Ask any horror fan to explain the horror genre rules about female sexuality and you’ll get a simple explanation. Have sex, you die. Stay pure, you get to be the hero and the survivor. That’s the formula anyway, but it’s not always that simple. I’m talking about coming-of-age horror films, like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, It Follows and, the one that started it all, Carrie. These films replace heartfelt life lessons about growing up with telekinesis, werewolves, demonically possessed cheerleaders and supernatural entities who have never heard of restraining orders. But all these films still make strong statements about the power (and the sometimes dark side) of female sexuality.
Let’s start with a beloved Canadian indie lycanthropic favourite: Ginger Snaps. The film follows two teenage sisters, Ginger and Brigitte. It starts on the day Ginger has her first period, which, coincidentally, is also the same day she’s attacked by a werewolf (worst period ever). The rest of the film follows her transition to womanhood (a thing her mother awkwardly celebrates with dessert), while unbeknownst to her, she also becomes bolder, braver, sexier and… hairier? This turns a girl who was the weird awkward outcast at school into a girl that people start paying attention to. There’s just something about Ginger; she has a new power that she didn’t have before. It’s a reminder that puberty can be a terrible time; for girls, it’s a time when you start getting attention (negative and positive) for how you look rather than who you are. We suddenly become objects of desire, which is overwhelming when you’re young, inexperienced and full of hormones.
Ginger has people looking at her differently now, as if she’s suddenly grown a tail (which she has, but nobody except Brigitte knows that). She becomes aggressive, something that is expected of teenage boys, but not girls. In one scene where she seduces a male classmate, he tells her to lie back and relax and asks who the guy is here, Ginger just laughs, spits his words back at him and straddles him. She defies the stereotype of the meek and nervous virgin by taking control of the situation. It’s the ultimate 180 on stereotypical female sexuality in horror. Even though things ultimately end poorly for Ginger, it’s not as punishment for being sexual.
Nine years later, we received Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, which finds a character at a different stage in their development, well past puberty and quite comfortable with her sexuality. Jennifer knows she’s hot and has complete control of the power she has over the boys she meets (as well as her female best friend Needy). She doesn’t feel shame because she likes sex and even when pretending to be a virgin, it’s not done out of shame; it’s done to get the lead singer of a rock band interested in her. Of course, that ends up backfiring when she becomes possessed by a demon instead at his concert.
Jennifer isn’t the hero of the story but she is the central figure, and even though she may do terrible things, there are still moments when you feel empathy for her. She is a victim of an act perpetrated by an evil group of men and she’s determined to survive even if she has to eat at least one human being a month to do so. But what this film really says about the experience of being a woman is how society puts so much pressure on women to always be beautiful, that Jennifer sees the act of killing these boys to retain her good looks as completely necessary. All of her life, society has told her that her looks are all she has. There’s a beautiful moment late in the film where a sickly (and hungry) Jennifer is putting make-up on and through her reflection in the mirror, we see through that tough façade and get a gilmpse of how vulnerable she really is. (This is made all the more poignant because Jennifer is played by Megan Fox, an actress who is known more for her beauty than her work.)
What Jennifer does to these boys in order to survive isn’t justifiable, but ultimately she is also a victim here—a victim of obnoxious greedy white males who, thankfully, get their comeuppance at the hands of Jennifer’s best friend Needy. She is chosen to be a victim because she is a woman, but both her and Needy are powerful because they are women.
Flash forward to spring earlier this year when we found a new favourite in the unsettling, atmospheric It Follows. While very different film from both Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body in tone and content, they share one common trait in that they are all films about young women who have gone through something terrible and then struggle to find themselves in the aftermath of that act. Where Ginger was just starting out on her journey from girl to woman, and Jennifer had embraced her sexuality, the heroine of It Follows, Jay, is at a different phase in her coming-of-age story. She is a freshman in college, older than Ginger and Jennifer, sexually active but at the point where she’s letting go of any romantic notions she may have about relationships and sex. She even speaks about that just before her date chlorophorms her and ties her to a chair. Romance truly is dead.
A lot of people have written about how It Follows is a metaphor for STDs, since the curse is passed through sex, and it’s certainly easy to view it that way. But it’s also a metaphor for coming out of your teenage years and realizing you aren’t invincible or immortal. It’s about the death of those idealistic years where you think nothing can touch you and the realization that even at nineteen years old, death can be right around the corner. Jennifer and Ginger wield their sexuality like a weapon, but for Jay, it becomes protection.
