Desiring Monsters: Femininity, Radical Incontinence, and Monstrous Appetite in Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Deadgirl

by Deborah Wills and Toni Roberts

<1> The body is “a congealed metaphor,” observes Katherine Hayles; as an organism at once physical and social, it is a “structure whose constraints and possibilities” have been formed by history and shaped by cultural delimitations of “body boundaries” (284, 107). The body of the monster offers a particularly complex metaphor, one that has, over time, congealed in fascinating and suggestive ways. Emblem and exemplar of troubled boundaries, the figure of the monster both challenges and reinforces the borders of the human. Its meaning at once static and shifting, the monstrous body has possessed a peculiar plasticity: it has been shaped and re-shaped to articulate, in its unsettling deficiencies, the anxieties of its time. Living, dead, or imagined, on stages and museum shelves, in carnivals, sideshows, anatomical textbooks and the illustrations of fantastical travel tales, the distinctive bodies of so-called monsters have circulated for centuries as prized articles of entertainment or edification. As a literal embodiment of difference, the monster on display is potentially disruptive, evoking wonder, fascination, and attraction even as it generates suspicion, aversion, and repulsion. In this complex of reactions can be detected the complexity of the monster’s ambiguous relationship to the familiar and the normative. The monster may function as a “dialectical Other,” suggests Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, but at the same time it “can seldom be contained in a simple, binary dialectic” (7, 17). We may “distrust and loathe the monster,” but our fear, says Cohen, is also a kind of desire (17).

<2> Like other forms of cultural spectacle, horror film is often deeply enmeshed in the paradoxically doubled effect of discomfort and desire that emerges in the voyeuristic viewing of the monster. Horror film emerges from a long tradition of monstrous exhibition which has used monsters to mark the gap between “properly” self-contained human bodies and the intriguing volatility of the compromised, and therefore monstrous, human form. In horror films, monsters thus “challenge the presumed homogeneity of human identity by confusing or transgressing boundaries between the human and the nonhuman” so that “the monster introduces a threatening heterogeneity into the category of the human” (Lindsey 283), producing an understanding of the human body as divergent and complex. The monster’s bodily volatility, fascinating yet dangerous, has been particularly associated with the feminine, as expressed in the cultural pairing of women and monster that, according to Rosa Braidotti, “goes as far back as Aristotle” and has produced over time an ongoing “horror of the female body” (62-63). Horror film has been no exception to this tradition in its widespread linking of the female body–its apparent uncontrollability signaled through its points of leakage and perforation–with the oozing, amorphous, unreliable body of the monster. Indeed, woman and monster are often treated as analogues in horror, notes Linda Williams, because of the way they share an anatomical difference that is presented as both non-normative and threatening (87, 89). Stephen Neale similarly suggests that sexual difference is central to the horror genre’s negotiation of the tensions between the human and the monstrous; for Neale, horror often features a conflation of the non-human and the non-male as equal threats to human identity; the central locus of this threatening non-humanity, for Neale, lies in bodily difference (21, 60).

<3> Just as the living and dead bodies of monsters have historically been exhibited as instructive or admonitory examples of appalling difference, horror film has reflected broad cultural anxieties about gender, sexuality, race, and bodily ability. For this reason, despite appearing transgressive in its use of shocking images, horror film has often been seen by critics as deeply conservative, since it typically offers a narrative based on identifying and containing threatening incursions and on securing the dangerously unrestrained body of the monstrous other. In this reading, “repression” becomes “the dominant strategy of the traditional horror film,” a response to a threat that disrupts “the natural order,” and that threat must be contained to restore that order (Sobchack 144). Much contemporary horror, however, has tended to move away from the rigid binary oppositions of its antecedents and towards a more “ambivalent horror” that features the other as at once profoundly distanced from and yet inextricably connected to us (Sobchack 145) [1]. And yet the monster itself, for theorists like Cohen, has always been an ambivalent figure: its longevity, its elasticity, its fascination are all embedded within the “simultaneous attraction and repulsion” that Cohen finds “at the core” of the monster’s composition (17).

<4> This article examines three contemporary horror films that simultaneously continue and challenge this complex cultural relationship to the monstrous. These films repay attention in their revealing relationship to the social history of monsters, a history that in turn reveals a complex and longstanding relationship between monstrosity and women’s bodies. We will argue that John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s Deadgirl (2008), and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) speak provocatively to the potential of representations of “postmodern monstrosity” (McAvan 74) to investigate the ways in which unregulated appetites and incontinent bodies, long associated with the feminine, may both characterize and re/produce monstrosity. The nebulous fluidity of the films’ female monsters is a crucial aspect of their capacity to transgress limits and transcend categories; this fluidity is exemplified in scenes of bodily effusion and efflorescence, the emetic and the erotic, and surfaces that open up, spill out, and (sometimes) heal over. Such scenes invoke the social boundaries that typically constrain young female bodies, disciplining their hunger, regulating their shape, and demanding their vigilant containment of mortifying flux. These films, moreover, draw upon and intensify the ambivalence about monstrosity that has typically been present in overt or latent forms in horror’s representations. In their portrayals of violent fleshly metamorphoses, these three films’ hungry female monsters haunt the cultural imaginary, troubling its expectations of a fundamentally stable self. In their representations of bodily atavism and devolution, they critically revisit modernity’s establishing narratives of progress and evolution. In their scenes of demonic possession, they question paradigms of “a humanity that is marked by self-possession” (Shildrick, Embodying 5). In the chaos of their monsters’ disordered and volatile flesh, we suggest, they generate the discomfiting possibility that our own boundaries of self may never be fully secure.

<5> This lack of security is adumbrated in the way each of these three films presents monstrosity as something that is not fixed but mobile, complicating the traditional connection between monstrosity and bodies that are physically, socially, or culturally other. In these films, monstrosity does not reside permanently or solely in the visibly monstrous body; instead, it flows, leaks, and spills over, attaching itself literally or figuratively to the humans within the monsters’ orbit. Even apparently established biological facts are fluid here: living subjects can become living-dead objects; carnivorous appetites may migrate; menstrual cravings may take up residence in male as well as female bodies, subtly shifting the cultural association of women with uncontrolled and uncontrollable appetite. This failure to securely define the boundaries of identity is pithily invoked in a climactic exchange in Ginger Snaps, in which we find a compact articulation of the monster’s elaborately ambivalent connection to the self. Brigitte (Emily Perkins), in an attempt to cure her sister Ginger’s lycanthropy, cuts her own hand and infects herself with her sister’s blood, a dramatic reprisal of their old sororal blood oath. She says to Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), “Now I am you.” This referential “I” obscures the boundaries of identity even as it acknowledges its bonds: Brigitte, in attempting to return her sister to “normal” humanity, has herself chosen to become other. Ginger’s mocking reply recalls old schoolyard and sibling rivalries: “I know you are, but what am I?” Beyond this, however, her reply more broadly echoes the fundamental question of identity posed by the monster, its fluid, ductile presence suggesting that identity itself may be elastic, paradoxical, and monstrously mobile.

Monstrous Display: The Exhibition of Difference

<6> For centuries, the bodies of monsters have been employed to both pose and answer this question of essential identity. To illuminate the ways in which Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Deadgirl both recapitulate and critically reconstruct historical cultural assumptions about monstrous difference and its implications for defining the normative self, it is helpful to look briefly at the historical development of those discourses as they are revealed through the practice of the public exhibition of the monster. Cultural definitions of monstrosity were, over time, capacious, and they offered by contrast a comfortingly narrow definition of proper humanity. Such definitions embraced phenomenal bodies from two-headed calves to conjoined twins, from “hermaphroditic” bodies to those shaped by “giantism,” “pygmyism,” or other anomalies of scale and proportion. Bodies that showed signs of sexual and racial difference were considered especially fascinating. One of the most notorious examples of this is found in the story of Saartjie Baartman, the San woman from South Africa who was infamously marketed on early 19th century stages as “the Hottentot Venus.” Exhibited for years as an illustration of exotic and erotic difference in English public halls, fairs, and festivals, and referenced in popular songs and broadsheets, the steatopygian wonder of Baartman’s large buttocks remained the show’s prurient focus. Paying spectators were offered the opportunity to touch and prod her rump in order to, as a London Times reporter phrased it, “examine the peculiarities of her form” (qtd. in Lindfors 208). In Paris in 1814, Baartman “excited the attention of professional zoologists,” and after her death, her remains were dissected by the well-known naturalist Georges Couvier, who published “a scientific paper on the peculiarities of her posterior and private parts”; for the benefit of scientific study, wax molds were made of her genitalia (Lindfors 210). Baartman thus “had a career in science as well as in popular culture, having been reified not only as a comic figure of outlandish voluptuousness, but also as a durable set of physiological reference points in biometric discourse” (Lindfors 210). The figure of the monster is thus employed as a somatic index, offering its viewers a biometric schedule by which to measure and recognize the properly ordered body, defining rightness by virtue of its wrongness, the normal by virtue of its inimitable difference.

