Seriously. John Carpenter pretty much invented the genre back in the 1970s, and it has been with us ever since. But why do we get so many really terrible variations on people doing bad and gruesome things to other people year-in and year-out. You’d magine that every possible object that exists for a killer to hide behind has been hidden behind and every possible note that could be reached by a high-pitched scream has been reached by a high-pitched scream. And yet here they are, again and again and again. What’s the dealio?
Okay, maybe the movie Psycho means that the genre has its roots in Hitchcock rather than Carpenter, but I think that the movie that most people associate with the never-ending spate of “attractive young women get butchered in a senseless way” films with the original (and quite good) Halloween. Maybe had Hitchcock wanted to put his stamp on the genre, he should have simply spun-off a whole rake of inferior sequels – though I can understand why he might like his fingerprints away from all this.
Okay, I’ll concede that ‘slasher film’ is a pejorative term. There are plenty of solid and respectable movies which feature knife-wielding maniacs preying on young women (the above two movies certainly qualify, as does The Silence of the Lambs, arguably). We’d never describe that five-time Academy-Award-winning picture as a ‘slasher film’, would we? Isn’t that just as bad as pretending that The Road isn’t a science fiction film because we think the genre identification is trashy?
Maybe it is, and I certainly appreciate that observation. Perhaps the difference is that while science fiction has turned out its fair share of incredibly important films (Metropolis comes to mind, and this year alone has seen Moon and District 9 among others), the slasher movie genre has produced a handful of good films. And that’s being generous. I will acknowledge that Hitchcock’s masterpiece and Demme’s magnum opus share many plot devices and stylistic elements with the cruder horror films that populate the multiplexes these days, but they are as different as night and day in their deeper meanings, sophistication and quality. You may take exception to this, arguing that a watch is a watch, even if it isn’t a Rolex. I would respond by suggesting that a grandfather clock isn’t a watch. They are both types of clock – as The Silence of the Lambs and My Bloody Valentine are both horrors – but I don’t think they can be subcategorised together beyond that.
So why, despite the ideological bankrupcy, has the slasher dominated the public’s imagination for so long? Sure, there are occasionally quirks or exceptions – like the original Saw or Hostel – but they feature only new means of inflicting the same gory carnage, rather than an instructive look or a new perspective on the genre. The movies haven’t grown or adapted much throughout their time – they grow as stale as those cookie-cutter romantic comedies. The last truly experimental slasher movie was Scream, a post-modern and reflexive horror/comedy populated with genre-savvy protagonists from one of the few truly progressive directors to have worked within the genre, Wes Craven.
Maybe they continue to make these movies because horror fans respond to the better than the supernatural freaks which used to inhabit the more hammed-up horror movies. These movies as the kind of movies that could chill you and shock you even if you don’t have the suspension of disbelief to allow you to accept Dracula as a villain – sure, the inbred mutants of The Hills Have Eyes might be a bit of stretch, but we all fear hillbillies after Deliverence, right? Maybe it just seems less ridiculous to go see a movie where the bad guy is just a really big mortal human with a weird mask on rather than a ghost or ghoul?
There is arguably a logic to this argument, as scientific studies do suggest that younger movie-goers do prefer these slashers, and they observe that the senseless and gratuitous nature of the violence may be why:
But they seem to kill because…they kill. Even though brief psychological explanations are given in various modern slasher films, such as revenge against their original aggressors, they do not seem to stand as important during the subsequent installments. These psychological motivations, mentioned in the premier episodes of the series films seem obligatory rather than substantive and frequently exercises no palpable influence on character motivation or behavior. It is not surprising then, that in subsequent iterations of the movie (sometimes called sequels), motivation for murder all but disappears.
Does this argument suggest that each generation gets a villain that it deserves? Does this fascination with slashers and their victims in all the random violence of it all bare the same kind of study as our obsession with zombies, for example? I can certainly understand that this senseless explicit violence may reflect a sense of cultural anomie, a feeling of listlessness. These slasher movies do contain a very traditional moral structure, for all their modern stylistic touches: typically the promiscuous die and the virgin survives, those who belittle the natives with their liberal sensibilities soon find themselves preyed upon – there is no survival sense in being a civilised individual among uncivilised hosts. More often then not, the lead characters ahve done ‘something’ to bring the killer down upon themselves – they are being blamed or punished for this hedonism or transgression, albeit in a more severe manner than is warranted. In it’s crudest for, the psychopath in the hockey mask can be seen as a divine punishment for the excess and lack of moral and self-restraint.
Or is it something even more basic than that? Is the violence itself (much more explicit now than ever before) which has value?
These changes in film styles (quick, bloodless dispatch vs. explicit slaughter) and reinvention of the formulae for character motivation (existential despair vs. sheer nihilism) may reflect altering value trends in popular culture. Or, they may bespeak a culture which itself was or is still reflecting social and political nightmares in contemporary society, as has been argued by Crane (1994), Pinedo (1997) and Waller(1987).
Are these films a twisted reflection of a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world? Do we eschew the supernatural because we don’t believe that there can be anything darker or scarier than the hell which we create for ourselves here on earth? Aren’t all the real monsters wearing human faces anyway? Aren’t we more terrified of dying by the hand of a senseless knife-wielding freak than we are of being eaten alive by zombies or drained by vampires?
I don’t buy it. If these movies are social commentaries, they are crude ones at that. There must be something deeper than senseless violence for the sake of senseless violence? Smarter movies have deconstructed that fear and that violence, yet these movies play to a one-note beat. That isn’t the only reason I am unconvinced by that line of argument. These movies are inherently sexist and misogynistic.
The ‘quarry’ of these big hulking men are always screaming petite women. Only the female characters need to worry about their virginity, male charcaters are as likely to make to to the finale whether or not they’ve done the deed (in fact, the movies generally count on us assuming that they have done it). Sure, the movies may grant the last woman left standing the capability to ‘discharge’ the beast chasing her, but it falls as often to the boyfriend – and, even then, it’s rarely a perminant death.
Maybe slashers speak to a crude fear that lurks just beyond or conscious mind. Maybe it’s just trash indulging our increasing taste for the gore and the violence. I don’t know. Those possibilities certainly don’t make me feel any more comfortable with the genre.
This article is part of our “screen scare week”, a look at monster movie trends in the run up to Halloween. Check back every night at the witching hour (3am) for a new look at some aspect of horror movie subculture…