Are "Strange Girls" The New Manic Pixies?

Illustration for article titled Are Strange Girls The New Manic Pixies?

In a review of Uninvited, a new horror movie opening this Friday, New York Times writer and culture critic Terrence Rafferty explores the “strange girl” trope that has become common in books and film.

Although the most recognized “strange girl” is probably Carrie White from Brian De Palma’s classic bloodfest Carrie, Rafferty mentions several other strange girls that appear in recent movies. He argues that horror films provide a place for the strange girl, the outsider with big eyes and a scary past: “Horror has a special place in its icy little heart for strange girls: the sad girls, the lonely girls, the ones who feel invisible to others and often ghostly to themselves.” For Rafferty, the weird little girl is celebrated in horror films through her victimization and revenge, and through this process, she taps into the sleeping teenager in all of us:

What you may recall, though, from the dimmer recesses of memory, is the feeling this movie evokes, a feeling perhaps peculiar to (certainly most vivid in) adolescence:the sense that the world is almost unbearably charged with significance, electric with meaning. It’s a state akin to madness, or possession. Every teenager’s mind is a haunted house.

This is the reason the strange girls, friendless everywhere else, feel so at home in horror. Their painfully heightened sensitivities make them ideal mediums for all the terrors of the phenomenal world; the long hours they spend alone facilitate brooding and, sometimes, dire imagining. They suffer from a constant and bizarrely eroticized awareness that everything around them, animate or inanimate, is (or can be) threatening.


The strange girls are not a phenomenon limited to film. Strange girls also show up in horror fiction, from Edgar Allen Poe to Shirley Jackson, who created one of the most archetypal strange girls in her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The strange girls could be seen as just another unfortunate, two-dimensional label (like the evil twin of the manic pixie dream girl), and sometimes they are just that, but generally, strange girls are allowed a power that the MPDG’s lack. The trailer of The Uninvited shows spooky-girl Anna (Emily Browning), who recently returned from a stay at a mental institution, taking an active role in outing her father’s new girlfriend, and possible murderer, Rachel (played by Elizabeth Banks). Anna, while wide-eyed, pretty, and young, does not appear to be as blandly accepting as the classic quirky MPDG.

However, the most interesting about the weird-girls of horror, and something that unfortunately Rafferty barely discusses, is the fetishistic way that we watch the strange girls. These girls are not simply passive victims; their power arises from a sort of sixth sense, a hyperawareness of the threatening nature of the world. But, as Rafferty points out, this persistent suspicion is eroticized, made sensual and appealing. It is the appealing/appalling dynamic that hints toward the greater conflict of the adolescent (female) sexuality itself. Rafferty writes that part of the appeal of the evil/strange girl could arise from a fear of the “entire female gender.” Indeed, there seems to be a long tradition of connecting female sexuality with supernatural forces. It remains to be seen whether The Uninvited falls into this trap, although from the trailer, it appears as though weird-girl Anna is not the sexualized one, but rather her succubus-like co-star, Elizabeth Banks.


‘The Uninvited,’ ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and Cinema’s Sisterhood of Spookiness [New York Times]
The Uninvited- Official Trailer [YouTube]

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I think the difference is agency, and this will vary from story to story. MPG's generally have no agency or function unto themselves. They simply offer non-reciprocated emotional support to the Emotionally Stunted Man Child, and have "quriks" that substitute for actual personalities and layering. I haven't yet seen a movie that was actually about the MPG, mostly because she's a male fantasy and generally only functions to "teach him an important lesson about love and life"...not be a whole person unto themselves.

Although it depends, I'd say the "strange girls" almost always have an actual personality, a past or history to overcome, and are usually given agency through the narrative when they're the main, arguably heroic character. When they're an ancillary character, or the "enemy" they usually have way less in terms of agency or characterization, and are either victims seeking revenge and hence bad (The Ring) or just victims.

Carrie is an interesting example because she can be read very differently, depending on the film or book version...and even the film has some ambiguity. In the book Carrie is a strange and conflicting mix of sympathetic and irritating. She's victimized in a way that suggests the "hive mind" of mobs...find the weakest and attack. Only she ends up finding some agency, but takes her revenge too far, so she's punished with her eventual death.

To me, the problem is less the archetype and more the lack of exploration of the archetype. Same with stereotypes. You can effectively use any stereotype if you're willing to explore it and use it as a base to be built on. The problem is when the character is only the archetype or stereotype, with no fleshing out.