Hell Is a Teenage Girl: Jennifer (1978)

Content warning: The film I discuss here contains depictions of sexual assault and animal death. I mention them briefly in this essay.

For reasons either lost to time or never identified in the first place, 1978 was a particularly amenable year for horror films featuring women named Jennifer getting revenge. The best known of the two fitting that description, I Spit on Your Grave (a.k.a. Day of the Woman), is as straightforward as it is extreme—its Jennifer journeys from beautiful young writer seeking solitude to battered rape victim pursuing vengeance in one direct plot line. But the other, just titled Jennifer, involves far more mystery, confusion and character complexity. And disco. Plus, it even has something of a happy ending.

Jennifer is more often compared to a film that preceded it two years earlier: Carrie. And sensibly so, because it’s evident Jennifer was created to capitalize on the Carrie formula, from the persecuted heroine with an ultra-religious single parent and burgeoning psychokinetic abilities, to the DePalma-esque lighting flourishes, to the title of a single female name. Overall, Jennifer is not nearly as good of a film as Carrie is, but it is interesting and ultimately offers its own unique conclusion on the teenage girl as monster.

Jennifer’s monster is Jennifer Baylor, a scholarship student at a posh girls’ boarding school in California. Because of her poor West Virginian background and her mentally disabled father, Jennifer is not only out of place but a subject of frequent ridicule. The school itself is full of rich students from prominent families and a headmistress who pops pills and consistently sides with whomever has the most money and influence. An especially vicious student named Sandra heads the school’s resident mean girls squad and targets Jennifer with constant pranks and harassment. Despite the support of Martha in the school’s kitchen, where Jennifer works as a condition of her scholarship, and one teacher who tries to stop the abuse, Jennifer is for all intents and purposes on her own against the bullies.

But there’s a part of Jennifer’s background the bullies don’t know, which is that Jennifer has a psychic power to connect with and control snakes. In her Appalachian youth, she communed with snakes until they killed a preacher’s son, which forced her and her father to flee town. Jennifer has sworn off snake handling since. But as the assaults against her at school increase—not only does Sandra’s gang terrify and humiliate her one night at the pool, but Sandra also buys a kitten from the Baylors’ pet shop and hangs it, dead, in Jennifer’s locker—Jennifer begins to change her mind about using her powers.

Sandra’s violence is not limited to Jennifer. After Sandra sets up Jane, the least popular member of the “in” group, to be raped by Sandra’s boyfriend, Jane is willing to help Jennifer get revenge. But Jane can’t halt Sandra’s intended grand finale of kidnapping Jennifer and taking her to an empty parking garage to torture her. At this point, Jennifer finally unleashes her snakes, which somehow manage to kill Sandra and Sandra’s boyfriend, injure everyone else except Jane, and also blow up a car, just for good measure. (They are talented snakes.)

The final scenes are where the film really comes in to its own power, so to speak. In an interview with the school headmistress, who wants to blame Jennifer for the disaster but has no idea how to do so, Jennifer is revealed as changed: She is now calm and self-possessed. Not only does she capably deflect all of the headmistress’s threats, she even cooly delivers some threats of her own. Later, she goes outside to meet Jane and they hear the headmistress’s screams at the discovery of snakes inside her desk. Jennifer and Jane laugh together and dash off screen.

The chief delight of Jennifer is its happy ending. There’s no punishment, no chastisement, no hint that Jennifer really did anything wrong. The end is triumphant and joyful. A tormented young woman has learned how to harness her own power, destroy her enemies and stand up to the hierarchy that refused to help her. Then she, and the friend she rescued from similar mistreatment, run laughing into the future, presumably to conquer the world. An inspiring teenage girl coming-of-age story if there ever were one.

In this ending, Jennifer definitively distinguishes itself from Carrie as a story of a girl discovering horrific powers or even I Spit on Your Grave as a story of a young woman getting revenge, and it serves as a predecessor to horror movies that would later explore and celebrate the monsters inside teenage girls, such as Ginger Snaps and (the coincidentally named) Jennifer’s Body. Hell is a teenage girl. And that’s not horrifying—it’s aspirational.

Jennifer is, unfortunately not currently streaming anywhere, but you can search to see if it’s available at a local library.

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