Posted on August 5, 2020

The Rise of the Girl-Monster Part 1: Birth and Body

Sara McCartney

Beware the girl-monster, as deadly as she is beautiful. She is that compelling horror creature who is driven to bite, mutilate, and devour her victims out of an uncontrollable compulsion or appetite. She is most often characterized by her sharp teeth and unruly body, but rarely appears in the same form twice. The girl-monster is as old as the horror genre itself but, in the last 20 years, has enjoyed a renewed popularity and is, arguably, one of the most prolific horror cycles of the twenty-first century, as well as one of the least remarked upon.

In 1936, Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer) introduced the female vampire to Hollywood. Sapphic vampires are the single most popular incarnation of the girl-monster, a favorite of Eurocult movies throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. The Countess Zaleska’s big contribution to the modern girl-monster is her reluctance. When on-screen, she is as likely to be lamenting her bloodlust or seeking to cure her vampirism as pursuing her victims. An even more sympathetic girl-monster arrived in Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Irena, a young and beautiful Serbian woman living in New York City, believes she suffers from a hereditary curse which will transform her into a deadly cat if she is overcome with strong emotion, notably arousal or jealousy. She avoids intimacy with her American husband and, like Countess Zaleska, attempts to master her monstrosity before giving in to jealousy and meeting a nasty end. Both films fused the twin spectacles of the early Hollywood horror film, the monster and the damsel, into one extraordinary creature – and never was the ambivalent disgust and fascination of the horror monster so apparent.[1]

The Countess Zaleska, visually reminiscent of another vampiric girl-monster from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Irena’s contributions to the girl-monster canon are many. She is a were-beast, whose beautiful exterior conceals a hidden animalistic nature. Her monstrous impulses are distinctly sexual in nature; her ultimate ‘on-screen’ transformation, conveyed in shadow, is triggered by a kiss. In her human form, Irena is no feline seductress. Actress Simone Simon plays her as virginal and naïve, terrified by the depths of her desire. Irena is as much protagonist as monster, more compelling than any of the supposed good guys. Her death is tragic, not reassuring, a quiet challenge to the normative Hollywood story structure that requires Irena’s elimination. In placing the girl-monster at the center of its narrative and its sympathies, Cat People paved the way for girl-monster movies to come.

Unlike the graphic special effects of future horror films, the transformation and violence of Irena was conveyed through shadow suggestion

The female villains of the 1970s horror boom were not girl-monsters in the strictest sense – that is, they did not eat their victims. Nonetheless, today’s girl-monsters owe a debt to the wildly influential Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Both films locate the moment of monstrosity at adolescence. Twelve-year-old Regan, on the brink of puberty, instead finds herself in the throes of demonic possession, while teenage Carrie develops telekinetic powers after getting her first period. In the sensational special effects of The Exorcist, the restraint of Irena’s transformation in Cat People gave way to an overpowering spectacle of vomit, blood, and pus, just as today’s girl-monster movies build interest through the display of abject female bodies. Carrie, like Irena, is both protagonist and monster. She uses her abilities to lash out at her bullying classmates and abusive zealot mother. Carrie offers its viewers a cathartic tale of fiery revenge and a monster to root for.

The modern girl-monster arrived with cult classic Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000). The films that followed are a varied bunch, with a wide variety of monsters, tones, and styles. Girl-monsters hail from the United States, France, Poland, Canada, Iran, and Sweden, and include sirens, vagina dentata, and cannibals. The girl-monster is as likely to be found in a moody arthouse picture like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2015) or Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016) as a brash teen comedy like Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009) or Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007) – or even a musical, like The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015). For all this range, early twenty-first-century girl-monsters share a few key characteristics. These films disproportionately have female directors, screenwriters, or both, and are usually made with feminist intent. Unlike her predecessors, who were known to menace innocent women, female romantic rivals, bullies of all genders, mothers, and priests, today’s girl-monster, as a rule, favors men as her victims. Finally, the girl-monster is the protagonist of her own story. The movie spends more time with her than her victims and develops her relationship with her own monstrousness. Even when there is a secondary protagonist, whether a love interest, best friend, or sister, the girl-monster occupies a central place of both spectacle and sympathy.

