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The Most Murdered Woman in the World


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When it comes to pinning down the first scream queen, most genre fans can easily find their way to Fay Wray, whose shriek was immortalized in 1933’s King Kong. More dedicated film buffs might go back even further to silent movie stars such as Greta Schröder (Nosferatu; The Golem: How He Came into the World) and Mary Philbin (The Phantom of the Opera; The Man Who Laughs).

While all these women left indelible marks on cinema, singling any of them out as the first scream queen makes two assumptions: that the archetype was birthed on celluloid, and that she belongs exclusively to the horror genre. In fact, the woman who can most credibly lay claim to the title was a stage actress, and she owed her stardom to a theater whose roots were bound up in a fetal form of true-crime writing.

In genre criticism, the term “Grand Guignol” is a favorite descriptor for horror or crime tales that emphasize grisly violence and scenery-chomping melodrama. The term is a reference to Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol, an infamous fin de siècle Paris playhouse that treated its enthusiastic audiences to a so-called “hot-and-cold-shower” program of short plays that interspersed lurid tales of murder, rape, torture, and revenge with light-hearted sex farces. While the plays eventually metastasized into gory spectacles that reportedly had theatergoers fainting in the aisles, early productions borrowed more heavily from sensational news stories and crime fiction than horror.

The theater, housed in a former church, was founded in 1897 by Oscar Méténier, a playwright who had spent years working as a secretary to Paris’s police commissioner. (Some sources say Méténier was what was known as the chien de commissaire, or “commissioner’s dog”—a role that would’ve entailed accompanying condemned inmates during their final hours before execution.) Méténier was intimately familiar with the city’s criminal underground, and he developed a deep sympathy for people who, as he saw it, often had no other path available to them. He conceived the Grand Guignol as a venue that would spotlight the naturalism movement, staging “slice-of-life” productions that often centered on working-class Parisians and those forced into criminal activity by circumstances they couldn’t control.

Some of these early tales were even inspired by what might’ve passed for true crime in turn-of-the-century France: macabre news briefs known as fait divers, which offered short accounts of violent and often sensational crimes that didn’t quite warrant feature treatment. Limited to only a few of text, fait divers went a step beyond simple reportage, often adding a dramatic or ironic flair. The 2011 book Novels in Three Lines collects more than a thousand such items written by Félix Fénéon, who was credited with turning the salacious news briefs into an art form. A few examples: 

Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity. 

Responding to a call at night, M. Sirvent, café owner of Caissargues, Gard, opened his window; a rifle shot destroyed his face.

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.

A certain madwoman arrested downtown falsely claimed to be nurse Elise Bachmann. The latter is perfectly sane.

Under Méténier’s guidance, the Grand Guignol drew freely from fait divers and openly acknowledged their influence. Méténier’s fifteen-minute play Lui! (Him!), about a prostitute who slowly realizes she’s locked in a room with a deranged killer, even opens with its characters reading a digest filled with the grim news bites.

The theater was an immediate success, but in 1898 Méténier sold his interest to Max Maurey, who promptly dialed up the violence and commissioned plays that were far more lurid than the gritty crime tales his predecessor favored. Maurey pushed the theater’s offerings into horror territory, but it was the Grand Guignol’s third director, a former actor named Camille Choisy, who gave Paris’s chapel of terror its high priestess.

In 1917—three years after he took over—Choisy hired a young actress who had recently appeared on screen in Les vampires, a ten-part crime serial by French filmmaker Louis Feuillade. The qualities that made Paula Maxa such a powerful screen presence translated beautifully to the stage, and Maxa—often billed simply by her last name—became a sensation. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, she died so many times on stage at the Grand Guignol that she was known as “the most murdered woman in the world.” In one estimation, she suffered as many as 10,000 grisly deaths during her tenure at the theater. She was stabbed, shot, hanged, poisoned, strangled, guillotined, and steamrolled; she was stung by scorpions, kissed by lepers, eaten by pumas, and diced into 83 pieces. Thanks to the theater’s ingenious makeup and lighting effects, she even decomposed on stage—an illusion so popular she repeated it for 200 performances. Even critics who excoriated the theater for its over-the-top displays of violence and sex—and the blatant linking of the two—were enthralled by Maxa’s performances. She became known as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the impasse Chaptal.” (The impasse Chaptal was the cul-de-sac in which the theater was located.)

