Jill Awbrey makes her feature film writing and acting debut with the horror-thriller Held, out April 9 through Magnet Releasing, in which she plays the lead role of Emma Barrett. Jill has also written, directed, produced, and starred in two short films. As an actress and writer, Jill is drawn to stories about intimate relationships between flawed and complicated characters. Her first film, Abby Undone, was shot in a 150 square-foot studio apartment in New York’s West Village with two actors and a four-person crew. She shot her second short film, All We Have Left, in her hometown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. On a fun note: during a visit to her hometown while walking her dog one evening she met producer Travis Cluff of Tremendum Pictures in the neighborhood. It was a chance encounter, that ultimately led to Held being made.
Moonlight pierces through the window. I stare at the streaks of light on the walls. Thump. Thump. Thump. My eyes remain focused on the streaks of light. FIGHT. But my arms remain limp. RUN. But my legs remain paralyzed. SCREAM. But my lips remain closed. DO SOMETHING. DO ANYTHING. But I remain frozen. His body presses down on mine. His wet mouth presses against my skin. His rough hands press and squeeze my flesh. Thump. Thump. Thump. I do nothing. I just wait. Wait for him to finish. Wait for it to be over.
And eventually it was over. He told me to shower. As I got up off the bed, I saw a small stain of blood on the sheets. I’d never had sex before. I was a sophomore in high school. I had just turned 16. He was 18 and a senior.
I stood in the shower as the water rushed over my body. I had no bruises. No cuts. There were no scars or any outward indication that anything had happened to me.
I was a straight-A student. I was active in leadership and theatre and choir and debate and cheerleading. And I continued to go through the motions of all the activities and achievements throughout my last two years of high school. My junior year, I was selected to go to Girl’s State. My senior year, I was Salutatorian of my class.
Outwardly, I was still the high achiever I’d always been. But inside, I was numb and frozen. The memories of that night replayed in my head like a broken recording I couldn’t turn off. Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I scream? I convinced myself that everything that happened was my fault.
When the #MeToo movement started, I remained quiet. I listened as so many other women kept finding the strength and the courage to give voice to the rape and sexual assault and domestic abuse that they’d kept secret for so long. Those secrets hold us prisoner. And the #MeToo movement sent the message so clearly: We want you to speak out. We want you to free yourself. We want to hear your voices. But my own voice remained silent. The shame I felt for “allowing it to happen” was just too great.
Since I was 16, my mind had taken on the role of prosecutor. I had willingly gone into his bedroom. I didn’t try to fight him off. I didn’t try to run away. I didn’t scream out for help. The prosecutor in my head said that all must be an indication of consent. And it silenced any voice of my own.
As more and more women continued to come forward, I started hearing echoes of my experience in the experiences of other women. The same nightmare played out again and again. Instead of fight or flight, these women responded just like I did. They … we … just froze.
I started researching the freeze response as a third alternative to fight or flight. Freezing up or numbing out is a way of disassociating from a threatening experience and blocking out the terrifying enormity of what’s happening to you. When fear overcomes you and you feel powerless, this self-paralysis is your sympathetic nervous system triggering an acute stress response to give you a way to survive.
Freezing was my way of surviving.
Those words struck something deep inside me. Freezing was how I had survived the terror of having my body violated against my will. And with those words … the old recording in my head that for so long had said it was all my fault was suddenly drowned out by my own voice.
As an actress, I’ve always taken the approach of putting my personal truths into my work. I take the experiences I’ve had in my life – good and bad – and pour them into the different characters I’m breathing life into.
Writing gives me the opportunity to take that even further. And I wanted to pour my personal truths into a story. I wanted to find my voice. I wanted to write my way out of my own silence. That’s when Emma’s story started to play out in my head.
The thriller/horror genre provides a safe space to look at the darkness that frightens us and to create imaginary outcomes that offer the chance to work through real-life trauma. Setting Emma’s story within this genre gave me the freedom to put her in the most heightened emotional and physical circumstances I could dream up.
At first glance, Held tells the story of a married couple held hostage in an isolated vacation rental and forced to endure the horrors of being trapped, being watched, and being controlled. But there’s more to the story than that. At its core, Held explores the horror of being a woman when men are trying to control your appearance, your behavior, your sexuality … everything about your existence to preserve their own comfort.
For nine months, I worked on shaping Emma’s story in the script for Held. I wrote the role of Emma for myself to play and there are pieces of my journey entwined with hers.
In the film, Emma’s initial response to the terrifying situations she finds herself in is to freeze. But as the situations escalate in their violence, she finds the courage and strength to rise up and fight back.
As Emma’s voice developed over the various drafts I was writing, I heard my own voice growing clearer and louder. As Emma found her strength, my strength grew as well. And when Emma let out a rage-filled scream, I felt the pain I had carried for so long find a release.
In bringing Emma to life as both a writer and an actress, I wanted to give her strength where I had felt powerless. I wanted to give her courage where I had felt fear. I wanted to give her a voice where I had been silent. Emma will not just survive her story …
She will fight. She will run. And she will scream.