Movies have been featuring monster girls, whether as literal beasts or as inhuman sociopaths, for decades, from The Bad Seed to The Exorcist to Ginger Snaps. But as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have gained momentum, those characters have become more relevant than ever—and more visible than ever, at least on movie screens. This year and the last in particular have seen a number of releases featuring monstrous young women. Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds and Julia Ducournau’s Raw both found widespread critical success, while features like The Lure, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Wildling, and Tribeca premiere The Dark feature lesser-known violent ladies. Regardless of Rotten Tomatoes score, each of the protagonists in these movies are girls with uncontrollable bloodlust, whether psychological (the sociopaths of Thoroughbreds and The Blackcoat’s Daughter) or physical (the flesh cravers of Wildling and Raw). None of these movies have overtly political plots, but it’s hard to dismiss the social implications of a spate of girls-bite-back films in the era of Trump.
Monster-girl movies are often campy, putting the “black” in “black comedy.” Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, a 2009 Megan Fox–led film that was critically obliterated upon arrival, delights in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s parodic teen-girl quips. Teeth, a 2007 cult hit about a purity pledger with a literal vagina dentata, mocks society’s repression of female sexuality. Still, both films show brutal acts of violence against teenage girls—Jennifer’s Body, which includes the lines, “Nice insult, Hannah Montana. You got any more harsh digs?” also coined the axiom “Hell is a teenage girl.” Likewise, modern successors like Thoroughbreds and The Lure vacillate between humor and disquieting (if less visceral) depictions of male manipulation and objectification.
Monster girls flip the script on social anxiety and show us girls that can walk confidently through the world, unafraid of empty night streets or slow-driving cars. In one of 1996 cult hit The Craft’s most iconic scenes, a coven of powerful teen witches steps off a bus.
“Girls, watch out for those weirdos!” the driver cheerily instructs them. It’s a well-meaning (if irksomely patriarchal) sentiment.
In response, head witch Nancy scoffs. With a sassy tip of her sunglasses, she fires back, “We are the weirdos, mister.”
In a society that’s slowly waking up to the trauma of female adolescence—an experience often colored by unwanted sexual attention and objectification—it can be cathartic to see teen girls lose their shit on film. According to RAINN, females aged 16–19 are four times more likely to face rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. There is a power in fearsomeness when you are a member of one of the most vulnerable demographics in our society. These movies propose alternate universes in which some young women can escape their patriarchal confines by slicing their way out: Monster girls are more worried about how to get away with murder than they are about crossing their legs.
Thoroughbreds’ Lily, for example, is maddened by the constant condescending presence of her wealthy, image-obsessed stepfather, Mark. She eventually gives up her closest relationship in order to eliminate Mark when she frames her best friend for his brutal murder. Both The Lure and Raw center on sister couples who, though unapologetically distracted by bloodthirstiness and sexual voracity, are ultimately devoted to each other. (Raw even depicts an eyebrow-raising woman-on-man sexual assault.) These young women are often—but not always—murdering men, another notable subversion of both horror movies and real life.
Of course, it’s not overtly feminist to depict murderous women on screen, and some filmmakers sell their monster girls short. The Dark, which centers on a Let the Right One In–esque female cannibal, clumsily shoehorns its protagonist into a gratuitous child-rape backstory. The Craft, one of the hottest examples of the monster-girl phenomenon, is really just a morality play about teen-girl bitchiness when you strip away the all the Wicca. The Blackcoat’s Daughter, though unforgettably moody and well-crafted, revels in escaped-psych-ward-killer stereotypes and female mutilation. It’s worth noting that all of these films were made by male writer-directors. No matter how much meaning we’re tempted to load them up with, sometimes monster girls exist in movies just because (male) filmmakers think they look cool. That’s not always a bad thing, but young women can be so much more than kick-ass set dressing and half-baked character sketches.
And while you might be thinking of the multigenerational female monsters that have existed amazingly and abjectly throughout horror history, age matters here. It’s rare to see well-written, complex teenage girls in films regardless of genre, and horror often offers female characters a judgment-free zone in which they can work out their messy emotions. There is a refreshingly honest side to monster girls—even though they might be eating entrails or puking up hair, these young women feel desire, anger, and pain in ways that are taboo for their mainstream counterparts.
Charlie in Ari Aster’s upcoming fright fest Hereditary is a great example. Distributor A24 tries to paint the 13-year-old tomboy as an out-and-out sociopath in its marketing, particularly in the film’s trailer, but although Charlie is malevolently unreadable, she’s hurting just as deeply as the rest of her family. “Who’s gonna take care of me … when you die?” she asks her mother early on in the film, after her grandmother’s funeral. The trailer skews this exchange as totally threatening, but in context these are just the foreboding musings of a scared little girl. Charlie is scary, sure, but she’s also a person with diverse interests and feelings that cinematic girls don’t often get to have.
Monster girls are brimming with unrealized potential, and I’m sure we’re about to see a lot more of them. As director Cory Finley told Vulture of Thoroughbreds’ #MeToo relevance, “Because films are so slow, a movie becomes this time capsule that you’re sending off into the future—hoping that it resonates in the right way—in whatever mysterious culture it will find itself in.” America’s anti–sexual abuse reckoning just sparked late last year, which means we’re likely in for another rush of bloodthirsty female protagonists. And I’m not talking about snappy Megyn Kelly impersonators or walking Ryan Murphy fantasies. I’m talking true-blue female beasts.
Adolescence is chaotic and painful. It’s when we start to become fully aware of our bodies and our sexualities. Hormones spike our emotions, while brain chemistry tanks our impulse control. When you’re a girl, you’ve got all that going on plus the lifelong societal expectation that you conform to misogynist standards of sexiness and a slew of objectifying media that can make you feel dissociated from your own body. It’s no wonder that horror plumbs these depths for maximum scariness. Those period-werewolf metaphors aren’t just coming out of nowhere—I’m frankly surprised I survived my teens without any extra bloodshed.
Movies like Teeth and Jennifer’s Body have achieved cult status after head-scratching debuts, in part because new generations of young women see themselves reflected in those problematic, unhinged characters. I watched Teeth for the first time at a high school sleepover, surrounded by enthralled and repulsed friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if niche flicks like The Lure and Thoroughbreds enjoy a similar fate 10 years down the line—and I can’t wait for the inevitable deluge of #MeToo-inspired monster girls that’s headed our way in the meantime. Until then, I’m content to grab the popcorn and give Teeth another go.