Ginger Snaps: the first film
Opening Ginger Snaps is a view of the bleak and dreary suburb of Bailey Downs, which any teenager would want to escape, whether or not a werewolf. Although it could be almost any North American suburb, "Bailey Downs" is, in fact, Brampton Ontario (outside Toronto) where Gus van Sant's To Die For was also filmed.
The creature which attacks Ginger first had a penchant for killing the neighborhood dogs, including Baxter.
"Out by sixteen or dead in the scene": Brigitte and Ginger in their basement bedroom reaffirming the suicide pact they made at age eight to be "together forever."
The Fitzgerald sisters are obsessed with violent death. In a shot before the opening credits, Ginger, splayed over the iconic white picket fence, poses for one of a series of grisly photographs in which they stage their own deaths - which they subsequently present for a school project on "Life in Bailey Downs."
One of the stills - from "Life in Bailey Downs"- which accompany the opening credits.
The ever surly and sarcastic Ginger and Brigitte breathe new life (and death) into the typical dysfunctional suburban family dinner.
Not wanting to be anything like their parents or peers, Brigitte and Ginger, less than one year apart in age, have delayed menstruation and adulthood by sheer will. Time catches up with Ginger, however, and she begins menstruation at age sixteen. Here she literally doubles over - both with cramps and commodified womanhood. She and Brigitte, in her (new) role as caretaker to her elder sister, examine the overwhelming range of available sanitary products.
Ginger's menstruation comes with a sudden onslaught and marks her entrance to womanhood. That event parallels a graphically violent, sexualized assault by a werewolf no longer content with devouring small dogs.
For Sam, the fact that the beast is killed when run over by a van dispels Hollywood myths that only a silver bullet will stop a werewolf.
Ginger's menstrual cycle, as tracked by Brigitte, means that her next period will fall on a full moon. Distancing the film from the werewolf genre, director John Fawcett avoids images of a full moon, using only words.
Fully enjoying a new hotness factor, a sexed-up Ginger takes a powerwalk through the school corridor. The origin of the necklaces she and Brigitte both wear is explained in the third film.
Ginger grows a tail.
In a film which challenges gender stereotypes and sexual boundaries, Ginger initiates violent unprotected sex with Jason, who later begins to exhibit strange symptoms of the "infection" - including peeing blood, suggesting male menstruation.
Shaving her legs proves tricky for Ginger.
Jason unwittingly becomes the test subject for the monkshood antidote that Sam concocted for Ginger when Brigitte came across him attacking a small child out trick-or-treating. While the scene with Jason running away with a needle stuck in his neck is quite humourous, it also informs us that the antidote does indeed seem to work. Brigitte, however, now has no means to slow down Ginger's transformation.
Having already killed the guidance counsellor, Ginger attacks the school janitor, killing him slowly (as Brigitte watches in horror.) On the wall behind her is a "missing" poster for Trina St. Clair, who met an accidental death in the Fitzgeralds' kitchen.
At the Fitzgerald house, a dying Sam is flanked by a now fully transformed Ginger and Brigitte. The latter tries to prove to her sister that they are not so dissimilar, drinks Sam's blood off of the floor - and subsequently vomits.
In the final showdown, Brigitte is armed with both a syringe filled with monkshood and a knife, but it is the knife which ends up penetrating her sister's body. In the final shot, Brigitte rests her head on Ginger's body. The camera pulls back slowly to reveal their positioning between the twin beds in their basement bedroom and sanctuary.
When Canadian filmmaker Karen Walton was first approached by fellow Canadian director John Fawcett to write a screenplay for a teen girl werewolf flick, her initial impulse was to run. For one thing, unless you were David Cronenberg, the chances of getting "this type of movie" made in Canada were not very good. But more so, Walton had never been a fan of the horror genre, especially its vapid and violent portrayal of women. Fawcett managed to convince her, however, by suggesting she make the type of horror film that she would like to see. [open notes in new window] What thus emerges is a tale of the horrors of growing up female in the banality of a North American suburb. That is to say, Ginger Snaps (2000) and its two subsequent instalments (Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, both 2004), relies on as many truths (of femininity, family, kinship, community and nation) as it does fictions, including a possible argument for the origins of lycanthropy itself in the logic of sovereignty, exemplified particularly, as we shall later see, in colonial Canada.
