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Heroes and Monsters: When Good Girls Go Bad

There is often a thin line that separates heroes and monsters.

This post will talk about a sub-genre (or more like a sub-sub-genre) of horror that I’ll arbitrarily call “superhero horror” and some of the morals and lessons that we can extract from them.  Actually, there’s no such sub-genre.  It’s just what I see as a kind of subtle motif that often appears in horror stories.

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Superheroes by any other name. The mutants/monsters of ‘Nightbreed.’ (© 20th Century Fox)

There’s often a thin line between what separates heroes and monsters.  If you think about it quite a number of horror/thriller movies are basically superhero stories gone wrong.  To illustrate this point, I’ll briefly talk about a couple of key films that fall under this description.

There’s a lot of other fine movies that would be relevant (The FlyNightbreed, Scanners) but I’ll leave them out here since they don’t have female leads and I want to stay true to Anthony’s own theme of women in horror.

The School for Gifted Youngsters

Carrie (1976) and Firestarter (1984) are both adapted from Stephen King novels which were the progenitors of the horror tale with quasi-superhero elements.  During the early phase of his career King revealed a fascination for psychic powers and children with paranormal abilities.  (The Shining and The Dead Zone being other examples but with male protagonists).

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Danny, one of Stephen King’s gifted child characters. (image: Warner Bros.)

Had they been born in another fictitious world – say, the Marvel Comics universe – Carrie White and Charlie McGee, the protagonists of Carrie and Firestarter, respectively, might have become superheroes. Being mutants, essentially, they might’ve been discovered by and recruited into the X-Men.  After all, Carrie is basically a version of Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl), and Charlie, Pyro or the Human Torch.

Unfortunately, they become monsters instead.

Why?

Well, the fact that they populate a different genre and medium (horror movie vs. superhero comic) with different storytelling agendas isn’t the only, or even the main, factor.

The key factor is torment.

 

“They Laughed at Me”

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“If I concentrate enough…I can move things.” (image: United Artists)

Carrie White is a sensitive and gentle but painfully shy, socially awkward young woman with powerful telekinetic abilities that manifest more dramatically with the onset of her first menstruation (the psychosexual implications of which are more fully explored in the novel but nevertheless powerfully symbolized in the film as well).

Heart-breakingly played by Sissy Spacek, Carrie is a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character.  She’s ceaselessly tormented by her classmates and, at home, psychologically brutalized by her religious fanatic of a mother.

With a little more of the kind of nurturing given to her by a caring teacher, she could become, if not a superhero, at the very least a fine human being.   But, as we all know, she becomes a monster.

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Uh-oh. S**t just got real. (image: United Artists)

Carrie sparked a chain of horror/thriller films based on psychic powers (usually telekinesis or telepathy) such as The Fury, Scanners and another King adaptation, Firestarter.

 

“She’s Just a Little Girl”

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Bullies of a different sort. (image: Universal Studios)

In Firestarter, Charlie McGee’s torment is of a different sort.  It’s more of a political nature.  Both novel and film reflect much of the paranoia and mistrust of the government during the 70s.  And while not really straight horror (it’s more of a sci-fi thriller), it’s close enough.

Although, unlike Carrie, Charlie is raised in a family environment of nurturing and love, she too is tormented and never allowed to feel safe.  Throughout the film, she and her father are constantly on the run from a secret government agency that wants to use her pyrokinetic abilities as a military weapon.

Non-stop running, subsequent kidnapping, intimidation and a crime against her father push Charlie past the breaking point and, like her spiritual ancestor Carrie, she unleashes hell on her hapless tormentors.

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“Get out of here, you bastard! I’ll burn you up! I’ll fry you!” (image: Universal Studios)

 

Girls Gone Wild

Women and girls with paranormal abilities is a popular motif in genre fiction, as is the motif of the ostracized or persecuted protagonist.  This tradition in horror films has continued with more contemporary films like  and Ginger Snaps (2000), Silent Hill (2006) and Let Me In (2010).

These movies are like symbolic morality tales that give literal expression to the saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  Before ass-kicking heroines in action movies became a popular trope, horror movies were there rebelling against limited stereotypes first.

For there to be true diversity of representation, we must not only celebrate positive qualities of women as portrayed in the media (as this blog does by discussing strong, intelligent women in horror films) but acknowledge their negative ones as well.  And the truth is that there are just as many dark versions of the female archetype as there are for the male archetype.

In film noir, the femme fatale archetype suggests that, rather than use violence to get their way, women usually prefer to use indirect, manipulative means.

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The angst-ridden sisters of ‘Ginger Snaps.’ (image: Motion International)

A film like Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, by having its also-tormented heroine turn into a snarling, bloodthirsty werewolf (a horror archetype usually reserved for male characters) overtly suggests that while women may not resort to aggression as often as men do, they are nevertheless quite capable of it.

As the eponymous Ginger drolly observes, at one point: “No one ever thinks chicks do s**t like this… A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door.”   (Incidentally, Ginger Snaps, like its forebear Carrie, also taps into menstruation for psychosexual symbolism.)

The X-Factor

Bringing the superhero element back into the picture, in the Marvel universe we see how mutants are also persecuted and often treated as freaks by the people around them.

The ones that we see turn into superheroes are the ones who had enough intervention by the likes of mentor figures like Charles Xavier with his School for Gifted Youngsters and, nowadays in the Marvel continuity, Wolverine and Kitty Pryde with their Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.

Characters less fortunate, like the ugly, tormented Toad, didn’t receive enough positive nurturing in the face of social and political persecution and ended up channeling their bitterness, rage and hate as villains.  Then there are the borderline cases. Rogue started out as an angry and troubled young villain but, with understanding and acceptance, eventually became a hero.

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Rogue, one of the greatest of X-Men, started out as a villain. (image: Marvel Comics)

Typically, what determines whether a mutant character ends up as a hero or a villain is how much love, mentoring and nurturing they’ve received versus how much torment they’ve received from others for being different.

When comic books like The Uncanny X-Men and its film adaptations (especially the first one and the prequel First Class) are seen side-by-side with horror/thriller films about young people with paranormal powers like Carrie and Firestarter, a moral starts to emerge.

First of all, I interpret depictions of supernatural powers in fantasy and horror symbolically.  True, some of them are nothing more than simple stories about superpowers to be taken literally.  But the best of them always contain deeper, mythical themes that present lessons for living.

Carrie and Firestarter are not just cautionary tales about abused women unleashing literal violence at a level that’s on a par with men.  Harm and destruction aren’t always physical and literal.  Carrie’s mother, for example, is a horribly destructive character and she doesn’t need violence to inflict damage.

Carrie and Charlie’s psychic powers are, rather, allegories for the real-life talents, skills and creativity of gifted but socially awkward and troubled girls.  I’ve known a few of them in my time, especially while working as a teacher.

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Professor Charles Xavier, a man whose love and compassion has turned villains and monsters into heroes. (image: Marvel Comics)

With enough care and nurturing and intervention against bullying and persecution, they can blossom and use their talents in productive and beneficial ways.  But when abused beyond their threshold of tolerance – and if they’re sensitive as they usually are it will be a low threshold – they will, instead, find ways to use their talents and creativity negatively, by inflicting pain on others and perpetuating a negative cycle of suffering.

If you know or ever meet young, impressionable people who seem socially awkward, withdrawn or troubled in some way, be nice.  If you’re in a position to, try to help them somehow. Nurture them in little ways. Show them that you care. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that then, at the very least, just leave them alone.   Don’t take advantage of them.  Don’t try to use them.  Don’t abuse them.   Leave them alone, leave them alone, leave them alone.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.