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How the ghost of a dead sister haunts a home

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She materializes during any moment of stillness.

Using my vulnerability like a gateway from the afterlife, my dead sister’s ghost appears whenever l forget to keep her at bay. 

If I’m caught off guard, fail to keep my mind busy, run out of weed, momentarily stop ripping at the skin around my fingernails — when there’s no people, no intellectualizing, no stinging pain, no cloud of distraction — there she is. 

But the ghost of a half-formed memory who haunts the house we grew up in is not really my sister. 

My sister was something I used to touch, someone who bit back, took up space, spoke out. Her ghost is only absence. She is a manifestation of unsaid words, unused clothes, the unchanged room still waiting for her.

I share more in common with Sharp Objects’ Camille Preaker than I’d care to admit. 

And maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about one recurring image in the series, which has become a shorthand for how Marion’s absence haunts Camille and the Preaker house: a pristine blue ribboned dress, either laid out neatly on the pink covers of a twin bed or clutched between a mother’s suffocating arms. Always empty, uninhabited.

There are many different ways a family can poison a sibling to the point of death, and not all of them deliberate. My sister wasn’t murdered by a blue bottle. But neglect and unaddressed mental illness seem just as effective a recipe for tragedy.

Blame is an unhelpful concept when it comes to suicide. 

But like Camille, that doesn’t stop it from gnawing at my insides until I need to make myself forget or see myself bleed. It’s a way of coping with the sense that you could’ve done something, didn’t put the pieces together in time, let her slowly die in that house.

Sharp Objects director Jean-Marc Vallée has become known for a visual style that captures what a traumatic trigger feels like. 

He used abrupt, quick flashes of disjointed images and memories to great effect in his previous HBO series, Big Little Lies. But arguably, the technique found its greatest expression through Camille Preaker, immersing viewers in her perspective.

I know firsthand how even the most ordinary things can trigger that onslaught of jumbled images, part real and part imagined, that make a death feel inescapable. 

For Camille, it’s triggered by a cracked iPod and Rollerblades, her sister’s room frozen in time. For me, it’s the jars of coconut oil that smell like her, cigarettes, and the house we grew up in that  remains just as frozen.

There are other kinds of poisons used in dysfunctional families

There are other kinds of poisons used in dysfunctional families

In the series, Vallée makes a clear distinction between flashes of triggered memories, and the more rare bonafide flashback sequences of actual events that happened in the past. 

Editing and sound design convey the difference. Triggered memories are cut together rapidly and maintain the sound of whatever’s happening around Camille in the present day. It forces the audience to experience the jarring dissonance of PTSD.

But the few true flashbacks in the series transport the viewer fully back in time.

In one, Camille is playing with her little sister’s hair, and Marian asks a question that explains the surreal sightings of her apparition around the house: “What if when you die, a part of you goes to heaven and part of you stays here. Just to look after stuff, you know? See how things turn out.”

She’s resurrected by each, that ghost who you will never truly lay to rest.

Camille cannot bear the possibility. But Marian evidently took it upon herself to do just that.

While Vallée distinguishes between flashbacks and Camille’s PTSD hallucinations, the two still often bleed into one another. Trauma distorts memory. So the show forces us to question what’s real or imagined, because that’s what people in grief must do too.

My mind replays its own jumbled loop of stolen moments with my sister, alive — but she’s ethereal in the retrospect of death. 

I’m thirteen and it’s her first time back home from college. We need to get out of the house. So we drive around the abandoned streets of our sleepy suburb in dad’s convertible on a warm summer night, going nowhere in particular. She takes a drag on her cigarette, before leaning over to whisper conspiratorially in my ear that time is a man-made illusion.

I want to believe it happened exactly that way, but I also know it sounds too much like what I need to hear now that she’s gone.    

In Sharp Objects, another recurring shot shows Marian in a field of grain, pigtails swinging as she turns back to look at her sister mid-laugh. It’s so idyllic that you doubt it’s a true memory, but more likely the fabrication of a grief-stricken mind.

But, on closer inspection, you notice the tiny idiosyncrasies that convince you it’s real. Marian’s uneven, bow-legged run, or the fact that only one pigtail is intact while the other half of her hair flows freely.

I remember our aimless joyride that night actually ended in a fight. I also remember how many more lines wrinkled her face after just a year in college.

The imperfections are how you know to trust a memory. And remembering those are always a relief, because it means you’ve held onto fragments of your sister as she was — the person you used to touch, not the muted ghost mutated by years of guilt.

Vallée uses several other visual motifs to immerse viewers in a dissociative, semi-hallucinatory experience of grief. Eagle-eyed fans caught onto how that Camille cuts into her skin also appear on surfaces in the world around her, like a highway sign or the grime of her dirty car.

