Girlhood and horror have a long and complicated history. Stories of teen girls coming of age depicted through horror can be traced as far back as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, an 1872 novella about two adolescent girls forming a “close” relationship until one of them is revealed to be a centuries-old vampire. Themes of sexual exploration and discovery, key elements of adolescence, are indeed depicted in golden age monster movies like Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942).
Films of the 1970s brought on the onset of Final Girls, and teenagers have been at the forefront of the horror genre ever since. Currently, there are a plethora of diverse women characters throughout horror, but even more specifically there is a trend in teen girl coming-of-age-horror films that began with the release of John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), about a teen who is bitten by a werewolf immediately after getting her first period. While teen girl puberty horror existed in earlier films such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) or Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), they differ in theme and narrative tropes from the films in this genre cycle, which I will call the “menstruosity” cycle.
The term menstruosity comes from the way these films link the monstrous and female coming-of-age (often but not always signified by menstruation) as a way to characterize the complex experience of adolescence. These films are primarily written and/or directed by women, and therefore bring on a perspective of girlhood that differs from what is typically depicted in the male-dominated film industry. However, male-directed films such as Ginger Snaps, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007) and Richard Bates, Jr.’s Excision (2012) fit this modern menstruosity narrative too. Menstruosity films follow a young girl who is maturing physically and sexually, while at the same time developing a form of monstrosity by which she is both disgusted and empowered. The female perspective in these films highlights the uniquely feminine experience of conflict between feminine desire and internalized patriarchal values.
It is important to note that though menstruation is often a central part of these films, female anatomy is not. Menstruation and female sexuality act as a symbol of bodies or identities outside that of the culturally comfortable heterosexual, cisgender male. As a result, a lot of menstruosity films have strong themes of queerness and/or predominantly LGBTQ+ fanbases.
Defining Menstruosity: “You kill yourself to be different but your own body screws you.”
Menstruosity is a combination of two elements. First, it explores adolescence as a liminal space, a stage of life between two clearly defined and accepted categories: childhood and adulthood. Teenagers being functionally separate from adulthood is a relatively new concept, becoming properly established around the late 1940s when postwar prosperity delayed adulthood. Teenagehood is, in essence, a social construct. Teenagers aren’t well defined by what they are, but rather what they are not. Teenagers aren’t children, but they’re not adults. They’re mature but they have no freedom. They’re not their parents, but they’re also bound to them through love and/or biological relations. They’re rebels, but they want to fit in. They’re not like other girls, but their experiences are only relatable to other girls. They’re somewhat unique but compliant. Indeed, adolescence is a constant state of “in-between”, being pulled from one direction to another and constantly dealing with the inner turmoil of lacking a clear-cut role in society.
The other element of menstruosity is that it highlights the abject. Abject horror is gore or anything that’s disgusting. But it’s also a bit more specific than that. The use of the term “abject” that I apply here refers to professor Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection” (1982). In it, Kristeva defines abjection as “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.” The abject is something that upsets the distinction between the subject and the object, the self and the other.
Take, for example, hair. On my head, it’s a part of me; I am the subject, and my hair is clearly included in that. A cup sitting across the room from me is an object. However, when you clean out your hair drain or take a ball of hair from your hairbrush, it’s disgusting. The hair is no longer a part of you, the subject, and yet it came from you, so it is not a clearly separated object. It is abject.
Now, consider how intense the experience of abjection is for adolescent girls. When a girl experiences her first period, she witnesses an organ shedding itself. She feels it rip to shreds inside her body before being expelled into a sticky, smelly, chunky mess. Her insides spill out of her body, an inner organ is seemingly now on the outside; she may gag at the scent or blush at the embarrassment of womanhood projected onto her still adolescent self.
Even beyond the physical body, puberty marks the moment when women are no longer in control of their identity. Adolescent girls are suddenly sexualized; objectified by men, by media, and by appearance. She begins to be seen as other within a world she never left. Not only is her body abject to her, but now she is the abject of society. These perversions of the distinction between self and other create a distinct atmosphere of abject surrounding female coming-of-age. So, while not every menstruosity film deals specifically with menstruation or female anatomy, they do emphasize the abject and base their core sources of horror in gore and a sense of simultaneous revulsion and empowerment of the body.
Eating Boys and Growing Tails: Themes in Teen Girl Coming-of-Age Horror
In Ginger Snaps, we see a different kind of female coming-of-age horror film, one which connects puberty and monstrosity but emphasizes how menstruosity brings its characters to a place of comfort in their womanhood, strengthening their identity in a world that views them as “other’.
Films like this often begin with a moment that presents itself as abject, a physical event based in reality that coincides with the manifestation of the character’s monstrosity. In some cases, this event is menstruation. In Ginger Snaps, death-obsessed high schooler Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) has her first period and exclaims to her sister, “you kill yourself to be different and your own body screws you. She tells her sister to shoot her if she starts “simping around tampon dispensers and moaning about PMS.”
Exactly twenty seconds later (I counted), Ginger is bitten by a werewolf, simultaneously initiating her transformation into both monster and the “monstrous” stage of adolescence. The juxtaposition of these two events emphasizes the connection between the ambiguity and uncertainty of teen girlhood alongside the horror of physical maturation. This initiation happens more gradually in Lisa Brühlmann’s Blue My Mind (2017) which shows 15-year-old Mia (Luna Wedler) exhibiting symptoms of PMS interspersed with scenes hinting that she is becoming a mermaid. Mia lashes out at her mother, physically attacking her and then apologizing profusely, horrified at her own actions.
That night, Mia enters the kitchen and chugs a glass of saltwater. She impulsively eats a fish out of her fish tank and vomits it up, and in the following scenes, she shoplifts, flashes oncoming cars, and nearly kisses her best friend. When she finally gets her period, she decides to take a bath, where she notices her feet have begun to web together. While Mia grapples with confusion and disgust at the lack of control she has over her body and her actions, the audience feels the same way about her developing fish-like qualities. This juxtaposition of adolescence and the monstrous shows puberty as abject because in such films, the changing girls’ sense of their physical identity – that which makes their “self” human and makes fish or werewolf “other” – is obscured.
As previously mentioned, this introduction to womanhood through horror does not exclusively rely on menstruation, though blood is often central. Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) creates this moment through Justine’s (Garance Marillier) initiation into veterinary school, where the upperclassmen prank the freshmen by dumping gallons of blood on them as they pose for a group picture and then force them to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, is pressured into eating the rabbit kidney by her older sister Alexia. As a result, Justine develops a grotesque rash on her skin and an insatiable taste for raw meat.
Later, when Alexia (Ella Rumpf) attempts to (improperly) trim stuck wax off of Justine’s bikini area, Justine kicks her and in the process, Alexia’s finger is dissevered. While Alexia is unconscious, Justine eats part of her sister’s finger, transforming into a cannibal. Justine’s cannibalism is presented in this film as something similar to the werewolves of Ginger Snaps: it’s out of her control and simultaneously horrifying and gratifying. Justine’s werewolf-like cannibalism emerges along with the freedom and exploration that occurs in many young women’s college years.
It is not uncommon for the main character in such films to explore her sexuality along with her monstrosity. Traditional Final Girls of horror are virginal, pure, and markedly different from their sexual peers. Though the slasher genre has evolved past the “virgin rule”, Final Girls continue to be depicted as respectable, while those who proudly have sex continue to be killed off. We see this most recently in Ti West’s X (2022) where the Final Girl makes porno films because she wants to be famous, whereas the characters who genuinely enjoy sex are all killed off.
Menstruosity films offer a counterpart to slasher films, where the woman often embodies qualities of both the Final Girl and a sexual transgressor, and it is only her male partners who face demise. As her sexual freedom grows, so does her monstrosity. Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) for example, follows Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) after she has been kidnapped by a boyband that intends to sacrifice her to the devil in order to gain commercial success. Jennifer, in an attempt to escape, lies and claims she is a virgin. As a result, the sacrifice that results in her death is yet incomplete. She comes back as a demon who eats men who try to have sex with her. Without her “nourishment”, she becomes sickly and corpse-like, even vomiting ectoplasm in the film’s most abject scene.
Similarly in Raw, Justine is relatively reserved at the start of the film. She is upset that she has a male roommate and believes all veterinarians should be vegetarians, thus identifying with the virginal and pure qualities of a Final Girl. As Justine’s interest and openness to sex increases, so does her monstrosity. In one scene, she and another boy, covered in paint at a party, are dared to kiss alone in a bathroom. They do, but Justine takes a bite out of his lip, paint and all. She also sleeps with her male roommate, who believed he was gay. Eventually, this roommate meets his own demise, and it first appears he was eaten by Justine, but soon it is revealed it was actually Alexia who ate him. Still, those who had sex with the main character were punished while she in turn became more monstrous.
Such moments in film are particularly relevant at a time when female sexuality continues to be demonized by lawmakers seeking to criminalize abortion and, in some cases, even birth control. By making this demonization literal, menstruosity narratives give us perspective on how it feels to possess desire in a world that punishes it, and reminds us that we are not alone.
Menstruosity: Liberation for Female Horror Fandom
While these films are, at their center, about empowerment through womanhood, they are also about simultaneous disgust with it. This contradiction mirrors the way that women are expected to feel confident and comfortable with their bodies despite the internalized shame and objectification that is so prominent in popular culture. As political movements make strides to control women’s bodies, we are so angered and frustrated with the burden of our bodies that everyone seems to have control over except us. This feeling only grows as we mature physically and sexually.
As the monstrosity and sexuality continue to empower our menstruosity protagonist, she also craves a return to her old life. The scenes with the greatest disgust are usually saved for the point in films, when she sees herself as most monstrous and makes a final attempt at becoming human again. In Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer waits until her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is most afraid of her to reveal that she has actually died and come back as something otherworldly. Jennifer explains she has no intent to eat Needy, only to reconnect with a familiar relationship from her childhood.
In Ginger Snaps, Ginger attempts to cut her tail off in the bathroom, so disgusted by not just her body but her actions of killing neighborhood pets and violence towards other people that she is willing to mutilate herself in an attempt to return to normalcy. In Blue My Mind, Mia decides not to have sex with an older man and is judged by her friends for it. Feeling alone and outcast, Mia takes a pair of nail scissors and begins to slowly, painfully cut the webbing that has grown between her toes.
The final scenes of these films, however, also show the girls – now young women – ultimately accepting their monstrosity. They realize that their monstrosity can become a source of strength, that it is what makes them who they are, and maybe they want to live outside of the societal norms dictated for them. These conclusions highlight the importance of connections with other women. In Ginger Snaps, for example, Bridgitt turns herself into a werewolf in order to convince Ginger to come home so that they both can take the cure. However, Bridgitt is unable to save Ginger before she morphs fully into a werewolf, so she has to kill Ginger in order to save herself. The film ends ambiguously as to whether Bridgitt takes the cure for herself.
Similarly, Jennifer’s Body ends with Needy developing the same demonic powers as Jennifer, and she escapes prison in order to kill the boy band that started it all. In Blue My Mind, Mia realizes she can never live on land and dives into the ocean to find her real mother. At the end of Raw, Justine forms a closer bond with her sister and her mother, both of whom are unwilling cannibals, thus paralleling the kind of bond that women can feel for each other.