All Them Witches: How ‘Ginger Snaps’ Teaches Us How to Heal our Bodies

Alisha Mughal explores the contemporary classic teen-werewolf flick and how it can be read as a commentary on the mainstream medical systems failing women and AFAB people.

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Ginger, 16 years old, gets viciously attacked by a werewolf the night of a full moon and her first period, as the scent of her blood attracts the creature. After this attack, not only is she experiencing strange changes to her body — like hair growing out of the werewolf’s scratches — but also excruciating pain and profuse bleeding. “Are you sure it’s just cramps?” 15-year-old Brigitte asks her older sister at the drugstore, as Ginger speaks through clenched teeth, doubled over with pain. Brigitte, understandably concerned, drags Ginger to the school nurse to get some answers. “Something is wrong, like more than you being just female,” Brigitte says.

In a pristine blue room, the two girls sit across from a cheery-faced, blue clad nurse. Ginger’s hair is disheveled, falling across her face as though she’s been through the tumble dryer, she is pale and her voice cracks. She hugs her stomach. “I’m sure it seems like a lot of blood, it’s a period,” the nurse exclaims with a Joker-esque grin. She is obstinate, her cheery voice unchanging. “Everyone seems to panic their first time.”

“So it’s all normal?” Ginger asks after the nurse explains more, her eyes glazed over with pain, her skin balmy with sweat. “Very,” the nurse says. It’s certainly worth noting here that nary a word is said about Ginger’s physical appearance, no recommendations made to assuage the pain she so obviously is in. The nurse might as well be in another room or speaking to the girls over the phone, so little does she acknowledge Ginger’s physical presence before her.

“What about hair that wasn’t there before?” Brigitte butts in. “And pain?”

“Comes with the territory,” the nurse says, that damned smile unwavering. It’s no longer than two minutes long, this nurse scene, but it’s unforgettable. I watched this movie in a theater recently and heard women snickering around me when Ginger asks if all her bone-racking pain is normal, looking as she does, like hell frozen over. I smiled, too. It’s familiar, going to someone in the medical profession with severe pain or discomfort and being told that our deeply uncomfortable experience is completely normal, according to the books, told that it will go away in a few days. So many women and assigned female at birth (AFAB) individuals have stories of living everyday life while experiencing a gut-wrenching pain — how can this be normal, we wonder. The thing is, this pain being ignored, or having our experiences undercut by a medical professional who cites their academic learnings, which they believe to be infallible as if carved in stone, even as we ramble on about the particulars of our unique and individual experiences — all this isn’t accidental, cannot just be chalked up to one or two incompetent practitioners.

The reason why this nurse scene in Ginger Snaps is so unforgettable for me is because, short though it is, it’s got hundreds of years of history informing it. In the West, our current medical system is built on the basis not only of belying women and AFAB people’s experiences as patients, but also of denying us a way of healing that would value individual concerns and lived experiences, our stories, a way that would value listening to patients and prescribing treatments informed by this listening. This nurse scene in Ginger Snaps speaks volumes because it tersely encapsulates the way the medical system works around us as though it were some indomitable divine doctrine, as though it were the only lens through which to look at science and medicine. 22 years after its release, the commentary Ginger Snaps makes on the way in which our systems fail women and AFAB people is still trenchant and acerbic as ever, especially in light of the fact that the film simultaneously shows us a potentially right way to be.

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A town full of dead ends

Ginger Snaps begins in a place full of dead ends: a quintessential suburb, that bastion of the wholesome American dream. Though it is a Canadian film, it depicts that goal sold by capitalism to citizens north and south of the border. Suburbia is where one ought to want to end up. It’s where you end up if you have bought into the system of work and the nuclear family, done everything right by capitalism’s easy-to-follow rules: if you work hard enough, you will make enough money to earn you the right to live a good life, the myth says. The structural systems are at their most ideal iteration in the suburbia in Ginger Snaps: everyone is white, the houses look the same, young kids play on the streets, and everyone has a dog. The education system, family units, gender roles, the healthcare system, all apparently function according to the patriarchal, capitalist dream at the film’s beginning.

But of course things aren’t as they seem, because the promise of the American dream is a lie. For starters, Brigitte and Ginger are the local nonconforming goths obsessed with death and darkness, wanting nothing more than to escape the normalcy petryfying their parents, particularly their cheery and overbearing mom Pamela (Mimi Rogers), and their, in their eyes, dumb peers. Secondly, there seems to be a blood-thirsty creature plagueging the community — the werewolf that, before attacking Ginger, eviscerates local pets.