<7> In their role as commodities for commercial exhibition, then, a cultural lineage from which the contemporary horror film in part emerges, the bodies of so-called monsters were used to emphasize the crucial distinctions between proper and improper bodies, between appropriately bounded and dangerously excessive versions of the human self. At the same time, however, monsters have paradoxically interrogated the very consolidation of the human subject that they produce by raising the spectre of a hauntingly mobile alterity, one that carries the potential to infect or infest the proper body. [2] Where the body of the proper self is meant to be clean, contained, and singular, monsters, in their overflow and excess, their somatic merging of human and non-human form, “represent the in between, the mixed”; in this they are “both horrible and wonderful, object of aberration and adoration” (Braidotti 62). Monstrosity is thus a complicated proposition: it should not be reduced, Stephen Pender warns, to an “ahistorical or mobile concept,” especially since there is a historical specificity to the treatment of the deformed human bodies that were once understood to constitute the monstrous (96). There is, however, a marked and suggestive continuity to the long-standing practice of monstrous display that deserves attention: the exhibition of the anomalous body has persisted over centuries, whether it takes the form of carnival entertainment, medical illustration, or the voyeuristic, often conflicting pleasures of observing the horror film monster. This continuity suggests that, whatever the specific loci of anxiety in a given historical moment, a resilient collective desire to gaze at the monstrous spectacle persists, a compulsion to present and represent the monstrous body as an incarnation of “difference made flesh” (Cohen 7). The fleshliness of the monster is important: in contemporary horror film, for example, it is “the iconography of the body” that figures as the site of a collapse of familiar categories, so that the body’s vulnerabilities mirror the uncertainties of a universe in which “good and evil, normality and abnormality, reality and illusion” often appear to “become virtually indistinguishable” (Pinedo 9). The monster’s somatic difference thus embodies the dilemma of what Michael Uebel calls the “sometimes unlivable duality of other and self,” a schism that, by marking (and sometimes marketing) difference, inaugurates and defines “subjectivity, identification, and community” (265). As an often literal exhibition of otherness, then, the monster appears visibly to amplify, in its excesses and deficits, its extra limbs or missing parts, the categorical differences between normal and abnormal, orderly and disorderly, human and non-human.

<8> This duality depends upon the proximate presence of the body of the other to anatomize and illuminate difference. Given the fact that self and other are supposedly distinct and mutually excluding, it is, Uebel argues, a closeness that is deeply discomforting. While “difference made flesh” may, in the form of the monster, come to “dwell among us,” as Cohen contends (7), such habitation requires a deft and paradoxical re-drawing of borders in order even to imagine “some uninhabitable domain of alterity” (Uebel 265). Such terrain requires its own dexterous boundary-creation, since imagining otherness “necessarily involves constructing the borderlands, the boundary spaces” that “contain—in the double sense, to enclose and to include—what is antithetical to the self” (Uebel 265). The monstrous body, however, even as it confirms that “what is antithetical to the self” has been ejected, exiled, and controlled, also parades in its own fantastic materiality a challenge to the self/other divide. The hybridity of the monster, its tendency to combine apparent opposites, complicates and shadows the “dualistic values” of an intellectual tradition that has “functioned to support what at first sight seems simply to be a clarity of boundaries and definitions” that run “along the lines of difference” (Shildrick, Leaky 105). As spectacle, then, the monster is revealed but also reveals. It connotes, in its own unbounded body, the boundaries of the human, while simultaneously generating along those boundaries the play of an unsettlingly plausible porosity. To put it another way: it is not the closeness of the monster to us that unsettles, but our closeness to the monster. [3]

Monstrous Revelations: Difference and Transgression

<9> The monster’s early status as revelatory object is implicit in the word’s etymology: “monster” shares its Latin root with the word “demonstrate,” anticipating the monster’s historical association with the pedagogical body and the mechanisms of display. From the classical era into the seventeenth century the grotesque body, a concept encompassing disabilities and defects, excesses and absences, was read as a “rebuke to human communities for faults known and unknown” (Ingebretsen 1). Linking the classical with the Christian understanding of monstrosity, then, was the shared idea of remonstrance; the visibly monstrous body could thus be understood as a node of discipline within a community in need of correction. Within a Christian theological framework, the prodigious body of the monster was widely understood as a divine demonstration, a text within which could be detected God’s judgement on the world. The association of monsters with notions of limits and boundaries, so central to postmodern discussions of monstrous embodiment, may likewise be detected already at work in early expressions of Christian theology. As early as the fourth century, for example, well before the Middle English word monstre came into common use, and before the monstrous became, in the sixteenth century, associated with ideas of evil, Saint Augustine mused on the spiritual function of the monstrous, asserting that unusual births and other “marvels” are “called monsters because they demonstrate or signify” (qtd. In Datlow 1). What they demonstrate, for Augustine, is God’s ability to transgress even the very constraints that He has established. Augustine locates those constraints along the boundaries of the human body: monsters signify that “God will bring to pass what He has foretold regarding the bodies of men, no difficulty preventing Him, no law of nature prescribing to Him His limit” (qtd. in Datlow 1). Power and authority, then, lie for Augustine in the ability not only to define but to defy limits, and this divine authority is tellingly enacted along the lineaments of “the bodies of men.”

<10> Notions of defining difference have likewise been part of the discourse of teratology since long before the rise of Enlightenment thought codified difference and similitude into the “violent hierarch[ies]” that, for Derrida and many poststructuralist theorists, have characterized modernity (41). The early theological concern with the properly bounded body, its limits clearly defined unless deliberately defied by the divine force that prescribes them, takes on an additional dimension in medieval responses to the monster. In the 14th century collection of travel accounts circulated as The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, for example, Mandeville, the purported author of the tales, adds to the concept of deformity the defining notion of alterity, emphasizing the monster’s crucial difference from the natural and the normative. For the tales’ author, deformity is located in the monster’s variation from type, the way it declines from the norms of its category: thus, “A monster is a thing deformed against kind” (Bovey 5). The monstrous body is therefore defined by what we might call a crisis in conformation. In failing to conform to the rules of its breed, it poses the problem of its “radical undecidability”: the monster resists “the security of categories,” so that “where normative embodiment” once “seemed to guarantee individual autonomous selfhood,” the monstrous “disrupts the notions of separation and distinction that underlie such claims”  (Shildrick, Embodying 2). The monster’s prodigious failure to align with bodily norms thus implies the failure of those norms to predict, protect, and consolidate the self.

