Lunatics and Riot Grrrls: How “Ginger Snaps” Reclaimed the Feminine Power of the Werewolf

Few monsters have as strong of a cinematic tradition as the werewolf. Nearly as soon as the first silent films were made, the werewolves appeared in them. Though these films were inspired by both mythological folklore and accounts of “real” werewolves, the movies seem to have largely ignored the fact that in these old tales, lycanthropy affected both men and women. Ginger Snaps not only aims for a bit of gender equality amongst these shapeshifters, but it does so by pointing at the obvious female markers within werewolf mythology.

Stories of werewolves themselves go as far back as Christianity. Though shapeshifters exist in nearly every culture’s heritage, what we consider modern depiction of werewolves has its roots in the late Middle Ages to early Modern Era. Reports of werewolf attacks can be found in court records in Belarus and France as far back as the 11th century. The transformation from man into wolf and attacking other humans is consistent in these reports, but the context of the transformation varies greatly in this lore. Sometimes the change into the beast is permanent, sometimes it is temporary. Sometimes it is to do the devil’s bidding, sometimes it is a punishment from the devil. There are many accounts and tales of all of these various incarnations of werewolves. Even though the mythology often mirrors that of witchcraft in certain areas, the lycanthropy seems to affect both men and women equally. It was not until the twentieth century, and Hollywood, that the mythology of werewolves became cemented in one set of specific rules and regulations.

Across films in many decades we see the consistency of this newly formed werewolf lore. The Wolf Man (1941) shows us some of the earlier roots in this cinematic version of the werewolf. This is by no means the first depiction of a werewolf on screen – that is assumed to be the lost film The Werewolf from 1913 – but it is one of the most iconic and still watched versions available. Lon Chaney Jr. stars in The Wolf Man as Larry Talbot. This boisterous American returns to his ancestral home in Wales after his brother’s death, only to be attacked by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi) one night. Larry then begins turning into a bloodthirsty wolf at night, and wakes up with no real memory of his nightly attacks. The moon figures prominently in the “gypsy” lore surrounding the werewolf attacks, however it is not exclusively limited to a full moon for transfiguration. Silver being something that can stop the wolf does appear here as well, but we have yet to encounter silver bullets as the lone material for taking out a werewolf.

Universal Studios went on to become the leading movie studio producing monster movies in the following decades, and cemented many definitions of cinematic horror mythology in these films. The legacy of the stereotypically caped Dracula, or the lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster come from Universal not only producing films with these characters, but repeatedly showing only one possibly iteration of these monsters. Much of what we consider to be horror canon comes from these films.

By the time we arrived in the 1980s, horror franchises that relied on these cinematic fluencies began emerging. This is the era when the “rules” of monsters were so well known that films could be formed around that common knowledge, for instance, that werewolves could be killed by silver bullets, only emerged during a full moon, and were always portrayed as men. Both An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Monster Squad (1987) rely heavily on audience fluency of the legacy of Universal Monsters and their accompanying standardization.

Ginger Snaps’s release in 2000 seems to have perfect timing. It came long after werewolf lore became established in our cinematic language, but it was also released in a very different social environment, deep into our culture’s engagement in third wave feminism and the Riot Grrrl punk movement, which meant it was in a good position these bring these werewolf horror traditions into a strictly female space.

The film itself is really about sisters. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are two incredibly close sisters, and elective social outcasts. They would rather spend their free time taking photos of their hypothetical dramatic death scenes and avoiding boys than have to be subjected to socializing with their peers. In addition to the self-inflicted loner status setting them apart from their classmates, neither of the girls have gotten their period yet. They are 15 and 16 years old, so this biological delay is an oddity, but not nearly the oddest thing about them.

One night, on a full moon, Ginger gets her first period and is bitten by a wolf. The correlation between menstruation and the lunar cycle is well established in both pop culture and mythology, and that line is drawn again here in Ginger Snaps, with more monstrous connotations. Ginger has become a woman but she has also become part wolf in the process.

The particular version of werewolf mythology in Ginger Snaps largely follows the twentieth century’s popular, cinematic version of lycanthropy, but in women these changes take on different connotations. Ginger is suddenly interested in boys. Rather than letting these boys come to her, she aggressively pursues them and shows a clear appetite for men. This appetite can be interpreted as both her sexual awakening, now that she has fully gone through puberty, but it is also the werewolf’s appetite for blood and flesh to consume for energy.

Ginger Snaps’s fixation with blood is also given a feminine angle as it is shown as a powerful symbol for Ginger’s maturity into her womanhood. The film does not shy away from showing her menstrual blood running down her thigh, nor does it avoid showing the blood of her victims (human and animal alike). Again, this direct connection between blood, feminine energy, and werewolves is unique to Ginger Snaps as nearly all previous werewolf films had men exclusively as the monsters.

Ginger is a unique werewolf in that she is not played as the sad victim of a curse. She seems to revel in her new source of power and sexual desire. She has become the next evolution of herself, and she has more autonomy than ever before. This subversion of the victimhood of werewolves is one way that Ginger Snaps establishes itself within the realm of the third wave of feminism. Ginger is not passive, she is active and she has desires just like all the teenage boys her age. This reclamation of the werewolf curse on her own terms sets a new president for female werewolves as liberated creatures.

With modern werewolves being tied to blood and the moon cycle, it is a wonder that they had been portrayed as almost exclusively men in film for nearly 100 years. These characteristics of werewolves lend themselves naturally to powerful women, which is finally explored on screen by the feminist and feminine agenda in Ginger Snaps.

Author’s note: For additional reading about horror, you may want to check out The Monster Show by David Skal and The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula by Alexandra West.

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Cleveland with two black cats. She wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and is a writer for Birth.Movies.Death, High Def Digest, and Rue Morgue Magazine.

Independent Film Festival Boston • April 24 – May 1, 2019
Deirdre Crimmins Written by: