. For another ’90s example of a female masturbator/murderer, see Presumed Innocent.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

For all of the mind-bending plot turns in this David Lynch noir, Mulholland Drive has the most traditional element out of the five movies on this list — a love story at the center. After Hollywood ingenue Betty (Naomi Watts), having just moved into her aunt’s apartment, finds a naked, amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) in the shower, the two embark on an adventure (“just like in the movies”) to discover Rita’s identity, becoming involved in a romance that seems to transcend the nefarious doings of the studio suits in the story’s background. More than halfway through the film, the camera goes headlong into an ominous black box, opening next onto a world that’s lost its luster, with the characters seemingly having rotated roles. This may be reality as opposed to a dream, it might represent a piece of an endless loop of time, and it might be a metaphor for show biz, in which someone taking your part means they took the life you were meant to have as well.

Betty’s (now Diane’s) tearful, interrupted scene on the couch with her hand down her pants is full of heartbreak and grim foreboding rather than the electricity of her moments with Rita. It’s followed by a devastating party, an arrangement with a hit man, and a gun shot that could be read as murder or suicide. Good luck unraveling it all. No matter how far you get, one more question remains — why didn’t this picture turn the captivating Harring into a movie star?

Swimming Pool (2003)

This delicious film by director François Ozon (co-written by him with Emmanuèle Bernheim and Sionann O’Neill) brings together Charlotte Rampling as an author (Sarah Morton) trying to break out of her detective-genre rut in the South of France, with Ludivine Sagnier as Julie, the intruding daughter of Sarah’s publisher (who has lent Sarah the house). Though it’s uneasy company with a threat looming around the edges, the haunted but vivacious Julie teases out the writer’s wild side (and brings back everything from town that you’d want to eat and drink too). Among these five films, Julie also has the only unabashedly lustful scene touching herself — in the company of a man who completes the love triangle, out on the deck of the swimming pool.

As with most of the other movies, delving into the mystery of what “really” happens is part of the pleasure of watching it. And while much is left open-ended, after the inevitable murder occurs (with a rock to the head) it’s satisfying to see the women take matters into their own hands, with Sarah emerging as the ultimate auteur.

Black Swan (2010)

As in Single White Female, and Rosemary’s Baby before it, the problem here may just come down to the brutality of the Manhattan real estate market — ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) really should have moved out of her mother’s place a long time ago. But apart from that, the punishing, en pointe demands of youth, beauty and perfection on women, who must also “let go” enough to seduce, take center stage in Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of the ballet Swan Lake.

For Nina, a crucial scene by herself under the covers starts as homework from the show’s predatory director, and finishes with a real nightmare — her mom sitting right across the room. As the story progresses, Nina makes a frenemy of Lily (Mila Kunis) while picking up a thing or two from Lily’s uninhibited sexuality. But the task in front of Nina (playing both the White and Black Swan) seems doomed from the beginning, leaving someone bound to get stabbed with the shard of a broken mirror before it’s over.

While the abusive mother (Barbara Hershey) bears the brunt of the villainy in Black Swan, the coda as the credits roll (written, directed and produced by 10 dudes) makes you wonder if the Swan Queen is still waiting for her due.

Personal Shopper (2017)

Unlike the other movies, this Paris-set film doesn’t have dual female roles at the core. But the loss of a twin spurs it on, with protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart) watching and listening for supernatural signs from her brother, who died three months earlier. Meanwhile, another woman does play a key part. Largely absent herself, the celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whom Maureen shops for, has prohibited her assistant from trying on her things. But lured by the “forbidden,” Maureen gets some illicit thrills slipping into her high-heeled boots, a reflective silver dress, and finally a “harness” overlaid with black silk organza, gathering the luxurious material around her while she goes to town alone in her boss’s bedroom. Soon enough, someone winds up fatally wounded on the floor.

Maureen is sexy-tough (in Stewart’s way), but not overtly sexual, except for the scenes when she’s trying on the off-limits clothes. A great deal about her character is kept hidden. We know that she yearns to be free of a job she hates — and, more quietly, from grief over her brother — but what holds her back, and what lands her desire fully in the danger zone, remains elusive.