Published: Girl (second series) 10 December #148 – 14 January 1984 #153
Episodes: 6 (with four-page spreads)
Reprint: Best of Girl Monthly (issue number unavailable)
Artist: Photo story
Special thanks to David Roach for scans
This is the only group slave story (girls become slaves in a cruel institution/business/racket/regime) run by Girl II from IPC. Its publication is unusual as it came at a time when the group slave story had long since faded at IPC. Tammy, which used to pioneer in slave stories and Cinderella stories, had stopped running them by the late 1970s. Jinty had her share too in her early days, particularly Merry at Misery House, but had given them away by the late 1970s as well. Lighter fare had taken over from dark stories filled with tortured heroines that had made Tammy so pioneering and made her the blueprint for the early Jinty and the short-lived Sandie and Lindy to follow.
It is most unusual for a group slave story to be published in photo story format, so Slaves of the Nightmare Factory may even be one of a kind.
Amanda Harvey and Natalie Jones (whose mother works for the wealthy Harveys as a cleaner) are best friends despite their differing backgrounds and Natalie secretly envying Amanda’s wealth. But one day some thugs kidnap them and bring them to a dress factory, which abducts girls for slave labour.
The racket is so secretive the girls do not even know the name of the factory manager; she just tells them to address her as “Ma’am”. The factory itself is located deep underground somewhere near the London dockland and disguised as some sort of wasteland above. Later we discover the goons themselves do not know the identity of the man who owns the factory. There will be more on the factory owner later.
The racket has been going on for a long time; one girl, Sandy, has been there for three years. Another girl, named Ellen Crawley, has been there for two, and is clearly cracking up because she is having constant hysterics. Nobody has ever successfully escaped from the factory, and the racketeers like to constantly reinforce this point to demoralise the girls.
Ma’am is under strict orders to kidnap only runaway girls. However, recent slave shortages have driven her to break the rules; hence the abduction of Natalie and Amanda, and probably other non-runaways too.
Amanda and Natalie soon discover that getting the dresses churned out is like a monomania with Ma’am. Much of her cruelty towards the girls is driven by her single-minded obsession about producing the dresses and making sure the girls meet strenuous quotas. Girls who fail to meet their quotas go to the dreaded Punishment Box, which means spending the night, or even 24 hours, in a crate where the victim can neither stand up nor stretch out.
The racketeers provide no necessities of life for the girls, including medical facilities: “They don’t even have ‘band-aids’! They don’t care what happens to us!” The food is dreadful; it’s nothing but bread and a foul-tasting slop (delivered in a bucket!) that the girls just have to get used to. In return for better food, one slave girl named Sarah has turned Ma’am’s toady and works as an overseer and guard (and bully) in the workshop where Amanda and Natalie work.
Conversely, Ma’am allows the girls to have a television set. This is the only way the girls can see anything of the outside world, which they are completely cut off from because the factory is so deep underground. The television set enables Amanda and Natalie to see that their abduction has hit the news. Ironically, Natalie’s mother is making her appeal while wearing one of the factory dresses.
During this time Natalie confesses her envy of Amanda, who says her envy’s no good now. Natalie also starts applying her notebook and journalistic ambitions to keeping a secret record of their slavery.
Then Ellen manages to escape, and hopes rise that help is coming. However, Ma’am directs the girls to a news broadcast, which informs them that Ellen died during her escape and her body was found in a reservoir.
In punishment for Ellen’s escape Ma’am increases the girls’ arduous dress quotas even more. Sarah does not emerge unscathed either: Ma’am withdraws her special rations for failing to stop Ellen and she must now eat the same substandard food as the other girls. But the girls realise Sarah will try to regain favour with Ma’am, so they must be even more careful around her.
Eventually the slavery takes its toll on Natalie and she falls ill at her sewing machine. As Natalie cannot meet her quota, Amanda tries to cover for her. However, Sarah reports them and in return is given back her special rations. Amanda and Natalie are sent to the Punishment Boxes.
While Amanda is in the Punishment Box the owner of the factory passes by and she overhears the conversations that are made. It is at this point the goons say that even they do not know who the owner is. But Amanda identifies him from his voice – it’s her own father! So the racket is the source of the wealth Natalie had so envied.
Amanda reports her discovery to the other girls, but is not sure what to do about it. For his part, Dad has clearly somehow begun to suspect who kidnapped his daughter because he orders polaroids to be taken of the girls kidnapped over the past month for him to check through the following night. Amanda had overheard him giving that order and guesses the reason for it.
Natalie’s condition is now so bad that Amanda persuades all the girls to join her in a mass breakout in a desperate bid to get help. After tying up Sarah they all set off, with Amanda dragging the sick Natalie (and her notebook) along. Amanda’s father unknowingly passes by them while returning for the polaroids, which also helps them to find the exit to the factory.
