"Adolescence is like becoming a monster."
I had not yet heard this quote from director John Fawcett before my first viewing of Ginger Snaps. If I had, I might have been better prepared to face the beast that followed. Within the first five minutes of Fawcett's film, we are introduced to a dungeon-like basement bedroom and its morbid residents. Within their room's gloomy confines, isolated from suburban Canada, teenage sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) act out dark fantasies. Our focus first turns to Ginger's arm as she toys with a large knife near her wrist. Grunting with angst, she concludes, "Wrists are for girls. I'm slitting my throat."
I immediately felt as though I had ventured too deep. What gothic film underground had I stepped into? Was this story going to prove too dark for comfort? In time, I learned I was not the first to question the film based on its tough-as-nails visage, and I likely wouldn't be the last. But for those who remain seated and strapped in, as I did, the story that follows proves so poignant, witty, and unique that it is, in many ways, beyond conventional genre profiling. Part creature feature, part coming-of-age drama, and part dark comedy, Ginger Snaps is a film that must be seen to be believed.
As children, outcast siblings Ginger and Brigitte established a blood pact: "Out by sixteen or dead in this scene, but together forever. United against life as we know it." Ginger and Brigitte planned to be symbolically bonded and immortalized as a unit by committing ritual suicide before adulthood, thus becoming legends in their town of objectively monotonous societal norms. Not quite "goth" and certainly not burnouts, the Fitzgerald sisters do not associate or identify with anyone besides each other.
Following a slideshow of the sisters' staged suicide and deadly accident simulations, ironically titled "Life in Bailey Downs," we are formally introduced to the sisters' outside world. Bailey Downs is an average middle-class suburb, with a run-of-the-mill high school, populated by an average assortment of teenage characters. The systemic hierarchies are familiar to any teen movie, with cliques of pampered popular girls, hormonal jocks, clean-cut administration staff, and even one grungy drug dealer. However, not everything is copacetic in Bailey Downs as many slaughtered neighborhood pets appear across town.
Stumbling across a mutilated dog's warm remains, a queasy Brigitte notices fresh blood streaked across Ginger's leg. However, this is human blood. Ginger has been hit with "The Curse." Her first period is three years late. Already dreading the perceived inevitability and implications of social changes that may follow, the girls are blindsided by an additional predator. Ginger's transformation sends out a blood-scented beacon for "The Beast of Bailey Downs" – the hulking male wolf responsible for the animal murders. Ginger is next to be hunted down in a gruesome and vicious attack.
The Fitzgeralds survive the encounter, but their world is turned upside down. The events that follow are pierced with unusual hair growth, aches and pains, mood swings, and overwhelming desires. While the sisters' overeager mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers), is thrilled about Ginger's journey to womanhood, Brigitte suspects this particular "curse" may entail more than nature can explain. With worsening symptoms, and a full moon set to occur October 30, the race is on to stop Ginger from having a genuinely hair-raising Halloween.
THE FIRST PHASE
Conceived by Fawcett and screenwriter Karen Walton, the idea for Ginger Snaps arose from the desire to tell an unconventional horror story. Fawcett explains how he hoped to create a body horror transformation horror film, "with two central characters that I hadn't seen before, or hadn't seen in a movie like this. I liked the idea of these two inseparable sisters that had a bond that surpassed any kind of normal sister bond." Walton welcomed the opportunity to "draw real characters who had real problems that were human and based on relationships. And the horror element became exactly that: the nightmare of figuring out who you are, and who it is that you love."
As described in professor Ernest Mathijs' textbook John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps: "Fawcett very much wanted Ginger Snaps to look like a full-fledged horror movie. At the same time, he, with Walton, intended to create a unique space for the dramatic center of the story, namely, the tragedy of the dissolution of loyalty in the sisters' bond. ... In order to achieve this, Fawcett created two stylistic streams, one with the aim of producing ingenious horror, and the other designed to highlight the melodrama of the sisters' suffering."
On the horror side, Fawcett often cites David Cronenberg films' bodily horror themes, such as 1986's The Fly, and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) as inspirations. When preparing for production with actors Katharine Isabelle (Ginger) and Emily Perkins (Brigitte), Fawcett recommended the films Heavenly Creatures (1994); Sister, My Sister (1994); and Girl, Interrupted (1999) for tonal comparison. According to Fawcett, Heavenly Creatures, in particular, was a primary creative inspiration for the characters of Ginger Snaps.
The themes of puberty, menstruation, and budding sexuality had been explored in the horror genre before Ginger Snaps, examples including Carrie (1976), The Company of Wolves (1984), and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). Writer and director Axelle Carolyn (Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) noted one particularly poignant element that makes Ginger Snaps unique among contemporaries. "Ginger Snaps is very good with showing that really awkward stage of being a teenager... dressing in strange ways, and wanting to be cool. I feel like that's one of the few films where I can find that very clearly."
