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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
IT IS NOT QUITE a third of the way through John Fawcett’s 2001 teen werewolf film Ginger Snaps, after Ginger Fitzgerald, one of the two spooky 15-year-old sisters who serve as our heroines, has been attacked by a mysterious fanged beast and begins to exhibit strange symptoms — hair growing from the wounds where the creature scratched her, the world’s heaviest period, and a newfound interest in boys, marijuana, and other bad-girl fare — that it happens: the moment.
The girls’ conventional mother, Pamela, played with deranged pep by Mimi Rogers, bedecked with holiday sweatshirts and two bizarre pin curls framing her face, finds Ginger’s stained underwear in the dirty laundry. We have already heard that neither Ginger nor her sister Brigitte has begun menstruating; Pamela looks at the underwear for a moment, frowns, pauses, and then sprays it vigorously with bleach. Cut to: Ginger, Brigitte, and their father sitting at the dinner table. Pamela enters sing-songing “Ginger’s very favorite,” holding an angel food bunt cake topped with strawberries. She places the cake in front of Ginger and says, “Congratulations, sweetie,” as strawberry sauce oozes luridly down the cake’s sides.
This. The period cake. There is something so audacious and subversive and gross about the vivid evocation of menstrual blood at a suburban dinner table, that this is the moment in Ginger Snaps when you begin to suspect you are not watching just any low-budget Canadian teen gore-stravaganza. You might just be sharing in the glory of the greatest werewolf and menstruation-themed feminist horror movie of all time.
Part of the brilliance here is that a cheesy horror film is all Ginger Snaps aspires to be. Fawcett set out to make a B-movie, rejecting CGI and other high-budget effects, so that the actor playing Ginger, Katharine Isabelle, had to spend hours being outfitted with fangs, cosmetic contact lenses, and even a full facial prosthetic that, according to Wikipedia, “gave her a permanently runny nose that she had to stop up with Q-tips.” And in many ways, Ginger Snaps creates meaning in the same way as its B-movie fellows: through the strict use of metaphor. We can think of horror as a genre incarnating unspoken fears — of disease, of sex, of technology — as monsters; revealing a fear and then battling it brings about a kind of catharsis, maybe.
In Ginger Snaps we see all that is terrifying about puberty made gruesomely manifest. The teenager loses control of his or her own body — it grows and changes in ways that can be painful and grotesque, while hormones hijack the teenager’s emotions. With these fluctuations and transfigurations, the person in the mirror can appear as something terribly other: a hairy monster. And the cycle of menstruation aligns felicitously with the werewolf myth, as both involve, at least in our imaginations, a monthly change into something different, unpredictable, even frightful.
Ginger’s transformation begins slowly at first. She has a nightmarish first period and dogs won’t stop barking at her. But then her body changes in more alarming ways — a claw protrudes from her ankle and she grows a long, muscular tail. She develops fangs, and her face and torso become gradually more canine, until, at the end, she has no human qualities — she is nothing but a giant, snarling, teenage werewolf. Along the way, she becomes more aggressive, sexually and otherwise. “I get this ache,” she says after she loses her virginity. “I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.”
Ginger’s changing sexuality is one of the ways that lycanthropy not only stands in for puberty in Ginger Snaps, but is conflated and confused with it. Ginger sees her body as a traitor, with a healthy measure of non-supernatural teen angst. “Kill yourself to be different, and your own body screws you,” she says. She at first refuses to believe that her metamorphosis has anything to do with the creature that attacked her. “I’ve got hormones,” she says to Brigitte. “And they may make me butt-ugly, but they don’t make me a monster.” Brigitte replies, “So you got bit by a giant hormone?”
It turns out the emotions and circumstances created by puberty elide with those created by metamorphosing into a werewolf with remarkable consistency. Ginger’s budding sex life threatens the close relationship she and Brigitte have always had, and elements of jealousy come into play. “You’re doing drugs with guys,” Brigitte says. “Something’s definitely wrong with you.” For Brigitte, this evidence, more than Ginger’s fangs or her tail or her bloodlust, proves that something alien is taking over her sister. Brigitte’s jealousy makes it hard for her to convince Ginger that they should take the changes she’s experiencing seriously — that she is not just threatened that Ginger is growing up, but afraid something terrible has happened to her. “Something’s wrong with you,” Brigitte insists. “More than you being just … female.”
In addition to Ginger’s transformation, the dynamics of jealousy and dependence and concern propel the film’s plot. The complexities of the sisters’ relationship are what elevates Ginger Snaps from your stock campy horror movie. Fawcett tempers the film’s low-budget effects, cheesy violence, and cartoonish portrayal of suburban life with an impressive dose of psychological realism.
