‘Fear Street’ and the Hell of Being a Teenage Girl in Horror Cinema

From right, Kiana Madeira as Deena and Oliva Scott Welch as Sam Fraser in Fear Street. The girls crouch beside a filing cabinet in a darkened room, hiding. Their expressions are fearful. Courtesy of Netflix .

A bloody fun romp of a trilogy, Netflix’s Fear Street is packed with nostalgia, tributes to classic horror flicks and campy antics. It also happens to centre on romantic, familial and platonic love between women in each section, spanning three eras: 1994, 1978 and 1666. Using these relationships to ground the series in the tradition of Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, it fully embodies the terror of adolescence. 

Young women, usually quick-witted virgins, found a place in 1970s and ‘80s slasher films as sole survivors of a masked killer’s rampage, with Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) providing the blueprint. Dubbed the “Final Girl” by critic Carol J. Clover, these characters do the impossible and take down the slayer. Wes Craven’s 1996 Scream features heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the first non-virgin Final Girl of the subgenre. Craven’s iconic flick breaks apart tropes and recycles them into something new, setting the tone for the next two decades of slasher films. 

Similarly, director Leigh Janiak subverts genre expectations to flesh out Fear Street’s cast of characters. The trilogy does this, in part, by honing in on relationships, particularly ones between women. Set in the fictional “cursed” town of Shadyside, 1994 sees teenager Deena (Kiana Madeira) attempting to save her not-so-ex girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) from ghostly witch Sarah Fier. The first film also lays out the rivalry between Shadysiders and Sunnyvalers. Where Shadyside is devastated by violent crime, Sunnyvale is wealthy and thriving. Fier is the rumoured reason for the schism, but her true role – revealed in1666 – is not so cut and dry. 

As Janiak told The Wrap: ​​“We basically created a mythology around this idea that everyone in Shadyside feels other for some reason. And because of that, we were able to give our characters a personality arc and backstory that usually isn’t given to protagonists in horror movies.”

From left, Rehwald as Kate, Fred Hechnger as Simon and Madeira as Deena. They are crouching in a dark forest: Kate holding a large flashlight. Courtesy of Netflix.

The dichotomy boils down to the haves and the haves not, though the series forgoes deeper analysis of class struggle. That isn’t unlike other slasher movies, most of which allude broadly to the fracturing of suburbia. But its execution is decidedly in the same vein of Stephen King’s It: a group of friends banding together to kill an evil entity while facing their own personal demons at home. At least, that’s the case in Fear Street’s first instalment, also heavily reminiscent of Scream (Maya Hawke even pulls a Drew Barrymore!).

The side characters are likeable and fun, but not explored to their full potential. There’s Simon (Fred Hechinger), a drug-dealer who acts as comedic relief; and Kate (Julia Rehwald), head cheerleader, valedictorian and Deena’s best friend. Rehwald is a joy to watch, stealing almost every scene she’s in. If this trilogy was instead a TV series, the friends could have perhaps been plumbed for more depth. Deena’s geeky brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is the exception as he deftly plays the part of the character who believes in the curse from the get-go. Despite its retro settings, soundtracks and costuming, the trilogy has the same clean, glossy look found in most Netflix originals.

Queer characters, much less romances, in slashers are few. Even rarer? Deena and Sam make it out alive and in love. Their romance is full of run-away-with-me idealism, even in the face of imminent danger. And, perhaps most importantly, their queerness isn’t the reason for the horror. It simply exists inside of it. They’re allowed to be messy and full of angst. Deena, a scrappy band geek, and Sam, a closeted cheerleader, give viewers a rarity in horror cinema: a lesbian couple who damn the odds and do not exit the trilogy as tragic footnotes. Between the brutal kills, Fear Street levies dark comedy and angsty snark to create an overall feeling of triumph. 

From left, Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body. The girls sit talking on a bed in a cosy, softly-lit bedroom. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
20th Century Fox

Love may not have found a way in Jennifer’s Body, but the 2009 cult classic was arguably ahead of its time. Reviled by critics and a box office flop at the time of its release, it has since seen wide reappraisal. Directed by Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody (who made her debut with Juno) as screenwriter, that gap has been explained in countless think-pieces as a botched marketing campaign. Eventually it found the audience it was always meant for: teenage girls. 

Like Fear Street, the movie is propelled by the relationship between its female characters, demonic-boy-eating Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy, her meek best friend since childhood. The former is offered up as a virgin sacrifice by pop punk band Low Shoulder’s lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody), but his deal with the devil goes awry. Jennifer comes to school the next day demon possessed and hungry for human flesh. Meanwhile Needy, who has always followed Jennifer’s whims, grows suspicious as killings pile up across their cheekily-named hometown, Devil’s Kettle. 

Both characters break genre archetypes. Needy fits the mold of virginal bookworm, but has sex for the first time with her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) and still breaks away as Final Girl. Jennifer may be demonic, but she’s also a victim of rape. Portrayed as a hot mean girl à la Regina George, the sexual violence Jennifer experiences is never justified despite her gruesome killings. The real villain in Jennifer’s Body is Low Shoulder who, like many powerful men, finds fame despite past (and ongoing) abuses. 