But the most noticeable manifestation of Camille’s PTSD is Marian’s ghost itself. And Vallée’s approach to this ghost rings true to the ghost that haunts me, too. 

Appearing even in the very first episode, the young girl dressed in white sits on the hallway bench, watching quietly as her mother walks past. 

In nearly every one of Marian’s ghostly appearances, the characters and camera refuse to acknowledge her. She’s the dead elephant in the room no one can face. Always in the periphery, the camera keeps her slightly out of frame, poorly lit, never in focus, and quickly cuts away to another scene before you can even be sure of what you saw.

This is how a dead sister haunts a house — haunts the one she left behind. 

The presence of a dead sister is unshakable. She never leaves your side, yet exists only in the form of negative space, a dark and empty shape that will consume you if you look too closely at it.

This is how a dead sister haunts a house — haunts the one she left behind. 

But the reality of a sister’s death haunts as much as her dismembered specter. In the show, Camille will suddenly find herself thrown back into Marian’s funeral, trapped inside its never-ending, living nightmare. 

I am too. Almost the exact same nightmare.

The sight of the body itself — that lifeless doll wearing my sister’s skin like an ill-fitting costume — isn’t even the worst part.

It’s the clown makeup they slapped onto her face, turning it into an uncanny mask of someone else’s notion of her. Undoubtedly, it was the work of my mother, who never knew her, never saw her or any of her daughters as much more than an extension of herself.

My sister would never wear that awful shade of pink lipstick if she’d had the choice. She wouldn’t have let them, because she was wild and untameable and maybe that’s why she’s dead now.

Maybe that’s a mother’s sick joy, this compliant angel of a corpse.

Like Marian, my sister isn’t just a ghost I carry with me. She remains trapped within the walls that killed her, the house where the living pieces of a broken family still reside. 

The promise of finding a new sister in Amma is too seductive

The promise of finding a new sister in Amma is too seductive

She’s not the only shard of death that lives under that roof, either. When your sister dies, the girl you used to be dies along with her — that other half of you that never comes back.

The loss of a sister leaves a hole behind that’s all jagged edges and impossible shapes. It’s the irreplaceable bond of women who grow up as girls together. You spend the rest of your life trying, futilely, to find anything even remotely close to it again.

But you never will. Because sisters know one another in the way a person knows their reflection. 

Like a mirror, any objective truth is clouded by your closeness to what you’re looking at. Her reflection distorts into whatever you need her to be at that moment; a projection of your own self-loathing, or love, or ideals, and failures.

When your sister dies, the girl you used to be dies along with her — that other half of you that never comes back

That’s what Camille sees, every time her half-sister Amma’s face suddenly transforms for a split second into Marian’s face. That’s why she needs to save Amma — so maybe she can stop blaming herself for letting Marian die.

You know it’s foolish to keep hoping that someone will be able to fill that impossible hole she left behind. But it’s too tempting, so you do it anyway. For Camille especially, Amma too closely resembles the jagged edges of lost sisterhood; that wound that never healed enough to scar.

Camille and I can’t help but desperately seek out a new sister to replace the dead one. Because maybe once you do, the ghost will go away. 

But when Camille and Amma bond over a night of drinking, rollerblading, and drugs in the episode “Cherry,” there’s Marian, watching them wordlessly in the background. If anything, her ghostly presence only grows stronger, fueled by Camille’s guilt for trying to replace Marian. 

Apparitions feed off of guilt, along with all the other suppressed feelings that are what’s really haunting you.

I can’t know what being dead is like. But being the sister who lived feels like being a fugitive. You can’t stop moving, because the guilt catches up. You can’t go back home, because that’s where you left her to rot. You can’t get too close to anyone who might help smooth out those jagged edges, because then you might lose that person too.

The truth is you’d rather live with the grey echo of your sister than let her be erased altogether. And there’s this odd sense that she must still have something to tell you, that she needs to stick around to look after stuff and see how it turns out.

“It’s not safe for you here,” Marian’s ghost tells Camille in the mirror, after reaching across the afterlife to hold her hand.

As Camille’s repressed suspicions about what actually happened to Marian mount throughout the series, so too does the intensity of Marian’s ghostly sightings.

The past refuses to rest until you listen, until you face the dead girl in the white dress who used to be your sister.

By the end of Episode 7 of Sharp Objects, it becomes clear to both me and Camille that we weren’t ever really running from the ghost of a sister who haunts the house we grew up in. She was never the one gnawing at our insides, making us rip at our skin until it bled.

We were running away from what killed her. And maybe we’re finally ready to hear her plea to get out before it gets us, too.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Alternatively, a further list of international resources is available here.

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