Depending on which side of the reality/ fiction divide one aligns oneself, a lycanthrope is either a human being who periodically undergoes a magical metamorphosis into a wolf, or a human who, for whatever reason, thinks he/she undergoes such a transformation. Lycanthropy is thus either a mutation of the flesh or a delusional stage of advanced psychosis. Lycanthropy, in other words, can be either a physical state or a state of mind. But, as suggested above, whether lycanthropy is a physical transformation or psychotic episode is dependent upon whether the tale of the lycanthrope in question is encountered in a psychiatric journal or fictional text.
The word "lycanthrope," from the Greek lykanthropos (or "wolf man"), is a relatively modern term, first appearing in Richard Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584. Here Scot relies on ancient medical theory in order to dispel equally both Roman Catholic notions of lycanthropy as the Devil's doing, and theories which locate lycanthropy in practices of witchcraft. For Scot, lycanthropy is a disease of delusions, its sufferers inflicted with a form of melancholia (Lupina melancholia, or Lupina insania). For five centuries prior to Scot's treatise, the term "werewolf" (derived from the Latin word, vir, "manwolf") predominated English usage in describing the metamorphosis of man into wolfish beast. As Charlotte Otten discusses, though rooted in the Scriptures' accounts of the wolf attacking the flock in Christ's Sermon on the Mount, Middle English ecclesiastical texts substitute werewolf for the scriptural (non-humanoid) wolf. For Otten,
By the Middle Ages, however, werewolf narratives had shifted from both the Scriptures and ecclesiastical jurisprudence, as well as the explicitly moral tales of human to animal transformation in the ancient myths of Greece and Rome. Indeed, whereas Scriptural and ecclesiastic werewolves "were manifestations of the Devil's power in human lives," in medieval narratives, werewolves were "victims of domestic plotting." This shift, Otten argues, could have something to do with the anti-feminist bias of the time and, in accordance, has some effect on the reader.
In a more recent narrative, however, namely Ginger Snaps, it is the barbarism of the human shape — the curse of the pubescent female body in particular — and the condition of (in)human fellowship which evokes pity and sympathy for the lycanthropic turn taken by the title character. Taunted and teased by their more popular high school peers, the gothy and geeky, death-obsessed (almost) 16-year-old Ginger and her even geekier 15-year-old sister Brigitte are simultaneously excluded by their school and suburban community as they exclude themselves from it; the human fellowship of love reserved only for each other. "Out by sixteen or dead in the scene. Together forever..." goes the sisters' suicide pact, made, and signed in blood, at age eight.
But let me back up. In the previous paragraph, I described Ginger's beastly transformation as "lycanthropic" rather than "werewolfish" for the (not so) simple reason that the term lycanthrope enjoys a more liberal usage throughout the filmic text than does the word werewolf. Whilst the two terms were used almost interchangeably by the 16th century and are, etymologically speaking, virtually indistinct (manwolf vs. wolfman), their connotation in the lore of more modern times is markedly different. That is to say, and as alluded to above, the word "lycanthrope" today is medicalized, the professional term for a pathological condition, whereas "werewolf" is a "non-medical term for a fantasy or criminal state," the stuff of horror flicks and Gothic fiction. Though perhaps mere fancy on the part of screenwriter Karen Walton, referring to Ginger and the creature who attacked her as lycanthropes consistently throughout the film nonetheless and importantly provides a more medicalized (therefore "legitimate") frame of reference for the "condition" than is typical of modern fictive werewolf chronicles. On the other hand, unlike accounts of lycanthropy in today's medical annals, within the film Ginger's affliction is not regarded as psychically imagined or drug induced, but "real." Lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps is indeed a pathology: not a "disease of the mind," however, but the biological body. As the character Sam says,
For in the film, lycanthropy is a virus, an infection which is transmitted by blood to other biological bodies, and if not curable, is at least perhaps preventable.
