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Reel Women: The Horror of Coming of Age

Motion International/MGM/20th Century Fox

Coming of age is horrific enough on its own: all the new hormones, feelings and the ability to draw attention (whether wanted or not) from the opposite sex. Coming of age is particularly troublesome for young women, as evidenced by numerous horror films. The horror genre provides a perfect natural metaphor for what we go through as teenagers, from first periods to curious feelings about the opposite sex.

Carrie,’ which hits theaters today, retreads the same territory as Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. A sheltered girl named Carrie, raised by a religious zealot mother, horrifically experiences her first period in the school gym shower — she has no idea what it is because her mother never explained it to her, and the other girls in class cruelly toss tampons and maxi-pads at her as she cries on the floor. From there, Carrie discovers that she has telekinetic powers and can move objects and people with her mind. While she has no control over what’s happening to her body as a young woman, she finds solace in her ability to control everything else around her.

‘Ginger Snaps’ and ‘Jennifer’s Body’ similarly use the idea of supernatural powers as a metaphor for coming of age — when a girl’s body begins the process of becoming more womanly, the change can feel sharp and sudden and painful. All the new attention from her male peers can make her believe that she holds power over men, both young and old. As with any power, it’s what you do with it that matters.

Ginger in ‘Ginger Snaps’ begins transforming into a werewolf, while her slightly younger sister remains unchanged. The film comments not only on what it feels like to have all these new hormones and bodily attributes that you don’t quite understand, but how it can affect a sibling relationship when one sister goes through puberty while the other lags behind. Extrapolate that idea to friendship, where one or a few girls blossom while others wonder when their time will come, and ‘Ginger Snaps’ is an accurate depiction of the coming-of-age experience for most teens. For Ginger, her changes are like most, but exaggerated: she frustratingly shaves her legs to no avail, she finds that all the boys in school suddenly want her when just a week ago they openly mocked her, and her mood swings are off the charts, alienating her entire family.

While ‘Ginger Snaps’ is a fairly blunt assessment of puberty and sibling bonds, ‘Jennifer’s Body’ ups the ante. Megan Fox’s Jennifer Check has already gone through puberty when we meet her in the film, and while she blossomed into your typical high school pretty girl, her childhood BFF Needy has remained more homely. Jennifer keeps Needy down by controlling what her friend can wear when they go out and mocking her relentlessly for being “dorky.” Though Jennifer is a beautiful girl, her need to ridicule others, especially her best friend, is merely a way for her to supplement her own self-esteem. By keeping Needy around, she can make sure that there is always someone a little lesser-than to make her look a little better-than.

When an indie band tries to sacrifice Jennifer to the devil in exchange for instant fame, she becomes a bloodthirsty demon — and thus Jennifer goes from figurative man-eater to literal one, using her looks to lure boys in and seduce them before tearing them to shreds and consuming them. And when Jennifer doesn’t eat, she begins to lose her glow: her skin looks dull, her hair lifeless, and her attitude even crummier than usual. She needs boys to make her beautiful, a comment on the way girls are socially trained to rely on men to feel whole. But ‘Jennifer’s Body’ flips the script and gives Jennifer the power — it’s not the emotional beast she needs to feed, but the very real demon inside of her. Young men are only temporarily useful and quite dispensable to Jennifer, who is taking full control and ownership over her newly discovered powers.

In each of these films, teen girls are granted supernatural powers at a time when their bodies — internally and externally — are changing and developing. It’s been said that puberty turns teen girls into monsters, and these films take the literal approach, mining the real horror of the experience for fictional horror, and crafting clever metaphors for what this experience does to ourselves and those around us. It’s a time when young women feel as though they have no control over what’s happening to their bodies, and these films give them powers they can control — but these powers, just like their new physical attributes and feelings, can be dangerous when you have no idea what you’re supposed to do with them.

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