Constructing a definitive account of Maxa’s life is difficult, in part because she seemed happy to give her fans exactly the kind of lurid backstory they might have craved for the star of Paris’s most infamous theater. We know she was born Marie-Thérèse Beau in 1898 and grew up in Paris’s bohemian Montmartre district, which was home to iconic cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir. According to a 1938 autobiography, Maxa’s parents were “well-off” and decidedly old-fashioned, and her early childhood was an idyllic one.

If we’re to believe Maxa’s memoir—more on that later—her life took a grim turn when she was 15 years old and her 17-year-old boyfriend took her into the woods and worked himself into such a lustful frenzy that he assaulted her and slashed her throat. Maxa awoke in the hospital and asked for her attacker, not wanting him to be punished, only to learn a few days later that he had killed himself after the assault.

The incident, Maxa suggests, was a grim portent of things to come. If Maxa’s memoir were a murder board, there’d be a taut red string connecting that attack and her career as Paris’s favorite victim. “Blood lust followed me as a curse,” she writes. “Even in my stage career I felt this curse. From the beginning I was given roles of victimized women. It is no wonder that most of my fan mail dealt with murder, sadism and fiendish perversions. The men who were drawn to me followed a tragic course. They became insane, killed in lust and killed themselves.”

In Maxa’s telling, she married a French count at the age of 16 but soon found herself bored with married life and left her husband to become an actress. She quickly found her way to the Grand Guignol, first as a spectator. (An adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club made quite an impression on her.) Maxa was in distinguished company as a house regular. Anaïs Nin attended shows at the theater; so did a young Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Paris for several years. Holland’s Princess Wilhelmina, who would later become Queen of the Netherlands, also visited the Grand Guignol, and King Carol II of Romania liked it so much he supposedly kept a private bedroom at the theater.

Maxa became an understudy in a production called Laboratory of Hallucinations and soon got a chance to go onstage when the actress cast in the role fell ill. Quickly dubbed “the Princess of Blood,” she became both a fan favorite and a critical darling. “She was a must-see in her day,” theater scholar Richard Hand told the BBC in 2019.

Laboratory of Hallucinations, about a brain surgeon who exacts gruesome revenge on his wife’s lover by inserting needles into the man’s brain to drive him insane, only to become a victim of his victim’s macabre visions, set the precedent for Maxa’s tenure at the Grand Guignol. “In all my following roles I had to shriek in torture, wade in blood, disembowel people and descend to the profoundest depths of madness,” she writes.

According to her memoir, Maxa’s private life became a bizarre reflection of the performances that made her a sensation. She recounts several stories of driving previously well-behaved men to lives of crime and fetishistic violence. As she tells it, a businessman named Maurice fell for her and spent so much money transforming her apartment into a lavish “death chapel” that he was arrested for some vague financial crime. (Maxa says she was never quite sure what the charges were.) After selling her jewels to hire a lawyer to defend him, Maxa fell in love with the attorney. The case dragged on and on until one evening Maurice, somehow freed from jail, burst into Maxa’s dressing room at the Grand Guignol and tried to kill her while the attorney cowered behind her wardrobe. Maxa later found out that the lawyer had intentionally postponed Maurice’s trial to keep him in jail; Maurice had secretly obtained another counselor, who quickly secured his release.

If Maxa’s memoir beggars belief, there’s a good reason: titled “I Am the Maddest Woman in the World,” it first appeared in a 1938 issue of True, a men’s magazine by the publisher of True Confessions—not exactly a credible source, and one that would almost certainly have encouraged Maxa to exaggerate certain aspects of her life. It’s probably wise to take many of Maxa’s stories with a grain of salt. But a factual timeline of her career, including detailed accounts of some of her performances, is buried in the outlandish tales of violent obsession and sadomasochism that appeared in True. In other sources, including a decidedly tamer 1965 memoir, she offers more lighthearted memories of her time at the Grand Guignol, such as smuggling out batches of the theater’s gooey stage blood, which was made from gooseberry jelly, to make tartines. In all accounts, though, she remembers being stalked by obsessed patrons and receiving almost nightly death threats.

