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In Laguna Beach, California, Virginia Weston runs to a bathhouse after a swim in the ocean. As her little dog starts yapping, an escaped inmate from a nearby mental institution steps out of the bushes, stabs the dog and then attacks Virginia. Alerted by Virginia's hysterical screams, her half brother, sculptor Charlie Weston, runs onto the front porch of his house and shoots the assailant. Charlie then drives Virginia, who is suffering from traumatic shock, to the Highland Sanitarium, where he commits her to the care of Dr. Greenwood. Over the next six months, Virginia falls under Greenwood's control and he becomes increasingly possessive of his voluptuous blonde patient. A short time later, Greenwood decides the time has come for them to leave the sanitarium, and they move to the city, where Virginia changes her name to Yolanda Lange and finds work as an exotic dancer at the El Madhouse nightclub. One night, Bill Sweeney, a reporter who covers the nightclub circuit for the local newspaper, comes to El Madhouse and is mesmerized by Virginia's sensuous dancing. After Virginia finishes her performance, Joann Mapes, the nightclub's proprietor, takes Bill backstage to meet her new star dancer. As Bill flirts with Virginia in her dressing room, he becomes intrigued by the nude statue of a frightened woman that he spots on her dressing table. Greenwood, now posing as Green, Virginia's manager, enters and after gruffly dismissing Bill, admonishes Virginia to follow his orders. On a dark street later that night, Virginia is attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. Before her Great Dane, Devil, can drive the assailant away, the man slashes Virginia across her stomach. After Virginia is taken to the hospital, Bill goes to the newsroom to review the file of Lola Lake, a dancer recently killed by "The Slasher." As Bill studies the article and accompanying photo, he is startled to see the statue of a nude, frightened woman lying next to Lola's body. When Bill goes to the hospital to question Virginia about the statue in her dressing room, she denies that it was ever there. Afterward, Bill discovers that Lola bought the statue at a gift shop owned by Raoul Reynarde. There, Raoul tells Bill that the statue is called "Screaming Mimi" and was created by a sculptor named Charlie Weston. After Bill buys Raoul's last statue, he sneaks into Virginia's dressing room and finds that her copy of the statue is gone. Once Virginia recovers, Capt. Bline, the officer in charge of the investigation into her attack, gives a party in her honor at El Madhouse, hoping that Virginia might be able to identify her assailant among the partygoers. Virginia never comes to the party, however, and instead walks Devil along the street of her attack. Sensing that Virginia would return there, Bill follows and meets her. After they passionately embrace, Bill takes Virginia back to his apartment, and as they make love, Virginia declares that he makes her feel "like a full person." The next morning, when Virginia awakens from a nightmare, Bill urges her to leave Greenwood and arranges to meet her at Virginia's apartment in one hour. When Bill arrives, however, Greenwood is there and Virginia, now cold and distant, insists on staying with him. After Bill storms out, Greenwood warns Virginia that she is "nothing" without him. Soon after, Bill receives a telegram from Charlie responding to his inquiry about the statue. Posing as an art dealer, Bill visits Charlie in Laguna Beach and learns that he modeled Mimi on his sister Virginia. Charlie explains that, just as he was beginning to sculpt the statue, Virginia was attacked and he was forced to commit her. Several months later, he received a letter from the sanitarium notifying him of his sister's death. Upon returning to the newspaper, Bill tells his editor, Walter Krieg, that he believes there is a link between Mimi and the slasher. Hoping that someone might be able to identify the statue stolen from Virginia's dressing room, Bill asks Walter to run a picture of it in the paper. After the police tap Virginia's phones, Bline and Bill listen in from the basement of her apartment building. Soon after, Greenwood calls from the lobby to see Virginia. Once inside her apartment, Greenwood chastises Virginia for keeping the statue, which he describes as "the fetish on which she has fixed her mania." Greenwood contends that because Virginia saw the statue right after her attack, she associated it with the attacker and then became fixated on those aggressive feelings, ultimately killing Lola after she bought a copy of the statue. Greenwood then explains that he attacked Virginia the night she met Bill in hopes of reversing her fixation. When Greenwood rifles through Virginia's drawer and finds her copy of the statue, she becomes enraged and commands Devil to attack him. Devil then lunges at Greenwood, sending him crashing though a window and onto the street below. As Bline, Bill and several police officers rush to the mortally injured Greenwood, Greenwood lies that he killed Lola, then beseeches Bill to take care of Virginia. Meanwhile, Virginia has slipped out of her apartment with Devil, and Bill tracks her to a run-down hotel on skid row. There, Bill states that he knows her real name is Virginia Weston and that she killed Lola. Just as Virginia sics Devil on Bill, the police arrive and subdue the dog. Virginia, now in a trance-like state, is led away into a waiting ambulance.