Watching horror films as a child was primarily an exercise in witnessing the injured perpetuate more injuries. Freddy Krueger’s body is a giant burn that doesn’t heal. The only kindness ever extended by Jason Voorhees over the last three decades has been to cover his deformed head with a hockey mask. The eerily symmetrical torture inflicted on Pinhead’s skull on display in Hellraiser was less merciful. But while these ghoulish men frightened me out of more nights of rest than my mother can likely count, they never inspired the same inconsolable terror that would reverberate for years after encountering two disfigured young girls in the genre. The first was the iconic Regan from The Exorcist and the second was the less-known but even more gruesome Zelda from Pet Sematary.
While a perfunctory nod is given to Jason as child victim, the bloodthirsty adult is too unsympathetic to render his back story much more than an afterthought. Most men in the genre show no evidence of having been children. But we meet Regan as a bright-eyed adolescent whose innocent tinkering with a Ouija board was hardly sufficient vice to invite the brutal possession that followed. In Pet Sematary, Zelda is introduced in her sister Rachel’s painful memory of being left by their parents to care for her in the excruciating stages of advanced spinal meningitis. Unlike their adult male counterparts, a major focal point of their respective stories was the girls as victims before they were villains. Though their lives before their descents into villainy do not get a great deal of screen time, there is some hint that these might have been girls like me. I was afraid of running into Freddy and Jason in a dark alley or a nightmare but I was afraid of becoming Regan and Zelda.
I watched each of these movies at least a dozen times and so have a difficult time pinpointing my inaugural viewings of these movies. The sleepovers and all-nighters I pulled with my older sister bleed into each other and blur what might have indeed been revelatory moments. But my horror-binging definitely hit its peak (or its rock bottom, depending on your chosen addiction model) in the sixth grade, that especially cruel point in youth at which half of the girls have crossed over into puberty while the other half remained behind. Both groups are humiliated by belonging to their respective camp, indulging in misguided fantasies that the grass might be greener anywhere on the landscape of early adolescence.
Even at age eleven, I knew The Exorcist was more than a chronicle of the terrible things that happen when you dabble in games of the occult. It was about sacrifice and faith, innocence loss, and the human body as the battleground for good and evil. Regan’s possession demonstrated the latter in a series of bodily changes. Her voice becomes unrecognizable. Her body is subjected to violent and uncontrollable flailing, thrown about by some invisible sadist’s hands. Her head twists fully around in an iconic cinematic moment, defying the generally rigid laws of the spinal cord. In the 25th anniversary rerelease, a previously cut scene of Regan’s body contorted into an insect-like pose and scampering down a flight of stairs found its way into new nightmares. The physical disfigurements of her body are mirrored by her descent into moral disfigurement, shouting blasphemy and memorably profane proclamations like, “Your mother sucks cock in Hell!”
Though Pet Sematary mercifully spares its audience from a lot of screen time with Zelda, the particular horror of her disease leave an indelible mark on the memories of the few who have seen the film. “She started to look like this monster,” her sister Rachel recalls through tears, Zelda’s entire spine and ribcage revealed through withering skin as she lurches toward her frightened sister. She is at once pitiful and terrifying, her expression pained as her head turns 360 degrees and she gurgles a cry for her sister’s help. Zelda chokes to death in this scene and returns only as a gruesome and vengeful specter that warns, “I’m coming for you Rachel, and this time, I’ll get you.” Her spinal disfigurement is healed in death but the harshness of her prominent bones remains as she screeches, “I’m going to twist your back like mine so you’ll never get out of bed again! Never get out of bed again! Never get out of bed again,” and lets out a sinister cackle at the amusing prospect of extending such torture.
The Scary Little Girl is at this point a tired horror cliché thrown haphazardly into films to draw foreshadowing pictures with crayons and allude to voices that adults cannot hear. But Regan and Zelda were frightening not because of eerie child-like qualities but because of monstrous adult ones. Their disfiguring physical transformations saw these once-innocent girls become sexual and ruthless (in Regan’s case) and pitiless and manipulative (in Zelda’s.) They were the victims of possession and disease that first incapacitated their bodies and then deformed their innocence, polluting childhood values with outsized variations on adult ones.
The great solace of the sleepover was a welcome retreat from negotiating my new value in the presence of newly established assets. But the films we watched at them were stark reminders of the impending threat of adolescent change that would render our bodies unrecognizable despite our protest and in turn, transform our moral understanding of the world. It is easy to reject the unseemliness of sex when you don’t live in a body that is physically prepared to engage in it. But the body presses on in its monstrous transformation, forcing the mind to adapt to its dangerous power.
The horror genre is awash in male villains whose primarily facial disfigurements are thinly veiled metaphors for the moral disfigurements that prompt them to violently terrorize their victims. But it was these broken-bodied girls that haunted me well into adulthood as fracture points between the innocence of youth and the moral decay of adulthood running in a jagged line across the screen. We watched in transfixed terror in the darkened living rooms and basement rec rooms of our youth, the screen offering the only light. It glared at us from across the room, illuminating our faces and drawing us out of the shadows.