The werewolf, or the lycanthrope as it is sometimes known, is historically male-centric folklore. In fact the very term werewolf is inherently male in its etymological construction. The Old English term “were” literally translates into “adult male human.” While myths of shapeshifting humans were told throughout the Ancient Mediterranean, the werewolf as we know it now is predominately a product of the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity.
Werewolf lore became most popular around the time of the European witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite this link, werewolves remained a phenomenon associated with men. There remain very few records of female werewolves, the most notable exception being an Armenian legend that spoke of women being forced to spend seven years in wolf form as punishment for their sins. While mentions of “werewomen” exist within 16th and 17th century text, many of these instances are simply tales of witches who could transform into wolves, among other animals. In popular culture, one of the first, if not the first, appearance of a female werewolf appeared in Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf in 1896.
As we moved into the age of film during the 20th century, our cultural fascination with the werewolf grew, encouraged not only by pulp fiction but by the films of Universal and Hammer. Curt Siodmak’s famous 1941 film, The Wolf Man is at its heart, the story of a father and a son. It’s fascinated by the patriarchal society in which it was based (something the 2010 remake relied on even more heavily). Exactly twenty years later, Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf saw a male werewolf created through rape, the curse being a result of his sinful conception. Once again, the werewolf was portrayed as a male burden.
This depiction of werewolves continued as horror films modernized and as The Wolf Man gave way to An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. Even the comedic Teen Wolf plays into the father-son dynamics and male empowerment tropes. More recently, young adult fantasy novels and films continued this tradition with Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series and the male dominated wolf pack in Twilight. What these examples serve to show, whether intentional or not, is that transformation, bodily discomfort, and primal urges are all male preoccupations and functions. For centuries our werewolf lore has propagated a lie, one that very few writers and filmmakers have tried to course-correct.
While the oxymoronic werewomen have appeared in film, none had the lasting impact as did the cult classic Ginger Snaps. John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s 2001 film remains just as important now is it was when it was released in 2001. Taking inspiration from Carrie and the rash of werewolf films that proceeded it, Ginger Snaps takes the lore established in supposed male dominance and bleeds all over it.
In its story of two death-obsessed teenage sisters, Brigitte and Ginger, Ginger Snaps uses the werewolf curse as a means to examine the coyly described curse of menstruation and puberty. On the night of her first period, Ginger is attacked by a werewolf, which fittingly begins her uniquely gory, body horror nightmare. Her transformation into both lycanthrope and woman is carefully built, giving adequate space to both transformations and the parallels between the monthly events. The metaphor is overt and fed directly to the audience, in much the same way Diablo Cody did with Ginger Snaps-inspired Jennifer’s Body. But where Ginger Snaps’ lack of subtly is most successful, in a way that subsequent imitators never fully managed, is in the relationship between Ginger and Brigitte.
Their relationship as sisters is no different than best friends, and in typical high-school fashion, Ginger begins to drift apart from her sister as her transformation begins. But first, Walton and Fawcett carefully construct this pain of separation by giving us a foundation for Ginger and Brigitte’s relationship. Beyond the sisters’ morbid and juvenile promise to die together, the film uses its space to show the closeness of their relationship. The girls’ room, featured at the beginning of the film is filled with pictures of them together, notes, and doodles that give us a sense of their relationship, of their shared space. As the film continues this space becomes increasing defined by their distance with locked doors and turned backs replacing the openness that was there before. The room seems to grow larger as the film progresses, punctuating not only the girl’s increasing distance, but their feelings of becoming lost. By the time the film reaches its climax, the sisters’ basement room seems huge and cavernous, the destruction of their final confrontation abolishing everything that made the space habitable and recognizable.
Use of space aside, Ginger and Brigitte’s relationship dynamics are given most of their power by the respective performances of Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins. There’s a lot to be said about the way both leads seem to know their characters inside and out. This allows Ginger and Brigitte to exist as more than high-school clichés. Even at their most morbid, the girls aren’t goth stereotypes. They have distinct personalities and interests that display a wonderful sense of black humor. These personalities don’t change when Ginger becomes a werewolf. She may change into more revealing clothing and take a lustful interest in boys, but she doesn’t become Cher from Clueless. That dark sense of humor is still there, and so is her unpopularity, and glorification as a forbidden sexual object by her male peers. Every aspect of who she was before is amplified, resulting in a playful maliciousness. The same can be said of Brigitte who’s empathetic, curious nature increases and results in someone with the strength not to hide behind her sister. Ginger Snaps uses female friendship and sisterhood to build up its characters and eventually tear them apart so that they can stand revealed on their own. This process is growing up in a nutshell.
Further distinguishing Ginger Snaps from its male-centric werewolf predecessors is that fact that the men in the movie are ancillary, plot-devices, and comic relief. Ginger’s conquest, Jason, becomes cursed with the werewolf virus after sex, but his transformation is used mostly for comedy. Other than a physical outbreak of ache and bouts of looking aggressively foolish, his change to werewolf is trivial, pointing a finger at the milder pubertal changes of adolescent boys. And Sam, the film’s would-be monster slayer, may set Brigitte on her path to find a cure for her sister, but he’s unable to fulfill the duty. It’s Brigitte who finds the cure, and Brigitte who in the end must contend with her sister. And as far as romance goes, Sam is nothing more than a nice guy, opposed to a soulmate for the ages. Even Brigitte and Ginger’s familial relationship is focused squarely on the mother, played with impeccable comic timing by Mimi Rogers. The father, played by John Bourgeois, is insipid, his lack of presence is used for laughs and the establishment of the matriarchal household. After years of being resigned to playing gypsies, love interests, and victims, women are finally allowed to say fuck-all to boys in Ginger Snaps.
The film’s feminist approach is surely why Ginger Snaps has had a lasting appeal within the cult horror circuit. There’s an unavoidable sense of tragedy to the entire proceeding, one that gives the film more weight in retrospect, but it’s also a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This, along with its slightly cheesy ’90s teen flick trappings, and wonderfully practical ’80s horror effects, enabled Ginger Snaps to display the versatility of women in horror and usher in a new millennium for the genre. While the film definitely helped alter the way horror dialogue is written by delivering a bevy of quotable lines, and proved that gallons of red-dyed corn syrup still work better than computer-generated blood, it didn’t wholly change our perception of classic horror archetypes in the monumental way it should have. Perhaps it’s because in horror proper, our classic supernatural figures are becoming scarce, a result of being overexploited in redundant media, and used to repackage the same love triangles in YA novel after YA novel. While recently our horror films have broadened the roles of women, there’s still a relative lack of female relationships explored within the genre. It seems what most filmmakers took away from the film is that women can be contenders without being victims. But too often these women, described in pitches and reviews as “having balls,” are victims of their own lone-wolf narrative, robbed of female friends, sexual relationships, and questions of identity. Ginger Snaps offered us something much greater than women as parallels to male counterparts; it completely took a well-known narrative centuries old, and converted it through femininity. Ginger Snaps cut into the balls of horror, and for the sake of our lore, and the genre, it’s time to keep snipping.