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Horror Show: a bloody history of monstrous girls on film

Oct. 24, 2017
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This article was originally published on March 9, 2017.

Raw, the debut feature from French director Julia Ducournau, promises to be a bloody good time. The horror film—which comes out in the U.S. this Friday—tells the story of a vegetarian veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier) who is forced to try meat during a hazing ritual and quickly finds herself hungering for human flesh. Ducournau has already garnered praise for her skillful genre-bending, and the movie is purportedly so shocking that multiple audience members at the Toronto International Film Festival screenings actually passed out.

In an interview with IndieWire, Ducournau confessed to being “obsessed” with human bodies: “My visual language is through the body, showing the body, what’s inside of the body, what comes out of the body,” she said. “My parents are doctors, so I am very, very obsessed with bodies. I thought cannibalism was perfect, because it’s everything about the body.” But the story is at least as wrapped up in the main character’s journey—after all, it’s still a coming-of-age film, if an unusually bloody one.

But Raw isn’t the first movie to question the humanity of its teen-girl protagonist. From Carrie to The Craft, the annals of Hollywood history are rife with entries from directors eager to make the oh-so-original point that high school is actually hell.

The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie is perhaps the ur-example of this line of narrative inquest—the movie is so iconic that its infamous pig’s-blood scene was cribbed for the hazing ritual that kicks off the plot of Raw. In Carrie, the mean-girl bullying endured by our heroine is so harrowing that it pushes her to embark on a telekinetic rampage. Though Carrie is sympathetic to the relentless plight of its titular character—who has to endure abuse from her religious mom as well as from her merciless classmates—the end result feels more like a cautionary tale for bullies than the tragic tale of an outcast driven to madness.

“Who’s the real monster—teenage girls or society?” became the defining theme of a certain strain of teen-girl movie in the decades to come. Fans of 1990s movies like The Craft and Jawbreaker typically credit Heathers with bringing the genre into existence, but by the time Heathers came out in 1989 the “teen girls are monsters” trope was already fully-fledged—thanks in large part to movies like Carrie. Anyway, movies like Heathers and Jawbreakers were more interested in relishing the cruelty of their teen tyrants than in understanding how they got that way. The Craft at least dedicated a few cursory scenes to the torment endured by the movie’s main witches, but the coven’s ability to wreak havoc was still the main attraction. The high-school horror movies of the 1980s and 1990s weren’t about the terrors of adolescence—they were cautionary tales about the destructive power of teenage girls.

The 2000 film Ginger Snaps clearly had no interest in being that kind of movie—and to this day it remains one of the smartest films ever made about teenage girlhood. When the titular Ginger gets her period for the first time, a werewolf lurking in the area attacks her, and it takes a little while for Ginger and her sister Brigitte to recognize that Ginger’s ensuing physical symptoms not the result of puberty but rather evidence of Ginger’s slow transformation into a werewolf.

Ginger Snaps is perhaps the first movie about the horrors of high school that actually seems to care about what its monstrous teenage girls are experiencing. Ginger isn’t just an obstacle for the other characters to circumvent or overcome—she’s a living, breathing person in a situation that quickly spirals out of her control. When Brigitte decides that Ginger must be stopped, her decision feels all the more tragic and authentic because Ginger isn’t just some abstract villain—Ginger is every one of us who has ever had to navigate the twin minefields of puberty and adolescence.

Jennifer’s Body, the campy cult classic from Diablo Cody, would not have been made without movies like Ginger Snaps and Carrie—nor without movies like Heathers and Jawbreaker. Oscillating between sympathy for and condemnation of titular bitchy cheerleader Jennifer, the film manages to serve as a condemnation of all the guys who try to take advantage of Jennifer while also holding her responsible for her domineering behavior.

You don’t need to be a visionary to recognize that teenage girlhood is ripe with grim, foreboding material—but it does seem that most directors who try to mine those experiences for horror could stand to consult a living, breathing teenage girl or two. But on which side of the line will Raw fall? We can’t wait to find out.