5 feminist horror films that capture the dark side of growing up
Because puberty is a bloodbath.
"Let The Right One In." Screenshot via YouTube.
A contingent of conservative politicians has repeatedly tried to paint female sexuality as monstrous this year. They have made multiple attacks against Planned Parenthood, threatened to ban transgender soldiers from the military, and limited women’s access to birth control. During a frustrating year in which women were called “witches” for speaking out against sexaul assault, feminist horror films feel like a perfect vehicle for examining society’s fear of strong femmes.
Yes, horror films are frequently spilling over with machoism, the villains commonly crazed men with weapons (Saw) preying on passive, delirious women (Scream). But the genre increasingly produces works that explore womanhood in progressive, allegorical ways. For example, the cult film Ginger Snaps (2000) uses werewolfism as a metaphor for puberty. The film removes the taboos around menstruation by illustrating the complexities of cycles. And the 2007 film Teeth, taking inspiration from folktales about vagina dentata — a fictitious condition used in Hindu mythology to warn men against committing rape — presents a badass story about a woman’s body protecting her from abuse.
These films take a tongue-in-cheek approach, turning their young female leads into the monsters society so frequently views them as. What results are characters that are liberated — both physically and emotionally — from the patriarchy (if only by supernatural means). Here are seven horror films that depict female adolescence as a gory, but empowering, blood bath.
Filled with fabulous grunge-era fashion like chokers and halter tops, and so much black, Ginger Snaps has amassed a cult following since its release in 2000. Partly because the film paints an unconventional portrait of young womanhood. For starters, the main characters are Brigitte and Ginger, two outcast teenage sisters so obsessed with death that they make a pact to die together. One night, Ginger is bitten by a rabid dog and grows a tail and hair all over her body and starts having insanely heavy periods. (In fact, menstruation is a big topic in the film.) Worried about Ginger’s changes, Brigitte takes her sister to a tactless nurse who lectures her about cycles and exclaims, “They’re expected every 28 days for about the next 30 years!”
The makers of Ginger Snaps could easily have decided to depict a teenage girl distraught over the changes her body is undergoing. Instead, Ginger falls in love with her new power and uses it to seduce men into sex, fight her sister’s bullies, and basically be a bonafide badass. In one of the greatest scenes, Ginger has sex with a notorious playboy — regardless of the risk of passing on her werewolfism. After the act, the boy begins urinating blood and it’s hard not to feel a sense of sick satisfaction at seeing the gender roles reversed, even in this darkest of ways. Because, as Ginger points out to her sister, people look at guys and girls very differently after a hookup. “He got laid, I’m just a lay,” she observes. “He’s a hero and I’m a lay. A freak, mutant lay.”
This French-Belgian film received a lot of media attention around its release earlier this year. The premise: a young girl evolves from being a committed vegetarian to eating human flesh. The addition of Quentin Tarantino-level gore to the female coming-of-age narrative was disruptive and decisive.
Raw differs from the other films on this list by not really being a story about exacting revenge on men or righting a wrong. If anything, Justine, the main character, is simply battling desire and figuring herself out through her insatiable thirst. Director Julia Ducournau expands on the feminist horror genre by crafting a character that is neither a victim or a villain — she is simply an imperfect college freshman who is lost and confused. It might depict the furthest extreme, but Raw challenges the typical coming-of-age narrative — dominated by boys and sex — and argues that there are varied, alternative paths girls can go down to discover themselves.
This 2008 Swedish film brilliantly combats the infantilization of young girls. Eli, the lead character played by Lina Leandersson, is a 12-year-old heart-eating vampire who defends a young boy from his bullies. By positioning Eli as the protector, rather than the protected, the film quite literally adapts the femme fatale trope.
The movie, based on the 2004 novel of the same name, also plays around with concepts of gender. Eli is actually a boy who was castrated when he was turned into a vampire 200 years ago, but dresses in girl’s clothing and is looked at by the world as female. This adds a further layer to Eli and Oskar’s childish romance. Oskar’s casual disregard of both Eli’s vampirism and complex gender identity illustrates that, during a certain phase in childhood, children have not yet learned to impose gendered boundaries on love. Let the Right One In combats the idea that young femmes are simply objects of affection.
Literature has a centuries-old obsession with folklore and metaphors about women with teeth inside their vaginas. These myths are found in fables from around the world — from India to Chile — and, needless to say, there is a lot to unpack in this imagining. The idea of vagina dentata plays on men’s fears of castration and locates the threat of violence within women’s bodies, instead of with the sexual abusers commonly featured in these myths.
Teeth is a radical reclaiming of this historically sexist folklore. Protagonist Dawn, who is in charge of her church’s abstinence group, fights off a host of sexual predators when her vagina grows teeth and bites their penises off. Teeth feels especially timely in 2017, when #metoo tweets are flooding social media. Despite all its lowbrow absurdism, Teeth is a memorable, powerful depiction of a woman reclaiming her sexual agency.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (directed and written by female filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour) has been billed as the first “Iranian vampire Western.” That’s easy to believe. The gorgeously shot black-and-white film manages to cover uncharted ground in the extensive vampire movie canon. Chador-wearing, skateboarding female vampire (opaquely referred to as “The Girl”) is the temptress here and Arash, a vulnerable young man selling drugs to support his heroin-addicted father, the victim.
Amirpour takes a Persian female character — so often depicted in film as “repressed” or “silent” — and elevates her to a dynamic role. The movie is a modern fairy tale starring a heroine wearing traditional Muslim garb, supporting Muslim women’s right to choose what they wear. And the film’s 2014 release was perfectly timed, coinciding with heated debate and protests in Iran about veils.