‘Firestarter’ and the evolution of the psychic teen girl

‘Firestarter’ and the evolution of the psychic teen girl


The original “Firestarter,” based on the 1980 novel by Stephen King, starred Drew Barrymore as Charlie, an 8-year-old girl who can set things on fire with her mind. Barrymore was fresh from stealing the show in 1982’s “E.T.”, but this 1984 thriller was a critical flop, with Roger Ebert observing that for a film about lethal telekinesis, “the most astonishing thing in the movie … is how boring it is.”

Since then, pop culture has fully embraced the trope of the young girl with psychic powers, with many characters inspiring devoted cult followings. The metaphor of the unknowable mystery, power and instability of a girl on the cusp of womanhood — 16th birthdays and proms have both figured prominently — has been through many iterations. And the genre has come a long way from the original “Carrie” shower scene, in which Sissy Spacek’s terrified powderkeg of a teen is pelted with tampons by mean girls chanting “Plug it up!” 

Drew Barrymore in 1984’s “Firestarter.”
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Ryan Kiera Armstrong in the remake of "Firestarter."
Ryan Kiera Armstrong in the new “Firestarter,” out May 13.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

On the occasion of a “Firestarter” reboot, starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong (“American Horror Story”) in the Barrymore role and Zac Efron as her dad, we present a watch list for the evolution of the psychic-girl universe. 

Sissy Spacek in 1976's "Carrie."
Sissy Spacek in 1976’s “Carrie.”
Everett Collection

King’s first published novel became a Brian De Palma horror classic, with a young Spacek starring as Carrie White, the abused teen who develops the ability to move things with her mind (not to mention set them on fire) when she’s pushed to the brink by her domineering mother (Piper Laurie) and a horrifying prom prank involving a bucket of pig blood. “Carrie” would pave the way for decades of dangerous psychic girls down the line in pop culture.

Dan Gauthier and Robyn Lively in 1989's "Teen Witch."
Dan Gauthier and Robyn Lively in 1989’s “Teen Witch.”
©1989 ORION PICTURES CORPORATIO

In this late-eighties movie now viewed by many as a camp classic, Robyn Lively played Louise Miller, a gawky teen who finds that she’s actually the reincarnation of a powerful witch and will come into her abilities when she turns 16. A precursor to the teenage-witch bonanza of the ’90s, it brought a light touch to the subject matter. Bonus: it’s got an inexplicable rap scene.

A scene from 1996's "The Craft."
Rachel True (center) plays Rochelle in a scene from 1996’s “The Craft.”
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Eve

The mid-1990s were high times for supernatural teen girls. Robin Tunney, Neve Campbell, Fairuza Balk and Rachel True are a group of high school friends who find empowerment in developing their magical powers — before it corrupts some of them. A millennial fave, it’s feminist and cheesy in equal measure.

Melissa Joan Hart, Salem the cat, 'Sabrina's Pen Pal', (Season 3, ep. 320, aired March 26, 1999), 1996-2003.
Melissa Joan Hart with Salem the cat in a March 1999 episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
©Viacom/Courtesy Everett Collection

Melissa Joan Hart starred in this lighthearted, laugh-tracked series adaptation of an Archie comic, in which her character Sabrina learns on — yep, her 16th birthday — that she can do magic. Seven seasons ensued, with Hart proving the staying power, and ratings clout, of the supernatural teen girl.

Mara Wilson in 1996's "Matilda."
Mara Wilson in 1996’s “Matilda.”
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Adorable child actor Mara Wilson played the title role in this adaptation of a comically dark Roald Dahl book, in which precocious Matilda Wormwood finds she has telekinetic powers that emerge when she’s abused by the awful grownups around her. More ominous than many movies ostensibly for kids — and a predecessor of many other girl-centric kid lit adaptations in film — this Dahl adaptation would spawn a hit Broadway musical.

Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Joss Whedon‘s series featured a host of high school kids dealing with supernatural issues, but Alyson Hannigan’s geeky Willow Rosenberg was the character who most embodied the psychic-teen trope, with her powers emerging gradually throughout the series —concurrently with discovering she was gay, and then tragically losing her girlfriend. The plotlines of “Buffy” have inspired countless academic studies, and Willow’s arc has been viewed as a depiction of queerness, of drug use, and of the experiences of female hackers pushing back against a sexist community.

Emma Watson in 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."
Emma Watson in 2010’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, hero to many a tousle-haired female bookworm, was a Muggle-born girl with magical powers who ended up saving Harry’s life on many an occasion. Of all the psychic girls in the pop culture landscape, Hermione probably looms largest, inspiring generations of girls to embrace their inner superpowers.

Millie Bobby Brown in "Stranger Things."
Millie Bobby Brown in “Stranger Things.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Duffer brothers’ Netflix series channeled so many aspects of pulpy 1980s pop culture, but its breakout was surely Millie Bobby Brown as the telekinetic Eleven. Initially giving strong Drew Barrymore vibes, Brown’s Eleven has very much grown into her own unique character, and introduced many younger viewers to the trope of the psychic girl.

Kiernan Shipka in the "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."
Kiernan Shipka in the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Colle

Kiernan Shipka anchored this revisit of the Sabrina story, which was modernized with a darker, twistier, more thoroughly Gothic worldview — and, crucially, no laugh track. This “Sabrina” modernized the character once written for a sitcom, giving her an edge that was in keeping with the cultural embrace of girls’ and women’s complexity.

Sophia Lillis in "I Am Not Okay with This."
Sophia Lillis in “I Am Not Okay with This.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Set in a vaguely sketched era that could be now or the ’80s, this Netflix series starred Sophia Lillis as Sydney Novak, alarmed to find she has anger-induced telekinetic powers. The show tips its hat to early influences (see her initial appearance in a blood-soaked dress a la “Carrie”) and to Eleven of “Stranger Things,” making it the perfect bridge between the old and the new guard.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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