Certain reel librarian characterizations, I believe, can transcend their stereotypes and become something more — a pop culture representation we can recognize, consciously or not. Film is an excellent medium for this; as the librarian becomes a literal image, the significance of that image can become strongly linked in our brains to deeper meanings. One image I keep seeing, in different forms, is the librarian as nightmare. Or maybe it’s the influence of Halloween. You decide.
Take, for example, the Spinster Librarian that Mary (Donna Reed) becomes in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). As I’ve said before, it’s amazing how much this 30-second scene haunts the reel librarian image!
The second half of the film explores how the town and certain characters’ lives would have changed if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born. Mary becomes a drawn, reclusive, and unattractive old maid who works in the library, and her failure to recognize her husband finally sends George over the edge and causes him to beg for his life back. She is literally the last straw for George, but she also acts as the last straw for US, the audience. In this frightening vision of a town without George, the horrible realization that Mary becomes (gasp!) a Spinster Librarian rings the final death gong for the nightmarish hell we have witnessed on screen. We want, as much as George, to escape from Pottersville and return to Bedford Falls. In the first half of the film, Mary represents the virtuous mother, but in the second half, she represents a nightmare — a cinematic journey of opposites and extremes. In her reincarnation as the Spinster Librarian, Mary reinforces the horrifying twist of reality that we seem to have no control over our lives.
There is also a significant sub-genre of horror films featuring librarians. Why? Personally, I suspect a deeper link to the obsession over the idea of control, or fear of losing control in our lives — and librarianship is a perfect profession to play off of that. It’s true, librarianship is inextricably linked to the ideals of organization (or control, if you’re feeling cynical). As a librarian, I see patterns of organization everywhere. It would be tempting indeed to extend that organizational tendency and tip it over the edge into obsession — or even insanity — to create cinematic drama and tension. Horror films are ripe for showcasing the librarian-turned-nightmare. Let’s look at some, shall we?
Chainsaw Sally (2004) features a “a calm librarian by day, and a brutal serial killer by night” — a nightmare come to life. In this case of extremes, it’s the librarian side of Sally — the “timid and harmless” side — that is the costume; the nightmare she becomes at night has become her true self. It seems her killer tendencies stem from traumatic childhood experiences, and her desperate attempts to exert control over her life manifest in both areas of her life, the librarian and serial killer.
The TV movie Wilderness (1996) treads familiar ground, but presents a twist on the librarian-as-nightmare image. “Mild-mannered librarian” Alice turns into a different kind of nightmare every month — a werewolf! Her daily life as librarian represents her obsession over control. Her secret life where she “is free to satiate her most personal and sometimes shocking desires” represents the wild break and loss of that controlling obsession.
Although a librarian is NOT the main character — thank goodness — in The Killing Kind (1973), the librarian in that film fantasizes about nightmares — or as she calls them “hallucinations, they’re so real.” One of her hallucinations includes a rape fantasy, a secret for which she immediately feels shame for sharing. Her sexual repression is represented in the seemingly constrictive binds of her profession. I’m not personally agreeing with that view, merely calling ’em as I see ’em.
The plotline in All About Evil (2010) may ring familiar: A “mousey librarian” discovers her inner serial killer — in this case, after she inherits a movie house. The obsession over control rears again; in the high-pressure situation of saving the family business, she resorts to churning our her own brand of “snuff films” of her own killings. Naturally, as according to a DVD Verdict review, she also “chastis[es] an indie film audience to do things like keep quiet and silence their cell phones.” Once a librarian, always a librarian!
Hopefully, these librarian characters will not haunt YOUR nightmares… Happy Halloween!
- All About Evil. Dir. Joshua Grannell. Perf. Natasha Lyonne, Jack Donner, Julie Caitlin Brown. Backlash Films, 2010.
- Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.
- It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. RKO, 1946.
- The Killing Kind. Dir. Curtis Harrington. Perf. John Savage, Ann Sothern, Ruth Roman, Luana Anders, Cindy Williams. Media Cinema Group, 1973.
- Wilderness (TV miniseries). Dir. Ben Bolt Perf. Amanda Ooms, Gemma Jones, Michael Kitchen. UK, 1996.