At a crucial point in the gleefully unhinged and unapologetically nihilistic teen horror movie Ginger Snaps (2000), two death-obsessed teen sisters wasting away in suburban Canada, Brigitte and Ginger, find themselves at their school nurse’s office, in a desperate final attempt to seek adult guidance to make sense of Ginger’s alarming transformation. The older of the two girls, Ginger is experiencing a rapidly accelerated descent into the throes of puberty after being bitten by a werewolf, magnifying her feelings of restlessness, insecurity, rage, and lust. Incredulous of the supernatural when teen angst seems a harrowing enough experience as it is, Brigitte searches for an explanation—and more importantly, a solution—as much for her sister’s sudden interest in smoking pot in cars with the local jocks she used to loathe as for her hairy palms and craving for raw flesh.
What the sisters receive from the perversely cheerful nurse instead are the gory details of menstruation, allowing for an unusual moment of reflection on just how brutal this grudgingly accepted fact of life really is for many. In a manner reminiscent of the dismissive gynecologist who tells the protagonist of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) she should stop reading because it makes her ask too many questions, the nurse discusses “thick, syrupy, voluminous discharge,” and “brownish or blackish sludge,” before announcing to the girls that they can expect this misery to continue for the next thirty years—the subtext being, they had better get used to it. As anyone who menstruates can attest, this description is both obscenely graphic and scientifically accurate, highlighting the absurdity of the female experience within a society that denies its power, as well as the inherent violence and chaos that exists in nature, all of nature, including the human animal.
Working my way through the Criterion Channel’s High School Horror series meant a cinematic return to my own teen years during the 1990s (with some notable exceptions, such as Dario Argento’s 1970s masterpiece Suspiria and the ingenious 2010s offering Unfriended). It was surprising to see just how bleak most of the films are, even those cult classics that are now considered “fun” slumber-party movies that teens continue to revisit. The Faculty (1998), with its harsh bullying and disastrously ineffectual adult role models, has a distinctly sour taste, one echoed in Ginger and Brigitte’s total lack of faith in their parents and teachers to help them. Fan favorite The Craft (1996) veers quite close to legitimately disturbing territory when it comes to depicting the power dynamic in heterosexual relationships between young men and women—the dehumanizing heartbreak, the thrall of infatuation, and the thin line between callousness and abuse.
Perhaps the tone of these films does not feel particularly jarring to those going through the horrors they depict, because acclimation has led to the normalization of the absurd. And for the aged-out adult viewer, maybe these films need to heighten the malice in the halls to elicit the memory and belief that such pain exists. From Prom Night (1980) to Massacre at Central High (1976), an air of constant tension sets the stage for escalating violence. At one moment in Ginger Snaps, Brigitte is being bodychecked on the field by a popular girl; the next, Ginger indiscriminately tears flesh and bone to even the score.
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