“No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this. A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door. We’ll just coast on how the world works.”
Ginger Snaps is one of the most clever, thematically dense, and unrepentantly female-focused horror films ever made. A wholly original gem written by Karen Walton and starring horror icons Katharine Isabelle (American Mary, Hannibal) and Emily Perkins (It), the film follows the edgy, goth, death-obsessed Fitzgerald sisters: Brigitte (Perkins) and the eponymous Ginger (Isabelle). On the night Ginger has her first period, she’s attacked by a werewolf, and as the rules of lore dictate, she starts becoming one herself.
Body horror is a widely examined subject in the genre (The Fly, The Thing, Eraserhead, all other werewolf films), but the lycanthropy as allegory for puberty feels radical and innovative when reinvented through the lens of a female perspective — Ginger’s transformation into womanhood is analogous to her evolution into a monster. That’s a dire statement, but not far off from the truth of how some women feel as their bodies change. Adolescent hormones are terrifying, confusing, and unexpected, specific to the individual. And this story is told with studious, subversive, satirical awareness that avoids devolving into the “monstrous woman” trope.
Before the werewolf attack, Brigitte and Ginger are already outsiders refusing to conform to society’s stereotypical gender norms. They live with their heterosexual parents in a small, picturesque suburban town, one that’s disrupted by the unexplained brutal deaths of neighborhood dogs (hint: it’s the werewolf’s fault), but still predictable in its interpersonal sensibilities. The Fitzgerald sisters are moody and withdrawn, apathetic toward boys and fashion trends, and for a high school project they stage a series of bloody photographs depicting elaborate death scenes. That active rejection of performative feminine rules, regulations, and expectations earns them bullying from the “popular” girls, mockery and objectification from the boys, and meetings with the guidance counselor.
But others’ opinions don’t mean squat. The only important thing is their bond: “out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever” is their mantra, a pact sealed in blood — the blood of their siblinghood, the blood they merge when they cut their palms and hold hands, and tested by the blood of Ginger’s first menstruation.
For girls who view “suicide as the ultimate fuck-you” in an unfair world with nothing to live for except each other, getting their period is “the curse,” a kind of conformity and normalcy they tried desperately to avoid. Ginger growls, furious, “try your whole life to be different and your own body betrays you,” despite the assurances of both her mother and the school doctor this is a natural part of life (“it’s the most normal thing in the world”). Ginger doesn’t want to change, to be like everyone else. She rebuffs the sexual advances of a dude bro with the cutting declaration, “maybe I like my edge.” She feels helpless against her own body’s sudden development, and it’s barely even begun before she’s mauled half to death by a wild animal attracted to the smell of her blood — she’s punished for being a woman.
The changes don’t stop there. Over the course of a month (a nice twist on the usual lycanthrope timeline), Ginger’s wounds heal too quickly. She develops hair in unusual places. She loses her temper and attacks a fellow student. A hunger she mistakes for sexual discovery is actually an “ache” to tear a living being apart — leading to more dead dogs. She experiments with drugs, has sex with a boy, and sheds her baggy sweaters for fitted clothes. She grows a tail. Emotionally, she’s even more brittle and aggressive than before. But at heart, Ginger’s terrified of what she’s experiencing — she can neither control nor understand what she wants and what it means, whether it’s sex or sprouting a tail.
Even more than the puberty metaphor, Ginger Snaps is a study in identity. Ginger finds power in her new monstrosity, in violence — the power to brutalize the male authority figures who threaten her and Brigitte, to act however she wants free of judgment or consequence. She’s never felt satisfied in life, enough to plan joint suicide as a method of controlling her fate; now that she’s discovered some sliver of autonomy, reclaimed her victimhood into “a goddamn force of nature,” why stop?