When Dad discovers the escape – and Amanda’s photograph among the polaroids – he orders his henchmen to discreetly let Amanda and Natalie go while rounding up the others. He does not realise Amanda and Natalie have hidden themselves in his car. Ma’am is astonished at Amanda and Natalie being allowed to go. Dad just tells her that her disobedience in kidnapping those two girls who were not runaways has caused him a lot of problems. He then orders her to clear out the factory and move the girls to the other workshops because the police will be coming soon, which suggests there is more than one factory.
As Dad approaches his car Amanda is surprised to hear him whistling, because he only whistles when he’s happy. She does not realise he thinks he has managed to get her back while keeping his operation relatively intact. But there are a couple of things he does not know either…
Dad drives straight home. Mum and a policeman assigned to the kidnapping case are there too. They are quite surprised when Amanda suddenly walks in. After a brief reunion with Mum and a call for an ambulance, Amanda gives them Natalie’s notebook, saying it contains a complete record of everything. She has not explained things yet, but gives them the impression her father is suspect and Dad realises she has found him out. Dad crumples in his chair, Mum looks at him with suspicion, and Amanda says he’s not her father anymore. Amanda goes back to Natalie and tells her that soon the whole world will know their story.
As Nightmare Factory is a photo story, the setting has to be in modern times (period settings would have been too expensive and difficult), which makes the slave racket all the more horrifying. You expect this sort of thing to belong to the past or Third World countries, not 20th century Britain. Seeing the cruelties inflicted on pictures of actual flesh-and-blood girls as opposed to artistically drawn girls may add to the horror even more. And the black-and white photographs perfectly complement the grimness of the situation.
Nightmare Factory certainly is a very dark story, but it doesn’t go over the top with its cruelties or descend into absurdity as some group slave stories do. Its cruelty remains rooted in dark, gritty realism and delivers some real shockers, such as the death of Ellen from what looks like culpable homicide if not first-degree murder. There is an insidious overtone to the whole racket and so many unanswered questions about it (like Ma’am’s real name never being revealed), which makes the story even more disturbing and creepy. Insinuating that there are other Nightmare Factories makes it even more frightening; most of the cruel outfits in slave stories are stand-alone operations.
Perhaps because Nightmare Factory is a photo story, it is not a long story in comparison to other slave stories. There are only six episodes, although each has four pages rather than the usual three. So the plotting is extremely tight while the pacing is well handled and it does not feel rushed. Unlike so many group slave stories, it is not padded out with a lot of middle (constant failed escape attempts, tortures being laid on ever more thickly, schemes to score one over the villains, getting medical aid for fellow victims), which can get tedious and meandering before the story finally reaches its climax.
As the serial uses photo story format and live models, the villains look less stereotyped than they would be in picture-story slave stories. Ma’am is quite a change from the sinister crones and old dragons that so often serve as the main slave drivers in slave stories. The model does a brilliant job with the facial expressions in conveying Ma’am as a cold, ruthless bitch. It is also quite surprising to a couple of non-whites among the henchmen (if none among the girls in the workshop).
From the beginning, Amanda is the strong-willed protagonist who is determined not to break and resolves to escape and bring down the racket. She is a rich girl, but is neither spoiled nor bratty. Sometimes rich girl protagonists in slave stories are that way, in which case the slavery knocks the arrogance out of them, turns them into more sober girls and brings out their strengths. But not in this case. The rich girl is established as a sympathetic character right from the first, when just before the kidnapping she tries to persuade her father to give Mrs Jones a raise because she is so concerned at how the Joneses have so little while they have so much. However, the father insists Mrs Jones’ wage is fair although it does not let them afford much. This gives a hint of the sort of man he really is, although Amanda always regarded him as a kind man before she discovered his secret. Amanda remains the one to bring down the racket. But the way in which she does it is most unexpected and awry from how the protagonist usually brings it down, and it’s a perverse twist of fate that causes the whole racket to backfire on Mr Big himself.
However, there is no redemption for Amanda’s father. He loves Amanda enough to let her escape, but we doubt he would have done that if he had known she had discovered his secret. The twist of Amanda’s own father being behind it all puts a sting into the tail that means the story will not end on a trite happy ending. Amanda does regain her freedom, saves Natalie, and is reunited with her mother. But she can never really be happy again now she knows what her father has done, and it will blight her life forever.
The ending is a bit unsatisfying because it leaves us dangling on the fate of the Nightmare Factory. Knowing the factory is being cleaned out and its operations shifted elsewhere makes it all the more troubling. There isn’t so much as a text box to wrap things up and tell us what happened to the girls and racketeers in the end. We only have Amanda’s final word to reassure us that justice will be done.