<11> Monsters not only reflect this crisis of conformation in their own flawed embodiment, they also articulate in that embodiment cultural anxieties about the vulnerability of the normative to the possibility of monstrosity. As the ideal of the rational human subject rose to preeminence, for example, monstrous spectacles that implied the failure of the supposedly rational, autonomous human subject to govern bestial appetites and inclinations became increasingly unsettling. With the progress of modernity, the nature of the monster’s message both altered and remained in place: it altered in terms of the evolving discourses through which it was interpreted, from the classical, to the Christian, to post-Enlightenment secularism, and yet it remained pertinent as an index of and defining contrast to proper human subjectivity. Monsters moved from being interpreted as “divine prodigies” to “natural wonders” that were displayed as much for entertainment as for spiritual edification, until eventually these phenomenal bodies were absorbed into a medical/scientific framework and integrated into the discourses of anatomy and embryology (Park and Daston 23). Cultural responses to physical difference shifted, in turn, from “theological horror, to relieved laughter” to “scientific horror” (C. Williams 120). Broadly speaking, the fulcrum of this shift was the rise of Enlightenment rationalism: within the Enlightenment’s rigidly binary coding of identity, the monster functioned as an engine of difference. The binaries that Derrida and other theorists envision as foundational to European philosophy, however, were always potentially haunted even as they were established or reinforced by the spectacle of the monstrous figure. Before poststructuralist theory offered a language in which to deconstruct these binaries, the monster already occupied an unsettled and unsettling place in Enlightenment thought, since “to write about monsters in the eighteenth century, a transitional era preceding teratology’s complete scientific regulation of the monster, was to lose empirical certainty” (Deutsch and Nussbaum 14). Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum note that “a kind of knowledge emerged in the Enlightenment that explored the unknown only to recognize itself in that which it most despised and feared” (14). Theorists of disability have uncovered in their study of bioethics a similarly anxious ambivalence about the fragile and impermanent boundaries separating the well body from the ill, the coherent body from the inchoate, the bounded body from the leaky, loose, and incontinent. Containing boundaries are always permeable, as disability scholars and activists remind us, since the healthy body is always vulnerable to illness, the youthful body to age, the whole body to disintegration or collapse. Magrit Shildrick’s work on the vulnerability of the body addresses this when she suggests that “So long as the monstrous remains the absolute other, in its corporeal difference it poses few problems. . . Once, however, it begins to resemble . . . us, or to reflect back aspects of ourselves that are repressed, then its indeterminate status—neither wholly self nor wholly other—becomes deeply disturbing” (Shildrick, Embodying 2-3). The metaphor of the monstrous body, then, like the monstrous body itself, does not congeal at the point of the Enlightenment but continues, characteristically, to display the fluidity and oozing amorphousness that constitute much of its uneasy fascination.

Monstrous Appetite: Female Desire and Postmodern Monstrosity

<12> Postmodern horror film [4] often highlights this uneasy fluidity in its monsters, which frequently depict the hybrid, amorphous figure that Judith Halberstam calls the “sutured beast,” a monster which produces “vertiginous excesses of meaning” (1-2). According to Emily McAvan, “postmodern monstrosity” may thus be figured fundamentally as “an excess of meaning,” an abrupt and disorienting “movement from one signifier to another” (74). Such dizzying over-abundance of signification characterizes the three female monsters we wish to consider here, each replete with often competing meanings, each nonetheless perpetually ravenous.

<13> These monsters’ hunger, voracious, insatiable, and unrestrained, speaks to the social demand for female bodies to be disciplined, cautious, and restrained in their desires, a lesson taught by the admonitory examples of monsters but also, as theorists of the body like Susan Bordo, Jana Evans Braziel, and Kathleen LeBesco argue, a lesson circulating widely in the culture at large, in which “women’s sexual appetites, like their appetite for food, must be curtailed and controlled” (Bordo 117). Bordo’s work sets the stage for our analysis, establishing the body as a social construct and social product. Tracing mind/body dualism back to Descartes and Plato before him, she outlines how the female has been historically aligned with the body and with appetite as reflected in areas as broad as law, modern advertising and eating disorders. Women are thus positioned as closer to the body by their very “nature,” that is, they are reduced to their bodies via naturalizing discourses. Braziel and LeBesco’s work further demonstrates the relationship between the body and the female, within the socio-political landscape of fatness. Women’s sexual and food appetites, they argue, are produced as normative within particular limited boundaries. These boundaries are almost always concerned with regulating and controlling women and their bodies, and unbounded appetites are frequently coded as monstrous. The three films investigated here explore the nexus of cultural unease surrounding women’s physical appetites and sexual desires. The representation of appetite in these films indicates both an awareness of the way female hunger has often been regarded with distrust, and a willingness to employ the violent spectacle of appetite gone wildly awry. Despite her last name, for example, the appetites of Jennifer’s Body’s antagonist Jennifer Check have always gone unchecked, and since long before her demonic transformation, her will to consume is portrayed as monstrously destructive. She repeatedly refers to attractive young men as “salty morsels,” a metaphor that, after her transformation, becomes literal. In one scene, she is shown circling the photos of classmates in her yearbook and scrawling “YUM!” in the margins. Inverting the tradition that identifies men with personhood and women with “the non-subject” (Shidrick, Embodying 48), when her friend Needy asks if Jennifer is eating people, she replies, “No. I’m eating boys.”

<14> In the high school worlds of Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps, even appetites that are natural and normal are treated as suspect and in need of chastening or regulation. Both Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps feature repeated barbs about teenage girls taking laxatives to stay thin, “pluggin’” unwieldy menstrual flow, and giving each other nicknames like “Vagisil,” and “Monistat”; these jokes reveal fears about unruly bodies that expand, ooze, leak, and become messy. Such oozes and issues, leaks and spills are, according to Stephen Prince, “the stuff of horror films” because horror’s appeal is based on its portrayal of “the intermediate categories whose anomalies elicit horror and anxiety to the extent that they escape established social classifications” (122). The fascination of the young women in Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Bodywith uncontained menstrual flow perhaps inevitably recalls one of horror film’s most iconic scenes, the shower scene in Brian DePalma’s Carrie, in which the menstruating Carrie is surrounded by a crowd of high school girls throwing tampons and shouting “plug it up!” The menstrual blood in Carrie, suggests Prince, plays upon “ambiguities of the body,” and is thus part of the category of taboo matter, those bodily issues that are both part of the body and expelled from the body. Being both inside and outside, both a part of and exiled from the body, such taboo matter confounds “the initial boundary relation of self and world” (122). As in Carrie’s scene of traumatic public incontinence, the issuing of fluids in Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, viscerally depicted in the films through the copious secretion of abject liquids, is read by those around them as grotesque leakage. For example, Jennifer, bitten by a demon, vomits a black tarry liquid that looks like what her friend describes with disgust as a mixture of “sewing needles and road kill.” Even the body’s “normal” biological emissions, however, are read as repulsive. Brigitte reacts much more strongly to the sight of her sister’s first menstrual blood than to the raw remains of a dismembered dog they have just encountered, and the contrast between the two reactions shows the extent to which the sisters have internalized taboos around “menstrual blood as polluting” (Miller 289). Brigitte’s horror at the sight of her sister’s menstrual blood is so intense that Ginger is compelled to ironically reassure her that “It’s not contagious.” Menses and the cultural unease that surrounds it is, in fact, a motif in both Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps: Jennifer and Ginger’s visceral cravings and need to feed fluctuate on a lunar cycle that echoes the monthly cycle of menstruation. Later, when Ginger’s body begins to change, Brigitte says to her: “Something’s wrong. Like more than you just being … female.” Such dialogue underlines the way the films investigate the implications of “becoming other through the reconfiguration of flesh” (Clarke 372), even when that otherness is simply based on not being male. By featuring reconstructed postmodern monsters resistant to modernity’s many bifurcations, including those fundamental binaries of human and beast, male and female, restraint and appetite, civilized and atavistic, containment and incontinence, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Deadgirl all engage provocatively with questions of boundaries and their dissolution. The monstrous corporeality of their central female antagonists implies, in their hybrid and over-determined bodies, multiple contradictory couplings that work to undo the clarity of modernity’s divisions and offer in their place postmodernism’s blurred and blurring edges.