From left, Madeira as Sarah Fier and Welch as Hannah. The girls stand in a darkened room, Hannah opening a thick old book. She looks down at the pages as Sarah watches her, looking worried. Courtesy of Netflix.

Fear Street: 1666 sets off on similar footing. When Deena reunites the hand of Sarah Fier with her corpse, she has a vision of what unfolds in 1666 through Fier’s point of view. What the trilogy’s final chapter lacks in historical accuracy (and believability), it gains in character development. Though its pacing is the weakest of the three, 1666’s story boils down to men wielding their power by scapegoating women if they don’t bend to their rules. Fier’s redemption arc is wrapped up in a tragic love story. It also draws parallels to present-day Shadysiders. Characters throughout the trilogy reappear as the townspeople in 1666, with Madeira as Fier and Welch as her lover Hannah, the pastor’s daughter. 

Unlike Fear Street, the relationship explored in Jennifer’s Body is toxic. But its toxicity isn’t simply because Jennifer and Needy are both women. Rather, they’re given the space to be evil, smart, witty or sexual apart from whatever identity is slapped on them. Like many who have experienced teenage friendships, theirs reeks of possessiveness, jealousy, manipulation and codependency. This push-and-pull closeness is the basis of the film’s tension. One wants power, the other seeks loyalty. As Needy narrates, “Sandbox love never dies.” Maybe it should. 

It’s implied throughout the film that Needy is deeply in love with Jennifer. Screenwriter Cody told Buzzfeed News in 2018 that she wants the queerness of their relationship made clear to audiences, hence the scene in which the two make out. This is also made obvious when Jennifer snarls that she “goes both ways” before lunging angrily at Needy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that a huge portion of Jennifer’s Body cult fanbase is made up of bisexual, lesbian and queer women. Ginger Snaps did much the same in ways of representation, though, like 1978, its horror surrounds a pair of sisters. 

From left, Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins in Ginger Snaps, sitting outside their school. Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.
Lionsgate Films

With their luck, sisters Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) might as well be Shadysiders. A coming-of-age werewolf flick, director John Fawcett’s 2001 body horror is set in the the boring suburban town of Bailey Downs. It mines from those first signs of adolescence, and the humiliation and shame that often comes with it. Transforming into a lycanthrope, after all, isn’t unlike hitting puberty. 

Social outcasts and death-obsessed, Ginger and Brigitte are so inseparable that they’ve made a pact to die together. They’re also both late bloomers to menstruation. Shortly after her first period, Ginger is attacked by a wild animal and though the wounds heal instantly, tufts of fur grow in the place of scars. Soon, like Jennifer, she becomes boy hungry… literally. The more she changes, the further she drifts from Brigitte, who scrambles to find a cure before the next full moon. 

Ginger’s horror is the transition itself, a gnarly metamorphosis of how she interacts with life. Brigitte’s terror blooms as she watches her sister become increasingly unrecognizable. She must reckon with finding identity apart from the sister she has always clung to.

The Berman sisters arriving at Camp Nightwig. Courtesy of Netflix.

When we meet the Berman sisters in 1978, their relationship is already strained because of trouble at home involving their father leaving and mother grappling with severe depression. Cindy (Emily Rudd) is protective of her younger, more rebellious, sister Ziggy (Sadie Sink).  Set at a very Friday the 13th summer camp, the plot kicks off when Cindy’s sweet boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye) becomes possessed and goes on a murderous rampage. Ziggy teams up with Sunnyvaler Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), who later becomes a sheriff, a catalyst for one of the trilogy’s biggest twists. Where Ginger Snaps follows two sisters unraveling from one another, 1978 sees the pair fold back together.

Sisterhood is a fickle thing. There’s an anxiety in seeing your sibling become unlike who they’ve always been, or grapple with grief and trauma in a way disparate from your own understanding. Both 1978 and Ginger Snaps capture this unique relationship beautifully as the sisters attempt to save each other from the horrors that surround them. Ziggy and Cindy make one of the trilogy’s best duos, and the end of 1978 is heart wrenching in effect. 

Women are integral to horror, but they have often been subjected to play the part of male fantasy. As Ginger points out, “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door.” By centering teenage girls, and their relationships with each other, Fear Street, Ginger Snaps, and Jennifer’s Body manage to break genre conventions and forge new understandings of what horror is and who it’s for. 

After all, as Needy pointedly remarks in the latter, “Hell is a teenage girl.”

by Mackenzie Manley

Mackenzie (she/her) is a Cincinnati-based writer, journalist and editor. You can find her most days hanging out with her cat, Momo, or tending to her houseplants. She loves reading in her hammock, coffee, Animal Crossing and cartoon bears (especially Paddington). Her favourite films include Scream, Clueless and Little Women

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