What isn’t included in any of Maxa’s biographies is social context. Between the two world wars, when Parisians were flocking to the Grand Guignol, French women were fighting a war of their own. While other Western countries had long since granted (white) women the right to vote, France didn’t do so until 1944. In Maxa’s heyday, French women were still bound by the stunningly misogynistic Napoleonic Code, which, in some cases, afforded women fewer rights than children. Paula Maxa was being tortured and murdered night after night at a time when the French Senate was routinely blocking suffrage bills that were passing with overwhelming support in lower chambers.

Paula Maxa was being tortured and murdered night after night at a time when the French Senate was routinely blocking suffrage bills that were passing with overwhelming support in lower chambers.

In 1920s France, it seems the dismemberment of women was more palatable than their emancipation. The Grand Guignol had a few run-ins with censors who took issue with such matters as its depiction of prostitution and its recreation of a guillotine execution (too soon, one supposes), but its violent excesses survived mostly unscathed. Victor Margueritte’s 1922 novel La garçonne, on the other hand, caused more pearl-clutching. Also known as The Tomboy and The Bachelor Girl, it featured a young heroine who responded to her fiancé’s infidelity by shaking off the confines of the Code and doing whatever she pleased, including wearing boyish clothes, partying in jazz clubs, and sleeping with women. It was so scandalous that it promptly got Margueritte booted out of the Legion of Honour for its “false and slanderous picture of modern French womanhood.”

Maybe it’s a coincidence that Maxa became famous for her baroque, gruesome deaths at a time when French women were fighting for agency, but it’s a phenomenon that pops up again and again in Western culture. Magicians started “sawing women in half” in the UK soon after female British property owners over the age of 30 secured the right to vote; in fact, the trick’s credited creator, Percy Selbit, offered suffragette Christabel Pankhurst £20 for the privilege of bisecting her in front of an audience. (She declined.) A few decades later in the US, the first splatter film, H. G. Lewis’s Blood Feast, became a box-office hit, grossing $4 million on its tiny budget of $24,500. The movie featured graphic depictions of women being dismembered, including one whose brain is removed and another whose tongue is torn out. It was released five months after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in second-wave feminism. It hardly seems like a coincidence that, whenever a women’s movement gains steam, it’s accompanied by a sudden interest in the spectacular destruction of female bodies.

***

Maxa’s tenure at the Grand Guignol ended in 1930, shortly after the arrival of Choisy’s successor, Jack Jouvin. Some sources (including Maxa) claim she was forced out by Jouvin because he feared her popularity would overshadow him; others say her throat was so ravaged by her countless screams and shrieks that she could no longer perform the kind of roles the theater demanded of her. After leaving the Grand Guignol, she founded a theater called Le Théâtre du Vice et de la Vertu, but it didn’t last long. Despite a brief return to the Grand Guignol before it closed in 1962, Maxa would never regain the stardom she enjoyed during her original stint as the theater’s “Princess of Blood.” She died of cancer in 1970, at the age of 71.

Maxa didn’t live long enough to see the most satisfying evolution of the archetype she helped create. She was dead by the mid-’70s, when the prototypical final girls emerged, bloodied and traumatized but still alive, from their encounters with psychopaths and cannibals. By the 1980s, when final girls were picking up the nearest frying pan and fighting back, Maxa was all but forgotten.

But now that the final girl seems to be having a moment—largely thanks to novelists such as Riley Sager (2017’s Final Girls), Grady Hendrix (July’s The Final Girl Support Group), and Stephen Graham Jones (September’s My Heart Is a Chainsaw), who are cross-pollinating horror and crime thrillers with resounding success—it’s a good time to revisit Maxa’s impressive career, her remarkable life, and her genre-spanning legacy.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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