Complicating Ginger's condition, however, is its timely coincidence with the onslaught of her (decidedly) delayed first menstrual period. That the horror of (real) pubescent biology — the body out of control — is mapped onto the (surreal) supernatural body, which mutates into beast (the dangerous body), is not novel to this particular telling. However, in departure from its notable precursors including I Was a Teenage Werewolf, An American Werewolf in London, The Exorcist, and the menstrual hell of Carrie, Ginger Snaps is told from an explicitly female point of view, which garnered the film much critical praise and a good buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival, if only modest commercial box office success. Though it is not my intention in this paper to discuss the Ginger Snaps films within the terms and context of the horror film genre per se, it does bear pointing out that whereas imaginings of a mutant or transmogrifying body have populated the screen since the mid-1980s, most notably in the "body horror" of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, celluloid werewolf sightings have been relatively scarce since John Landis's 1981 American Werewolf in London. Not surprisingly, given its dark humour, high school setting and female-centredness, Ginger Snaps draws as many comparisons to Joss Whedon's hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does to the tradition of "classic" horror cinema. Indeed, for Toronto film critic John Harkness, Ginger Snaps puts a "post-Buffy spin on an old familiar tale." This warrants some examination.
As with Buffy, Ginger Snaps subverts the horror genre by providing an alienated cum kick-ass high school chick as its heroine. Yet whereas it is Buffy's reluctant transformation into the Slayer, the overwhelming responsibilities of being the "Chosen One," which is the source of her teen angst, Ginger's outsider status as geek is overcome with her transformation into a hypersexualized werewolf. Moreover, whilst Buffy fights the forces of evil, Ginger embraces it with abandon. Buffy soon forges bonds of friendship and love in a collective struggle against the vampires and demons of Sunnydale, whereas Ginger's lust for the lycanthropic and its attendant sexual awakening threatens to sever her only meaningful human connection: the deep bond she shares with her sister, Brigitte. And it is this impending loss which is the true source of terror for Brigitte, forcing her to grow up — the full impact of which is only realized in the 2004 sequel (Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed).
I will return to this later in the paper. In the meantime, I want to suggest that the biological and emotional horror show which constitutes the coming of age is but one metaphoric level on which Ginger Snaps operates. That is to say, the collapse of the (territorial) boundary between adolescent and adult, girl and woman, "represented" by the transformation of human to beast, occurs within a larger frame in which virtually all thresholds are zones of indistinction suspended in what Giorgio Agamben terms a "state of exception;" where violence and the law become indistinguishable and human life is reduced to one's biological or "bare" (politically unqualified) existence. Simply put, bare life is a life that is powerless.
Horror films, as many theorists will attest, are always political allegories but, as I will argue in this paper, with Ginger Snaps we witness the workings of sovereign power more specifically as biopolitics: enacted in the realm of bare life, and inscribed on the body. Biopower, as we know from Foucault, reaches everywhere, inhabiting every body and circulating throughout every space in which bodies congregate or dwell. And this goes doubly for women whose lives have historically been excluded from the realm of political power and decision making while their bodies have been the object of and regulated by state practices of power. But what Foucault associated as a modern practice, Agamben finds in ancient Roman law, particularly in the figure of homo sacer ("sacred man") who is included in the political realm solely on his exclusion, in his capacity to be killed. Homo sacer's is a life not worthy of being lived, expendable, life available to be killed. As a politically unqualified ("bare") life, the killing of homo sacer is a murder without the commission of homocide.
For Agamben, it is not merely that life as such becomes a calculation, an object of State power. It is the politicization of bare life — the coinciding of bare life with the political realm and the blurring of their borders to the point of indistinction — which props up the modern political system of the West. Agamben writes that
The sovereign decision over whose and what sort of life is considered worthy of continuing extends beyond the confines of bounded space and specific locales. Every society, says Agamben, sets its limits and decides who its "sacred men" will be. No longer localizable, bare life "dwells in the biological body of every living being." In the same way a (concentration) camp can and will appear anywhere. And as we shall see through the full spectrum of the Ginger Snaps trilogy, no place is safe for Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald who, like homo sacer himself, are always in perpetual flight, belonging nowhere, not even in time.
