Jennifer’s Body: All Praise to the Hungry Ghost!

It’s unfortunate that we are not taught more about ghosts and demons – what it is they are and their relationship to the living – for in that absence, all we are left with is either stunned disbelief or terror: disbelief stemming from an insistence that the world conform to what we already know, thereby protecting ourselves from the mystery of the beyond; terror stemming from an inability or unwillingness to listen otherwise, which ultimately stems from the same brand of disbelief (witness: Drag Me to Hell).

Hungry Ghosts come in many shapes and sizes. Despite their varied appearance, most (if not all) are water-logged, carrying a surfeit of what we would normally consider an element of purification. But it is precisely a ghost’s misperceived relationship to this soothing balm that lies at the heart of their haunted condition, including their hunger. If there’s anything to glean from etymology here, it is this: “haunting” speaks of a certain kind of recurrence – a repetition – one that harkens back to one’s original home.

The hunger of some ghosts is quite literal: an obsession with things to be eaten and consumed. Food, drink, even air, if properly treated beforehand. For them, the mouth is the privileged gateway by which their neverending hunger is fed, serving it as their master, chasing down whatever – and whomever – has been identified as satisfying an appetite that will not go away. At times, the hunger is so deep that the ghost’s appearance will undergo a transformation, losing its identity through its consumption, turning into what it feeds upon. The irony is this: while such voraciousness serves its very survival, at least that’s what the ghost typically believes, it becomes the source of its immobility, fixed in space and time, unable to focus on anything but its next feeding, eventually sinking into the ground under its accumulated weight.

Such hunger may be attached to different emotions: anger, pride, greed, passion, fear, or paranoia. Therefore, should we find ourselves haunted by a ghostly figure, the imperative is to discern which of these animates spirit of the dead.

Technically speaking, Jennifer is not a ghost. (Needy calls her a daemon.) If anything, she most resembles a vampire: stealing the life of others, consuming their blood. It is an elaborate ritual of seduction she has developed, one that plays with the very elements that gave rise to her demise, inverting the logic of her would-be oppressors. However, like a ghost, Jennifer has survived death’s passing, is even oblivious to this aspect of her existence, consumed as she is by a certain hunger. Perhaps this is why, according to legend, neither ghosts nor vampires are reflected in the surface of a mirror, for they are left without substance, unable to recognize themselves or their unbecoming. Seemingly doomed to an afterlife of unseeing.

Yet, despite the haunting terror that defines the heart of this story, in the end it is Jennifer that identifies the path to liberation. In this sense, we can take seriously the film’s poster that puts her at the head of the classroom, as if she were a teacher. For underneath the campy celebration of evil is a certain seriousness, welcoming the “hell” from which so many of us would rather flee. And what, we may ask, are the lessons that Jennifer has to offer, should we choose to embrace the fire of destruction? She helps identify nothing other than what can be described as the three realms of existence, what one tradition describes in terms of the sacred geometry of the circle: the realm of perception, the realm of the body, and the “secret” realm of emotion.

The Nature of a Haunting

It begins innocently enough, or so it would seem.

As children, Needy and Jennifer kept each other company in the absence of the adults in their lives. Their private world is idyllic, shiny and bright, as if they hadn’t a care. But just as Needy complains to Jennifer – why do I have to be Ugly Ashley? – her partner will cry out in pain, as if this were the answer to the question she was asking: a prick has injured the other. This unwanted bleeding will make their bond all the stronger, turning them into blood sisters, best friends forever. However, in forging a secret pact to protect against whatever might come their way, little do they realize how this act of solidarity would eventually lead to their destruction. But such is the omnipotence of youth, taking on the world on the terms they are best able to devise: in this case, the creation of a binary system in which their roles come to be solidified as the Dork and the Babe. But we should not diminish or begrudge their adaptation, for it also held a promise that could not have been foreseen or foretold.

For as we already know, the childhood friends would eventually come to be mortal enemies, one killing the other, in defense of life as opposed to the cycle of bloodlust and death. But despite what we may have learned from the movies, that murder would bring neither satisfaction nor peace. Instead, the needy one would be transformed into a Kicker, finally carrying the (emotional) burden the other had faithfully borne for so long: her friend and protector, the one who only recently came to be her tormentor, since the time had come for their pact to be broken.

