“But am I normal?” Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA and being a Teen on the Spectrum
Dario Argento’s Phenomena is my favorite film.
Bizarre choice, right? Most people haven’t heard of it, let alone seen it, and those who have often give it muted praise at best.
So why does this obscure slasher speak to me so deeply? It is the most poignant depiction of being a weird and lonely teenager that I have ever seen, and it closely mirrors my experiences as an adolescent on the spectrum.
Phenomena follows the story of Jennifer, a teenager sent by her film-star father to the Richard Wagner School for Girls in Switzerland. Jennifer, to put it mildly, does not fit in. She is prone to sleepwalking and has an intense interest in insects, an obsession her fellow students and teachers treat with a mixture of confusion and contempt.
I also attended a boarding school as a teenager, and my time there closely resembled Jennifer’s. Like many with Asperger’s, I struggled to connect with my peers, and even in an environment where I was surrounded by people 24/7, I felt isolated and adrift, unable to make friends or find anyone who shared my obsession with classic film. To my surprise, most fourteen-year-old boys don’t idolize Fritz Lang.
Jennifer arrives at the Wagner School at a bad time. A serial killer has been stalking the surrounding countryside for months, brutally murdering teenage girls, and when Jennifer’s roommate and only friend becomes his latest victim, Jennifer crosses paths with John McGregor, a Scottish entomologist using his expertise to help catch the killer.
Like Jennifer, McGregor is a stranger in a strange land, trapped in Switzerland by an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to his wheelchair-accessible home, McGregor’s only companions are the insects he studies and his helper-ape, a chimpanzee by the name of Inga. Both deeply lonely, McGregor and Jennifer bond over their shared love of insects, forming a friendship with paternal overtones.
It is to McGregor that Jennifer reveals her deepest secret: she can communicate with insects and see the world through their eyes. Jennifer is embarrassed by this ability, fearing it makes her a freak, but McGregor reassures her that her gift is beautiful and that it makes her special.
My McGregor came in the form of an English teacher, Mrs. Saarnijoki. Assigned to me as a faculty adviser, we quickly bonded over our shared love of film. Meeting in her office, we would sit and discuss A Clockwork Orange, or Barry Lyndon, or Eyes Wide Shut (I was really, really into Kubrick), and in those precious moments, I felt truly connected to someone. Unalone.
Like most people on the spectrum, I had realized at an early age that my brain worked differently than other people’s. In some ways, it seemed to work better. I was adept at recognizing patterns, able to store and recall vast amounts of information. Yet in other ways, it seemed to work worse. My thought patterns and interests were often singular and obsessive. I was easily overwhelmed by sensory information, especially loud noises. Most frustratingly of all, I was baffled by the nuances of social interactions.
Like Jennifer, I saw the world through strange eyes, and felt this made me a freak. Like McGregor, Mrs. Saarnijoki reassured me that I was just different, special.
Sadly for Jennifer, the rest of society doesn’t see her the same way. Upon discovering her journal, in which she has written about her psychic abilities, the Wagner School’s headmistress labels Jennifer insane and forces her to undergo an EEG. Despite some highly abnormal brain readings, the headmistress continues to disbelieve Jennifer’s claims, as do the other students, who taunt Jennifer and call her a freak.
Unable to take their abuse, Jennifer has a breakdown, and a swarm of flies surround and cover the exterior of the school, shocking the students and staff into silence.
My conversations with Mrs. Saarnijoki became an oasis in a desert of cruelty. Like Jennifer, I was teased and tormented by other students, often on a daily basis. One peer in particular took it upon himself to make my life a living hell, and his behavior towards me eventually crossed a line from simple bullying into something much darker.
I had a breakdown and attempted suicide.
As if Jennifer’s life couldn’t get worse, someone breaks into McGregor’s home and murders the man in his wheelchair. Jennifer, having run away from school, arrives at McGregor’s house just in time to see the police wheel his bloodied body out on a stretcher.
Deeply traumatized and completely alone, Jennifer flees to the airport and tries to call her father. Told by an assistant that her father is too busy, Jennifer desperately phones her family’s lawyer and demands he buy her a plane ticket home.
The lawyer responds by calling the Wagner School, and Jennifer is met at the airport by Frau Buckner, a teacher, who tells Jennifer that her flight home is scheduled for the next morning. Jennifer refuses to return to the school, so Buckner invites her to spend the night at her house, a big creepy mansion on the edge of a lake.
Buckner’s tragic backstory is then revealed. Prior to teaching at the Wagner School, she worked in an asylum for the criminally insane, where she was raped and impregnated by one of the inmates. The child she gave birth to was mentally ill and deeply deformed, and out of a desire to protect her son from a world that would reject him and a sense of shame surrounding his creation, Buckner retreated into isolation, keeping her son locked away in his room.
Desperate for companionship, Buckner’s son eventually escaped and committed the murders that have terrified the country for months, keeping the remains of his victims beneath the floorboards of the house.
Buckner reveals that she murdered McGregor to protect her child, and she tries to do the same to Jennifer. Assisted by the conveniently-timed arrival of a homicide detective, Jennifer manages to escape to the lake, climbing into a motorboat attached to a dock.
As Jennifer starts the motor, Buckner’s son jumps onto the back of the boat with a spear in his hands. Dodging his attacks, Jennifer again summons a swarm of flies. The flies attack Buckner’s son, devouring his face and causing him to stab the boat’s gastank, starting a fire. Jennifer leaps into the lake as the boat explodes, the flames consuming the deranged killer.
Lit by billowing flames and a full moon, Jennifer calmly swims to shore, a small smile on her lips. Dressed in white, she slowly rises from the water, looking like she’s been baptized, a phoenix reborn.
Jennifer has used her powers for good, and in doing so, embraced them. She no longer sees herself as a monster, a freak. She has faced a real monster, and she has survived.
I also survived, and like Jennifer, I have slowly come to accept who I am. Like Jennifer, like McGregor, like Frau Buckner and her son, I often feel isolated and lonely. But when I watch Phenomena, I feel less alone, and what more can you ask from a film than that?