This essay provides a critical overview of the horror sub-genre known as the “slasher” film including the history and evolution of the genre as well as its socio-political relevance and influence on the industry and audiences.
This is an academic essay written in 2003 by Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens
You could look back at the stalk and slash sub-genre of horror cinema (predominately known as ‘slasher’ film, or ‘teen slasher’) and cite the book written about serial-psychotic Ed Gein as the root of the genre. Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to the book and made the pivotal film Psycho in 1960. Along with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho was the major influencing factor that allowed Tobe Hooper and then later John Carpenter to define the sub-genre with their films: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). It was the ‘monster’ as a human rather than an otherworldly, fictional entity, that gave the ‘horror’ a solid basis in reality, in turn breeding a closer ideological connection with its audience – the next rampaging maniac to run around wielding a knife could be a friend, a relative, a co-worker. Psycho also introduced the audience to the knife as a weapon, a symbolic object of danger, death and madness, which would become an icon of the film and later within the genre itself. The knife represented another human aspect to the ‘evil’, a culturally defined object used by everyone that could quite easily become a weapon in the wrong hands.
“We all go a little mad sometimes…” – Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
Generally, slasher films are American-made, there are a few exceptions in Europe that loosely fit the sub-genre mould (Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) for example), but such European films draw on a very European gothic horror – the remnants of old feudal systems and the wicked aristocrats that live in their rundown castles (Frankenstein and Dracula are prime examples, while Suspiria is entirely based in the decaying, rundown castle whose inhabitants happen to be wicked witches, living out their power of old.)
Slasher films of American cinema drew upon a very Americanized heritage, that of a pioneering past and the new frontier, linked to home and family, the American Dream. These slasher films had at their central core, characters who would break this mould, they would revolt against their parents better judgment (family) in doing drugs, alcohol, having sex; they would venture out from their sanctuary (home) and in their socially transgressed behaviour, they would in turn take the gloss off the clean shine of this heritage. The ever-partying teens (teenagers were predominantly the main characters in American slasher films, started by Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but arguably pre-dated by Bob Clark’s Black Christmas which was released in 1973, and continued through John Carpenter’s Halloween) were seemingly causing a rift in their society that had to be put right, and this meant being killed by the hand of a usually masked, always unstoppable (until the end) murderer.
In slasher films the killers are predominantly male and regardless of how inhuman their actions or reactions, they are still human. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1978), the killers are reflections of the family unit as idealised by American society. They are rendered monstrous by their actions subverting what has been idealized as they are violent, cannibalistic, deadly, threatening forces. While post-Halloween slashers had single killers, Hooper and Craven’s earlier films, and Hitchcock’s Psycho, played on the gothic Americana, in that these families protected their own frontiers, their homes and the family. In The Hills Have Eyes the evil cannibals don’t like the inner city holidaymakers setting up camp on their land as if accidental trespass is a crime to be paid with one’s life. Likewise, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the victims come under threat after wandering onto the family’s land. Interestingly, as the family settle down for a meal at the dining table, much like any family, the idealism of such an act is subverted as the meal is tied to a chair at one end of the table begging for her life. Slasher films post-Halloween used these ideas, especially that of the family unit. Freddy Krueger killed the children of the families that burned him many years previously in A Nightmare On Elm Street, while Michael Myers in Halloween felt compelled to finish the job he started as a child after killing his sister, by tracking down and killing his only remaining sister, and Mrs. Voorhees in Friday The 13th took revenge for the death of her son. Revenge is an important part of the killer’s mindset, and it is interesting to note that in most high school/campus set slasher’s, they are based upon “the premise of someone avenging a wrong, committed to them or to a loved one by a particular group” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 12). In Friday The 13th, the particular group that committed the wrong are the camp site counsellors who are responsible for the death of Mrs. Voorhees’ son, while in Prom Night the particular group are four teens responsible for the death of a fellow student.
The killing within slasher films does suggest something deeper within the act, than just one more bloody death. The family unit and the break-up of this unit is an important device because in reality, the family as idealized by the American dream was becoming less and less common. Divorce was splitting families, and the increase in teenage pregnancy was placing another generation within the family home. Additionally, the whole notion of if you have sex you die that was mocked in Wes Craven’s Scream (1997), became a predominant element of the genre, and could be linked to the increase in the A.I.D.S virus and the deaths it was causing.
Other features of slasher films resurface constantly like for example the inability of authority figures to offer any kind of help, leaving them either superfluous within the plot or non-existent. “Police, teachers, parents can rarely be trusted or relied upon in the slasher movie” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 12). Lt. Thompson in A Nightmare On Elm Street doesn’t believe his own daughter, and the very same thing happens in Halloween with Sheriff Brackett. In Friday The 13th, the campsite coordinator leaves the campsite before any murders start but before he can be of any help, is killed himself. This is an interesting device because, unlike a war film or a western, the side of the ‘bad’ cannot be easily distinguished, especially by those who are there to protect the public (the police, the army), and it could be argued that this element is there as a representation of the idealism that America so despises but cannot control. For example, the Vietnam war represented America psychically fighting communism, but as an idealism itself, it could not be fought as easily or as obviously, and perhaps slasher film killers symbolise that untraceable, ‘evil’ idealism that can infiltrate its society with silent ease. Certainly the genre’s convention of the everyday man becoming a bloodthirsty murderer, would support this.
