The Freudian Psychodrama of ‘Cherry Falls’

August 2nd, 2022 | By Annette LePique

Brittany Murphy Cherry Falls

Geoffrey Wright’s Cherry Falls (2000) is both an insightful early aughts horror in which sex saves and kills, and a chaotic coming of age where a cross-dressing serial killer raises hell at a teenage orgy to a breakbeats soundtrack. In spite of, or perhaps because of Cherry Falls’ tonal friction, the narrative generates space for nuances of sex to shine in plots both outrageous and lurid. Through Wright’s genre film sense of pacing and investment in the tropes of the teen sex comedy — with nods to nineties slashers — sex here is funny and grotesque. It is a gateway to the adult world of ambiguity, the truism that life exists in shades of grey: the sexually aggressive boyfriend turns vulnerable suitor during an emotional confession and the tertiary character of Falls’ resident “fast girl” is not shamed for her experience. Yet, this is not to hold Wright’s film as a paragon of cinematic virtue. Where would the fun in that be?

Death of the Virgin

Starring Brittany Murphy and Jay Mohr, Cherry Falls opens on a young couple kissing in the backwoods of a small Virginia town. The viewer witnesses the beginning of a classic horror cliché: a couple in the throes of passion are caught unaware as a nefarious stranger looms closely behind them. Viewers may think the couple is about to be punished for the transgression of sex, the virgin long being horror’s lone survivor. However, the couple are virgins and agree to hold off on consummating their relationship. At the reveal of the couple’s chastity, the shadowy figure of the killer emerges from the car behind them. The teens soon die with the word “virgin” carved upon the softness of their bodies.

The conceit of Falls is simple but effective: a killer is targeting teens who are supposed virgins. Now this villain has a tricky modus operandi as the conception and state of one’s virginity is constantly in flux; it’s a game of he said, she said, they said. Who really knows what happens behind closed doors? In addition, in more recent years, collective discourse has disassembled the abstraction of virginity as a somewhat outmoded relic, a societal means of control upon bodies, specifically young bodies of “marriageable” age. Yet, the idea of virginity persists and, as Falls shows, is a compelling catalyst for life, death, and everything in between.

‘Cherry Falls’ and Freudian Choices

In the Freudian psychodrama of everyday life, one must sometimes move beyond the “pleasure principle” to locate the origins of a desire, however destructive and antithetical to one’s waking life it may be. Think of your own wants, needs, lusts; the ones that you have learned to live with, the ones that make you cringe with discomfort or the ones that you can only think about alone, in the middle of the night. These are the thoughts peppered with annihilation, the need to stop being yourself even just for a moment. They’re not always about pleasure but also contain the feelings and sensations that lie in pleasure’s wake. Freud termed the drives that dictate both the desires born pleasurable sensations and the tumult of annihilation, eros and thanatos — one’s life force and death drive. This is not to position one drive as superior to the other for each color the full spectrum of our shared humanity.

While these urges exist in uneasy harmony within us all, they’re formed in unique ways through one’s earliest anxieties, needs, pleasures, the defining boundaries of childhood. For Freud, what lies at the center of these memories is the “primal scene,” the moment where a young person discovers the origins of themselves, the mechanics of the sexual act. What it means to be a sweating, wanting, seeping, warm-blood creature in the world. For all of us, this is a moment of great confusion, like any revelation of the unknown it scrambles the boundaries between the self and the other. The image is also one of indelible violence for the child for they see an act where love disassembles the self; bodies are rearranged and returned anew. There is an essential, human break here. There is little space between birth and annihilation. To be in this world means to be left wanting, and sometimes, many times, traumatized.

In Cherry Falls, these three concepts — eros, thanatos, and the primal scene — exist in an ersatz harmony. For at the film’s heart lies a story of sex as a story of power: who has the power of pain, and pleasure, over others per the social edicts of this small town. The idea then of the primal scene as origins, the root of one’s compulsions and drives, those things that forever go bump in your night, is a generative means by which to understand the film. I’m attached to a Freudian reading of Cherry Falls because at the narrative’s heart two girls stand: one had her agency taken from her generations prior, the other, our protagonist played by Brittany Murphy, is left with a choice. This choice is a freedom to choose what and who she desires.

Generational Violence in ‘Cherry Falls’

For the first girl, the violence committed against her reverberates through the town’s generations. Desires and secrets born of this trauma are not healthy as they are not born of consent, these are games of power where no one signed up for gameplay. This is a story of the consequences of power unwillingly visited upon others. The first girl’s trauma summarily stands as a collective primal scene for the town’s teens. The secret act, and the ensuing coverup and denial, function as a revelation of sex, lies, and violence. The town’s history unveils the shallowness of upbringings built upon appearances. A trend evidenced early on in a scene where Murphy’s bottle blonde mother, the archetypical bored cougar, hits on her boyfriend. These are homes where kids worry, think, and pine for sex, but it is never spoken of with honesty or candor. These are homes where prohibitions, shame, and strict proselytizing are the norm.

The idea of choice — deciding for yourself how to live, how to love, how to be in this world — comes to a head in the film’s climactic orgy. Group sex is the teen population of Cherry Falls’ solution to collectively removing themselves from the killer’s hit list. As far as solutions go, the idea of an orgy to face a killer is both stupendously simple and hilariously anarchic. This is a plot development that takes the best tropes of genre film and lays bare their ability to destabilize convention, rock the proverbial boat, and throw a hell of a party. However, your choosing, knowing, and pursuing what animates you always exists with the healthy and unhealthy longings for annihilation. Like Murphy’s final glance of the killer against the windows of a quiet flower shop, be vigilant about what you want. 


This is not a call to read Cherry Falls as a rarefied art object of the near distant past, something inaccessible and remote. Rather I hope to share a desire for new, surprising, and curious ways to consider genre films that are chaotic, funny, and altogether uncontainable. Genre film, like psychoanalysis, is for the people. These are things, experiences, and thoughts, to be shared, made and remade anew, together. 

Annette LePique

Annette LePique is an arts writer and educator based in Chicago. Her research interests include cinema, race, time, hysteria, and the ill body. She has written for Cleo Film Journal, Another Gaze Feminist Film Journal, is a frequent contributor to Chicago Artist Writers, and a Features Writer at Sixty Inches from Center.

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