From the beginning of the film, Ginger and Brigitte are portrayed as strange and creepy. The first time we encounter them, they are staging their own deaths with zeal and creativity, exploring a variety of possible scenarios — Ginger eviscerated by a lawnmower, Brigitte with a pitchfork through her neck, both sisters sipping poison at a tea party, Ginger skewered on a white picket fence. We learn that they have made a pact, sealed with blood, to commit suicide before they turn 16. “Out by 16 or dead in the scene, but together forever,” they repeat, “united against life as we know it.”
Brigitte does betray some hesitation, even in these opening scenes. “Don’t you think our deaths should be a little more than cheap entertainment?” she asks. Ginger rejects the idea that dying this way might be too sensational, too performative. “Suicide’s like the ultimate ‘fuck you,’” she says. “It’s so us.” Ginger is the older sister, and she is from the beginning the more confident and daring of the two: the natural leader. She takes the liberty to define them both.
“It’s so us” is one of the phrases that is repeated over the course of the movie, both before and after Ginger’s change, to reveal how monstrous and destructive their relationship is. Before Ginger is bitten, a boy at school asks her out. “Just promise you won’t go average on me,” Brigitte says, threatened. “I’d rather be dead,” Ginger replies. “I’d rather be dead than be here without you,” Brigitte says. When Ginger’s transformation is nearly complete, she pressures Brigitte to become a werewolf too. “It’s so us,” Ginger tells her. “I’d rather be dead than be what you are,” Brigitte says. Brigitte becomes aware, at least for that moment, that there are worse fates than losing Ginger — or that she’s already lost her.
Ginger’s grotesqueness turns out not to be enough to break what binds them. Near the end of the film, Brigitte slits her and Ginger’s palms and infects herself. Brigitte believes she has found a cure for lycanthropy, so this is a calculated move, but abandoning Ginger seems to be more than she can bear. Brigitte has only known herself in relation to Ginger; without her sister, her identity is completely undeveloped. When Ginger’s transformation is just beginning, she accuses Brigitte of being petty and jealous, saying, “You always wanted to be me.” Brigitte inverts this statement as she becomes a werewolf herself. “You wreck everything for me that isn’t about you,” she says. “Now I am you.”
Ginger’s dominating personality, her inability to let Brigitte be her own person, is harmful to both of them, although this is complicated by the fact that Brigitte does long to be like Ginger. Ginger’s role as protector is disturbing as she constantly attempts to shield Brigitte from men — “He wants to get down your pants, stupid,” she says of Sam, the drug dealer who is helping Brigitte find a cure for lycanthropy. After Ginger kills the school’s janitor in cold blood, she tells Brigitte, “I don’t like how he looks at you.” She describes what it feels like to kill in erotic terms: “It’s like touching yourself. You know every move right on the fucking dot. And afterwards, you see fireworks — supernovas.” After this, in the most overtly incestuous moment in the film, Ginger brings Brigitte close and says in her ear, “You know, we’re almost not even related anymore.” Rather than making them one individual, Ginger’s change has made them more distinct — so that they might achieve a more terrible closeness.
With the suggestion of incest, Brigitte and Ginger’s codependence slides into true dysfunction. This personal dysfunction points to a broader societal one, to narratives and expectations that push women and girls to exhaustion, to sickness. With surprising sophistication, given its budget and genre, Ginger Snaps illustrates the damaging power of female role expectations and the cultural mechanisms that make them so difficult to escape. Pamela does everything she can to be a perfect suburban mother — cooking, cleaning, and crafting, encouraging and caring for her daughters in spite of their weirdness — and by the end she is showing cracks in her archetypal armor. When she discovers that they have killed their high school’s queen bitch Trina Sinclair, she suggests they just start over. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll let the house fill up with gas and I’ll light a match. We’ll start fresh,” she says. “Just us girls.”
“Just us girls” is a succinct description of Brigitte and Ginger’s mission. At the beginning of the film, Brigitte describes Trina as “your standard cum-bucket-y date-bait” and it appears this — to be defined by their connection to men, to be a receptacle used by men — is the opposite of what Brigitte and Ginger want. Their attitudes are at times misogynist — “Wrists are for girls,” Ginger says when contemplating methods of suicide — but really what they long for is an all-female world. Since they know that puberty and the development of their sexuality may eventually lead them to need men, even want them, they see only one solution: to develop relationships only with each other and die before they reach adulthood.
We can look to a number of cultural forebears of the Fitzgerald sisters — the heroines of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides are also familiar with the calamity that sexual maturity can pose. Hamlet’s Ophelia retreats intentionally into madness as her only recourse to express her grief and turns to suicide when all the male figures in her life have failed her. There is also the uncanny matriarch of American poetry, about whom a Vice magazine headline recently said, “Emily Dickinson Was So Horny and Ready to Die.”
It is, it seems, a very old story: the feminine descent into insanity, into wildness, into what is morbid, dark, odd, and scary. As Anne Carson notes in her brilliant essay “The Gender of Sound,” Aristotle associates femaleness with all that is “curving, dark, secret, evil, ever-moving, not self-contained, and lacking its own boundaries.” Describing an ancient Greek poem in which a man who is far from home can hear the sounds of both wolves and women howling, she notes that,
The wolf is a conventional symbol of marginality in Greek poetry. […] He lives beyond the boundary of usefully cultivated and inhabited space. […] Women, in the ancient view, share this territory spiritually and metaphorically in virtue of a “natural” female affinity for all that is raw, formless, and in need of the civilizing hand of man.
In light of women’s problematic and longstanding association with wolves, a werewolf movie involving pubescent girls feels less campy and more truly serious all the time.
Sigmund Freud coined the term “hysteria” to describe, in Carson’s words,
female patients whose tics and neuralgias and convulsions and paralyses and eating disorders and spells of blindness could be read, in his theory, as a direct translation into somatic terms of psychic events upon the woman’s body.
In Freud’s conception, pathology was the only way for women to express some of what was going on in their minds. Cases of hysteria, the crimes of Brigitte and Ginger, Ophelia’s madness, and Eugenides’s suicidal characters, are examples of the performance of acceptable roles rupturing — pathology is the result of a terrible secret being unearthed, “as if the entire female gender,” as Carson writes, “were a kind of collective bad memory of unspeakable things.”
And yet aren’t all female performances — the proper, chaste, and controllable woman; the wolf-like other; the hysterical invalid — conceived of and defined by the patriarchy? Carson notes that Playboy magazine will print interviews with famous feminists alongside nude centerfold pictorials. “Each of them,” she writes, “the centerfold naked woman and the feminist, a social construct purchased and marketed by Playboy magazine to facilitate that fantasy of masculine virtue.” Brigitte and Ginger, in their transgressiveness and their pathology, are still expressing a narrative authored and perpetuated by a society that desires girls to be wild, perverse, and “in need of the civilizing hand of man.” The association of females with wolves, or with what is “dark, secret, and evil,” is circular — women remain confined to a limited collection of things that they are allowed to be. The transgression is always shocking, always exactly what we expect.
There have been incidents that may have been cases of “mass hysteria” in the very recent past: in 1962 a so-called “laughter epidemic” began with three high school girls in the Tanzanian village of Kashasha and eventually affected several villages and a thousand people. In an upstate New York high school in early 2012, 15 girls, many of them cheerleaders, started displaying Tourette’s syndrome-like symptoms. It seems that one outcome of the feminine being “lacking its own boundaries” is that female pathologies, especially in girls, are often collective. Girls charge one another with them, and they take up the pathologies of their friends and sisters, in a strange interlocking web of cruelty and solidarity.
We see a visceral manifestation of this phenomenon at the end of Ginger Snaps. Ginger has completely changed, and has trapped Brigitte’s friend Sam in the basement of the girls’ house and killed him. As his blood pours out on the floor, the Ginger-wolf laps it up. Brigitte crouches beside her, taking his blood in her hands and drinking it, momentarily taken over by her growing wolf instincts — one with Ginger.
But then, because it is a movie and we need a third act, the spell is broken, and Brigitte coughs out Sam’s blood, shouting, “I can’t! I won’t!” Too late, Brigitte has refused to take Ginger’s pathology as her own. Ginger is enraged, and Brigitte flees, eventually barricading herself in their bedroom with a knife and a syringe full of the lycanthropy antidote. When Ginger finds her, Brigitte says what she may have wanted to say when first discussing their suicide pact: “I’m not dying in this room with you.”
Ginger lunges at her and then falls back, the knife sticking from her lupine torso. Brigitte cries and holds Ginger’s body as the camera pans over photographs of the sisters that line their bedroom walls. A long, sad final shot lingers on Brigitte draped over the dead werewolf. This is another thing that makes Ginger Snaps a distinctive horror movie — killing the monster is not triumphant. The emotions of the scene are complicated, but the dominant one is an overwhelming sadness.
Ginger Snaps provides a remarkable depiction of the situation of the teenage girl, but the depiction is deeply pessimistic — it offers no solutions, and the unhealthy roles and relationships many girls find themselves in are played out to their inevitable sad ends. The film demonstrates the same cycle that Carson described: patriarchally-constructed expectations creating dire circumstances for females that seem, in the end, only natural, circumstantial. It’s a trap. Brigitte has escaped a harrowing and dysfunctional relationship, but it was with the only person she ever loved — and her fate may be the same as Ginger’s, with no guarantee that the antidote will work. For Brigitte, there may be no answer, no way out.
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