The film follows these two sisters who are joined at the hip working to figure out how to cure Ginger of the strange curse that has befallen her. As Ginger slowly transforms into a blood-thirsty, sinister creature, Brigitte works to find a way to rid her sister of the tragedy. Brigitte studies Hollywood movies and folklore, eventually working with local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), to find a remedy for Ginger.

Brigitte turns to Sam for help because he’s the only other person aside from Ginger who is aware of the existence of werewolves.Confused and horrified, Sam and Brigitte turn to each other for answers, all as Ginger is pulled into her body’s horror. Brigitte lies to Sam by telling him it is she who has been bitten, not Ginger, in order to protect her sister; it is at this point that what is in my mind a corollary to the nurse scene unfolds.

Sam apparently makes a living working at the town’s greenhouse, growing and selling weed out of the back. At the greenhouse, Brigitte meets him one day after discovering that Ginger is growing a tail. “I’m changing,” Brigitte lies to Sam, breathless. By this point Brigitte has seen enough classic werewolf movies to know that the only way to stop a werewolf is a silver bullet and so she is accordingly terrified; she doesn’t want Ginger to have to be put to death. Sam points out that it is possible to get rid of werewolves without silver bullets; his own van smeared the one that bit Ginger across asphalt. But this obviously isn’t a good enough solution for Brigitte, as she seeks a cure. “It’s like an infection, works from the inside out, it’s like a virus,” she says.

“Biology, there’s something you can sink your teeth into,” Sam retorts. “You’re real, your problem’s real, the solution is real.”

This greenhouse scene gives us an example of how healing ought to take place, of how women’s pain ought to be received and treated. The dialogue between Brigitte and Sam is a fluid, genuine conversation, wherein Sam actively listens to Brigitte and responds to what she says in a way that seems to build off her previous statements about what ails her (or Ginger), as opposed to blindly quoting texts. He doesn’t wait for a pause from her to make statements that seem regurgitations of textbook knowledge, like the nurse seems to do. Furthermore, Sam is an outsider, one not a part of the socio-economic systems that surround Brigitte and Ginger: he doesn’t go to school, has an unconventional job amongst nature, and ostensibly has no family. Much of what he talks about seems to be informed by what he’s learned in his lifetime from experience or other people he’s come across (for instance, he says at one point that when he started performing piercings, he kept on infecting people, but figured out a way to avoid infection by using pure silver.)

This scene is noteworthy because it illustrates a way of healing embedded in listening and experience that is a meaningful alternative to the healing provided by the nurse, who serves as a representative of the prevailing healthcare system. The power of thinking in ways different from the prevailing one represented by the nurse is proven when Brigitte and Sam indeed do find a cure to the werewolf problem through Sam’s “unconventional” way of thinking. Sam’s approach to healing would be referred to by second-wave feminist writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English as “lay healing” or even witchcraft, completely distinct and at odds from the “regular” medical profession.

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The lost ways of healing

Ehrenreich and English’s 1973 text Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (WMN) is like the Communist Manifesto of second-wave feminist literature, in the sense that it’s short and was intentionally created to be passed around amongst everyone. At only about 100 pages, Ehrenreich and English wrote the accessible history of female healing in the heat of the second wave of feminism. Inspired by the women’s health movement of the time, the two writers wanted WMN to “confront women’s ignorance of their own bodies,” an ignorance they argue is systemically imposed and mandated by the prevailing medical profession. This is why the book is short — Ehrenreich and English literally wanted women to take hold of this knowledge, reclaim it, and share it.

The book outlines how women started off as natural, lay healers in their communities, as witches and midwives, and how over time and with the emergence of universities, their way of healing was derided and replaced by a new kind of healing performed by those in the medical “profession,” which rose to prominence because it was backed by the ruling class. Women who practiced lay healing, the kind of intuitive and community-informed work that Sam performs, were either persecuted as witches or had their lay occupations vilified and made defunct, as in the case of midwives.

