“Hell is a Teenage Girl”: The Horrors of Growing Up

illustration for Hell is a Teenage Girl: The Horrors of Growing Up

“Got a tampon?” asks Jennifer through a mouthful of blood during the climactic face-off between besties in Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s horror-comedy film Jennifer’s Body (2009). She is sporting a bloodied prom dress and a metal rod through her torso, and she still manages a quip about “plugging.” It’s not a bad summation of how it feels to be a teenage girl, even outside of menstruation. Female adolescence is nightmarish. One can only grin and bear it, like flippantly asking for a tampon while bleeding profusely from an abdomen wound.

Pubescent girls live out a body horror movie in real time, undergoing a monstrous transformation of flesh and blood just as the rest of the world is becoming aware of their changing bodies. Desire is twofold: teenage girls encounter external unwanted sexualization of their bodies as well as their own internal carnal urges, paradoxically deemed base by society. It’s a slew of ordeals that they don’t consent to, with the threat of sexual violence ever present. This ambivalence–of being reduced to a sexual body yet being told that sex is bad, of fearing violation yet wanting to experience life uninhibited–is enough to rupture one’s identity. 

Cinema scholar Barbara Creed in her definition of the monstrous-feminine describes its many archetypical faces: archaic mother, monstrous womb, vampire, witch, monstrous mother, castrator, and possessed body. To that list I add the two-faced teenage girl, a variation of the possessed body: both victim and monster, an unconsenting creature in the clutch of coming-of-age and burgeoning sexuality. This face, or body rather, is perfectly personified by two fictional adolescent female characters: Natalie Waite in Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel Hangsaman (1951) and the titular Jennifer Check in Jennifer’s Body (2009). If hell is a teenage girl, as the opening line of the latter declares, then the boundless horror genre, crawling with female monsters, is the voyage through that hellscape. 

The trope of the double, a pillar of the horror genre, represents one’s fragmented personhood, repressed ambivalence, and conflicting moralities. This paradoxical duo of self and other is engendered by female sexuality, which, as genre theorist Stephen Neale asserts, “renders [women] desirable–but also threatening–to men, which constitutes the real problem that horror cinema exists to explore, and which constitutes also and ultimately that which is really monstrous.” In maturation, a girl feels the patriarchal pull of wanting to desire and be desired, as well as fearing sexualization and the repercussions of having sex. It’s a lose-lose scenario. For Natalie, this double is the strange girl “Tony Something” at her college that suddenly manifests as a figment of her imagination (138); Jennifer’s is the succubus demon that possesses her after a ritual sacrifice gone wrong.

Natalie (and her creator Jackson) would probably disavow my monstrous classification, but Natalie is undeniably an outsider spiraling into madness, brutally aware of her transition into adulthood. Hangsaman, focused less on plot and more on the musings of an unreliable narrator, follows our protagonist in three parts: from childhood home, to liberal arts college, to surreal escape-adventure into the woods with her imaginary friend Tony.

While not a blood-and-guts horror like Jennifer’s Body, the novel showcases the psychological terror of existential despondency. Natalie, an intelligent and reserved girl of seventeen, lives inside her head in a world of her creation, plagued by “the poignant searching longings of adolescence” and suicidal ideations (23). Her narrative’s tethers to reality fray over the course of the short novel. As she grows lonelier at school, she becomes more uncertain of her identity–perhaps she is actually a madwoman locked away, a Watalie Naite or a Naitalie Wat, or a waitress or prostitute imagining Natalie, or an old murderer in a detective noir (150-1). Ultimately, what is worse is the “frightful conviction of perhaps being in reality no more than Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold, and unable to brush away the solidity of this world but forced to deal with it as actual and dreary” (151). Real life is more hopeless than anything she could have dreamed up. She begins writing in her diary to an idealized version of herself: “Dearest darling Natalie–you are the best, and they will know it someday…and they will be afraid of you” (71). Cracks begin to appear in her character until finally she breaks. 

