The notion of structurally significant hierarchies and the subsequent strains of society within these formational boundaries is thrown in the undercurrents of the horror genre's innate drive to dismantle and alert. The mediation of queer framings, gendered psychodynamics, domesticating the inner psyche, and the dormant drives of humanity allow horror to explore these themes through the guise of fantasticality and terror — akin to an exposed tenacious vessel of societal semiotics. Truly encroaching upon the fluidity of the genre and taking the proverbial bull by its horns to unravel a richly cathartic experience is Lucky McKee and Chris Siverston’s All Cheerleaders Die (2013).
Based upon their 2011 micro-budget feature of the same name is a seemingly archetypal teen horror that chronicles a high school revenge tale with abundant adolescent debauchery. Lying amidst the somewhat ubiquitously composed film is a deeply potent narrative that permeates the borders of the fetishized cheerleader. Most importantly, the morality and experience of queer youth in a detrimental, patriarchal institution.
The film centers on Maddy (Caitlin Stasey), a high school student keen on infiltrating the cheerleading squad. She falsifies friendships with senior cheerleaders Martha (Reanin Johannink), Hanna (Amanda Grace Benitez), and Tracy (Brooke Butler) to get close to Terry (Tom Williamson), football team Captain and Tracy’s boyfriend. Maddy’s mission is vengeance — an attempt to seek solidarity in revenge for Terry viciously raping her. The suffering from Maddy’s ploy unknowingly affects her ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), a practicing witch thrust into the dark with the burden of confusion, wallowing in the wake of Maddy’s absence.
After a heated confrontation between Tracy's "bitches" and Terry's "dogs," the cheerleaders die when the football players run them off the road. Having witnessed the accident and in desperation to save her lost love, Leena casts a spell, making a wish, the consequence of which is an emotional bond — sorcerous zombies with an appetite for blood. The maximalist approach that the film appropriates determines the musculature of the thematic aesthetics, lining the cinematic peripherals with diverse allegories surrounding the monstrous body.
To assimilate this, the contemporary perspective of the monstrous female is crucial as a backbone for the narrative. New-wave feminist horror films condemn the lustful attributes placed upon their female characters by literally abiding by the rules it despises. Since Barbara Creed introduced The Monstrous Feminine (1993), film theory has been indoctrinated with the obscure lexicon of her work, with films like Jennifer’s Body (2009) projecting its titular character and antagonist Jennifer (Megan Fox) as exuding a tidal wave of feral prowess. The monstrous women’s essence oozes attraction, allowing the floodgates of infatuation to open. Yet, her objectification is not a means to gaze but a critique to reclaim sexual identity. Similarly, All Cheerleaders Die weaponizes this strategy to tax the spectator and invite a level of openness and identification typically abandoned within mainstream narratives. The monstrous feminine has to become its worst enemy to realign the costumery of women.
The indoctrination of prominent sensualness is an ode to the transformative diegesis of horror. The Monstrous Feminine commonly denotes women as a commodity to perform under the guise of traditionalist feminity to lure the fearful male in and subsequently create visceral terror once the prey has been trapped. An abject power is espoused in this process, with the disciplines of objectivity — the erosion between the abhorrent self (corpses, fluids, death) and the norm acting as a vehicle for social commentary to trickle through passively.
Throughout All Cheerleaders Die, Mckee and Siverston abscond into the seismic power of abjection to revolt and satirize gender roles with a mask of corporeality to unleash a level of sincerity amidst the parody. After the shock of their transformation has dissipated, the cheerleaders take to their metamorphosis with an odd sense of glee, sometimes rejoicing in their collective capacity, lending spirit to their newfound strength and undead qualities. It is as if they mutually harbored an inner thirst for vengeance like a sordid fantasy bubbled inside them all along. Finally, they can burrow into the desire and exhume their savagery. The revenge portrayal ignites a deeply seeded awareness of the cheerleader’s bodily autonomy, with the film purposefully reveling in the often liberated but corrupt dichotomy of the cheerleader.
The adolescent male who competes in high school athletic competitions, partakes in extra-curricular activities, and maintains a steady grade is depicted as an academic weapon, perhaps a straight-laced, stand-up young gentleman. These exact attributes precisely define the role of a cheerleader. However, due to damaging media representations, a cheerleader's physique is the only attribute complimented. They are seen as meat to ogle at. All Cheerleaders Die arms its feminist stance with the ploy, outfitting Maddy, Tracy, Hanna, and Martha with short, pleather skirts, tight tops that bare their midriffs, heavy makeup, and pretty hair to present an archetypal version of femininity.