Jay is reluctant to pass this curse along, even though it could save her, but—SPOILER—ultimately does so with both Greg and Paul. However, both sex scenes show her feeling detached from the proceedings, as if it is just a formality, even though she cares about both of these guys. Romance is officially dead for Jay as she feels she can only have sex with those she trusts to pass the curse along so that it won’t bounce back to her. She is not like Jennifer, choosing her victims, or like Ginger, who lacks self-control; she is thoughtful in her choices because she is no longer a child. Most importantly, this film never shames Jay for having sex in her past or her present. She may not be in control of what has happened to her, but she is in control of the choices she makes because of that, a message that prevails through all of these films.
We’ve come a long way since the film that started it all. Perhaps the earliest example of this subgenre is Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, 1976’s Carrie. Carrie White isn’t just a socially awkward teen with a religious zealot for a mother; she’s so sheltered that when she has her first period in the showers of the girl’s locker room, she believes she’s bleeding to death, which causes her peers to torment her. Carrie knows nothing about how her body works and it’s made all the more complicated by the onset of telekinetic powers that arrive at the same time she crosses that threshold into womanhood.
Unlike Ginger, Jennifer and Jay, Carrie has no understanding of her body or her sexuality. Even her moments with Tommy are pure and innocent. Carrie, in fact, is likely just as afraid of sex as she is of her powers, thanks to a mother who has told her that she is unpure everyday of her life. Her mother has drilled into her brain that the female body is unclean and that sex is sin, so when she gets supernatural powers just as she’s becoming a woman and experiencing adult desires and feelings for the first time, that’s bound to mess with one’s head. Imagine a world where Carrie White had a less rigid upbringing, she might have turned out to be a superhero instead of a murderer. What’s done to her by teenage bullies is terrible, but certainly no excuse for mass murder. But the fact is, she doesn’t know about self-control; she doesn’t understand how to balance her emotions with her abilities. Carrie doesn’t embrace her new power as a woman or as a person with new powers the way that Ginger does, instead she bottles it up until she snaps and does a lot more damage than Ginger could even imagine. (One could also easily call Carrie a cautionary tale about abstinence and a lack of sex-education in our homes and schools. Teach kids about their bodies, before they commit mass murder at the prom!)
If there’s one thing these films share in common, it’s the message that puberty sucks. Plain and simple, it just does. No matter what your gender is, it’s a difficult time for most teenagers. You’re suddenly expected to cope with adult emotions and desires, even though you’re technically still a child. Boys have their own set of pressures to deal with, but girls now have to deal with the pressure of being whatever society deems as attractive while also dealing with the Madonna-whore complex. (Remember, girls, if you don’t have sex, you’re pure and virtuous. If you do, you’re a slut. At least that’s what the world wants us to believe.) It’s not an easy time for anyone, but that all becomes compounded when you’re faced with the horrors that the girls in these films are faced with.
These movies aren’t adhering to the Madonna-whore complex though. The horror genre gets a lot of flack for its treatment of women, and most of the time it is justified. But as a female horror fan who grew up (in her extremely formative years) watching movies like these, as well as the movies that are less kind to their female characters, it had an effect. Being a horror fan isn’t what made me a feminist, but what it did was show me the difference between female characters who are victimized and female characters who may be victims but are far from weak. All of the women in these movies have horrible things happen to them, it wouldn’t be a horror movie if they didn’t, but it’s all in how they handle them that makes the difference. Whether hero, anti-hero or villain, they are women with agency, who make clear choices instead of sitting around and waiting for worse things to happen to them.
I personally can’t relate to Carrie White, but I understand her. I’m not Jennifer or Ginger or Jay either, but I understand their pain. I haven’t been through what they’ve been through, and never will, but I still feel empathy. As people living in a non-supernatural world, we may not be able to identify with telekinesis, werewolves, demon possession or supernatural stalkers, but surely we can all look at these films and find some understanding of the difficulty of the transition from child to adult. While I also love the sunlit, wistful, heartfelt coming-of-age stories that prevail as a genre, it’s the coming-of-age horror movies that truly expose the darker side of growing up even if they use demons and monsters to do it. The real truth is, sometimes puberty, hormones and your teen years are even scarier than the horror we see in the movies.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.