Witches were essentially wise women, Ehrenreich and English say. During the witch craze (a period of persecution and prosecution of female healers lasting from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century in Europe), witches would have been illiterate, female general medical practitioners for peasants, for a group of people living in poverty without any support or succor from the Church or access to the court physicians that kings and nobles had access to. According to Ehrenreich and English, the wise woman, the witch, had an arsenal of cures and treatments, remedies, “which had been tested in years of use,” and had been orally passed along over generations. The wise woman prescribed everything from pain-killers to digestive aids. And the witch was closely allied with the midwife, who eased the pain of birth, which pain, according to the Church, a woman ought to endure for it was just punishment for Eve’s original sin. She would also prescribe something like belladonna — which is still used today as a pain killer and as a sedative to stop asthma-related bronchial spasms — to inhibit contractions of the uterus if there was the threat of a miscarriage.

This part in WMN is particularly noteworthy for its description of the wise woman’s methodology:

The witch-healer’s methods were as great a threat (to the Catholic Church, if not the Protestant) as her results, for the witch was an empiricist: she relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. Her attitude was not religiously passive, but actively inquiring. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy, and childbirth — whether through medications or charms. In short, her magic was the science of her time.

The Church at the time, and accordingly those who worked to heal the rich, were deeply anti-empirical, with much of Church doctrine still much based in Aristotelian and Augustinian philosophy. Ehrenreich and English quote passages from the 1486 witch-hunting treatise Malleus Maleficarium (written by a clergyman and a theologian and containing steps for how to discern and dispose of witches), which in turn quotes Saint Augustine:

Now the motive of the will is something perceived through the senses or the intellect, both of which are subject to the power of the devil. For St. Augustine says in Book 83: This evil, which is of the devil, creeps in by all the sensual approaches, he places himself in figures, he adapts himself to colors, he attaches himself to sounds, he lurks in angry and wrongful conversations, he abides in smells, he impregnates with flavours and fills with certain exaltations all the channels of the understanding.

In other words, one is easily corruptible through the senses, through which arise animalistic and transitory desires, therefore to rely on and live singularly through one’s senses to understand the world is to be unfaithful, to be like our most base self, said the asceticism and fatalism of Christianity at the time; one ought to be guided by God alone, avoiding sensual pleasures. Accordingly, if the devil influences us through our senses, then the devil works through witches, because the witch, as she heals, is mired in the base world of experiences and senses.

As medicine eventually came to be a practice requiring university education, and as licensing laws came into place in cities at the behest of physicians who wanted to usurp the female healer’s urban clientele, educated physicians came to dominate the practice of medicine for urban populations. It is at this crucial point in history when the work of the wise woman — the witch — came to be dubbed as “superstitious,” and the work of the male physician came to be considered as belonging to proper medicine.

By the nineteenth century, women came to be too “unscientific, delicate, and sentimental” to partake of the medical profession, and on these grounds discouraged from attending medical schools — this is why women to this day are “mystified by science,” why in the ‘70s Ehrenreich and English needed to write WMN. It was in the nineteenth century as well that the medical profession came to be established as a profession holding dominance over and against the various other types of healing at the time competing for clientele: folk healing, midwifery, homeopathy, etc.

The formally trained physicians, or “regulars” as the writers call them, practiced something called “heroic” healing, always taking the most exaggerated or dire approach to healing, such as massive bleeding or giving out blanket prescriptions of calomel, a mercury-filled laxative. Ehrenreich and English write:

When women had a place in medicine, it was a people’s medicine. When that people’s medicine was destroyed, there was no place for women — except in the subservient role of nursing. The set of healers who became the medical profession was distinguished not so much by its associations with modern science as by its associations with the emerging American business establishment.

This association with the American business establishment came at the turn of the twentieth century when financial empires were able to partake in organized philanthropy, choosing to put their money behind universities that churned out regular doctors. Sectarian schools (those that practiced various kinds of healing different from that of the “regulars”) or schools with already little money, such as those with majority female and black students, lost out on funding.

Thus, the medical profession was established, a profession with a regimented and quick, by-the-books, academic type of thinking. The modern-day “regular” healer is one produced by capitalism: Ehrenreich and English write that “the new scientific practitioners of the early twentieth century were making [nurses] necessary” because this physician had no time to wait and watch for the efficacy of his cures. “He diagnosed, he prescribed, he moved on,” Ehrenreich and English write. “He could not waste his talents, or his expensive academic training in the tedious detail of bedside care.”