Another feature of the slasher movie is that of ‘evil’ buildings, or places that hold terrible secrets and bloody histories. This links directly back to Psycho but it has its roots in gothic horror literature from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Michael Myers’ house is a prime example, having the bloody history of his sister’s murder, yet in the film during present day, it is boarded up, and the kids tell frightening stories about the house and dare not go near it. Many slasher movies climax within the building or place where the ‘wrong’ took place – Michael Myers is believed to be dead after returning to the Myers house; Nancy battles Freddy in the boiler room where he was burned which she gets to through her basement; and the killer is finally killed in My Bloody Valentine after returning back down into the mines where the ‘wrong’ first took place. Later films in the yuppie-in-peril/suspense genre such as John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights (1990) and Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry (1992) turned this idea around “echoing the family values that were being espoused by politicians and morally-appointed spokespeople at the time” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 13). The family home represents everything that is good and wholesome and the ‘evil’ comes from outside, breaking the boundaries that the family unit lives by within their home. Yet, the breaking of the family ideal and the corruption of the family home can be seen in slasher films, and whatever building, or place is taken as refuge, it’s never enough to prevent the ‘evil’ from getting in. In Halloween Michael Myers gets into the babysitter’s house even though she tries to take precautions to prevent him, and in Dwight H. Little’s Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (1988), the authority figures (again acting ineffectively) try to protect the little girl from Myers in her home. Several cops lock and board up the doors, manning them with guns, yet Myers still gets in.
Technology in slasher films is also important in that it rarely works when it is needed. Car engines won’t work in an escape and the phones/radio’s won’t work when trying to call for help. In Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, Haddonfield loses all power, plunging the town into darkness. It’s a collapse of technology within these films, to the point where they appear to be an extension of the killer – Lynda is strangled by the phone cord when she is on the phone to Lorrie, who believes her muffled gasps are a prank in Halloween. Wes Craven would later turn this into a suspicion of technology, as in Scream, voice-transformers are used to hide the killer’s identity and mobile phones are cloned creating false identities. The killer’s themselves wouldn’t chance the use of such extravagant technology, using as their weapons, the most basic of devices. The knife is used in the likes of Halloween, and originally in Psycho, while a pickaxe is used in My Bloody Valentine, a machete in Friday The 13 Part 2 (1981), and Freddy has a glove made of knives in A Nightmare On Elm Street. While slasher films are consistently presented within the present day (during the slasher ‘boom’, this would be the eighties), the problems with technology and the simple weapons link to a distinct primitiveness, which in turn links back to American heritage and the conquering of frontiers in years gone by. This appears to suggest primal instincts and survival within the wilderness, like the first settlers, and that to earn your life, you must rise above that which confronts you and challenge it with the limited capabilities available.
Aesthetically, slasher films possessed subjective camerawork such as seeing through the eyes of the killer with point-of-view shots that spurned the well-known phrase “look behind you”. This is exampled very obviously in Black Christmas whose director, Bob Clark, used point of view subjectivity to great effect, placing the audience in the position of killer, rather than simply voyeur. The opening segment of the film which is entirely filmed from the killer’s point of view as he/she looks at the girls within the sorority house before climbing in through a window and hiding in the attic, is voyeuristic but the audience’s position within this world is not that which they would associate themselves (ie. the victims) but with the killer. John Carpenter did a similar thing in Halloween but the idea seems to stem from Powell’s Peeping Tom back in 1960, whose killer murdered because he wanted to capture on camera people’s reactions to being killed.
The films had high moral values, seemingly ignored by critics who saw the films as promoting violence and violent behaviour. Death never went unpunished in these films, from Freddy Krueger’s child molester in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) being eventually defeated and killed for his crimes, to Micheal Myers in Halloween or Jason Vorhees in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th (1980), there was always someone on the side of the ‘good’ who beat the ‘monster’. Equally, the genre’s formulaic nature would compound this notion in that, even though each of these three killers come back in the sequels, the audience knows that yet again, someone will rise to beat them by the end. It was here though, that slasher films, like many of their parent genre counterparts, came under threat from detractors who saw the violence as a dangerous element of popular culture. The 1984 video recordings act banned many films in Britain including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while the reasoning behind this is complex it seems to point to a disregard of audience intelligence and understanding. Or at least a disregard to an issue that went beyond the walls of the theatre which became an easy target for rising murder and disorder on urban streets. One of the points made is that such films force “the viewer to identify with the killer through subjective camerawork” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 9). This seems to suggest that impressionable viewers could find themselves associating with the killer, allowing an inner demon to surface in real-life, largely because all such slasher films forced this subjective killer identification onto us.
