Halloween has put me in the mood to talk about slasher movies. Once I got to looking around, I found more papers on the topic than I thought I would. I gotta warn you, this is a long read, so grab some popcorn and settle in for some slasher movie fun.
If you are a fan of horror films then you know Randy Meek’s “Rules that one must abide by to successfully survive a horror movie”: (1) You can never have sex…big no-no, sex equals death, (2) you can never drink or do drugs…it’s the sin-factor, an extension of number 1, (3) never, ever, under any circumstances, say "I'll be right back" ‘cause you won’t be back. Scream got me to thinking about the psychology and tropes of the horror movie (don’t worry, this post is spoiler-free). Today I’m going to focus on journal articles and so won’t take the time and space going through the history of horror films (there are a list of good links below).
I used Scream (1996) as an example because it is one of those movies that both parodies the genre and, at the same time, becomes an entry within the genre. That’s tough, and when done well, really great. In Scream’s case, it also resurrected a dormant genre to a whole new generation, the Gen Y teens of the 90’s (including me). In 2005, Valerie Wee published a paper in the Journal of Film and Video that looks at the role of this movie, and its sequels. She redefines and labels a more advanced form of postmodernism “hyperpostmodernism,” and in Scream, this is identified in two ways: (1) the loss of tongue-in-cheek sub-text in favor of actual text and (2) active referencing and borrowing of influential styles. The rules I quoted above are a great example of the first point, a type of discussion among characters that happens throughout the films. The dim lighting, camera angles, character names are all good examples of the second point. It’s s slasher film about slasher films, if you will. It worked so well because it acknowledged and played to the media hyperconsciousness of the American teenagers of that generation. As Wee puts it, a group that is “media literate, highly brand conscious, consumer oriented, and extremely self-aware and cynical.” Now doesn’t that make us sound like lovely people?
As this hyperconscious generation, we can look back at the conventions, ideologies, and representations of those past works. We can ask what the attributes and associated tropes are of a successful horror movie. To do that, let’s go back to a 1991 paper by Douglas Rathgeb. In it, he identifies one of the most effective attributes of a horror film to be the unsettling sense of intrusion it creates, that feeling of normal versus abnormal. It is true that we must separate movie reality from real life but in the case of horror movies, the shock of the sudden, often freakish, intrusion of the horror to be a terrifying element whether it is the perception of the reality or the acts of a bogeyman (or both). This unnerving feeling is evident in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in which Wes Craven creates a nightmare state coexistent with reality. He removes the conventional signposts and distorts the physical parameters that we use to measure reality. Rathgeb spends a good amount of time on the id/superego model (specifically the “bogeyman id”) that I won’t go into, but he continually draws on the point of the victims’ moral blemish – the Original or Unpardonable sin – that permits some evil to terrorize the world. Randy’s first Rule plays out in Freddy Krueger’s increasingly disturbing, nocturnal, murderous visits upon the sexually active teenagers of Springwood. It is also exemplified in Michael Myers’ first murderous act in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the act that leads him down the path of transformation into the bogeyman that menaces the morally deficient residents of Haddonfield.
This segues nicely into a discussion of misogyny, the male monster, and the Final Girl. You don’t have to be a film expert to notice that slasher films contain a lot of violence primarily directed toward women, usually after they have broken Randy’s first Rule. In 2010 in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Kelly Connelly studies this closely. She examines a marked change in the structure and action of horror films in the mid-1970’s, the birth of the slasher film subgenre. Within this subgenre a new role emerged: the Final Girl, the sole female survivor of a rampaging psychotic who has managed to rescue herself. You will know her when you see her in the beginning of the movie as she is the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic, the tomboy. She probably has a male name, isn’t sexually active, is resourceful, and is watchful to the point of paranoia. Connelly spends most of the paper breaking down Halloween and Halloween H2O: Twenty Years Later. I don’t have the space to cover all of that here, but ultimately, the Final Girl character boils down to one word: empowerment. The female victim achieves active empowerment through the act of rescuing herself.
But are women really slasher film victims more often than men, or is it just more noticeable? A 1990 study by Cowan and O’Brien asked participants to analyze 56 slasher films to see how female and male victims survived as related to several traits, including markers of sexual activity (clothing, initiation, etc.). They found that women were neither more likely to be victims of slashers nor less likely to survive when attacked. In fact, they were more likely to survive than men. The authors postulate that this perception is likely because of the female victims in memorable films/scenes, especially when sex is involved, and that the female status in society as someone to be protected makes their victimization all that more evident. They also found that the non-surviving females were more frequently sexual, physically attractive, and inane. Randy got it right on that one. Non-surviving males tended to be assholes (my term, not theirs) in that they had bad attitudes, engaged in illegal behaviors, and were cynical, egotistical and dictatorial. Notice that whether or not they broke the first Rule is not included.
