The Slasher: Evolution

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 plain 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 killers 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.

Works Cited

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.

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It’s “Doctor” Frankenstein, Okay?

By Troi Watts

Frankenstein. We hear the name and what do we think of? The monster: a thing constructed from the bodies of various corpses and brought to life by a mad scientist. We do not think of the mad scientist himself, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s horror novel is the namesake of this man, not the creature that so many people choose to associate with the name. But why do people make this mistake? This could be interpreted as an effort to displace the monstrous qualities of Dr. Victor Frankenstein onto the Creature. Society does not always want to accept the fact that humans can be monsters because humans have morals, values, and rules that are supposed to prevent them from doing anything monstrous. However, when examining Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monster theory, Dr. Frankenstein’s actions, and the actions of the Creature, it becomes clear that the true monster of Mary Shelley’s novel is actually the main human character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

But wait, why is the thing that looks like a monster not actually the monster? It is easy to associate the word “monster” with the disfigured, frightful looking Creature, but when looking at the Creature’s actions, “monster” is not the right label. Cohen’s fourth thesis, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference,” explains that monsters are “difference made flesh” (Cohen 7). Yes, the Creature’s appearance is absolutely different from that of a regular human, but let us look beneath the surface. The Creature’s experiences are very similar to that of an unwanted child. It is brought into this world forcibly, without having asked to be created. Its “father” (Dr. Frankenstein) rejects and abandons it, despite its helplessness. It must then find a way to live and learn all by itself. The Creature may look different, but its personality and upbringing are not monstrously different from that of an unwanted child. Unwanted children survive in society and are not labeled as “monstrous.” So why should we treat the Creature this way?

With this information in mind, what makes Dr. Victor Frankenstein the true monster of this story? Connecting to Jeffrey Cohen’s first thesis, “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body,” Dr. Frankenstein is the embodiment of both the fear of what will become of our bodies after death and the unspoken desire to become something superior to human, to have more power. Dr. Frankenstein’s process of creating the Creature involved grave robbing and the mutilation of corpses. Considering that respect for the dead is a common trait among societies, people could assume their corpses to be safe in the ground, cremated, etcetera because it is difficult for them to comprehend anyone breaking these social mores about the dead. Dr. Frankenstein’s actions speak for themselves, refuting these beliefs that corpses will rest in peace. He is proof that there are people in our society that have no respect for the dead and will violate corpses. In Dr. Frankenstein’s own words, “a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life” (Shelley 51). A receptacle. There is no hint of respect or consideration of what he has done in that objective word. Therefore, the fear that people’s helpless corpses could be pulled out of the peaceful ground and played with by anyone is instilled in readers of this novel.

On the other hand, in his explanation of what makes a monster’s body cultural, Cohen states that the monster’s body could also represent a cultural desire (Cohen 4). When interpreting Cohen, this desire is not a pleasant or acceptable thing (based on the fact that he is discussing monsters). Dr. Frankenstein is embodying the desire to gain power through his prideful attempt to create life, an ability exclusively associated with a deity.

When faced with the evidence of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrosity, it seems odd that people continue to ignore the scientist and displace the monstrosity onto the Creature. In Dr. Frankenstein’s defense, he is a human, just like anyone reading Shelley’s novel. He was once a child, went to school, made friends, and had normal feelings (happiness, sadness, anger) just like a regular human would. He is too relatable for people to accept that he is a monster. But people do not want to relate to a monster because of the fear of what it means to be a monster.

As Cohen’s third thesis, “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis,” explains that monsters do not easily fit into any category. Humans enjoy order and classification, usually in a binary system: good and bad, black and white, true and false. Throw in a shady, gray-area third option, and things get uncomfortable for humans.

Another thing that makes humans uncomfortable is difference, and, as Cohen states, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference.” Xenophobia and fear of the yet-to-be understood has been a serious problem of societies, even today. It connects back to the category crisis. By not being able to classify a monster, humans do not know how to handle or cope with it.

By refusing to consider Dr. Frankenstein to be “the monster” of Mary Shelley’s novel, readers are ignoring the idea that a human could be a monster. Dr. Frankenstein is a relatable character due to the fact that he is a human with real emotions and a personal life. Readers do not want to relate to a character that contains monstrous aspects because they do not want to associate those monstrous traits with themselves. They do not want to be monsters! Therefore, they give the title of monster to the Creature, whose appearance allows people to consider him something other than human, something they cannot relate to.

Frankenstein. When we think of the name now, what do we think? We should think of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the man who tried to play God, the man with no respect for the dead, not the Creature who was forced into being. After all, the creature is simply “a man’s [Dr. Frankenstein’s] invention brought to life” (Skalošová 18). In other words, a man’s monstrosity brought to life.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Oxford University Press, 1969.

Skalošová. Žaneta. “Monster and Monstrosity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Masaryk University Information Systems., Dissertation, Masaryk University, 2015.Accessed 13 Feb. 2017. http://is.muni.cz/th/431198/pedf_m/Diplomka_Zaneta.pdf.  