<15> Talk of edges and their dissolution is, in fact, occasionally overt in the films. Both Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, for example, link appetite, violence, and the urge to dismantle the body with emerging female desire. In Jennifer’s Body, the opening sequence is suggestive: Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried), whose nickname spells out her role as adulating subordinate to her best friend Jennifer, says in an early voice-over: “I wasn’t always this cracked. I used to be normal,” but then, she adds, “I started to feel loose around the edges.” There is a similarly evocative moment in Ginger Snaps: when a sympathetic teenage boy offers Ginger marijuana to dull the pain of period cramps, she responds with “Maybe I like my edge,” and the boy returns, “Maybe you’re afraid to lose it.” The fact that Ginger is then shown smoking the joint, despite her concern for her “edge,” is indicative of the wry wit both these films bring to their consideration of gender norms and their pleasure in self-consciously revising the teen horror movie conventions that often police these norms. Beyond this, however, such talk of edges points viewers towards the films’ interest in boundaries, particularly those that at first appear rigid and unmoving, but turn out to lose their clear edges. These boundaries initially seem definitively to separate monster from human, female from male, threat from threatened, victim from victimizer. The plots’ development, however, ultimately reveals these categories as permeable and shifting. In this fluidity of apparently fixed  boundaries may also be detected echoes of Carrie, a film in which, Carole Clover argues, apparently obvious questions about who occupies the roles of monster, victim, and hero are provocatively clouded, so that the answer “would seem to be that Carrie is all three in turn”:  “Throughout most of the movie she is the victim of monstrous schoolmates and a monstrous mother, but…[in defeating them] she herself becomes a kind of monstrous hero,” heroic in her defeat of her tormentors, and monstrous insofar as “she herself has become excessive, demonic” (4). The slipperiness of both cinematic role and subject position is made even more interesting here in that Jennifer’s Body’s references to “pluggin’” menstrual flow allude to a famous horror scene which itself alludes to another famous scene. Carrie’s shower scene contains “overt parallels” to the even more iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, including several shots that “mimic the Psycho scene directly” (Lindsey 282). Whereas the violence in Psycho, however, is clearly “split between victim and attacker, between Marion [Crane] and Norman Bates” in Carrie’s shower scene, “no such division exists,” so that “Carrie’s adolescent body becomes the site upon which monster and victim converge” (Lindsey 282). Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body similarly explore the shiftiness, complexity, and mobility of the categories of monstrosity, victimhood, and heroism, and the films’ focus on the abject matter of bodily leakage signals this larger categorical leakage in very visual ways.   A short but potent scene in Ginger Snaps, for example, visually alludes to  the permeability of bodily as well as social boundaries when it shows Brigitte being shoved by a school bully into the bloody, dismembered remains of another slain dog, one of many comminglings of human and beast depicted in these films. Brigitte’s fall evokes a laughter that is later transmuted into terror as boundaries and restraints begin to fail in increasingly fatal ways. In Deadgirl, for example, the symbolically and socially constrained female body is also literally constrained: the living corpse of Deadgirl spends almost the entirety of the film bound to the hospital gurney on which she is discovered. Grimmer than Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, and lacking in the comic moments that reveal their pleasure in subverting both horror and teen movie conventions, Deadgirl is nevertheless perhaps the most paradoxically radical of the three films in the way it moves monstrosity away from the oozing, lesioned, hole-riddled, literally seeping body of its central monster and attaches it instead to the human, in the form of the healthy young male characters who imprison her. While Deadgirl is violently and primally hungry, full of a carnivorous, cannibalistic desire for flesh, the young men palpably hunger for something different: most immediately that hunger is for sex, but it also encompasses the power, money, and social status they see as unattainable within the world they know. Frank in their assessment of their lack of status and opportunity, these young men are infected not by a contagious zombie bite but by their culture’s will to seize power and assert ownership. Within the film, that will is gendered as central to hegemonic masculinity, a version of masculinity that is distilled in the slogan advocated by Ricki’s mother’s deadbeat boyfriend: “TCB” or “Take Care of Business.” In Deadgirl, the business of masculinity eventually becomes a literal business, as the young men symbolically consume her, concretizing the metaphorical commodification of the dead woman by selling access to her body. If, for Ginger and Brigitte in Ginger Snaps, their claustrophobic suburb is full of nothing but “dead ends,” for the disenfranchised, socially marginal adolescent males of Deadgirl, the distorted and distorting version of masculinity to which their social world subscribes is such an entirely dead end that it turns them, as would-be zombie entrepreneurs, into literal dealers in death.

<16> The young men’s sexual enslavement of Deadgirl implies unstated and unexamined parallels with other kinds of enslavement, indirectly invoking parallels to North American histories of race-based slave systems that are not overtly addressed in the film at large. On one level, that silence reflects, sometimes critically, the extreme hermeticism of the very insular social worlds that the characters inhabit. On another level, that silence, like the absence of discussion or acknowledgement of issues of race in any of these three films, is in itself at once problematic and suggestive. As Robin R. Means Coleman notes, many horror films speak “quite loudly about Blackness, even through its exclusion. The wholesale omission of Blacks and Blackness reveals much about our American culture at different points in history,” so that “a film need not have a Black character to have something to say about or against Blackness” (6). There is a pervasive whiteness to the high school worlds that comprise the setting of these three films that speaks to larger absences, and larger silences. In Deadgirl, this absence is heightened and highlighted when we consider that, as a zombie, Deadgirl is part of a tradition that has it early roots in both slave systems and the slave narratives such systems produce. Kyle William Bishop notes the “essential role played by imperial colonisation and slavery in the creation of the modern-day zombie” (42). In zombie movies such as Deadgirl, then, even when the question of race is not directly addressed, the Haitian and US cultural history of zombies is leveraged. This history includes a forced religious conversion of African peoples in Haiti to Catholicism within a context of colonialism that was then transported to the US and then into American popular culture (Kordas 15). Conversions are, however, never entirely totalizing, and components of Voodoo/Vodou, from which the zombie is born, remained. This Voodoo/Vodou zombie was largely associated with evil, although also represented as pitiable at times; consistently, it was something to fear (Moreman and Rushton 4; Kordas 15). So too women have been represented as something to fear, yet also as lacking in autonomy, a “mindless slave” (Moreman and Rushton3) in the vein of the zombie.  That only “deviants are made into zombies” (Moreman and Rushton 3) is not incidental. The deviation from the western white male heterosexual standard thus includes women and Africans/Haitians, who become produced as others, as mindless and as fearsome. They become the object, in contrast to the white male subject. The zombie in the posthuman context, however, is suggestive in a different way, some recent theorists suggests, and may operate, like the other fluid and hungry monsters we explore here, as a “negation of the subject/object divide” (Lauro & Embry qtd. in Moreman & Rushton 4).

<17> The appetite of the zombie (Moreman & Rushton 7) is embodied in Deadgirl as sexual appetite and physical attraction. Within the film, this leverages sexist assumptions against racist ones.  Deadgirl is feared for her animalistic behaviour in line with the original zombies that were understood as “voiceless being[s]” lacking a will and intellect of their own (Kordas 15) in contrast to rational males. Female zombies of the 1930s and 1940s were sexually transgressive and thought to demonstrate “unrestrained sexual behaviour” (Kordas 26, 30). Deadgirl’sinsatiable appetite characterizes and draws upon preconceptions about both strains of her alterity: her clear sexual difference from the male subject, and her adumbrated, symbolic racial difference, only problematically invoked by her racially-inflected zombie lineage.

<18> While race is central to the zombie’s social and cultural history, in Deadgirl, the script’s zombie narrative appears to sidestep race entirely, just as in Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body racially othered bodies almost disappear, leaving gender, it seems, to do the work of standing in for multiple other forms of bodily and social difference. In this, the films perhaps reflect the absence of people of colour from the suburban and small-town worlds that make up the film’s diegetic worlds, reflecting the well-documented phenomenon of “white flight” from the cities and the subsequent “whitening” of suburban spaces. Nevertheless, in three films that focus so intensely on bodies, the lack of black bodies remains a haunting absence.

Monstrous Conformation: Genre and Disobedience

<19> Addressing questions of female containment, embodiment, and the incontinence of appetite, these films’ richly signifying monsters return viewers to the insistent materiality often left behind in discussions of posthumanism which, in addressing the virtual, have sometimes drifted away from the corporeal. As Julie Clarke cautions, often in such discussions, the human body is “distanced from” its “visceral nature” (369). Horror film, however, with its intense investment in materiality, tends to replace that distance with images that restore an often anxious immediacy to the flesh.

<20> Horror’s visceral images work to ambiguous ends, a fact reflected in critics’ inability to agree on whether the genre’s treatment of female bodies is predominantly transgressive or conservative. In horror film at large, the female body often functions to re-inscribe familiar associations of women with the grotesquely unregulated body and its inherent monstrosity. [5] In contrast, in Jennifer’s Body, Ginger Snaps, and, perhaps problematically, Deadgirl, the complexly carnal bodies of horror’s hungry girls are complicated, the location of their monstrosity shown as more mobile and elusive than settled and definitive. The rampant carnivorousness of these young female monsters, who are all portrayed as ferocious devourers of human flesh, might seem at first to confirm familiar tropes linking the feminine to unruly embodiment and unregulated appetite, a connection established in “well-known arguments identifying the subject of the western logos with the human male,” and identifying the female as “the excluded, the embodied, the monstrous” (Shildrick, Embodying 48). In many forms of cultural discourse, this otherness is indebted to the assumption that “a bleeding vagina and dripping nipples” testify to the dangerous unreliability of the female body and its “inability to remain in control” (Tsoffar 10). These assumptions imply that there is an uncanny transposition of insides and outsides taking place within the oozing female body, a failure of membranes to protect and contain the internal. In Ginger Snaps, the lycanthropic virus certainly operates this way, confusing the essential boundary between what is meant to be inside or outside the self. As Sam and Brigitte discover in their research, the virus “works from the inside out,” recalling the educational film on meiosis playing in the sisters’ biology class that describes the way that parasitic or intruder cells attack and consume host cells from within. Rather than reiterating familiar associations of the feminine with creeping contagion, porous surfaces, or slyly seeping liquidity, however, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Deadgirl all both recruit and resist genre conventions in order to propose instead an integration of monster and human that is more ambiguous: it is sometimes emancipatory, and sometimes horrifyingly, inescapably, and literally imprisoning. This integration, we suggest, allows the films’ portrayal of the post-monstrous to relocate modernity’s fixed locus of identity (Hayles 279) along a more nebulous and inchoate border of the self.

<21> The three films we explore here, like the bodies of historical monsters on display, enact their own crisis of conformation: just as their monsters fail to conform to settled distinctions between the categories of monster and human, the films themselves evince a resistance to, even as they exploit, many of the most categorical conventions of their genre. This is amply displayed in the tension they reveal between their exploitation of and startling departures from genre conventions, as well as in in their depictions of a deliberately chaotic monstrous ontology. Their shared concern with investigating and undoing traditional taxonomies of monstrosity is apparent in the way each film resists using labels for its central monster that are drawn from the familiar horror movie lexicon. Ginger Snaps, for example, tells the story of alienated teen sisters who see themselves as at odds with their parents, their school, their suburban world, and “life as [they] know it.” They find connection and meaning only in each other, until Ginger, bitten by a werewolf attracted by the scent of her first menstrual period, begins to change. Within this werewolf plot, however, the word werewolf is notably avoided; in fact, the word is used only once in the film’s dialogue, and is otherwise entirely replaced by the scientific term “lycanthrope” (MacDonald 65). Jennifer’s Body also depicts the story of a disintegrating intimate female dyad. The erotically close friendship between Jennifer Check and Anita “Needy” Lesnicki is disrupted by the supernatural changes to Jennifer’s body, which require that Jennifer, on a monthly cycle, feed on young men in order to sate her carnivorous hunger and renew her vitality and allure. Jennifer’s newly monstrous state emerges after she is possessed by a demon following a botched ritual in a satanic sacrifice, but, as in Ginger Snaps, there is a provocative evasiveness surrounding the term for her condition. The word “possession” is avoided: this is not the familiar demonic possession story in which an infernal spirit inhabits a human body. In fact, Jennifer’s condition results from a failed sacrifice, in which her murderers falsely believe her to be a virgin when they offer her to Satan in exchange for money and success. A confusion of sexual identity results in a confusion of spiritual and even ontological identity, as opposed to more familiar good/evil, innocent/possessed binaries characteristic of other on-screen demonic possessions. Here, the relationship between bodily host and invading spirit is more richly integrated: Jennifer’s body, it is clear, has never been just a body, either before or after the ritual. After Needy searches theological and occult tomes to try to understand what has happened to her friend, she uses broad, gender-neutral terms like “demon” and “evil” to describe the change. When Needy experiences a psychic vision, however, Jennifer’s startling posture alerts the audience to a more precise label: shown naked and perched in a distinctively hunched crouch, Jennifer is visually, if not verbally, defined as a succubus. A figure of specifically female appetites, the succubus represents parasitic desire; its destructive appetite and monstrous allure embody the ambivalence that has long been associated with the female body and its “metaphorics of uncontrollability” (Grosz 203). As a succubus, Jennifer is both earthly and infernal: her beauty waxes and wanes with her lunar feeding cycle, and her human form morphs to include aspects of bestial forms ranging from the reptilian to the ruminant. Her threat is complex: it suggests not only the immediate danger of the way she seduces and devours, but also the broader cultural suspicions of the shifty woman, founded in a “fear of, and revulsion from, bodies that appear unable to maintain the distinction and definition required by the sovereign self” (Shildrick, Embodying 75). Jennifer’s body, even in its monstrous form, evokes the nuances of that hostility, which may involve an uneasy fascination, the “ambivalence between desperate, fatal attraction and strong revulsion, the deep-seated fear of absorption,” and a suspicion of the “undecidability of the limits of the female body, its powers of cynical seduction and allure,” all of which appear as familiar themes in cultural representations of women (Grosz 203).

<22> In Ginger Snaps, there is a similar, seriocomic engagement with both the cultural habits and genre conventions that represent female sexuality as simultaneously alluring and dangerous. The Fitzgerald sisters resent the limited categories available to young women in their suburban world of Bailey Downs, where, Ginger says: “a girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door.” Resisting this narrow list of options, after her werewolf bite, Ginger embraces her new hybridity: as her body transforms and her sexual appetite simultaneously grows, the viewer is presented with a conflation of sexual hunger, physical monstrosity, and seductive appetite. This confusion of appetite is articulated in the perpetually evolving visual hybridity of her body which, increasingly exposed in scanty clothing, is at once newly womanly and newly monstrous. In the Halloween party that leads up to the film’s final scenes, Ginger proudly puts her metamorphosis on display, parading her powerfully changed form through the crowd of students. Her self-display points to the complexities of young women’s self-presentation: Ginger uses it to assert her new sexual power, but it also suggests the limits of that power within a patriarchal system that (as Ginger Snaps’ chorus of bystanders loudly assessing girls’ bodies makes clear) still situates female bodies primarily as objects for the visual pleasure of others. By making an exhibition of herself, Ginger seizes power from those who would define her solely as the object of their gaze. At the same time, in celebrating her literally spectacular body, Ginger still positions herself within an economy of predatory exhibition, one that shows a remarkable continuity with the broader cultural history of exploiting bodily difference for profit. While Ginger believes that, as a werewolf, she is now the predator, thus reversing the dynamic of predation, it is significant that her powerful new werewolf body is viewed at the party as only a form of costume. While she exults in her newfound sense of power, that power is simultaneously read as mere masquerade; as Tanis MacDonald notes, the exhibition at the party of “Ginger’s partly transformed body” is misread by partygoers as a sexy special-effects costume and attracts neither fear nor respect, but only “admiring glances” from the young men in attendance (73). When Ginger, full of her perceived new power, attempts to seduce Brigitte’s friend Sam, she opens her shirt to reveal a lupine ribcage and “three sets of canine nipples instead of human breasts,” thus offering the viewer “the sight of a body that is undeniably female but whose species is significantly liminal” (MacDonald 73). The boundaries of the animal and the human are thus not only unsettled but amalgamated and even, at times, transiently fused, vacillating between the rational human and the savage animal, a monstrous mobility that plays out in both Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body.

