by Eliza Janssen | October 29, 2020
‘Never piss off a woman; they know how to get blood stains out of everything’. – A Proverb
These days we’re lucky enough to enjoy a growing canon of feminist horror movies, with ass-kicking final girls, and monsters that are believably complex and systemic. But what about when the final girl and the monster are one and the same?
In Julia Ducournau’s 2016 horror film Raw, animal loving med student Justine learns that one of the side effects of her coming of age is an insatiable hunger for flesh. There’s also De Palma’s blood-drenched classic Carrie (1976); Ginger Snaps (2002), the still-rad story of gothic werewolf sisterhood; and all those scenes in It (2017) and It: Chapter 2 (2019) where the sole female member of the Losers Club cowers in a women’s bathroom cubicle. There’s something so distinctly gynaecological about the body horror of these movies; maybe even gynophobic, if you’re feeling particularly unforgiving. At the very least, though, most of the films in the unofficial canon of Menstrual Horror seem to take adolescence and coming of age seriously, more seriously than the horror genre’s tendency to see teens as disposable, undeveloped adults.
And at best? These films seem to have an empowering angle, turning gendered stigma into its own grand gothic force. I forget who said it, but one nice oversimplification is that the Gothic genre occurs whenever a woman is trapped inside a house; these bloody teenage horror films merely replace that haunted domestic space with the equally repressive confines of a changing body. It’s worth noting that each of the entries to my little canon are focused on cis womanhood, but the ghoulish policing of gender, and the body horror opportunities of adolescence, unfortunately extend to every gender identity and expression. In her essay “Sweet Sick Teens: Gothic narratives of American adolescent sexuality,” Kara Koehler singles out “uncontrollable transformation” and “sexual maturation” of any kind as hallmarks of the Gothic genre, making room for anyone victimized by the systemic stigmatization of puberty’s physical symptoms.
In mining such biological processes for gendered terror, these bloody movies about cis teen girlhood often take place in locations that could be considered strictly gendered, such as public showers and locker rooms, high school parties and teen bedrooms. In each film, public humiliation on the basis of one’s gender and lack of control over the pubescent body is treated as a serious and even mortal threat — Carrie’s infamous climax sees the titular character drenched in pig’s blood by her classmates, who earlier had mocked her for her ignorance and fear of her own menstruation. In Raw, first-year students are hazed by being drenched in animal blood as a rite of passage; after this scene, Justine’s personality is noticeably less demure and reserved, as if the blood has had a baptismal, deflowering quality.
Susan Sontag reckons that the illnesses we are most terrified of are “the de-humanizing ones, which act immediately and disfigure,” and so it shouldn’t go unmentioned that the teen girls that terrorise in Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Raw are the same teen bodies that get objectified, glamorised, and ripped apart in countless other horror movies. Ducournau seems to make a point of this in Raw, resorting to explicit, close-up visuals of Justine’s latest scabs and wounds instead of any tactful suspense; here, every shot is a gory money shot. The intimacy and frankness in Ducournau’s imagery rejects what audiences hope to see in a film about nubile partying teens and instead shows only the most repulsive aspects of their typically attractive bodies; In her book, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection, Elena del Río calls this: “an actively dislocating or deforming force.”
None of this is done with much subtlety in Raw, and Ginger Snaps peddles some of those same visual and narrative ideas with a near comedic quality, playfully depicting the symptoms of puberty and of becoming a werewolf in parallel (new hungers, transformation according to a monthly calendar, uncontrollable growth of hair). But both films show an unmistakable empathy for misunderstood teenage bodies. Fortunately for the protagonists of Ginger Snaps and Raw, both films also depict complicated yet strong relationships between two young sisters. That bond is presented as a blessing and a curse, with Alexia and Ginger both serving as sources of sisterly guidance and seductive bad influences. While Alexia does goad her younger sister into indulging her supernatural hunger, the pair are also shown to basically be each other’s sole support systems, and their primal, loving relationship is best depicted in the film’s third-act shower scene. There, the girls affectionately wash the blood off one another after a violent scuffle, suggesting a ritual, familial protectiveness that mirrors the real habits of people who menstruate; the managing of menstruation as a learned, inherited practice. Ever asked if anyone has a spare tampon in a crowded nightclub bathroom? There ya go. Same thing.
But in other places, Raw elicits a nasty sense of dread by drawing on societal fear of toxic sisterhoods, and the mysterious goings-on of women in intimate groups. It’s exemplified in Justine’s father warning her against having daughters when she is older; “Honey, it’s too hard.” Or, when a fellow student sees Justine vomiting an impossible amount of blood and hair, and benignly says, “It’ll come up faster if you use two fingers.” These secondary characters’ normalisation of “female troubles” like symptoms of puberty or eating disorders (be they supernatural or garden variety) suggests a depressing and ironic conclusion: A teenager’s “transformation” is unnatural and monstrous, but the pain and anxiety that come with it are totally expected and acceptable.
So despite all of Raw’s explicit gore imagery, its greatest moment of horror comes in the concluding reveal that Justine and Alexia’s mother has the same cannibal urges as they do. Their father unbuttons his shirt to reveal a torso scarred with decades of bite marks, nonchalantly promising Justine; “I’m sure you’ll find a solution, honey.” The terrifying realisation that these urges are not part of an adolescent phase, but may go on to characterise her sexuality and gender identity for her whole adult life, makes Justine gasp. We see finally that when innate human desires are repressed, they do not disappear; they merely fester and cause long-term damage. That blend of a looming patriarchal threat and its depressing permanence is experienced by Beverly Marsh in It, played first by Sophia Lillis as a teen haunted by her abusive, hair-sniffing father. Policing her growth into a woman, he makes her promise to “stay his little girl forever;” a promise fulfilled in It: Chapter 2, where Jessica Chastain’s grown version of the same character must face off against Pennywise’s ghoulish facsimile of her father, while also struggling to stay afloat in that aforementioned blood flood (cool).
Maybe it means something that this moment in particular, glibly described as ‘Carrie on steroids’ by Chastain, was chosen to be the bloodiest scene in cinema history. As in Carrie, some large part of the sequence’s horror comes from Beverley’s humiliation, the impossible sense that her adolescence and its resulting “impurity” have caused this comical rain of 4,500 gallons of fake blood. In terrifying teen movies that capitalise on both the systemic shaming of menstruation and menstruation’s gloriously gory opportunities for body horror, it is the former that should really make viewer’s blood run cold — because that monster is undeniably real. Period.