You might be thinking: but the nurse in Ginger Snaps is a woman. Ought she not to take Ginger’s pain at face value, ought not she to consider Ginger’s lived experiences that are so evident before her? The thing is, capitalist patriarchal ideology is a hell of a drug. Simone de Beauvoir quotes George Bernard Shaw when she writes in The Second Sex: “It is easier to put people in chains than to remove them if the chains bring prestige, […]. The bourgeois woman clings to the chains because she clings to her class privilege.”

Or, put more aptly and in Ehrenreich and English’s own words: middle class women who historically achieved to the formal medical training of the “regular” doctors did so because they “must have found it easier to identify with the middle-class ‘regular’ doctors than with lower-class women healers or with the sectarian medical groups (which had earlier been identified with radical movements).”

In the context of Ginger Snaps, the suburb that the girls live in is predominantly white and middle-class. The nurse at the school has no alternative available to her than the regular, formal schooling systems through which to learn medical science. Because this particular “regular” type of healing has embedded itself firmly within society so that it is now seen as the only way to heal, the nurse would have a hard time looking at Ginger through any other lens. She would have drank the Kool-Aid long ago.

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Sam’s Cure

Sam, in a book on homeopathy, finds a potential cure for Ginger’s lycanthropy. He compares homeopathic treatments of infections to the folklore swirling about werewolves and finds a plant that might serve as a cure. The plant is called monkshood, “a cousin of wolf’s bane,” says Sam. Brigitte notes monkshood’s scientific name is aconitum lycoctonum, which has the word lyco in it (like lycan, as in lycanthrope, which means werewolf). Sam has learned that monkshood ought to be safe to put into the human body in small doses, and that it performs a kind of radical detox of the body by promoting red blood cell growth, something Brigitte has learned in her biology class is what helps fight off infections. Recall that homeopathy is one of the sectarian forms of healing noted in WMN as having been ousted by the “regular” school.

When Brigitte does acquire the monkshood, she and Sam are unsure of how it ought to be put into the body, for there isn’t any formal textbook on how to cure lycanthropy. (According to WMN, witches and lay healers, being illiterate and working amongst peasants, wouldn’t have written down many of their treatments.) Sam suggests injecting it into the system, going on to prepare monkshood in the way one might prepare heroin for injection, cooking it over a flame in alcohol, pulling it into a needle through cotton. It’s a procedure he certainly would have learned in his lifetime, not accrued through any formal training. Brigitte injects it into a boy Ginger infected earlier after having unprotected sex with him, and finds that this trial experiment is successful. Monkshood ends up being an effective cure.

In other words, Sam and Brigitte together employ a type of healing that is totally in opposition to the dominant form of healing after finding this form totally effete and unresponsive to their lived reality. The healing they do perform is much like the healing of the wise woman and witch, it takes into consideration not only communal folklore, but also looks at how this folklore gets translated into etymology, the names we use for the world, the plants around us.

The kind of research that Sam and the kind of thinking that Brigitte each performs is — like the listening Sam performs in the greenhouse scene earlier — organic and fluid. They pose hypotheses that are open to change based on what experience tells them once they carry through with the treatment. It’s a kind of elastic healing so antithetical to what the medical profession might prescribe, so unlike the wall of formal words spewed at Brigitte and Ginger by the nurse that was so unhelpful, did nothing to assuage Ginger’s suffering. The film presents a type of medicine and healing that, like those of the witch, is in conversation with the people who have come before and that is open to being corrected by empirical findings. The film presents a meandering healing that is an antidote to the nurse’s “regular” form of healing that tells Ginger what to expect and sends her on her way, that never checks back in with her, that takes her suffering and pain as a given, rather than being something it ought to alleviate.

Ginger Snaps shows us — with so much blood and guts — how tough it is for women to have their pain validated by the medical profession that surrounds us. The film illustrates what WMN illustrates, that the available form of healing is inadequate. The film has us countenance a system that has the potential to fatally constrict our lives in the way that it chokes the suburb in Ginger Snaps, leaving it nothing but dead ends, a maze with a werewolf roaming through it. After all, the film begins with the neighborhood already under attack by the monster: it was always there and none of the systems in place could destroy it until Sam and his truck, until Sam and Brigitte with their experience-based thinking.


Where do we go from here?

This was never an attack on science, but on the profession of medicine, the exclusionary profession that has so suffused our everyday lives that we can’t see it for the trees. We can’t see it so we can’t question it. As Ehrenreich and English wrote WMN to elucidate the fact that other types of healing are possible, that there are other ways to approach facts, medicine, so I write that Ginger Snaps illustrates for us how this might be done. Ehrenreich and English’s goal was to show women of all classes and of all colors that there is a problem with the system, to point to it, and I hope to show, with a 22-year-old movie, that the problem persists.

