Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for the films Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Company of Wolves (1984) and briefly for Teeth (2007).
In many horror films, there are underlying themes of the exoticisation (and often, demonisation) of puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. Especially in early examples of slasher films, the “final girl” survives to the end of the movie and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.
It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up.”
Bearing all these questionable implications and complex history in mind, it’s a small miracle that any “feminist” horror films exist at all.
Motifs which crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation. The most recognisable example is in Carrie (1976), as the film opens with the protagonist Carrie White experiencing her first period in the school gym showers. Her fanatically religious mother had never taught her about menstruation, so she initially believes she is bleeding to death and has to be consoled by her teacher. This is a pivotal moment for shy 16-year-old Carrie, who is already bullied by her classmates, and from then on, she begins to wield incredible telekinetic powers. Although the origin of Carrie’s power is never directly explained in the film, her emotions appear to be what drives her telekinesis, becoming a strength rather than a weakness. As with Carrie, it’s easy to see why menstruation makes its way into so many female-centric horror films. Menstruation is cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process by which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. Body horror is fairly common in female-centred horror films, with notable examples including the black comedy horror Teeth (2007) which deals with the myth of vagina dentata (toothed vagina). What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own bodies might turn against us?
It is for this reason that menstruation makes a frequent appearance in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.
At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bonds between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from Sam and from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte: “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”
Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. However, I still find it interesting. Take the film The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the 1979 anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially.
The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as stand-ins for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. The Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – is caught between two perspectives: that of her grandmother, who tells her stories of the wickedness of men, and that of her mother. Rosaleen’s mother responds to the grandmother’s influence on Rosaleen with this: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women.” At the end of the short story and the film, Rosaleen chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother, who represents the old traditions as well as Rosaleen’s childhood. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together. The Company of Wolves is a much less cynical film than Ginger Snaps; it’s whimsical in many ways. When Rosaleen escapes the stifling morality of her village, there’s a note of hope, in contrast to the bloody culmination of Ginger’s struggle.
Perhaps the choice that Rosaleen makes at the end of The Company of Wolves – the choices that all the women in these films make – holds the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, prevent her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a film with sexist subtext, if not an overt misogynist message. This is the case in many of those slasher movies I mentioned (it’s no secret that it’s a genre for which I don’t particularly care). Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.
Author’s note: I’m aware that this article doesn’t cover the full extent of how women are portrayed in horror, but I’d need to write something the length of a PhD thesis in order to analyse it properly! I’ve chosen to keep it (relatively) concise by focusing mostly on the representation in horror films of women’s physicality and of women’s social experiences during puberty. This particular post is already almost 1500 words and I’m wary of letting it meander.