Jennifer’s ready to eat

The abject body, as Julia Kristeva defines it, is the impure body, the unsocialized body, the out-of-control body, the taboo body, and the interstitial body. Kristeva argues that abjection is figured as female.[2] As Barbara Creed puts it in her reading of The Exorcist, “abjection is constructed as a rebellion of filthy, lusty, carnal, female flesh.”[3] The girl-monster is a veritable parade of the abject in all its forms. Were-creatures are abject for they “signify a collapse of the boundaries between human and animal,”[4] so we have werewolves in Ginger Snaps and sirens with enormous fish tails in The Lure. The taboo of cannibalism is a popular manifestation of the abject in horror; so we have the female flesh-eaters of Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) and Raw. Girl-monsters are associated with blood, especially menstrual blood, and vomit. In Ginger Snaps, Ginger is bitten by a werewolf while menstruating. In Jennifer’s Body, a symptom of Jennifer’s possession is the bizarre black fluid that she vomits in her friend’s kitchen. The most circulated images of Eli of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) and Coré of Trouble Every Day display them covered in blood.

Plenty of blood in these iconic stills of Let the Right One In (left) and Trouble Every Day (right)

Much of this abjection is distinctly feminized, associated with the girl-monster’s puberty, sexuality, or genitals. Ginger Snaps, like Carrie, places Ginger’s transformation at the moment of her first period; when her concerned sister describes her transformation to the school nurse, it is mistaken for quotidian puberty. While less explicit in other teenage girl-monster movies, the notion of monstrous puberty persists as subtext. Other girl-monster movies literalize misogynistic tropes of vaginas. The enormous, slimy fish tails of The Lure are constantly described as stinking of fish by the human characters, echoing common language used to denigrate vaginas as unclean. And Teeth features the myth of the vagina dentata, or toothed vagina, in which the vagina is figured as castrating and hungry.

Ginger, transformed in more ways than one, struts down the hall

For all of the grotesqueness, the girl-monster is an appealing figure. This is the ambiguity of the abject. Female monsters, like the possession victim discussed by Creed, act radically outside the bounds of expected female behavior. Monstrousness, like possession, is “the excuse for legitimizing a display of aberrant feminine behavior which is depicted as depraved, monstrous, abject – and perversely appealing.”[5] Girl-monsters are figured as objects of sexual desire within the films, sometimes by casting a famously beautiful actress like Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body, or Beatrice Dalle in Trouble Every Day. Often, the girl-monster learns to embrace her own sexual desirability. Ginger’s werewolf transformation coincides with her sexual interest in boys and favoring of more revealing attire. Most girl-monsters use their desirability to lure their victims, a subversion of the passivity we might expect from a sexual object. Nowhere is this more explicit than The Lure. The sirens, Golden and Silver, show off their tails to an appreciative nightclub crowd. But for Silver’s lover, her tail is a source of disgust; he tells her that because of it he can only see her as a fish. The audience too is invited to delight and disgust at the spectacle of the girl-monster – and maybe even invited to identify with her too. Unlike Regan, who must be distanced from her abjection by her possession, the girl-monster is allowed to unapologetically embrace her monstrousness – and even sometimes, unlike the Carries and Irenas of yesteryear, survive until the end of the movie.

The sirens of The Lure show off their tails


Related: See Sara McCartney’s “The Return of the Girl-Monster Part 2.”


[1]  Rhona Berenstein, “Looks Could Kill: The Powers of the Gaze in Hypnosis Films,” in Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). pp. 104-105

[2] As summarized in Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 8-10.

[3] Creed, 38

[4] Creed, 10.

[5] Creed, 31.

Related: See Elizabeth Erwin’s articles on coded queerness in Dracula’s Daughter and coded lesbianism in Cat People.

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