In the first film, Ginger and Brigitte deliberately cast themselves outside of the liminal spaces of home, high school and suburb, fleeing from both the strictures of adulthood (particularly womanhood) and structures of family and community which try to, but ultimately cannot, contain them. In the sequel, Brigitte, now living in the city and "hooked" on the antidote which could not save Ginger, is incarcerated in a rehab clinic, struggling to keep her wolfishness at bay to the point of self-mutilation. Haunted by the ghost (and deeds) of her dead sister, and hunted by a (male) werewolf, she escapes with her newfound surrogate "sister" (actually named Ghost) to a cabin in the wilderness. The third instalment, a prequel (Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning), catapults the sisters backwards in time into a fate worse than suburbia: a 19th-century Canadian fur trading outpost populated by explorers and trappers, its inhabitants soon terrorized by a pack of werewolves, and from which the sisters must flee. In the rest of what follows, I will track Ginger and Brigitte through the inhospitable and biopolitical spaces of home, high school and hospital; from the margins of the city (through the forest) to the margins of the Nation; as they struggle alternatively with or against the bodily constraints of desire and hunger, infection and addiction, terror, love, and death.
Biology run amok
Horror films are more commonly read through the lens of psychoanalytic theory than political philosophy. This is hardly surprising given that psychoanalysis itself is based in horror, with its presumptions of an unconscious which Freud defines in terms of the irrational and fear of the uncanny. Critics of the horror genre tend to view its conventions as "fetishistic substitutes for the objects of sexual fears and desires." Readings of sexual repression, castration anxieties, and incest taboos abound in most accounts of gore and slasher films. However, for Linda Badley it's almost too easy to account for horror in psychosexual terms. James Twitchell, for example, argues that horror flicks are both a rite of passage for adolescents and cautionary tales which covertly "demonstrate the dangers of incest and implant taboos while providing safe outlets for sexual energy and anxiety." Whilst it's difficult to argue that horror is not an important vehicle for adolescent socialization, at the same time where, for Twitchell, the spectacle of mass media violence is monopolized by young males, a gallup poll in the 1980s found that most readers of popular horror fiction are women in their thirties and forties.
Perhaps more important than demographics, according to Badley, is that films such as the Nightmare on Elm Street series, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and Jonathon Demme's Silence of the Lambs are allegories which problematize psychology itself
Sexual repression has given way to sexual anarchy as sex is not the shadow or dirty secret that it was in the Victorian era (of Freud and the gothic novel), "but rather its extroverted alter ego — sexual panic." Thus for Badley horror as the expression of repressed sexuality is now defunct and a new post-Freudian and postmodern horror is energized by something else: sexual terror. She writes:
Indeed, the Freudian preoccupation with the bourgeois family, sexual repression and the unconscious in contemporary horror is not so much passé as cliché, invested with nostalgia, parody and satire. Importantly,
The family and repressed sexuality are, of course, important thematizations in Ginger Snaps. However, the psychosexual parent/child attachment of, say, Psycho gives way in this instance to a humourous representational play of "mere" family dysfunction. Ginger and Brigitte gaze in horror at their ditzy mom and doofus dad. The terror here is in the sisters' fear of becoming like their hopelessly dull suburban parents. "I hate our gene pool," Brigitte says to her sister. Their solution is to stick together and bypass adulthood altogether by avoiding, in addition to their parents, both the lecherous boys and popular (mean) girls — without which no high school experience would be complete — and delaying menstruation by, it would seem, sheer will. Panic sets in, however, when Ginger is attacked by a creature who's been doing in the neighbourhood dogs, on the day she — at the age of almost sixteen — gets her first period.
