by KJ Ross-Wilcox
From the Greek tales of the minotaur and the cyclops to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the horror genre has a rich history. For a century, one of the most common ways that horror has manifested itself is on film. Horror movies have been around practically as long as film has existed, with early examples such as Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Arguably horror’s most famous subgenre to date, the slasher film has only been around since 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock created the horror classic Psycho, which is considered to be the “immediate ancestor of the slasher films” (Clover 192). The formula Hitchcock created for the slasher genre was a psychotic killer who is the product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually attractive woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness. (Clover 192)
One could say that the genre peaked between the early 70s and late 80s, which is evident in the virtually constant reboots, retellings, and recreations of the monsters created at that time, but this genre remains one of horror’s cornerstones and is arguably the most commercial to date. Two of the most dynamic slasher movie villains are polar opposites, spawned in two very different times, and one could argue that the change from Michael Myers to Ghostface showcases the change in what and who American society feared during both periods in time.
The archetypal slasher is a near-superhuman, male, masked killer preying on the young and weak (Wee). The classic 70s and 80s slasher film pins an innocent, sexually attractive female lead against a knife-wielding serial killer terrorizing her and her peers and includes dramatic, unrelenting, unexpected violence and brutality (Wee). Another convention of the slasher film is the indestructible and psychotic masked serial killer, whose ability to survive deadly attacks borders on the supernatural and paranormal (Wee). The Halloween franchise depends heavily on this device, as serial slasher Michael Myers repeatedly rises from blows that would stop or kill a lesser man or any normal human being (Wee).
This supernatural monster in human form was a representation of its time, embodying many societal fears of those living during the Cold War. These types of monsters embodied society’s anxieties about the unknown and the uncontrollable, including America’s fear of its own people: fears of the loss of moral fiber, of drugs, of not being able to trust friends and family, of tensions between races, of sexuality, and of nuclear war all rose during this period.
In these movies, there were rules for surviving, and, if a person broke them, the “boogeyman” came for them. If an individual had sex, used bad language, abused substances, was overly sexual, poor, or of a race other than white, they were seen as the monster’s prey. These rules were based on the societal fears listed above with a focus on a fear of hypersexuality (specifically in women), the war on drugs (which spiked after the recent wars America faced), the fear that the US was losing its Christian values, and society’s fear of other races, despite the recent civil rights movement (May 55). The innocent, virgin, white female was seen as the virtuous saving grace of these movies, and she usually was the only one to make it out alive. This is clear in the first Halloween movie, in which Jamie Lee Curtis plays the white virgin heroine who survives the horrors of her monstrous brother, Michael Myers. As she nearly escapes the embodiment of death in the form of her older brother, he stalks, terrorizes, and slays the citizens of the town who get in his way, most of whom fit into one or more of the categories of societal fears listed above. The teens (and adults) who were seen as amoral, grotesque, outsiders, or just plan rebellious would all become victims at the hands of Michael Myers by the end of the movie.
These standards in the Slasher films genre created the fear of the guy down the street who was a stranger, a loner, and different from the audience, but, in the 1990s, horror movie director and icon, Wes Craven, turned that fear on its head and made the audience afraid of the boy next door and the class president.
In response to the Gainesville Ripper (a man whose passion and love for Michael Myers and horror movies inspired him to kill five students in real life), a new terror struck the homes and hearts of America: fear for the safety of children in school (Hutchinson). This didn’t help when the numbers of school shooting and deaths in America were over a hundred and increasing between 1986 and 1996, the highest it had ever been in US history (“History of School Shootings in the United States”). The fear that a kid who appeared normal on the outside could harbor a killer inside led them to come to school and shoot their teachers and classmates, paired with a man’s deranged love for horror movies “pushing” him to murder, led director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson to evolve the slasher genre further by creating Scream. The Scream franchise took the soulless, silent, disconnected monster with a hideous face hidden behind a mask and changed him into the high school heartthrob who has everything he wants, someone viewers would never expect to be a killer.
University of Singapore Professor Valerie Wee argues that the Scream films offer a reconsideration and reimagining of the slasher villain in order to fit the demographic the franchise is trying reach while breaking with the common portrayal of the villains and reinterpreting the homicidal maniac. Typical villains in this genre are misfits and outsiders, large in size, have some motivation for killing, and may have supernatural powers (Wee). Scream continues the trend of the seemingly invincible and indestructible psychopath, but the villains contradict the normal archetypes that appear in other slasher films (Wee). These villains are the popular, attractive, normal kids, rather than the outsiders and misfits. These characters are the boyfriends and friends who seem to be in just as much danger as anyone else, but, in reality, they are the monsters behind the mask.
The Scream films challenge the common device of the supernatural person as the killer, and the killer is turned into an ordinary, “average-Joe” human who is personally troubled and usually a member of the heroine’s close circle of friends. The killer’s in the Scream franchise have demeanors that are completely different from that of Michael Myers, as these Scream slashers talk and taunt their victims mentally, verbally, and physically, whereas Michael Myers never utters a word; his presence was enough to send shivers down a victim’s spine and put fear in their heart. The Scream villain, Ghostface, is smarter than the typical slasher villain; he actually runs after his victims and is willing to kill someone in a room, house, or building full of other people, where the typical villain would single their victims out and wait until they were alone. This contradicted the fear of being alone, creating the feeling of nowhere being safe.
As time progresses, so do values, art, and even fear. When something in society, like a war or a tragic event, causes a major change that shifts the dynamics of the world around it, monsters await in the shadows to take their first steps into the a new world. With life imitating art, a new slasher will be born every time.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187–228. www.jstor.org/stable/2928507. Accessed 17 Sept. 2016.
“History of School Shootings in the United States.” K12 Academic. http://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states#.WEOaNGQrIb0. Accessed 17 Sept. 2016.
Hutchinson, Sean. “15 Things You May Not Have Known About ‘Scream.” Mental Floss. 3 Feb. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58039/15-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-scream. Accessed 27 Sept. 2016.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Basic Books, 2008.
Wee, Valerie. “Resurrecting And Updating The Teen Slasher.” Journal Of Popular Film & Television, vol. 34, no. 2, 2006 pp. 50-61. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 19 Oct. 2016.