Ginger, effectively, becomes the monstrous feminine — sexualized but frightening, beyond man’s control and therefore deadly to them. Quite literally, first dominating a misogynist during sex, then ripping other mens’ bodies to shreds. It could be easy to read this as the longstanding trope played straight, equating women’s power to something dangerous needing proper subduing. Yet it’s beautifully upended and repurposed, because we focus entirely on Ginger’s emotions. The prism of her viewpoint makes the fear of her transformation not a moral judgment call, but the body horror of adolescence taken to its utmost terrifying possibility. Ginger discovers a kind of power over men through sexuality and violence, but she remains just as lost as before. She never fully comprehends the changes and was effectively robbed of any choice in the matter — she’s swept away in both the development of her body as a human and her metamorphosis into a murderous creature. She didn’t ask to be bitten any more than she asked for her period. She’s rocked back and forth between extremes like a ship in a storm, never demonized even as she rakes up a body count. While sexual, she isn’t the male power fantasy of the exploited sex object, and while murderous, not the untamed “bad” woman deserving punishment. She’s sympathetic, heartbreaking, and utterly a teenage girl, one trying to find herself in the middle of a frightening, harsh, unforgiving world that hurts women for existing. By allowing Ginger to possess qualities that society paints as oppositional for women, to both flourish and stumble without vilification, she becomes a complex female character with flaws, insecurities, and fears.
Despite the attention paid to Ginger, Brigitte also holds equal narrative importance. There’s no white knight white male savior swooping in to shoot a silver bullet. Her survival, and Ginger’s survival, depends entirely on her. Brigitte’s sister, her only and best friend, once in revered simpatico, has transformed into someone she doesn’t recognize (a feeling I think many can relate to). The more Ginger loses her identity to the control of werewolf urges, the more Brigitte’s personality coalesces and forms. We gradually witness the revelation of a power imbalance between the two, with Ginger as the leader and Brigitte the follower. As those lifelong roles flip, Brigitte begins to think and act independently, emerging as a decision-making force to be reckoned with. It’s Brigitte’s choice to infect herself with lycanthropy; a desperate attempt to preserve her bond with the sister she’s losing, but a gesture she enters into with full knowledge. She’s prepared to face what’s ahead in her own, different way — not a declarative statement on the correct way universally for every woman, but the right path for her.
Brigitte’s resourceful, assumes control of her situation, asserts her individuality, and discovers who she is—someone who wants to live, who refuses to die in her bedroom, who can’t willingly consume a dying man’s blood. Someone with grit and courage and a love that literally embraces her sister even at Ginger’s most gruesome. Although we’re left wondering how Brigitte’s infection will affect her future, one thing’s clear: she survived the terror of adolescence, and it made her an even stronger woman.
But even as both sisters evolve and their bond is pushed to collapse, that bond holds. Brigitte is Ginger’s only safe place in all her confusion, which make her possessive outbursts and feelings of betrayal toward Brigitte all the more painfully relatable. Brigitte supports Ginger though the most unimaginable situations: hiding a corpse, searching for a cure, locking her in the bathroom to protect her, even as she begs Ginger not to kill a man. Her sister’s changed, but it’s still her sister, and nothing will shatter that love.
It all comes back to blood in this: the blood of menstruation, the blood of victims, and ultimately the DNA blood bond shared between siblings — leading to a scene of werewolf Ginger and human Brigitte licking blood off the floor together. By depicting a female relationship as vitally important and meaningful but still difficult and fraught, Ginger Snaps shows that friendships between women are just as layered and complex as ones between men. Almost every positive relationship involves both enjoyment of one another’s presence and irritation; you snap (pun intended) at the ones you love. Brigitte and Ginger illustrate that duality.
Ultimately, after she’s fully transformed into a werewolf, Ginger dies when Brigitte kills her in self defense. I see how this also could be interpreted as a trope, the restoration of patriarchal order — the good girl defeats the evil one who deserves punishment for her transgressions. But Brigitte is devastated. She weeps over Ginger’s dead body, the person she couldn’t stand the thought of living without, and the person she wanted to die beside; the sister whose individuality was swallowed whole, made partially a victim even as she clawed for autonomy with a stranglehold. Ginger’s death isn’t a corrective measure victory to protect the male status quo, but a personal familial tragedy.
There’s so much material to absorb in this movie. There are side topics I could write paragraphs about I haven’t even touched: gender bias toward mothers, male discomfort about menstruation, the idealization of death. All in all, Ginger Snaps is not only a triumph of the horror medium, but a raw, wretched, brilliant portrait of sexism, sisterhood, and womanhood.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in some of the genre’s most iconic films.