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A brief history of supernatural female sexuality at the movies

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Image: Vicky Leta / Mashable

It can be a hard thing to be a teenage girl. You face pressure from both your peers and society at large to rush into sexual activity you may not be ready for. You’re judged for your clothes, your makeup, your interests. You have to navigate that blurry line between childhood and adulthood, exemplified by physical changes that can make your body feel like it’s not your own.

Also, you might turn into a werewolf.

Or a mermaid.

Maybe a succubus.

At least that’s the case in the movies, where there exists a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.

Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing: “Help, I’m a teenage girl coming into my own as a sexual creature, while also turning into a literal creature who transforms into a deadly animal/can control objects with my mind / has an all-consuming hunger for human flesh / bites dudes’ junk off with my vagina” (circle where applicable).

Supernatural sexuality is nothing new at the movies

It’s a horror subgenre that’s shown its face time and time again throughout the decades. In 1942’s Cat People, a sexually repressed young woman refuses to be intimate with her husband due to her (justified, as it turns out) fear that doing so will cause her to turn into the killer cat that looms so large in her people’s mythology.

Fast forward to 2018, and you get Blue My Mind and Wildling – both coming-of-age films centered around teenage girls who find the normal teenage issues of self-acceptance and isolation amplified by an unexpected transformation into a supernatural creature.

In between, you have last year’s Raw (cannibalistic urges, passed down in the main character’s family from woman to woman) and Thelma (mind control powers that manifest along with the lead’s burgeoning same-sex attraction to a classmate). Werewolves, perhaps due to that convenient “monthly cycle” connection, are a popular subject, seen in 2014’s When Animals Dream, 2000’s Ginger Snaps and 1984’s The Company of Wolves.

The marriage of teenage female sexuality and supernatural horror gets its most literal manifestation in 2007’s Teeth, in which the monstrous development in question is – yeah, you guessed it – vagina dentata. 

There’s a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.

And then, of course, there’s Carrie, this particular horror sub-genre’s most august entry. Here, the connection between sexual coming-of-age and supernatural power is made explicit: Carrie’s powers first manifest out of the shock and confusion she feels after first menstruating, along with the bullying she subsequently suffers because of it.

Movies where the emergence of a female character’s sexuality runs parallel to the development of supernatural powers run the gamut from arthouse horror (like The Witch, where the teenage protagonist’s alienation from her Puritan family ends with her joining a coven of witches) to slasher shlock (like Hello Mary Lou, in which a demure do-gooder is possessed by a rebellious prom queen).

Female horror stories trace their roots back to fairy tales

All these films, regardless of how serious they are (in Hello Mary Lou, someone is literally killed by a possessed cape), serve in some way as a reaction to a world where teenage girls and young women are frequently shamed for their sexuality. For being too interested in sex – like Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body, a virgin sacrifice who turns out to be not so virginal. Or not interested enough, like the purity ring-sporting Dawn in Teeth.

Or maybe they’re interested in sex, but not in the right way – as is the case in Thelma, where the protagonist’s parents are religious fundamentalists of the sort that, notes director Joachim Trier, sometimes try to “save” their children from homosexuality.

Whatever the case, a growing collection of movies sees the feelings generated by the pressure placed on young women – anger, guilt, shame, fear, self-loathing – explode in a bloody fashion, catapulting their heroines out of the realm of reality and straight into mythological waters.

However, while puberty turns these girls into monsters, boys face a different rite of passage. In their coming-of-age movies, the protagonists are more likely to defeat evil than become it. That’s nothing new, explains Samm Deighan, an instructor at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast.

The disparity “is connected to fear of women’s sexuality emerging,” whether it’s physical sexuality (i.e., puberty) or, as in a movie like Cat People, an interest in sex. Female sexuality is taboo and thus a fertile ground for both horror filmmaking and, going further back, myths and fairy tales.

Female sexuality is taboo and thus a fertile ground for both horror filmmaking and, going further back, myths and fairy tales.

“The root of a lot of these female coming-of-age horror films is the fairy tale, which [typically originate in] the 16th or 17th century,” Deighan explains. These often involve “young women going on adventures where they’re inherently transformed. And usually these girls are going on a journey to find a husband.”

An early telling of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, had the Princess not awoken from her slumber by true love’s kiss but impregnated while still asleep. She wakes up after having given birth, allowing her “in a very weird, creepy way [to] maintain sexual innocence,” notes Deighan. “She’s able to become a wife and mother without ever consciously losing her virginity.”

Other myths are less about women themselves than they are about male fear of women, diminishment, and emasculation, argues Teeth writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein. His film was directly inspired by vagina dentata myths that have persisted across cultures for centuries.

“In the typical myth, the [male] hero sets out to conquer the woman or the female animal, whatever it is,” he explains. “And then he conquers her, and the hero is victorious. And it was always my intent to flip that, so that she is the heroine, and she never will be conquered. Because she should not be.”

Supernatural sexuality has evolved with the times

Cinema’s linking of female coming-of-age with the supernatural allows these characters, and by extension the audience, to confront their feelings toward their sexuality in the same way that fairy tales have done for centuries. However, as demonstrated with films like Teeth, the way this plays out has changed over time.

An early version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, written by Charles Perrault, warned against girls falling prey to seducers. But in The Company of Wolves, a reimagining directed by Neil Jordan and based on stories by Angela Carter, the heroine responds to constant warnings about sexual menace at the hands of men by deciding to become a werewolf herself.

Similarly, the messages sent by these films evolve to reflect their eras. In 1946’s She-Wolf of London, as in Cat People, the fears of a young woman approaching her wedding day are mirrored in her fear of succumbing to an inherited curse that dooms to her a life of bloodlust and murder. Becoming a monster is something to be feared, an extension of victimhood.

By contrast, 1981’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne gives us another engaged young woman, Fanny, living in another society that prizes female purity – here, 19th century London. But rather than run away from the horror embodied in her fiancée, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), Fanny runs towards it, actively making the choice to throw aside social norms to become a more unhinged, sexual, violent version of herself.

Far from being punished for their sexuality, women in this particular subgenre of horror film are more apt now to embrace it. It’s a far cry from that “have sex and you die” trope that’s felled female characters in horror for decades. More and more frequently, horror heroines have gone from fearing their inner beasts to embracing them – seeing them as a symbols not of victimhood, but of empowerment.

These heroines come out the other side of their supernatural coming-of-age narratives not “cured” or (more likely, RIP Carrie) dead, but stronger than before. You can see it in the final scene of Teeth, which sets the formerly puritanical Dawn up as a sort of vagina vigilante, able and willing to use her gift to punish sexually abusive men. Or in Jennifer’s Body, in which the formerly mousy Neely has “inherited” Jennifer’s demonic powers and sets off to punish the men who caused all the trouble in the first place. 

Opting for more morally ambiguous conclusions are Thelma and Raw, both of which end with their heroines finally accepting the thing within them that makes them strange and wonderful… while still making it clear that it’s not all sunshine, roses and killing bad men from here on out. 

After all, the societal pressure teenage girls face don’t stop when the transition to womanhood if completed.

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/06/07/female-sexuality-horror-movies/

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