A CHANGING WORLD
Cameras were finally set to roll on Ginger Snaps beginning October 1999, more than three years after Karen Walton completed a July 1996 draft of the screenplay. Unfortunately, an unexpected and heartbreaking chapter of history began, with shocking events unfolding in 1999 that would horrify and change the world. On April 20, two teenage students in Littleton, Colorado, plotted and executed a deadly terrorist attack involving students and teachers at Columbine High School. Eight days later, a teen in Taber, Alberta, Canada, opened fire at W.R. Myers High School, killing one student and injuring another.
With at least two countries mourning and reeling from tragedies in April of 1999, the notion of prevention fueled conversations. The events of the year would forever change life as we know it. Discussions in Canada focused on evaluating students' mental health and increasing vigilance for future threat assessments. Questions regarding the influence of violent movies and video games on young people also began to spread worldwide. It was during this time that Ginger Snaps happened to be in the heat of pre-production.
In June 1999, six casting directors in the Toronto area anonymously announced to the media that they planned to boycott Ginger Snaps. Concerns swirled around horror films featuring teenage murder and related violence, such as the "slasher" subgenre in which Ginger Snaps was inaccurately grouped. To popular opinion, one particularly alarming element of Ginger Snaps' production stemmed from partial funding by Telefilm Canada and The Canadian Television Fund, two Canadian government programs designed to stimulate entertainment production.
Two predominant arguments remained stacked against moving forward with the production of Ginger Snaps. The first was the questionable existence of violent "teen horror flicks" in a changing world. The second was government funding being allocated to what was often dismissed as a superficial werewolf film (as opposed to the more commonly funded art films). These arguments raised during the casting process also came into consideration when scouting for filming locations, when the Toronto school district board prohibited Ginger Snaps from filming on their school properties. The high-profile publicity gave the filmmaking team a platform to publicly highlight what makes the film unique to its benefit.
Telefilm's director of operations defended the decision to fund Ginger Snaps, sharing his opinion that the film portrays "a parody of violence, cartoon-like. This is about young angst-ridden suburban teens. It's a feminist coming-of-age film... and not by any stretch of the imagination exploitative." Producer Karen Lee Hall further clarified that the film is "not a spoof," and is a work which "discusses female rage, over things like being called a slut." A joint statement issued by writer Walton, director Fawcett, and producers Hall and Steven Hoban best summarized Ginger Snaps as "a coming-of-age story that utilizes the werewolf myth as a metaphor for the universal hardships faced by teenagers on the verge of adulthood."
While Ginger and Brigitte's characters are prone to dark, heavy fantasies and equally dark, heavy clothing, it is important to note that their core personality traits and motivations are not aligned with real-life psychopaths in question. TIME Magazine cites of the Columbine killers: "It used to be said that living well is the best revenge; for these two, it was to kill and die in spectacular fashion." While there is dialogue in Ginger Snaps that implies a hypothetical interest in harming popular student Trina (Danielle Hampton), the sisters' primary antagonist, the Fitzgeralds do not plot mass destruction or bodily harm toward anyone but themselves. Their grandiose exit plan will be discussed and analyzed at a later point in this article.
In addition to statements issued by the production team explaining how Ginger Snaps would tell important stories, some of the critical reports demonstrated a gender bias similar to those shown in the film itself. Per Mathijs, "Walton was described as 'a self-assured ingénue' and 'nocturnal vamp' with 'red hair and big teeth'... whose stories are fueled by 'fantastic and shocking events.' None of the male crew... received such commentary. For instance, Fawcett, who stayed largely invisible during the controversy, was prefaced only as 'talented' and 'impressive,' and press reports kept him out of shot."
Such reporting only helped to further emphasize precisely why a film like Ginger Snaps should be made, ready to bite with commentary on sexism and stereotypes. As told by Ginger, upon wondering if the sisters would be deemed suspects in a missing person case: "No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this. Trust me, a girl can only be a slut, bitch, tease, or the virgin next door. We'll just coast on how the world works." The commentary would prove a hit with critics, including Salon proclaiming in October 2001 that Ginger Snaps is "the smartest and funniest scary movie in a long time—and a true feminist horror film."
Ginger Snaps also utilizes a healthy dose of humor within its characters and scenarios. Tongue-in-cheek dialogue referencing "Hollywood" werewolf myths and social cliches are appropriately sprinkled throughout, yet never appear overbearing or outwardly comedic. As Hall mentioned, the overall tone is far from spoof-like, unlike Scary Movie or even The Cabin in the Woods, while still remaining consistently clever and respectful toward the lycanthrope story's inherent irony. Mathijs summarizes, "With a werewolf unlike any other, strong feminist themes, an address to Canadian cultural identity, Gothic appeal, and a disproportionate international fan following, Ginger Snaps is best approached as a cult film: ambiguous in its anatomy and fractured in its receptions, a film of multitudes."
