Above: Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall
On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were butchered to death with an ax in their home in Fall River, Mass. Their daughter Lizzie Borden was accused of the murders, and the subsequent trial gave her a notoriety that has endured for over a century. Although Borden was acquitted of the crime, the question of “What if?” continues to intrigue the American public, leading to various pop-culture treatments of the story, with the latest being Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a Lifetime film starring Christina Ricci as Lizzie and Clea DuVall as her older sister, Emma.
“She’s such an interesting person in history,” DuVall tells The Advocate, speaking about Borden via phone while en route to the set of an indie project. “Did she do it? Did she not do it? It’s that era’s version of O.J. [Simpson.] It’s the same kind of fascination with people getting away with murder.”
As an actress, the Argo star is no stranger to the world of crime and intrigue, particularly in her portrayals of women as both perpetrator and victim. Her breakout role in Little Witches centered on girls caught up in occultism and human sacrifice. More recently, she played the lesbian lover of Sarah Paulson’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum and fell victim to the serial killer Bloody Face.
For DuVall, the enduring allure of characters like Lizzie Borden, who was accused of not just killing but brutally hacking her father 11 times and her stepmother at least 18 times with a sharp instrument, is linked directly to the public’s expectations of gender.
“People have this idea [of] all the gender roles that everyone is supposed to play: The men are the aggressors and the women are the gentle homemakers,” DuVall says. “And the idea that a woman could be capable of that kind of brutality” still continues to shock and amaze.
Much of the Lifetime film deals not with the event of the murders of Abby and Andrew Borden, which is seen through sporadic flashbacks that may or may not be real, but rather the trial of Lizzie, where these stereotypes of female behavior are confronted head on.