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!”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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 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.
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.