That the onslaught of puberty is met with a vicious and, moreover, highly sexualized attack is crucial in establishing the metaphor of lycanthropy and menstruation as a "violent invasion" of the body and sets up the terror that follows. Not only do the sisters have to hide the evidence of Ginger's wounds from their mother, but Brigitte's inadvertent capture of the beast's face on Polaroid leads her to suspect that this is no ordinary animal. Evidence that Ginger's attacker is extra-ordinary, and perhaps even otherworldly, mounts as her wounds heal far more quickly than nature should allow, and then begin to sprout coarse hairs. By the time Ginger begins to sport a tail, Brigitte is already reconciled to the fact that her sister is now, well, a werewolf. Meanwhile, the girls' mother, Pamela, oblivious to the attack and its aftermath (her daughters acting even weirder than usual), revels in the news that "our little girl's a young woman now" — having found Ginger's soiled underwear in the laundry — and bakes a cake which oozes and drips (red) strawberry juice. If that weren't bad enough, a trip to the school nurse confirms what the girls knew all along both about adults and adult bodies, namely, that they're equally scary.
The changes occurring to Ginger's body on account of her close brush with the werewolf parallel that of the "normal" bodily changes which accompany menstruation. Puberty provides, in fact, a good deal of Ginger Snaps' wit and satirical bite, so to speak. After all, the tagline of the film does read, "They don't call it the curse for nothing." As already iterated, the body as site of revulsion and loss of control is a common trope of the (post)modern horror film with the female body in particular overcoded as the site, if not the origin, of all things monstrous. For Badley, the shift in horror from the Freudian psyche to a post-Freudian "body fantastic" is the product of an increasingly technologized, mediated and consumerist culture.
Moreover, this fantastic body language provides the iconography for the re-imagining of a self that is, above all, changing.
This postmodern self is embodied yet Puritan, in denial of death and dying. Health today is disguised as "wellness" and death is unmentionable except as an enemy to be overcome. No longer experienced within the life and fabric of the community, thanks to advances in medical technology death and dying is displaced to the hospital and funeral home. However, for Ginger and Brigitte, death is not to be feared but confronted, the only aspect of life that makes any sense. The sisters are constantly staging and photographing their own grisly death and suicide scenes which they present as a school project on "Life in Bailey Downs." And, as I remarked in the previous section, they made a suicide pact at the age of eight. Indeed the sisters' fascination with death is what both binds them and marks them as freaks to their teachers and peers. As I suggested earlier, the girls are not as much social outcasts as they cast themselves outside the purview of the "normal." For them, normal is a dreary suburb of identical houses, road hockey and yapping dogs, and normal "femininity" met with an overwhelming floor-to-ceiling drugstore display of sanitary products.
The other face of denial, says Badley, is sexual paranoia and panic, indeed a "mass mediated sexual terrorism" has spawned a cultural obsession with sex in the age of AIDS.
What the horror film does is provide a "metaphorics" for a time of transition, giving the unknown a shape and a language. Metaphor makes the horror that's become the human body bearable. But whereas body horror films such as Cronenberg's The Fly treat supranatural metamorphosis as allegory, lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps is not a metaphor for AIDS, it is an STD. As Brigitte explains, "it's like an infection, it works from the inside out. It's like a virus." Ginger's own condition was the result of being bitten by a werewolf, but she spreads the "infection" through having unprotected, and violent, sex with a boy named Jason, who quickly begins to sprout hairs and bleeds from his penis (male menstruation). Thus Ginger's body is a site of danger not just because of an innocent lycanthropic turn which was beyond her control, but because of an increased and violent sexual appetite which she fully embraces — and is up to Brigitte to control. Ginger's new interest in sex and boys, and rampant desire to "tear everything into fucking pieces," comes at a price beyond the mounting body count, and which I will examine further in the next section.
In short, as we have seen thus far, the entrance to womanhood which the sisters Fitzgerald guarded against so vehemently is fully realized as a zone of violence. Ginger's "crossing over" was precipitated by an act of violence from which there was no return, but it at least gave her some moments of glory and resistance to the boundaries of gender and biological determination before her own (inevitable) demise. As one film critic notes, femininity in Ginger Snaps "is a precondition of violence, and violence offers Ginger an alternative to the sexual stereotyping that surrounds her." As she says to Brigitte,
The entrance to womanhood is also the threshold which, although perhaps not entirely kind to Ginger, excludes Brigitte altogether.
This divide also sets moral limits which can only be resolved with Ginger's death and Brigitte's crossing into a different zone somewhere in between the (fully) living and the dead.