"Hymen Holocaust": 'Cherry Falls' and the Myth of the Sacred Virgin

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Episode Two

Since the fifties, teen culture has often revolved around an active rejection of the values and morals of the past generation. As horror movies suggest, when it comes to sex that rejection can be a matter of life or death.

In the latter half of the 90s, virgins inexplicably became a gigantic cultural obsession. In 1995, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz vowed that she was saving her virginity for Jason Priestly - a fact Brittany Murphy’s Tai got way harsh about during their third act fight of Clueless. In 1996, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott was still so traumatised by her mother’s brutal murder in Scream that she was struggling to give up her v-card to her “bubble butt boyfriend” Billy - but then wound up losing it to the guy right before discovering that (whoops!) he was the one who had killed Maureen Prescott. In 1999, American Pie’s gaggle of horny teens were so desperate to pop their cherry that one of them stuck their dick in a pie and Sofia Coppola brought us an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ suicidal sisters with The Virgin Suicides.

Them, from 1996 onwards, Britney Spears became America’s sweetheart by simultaneously teasing an apparently naive hyper-sexual aesthetic that included red vinyl catsuits and minuscule schoolgirl outfits while also maintaining that she was still a virgin - and would remain so until marriage. It was later alleged by her mother (so take it with a pinch of salt) that Britney had actually lost her virginity at 14 and that we perhaps should have paid more attention to the singer when she warned us, “I’m not that innocent” on “Oops, I Did It Again”.

Time and again we were culturally reminded of the apparent sacred nature of virginity, and what a huge deal it is to lose it (spoiler alert: In most people’s cases, it really isn’t). So it seemed only natural that in 2000 a horror movie would end this era of virginal obsessions with what the film tongue-in-cheek describes as a “hymen holocaust”: Cherry Falls. To bring the era full circle, the film stars Brittany “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” Murphy and features a shot early on in the movie which is almost identical to Britney Spears’ highly controversial 1999 virgin-bait cover for Rolling Stone. Here you find the sacred virgin in her natural environment: Looking old enough to be sexy yet young enough to still be innocent, and cradling a childhood toy close to her bosom.

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Cherry Falls is by no means a perfect movie, but it sure as hell is a fun one. Set in a small town with the preposterously prophetic name of Cherry Falls, this campy gem of a slasher sees a psycho killer hacking away at the high school virgin population. Like American Pie, the movie is full of hyper hormonal yearning and that apparent teenage desperation to lose that sacred virginity by any consensual means possible. It’s also worth noting that the film is obviously one of a long line of post-Scream teen slashers born of an era where self-awareness, meta-commentary, and laboured witty dialogue (like the aforementioned “hymen holocaust” line) were all essential components of the average teen horror. Like Scream, it’s also part-satire and part-horror. And while it may not deconstruct an entire genre quite as successfully as Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s masterpiece does, it still has plenty to say about slasher movie tropes and the role of the virgin within them and modern culture as we know it.

“The minute you get a little nookie--you're as good as gone. Sex always equals death.”

By now we’re all familiar - perhaps overly so - with the “rules” of surviving slasher movies, as laid out by Jamie Kennedy’s Randy in Scream. Aside from the whole “don’t say you’ll be right back” part of his spiel, the majority of those rules stem from many slasher movies holding an oddly conservative stance for a genre full of gratuitous nudity and violence. Rising to their peak popularity during the hyper-conservative governments of the Republican party in the US and the Tory party in the UK, these movies would see punishment doled out to horny, partying teenagers who dared to enjoy such wondrous past times as drugs, alcohol, or (gasp!) pre-marital teenage sex.

In Scream, of course, despite being incredibly aware of living a real-life version of a slasher movie Sidney Prescott chooses to break the rules that could safeguard her survival and enjoys some of that punishable pre-marital sex with her boyfriend, Billy. In Cherry Falls, however, Jody (Brittany Murphy) also chooses to put her life in direct danger by choosing to remain a virgin despite even her father’s insistence that it could be safer for her to simply pop that cherry to save herself from the killer’s blade.

Sidney is arguably a product of an era where teenagers in shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek openly explored their sexuality on screen with little fear of punishment. Meanwhile Jody is a reminder that while teenagers were enjoying a liberated sense of sexual awakening on screen in the 90s, that there was still much of America (and the UK) who were concerned about how quickly “kids these days” were growing up, perhaps thanks to what they perceived as over-sexualised teen culture. As Larry Miller’s overbearing father in 10 Things I Hate About You states, there was a real fear at this time of the impact that “Those damn Dawson’s River kids, sleeping in each other’s beds and whatnot” was having on the minds and after-school activities of the average teen.

In popular culture, the male teenage virgin was often portrayed as a hopeless, pathetic nerd like Jason Biggs’ character in American Pie, Xander Harris in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Dawson Leery in Dawson’s Creek — lads whose virginity remained in-tact, but rarely out of choice. For women, the virgin was depicted by the polar opposite of this character - like Britney Spears’ carefully crafted public persona or Alicia Silverstone in Clueless: She was the smoking hot vixen saving herself for the “right man” and the right moment. And more often than not that “right man” was represented by an overbearing father figure, immensely proud of his daughter’s purity. Teenage boys had little to lose by getting laid, but apparently teenage girls had a lot more at stake in the eyes of society at large — and that was likely as true in the 80s, 90s, and 00s as it is now.

Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more

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In Cherry Falls, after discovering that the serial killer disposing of high schoolers is specifically targeting virgins, Jody’s town sheriff father creeps into her bedroom in the middle of the night to wake her up for a friendly ol’casual chat about whether she’s gotten laid yet - you know, as you do. In a baffling series of questions and answers, Jody appears to be almost endeared by her father’s late night line of questioning. However, after she informs him that she’s still a virgin and still his “little girl” as a result (euw) she also sees that he’s troubled by her answer in a way she didn’t expect.

She asks if he’s disappointed that she hasn’t fucked her boyfriend yet (because this movie is stacked full of ludicrous dialogue that will make you do a spit take if you try and drink during it), and he gives her a fatherly smooch on the forehead and tells her that of course he isn’t - hell, he’s proud of his little virgin! End scene — and everyone needs a hot shower to wash the gross off. It’s a weird scene in a movie full of weird scenes but it’s also an important one. While we’re led to believe for most of Cherry Falls that Jody is keeping her virginity in tact for herself, her father’s evident pride at her purity - not to mention the way he still kisses his teenage daughter on the goddamn lips - suggests that the character is also maintaining her purity so that she can remain daddy’s “little girl”.

Jody has a clear sexual interest in her boyfriend Kenny (played by the always wonderful Gabriel Mann) who is shown becoming so frustrated with his girlfriend’s apparent disinterest in intimacy that he breaks up with her at the start of the film. A few virgin murders later, however, and Jody seems to rediscover herself. In yet another of the movie’s weird scenes, Jody rocks up to Kenny’s home looking like seduction on wheels (beep beep!) and demands that he sucks her toes (get it, girl!). However, she soon gets bored when she realises he’s intimidated by her sexual dominance rather than aroused by it, and she promptly leaves to potentially have sex with her English teacher (Jay Mohr) instead.

In exploring Jody’s decision about whether to lose her virginity and how, the film emphasises the importance of sexual autonomy and choice over the apparent sanctity of virginity. Jody realises it’s just as ludicrous to feel pressured to lose her virginity as it is to feel pressured to remain a virgin - especially to ensure her father still loves her just the same as he always has. Scream and Cherry Falls are alike in this manner, depicting two very different teenage girls determined to make their father’s proud while also maintaining agency over their lives, regardless of the possible fatal consequences of their decisions. In both films, sex is presented as being far less of a big deal to the main protagonist than people warn them about. And that’s true in all respects except one - the sexual proclivities of their parents have a colossal impact on their lives.

Sex equals death: Paying for the sins of the parents

When the killer is revealed in Cherry Falls, we discover that (spoilers!) Jody’s English teacher has been the one dressing up like his mother (oh, hey Normal Bates. More on you in just a second) and slaughtering virgins all over town. It turns out that Mr. Marliston’s mother was raped by Jody’s dad as a teenager and this psycho killer is the son born of that violent act. While Mr. Marlinston suffered abuse from his traumatised mother for being a harsh reminder of a horrifying event she’d rather forget, Jody’s dad simply shook off the rape accusation like it ain’t no thing to become a figure of authority in the town (sounds familiar).

As Mr. Marlinston tells Jody and her father while he has them tied up in his basement (natch), it’s “a stinking world … where rapists become the pillars of the community.” As a result, he holds the entire town responsible for the lack of justice his mother received and punishes the next generation for the mistakes of their parents. In Scream, of course, Maureen Prescott is the one violently punished for what Billy Loomis considers to be her sexual misdeeds (having an affair with his father and, as Matthew Lillard’s Stu puts it, “flashing her shit around town like she was Sharon Stone.”) but eventually the killing spree continues against the children of Woodsboro, too. The specific, final goal? Sidney - Maureen’s daughter and Billy’s girlfriend.

In fact, poor Maureen is held as the prime motivation for just about every murder right across all three films of the original Scream trilogy. Her promiscuity and “loose morals” are held up as having directly and indirectly destroyed so many lives that not only did she deserve to be killed for it, but dozens of others apparently deserve to be slaughtered for it too. If only she would have remained an innocent!

What both Scream and Cherry Falls suggest is that these teenagers are products of that same “stinking world” in which double standards see a woman like Maureen brutally punished for sleeping around, with the men who slept with her (like Billy’s dad) living to see another day without having to suffer similar. It’s a world where a rapist becomes successful enough to become a sheriff, and his victim is made a social outcast for having spread “false accusations” that he raped her. It’s also the same world where Britney Spears was only allowed to own and enjoy her sexuality so long as she kept up the pretence that she was still a virgin but was attacked by the media the second that virginal facade started to show signs of weakness.

Girls get busy: Sex as survival

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It’s telling that in its killer, Cherry Falls takes a page out of Psycho’s playbook. After all, Psycho could well be considered the originator of the sex equals death trope in how Norman Bates dispatches of “loose woman” Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) while she’s on the run. In the past couple of decades, however, just as teen slasher movies have fallen out of mainstream favour, so too has the sex equals death trope. In movies like Teeth, It Follows, and Jennifer’s Body, the trope has been smartly utilised to great effect to explore modes of survival that involve sexual exploration — and occasionally, some very literal maneating.

Like Scream and Cherry Falls, these are movies that actively fight against the idea that sex is a punishing act worthy of vitriol or a shameful act worthy of punishment. Instead, these are part of a fascinating collection of movies that explore young women enjoying their sexual autonomy in which the question of fucking or not fucking is never tied to questions of social acceptance, but rather personal strength and endurance against a stinking world that all too often values the virgin and punishes the “whore”.