If Brigitte and Sam didn’t step in with their cure, and if Ginger followed the nurse’s advice, not only would Ginger very likely have become the town’s new monster — forever lurking in shadows and lost to society — but the knowledge that Brigitte gains about how to stop future pain like Ginger’s would also have been inaccessible. In other words, the forlorn state of our current healthcare system, the state whose brutal history WMN describes  — wherein women continue to lack knowledge of and agency over their bodies, lack the ability to eschew pain if it can be eschewed — would have won in Ginger Snaps. The film still has a grim ending with Ginger’s death, but it is also hopeful because Brigitte now wields a cure, has knowledge that allows her to be powerful where earlier she and Ginger were left confused and powerless before the school nurse. Brigitte’s knowledge feels weighty, as though it could rebuff the regular doctors and other authority figures who in the real world continue to make hasty and sweeping decisions that women and AFAB individuals ought to be making for themselves. And this weighty knowledge is part of this film’s incendiary nature; it gives off a hopeful and bright light, an antidote to the knowledgeness that Ehrenreich and English wanted to expunge in women about their own bodies; the film functions as a powerful corollary to WMN.

The world is still reeling from the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S., which sets a horrifying precedent for the fate of all our bodies, for our bodily autonomy. I cannot keep myself from weeping at the fact that so many men still hold so much power over not only what women can do with their bodies, but also how other women can treat women’s bodies. This eradication of laws that allow people to get abortions seems so familiar, so unsurprising, after having learned the history of how so few rich men came to hold so much power over our wellbeing; history shows how a single way of believing how to deal with human bodies came to not only be codified into law, but also to gain a moral footing. I can’t help but picture a great platform seating the Church, State, and a kind of doctoring that is not as allied with science as it is backed by the interests of the rich, all condemning those who don’t agree with their minds.

“Our goal today should never be to open up the exclusive medical profession to women, but to open up medicine — to all women,” Ehrenreich and English wrote in 1973. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 36.3 percent of physicians in 2019 in the U.S. were women, a statistic that WMN cites as being about seven percent in 1973. The number of female practitioners is rising, but it could certainly be higher. Why the percentage of female and AFAB physicians is important is because, as Ehrenreich and English note, there should be a sort of communication taking place between women and AFAB healthcare workers and women and AFAB consumers. This is the kind of organic back-and-forth between healer and patient that witches in the Middle Ages would have initiated intuitively, the kind that takes place between Sam and Brigitte. “Women [and AFAB] workers can play a leadership role in collective self-help and self-teaching projects, and in attacks on health institutions [and I would argue attacks on governmental bodies]. But they need support and solidarity from a strong women’s [and AFAB people’s] consumer movement,” Ehrenreich and English write. Their point is a greater demystification of science so that people can understand how their bodies work, and from this greater place of knowledge collectivize and demand change.

The nurse scene in Ginger Snaps often reminds me of that scene in 1969’s Rosemary’s Baby when a heavily pregnant Rosemary goes to her doctor, who ultimately turns out to be a part of the group of satanists who want to harm her. She’s been experiencing so much pain with her pregnancy, but her doctor refuses to help her. When she goes to see him at one point, worried after doing some reading on her own that she might have an ectopic pregnancy, the doctor ridicules her, tells her to stop muddling her brain with ideas gleaned from books, to only trust him. But he’s a satanist. Rosemary should have continued reading, in the way Sam and Brigitte read and learn on their own in Ginger Snaps, in the way that Ehrenreich and English demand of us with their short, knowledge-filled book.

At the film’s start, Ginger has grand plans for her and Brigitte’s future: they’ll escape the town full of its dead ends and nurses who don’t take their pain seriously. But the sisters lose everything with the werewolf’s bite: Brigitte her sister and Ginger control over her body until it isn’t hers anymore. But even as Ginger becomes less and less herself, Brigitte perseveres, hoping until the end that she might get her sister back. One wonders, if the film were made today, what would become of Brigitte’s perseverance? With our present-day invasive inroads into bodily autonomy, would a current rendition of the film contain the same kind of hope that Brigitte has of bringing Ginger back into control of her body? Even as the film matures to 22 this year, it still manages to pack a hefty punch, perhaps even more poignant now than it was in 2000.

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