Should it have missed our attention, Jennifer is forever “crossing” Needy out, as if trying to reformulate the terms of her existence. We see it when we first meet the pair by Needy’s locker, when Jennifer, complaining about Needy’s plans to stay home , cries out “Boo! Cross out Needy.” It’s there in the immediate aftermath of the fiery blaze when Needy calls her boyfriend in a panic over what had just happened. It’s also there in the cell in which we find Needy at the film’s beginning. Each conspiring to tell us, if not Needy herself, that some kind of transformation was in the making, correcting for a world on the brink of chaos, dangerously out-of-balance.

Until that time, however, Jennifer served another function. We only see a glimpse of it, and it’s likely to have gone unrecognized by Needy as well, dismissed as a sign of the other’s preoccupation. But Jennifer served as a guide, Needy’s navigator among the world of men. So even though her methods may have seemed crude and her tongue vulgar, Jennifer provided an introduction to a world beyond the cocoon of safety Needy created for herself. One that revolved around the constant tug-of-war, the battle of the sexes, in which the (masculine) other wanted but one thing and one thing alone.

Part of the “work” that Jennifer provided (for Needy) was the simple yet repeated reminder of Needy’s sex: the simple fact that she’s a girl. Not a person of abstraction or one possessed of a neutral body, but a female. One whose physiology functions in its own way, possessing a rhythm irreducibly different from that of boys. While unrefined and off-color, her speech is no different from what can be found in the rough and tumble of the male locker room, with its teasing and bullying, the juvenile play with jockstraps and condoms, the strutting of masculine prowess and exaggerated tales of conquest. In her own way, Jennifer provides Needy with a parallel initiation into femininity and, given her nickname and demeanor, one that’s probably quite different from the shame and embarrassment she’s likely to have already received in the arms of another.

Jennifer’s tutelage clearly emerges from her own experience, for boys are always throwing furtive and longing glances in her direction, and the more courageous ones are always asking her out. As we can see, it’s an exhausting experience, this plight of always having to bear the projections of others. A certain kind of haunting. So, it’s quite understandable, even laudable, to witness how Jennifer transforms this exasperation into instruction for a certain kind of empowerment. She teaches Needy about the hidden language that underlies interactions with boys and men, the unspoken rules of the dating game (or the game of hooking-up), learning that compliments cannot be taken at face value, and that obnoxiousness must be responded to in kind, with equal if not greater force. In other words, in Jennifer’s world, there’s no reason to believe that being a female means belonging to the weaker sex. For she has found a way to possess herself, and her own body, and all that it has come to represent for the masculine other.

Which is not to say that Jennifer has cornered the truth about feminine existence. To the contrary. Jennifer’s worldly confidence will fail to protect her at the moment she seemed to need it the most: when she finally comes face-to-face with a figure more dangerous than she could have imagined. So, while Jennifer may have developed a successful model for navigating the world of men – the circle of perception – she will also have made a grave error, one that would lead to her very demise. For in the end, when she needed her strength the most, she turned into mush, dazed and confused in front of the figure Needy would later describe as the very embodiment of evil.

Coming to Awareness

In other words, just because Jennifer had developed a (cynical) portrait of the world of boys and men, doesn’t mean that she had the equally important world of the senses at her disposal. For this inner circle requires development, as well.

So, in the aftermath of Jennifer’s transformation – in the wake of the demonic transference – we begin to see Needy thrown into confusion and despair. Not only is she floored by the deaths that only seem to multiply following the awful fire, she is forced to live with that horrible scene in her kitchen: the sight of her feral friend, vomiting a torrent of putrid waste, a scene that Jennifer seems insistent on denying ever happened. But despite the torment that surrounds Needy and her school environment, life-as-normal will continue, as it invariably does, and as it should.

Jennifer’s relation to Needy itself undergoes a transformation, as if in her new incarnation she’s providing Needy with a different kind of guidance, one less concerned with the world at large – or her perceptions of it – than with a pedagogy of the body. This will begin almost immediately, as she calls Needy in the immediate aftermath of one of her killings.

I feel so scrumptious.
– Goody for you. –
You know how you feel when you kiss a boy for the first time,
and it feels like your entire body is on vibrate?

– Yeah.
It’s that good.