<23> The gradual progress of Ginger’s transformation into the werewolf, with its accompanying mood shifts, unregulated hungers, and un-chastened urges, self-consciously mimics puberty. Scenes portraying Ginger’s newly sprouting hair and gushing blood lead to scenes in which the sisters try to manage these changes through feminine hygiene products and inadequate razors, in ways that both satirize the generalized social disgust at female bodily excesses and that gesture towards Ginger’s hybrid equipoise between the bestial and the human. This strained position takes the form of a literal posture in the brief scene in which Ginger and Brigitte visit a drugstore. The sisters are depicted posed between towering shelves of tampons and sanitary pads, products intended to help women manage the unruly exudations of their bodies, and the looming shelves visually suggest the monumentality of this task and the expectations surrounding it. Ginger is shown bent double with cramps so that, shot in profile, viewers see her bent at the waist and hunched into a stiffly protracted crouch that lasts for much of the scene. This stance emphasizes her in-between status: neither upright nor down on all fours, Ginger appears frozen half-way between the animal and the human, an indication of the monstrous hybridity that will later be confirmed in the glimpse of Ginger’s werewolf body as simultaneously, as MacDonald notes above, “undeniably female” and “significantly liminal”(73), a creature of thresholds and contradictions.

Monstrous Biology: Sutured Beasts and Hungry Girls

<24> The liminality suggested by Ginger’s posture extends to address not only sexual desire and performance in Ginger Snaps, but to take on biology itself which, through both the film’s dialogue and use of visual effects, is presented as more slippery than fixed. In this film, biology is not a fact but a question, as reflected in Ginger’s provocative interrogation of Jason during their sexual encounter. Jason is the male student who most clearly embodies the casual misogyny of the high school’s social hierarchy. When Ginger, full of new sexual appetite, seduces him, she seems at first to take on the conventionally masculine role of sexual aggressor/actor/initiator, while Jason is left, as if by default, to take on the conventionally more passive female role, responding to Ginger’s eagerness with an uneasy, “Hey, hey, take it easy. We’ve got all night.” This apparently straightforward role reversal, while subverting gendered expectations, still seems to divide the encounter into the familiar binaries of active and passive, dominant and subordinate, penetrating and receptive sexual subjects. The scene goes on, however, to offer something more oblique as the dialogue turns interrogatory with a series of questions that work through echo and refrain to question the division itself. When Jason instructs Ginger to “Just lie back and relax,” she responds, “You lie back and relax!” When Jason objects with “Who’s the guy here?” Ginger’s reiteration of the question amplifies it in interesting ways: “Who’s the guy here?” she echoes incredulously, “Who’s the fucking guy here?”  The unanswered question is revisited later when Jason is seen with blood spotting the front of his pants, causing one of his jock friends to ask if he “[got his] rag.” Later, after urinating blood and with more blood staining his crotch, he runs down the hall in a panic, exclaiming to watchers, “My pen exploded! My red pen!” This goes beyond the familiar scene of a boorish bully getting his comeuppance: as April Miller observes, Ginger recognizes in this the “subversive and pleasurable spectacle” that turns Jason “into the ‘hysterical’ menstruating woman” (294). In a later scene, Jason rushes from the classroom to the toilet to bleed out his organs in a nightmare parody of menarchal anxiety. Similarly slippery references to biology run through Jennifer’s Body; in one, Jennifer says of the goth student, Colin: “He listens to maggot rock. He wears nail polish. My dick is bigger than his.” Although Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body both parade the eroticized bodies of Ginger and Jennifer as articles of sexual display (in two scenes so parallel they suggest homage, each girl swaggers down her school hallway in slow motion to a sexy soundtrack, reveling in the spectacle of her seductive power), and so re-inscribing them within familiar social narratives of desirability, the biological and anatomical slipperiness such scenes evoke, in which traditionally feminine humiliations are visited on alpha-male bodies, suggest that such narratives may be made as provocatively unstable as are gender and even biology.

<25> Like Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps, Deadgirl focuses on the intersecting dynamics of teenage desire and teenage relationships within a rigid and destructive social hierarchy. Like them, too, it is evasive in naming its monster, and it sidesteps many of the conventions of horror movie zombie lore in favour of an ontologically vague monster: never named except in the title and credits, Deadgirl is something very different than the classic George Romero Hollywood zombie, and the interplay of threat and victimization she represents is complex and disturbing. [6] When the androgynously-named friends Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) find the body of a woman bound on a gurney in the basement of an abandoned hospital, the boys discover that she is moving and sentient, and possibly immortal. The term zombie is, however, avoided, and when Wheeler (Eric Podnar), another outcast friend of Rickie and JT’s, says “She’s just a dead girl, man. That’s all!” the film seems almost to repudiate the zombie label. In the three films’ evasiveness about naming their monsters, in fact, viewers may uncover a shared project of engaging with constructions of the feminine as inherently monstrous. This is supported by the fact that these films at once draw upon and confuse representations that reflect this horror. For example, when Jennifer’s articulated jaw gapes wide like a snake’s to swallow her prey, the mass of pointed teeth in her yawning maw is so prominent that it almost irresistibly recalls the nightmare fantasy of the vagina dentata. At the same time that Jennifer’s bestial body seems to recall familiar tropes of deadly female rapacity, however, Needy’s body is represented as an emancipatory hybrid that resists genre conventions and cultural expectations. While Jennifer’s biological hybridity, merging human and beast, is unsettling, Needy’s ability to transcend the limits of social categories is liberating. Despite her nickname and her apparent subordination to Jennifer, Needy is the strongest character in the film. Moreover, she is depicted simultaneously as the awkward, spectacle-wearing parody of the bookish-nerd stereotype who solves problems by going to the library, and the powerful nemesis who wisecracks as she battles the demon, and the vital, eagerly sexual young woman whose sexual life is refreshingly free of angst, guilt, self-consciousness, or neuroses. In fact, the intimate scenes of Needy with her boyfriend possess a joyous eroticism that answers and supplements Jennifer’s exaggerated pastiche of vampy sexuality. The either/or categories that traditionally define and restrict female sexuality are refuted here in both female characters: as Jennifer puts it, “I go both ways.” Further, Needy is far from the well-known Final Girl of teen horror, the sexually inexperienced and boyish girl who survives the monster even as her sexually active friends are slaughtered. [7]  Neither virginal nor androgynous, she does not need to stand in for a male heroin in order to fight the monster; in fact, in the final battle, Needy, fights in a be-ruffled pink prom dress, full make-up, and cascading curls, an image inverting that of the boyish girl who must become masculine to survive the monster. Unlike the Final Girl, too, Needy is not the last, lone warrior; instead, Chip (Johnny Simmons), the boyfriend whom she comes to rescue, fights alongside her. The scene is more than a reversal of the rescuing hero/rescued damsel pattern. After Jennifer’s attack on him, Chip had, he says, already died, but he wakes up when he hears Needy’s voice. The brief revivification works to undo even the apparently final biological division between life and death. Other boundaries continue to be further eroded in this scene, including the modernist binaries separating life and death, masculine and feminine, human and monster. These boundaries, so well policed in modernist discourses, partially dissolve in the films’ dialogue and their visual codings of posture and costume.

<26> If the usual hero/heroine binary is reversed in Jennifer’s Body, then the hero/monster binary is shattered in Deadgirl. Once again, the treatment of monstrous appetite is central to this breakdown in the opposition between hero and villain, good guy and monster. As a zombie, Deadgirl is also driven by, and perhaps defined by, her appetite: in one scene she bites the penis of Johnny (Andrew DiPalma), one of the high school bullies, when he tries to force her to perform fellatio. Significantly, however, JT’s nonchalance about how “good” it feels to give in to his own urges, which include raping and beating Deadgirl into unrecognizability, implies that Deadgirl’s ferocity is far from the most monstrous appetite on display. That Deadgirl’s body looks inhuman only after the boys’ repeated sexual violence intensifies this. Deadgirl’s decline from a beautiful, desirable body to one that putrefies, leaks and oozes is unsettling, but more unsettling is the way that her devolution illustrates that it is her human captors who are both responsible for and ultimately the source of her ghastliness. When the boys, tired of looking at the ugliness of Deadgirl’s battered face, cover it with a photo of a model’s torn from a magazine, the source of damage is revealed, in resonant and expansive ways, as implicated in the social and the cultural. As Steve Jones notes, “the zombie’s status as passive sex-object combined with the inequality the gendered zombie symbolizes marks the teens’ version of maleness as normative, yet simultaneously repellent” (532). The contrast between Deadgirl’s bruised, wounded, and suppurating body and the false, airbrushed perfection of the model’s superimposed picture offers a brutal juxtaposition that, yet again, interrogates the location of monstrosity, situating it not in binary opposition but on a continuum that slides between monster and human. This continuum is, in Deadgirl, increasingly slippery as the film progresses, creating a tension that points to horror’s larger ability to highlight the way that bodies, especially abused bodies, illustrate the dissolution of purity and foulness, vivacity and death, beauty and the grotesque. And, in doing so, it directs us to dismantle the modernist body, its gendered and sexed security, its bound edges and fixity, and the very beginning and end of the human.

<27> Horror film tends to revel in the spectacle of the brutalized body, a body that “is put on excessive display, and whose violent, vulnerable immediacy” generates a “beautiful barbarity, [a] troublesome power” (Bruhm xvii). This “vulnerable immediacy” recalls what Jack Morgan vividly terms “the anxiety of organism” (91). Arising in its rawest form “when our ‘flesh’ appears to us as meat,” the anxiety of organism, through the display of the monstrously damaged body, reveals what we fear we are: “fluids perilously contained within a rather fragile shell” (Morgan 91, 90).  Horror film, considered in this light, unfolds to its watchers a “necessary parable” (Uebel 264) of the self’s fragility, the ease with which it opens to reveal its own frangible membranes, its latent porosity. Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror, puts it memorably: “It is as if the skin, a fragile container, no longer guarantee[s] the integrity of one’s ‘own and clean self’” but instead gives way “before the dejection of its contents” (53). The fragility of the skin and the ways in which broken skin suggest the vulnerability of the body to damage and ruination become a visual motif, as well as a key narrative trope, in Deadgirl. Unlike Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps, which focus on female relationships, Deadgirl focuses on relationships between young men, relationships illuminated and mediated by the body of the living-dead girl. The 1950s psychiatric hospital setting in which most of the film unfolds reinforces, in its deserted, dilapidated state, the film’s depiction of the failed social institutions that are common to all three films: schools, families, hospitals, prisons, all monumentally fail to save or hold together their communities. Deadgirl’s wounded body, bound to the gurney as a vehicle that moves but not by her will, suggests the patient failed by a medical system portrayed as, at best, ineffectual, at worst, moribund, ghoulish, and predatory. Like the asylum, other civic institutions are portrayed as similarly derelict. In the film’s first audible dialogue, for example, JT poses a riddle: “What starts with F and ends with U-C-K?” The childishness of the joke sets up some of Deadgirl’s chief themes: the nexus of shame and violence that surrounds social outcasts and its distortion of desire and appetite; the social contagiousness of violence as a performance of the expectations surrounding masculinity; the will to maturation and autonomy as juxtaposed with the reality of the stunted development of boys in a world where all adult authority figures fail them. These authority figures not only fail to rescue or resolve, they are either destructive or resoundingly absent amidst the many crimes and catastrophes of the plot. It is in this sense that the full significance of JT’s fire truck joke comes into play only at the film’s end. By invoking the idea of crises and emergency, the riddle retroactively reminds us that this is a community in which the operations of rescue, like all potentially redemptive operations, are notably missing. There are multiple crimes and conflagrations, both literal and figurative, throughout the film, yet guardians and protectors are notable only in their absence. In the film’s diegetic world, no one, ever, comes to the rescue.

<28> On another level, too, we can detect in JT’s joke a possible response to the scathing critical reception of the film’s violence and perceived misogyny. The joke is the first moment at which viewers become symbolically implicated in the film’s events, intensifying what can be read as a critique of the class-bound conventions of a destructive version of masculinity. Since the joke takes the form of a riddle, it sets up the riddle’s familiar call-and-response formula. This formula is interrupted, however, since Rickie doesn’t answer but instead responds with a query of his own: “What are you, eight?” Rickie’s response highlights the film’s thematic investment in questions of the interrupted, stalled, or distorted progression from childhood to adulthood, a distortion that results in what Jones calls “the monstrous-masculine,” the result of “becoming a ‘man’ through sexual violence” (532). The riddle also accomplishes something more complex: the fact that JT’s question hangs unanswered is significant, since in the absence of the character’s response, viewers are prompted to fill in the apparently obvious answer. The effect is catechistic: the riddle poses a question that at once demands and implies an answer. From the moment audience members silently supply that answer, we would argue, their symbolic complicity in the film’s economy of catastrophic sexuality is established. One of the film’s most unsettling breaking of boundaries, then, comes in its dissolution of the implied distance between audience and actor, viewer and viewed. To watch Deadgirl is both to participate in that economy and to witness its destructiveness, its insupportability, and its brutal failures.

<29> One of Deadgirl’s key points of cultural critique is the ease with which Deadgirl’s body is absorbed into the intersecting economies of the sexual and the commercial. Deadgirl, it turns out, is a profitable monster, and she is immediately subsumed as product into these twinned systems. This ease not only highlights the shifting boundaries between victim and victimizer, threatened and threat (boundaries that shift and reform as we discover more details of the boys’ social world beyond the hospital), it also disturbs the boundaries between monster and human. Deadgirl’s profitability underlines the ease with which the boys’ behavior becomes horrifying. There is no slow corruption; instead, the transition between familiar, quotidian behavior and the grotesquely predatory and the violently exploitative is almost immediate. This is first indicated by the immediacy with which Rickie and JT decide to keep and use Deadgirl’s sentient body and the ease with which she is dismissed as “just a dead girl.” The fact that her body is discovered wrapped in plastic, like produce or meat, suggestively establishes her place in the film’s diegetic world as a commodity for sale and consumption.  Deadgirl resembles what she is immediately treated as: a piece of meat, conveniently packaged. This intensifies the film’s larger tension concerning Deadgirl’s nature: is Deadgirl a person or a thing, subject or object? Her captors use “she” as a pronoun rather than “it,” which makes their decision to use her for their pleasure and profit even more chilling. The further fact that it is not just the boys who treat her this way, but that presumably someone official who had access to hospital equipment previously bound, wrapped, and discarded her, suggests that it is not just the boys’ straitened circumstances that drives their behavior, but a much broader social malaise. If insatiable consumption is the mark of the zombie, here the young men who surround the zombie embody that consumption in a much more deliberate, and thus more horrifying way. This drive — to seize, control, consume — is reinforced by the fact that Deadgirl is repeatedly discussed in a vocabulary of undisguised objectification. Even before they fully understand her nature, their reaction is immediately acquisitive. Their first speculation, “Maybe there’s some kind of reward” is closely followed by a second: “We could keep her.” Kept, she becomes the boys’ “personal sex object.” When they discover her zombie ferocity, JT still insists on keeping her: “Sure, she’s some kind of monster or something,” he concedes, “but she’s our monster.” Her status as object of exchange is reinforced by the fact that she is never given a name; the credits list her simply as “Deadgirl,” less name than logo. The speed with which her body is monetized, exploited for social currency as well as money, is one of the film’s most difficult aspects: Wheeler begins to sell access to Deadgirl’s body to other high school boys almost immediately. Deadgirl is used first as sexual commodity; then, when the boys tire of her and try to use her bite to create more, hand-picked, prettier living-dead girls, she becomes something akin to a zombie factory. Perhaps the film’s most appalling conversion comes when Rickie, who is at first shocked by and only hesitantly compliant with JT’s abuses, himself turns entrepreneurial, successfully capturing the living object of his desire, his classmate Joann (Candice Accola). By using Deadgirl to infect Joann and turn her into another zombie captive, Rickie upgrades the battered older model for the girl he has always desired but could not, while she had free will, possess.