The cheerleaders walk through the hall in a scene that mimics the infamous corridor strut of films like Mean Girls (2004) and Jawbreaker (1999) to shine a spotlight on the evident male gaze this visual presents. Instead of digesting this scene with a brawny sensibility, this small snippet is a brazen means to comment on the tokenism that horror re-equips as an analytic device, taking advantage of women being taking advantage of. Due to the colloquial understanding from the teen horror subgenre, cheerleaders are concurrently at the top of the high school hierarchy, except in All Cheerleaders Die, the young women are allowed to explore their femininity while still inciting control.
As Maddy and her cohorts parade around, they catch the attention of every eye in the walkway, allowing their egos to be rightly swollen with pride. They are justifiably not ashamed of their faculties. All Cheerleaders Die does not fetishize the characters and then shame them through familiar horror film punishment for exploring the sexualization that was placed upon them. Alternatively, the film commutes the coming-of-age story's natural steps and salutes their pursuits.
The Monstrous Feminine uses horror as a catalyst to promote the gravitas of terror commonly pushed on women’s bodies. The theory divulges and exploits the assault of panic that ensues in society, particularly among cis-gendered men, when confronted with the ramifications of female beauty. Women cannot possess the stereotypically desired form without going through the scrum of puberty, without imparting pain, and exploring the urges their body is biologically destined to experience.
The argument is limited, as the premise primarily focuses on cisgender women, excluding those who identify themselves differently. However, the theory does allow many a small step in extrapolating an understanding of their individualness, no matter the character’s agency. A key instigator for Terry lashing out is his knowledge that Maddy and Tracy have been intimate with one another. Their sexual exploration is a trigger for Terry’s misogynistic rage. He could not satisfy Tracy, yet a woman could. The statement is belittling and catalyzes his pent-up bigoted anger.
All Cheerleaders Die casts the male characters with a rageful expression. Turbulent outbursts encompass their attitudes toward the cheerleaders, and their chauvinism is made abundantly clear. When Terry hears of Tracy’s past sexual encounters, he punches her in the face causing a bloody mess before running the cheerleader’s car off the road. Neatly contrasting the cruelty of Terry is the warmth owed to the cheerleaders, with one scene, in particular, shining a light on the film’s effectual dynamics. As we witness Tracy and Maddy being intimate, the camera does not linger with a feral, boisterous gaze. Rather, the frame slowly shifts to allow them privacy and respect, focusing on consent and tenderness.
Sexual encounters between same-sex couples, particularly women, should be depicted on film. It is degrading to see lesbianism as such a taboo that the camera dares not reveal it. In this case, All Cheerleaders Die uses Maddy and Tracy’s sex scene as a genuinely important plot point rather than puppetry to fuel male fantasy. The film relies on the over-sexualization canon to satirize phallocentric narratives by reclaiming ownership of gender identity. Still, it refuses to act as a supernormal stimulus toward scopophilic lustiness over lesbian intimacy.
Further transgressing the heteronormative barriers is the character’s unbridled monstrosity. Horror cinema relies on the rhetoric of the other, commonly metabolizing the hedonistic brutality of the grotesque with a contagious energy that acts as visual kryptonite. All Cheerleaders Die exercises these monstrous conventions to impart a space for queerness to alter the symbolic nature of teen horror. The group’s presentation of active, amorous cheerleaders exaggerates the stereotype, with the jibe being that the spectator knows the abject terror beneath the surface. Underneath the beguiling charm is a hungry undead witch. They encapsulate what Creed defines as the patriarchies’ worst nightmare. Their identity is hybrid, a multi-porous vehicle that threatens Terry and the rest of his "dogs." Steering this structure of the film is the candid notion that the cheerleaders possess a power that shields them and roots their bond with one another through a vessel that the trivialized football team could not even begin to grapple with.
All Cheerleaders Die wears its pride on its sleeve. It allows the cheerleaders to be flirtatious, fearless, and ferocious without having to suffer any pity over their ventures. The film refuses to disregard their sexuality and cover their bodies to depict puritan ideologies. McKee and Siverston do not make a fleshy circus out of their identities. Social engineering creates a keen sense of acceptance, allowing us to cheer for the cheerleader’s advances and what they represent instead of shaming them.
Grace Britten is the chief author for the horror film festival organizer Dead Northern and a contributor to The Film Magazine.