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
I sat down to discuss Ginger Snaps with Canadian sculptor and special effects makeup artist Caitlin Heggie, whose work has captured the attention of director Fawcett and star Katharine Isabelle. Heggie received praise for her skilled adaptation of the Fitzgeralds' morbid "Life in Bailey Downs" school project, citing Ginger Snaps as one of her favorite films. "It's a horror movie with bite, but it is also a celebration of kick-ass females!" she remarks. "The film's edgy tone and humor complement the strong focus of character relationships and dynamics, allowing the audience to see the monster's human side by being witness to Ginger's transition from sister to killer, and Brigitte's fight to save her."
Considering the October time frame, Ginger Snaps also evokes yesteryear's Halloween spirit, perhaps especially noticeable to individuals who grew up experiencing autumn in a small town. "Any movie set around Halloween is a treat, so the fact Ginger Snaps is literally a countdown to the full moon of the night before October 31 is perfect," says Heggie. "Inside the school, the retro plastic jack-o'-lanterns weighing down bundles of black and orange balloons, and streamers clinging to the walls, are nostalgic of the times. Let's not forget Pamela's wacky witch sweat top and her dangly pumpkin earrings either!"
Heggie first discovered Ginger Snaps on television, during the horror-centric "Friday Frightmare" block of programming on Canada's Space channel. "The opening sequence was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was raw, and its morbid tone set it apart from other horror movies that I'd seen up to that point," recalls Heggie. Even before creating her tribute project, Heggie's connection with Ginger Snaps was personal. "I grew up in a suburban town, north of Toronto, less than an hour away from the actual filming locations. The street Ginger and Brigitte lived on could have been my street. Even the 'Life' brand feminine hygiene products lining the pharmacy scene's shelves scream 'Shoppers Drug Mart' to Canadians."
Heggie's personal connection was strengthened by the relatable themes of companionship and isolation. "I discovered Ginger Snaps at a time when someone close to me stepped out of my life, leaving me feeling lost and without anyone to look up to. Ginger and Brigitte's bond was something I was drawn to and their unwavering sense of originality. I was one of the 'weird kids' in school and often felt like an outsider." With a complex combination of themes and storylines reflecting reality, Fawcett and Walton's unconventional horror story continues to succeed in allowing viewers to find personal connections therein.
The Los Angeles Ginger Snaps 20th-anniversary screening I attended occurred only a few weeks after losing a friend and mentor to suicide. I wondered, very reasonably, why I would or even should be spending my time with a movie like Ginger Snaps under the circumstances. I began to revisit the topics and concerns raised by early pre-production critics. I also correctly assumed that the all-too-familiar opening sequence would now take on an even more upsetting hilt for me, as it did. However, it was through this screening that an additional aspect became clear to my interpretation: the film's anti-suicide resolve.
From early drafts of the story onward, Brigitte has been the one to question and second guess the motivation behind Ginger's brash suicidal tendencies and "the pact." As explained by Walton's 1996 Brigitte, "If we failed to get a life by Ginger's sixteenth birthday? We were s'posed to gas ourselves in the garage. For smart girls, we could be pretty dumb. We prob'ly never woulda done it, but we seemed to need a deadline."
The sisters' frustrations with their lives can best be summed up with two dialogue lines, both written to occur after Ginger gets her period. The first line is part of Brigitte's narration in the mostly unused 1996 draft, upon hearing that her period might be next: "Here's a dirty word. Inevitability. That fate fully intended us to be typical in any way, sooner or later, was so insulting." The next example line is from the finished film, spoken by Ginger moments after her period: "God... I mean... kill yourself to be different, and your own body screws you." It is through those lines that the sisters' fears and motivations become more apparent.
Inevitability is a major theme in Ginger Snaps, more specifically, fear of the inevitable. The film presents multiple viewpoints to make you think about how you handle inevitability and the control you have over certain life elements. This applies to real-life puberty as much as it applies to the werewolf curse in the story. Even though everyone goes through puberty, each individual has the control and choice of handling the desires and urges that come with the change. Writing on Ginger Snaps, Canadian film critic Katherine Monk observes: "One of the most frightening things for the control-freak Canadian psyche to deal with is that sex equals a complete lack of control." It could be said that Ginger and Brigitte's fear of losing control over their lives during the inevitable transition to adulthood is a theme that bleeds through many aspects of the film.
For additional context, the 1996 draft includes backstory information for Ginger and Brigitte's suburban parents, which was not presented in the final film. Within the Fitzgerald household, "A rogue's gallery on the wall depicts Henry and Pamela's transformation over the years from angry young Ban The Bomb-types into middle-class mundane." It is probable to assume that the Fitzgerald sisters recognize the transition their parents underwent, leaving behind the counterculture lifestyle upon becoming adults. This loss of former personalities may be another perceived inevitability associated with becoming an adult to the sisters.
Walton confirms that the concept of nonconformity, and taking control against the perceived inevitability of becoming grown-up suburbanites, is a significant aspect of the "Life in Bailey Downs" death project. She explains, "they're all done in classic suburban settings, deliberately using all of the paraphernalia of suburban life. The lawnmowers and the deep freezer that mom has in the basement for the extra beef. It was intended to give you a sense of disruption in those environments—where we all grew up. It was about taking that picture postcard suburban environment and messing it up completely. The lawns are cut, the house is set up, everything's lovely. We wanted to undermine that right away."
Continuing the theme of control, Mathijs observes instances in which the sisters' visual style "explicitly references goth subculture," including what he describes as "resistance to progress." Progress, to the sisters, encompasses surrendering to adulthood and its social implications; this includes the aforementioned possible loss of familiar personality traits and preferences along the way. Their resistance to progress is also reflected in their wardrobe choices, which often have full-length skirts, and always avoid skimpy attire—likely to avoid unwanted sexual attention. However, when Ginger begins to realize that one way she can wield control over her life is by harnessing her sexuality for attention, the sisters' bond begins to break.
I believe Justine Smith, writing for Cleo: A Journal of Film and Feminism, cracked the case very effectively:
"As the two discuss their suicide, Brigitte expresses doubts. She is afraid that when they discover her body, they will laugh at her... but Ginger passionately argues that the witnesses to their death will be in 'awe.' This moment serves a dual purpose of suggesting Ginger's power in the sister's relationship and, more crucially, that she very much cares what others think of her. Her reason for suicide is not to be with Brigitte forever but to express to society the control she has over her body and image." Throughout the story, Ginger becomes "aware of the boys in her class and has begun reveling in the newfound attention. Ginger is not afraid of being normal so much as she is afraid of being a nobody."
Ginger's longing for control carries over to her relationship with Brigitte. While their bond appears mutually appreciative on the surface, and steeped in similar outlooks, Ginger's lifelong dominant influence over Brigitte is apparent. Nevertheless, the sisters care about each other, since they are (in their opinion) all each other has... and one thing they can control. In the 1996 draft, during the aftermath of the initial wolf attack, Brigitte and Ginger both express feeling an unprecedented fear that Ginger may die. This exchange reflects their fear of separation, fear of death, and fear of their bond being broken by means out of their control. Salon observes, "Starting with nihilistic teenage fantasies, Ginger Snaps moves Ginger and Brigitte to a place where they have to confront the shock of real violence and real death."
When separated by the curse, Brigitte legitimately wants to save her sister. It becomes clear that it is too late, now that Ginger has embraced her overwhelming animal instincts. Ginger refuses to follow Brigitte to a cure, flaunting how much she enjoys her new bloodthirsty life. She draws a horrifying comparison between the feeling of giving in to her bloodlust and the experience of touching herself for pleasure, specifically citing a familiar sense of control: "You know every move, right on the fucking dot." She also insists that Brigitte join her, once again insinuating their bond should be strengthened by justifying Ginger's bad choices.
This way, Ginger will have succeeded in controlling Brigitte yet again. When Brigitte refuses, Ginger vows to sever their bond forever. "I said I would die for you," snaps Ginger. "No. You said you'd die with me. 'Cause you had nothing better to do," clarifies Brigitte. The only way Brigitte can eventually lead Ginger to a cure is by tricking Ginger into thinking Brigitte will continue the bond by infecting herself with The Curse, thus establishing a new bond thriving on bad choices. Unfortunately, the plan backfires in multiple ways, placing Brigitte in a life or death situation—with the love for her sister hanging in the balance.
In these moments, Brigitte regains control of her own life, realizing death was never a way to strengthen their bond. She is faced with a choice—to inevitably become what her sister became, or exercise control to stay alive. She cries out to Ginger, "I'm not dying in this room with you! I'm not dying!" As she surveys their dungeon wall of simulated suicide photos, a tear runs down her cheek. Time wasted romanticizing death—a sister who destroyed herself in the search for control. A loving relationship denied, never given a chance to grow and change. It is far too late for Ginger. So much time wasted.
During the 20th-anniversary screening, I found myself crying in the theater. To my relief, I could also hear the woman seated next to me sniffling. As for the rest of the audience, I eagerly anticipated the chance to witness their reactions when the house lights returned to the theater. To my surprise, there was no applause. No discussion. The faces appeared stunned, silent, and deep in thought. Not a word was spoken as the crowd of mostly first-timers shuffled out in unison.
Ginger Snaps continues to leave audiences speechless.