Though the words ‘hell is a teenage girl’ may have been the first line of dialogue in the 2009 Diablo Cody-penned horror movie Jennifer’s Body (directed by Karyn Kusama), it was over 30 years before in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) that Hollywood’s penchant for depicting damaged, dangerous and deadly female teens began to make its mark on the genre. Previously fodder for all manner of monstrous villains, the teenage girl began to transform on screen into a character to be feared with the arrival of Carrie White, whose tormented existence was so memorably portrayed by Sissy Spacek. The ugly duckling outsider possessed of supernatural powers, who wreaked a terrible revenge on the peers who made her life a living hell, opened the doors for future representations of teen killers of the female persuasion. Of course, Carrie White also engendered feelings of pity, sympathy and lust, muddying the waters in regard to audience identification. She was monstrous, but she was also lonely, put upon and wholly insecure. The female teen killer in horror movies flits between naivety, cruelty, seductiveness, deceptiveness, awkwardness, hormonal angst and outright murderous aggression. Are they projections of a patriarchal fear of females becoming more powerful in society? A humorous riposte to the countless depictions of females being helpless damsels in distress and/or objectified, sexual playthings? Do they break down the gender barriers, allowing for identification across the male/female boundaries? They’re a mixture of all of those things, and they make for complex, fascinating ‘monsters’.
On screen, the menstrual cycle, peer pressure and social status, bullying, sexual awakening, pushy parents and good old teen angst have driven a motley collection of adolescent girls to explode with vengeful fury. Off screen, second-wave feminism, tired genre conventions, changing cinema-going demographics and a growing fascination with the ‘cult of youth’ have all played their part in teen females morphing from always being the victim to just as easily being the victimizer perpetrating the horrors depicted. Sure, it hasn’t been a wholesale change by any means; teen girls still get slaughtered by the dozen in horror movies, but now there are a sizeable number of witches, psycho-bitches and the supernaturally gifted ready to seek revenge, cause chaos and generally flick the bird to the notion of adolescent females being any kind of weaker sex. Whether they are seen in TV movies, low-budget oddities, cult hits, slashers, body horror comedies, sequels or remakes, these contemporary daughters of darkness critique, reflect and exaggerate the fears, fantasies and troubles experienced by female adolescents in the modern world.
Watch the trailer for Carrie (1976):
Within two years of Carrie hitting the screens, producers eager to cash in on the unexpected success of De Palma’s breakout hit had given us the TV movies The Spell (Lee Philips, 1977) and The Initiation of Sarah (Robert Day, 1978; remade by Stuart Gillard in 2006), as well as the low-budget, big screen offering Jennifer (Brice Mack, 1978), with all three revolving around supernaturally gifted outsiders. A bullied, overweight teen, a belittled fresher and a poor girl among rich peers respectively may all be cardboard cut-out Carrie-lite figures bent on righting the wrongs inflicted on them, but they reflected the wider changing representations of females of all ages on the silver screen. The other unifying factor between them was that audiences related to them, not to their violent actions you’d hope, but certainly to the alienation, peer pressures and insecurities they displayed and experienced. Damningly, aside from Carrie, The Spell and Jennifer are two of the only films where the central figure genuinely looks like an ‘outsider’ or someone who doesn’t conform to the idealised ‘look’ that a patriarchal media is so keen to push on us, as most directors still cast pretty young starlets in the leading roles.
The 1980s were a fallow period for the female teen killer, in a decade dominated by alpha male action heroes and dream stalking killers, but in Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983), social misfit Angela (Felissa Rose) blew a complex hole in the gender balance of male/female killers and slasher genre conventions by being… well, if you’ve seen it you know, and if you haven’t I won’t spoil it. Two decades later, in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2006), the slasher genre’s conventions were again toyed with, as Amber Heard‘s popular, titular figure proved to be less wholesome than she first appeared.
Watch the trailer for Sleepaway Camp:
Fast forward to the early 1990s, a few years after Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer helped cause chaos in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) and Drew Barrymore, then a 17- year-old hellraiser in real life, turned up in the lead role of Poison Ivy (Katt Shea, 1992). [SPOILER] Though not a horror movie, Poison Ivy deserves a mention, as Barrymore’s Machiavellian teen, a poor white trash ‘bad’ girl, inveigles her way into the affections of a wealthy family before offing the mother, attempting to kill the daughter and seducing the father. [END OF SPOILER] Ivy was a ‘monster’ in very human form; seductive yet deadly and a cold-blooded killer bent on getting what she wants, when she wants it. Ivy fits the mould without possessing the telekinetic powers or gifts/afflictions seen in other killer teen girls, her actions are grounded in reality, and that makes for a very dangerous ‘monster’ indeed.