Reverend Fred Nile, writing on behalf of the Australian Christian Democratic Party believes the repetition of screen violence desensitises its viewers to it, “The recent acts of violence and the attitudes of adolescent youths are showing up – to a tragic degree – that some youths have not been properly prepared to be able to resist and deflect the “Influence” carried into their lives by the entertainment media.” (Nile, F. June 1999). Nile sites Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as the film, which contributed to the pair, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, going on a murderous rampage. U.S president at the time, Bill Clinton attacked Hollywood over the Columbine shootings, instructing it to “clean up its act or face restrictive legislature” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 10). However, Harris and Klebold were part of a gang named the Trenchcoat Mafia who had high regard for Hitler and Nazism, exampled in the shootings at Columbine taking place on Hitler’s birthday. They were widely known around school as haters of minority groups such as Jewish and African-American students, and they also hated the athletes who had power and popularity, something they did not. (Seely, A.R. Nov 1999). Perhaps more attention should be paid to gun control, which Michael Moore investigated in his 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine. Equally, the Jamie Bulger murder, which was partly blamed (by right-wing, conservative newspapers in the UK) on horror films, particularly Child’s Play 3, shouldn’t be generalised as a consequence of a new wave of video ‘nasties’. The killers – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – both ten, were delinquents from school who often stole from shops and had been stealing incidental items the morning before they abducted, tortured and murdered Jamie Bulger. Such an unspeakable act cannot be blamed on a film. There has to be other more obvious influencing factors and a desire to commit such crime that delves far more deeply into psychology and sociology, than the science of screen violence and the horror film, but as Mark Whitehead states, “there’s a set of very complex relations that remain between the audience as spectator and screen violence as spectacle.” (Whitehead, M. 2003, page 9) That said, no film can be accounted for the child murderer’s lies after the act, or the callous four-hour torture and the lies they made to cover their backs during the day of the murder. The man who tried to assassinate Reagan claimed to have been influenced by Martin Scoresese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but David Berkowitz claimed to have been influence to kill by his dog, leaving the whole ‘influence’ debate massively questionable and infinitely debatable. (Altered Dimensions. 1998)
It does seem convenient, however, to blame such criminal acts on the violence of the mass media, especially film. During the heights of the slasher boom during the eighties, the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising women in the northern English county. This was associated to the treatment of women in slasher films by many critics, and that many such films had misogynist overtones, but the very fact that most slasher films had female heroes seems to leave this idea highly questionable. From Lorrie Strode in Halloween to Nancy in A Nightmare On Elm Street, to lesser known films such as Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980), Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980), Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979), and George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (1981), to newer additions such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, all featuring women as the final, conquering, victorious characters who beat their, predominantly, male foes. An argument that cites slasher films as part of a revolution for female lead characters and largely feminist in undertone seems to hold more water. Such films as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) took this notion one step further (arguably one step too far), in that our sympathy lies with the killer raising moral questions. Here we see a woman seeking revenge on those that raped her and left her for dead, killing each in more and more elaborate ways. Yet while she is gaining her revenge the distinction between right and wrong is blurred which is perhaps is why the film continues to garner very little support from either critics or film fans. However, predominantly the killer is usually the evil force within slasher films and it is the Final Girl who destroys him either by killing him, or subduing him into submission. Carol J. Clover investigates from a feminist point of view, how the stereotyped viewers of slasher films are adolescent males, and while they are constantly placed into a position of killer and therefore an identification with the killer is created through subjective camerawork, it doesn’t necessarily mean the film is misogynist. (Clover, C.J. 1992, Chapter 1) From films that Mark Whitehead touts as misogynist, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982) and Terry Bourke’s Lady, Stay Dead (1981), to more well-known films such as Halloween, Clover sees the Final Girl as being the most important part of the film’s overall politics. Clover argues that the female victims are “dumb” but the heroines, or Final Girls are “headstrong, they are resourceful, unswayed by earthly pleasures and, rather than just heroines they are heroic in the proper sense”. (Clover, C.J. 1992, page 28) These girls confront the monster and have the common sense and courage to destroy it, exampled in Nancy Thompson’s final battle and destruction of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street, or Kim revealing and destroying the killer in Prom Night.
Written by Daniel Stephens (2003)
Altered Dimensions (1998) Son Of Sam David Berkowitz [online], New York available from http://www.spartechsoftware.com/dimensions/crime/Son OfSam.htm (accessed 20 March 2004)
Clover, C.J. (1992) Men, Women And Chainsaws London: British Film Institute
Nile, F. (1999). Columbine High School, Colorado, Shooting [online], Sydney available from http://www.cdp.org.au/fed/mr/1999/990601.asp (accessed 19 March 2004)
Scott, S.L (2004). The Death Of Jamie Bulger [online], London available from http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/young/ bulger/10.html?sect=1 (accessed 19 March 2004)
Seely, A.R. (1999). Tragedy at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado [online], Montreal available from http://cnview.com/tragedy_at_columbine_high_school.h tm (accessed 19 March 2004)
Whitehead, M. (2003) Slasher Movies (Revised and updated version) Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing