Viva La Horror is a bi-monthly column discussing horror films and iconic moments that have revolutionized the horror genre, Sadie Clark looks at how moments in horror history have radically evolved the established order of horror cinema.
While many horror trends come and go, the slasher phenomenon is here to stay.
Since the horror genre rose to monstrous popularity, many trends have come and gone, helping mold films into what we see today as modern horror. There is one subgenre, though, that has been around for decades and doesn’t seem to be fading away anytime soon. It prioritizes gore, extreme violence and unrestrained murder beyond realistic limitations. Maybe society values these films so much because unbridled brutality is something bizarre and punishable, so to see it on screen is as close as we get to it. This subgenre of horror is known as the "slasher" and is a hilariously exaggerated version of life as we know it.
While many people believe the Slasher was born in the 1980s, the first ever film appeared decades earlier. Before horror movies were truly mainstream, Thirteen Women (1932) started the slasher phenomenon. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Tiffany Thayer, director George Archainbaud creates a terrifying film about a group of former sorority sisters who are, one by one, tracked down and brutally murdered by their former classmate Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy). Using her seductive nature, Ursula influences a horoscope writer to send the former sorority sisters cryptic horoscopes telling of horrible prophecies.
Throughout the film, Ursula is said to be "inhuman," which was in reality just a disgusting racial stereotype and the result of her being othered from society. Ursula therefore holds special "powers" to hypnotize those around her and then brutally attack them. She continues on this bout of bloodthirstiness until she is caught and her fate soon catches up to her. The overwhelming popularity of slashers in the 1980s are heavily influenced by Thirteen Women, and looking closer at this film in comparison with modern films helps us see how these stories have changed from being rooted in history and outright with their messages to adding in fantastical elements to the stories.
So, what makes a horror film a slasher? There are horror fans that would say any film with excessive blood, gore and outrageous scares should be classified as a slasher. However, slashers have distinct qualities that make them stick out from the rest of the genre. Much like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), most of the victims in a slasher happen to be (or start out as) teenagers. That being said, teenagers are not always known to make the most intelligent decisions. Halloween is a decades-old series that is still so popular that a new film, Halloween Kills (2021), was released last year. These films follow the cursed figure known as Michael Myers, with his terrifying mask, daunting prescence and outright perseverance to kill, kill, kill! Michael will do whatever is necessary to pursue and kill young high school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who seems to be invincible and appears throughout the franchise evading Michael’s attempts. She would ultimately be known as that final person left after all hell breaks loose. This usually culminates with the “last person standing” trope—typically a teenage girl, scared for what her fate might be, more popularly known as the "final girl."
The killer is another fascinating phenomenon of the slasher subgenre. Usually, all of the villains follow a similar blueprint—when the audience sees them—it is not hard to figure out what is to come. Normally, these villains either wear a mask to hide their face, possibly to disguise their true identity, (think "Scooby-Doo" villains), or to hide a facial anomaly. They usually carry a weapon as well, typically some kind of sharp object or blunt instrument. We see these characteristics in A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) with the main antagonist, Freddy Krueger. He has a severely scared face from burns with open sores, making him appear more sinister than the average man and he sports a glove detailed with large metal blades taking the place of his fingers. These characteristics, along with his terrifying slow walk and menacing glare, make him a terrifying creature with the power to destroy the youth of Springwood, Ohio.
One of the hallmark elements of a slasher film is the intense amount of blood and gore that fills the screen. While some of it might be rather vomit-inducing, the inflated nature of the gore makes it more of an exhilarating journey than a scary one. While it might be a thrilling experience for fans to enjoy, character after character in these films are getting massacred to avenge some kind of incident from the past the killers can't seem to cope with.
While many of these are traits that ultimately make the subgenre what it is, common tropes also branch out and expand into new areas of the horror genre. While Psycho (1960) is considered to be one of the first slasher films to be abundantly popular, Halloween set the mark for how these films would formulate themselves from the 1980s to today—nearly 45-years later. Before the rise of the slasher in the 1980s, horror movies primarily focused on paranormal aspects of life and the deep, dark corners of religion and spirituality. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Children of the Corn (1984) explored the betrayal of religion or taking advantage of the spiritually pure to showcase the more terrifying aspects of human nature.
Slasher films focus on both human and inhuman evil, even if a lot of the genre's monsters and villains are not necessarily human. Sometimes, though, the "monsters" in the film are made that way by society's influence, their surroundings and circumstance. In Thirteen Women, Ursula is described as both human and inhuman, not simply because she was a viscous murderer, but because she was othered by the sorority sisters for being a different race. Intersectionality is a large part of what makes Ursula who she is and explains why she is treated so horribly for no justifiable reason (in the beginning, that is). Even Michael Myers from Halloween is placed under a curse at birth to murder all of his family members every Halloween (so says The Thorn Trilogy). Audiences have been shown that people and monsters who are tormented and consumed by darkness can do unimaginably evil things. Part of the message that comes from slasher films is that some bad people are influenced and tormented into becoming the way they are. They have seen the true evil of the world, and when enacting revenge, the darkness consumes them.
While the blood and gore make the films all the more exciting, the original elements of the story are what make slasher films most appealing. Their unique way of storytelling revolutionized horror, leading to a chain reaction that would cause film after film and idea after idea to fill in any blanks where there are possibilities for the horror genre to expand. Films like Child’s Play (1981) brought the devious Chucky to life—who would go on to raise hell and wreak havoc to this day. Slasher films created original stories with relatable, terrified young characters and nightmarish villains that would resonate with audiences. Not only do these films work as blueprints, but they create lasting relationships and memories that horror fans hold near and dear to their hearts.
So, what do slasher films do besides repeat the same tropes over and over again?
This is often asked when people can’t see past the highly unrealistic plots, the thrill, sexual elements and extreme gore. Slasher films have a lasting cultural impact on the way society views sex and gender. In most slasher films, elements of sex and gore are highly capitalized upon. While the story of a scary inhuman killer chasing down and killing people one by one due to a curse might not be the most realistic thing to most viewers, female victimization is something that is seen consistently throughout these films. Even in Thirteen Women, young women are the targets of multiple murders. In many slashers, women are depicted as the weaker sex, screaming and running, almost looking near-helpless as the killer easily hacks them to death. Sex scenes are in many—and I mean many—of these films. Sex scenes can add a little spice and sometimes this paired with humor lightens the mood and gives slashers their signature light-hearted yet unsettling nature. Showing young people a movie of other people pumped full of hormones, not able to keep their hands off each other in the face of danger is something people can connect with.
Slasher films to this day depict how women are victimized in society and seen as "easy targets", but often have something to say about the "villains." Yes, they kill barbariously and their unsettling nature—whether too perfect like Ursula or hideous like Michael Myers—gives audiences the heebie-jeebies. What people tend to gloss over when watching slashers is how those villainous people were once victimized and perhaps tortured themselves. The feeling of being targeted when doing nothing wrong and then painted as an outcast can change the trajectory of one’s life completely. While slashers are fun and thrilling, buried within them are heavy messages concerning how our culture treats people and it's tendancy towards being extremely problematic. The lasting cultural impact of slasher films to horror cinema can't be denied. Next time you go to watch the latest Scream movie, look a little closer at the characterization of the killer or the women being victimized. Turns out, gory thrillers and slasher films can inform you on important things regarding how human beings and society are horribly flawed.
Sadie Clark is an English major at the University of Central Arkansas and contributing writer for Dead Talk News in addition to her bi-monthly column for Slay Away. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.