A 2011 paper by Richard Nowell argues that although early teen slasher (and/or stalker) films were made primarily for male youth, the marketing campaigns were also geared toward young women. Keep in mind that Nowell is not asking you focus on the nonviolent content and the films’ promotional campaigns. He asks you to consider movies like My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Prom Night (1980) which had posters picturing teens slow dancing beneath decorative hearts and tag lines like “There’s more than one way to lose your heart.” Even A Nightmare on Elm Street billed the principle protagonist as “she’s the only one who can stop it – if she fails, no one will survive.” Movies like Prom Night and Carrie (1976) spotlight female protagonists, female bonding, and various courtships. These tactics can been seen throughout the genre and even into their contemporary remakes.
On the topic of remakes, in 2010, a paper by Ryan Lizardi compares the original movies to their remakes to see how they relate and how they speak to current cultural issues. Slasher movie remakes tend to stem from a particular period, the 1970’s through the early 1980’s, a period known for its ideological issues with gender and political ambivalence. There are quite a few anti-remakers that take the view that the original is better partly because they are best understood in relation to the periods in which they were produced. Remakes often have to redefine normal vs. abnormal to fit a contemporary time. Also, to fit the new time, the rules have changed, trending towards more gore and stylized production. Lizardi goes through the details, but Scream 4 boils down the Rules to successfully survive a horror movie remake: (1) death scenes are way more extreme, (2) unexpected is the new cliché, (3) virgins can die now, (4) new technology is now involved…cell phones, video cameras, etc., (5) don’t need an opening sequence, (6) don’t f- with the original, and (7) if you want to survive, you pretty much have to be gay. Okay, so maybe Lizardi doesn’t say the last one. He does spend some time revisiting the remake of the Final Girl. Remakes often have this character learn and witness the full extent of the killer’s depravity (in a really gory way) and endure the most psychological damage. Lizardi concludes that these films speak to contemporary concerns and even have endings.
Let’s turn our head to sequels, 'cause let's face it baby, these days, you gotta have a sequel. A 2004 paper by Martin Harris examines the horror franchise. He draws on the concepts of postmodernism and the unsettling feeling of normal vs. not-normal. Why do the killers – Freddy, Michael, Jason – keep coming back? He argues that their resurrection in sequels engenders its own frightening uncertainty. Where is the threshold? When is dead really gone? Harris spends a good deal of time arguing that it is more the economic realities of Hollywood that drive the sequel-making process rather than a demand from moviegoers to revisit the killers. I can see a lot of truth in that as these are known properties that have relatively small budgets. But sequels also come with expectations. The author points out the case of Halloween III: Season of the Witch. You probably go into this movie expecting to see Michael Myers. Not so. Instead you end up with a weird children’s costume related plot. But, I guess these days we are much more likely to see a remake than a Halloween 12. Or even a prequel.
Whew. Have we covered everything? I think so. I tried to keep things general, talking mostly about major concepts that I hope got you thinking. If you like a particular topic then I encourage you to find the paper as they are all pretty good reads. And let me know your thoughts in the comments.
The references are, in order of their appearance:
Wee, Valerie (2005). The Scream Trilogy, "Hyperpostmodernism," and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film Journal of Film and Video, 57 (3), 44-61
Rathgeb, Douglas L. (1991). Bogeyman from the ID: Nightmare and Reality in Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street Journal of Popular Film and Television, 19 (1), 36-43 DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1991.9944106
Connelly, K. (2007). Defeating the Male Monster in Halloween and Halloween H2O Journal of Popular Film and Television, 35 (1), 12-21 DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.35.1.12-21
Cowan, G., & O'Brien, M. (1990). Gender and survival vs. death in slasher films: A content analysis Sex Roles, 23 (3-4), 187-196 DOI: 10.1007/BF00289865
Richard Nowell (2011). "There's More Than One Way to Lose Your Heart": The American Film Industry, Early Teen Slasher Films, and Female Youth Cinema Journal, 51 (1), 115-140 DOI: 10.1353/cj.2011.0073
Ryan Lizardi (2010). “Re-Imagining” Hegemony and Misogyny in the Contemporary Slasher Remake Journal of Popular Film and Television, 38 (3), 113-121 DOI: 10.1080/01956051003623464
Harris, M., & Bennett, K. (2004). You Can't Kill the Boogeyman: Halloween III and the Modern Horror Franchise Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32 (3), 98-120 DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.32.3.98-120
History of Horror Films:
Horror Film History
Filmmaker IQ’s “A Brief History of Horror”
AMC filmsite’s “Horror Films”
The Cinephile Fix’s “The Roots and History of the Horror Film”
No Film School’s “From Nosferatu to Jigsaw: a Look at the History of Horror Films”
Oh, and it's worth a visit to the Final Girl blog too!
(image via Scream Wiki)