Oh, the horror! If my own experiences and dozens of films on the subject matter of being a teenage girl have taught me one thing, it is that puberty is a difficult, confusing, and sometimes gross time. Thanks to puberty all adolescents face an underlying loss of control: not only do their emotions and actions become volatile, their bodies are also undergoing uncomfortable and awkward changes that are literally out of their hands. Starting from the middle of the 1990s, many teenager-targeting releases such as Clueless, Mean Girls, The Craft, and Scream have used elements of comedy, drama, and even horror that are inspired by the lives of teenagers and their social environments.
While these films follow diverse topics that cover everything from battles of popularity, to revenge, and even to outright murder, all of them are part of a seemingly universal Western coming-of-age narrative. After all, it is a language that almost everybody speaks or at least used to speak at one point of their lives. Together, these elements create a framework that is inspired by the duality between the tedious normalcy of life as a teenager and the perceived threat of change through adulthood that lurks beyond the threshold of puberty. Because of this, coming-of-age stories are particularly popular with film executives and studios as they appeal to a guaranteed target audience. There will always be a generation of teenagers or genre fans lining up to watch these films.
Similar to slasher horror (which celebrates the bloody deconstruction of bodies), teenager-centric horror thrives on the metaphorical instability of its subjects’ minds and bodies– and in the case of teenage girls, the literal bloodshed of menstruation. For this reason, coming-of-age horror can also be regarded as a cousin of the slasher film. However, this type of horror is unique in its portrayal of female protagonists, their bodies, and their interactions with men while using horrible imagery to depict the struggle girls face within the constraints and expectations that our society places upon them. The original adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie from 1976 is mirrored in many of these stories, as it laid the groundwork for most vengeful, feral, blood-soaked girls in horror.
Carol Clover (who defined the concept of the ‘Final Girl’ in her seminal publication Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film) argues that women “are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, the horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story.” Yet modern horror is moving away from this clear division. Contrary to the tradition established in slasher films, in the cases of contemporary female-centric horror there is often only one side to the story. But what are the implications of a female character that merges these two opposing halves into a new concept that is free from preconceived notions? Is this what makes these films so fascinating and renewed the genre’s popularity with genre fans (and increasingly with those who are not)?
Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are good examples for this particular movement within the horror genre that started in the beginning of the 2000s. These films boast excessive bloodshed, nightmarish transformations, and the deterioration of female bodies and are using these visuals to support the impression that puberty and the sexual maturation of girls are processes which upset the patriarchal framework and its attempts to suppress the unruliness of young women. A ‘proper’ woman is supposed to be nurturing, supportive, and loyal to the men in her life. Rejecting this framework and the oppression it implies, these narratives of coming-of-age horror contain a strong female agency and continuously defy the expectations of the male gaze.
Recent examples of female-centric horror are simultaneously more abstract and more explicit than most preceding releases in the genre. The female protagonists in these stories are designed in a way that is intended to make audience members of either gender empathise and identify with them. At the same time, this sort of audience support is tested by the characters’ shocking ‘unnatural’ urges and gradual acceptance of their own monstrosity.
Films like Teeth, American Mary, Stoker, Excision, and The Neon Demon feature young women who are similar to the female protagonists of Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps in the sense that they are unambiguously monstrous and ready to commit atrocities for their own gain and pleasure. These girls are self-sufficient and unambiguous in their bloodlust, their gender, and their sexuality– which is why the focus of these films increasingly shifts towards narratives of degenerated female lust and cravings (read: cannibalism).
This phenomenon can be seen in films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Raw by Julia Ducournau which demonstrate a fixation on female physicality and desire that shifts into arthouse horror with an explicit focus on horrific taboo desires such as cannibalism and even necrophilia. Ducournau even admits in interviews that she deliberately chose cannibalism as one of the main themes of her film because it is one of the three greatest taboos of our society. Even though films like Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body also already contain subtextual references to these cravings and address the process of “becoming” something else, the genre appears to advance towards more extreme modes of expression with each new release.
It is definitely no longer possible to mistake these films for mere supernatural thrillers with horror elements (something which used to happen to female-centric horror all the time). In these movies, there is no question that the girls are out for blood, and it is this which makes them all the more unapologetically terrifying. It is hard to predict developments within a genre, but I believe there will be more variations on these themes in the coming years.
Interestingly, The Neon Demon premiered in Cannes and Raw was also shown there after premiering as part of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival where it caused viewers to faint from disgust and shock, just like The Exorcist did in 1973. Compared to the last few decades, explicit horror and the exclusive environment of high-profile film festivals appear to go together increasingly well– a fact which will definitely influence the future and popularity of this subgenre.
While it is not very unusual for horror films to be elevated beyond their pulpy low-entertainment image to gain critical acclaim on an international level, those instances are few and far between. But maybe not for much longer. If films like Raw prove anything, it is that we are currently living in an age of renaissance and evolution regarding female coming-of-age horror and its relevance.