“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 use her mind to set things on fire. Barrymore was fresh off stealing the show in 1982’s ‘ET’, but that 1984 thriller was a critical flop, with Roger Ebert noting that for a film about deadly telekinesis, “the most amazing thing about film is… how boring it is is”.

Since then, pop culture has fully embraced the young girl with psychic powers trope, with many characters inspiring a devoted cult following. The metaphor of the unfathomable mystery, power and instability of a girl on the verge of womanhood – sweet sixteen and proms have both featured prominently – has gone through many iterations. And the genre has strayed far from the original “Carrie” shower scene, in which Sissy Spacek’s terrified teenage powder keg has tampons thrown at them by mean girls chanting “Plug it up!”

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

In celebration of a Firestarter reboot starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong (American Horror Story) in the Barrymore role and Zac Efron as her father, we present a watch list for the evolution of the medium-girl universe.

Sissy Spacek in the 1976s "carrie"
Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” from 1976.
Everett Collection

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

Dan Gauthier and Robyn Lively in the 1989s "Teen witch."
Dan Gauthier and Robyn Lively in 1989’s Teen Witch.

In this late ’80s film, now considered by many to be a camp classic, Robyn Lively played Louise Miller, a clumsy teenager who discovers that she is actually the reincarnation of a powerful witch and will unleash her abilities when she turns 16 will. A precursor to the ’90s teenage witch bonanza, it brought a light touch to the subject. Bonus: It has an inexplicable rap scene.

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

The mid-1990s were supernatural teenage girl weddings. Robin Tunney, Neve Campbell, Fairuza Balk and Rachel True are a group of high school friends who find strength in developing their magical powers – before it corrupts some of them. A millennial favourite, feminist and cheesy at the same time.

Melissa Joan Hart, Salem Cat, 'Sabrina's Pen Pal', (Season 3, Episode 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 light-hearted, laughable Archie comic book series adaptation in which her character, Sabrina, on her 16th birthday, learns she can do magic. Seven seasons followed, in which Hart proved the supernatural teenage girl’s staying power and ratings.

Mara Wilson in the 1996s "Mathilde."
Mara Wilson in 1996’s Matilda.
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Adorable child actress Mara Wilson played the title role in this adaptation of a hilariously dark Roald Dahl book, in which the precocious Matilda Wormwood discovers that she possesses telekinetic powers that arise when she is abused by the horrific adults around her. More menacing than many films ostensibly aimed at children — and a precursor to many other girl-centric, child-lit adaptations in film — this Dahl adaptation would spawn a hit Broadway musical.

Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar will be there "Buffy the vampire slayer."
Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
© 20thCentFox/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Joss Whedon’s series featured a variety of high school kids delving into supernatural subjects, but Alyson Hannigan’s geeky Willow Rosenberg was the character who most embodied the psychic teenager, with her powers gradually emerging throughout the series – concurrently with discovering she was gay and then tragically losing her friend. Buffy’s storylines have inspired countless academic studies, and Willow’s arc has been viewed as a portrayal of queerness, drug use, and the experiences of female hackers fighting back against a sexist community.

Emma Watson in the 2010s "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

The heroine of many disheveled bookworms, Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger was a Muggle-born girl with magical powers who saved Harry’s life on many occasions. Of all the psychic girls on the pop culture landscape, Hermione is perhaps the greatest, 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 mushy 1980s pop culture, but their breakthrough certainly came in the form of Millie Bobby Brown as the telekinetic elf. Brown’s Eleven, which initially conveyed strong Drew Barrymore vibes, has grown very much into her own unique character and introduced many younger viewers to the psychic girl trope.

Kiernan Shipka im "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."
Kiernan Shipka in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
© Netflix/Courtesy of Everett Colle

Kiernan Shipka anchored this iteration of the Sabrina story modernized with a darker, twisted, thoroughly gothic worldview — and most importantly, no laugh track. This “Sabrina” modernized the character once written for a sitcom, giving her an edge to match the culture’s embrace of the complexity of girls and women.

Sophia Lilis "I do not agree."
Sophia Lillis in “I Disagree With This.”
©Netflix/courtesy Everett Collection

Set in a vaguely sketched era that could be now or in the ’80s, this Netflix series starred Sophia Lillis as Sydney Novak, who was alarmed to discover she possessed anger-induced telekinetic powers. The show salutes early influences (see her first appearance in a blood-soaked Carrie dress) and Eleven from Stranger Things, making her the perfect bridge between the old and new guard.

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