Enter the culmination of her internal turmoil: Tony, a character androgynously named and untroubled in the face of isolation and danger. Tony’s materialization illustrates Natalie’s peaking alterity and desire to be someone else. Someone spontaneous who ignores mean girls in school and talks back to threatening men in diners, who “doesn’t care whether she sits on the steps of people who don’t invite her” (148). Someone who is able to deal with the traumas of growing up as a girl. Though decisive and deceivingly mature herself, Tony’s appearance reflects how ambivalent and apprehensive Natalie is as she stands on the precipice of adulthood. In an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov, Jackson identified this ambivalence as the misunderstood novel’s central theme: “I am writing about ambivalence of the spirit and the mind, not the sex…Then it is fear itself, fear of self that I am writing about…fear and guilt and their destruction of identity.” It is this conflict surrounding sex that causes Natalie’s splintering of self. 

Though her novels are largely lacking in sex, and she herself denied it as a subject matter, Jackson did write about sexuality, albeit in veiled language. Natalie’s father asks at the start of the novel, “Daughter mine, has anyone yet corrupted you?” ominously hinting at future events and the general opinion on sex at the time (33). At school, she has a slight crush on her English professor, who is married to a pregnant housewife not much older than Natalie (another omen of what could become of her). And at the start of the book, she ponders if “this was going to be a day she would remember and look back upon … the day when that happened,” insinuating her anticipation of losing her virginity (37). Sex, and inextricably sexual danger, is the subtext of Hangsaman, whereas it’s simply the overt text in Jennifer’s Body

For Jennifer, unlike Natalie, sex is power, or so she wants to believe. Hot cheerleader archetype to the point of caricature, Jennifer drags her childhood best friend Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki to a small-town bar to see indie-rock band Low Shoulder. “They’re just boys. Morsels. We have all the power,” Jennifer tells Needy in reference to the eyeliner-clad band members, who in turn ponder Jennifer’s virginity status amongst themselves and of whom Needy is rightfully wary.  

When the venue bursts into flames mid-show, the two are separated as the band lures Jennifer into their van, leaving Needy transfixed: “I watched her get into that van and I knew something awful was going to happen.” Later that night, Jennifer appears at Needy’s, bloodied and vomiting black goo, grotesquely crouched on the kitchen floor in a mini skirt. And in the days that follow, she is hotter than ever, seducing and then ravaging the boys of Devil’s Kettle. And I mean literally consuming: with the demonic double newly possessing her, Jennifer must cannibalize to regenerate her power (i.e., clear skin, flawless hair, superhuman strength). 

When Jennifer doesn’t eat, she grows weak, vacillating between feeling “scrumptious,” like “a god,” and feeling drained, like “one of the normal girls,” stuck in a cycle not dissimilar to menstruation (“Are you PMSing?” Needy asks her when she hasn’t fed). Jennifer is split in two, like Natalie, demon versus girl, and though her new demeanor isn’t inconsistent with how she acted pre-possession, she is now at the whims of her hunger. Her sexuality is a weapon, but she cannot seem to figure out if it’s aimed at the boys she’s killing or herself. Jennifer’s cannibalistic sexcapades tear apart the town’s families and sense of normalcy, making her sexuality as taboo as it is titillating. 

More taboo even than female sexuality is queer sexuality. The relationship between Natalie and Tony, even if imagined, is hard to describe as strictly platonic, with them sleeping in the same bed and running away together. Similarly, Jennifer and Needy’s closeness is coded as more-than-friends (“lesbigay,” as one classmate puts it); they eventually kiss, and it’s during this intimate scene that Jennifer finally divulges to her friend what happened that night after the fire. Low Shoulder, in their endeavor toward commercial fame, attempt to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan, but with her being a nonvirgin and the ritual requiring a virgin, it goes awry and she instead becomes possessed. 

This incident can be unambiguously be read as sexual assault, the threat of which burdens all young girls and threads through both of these texts. Needy describes Low Shoulder’s tour vehicle as a “white molester van”; Jennifer outright asks if they’re rapists. They take her to the woods, tie her down, and repeatedly stab her as she pleads with them to stop. This assault fragments Jennifer and makes a monster of her. Of course, nobody believes Needy’s assertions of the band’s exploitations, or Jennifer’s possession, and she must avenge Jennifer alone. As the credits roll, we see that Needy has killed the members of Low Shoulder, effectively establishing Jennifer’s Body as a rape revenge film. Jennifer also seeks vengeance against all men that want her, not just her abusers, and it is her demonic powers that allow her to do so. 

Natalie’s assault is more inferred than Jennifer’s, but still unmistakable. At the end of the novel’s first part, she is lured into the woods, just as Jennifer was, by a strange older man at her family’s party: “I used to play here when I was a child,” she tells the man, and suddenly she realizes “the danger is here, in here, as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness” (42). It is no longer the innocent playground of her youth. “Is he going to touch me,” she thinks, sickened (43). Then black. And the next day, she wakes to the mantra all too familiar to victims of assault: “I will not think about it, it doesn’t matter…I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened” (43). It is devastating even if unspoken and informs Natalie’s depression throughout her first semester. 

In the book’s final scene, Natalie returns to a forest, a setting that mirrors the one where she was assaulted, persuaded by Tony to take a bus miles away from campus. In returning to a spot that symbolizes her trauma, she is able to face her fears. In the dark, she loses Tony–she calls to her but doesn’t get an answer. “She had defeated her own enemy”: her double, her internal ambivalence and death wish in the face of growing up (215). The scene echoes that first traumatic event but ends differently, with Natalie safely emerging from the woods, at last whole again.

Natalie hitchhikes home with an older couple who affirm that the outward enemy of sexual danger has not been totally overcome: “Can’t ever tell what’ll happen to a girl alone along there,” warns the man (216). The patriarchal evil is not defeated but it is at least known (as was the mission of the #MeToo movement). But it is Natalie who is forced to change, not the world around her, and she reenters her college town “now alone, and grown-up, and powerful, and not at all afraid” (218). She has reached adulthood and has chosen to continue on, as treacherous as she has found it can be. 

Jennifer never gets to quite come of age and is instead slain by Needy with a box knife to the heart. She is defeated to stop the killings, as revenge for killing Needy’s boyfriend, and subtextually for her promiscuity, for trespassing the boundaries enforced onto teenage girls’ behavior–be desirable but not too desirous lest you become monstrous. In Jennifer’s stead, Needy’s climactic coming-of-age marks the reconciliation of self, an acceptance of the disparate parts of herself in a society that views women as polarized ends of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. 

“I don’t know who Needy Lesnicki is anymore. I’m a different person now,” she declares, now grown-up and powerful like Natalie. In the fight with Jennifer, Needy is bitten and absorbs some of her powers (as well as her transgressions, as she is sent off to an institution presumably for Jennifer’s crimes in addition to her own). The double has been defeated but the internal conflict lingers. In the end, however, the monstrous part of Needy is embraced, an amendment to horror movies like The Exorcist in which traditional order is restored. Though Jennifer does not make it past eighteen, she is survived by her best friend who carries a part of her into maturation, just as Natalie carries a part of Tony with her out of the woods. It is with these multitudes and frictions that they are complete, like a broken teacup repaired with gold lacquer. Two become one, the gap between doubles closes, and we reach catharsis. All the feelings brought on by girlhood and patriarchal pressures–guilt, fear, shame, rage, lust–are not so much exorcized from the girl in adulthood but rather acknowledged and accepted, grisly mess and all.

Kendall Geisel is the Production Assistant at the nonprofit and environmental publisher Island Press, as well as a graduate from The George Washington University with a BA in English. She lives in Washington, DC, with roommate and cat Ricky. You can find her reading, at a farmer’s market, or at a concert. Her favorite horror movies are Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jennifer’s Body.

Instagram: kgeisel_