Today we stop in Ireland to hear from Maura McHugh for Women in Horror Month. Maura gives a thoughtful review of a movie cult classic: Ginger Snaps.
Howling for Blood: Power and Puberty in Ginger Snaps
One of my favourite werewolf films is Ginger Snaps (2000), based on a story by Karen Walton and John Fawcett, with a screenplay by Walton, and directed by Fawcett. It has developed into a cult classic for a reason: it’s a well-crafted film about the body horror of puberty and learning to deal with new and powerful urges.
Central to its story is the bond between two sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) Fitzgerald, who don’t fit in at school due to their death obsession and Goth tendencies. Most of their peers are relentlessly replicating middle-class American attitudes exemplified by the boxy suburban landscape they inhabit. Although 16 and 15 years old, they remain on the cusp of puberty, so an interest in boys is just beginning to impinge upon their intense friendship.
Ginger is bitten by a werewolf just as she begins to menstruate, and she starts to change in literal and metaphoric ways. Brigitte tries to protect her sister as Ginger becomes more predatory and lost to her lycanthropic self. Power for Ginger is depicted as becoming more sexually aware and depending upon her ability to draw male attention. There’s the vamp walk down the High School hallway with the boys biting their fists at her attractiveness (a scene central to so many teen films), but this is not the “mousy girl becomes Prom Queen” dynamic. Ginger has always been attractive but was previously uncomfortable with the attention it brought.
This is the Jekyll & Hyde narrative with the girls representing both sides of the self. The werewolf is violent ID, rampaging without restraint. The more Ginger enjoys her destructive power the more alien she becomes. The physical transformation into a werewolf is slow in Ginger Snaps, it hits peak power during the full moon but it is a continuous build. As it progresses, the bond between the sisters erodes. Brigitte begins to embody the rational self that Ginger has rejected, so Ginger will eventually be driven to destroy her sister.
Brigitte attempts to figure out a way to stop her sister from becoming a beast (Ginger graduates from killing animals to killing humans with ease), but Ginger enjoys the power and has the strength to carry out her lethal impulses. “I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything.”
The werewolf is a metaphor for the physical transformation (hair growth, strange appetites and smells) and the emotional roller coaster triggered by the onset of menstruation: mood swings, hormonal imbalances, etc. The film glories in its taboo subject and even offers a biology lesson about some of the more unpleasant aspects of monthly bleeding described in plain language. Older women encourage the girls to embrace it. Menstruation−that hidden, messy issue that usually described in euphemisms (one of the film’s taglines is “She’s got the curse”)− is central to the film.
An overlooked and under-appreciated character in Ginger Snaps is Pamela (Mimi Rogers), the girls’ mother. She has a calm, open and nice relationship with her children, but she doesn’t suppress or shame them. When she realises what’s happening after discovering a dead body, she tells Brigitte, “First thing tomorrow I’ll let the house fill up with gas and I’ll light a match.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A mother’s instinct to protect is as strong as a werewolf’s need to devour.
When the two sisters confront their estrangement Brigitte says, “You want me? You want me, stop hurting everyone else and take me, take me!” But Ginger is too far gone, and Brigitte is unrecognisable to her.
Brigitte realises that she needs to reconcile the two parts and willingly takes the curse to demonstrate to Ginger that she will continue to have an ally who understands what she is experiencing. She has faith in a cure that will save them, as developed by the local weed grower Sam (Kris Lemche). Ginger’s earlier beau Jason (Jesse Moss) has not been a true threat to the girls, but Sam is thoughtful, smart and rejects Ginger’s advances. When he attempts to help Brigitte cure Ginger, the fully transformed Ginger attacks him with all her rage.
Brigitte shares a communion of blood with her sister (courtesy of Sam), and though she feels the draw of lycanthropic power, she cannot lose herself to it. She rejects this frightening power, doubting her ability to control it (and she’s given no sign that’s possible).
The final denouement happens in the sisters’ bedroom, place of their childhood and shared secrets. Now a symbol of their divide.
Brigitte knows what the uncontrolled monster will bring: a destruction of her ability to fit into the world rationally. “I’m not dying in this room with you!” she yells. But it is werewolf Ginger’s leap onto Brigitte’s knife that kills Ginger—a deliberate act or animal impulse? The beast cannot win against life’s sharp realities.
The girls had played at death in their earlier, staged death scenes, but truly being riven from each another is far more tragic than they ever imagined. Brigitte weeps over the corpse of her werewolf sister/self. To live in the world, she has given up something essential.
Ginger Snaps remains a rare horror film that concentrates exclusively on women’s struggles with their powerful urges and desires, and the double difficultly involved with inhabiting that power in a healthy way in a society that continues to mistrust powerful women−for at any point they might bleed, and of course, lose control…
You can view a trailer to Ginger Snaps here.
Maura McHugh is a horror writer living in Galway, Ireland, who writes articles, prose, comic books, plays and screenplays. Most recently she wrote a book about David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and has a collection of fiction forthcoming from NewCon Press in the UK. Her web site is splinister.com and she tweets as @splinister.