Menstruation. Periods. PMS. Aunt Flo coming to visit. Shark week. Riding the crimson wave. The Red Sea. Rusty pipes. Monthly crime scene. Girl flu. The Red Wedding. Riding the cotton pony. Leak week. The full stop. Edward Cullen’s coming over. That time of the month.
For anyone who may be a little squeamish about periods, hopefully that got them out of the way. For the rest of you, yes, we’re talking about that four weekly occasion when uterine walls decide to shed, stomachs decide to cramp and fun appears to die. More specifically, we’re talking about PMS popping up in horror movies (both seen and rarely seen). While the flipside of menstruation – birth – has long been a fascinating subject for horror films and horror filmmakers alike, periods are something rarely touched on in the genre. On the surface, it may seem like the perfect real life inspiration to base a film: there’s gore, there’s pain, there’s metaphors for change. Yet keeping in mind that historically, horror films and horror filmmakers have been overwhelmingly straight, white and male, the subject has seldom come up. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t a few notable exceptions.
Carrie is a classic for a reason and the 1976 original opens with one of the most memorable scenes in what is already a very memorable movie. The title character (played by Sissy Spacek) is seen showering in her high school locker room, only to discover – horrified – that she is bleeding. Having never been taught about puberty or menstruation by her ultra conservative Catholic mother, she assumes that she’s dying and runs to her classmates for help. As she begs for them to save her, they shout back “have a tampon Carrie”, proceeding to throw sanitary products at the crying girl. It’s a heartbreaking moment and immediately tells the audience a lot: from who you’re supposed to be rooting for to why. It’s also a scene that resonates with female viewers, all of them being able to relate to the memory of their first periods or similarly traumatic moments when – despite planned intentions – an accident occurs.
Brian De Palma calls back to that bloody introduction to Carrie in the third and film act, when a bucket of pig’s blood drops on her head and she completes her evolution, if you will. Not to trash a classic, but it’s the 2013 version of the same scene that hits a little harder. Carrie, this time played by Chloe Grace Moretz, begs for help as she bleeds and her peers chant “plug it up”, with one girl even whipping out a camera phone to film the ordeal. This time, it’s a female eye behind the lens in director Kimberly Peirce and she manages to not only juxtapose the horror and malice (much like De Palma did), but also show a sensitivity as depicted through the uncertain faces of some of the fellow students.
Far as metaphors go, there are few better for periods than lycanthropy. After all, who is going to relate to the idea of blood, gore and turning into a monster for a few days a month more than women? Cult Canadian horror flick Ginger Snaps leaned in hard to this premise, following the story of two teenage sisters as one starts to go through some interesting changes. At first, her symptoms are written off as just her first menstruation cycle, complete with a painstaking scene where a school nurse cheerfully explains what happens when you menstruate (“I’m sure it seems like a lot of blood – it’s a period”). The reality is something much more monstrous as it turns out not only has Ginger got her period, she’s also turning into a werewolf for the first time. “I get this ache,” she growls to her sister Brigitte in one scene. “And I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.” Yes, it’s a werewolf movie but Ginger Snaps – and its following two sequels – is also about becoming a woman and what it means to harness that power for the first time.
Although Carrie (in its many iterations) and Ginger Snaps are only two horror movies explicitly about periods and PMS, the subject has popped up before. In Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers – another werewolf movie – a female character asserts it’s “that time of the month” before transforming into a lycanthrope. The largely underrated Jennifer’s Body by Karyn Kusama has multiple menstruation references, including this choice line “PMS isn’t real, Needy, it was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem like we’re crazy.” Similarly, Asian ghost stories have even drawn attention to that time of the month with both A Tale Of Two Sisters from South Korea and The Menstruating Ghost Of Puncak from Indonesia featuring them (albeit in very different contexts).
The hopes of horror fans wanting more depictions of riding the crimson wave in the genre movies they love rests largely on representation. Women have always watched horror movies; but when there are more women writing them, directing them, producing them, starring in them and just generally elbowing their way into the landscape that’s when periods will go from being a taboo topic to just, well, a topic.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz