When Luna Atoms was around seven years old, she would watch the same films on VHS almost every night. Watch, rewind, repeat. It was one of the characters that drew her in: a pre-teen girl with porcelain skin, dark hair always in plaits and a macabre sense of humour to match.
This was the Nineties, and the videos that kept Atoms glued to her TV screen were the 1991 movie The Addams Family and its 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values. “I’ve always had this obsession with Wednesday Addams,” Atoms, now aged 32, explains today. “I remember wanting to be her. It was the first time I’d ever connected with a character in that way where I wanted to experience life as them.”
The creation of American cartoonist Charles Addams, the oddball family – including parents Morticia and Gomez, Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt and a disembodied hand named Thing – first appeared in creepy, spooky, mysterious and kooky one-panel cartoons, some of which were published in The New Yorker and mostly in the Forties and Fifties. In 1964, the cartoons spawned a TV sitcom, followed by several other spin-offs over the years. But it was the Nineties films that saw Wednesday Addams – Morticia and Gomez’s only daughter – begin to take on a more prominent role.
As played by Christina Ricci, Wednesday was gothic and glamorous and stuck out in an era of shiny princesses. “She wasn’t the typical Disney-style character that was on screen at the time,” Atoms says. “She was different – a bit of a misfit and more relatable than other characters I’d seen before. The total opposite of the usual portrayal of how a young girl should be.” It wasn’t just her personality that appealed. Atoms wanted to look like her, too. “I had masses of blonde curls and I wanted pale skin and dark hair in pigtails.” While she couldn’t change her hair colour, she got her mum to do her hair in plaits every day. “It was almost like an infatuation.”
Atoms is not alone in her fixation. A whole generation of young people grew up watching Wednesday and wanting to be just like her. On Etsy, there are endless crochet Wednesday Addams dolls and T-shirts with her face on and the words: “Sad Girls Club”. Her signature look – long black dress, white collar – is a perennial Halloween costume standard. And now, the character has returned to screens with her very own Netflix show, Wednesday, co-directed by Tim Burton. The show sees Wednesday (now played by Jenna Ortega) let loose a load of piranhas in her school’s swimming pool – a jock loses a testicle as a result – and get shipped off to boarding school as punishment. Long-time Wednesday fans will inevitably love the show. Newbies, too. Because, fundamentally, she’s an easy character to fall for. Even if she does look like a Victorian waif and tries to kill her siblings constantly.
For Magali Bellego, 38, who rewatches the Nineties Addams Family films every few years, it was Wednesday’s attitude that set her apart. As a kid, Bellego had no interest in watching films about princesses. Instead, her favourite movies back then were about Batman – and she loved the baddies the most. “But as a little girl, I couldn’t relate to the Joker or Poison Ivy because they were grown-ups,” she explains. “That was what was so special about Wednesday – it’s not that she was a baddie but she was naughty. I looked up to her because I was not a girly girl. I remember thinking how different she was from anything I’d seen before, and how little she cared about anything or what people thought of her.”
Not giving a damn meant that Wednesday had no qualms about inciting mild terror in anyone that crossed her path. Crucially, though, she’s never been overwhelmingly scary. That’s key to her appeal, says Dr Daryl Sparkes, a longtime fan and a senior lecturer in media studies and production at the University of Southern Queensland. “Wednesday was a ‘quirky’ character who was not authentically threatening,” he explains. “A teenager could express a love of her weirdness without people thinking they were a budding serial killer or psychopath. You could be accepted in friend groups for thinking she was someone positive. But if you went around extolling a love of Chucky from Child’s Play and trying to imitate him, you might end up [needing] a child psychologist.”
One thing that helped Wednesday get away with her often sadistic behaviour was her comedic edge. “Pugsley… the baby weighs 10lb, the cannonball weighs 20lb,” she ponders in Addams Family Values. “Which will hit the stone walkway first?” That kind of dark comedy was something that Atoms found particularly exciting as a child. “I hadn’t been exposed to that kind of deadpan, dark humour before,” she remembers. “Wednesday was the first example of that I’d seen.”
Unlike most women and girls on screen at that time (and even today), Wednesday has zero interest in boys. In fact, when asked by a friend from summer camp in Addams Family Values if she’d ever want to get married, she says, simply: “No”. He keeps pushing: “What if you met the right man, who worshipped and adored you? Who’d do anything for you… who’d be your devoted slave… then what would you do?”. Wednesday’s reply? “I’d pity him.”
This struck a chord with Bellego. “I loved the fact that she never thought about boys,” she says. “It was inspiring. The princess story formula tells you that you need to find your prince to be rescued – Wednesday never thought like that. She was her own independent, individual character.”
Sparkes says that this was just one of the qualities that teenagers, particularly teenage girls, came to admire about her. “Wednesday is not the demure shrinking violet, she is forthright and doesn’t let anyone walk over her,” he says. “She’s not interested in boys and has a predilection for curiosity. She always has the perfect comeback when someone tries to point out how weird she is. With or without the black clothing, Wednesday is someone teen girls want to be.”
Wednesday’s uniqueness is why fans like Atoms and Bellego related to her when they were children, and still feel a connection to her now as adults. But Sparkes also suggests that it’s because Wednesday rejected the traditions of typical coming-of-age stories – there’s little lesson-learning, no attempts to fit a particular mould. “Wednesday doesn’t think she’s the awkward one,” he says. “She thinks all other kids are abnormal. She doesn’t care about being accepted. There’s no ‘coming of age’ for Wednesday [because] she’s always been of age and will continue to be the same as she grows up. She skipped all the gawkiness and gracelessness of growing up. She’s a 50-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body who’s pissed at the world.”
As for whether Wednesday is a good role model, Bellego wholeheartedly thinks she is, and always will be. “I’m attracted to strong, independent women,” she says. “I don’t know if I knew it as a kid, but Wednesday was always thinking about bigger and more important things than boys. She wanted to learn and play. She wanted to find out what happened in the Bermuda Triangle.”
Wednesday’s ethos, as Bellego understood it, left a mark. “Do something interesting with your time and don’t worry about what people think of you,” she says. “Because there is no normal.”
‘Wednesday’ is streaming on Netflix now