Two more non-horror movies, Swimfan (John Polson, 2002) and Suburban Mayhem (Paul Goldman, 2006) continued in Poison Ivy‘s vein. Swimfan gave us Erika Christensen as Madison going into full blown Fatal Attraction mode after a one night stand with the object of her affection/obsession, while Suburban Mayhem, loosely based on a real Australian criminal case, saw Emily Barclay’s manipulative single mum Katrina plot to have her father killed. Ivy, Madison and Katrina stand out from many of the other unhinged characters seen across the spectrum of genres specifically because of their age and gender. What demons push ones so young, and ostensibly of the ‘fairer’ sex, to the edge and beyond? Though the real life rise in violent crime committed by adolescents (especially against other adolescents) is largely male driven, their onscreen female counterparts still reflect the unease at this grim statistic.
Perhaps the queen of the psycho-teen females, Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), crashed onto our screens in 2009’s Ozploitation horror The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne). A demented, vicious and tongue-in-cheek spin on teen horrors and high school movies, The Loved Ones placed Xavier Samuel’s Brent in the, very dangerous, hands of Lola and her equally twisted father. Ivy, Madison and Katrina are mere amateurs in comparison to Lola Stone, whose monstrous behaviour stems from her father’s besotted, incestuous, attitude towards his ‘Princess’. An equally disturbing vision of female adolescence gone awry came in 2012 with Richard Bates Jr’s Excision. Replacing The Loved Ones‘ dark comedy with an hallucinogenic, nightmarish tone, Excision also flips its parent/child power play, as the desperately troubled Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) sinks to horrific, surgical-based lows, to win the approval of her cold, domineering mother.
Watch the trailer for The Loved Ones :
Though the psycho-teen females are a striking bunch, those with supernatural abilities or body horror issues are more sizeable in number, in some cases proving to be catnip for both genre fans and academics. As the horror genre evolved, the representation of witches and witchcraft eventually moved away from traditional period pieces and into the modern world, and Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) presented us with a coven of high school girls embracing their new found supernatural powers. The high school or college is, understandably, a central element to many of the films featuring adolescent females going gonzo, as it is often their whole world; a status-conscious battleground, fashion catwalk, tangible psychological minefield and potential mating ground.
Seductive and deadly, the girls in The Craft were no white witches, but ones putting their powers to use for their own selfish, sometimes murderous, gain. A spate of similar movies followed in its wake, including Little Witches (Jane Simpson, 1996), Kill Me Tomorrow (Patrick McGuinn, 2000), Birth Rite (Devin Hamilton, 2003) and Tamara (Jeremy Haft, 2005). Tamara upped the ante somewhat by having its central figure, a vengeful witch, carry out her monstrous acts from beyond the grave; in Haft’s movie even a dead teen girl is something to be feared. Veering in quality from OK to awful, these low-budget offerings all riffed off teen girls being ‘evil’, manipulative and selfish. Ostensibly disposable entertainments they may be, but the view of female adolescents as inherently dangerous is both troubling and intriguing.
Lucio Fulci returned us to the realm of telekinesis and psychic powers in 1987 with Aenigma, which nods its trashy, Euro-horror head to both Carrie and Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978). Comatose teen Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), victim of a prank at the girls school she attends, uses her telekinetic and psychic abilities to control the mind of fellow pupil Eva (Lara Lamberti), compelling her to carry out Kathy’s vengeful bidding. Kathy may have virtually disappeared from our collective movie-going consciousness but Carrie White is still very much alive. To underline the lasting resonance – culturally and financially – of Carrie (both King’s novel and De Palma’s adaptation of it), Katt Shea directed the less than stellar The Rage: Carrie 2 in 1999. Three years later a TV adaptation of King’s novel, starring genre regular Angela Bettis in the lead role, appeared, and last year Kimberly Peirce updated the story for the smartphone generation in a wholly unnecessary quasi-remake-cum-adaptation with Chloë Grace Moretz, somewhat miscast, as the outsider telekinetic teen.
One of the few horror movies, other than Carrie, to overtly place the menstrual cycle as a key narrative element was 2000’s Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett). The psychological and bodily effects of the transition from childhood to maturity are symbolically aligned with lycanthropy in Fawcett’s movie, as Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins’s sisters discover that ‘the curse’ is worse than they could possibly have imagined. More bodily horrors were experienced in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007) and the movie which kicked off this piece, Jennifer’s Body. A teen with vagina dentata in Lichtenstein’s comedy-horror and a possessed cheerleader in the Cody-Kusama movie cut a bloody swathe through their respective male gene-pools as sexual dominance and appetites, high school cliques, gender stereotypes and adolescent anxieties played out in both films in bloody, graphic fashion.
Watch the trailer for Teeth:
In a world where ever younger females are bombarded by ‘ideal’ body images by an unscrupulous media, social media sits in ever more savage judgement and society’s corrosive fascination with youth continues, these slices of pop culture remain pertinent and provocative. If hell is a teenage girl, then society as a whole has made her that way, and the movies in which teen girls go loco do a good job of reminding us of that.