<30> Deadgirl is, clearly, a troubling film. Its critical reception has emphasized its nastiness, brutality, and the disgust it generates. In the only scholarly response so far published, Steve Jones speaks of Deadgirl’s fundamental misogyny, and as he discusses the comments made by scriptwriter Trent Haaga on the DVD’s commentary track, it is hard to disagree. Haaga’s defense of the film’s sexual violence is as disconcerting as the violence itself. As Jones notes, the writer seems frustrated that his film has been vehemently criticized when, he argues, movies like those in the Saw franchise show similarly extreme violence without eliciting the same degree of censure. “In a Saw movie,” Haaga insists, “you can take a real living breathing woman . . . and scalp her. . . and then kill her and it’s like, all good fun . . . [but in Deadgirl] you have a zombie girl that these guys fuck, and it’s not like you’re taking a blow torch to her nipples or pliers to her vagina” (qtd. in Jones 527). Jones notes that “not only does Haaga miss the point that, unlike Deadgirl, Saw balances its victim-base’s gender/sex mix, he also fails to observe that his plot revolves around male sexual violation of the female body exclusively, to the extent that any open orifice—even a bullet wound—will suffice, so long as it is a female body that is penetrated” (527, original italics). Jones maintains that, despite its “clear” misogyny (532), Deadgirl is worth studying because of the “politically urgent questions it raises about selfhood, gender, identity politics and violence” (526), questions raised by the film’s almost exclusive focus on “male agency . . . manifested as sexual violence” (527). Building on Jones’ perceptive conclusion that the true horror in Deadgirl lies in its portrayal of the “monstrous-masculine” (532), in which “the teens’ version of maleness” is portrayed as “normative” and yet “simultaneously repellent” (532), one finds, despite its many troubling moments, it is possible to uncover within Deadgirl a critique of the very systems of masculinity in which it seems so deeply enmeshed. There are brief but crucial moments of tension in the film, we suggest, that invite a reassessment of its relationship to the strictures of conventional masculinity. The film certainly explores “male agency” (Jones 527); much of its narrative is also driven, however, by an urgent sense of the limits of male agency, limits imposed by economics, class, social status and, not least, by the restrictive rules surrounding masculinity which seem, at times, as restrictive as the constraining feminine categories of “slut, tease, or virgin next door” enumerated by Ginger. Moments of what Derrida would call textual aporia, such as the riddle scene, complicate, even as they perhaps fail fully to compensate for, Deadgirl’s more overt moments of misogyny. Misogyny, therefore, meets hegemonic masculinity in Deadgirl in ways that demonstrate how patriarchal culture reproduces gendered behaviours and expectations that ultimately benefit no one.

<31> Like the popular public exhibitions of grotesque bodies in early modernity that constituted a “lucrative trade” (Pender 95), Deadgirl unnervingly represents both pleasure and profit. Reservations about the linking of spectacle, voyeurism, and revenue are not new: Pender points out that moral qualms about “the popularity and effects of human exhibition” were common even in its early years. In 1635, for example, Thomas Bedford decried the way that living monsters, “fit for [no] employment,” were displayed, while dead monsters were “prostituted to the covetousness of any” (qtd. in Pender 96). Deadgirl, in her dangerously liminal condition between living and dead monster, is exploited simultaneously in both these ways. There is a harsh continuity, in Deadgirl, between the zombie’s fatal appetites and the young men’s, as evidenced in their treatment of the monstrous body as prey to a combination of voyeuristic greed, erotic appetite, and the appetite for acquisition. Exhibition’s long history shares a similar combination. If the pageantry of monstrous alterity is indeed intended to consolidate the boundaries of self and community, then, paradoxically, as the spectacle of the monster draws close, the monster may demolish the very limits it sets. Monstrous exhibition thus performs the double task of presenting at once an embodied index of difference and an adumbration of the self’s vulnerability to such difference. There is, as we note, a mobility to the monstrosity portrayed in these films that both articulates and critiques such anxieties about the collapse of the human self. Historically, the monster postulates a space of difference as well as being a visible mark of difference; as Shildrick notes, the “post-Enlightenment ideal of autonomous subjectivity and agency” depends on “an interval between self and other that covers over the putative threat of engulfment by the other” (75). It is precisely that interval which feminine monstrosity, in its uncontainable and eruptive fluidity, threatens to engulf, swallow, or overwhelm. Once this gap is compromised, as we see in Jennifer’s Body, Ginger Snaps, and Deadgirl, the monstrosity that appears to reside in the grotesquely other body is set loose.

<32> Jennifer’s Body illustrates this in its final scenes, which show Needy, imbued with demonic powers since surviving her wounds, levitating, freeing herself from her cell, recovering the knife used to sacrifice Jennifer, and setting off to slaughter Jennifer’s abductors. With only partial powers but in full control, as a new kind of demon-human hybrid, she is no longer needy but powerfully autonomous, last depicted moving freely and inexorably towards her goal. In the final shots we glimpse in still photos the figures of the murdered men. The room and their bodies are drenched in gouts of their own blood, a grimly but exuberantly excessive menstrual display that reprises the film’s strategic shifting of biological boundaries. In Deadgirl, in contrast, the final scenes reveal that the boyish Rickie has taken his place as the man who takes care of business. Imprisoning the new zombie Joann in the asylum’s basement, in a cement room full of the girlish outfits in which he dresses her, Rickie offers a brutalized and ruthlessly pragmatic version of youthful romantic fantasy. While the original Deadgirl escapes, suggesting that the film “resists narrative closure” (Jones 534), Joann’s incarceration implies that the possibility of resistance is, for her, finally foreclosed. So, while the instability of monstrous female bodies, in their tendency to transform, implies that monstrosity may not settle but slip, swell, flow, flood, and breech its bounds, the possibility of restraint remains a threat. Such monstrous mobility may thus work to emancipatory or to stultifying ends. New bodily hybridities may enmesh horror’s hungry girls in an entrapping version of masculinity in which teenage boys are drawn relentlessly into the business of power, violently re-enacting upon captive female bodies the symbolic limits that constrain them; or, these same hybridities may free them, setting them loose upon the world, a powerfully unregimented body of monstrous women, intent upon their ambiguous and abject task.


[1] Andrew Tudor divides the genre into “secure” and “paranoid” horror: “secure” horror offers a reassuring version of the world in which the incursion of the other and the disorder it brings is remedied by figures representing traditional systems of authority. After 1960, the “legitimation crisis” of postindustrial society becomes the context for horror narratives in which “the monstrous threat” increases “beyond control,” evading a culminating restoration of order (Tudor 222, 108). The security of pre-1960s horror arises from the ultimate containment of the monster’s unsettling difference, reinforcing the clarity of “the boundary between good and evil, normal and abnormal, human and alien” and positing threats to order as external, deviant, and ultimately powerless in the face of human agency (Pinedo15).

[2] Rosemary Garland Thomson notes for example, that the “curious lineaments” of the grotesque body “confuse comforting distinctions of what is human and what is not” (1). Similarly, for Judith Halberstam, monsters must be everything “the human is not and, in producing the negative of the human,” they “make way for the invention of the human” (22).

[3] Margrit Shildrick’s work on bioethics elaborates this point relative to the medically different body, as Michael Uebel’s does relative to the body that is different in terms of cultural, racial, and religious difference.

[4] Postmodern horror is a critically contested term; a useful summary of the critical debate surrounding it can be found in Matt Hills’ The Pleasures of Horror.

[5] Barbara Creed’s work in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, for example, was influential in establishing a connection in the horror genre between the female body and monstrosity.

[6]  Deadgirl’s version of the zombie, we suggest, turns back not to Romero’s seminal Living Dead trilogy but to the origins of very early zombie cinema, with its portrayal of zombies rooted in the African and Caribbean diasporas. The connections between the early zombie as a will-less puppet under the control of a powerful master, the history of slavery, and Deadgirl’s aspiring entrepreneurs merits further critical attention.

[7] See Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws for her influential analysis of the Final Girl in teen slasher films.

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