 

“The Monster Is Not in My Face, But in My Soul” An Analysis of Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful

by Alexis Lawhorn

The concept of immortality both seduces and frightens humankind. Most people are drawn to the idea of being able to live forever because of the endless options it would provide; Dorian Gray was one such man. A character from the novel A Picture of Dorian Gray, he is reimagined in the television show Penny Dreadful, which adds suspenseful twists and new characterization to traditional monstrous tales. The show takes place in the Victorian Era and involves iconic characters such as Jack the Ripper, Victor Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray. Dorian is immortal due to the fact that his soul is trapped in a painting, and all his dastardly deeds are reflected through the ever-altering portrait. Dorian embodies one reoccurring theme within the show: pushing social boundaries due to an insatiable appetite for the perverse. As a monster, Dorian Gray defies categorization and pushes the boundaries of Victorian society through his desire to seek pleasure in unorthodox ways.

The first thing the audience may notice when being introduced to Dorian Gray is that he does not care for the boundaries of Victorian society. He makes his debut in the episode “Séance” when he enlists a local woman, Brona Croft, to pose for pornographic pictures. As the session goes on, he discovers that she is ill with consumption; this only intrigues and arouses him more, and the two fornicate while the photographer snaps pictures. Thus, from his introduction, Dorian Gray is unorthodox. But, according to the theories of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Dorian’s desire also makes him monstrous. In “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Cohen discusses what characteristics create and define monsters. As Cohen states, “by refusing an easy compartmentalization of their monstrous contents, they [monsters] demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality” (6). As monsters defy societal norms and push boundaries, Brona and Dorian become increasingly monstrous the more they diverge from the behavior that is expected of them. This scene contrasts the image of a gentleman that Dorian presents later in the episode while at a ball. Dorian defies Victorian norms and pushes the boundaries of society in order to achieve tantalizing entertainment for himself and his peers.

As Dorian has no concern for the consequences that his actions will have on his soulor, rather, the appearance of his soulhe is able to push beyond the bounds that confine other humans. He is also pushing the boundaries of society through his subtle encouragement of unorthodox behavior in others. Since Dorian appears as a normal man, it is increasingly uncanny when he reveals that he is anything but. Even modern viewers, who may embrace a variety of sexualities, might nevertheless view Gray’s behaviors as obscene. As such, this leads viewers to question their own sense of boundaries: how far is too far?

As Penny Dreadful progresses, Dorian Gray embodies the darker nature of desire. Dorian has a reputation for throwing gallant balls, during which he allows people to seek out their darkest desires. Though he hides behind the mask of a young, rich, high-society Englishman, this mask only allows him to push the boundaries more forcefully. In “Predators Far and Near,” Dorian and Lily Frankenstein (who have banded together in their immortality and lust for power) begin to recruit girls who have been sex slaves in order to create an army, which will allow them to gain more power. Dorian and Lily go to watch an event in which a young sex slave, Justine, is to be brutally murdered, but, instead, they murder all of the witnesses and “rescue” the girl. After saving her, they hold one of her abusers captive, so that Justine can slit his throat and obtain revenge. The scene becomes even more unnerving when the three of them bathe in the man’s blood and copulate. It is in this scene that Dorian begins to encourage others to embrace their dark desires, thus enhancing and spreading his monstrous nature. This is one of the many scenes in which Dorian displays desires that are outside of normal societal expectations. As Cohen states, “The monster awakens one to the pleasures of the body, to the simple and fleeting joys of being frightened, or frightening – to the experience of mortality and corporeality” (17). Through the arousal of bloodshed and revenge, Dorian is arousing Lily and the young girl to the powerful aphrodisiac of instilling fear and a sense of mortality in those around them.

The most prominent theme within Dorian’s character is an insatiable appetite for perverse pleasure, which then places him in a position of power. In “Momento Mori,” Dorian inquires, “Don’t we all want to paint ourselves into something better than we are?” His despicable actions illustrate the irony of this quote. He is attempting to portray himself as better than he is, not through the literal painting of his soul, but through his embodiment of the human desire for pleasure. Dorian attempts to use pleasurable activities to appear more amicable to the people around him. Employing this pleasing mask, he eradicates the knowledge of his true, wicked behavior so that he can continue to do what he enjoys; he remains unpredictable and aloof through his barrier of immortality, which aids him in avoiding consequences. He pushes societal bounds, defies individual categorization, and encourages a lust for power and pleasure within others. Ironically, it is because of these characteristics that he is held in esteem within society – he allows high-class individuals to come out from behind the masks they wear to conform to societal norms, and to turn instead to vile actions for pleasure. Each of Dorian’s acts, from pornography to murder, displays how his soulless, immortal nature leads him to act, through a desire created from an insatiable appetite for pleasure, in a venture for power. As the audience witnesses Dorian’s descent into monstrosity, the viewers realize their own dissonance between who they truly are and how they present themselves to society, through the use of their own hypocritical masks.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses). Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

“Momento Mori.” Penny Dreadful, season 2, episode 8, Showtime, 21 June 2015. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80045622?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C7%2C925370c1-bf08-496f-b5f9-13c360411bce-156263911

“Predators Far and Near.” Penny Dreadful, season 3, episode 2, Showtime, 8 May 2016. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80085098?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.

“Séance.” Penny Dreadful, season 1, episode 2, Showtime, 18 May 2014. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80013255?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.