Emalie Soderback, in her piece “Ghoul, You’ll Be A Woman Soon: Supernatural Puberty and the Horrors of Periods” talks about a subgenre she likes to call “supernatural period girl horror.” Young women and their bodies exist as these horrific entities largely because of a very easy connection to the genre: blood. We bleed. A lot. Statistically speaking, we spend nearly 10 years (roughly 3,500 days) of our lives just menstruating. The picture paints itself. Where films like Ginger Snaps have depicted the physical horrors of puberty, we seldom see the same for boys. Their bodies change, their hormones rage, but there’s nothing viscerally horrific about their metamorphosis. This is likely why we don’t look at the pubescent male as nightmare fuel (at least not in horror movies). Brightburn, the latest producing venture from James Gunn, brings the horrors of the pubescent male to the screen in ways Ginger Fitzgerald’s lycanthropic transformation never could, because it’s rooted in reality.
Menstruation has always been considered grotesque. Where blood, guts, and gore can be a mainstay in horror, women’s periods were somehow monstrous and taboo. For decades, pad and tampon commercials have used a mysterious blue liquid to stand in for actual menstrual blood, an act in itself rooted in a long history of misogyny-induced fear. As if the process of going through puberty weren’t horrific enough for the person experiencing it, young women also have to do battle with the notion that, while they’re discovering their sexuality, they’re simultaneously being considered repugnant, a source of shame or disgust.
We’ve seen this in film for decades, from Carrie White’s torment to Regan Macneil’s demonic transformation, and so many more. Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine described puberty as “the threshold between girlhood and womanhood, the time when adolescent sexual desires find shape and expression.” In Ginger Snaps, Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle) finally hits puberty only to become a sex-crazed “freak” with an uncontrollable blood lust that puts her entire community at risk. Ginger’s considered especially abnormal, given that she’s only just getting her period at the age of 16.
Physical changes, Ginger’s in particular, may be considered monstrous, but let’s not forget about the hormonal ones. Aggression, depression, low self-esteem, and unexplained mood swings are just some of the fun symptoms, not to mention heightened sex drives, all of which affect teens, no matter the gender. The taboos of women’s sexuality make it difficult for young girls with any kind of sexual appetite to be considered anything but “fast,” while boys are expected to be angry, aggressive, and sexual. Ginger’s monstrous behavior, as a result, is about more than just her physical changes; her behavior challenges the status quo.
Even before she got her first period, she defied convention. Interested in dark and macabre things, she loathed the idea of being nothing more than just another girl. But she is, biologically speaking. Getting her period becomes a mark of conformity, a blemish on her otherwise untarnished record of subversive behavior. Up until this moment, she’s been a willful outcast refusing to conform to the norms of womanhood. On the night she gets bit by the werewolf, Ginger gets her first period, so named “the Curse,” and starts to conform in the only way society would truly deem unseemly and horrific – by feeding her carnal desires.
The true horror here is of young women defying social mores. Being vocal and active about their sexual appetites, engaging with their rage and frustration, and defying the conventions of socially acceptable girlhood. For Ginger, her voracious hunger, sexual appetite, and inability to control her aggression are the real threats. So much so that, once her physical transformation is complete, she’s put down. She became too wild, too untamable, and had to be stopped.
We see this in women and young girls all the time – being made to feel ashamed of their desires, of their strength. The result is often a lack of confidence that goes on to inhibit women in the future, sometimes preventing them from realizing their full potential. There’s a huge double standard with boys, however. And that’s where Brightburn comes in.
Brightburn is an Elseworlds-inspired spin on what would happen if Superman landed in Kansas in the early 2000s and grew up to be a sociopath hellbent on world domination. Just before his 12th birthday, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), our pubescent anti-Superman, finds the alien pod he came to Earth in. His parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), hid it from him thus far, presumably to protect him from the truth. Instead, this unleashes his full potential, along with a mission statement: Take the world.
Suddenly, Brandon’s inhumanly strong and seemingly indestructible, two things he learns through trial and error. While trying to start the lawnmower, he accidentally heaves it across the length of their property. His next move? To find it and put his hand directly into the spinning blades, completely destroying it. He eventually learns that he can fly, has super speed, and that he can shoot lasers out of his eyes. Again, very Superman-like, only minus the sense of benevolence.
(WARNING: Spoilers from this point on.)
Once he “comes of age,” so to speak, Brandon becomes hostile. When Kyle takes away a dangerous birthday present, Brandon slams his hands on the table, demanding it back. A normal tantrum for any pubescent boy were it not for the flickering lights and shaking table. His parents find pictures of dissected animals mixed in with his lingerie catalog stash. After having “the talk,” Brandon decides it’s appropriate to sneak into the room of his crush, Caitlyn, while she’s asleep. When she calls him a pervert during gym class for violating her privacy, he breaks her hand. His acts of violent defiance only get worse as the film goes on, but one thing is for certain; Brandon Breyer is an uncontrollable threat that seems as impervious to consequences as he is to physical harm.
Therein lies Brightburn’s significance in the canon of pubescent horror. For girls, their transformation is largely an act of defiance against societal expectations. Antiquated notions of girlhood and womanhood make it so that female sexual desire is a myth, and that angry women are just overly emotional, never to be taken seriously. By these standards, Ginger is the embodiment of all things unfeminine, a kind of abomination to what society expects of her.
Brandon, on the other hand, is everything society expects him to be. Where most girls see a pronounced decline in confidence during puberty, feeling less than and othered almost automatically, boys immersed in a culture of toxic masculinity are raised with a disproportionate sense of entitlement. Through this, like Brandon, they feel they can do whatever they want, consequence-free.
Where often women are put down, segregated, or silenced for their pubescent break with convention – Regan MacNeil has the “demon” exercised from her body, while Carrie White and Ginger Fitzgerald are killed – in Brightburn, the threatening child gets away with his actions consequence-free. He removes every obstacle from his way, experiencing barely any remorse until, eventually, all humanity he picked up as a child is gone.
What’s more is the concept of choice and control over one’s circumstance. Ginger’s behavior throughout Ginger Snaps becomes progressively more impulsive, and beyond her control. She starts to lose herself, going further down a rabbit hole where violence is a necessary means of self-preservation and survival, eventually becoming a blind impulse.
Brandon, however, never loses control. The true horror of his behavior, symbolic of the behavior of poorly-behaved men in reality, is that he is in full control of his actions. He consciously decides to break Caitlyn’s hand when she rejects him. He tortures and murders her mother when she tries to keep them apart. He threatens his aunt and guidance counselor when she disciplines him, and kills his parents, destroying the family home in a superhero-sized temper tantrum, finally killing hundreds of people to cover it up. No one is safe. No one can stop him. And he is fully aware.
While Brightburn is definitely an Elseworld-style look at Superman lore, its true power lies in a cautionary tale about our boys today. It’s a dramatized look into how North American society operates, where white, heteronormative, cis-gendered men and boys are empowered, encouraged, and emboldened, eventually protected by a system that favors them and subjugates women. Brandon Breyer is Brock Turner. He’s Ethan Couch, Harvey Weinstein, Conrad Black, and Brett Kavanagh. “Take the world,” he’s told. The terrifying truth is that he does.