For Needy, the nature of what Jennifer was trying to communicate will not fully register, given her obsession with the accumulating bodies of the dead. But slowly, we’ll begin to realize how Jennifer’s new focus on the body will begin to infuse Needy, as well. So, when Jennifer taunts a boy into asking her out – Colin Gray, the Goth boy that has caught Needy’s eye – only to reject his advances, Needy will come to his defense, saying that he’s a nice guy. Jennifer will remain unimpressed –

He listens to maggot rock.
He wears nail polish.
My dick is bigger than his.

– until Needy persists in her defense of the boy, as when she declares, “Well, I think he’s really cool.” It’s an unusual moment in their friendship, one in which Needy actually asserts an opinion that differs from her friend’s, particularly when it comes to boys. And this gives Jennifer pause. In fact, she will use it as an excuse to reconsider her rejection of Colin’s proposal, and suggest that they meet later that night instead.

Which serves as the set-up for a pivotal moment in Jennifer and Needy’s story: the moment when Needy’s quiet night with Chip is interrupted, first by intrusions of blood and, later, a haunting vision of Jennifer herself, looking more animal than human, perhaps even spawned by the devil himself. In that moment, two scenes as different as night and day are unfolding. Or so it would seem. For while Needy is enjoying the tender moment of love’s embrace, Jennifer’s bloodlust, enacted elsewhere with Colin Gray, begins to seep into her consciousness. Even though the two scenes couldn’t be more different from each other – one an evening of consensual sex, the other a night of cruel seduction – it’s as if they begin to bleed into one another, where the simple act of welcoming and enveloping the other blurs into the cruel extraction of vulnerability, fear and blood. If both scenes happened to co-exist within the same person, this would surely be the height of ambivalence and confusion. So, as Needy witnesses the alternation between one and the other, pleasure suddenly turns into terror.

It should go without saying, of all this Chip remains blissfully unaware, caught up in his own experience of their naked bodies. So when Needy rushes away in a state of panic, he will be left confused and bewildered, left in the dark, wondering what had come to possess her.

Despite Needy’s efforts to escape, Jennifer’s ghost will find her. For a single moment, like a thunderbolt, the two will face each other through broken glass, the fractured windshield providing Needy with a vision of her personal hell. But because the image is so unreal and would never received confirmation in the light of day, she will push back from the knowledge beckoning her, hoping that it’s nothing but a dream.

Such wistful avoidance will not work, however. Sooner or later Needy will need to face the conclusion regarding her connection to Jennifer’s doings and the corpses left in her wake. For she cannot help but recognize that the longer she delays, the closer Jennifer is moving to what’s dearest to her heart: no longer satisfied with prey that populate the edge of Needy’s world, Jennifer’s attention has increasingly turned to the drummer she calls her own.

Before long, Needy begins to see Jennifer and the evidence of her blood-thirst everywhere. Which is why she will break-up with Chip, asking that he stay away from the Dance. The earlier killings left Needy in a haze – confused and depressed – but the idea of having her boyfriend join their ranks is just too much to bear.

Because none of this can be explained to the young and naive boy, he will be swallowed by his tiny world of pain, leaving Needy to do battle with the demon by herself, without the assistance of another.

And so, on the big night, Needy will stand watch in the Devil’s Playground, aiming to stop Jennifer’s rampage and hoping that Chip has found the sense to stay away. But as Low Shoulder begins to play, including the singer that came to be Jennifer’s rapist and killer, Needy will begin to fume, not only because she’s forced to listen to their awful performance, but because of their – and everyone else’s – obliviousness to what happened to her friend.

It is precisely at that moment, as the anger surges within her, that Needy will be alerted to yet another sensation, one that informs her that Jennifer has found her prey. Telling her that Jennifer has captured Chip and will continue with her killings, despite all efforts to stave off what now seems to be the inevitable. And it is this realization – emerging through the conduit of her body, merged with the recognition of her love – which will ignite Needy to act, giving way to the final confrontation leading to Jennifer’s (second) demise.

Illumination

Since all of these events follow our introduction to Needy’s (aka Kicker’s) prison, it is safe to say that what we have witnessed is an extended flashback. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, they are the contents of her meditation.

For when we were first introduced to Needy, she was already incarcerated to a life behind bars, seemingly doomed to a life of imprisonment. Whether this captivity – evicted from the land of the living – was imposed from without or the result of her own doing makes little difference since, in the end, she is left by herself. All alone, without anyone else to save her. Yes, she receives fan mail from crazy admirers, some of whom pray for her and invite her to accept Jesus Christ into her heart. But as Needy informs us, even that doesn’t work, for when she mouths the words, nothing ever happens, nobody comes back.

And as the camera pans across her room to focus on the picture of her beloved, she will add: “Nobody gets off the cross.”

Separated from the world that she had come to accept as “normal” and her home, and no longer able to rely on family and friends to feed her understanding of herself and the world, Needy’s transformation into Kicker becomes complete. The neediness – should we say hunger? – that had defined her earlier existence is soon replaced by a different emotion, more basic and more pure. The only problem is, she doesn’t know where or how to direct it, whom to blame, particularly for the predicament within which she finds herself.

It’s possible that she might attempt to conjure images of her love, and perhaps that will calm the rage for a while. Or maybe she will feed the anger, identifying those that have done her wrong, mulling over the events and places that have brought her to this captivity. But in the end, neither avenue will bring relief, and this will leave Needy-Kicker alone with the anger, on the edge of sanity, with no object to focus on other than herself.

She will find herself in the darkest of cells – the one with the big cross marking the end of her earthly existence – forced to confront what’s staring her in the face, and what refuses to let her go.

Which is precisely where our story began, as Needy recalls for herself (and us) the different elements that brought her to this hollow prison. Condemned to a solitary existence, and faced with the impossible task of constructing the basis for her own redemption.

Somehow – although we’re not told exactly how – the very process of retelling her story brings the kind of peace that had seemed so impossible before. The only clue that’s provided to us is the meditative stance in which we find her as the film comes to its end. The fact that she’s levitating should alert us to the fact that this is not your usual mediation, the kind of sitting by which people desperately chase after the kind of serenity that will compensate for their ordinary and hectic lives. For that kind of meditation is merely a self-induced trance whose effect will be short-lived, at best. Neither is it the kind of meditation by which practitioners seek ecstatic union with the divine since, ultimately, that is a form of escape as well.

Instead, the levitation signals Needy’s movement through the elements, from earth to water, through fire, into the air and, finally, inhabiting the space which has defined her life and herself. This is the kind of meditation that allows Needy to reconnect the different aspects of her existence, to identify the continuities that have held her life together – for example, finding the line connecting the prick of childhood, the demonic transference, and the subsequent killings – so that she can finally find the track that will help her get out of that prison.

So, when we find Needy suspended in her cell, it’s safe to say that she has risen to achieve a certain form of buddhahood. As she elevates herself to the uppermost reaches of her darkened room – to the window – and as she find the force to kick through its grated panes, we will see that she has acquired the power of one-pointedness, puncturing the last barrier separating her from a world beyond pain and confusion, beyond loneliness and despair. Beyond neediness. And beyond the rage.

As she walks to her new destination, she will make another unexpected discovery. At the edge of the forest, she will discover that Devil’s Kettle is not a gaping hole that would send everything pointed into its mouth into obscurity, neither the blade used in Jennifer’s slaying nor the toy balls that are merely meant for playing. The mad rush of water which previously disappeared into the empty tomb have also returned, gently gurgling in the quiet of the night, yet still enough to reflect the light of the moon.

The different genre of the scenes that soon follow will indicate Needy’s final separation from the world of her previous reality, putting to death the past that had so confined her and tethered her to a future that held nothing but the absence of promise. It is less an act of aggression than the final severance with everything that came before, the secret yearnings, and the cycle of pain and pleasure which had become her invisible prison.

It is thanks to Jennifer that this journey will have been made since, without her, Needy will not have seen the face of terror. Neither would she have been forced to trace the root of her existence, the seed of her becoming. But now, having learned how to reconcile her neediness with her body – overcoming the split between herself and Jennifer, her other – the conflict between their sex and the one belonging to the Other, in short, aligning the different “circles” that have constituted her life, Needy finds herself on the brink of a new possibility, ready to experience what the world has to offer, on terms different than those of her previously fractured existence.

For like the flower that has made a home above the water and the mud, Needy has emerged victorious, untainted by all that came before.

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~ by mistified on May 17, 2010.

One Response to “Jennifer’s Body: All Praise to the Hungry Ghost!”

  1. Omg

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