Slasher Films: The History of a Genre

By Nicholas Barham

Spoiler alert: I discuss the plots of some old films

I have a confession to make, in my teens I developed a fixation with slasher films. Slasher films were my introduction to the horror genre, an edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride experience as you watch the killer stalking the hapless victims who inevitably die in some horrible, gruesome way.

A slasher film is basically like watching a car-pile up: it’s terrible and yucky but you just can’t look away. So, you may ask, what the heck is a slasher film? Well let me explain.

What is a slasher film?

A slasher film is a sub-genre of horror that sees a group of people stalked by some malevolent person, or entity. This stalker then proceeds to brutally murder each character, usually with some bladed weapon (hence the term slasher).

By the end of the film there is usually one victim left, the so-called “final-girl” (or guy, in some rare cases), who then defeats the killer only to have them rise up again in the inevitable parade of sequels that follow.

The killer is usually motivated by revenge, or some disturbed past. Slasher films have simplistic plots, paper-thin characters as hapless victims, and lots of gore.

Slasher Icons

Left to right: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger

Nobody truly remembers the victims in these films, the true icons are of course the villains, the various killers that stalk the victims. You no doubt recognise these characters if you are a follower of the horror genre.

There is Michael Myers (AKA The Shape), the voiceless protagonist in the Halloween franchise who’s only goal is to wipe out his bloodline, and anyone who gets in his way.

Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise, who drowned in Camp Crystal Lake as a boy and now stalks the camp as some kind of zombie, killing whoever dares to try to set-up shop. Who, spoiler alert, is driven by the voice of his dead mother, Pamela Voorhees, who is the killer in the first film of the franchise, but dies at the hands of the final-girl.

Freddy Krueger, of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, a former child killer who was set free on a technicality and hunted down by the parents of the town. The parents cornered him in a building and burnt it to the ground, only to have the killer return as a supernatural entity that haunts the dreams of the children of Elm Street. He kills the teens of Elm Street in their dreams which causes them to die in the real-world. These are just come examples of the icons of the slasher genre.

What’s the appeal?

Good question. We could ask the same of the whole concept of horror: why would anyone want to willingly watch something that scared or disgusted them? Don’t look at me I’m not a psychologist! I can’t look into the enigma that is the human mind and determine what makes it tick. Furthermore, I can’t tell you what causes horror in general to have such a huge following in society at large, as I am by no means a sociologist! I can however speak from my own experiences.

Slasher films offer suspense and excitement, they are the equivalent of the roller-coaster in the world of films. We, the audience, are constantly on the edge of our seats, watching as the killer stalks their next victim, leaping at jump scares, and biting down on our nails as we watch the victim fleeing in terror only to be chased down.

When our hapless victim meets their inevitable bloody end, it’s shocking, visceral, and frightening. Slashers allows us to experience a sense of danger and fear, but in a safe and controlled environment, just like a roller-coaster. Or if you want to be really reductive, I suppose people like slashers because it makes them feel alive.

But like every-form of fiction it’s not for everyone: I may not see the appeal of romance movies like The Notebook, but I’m not going to judge you for watching it, you do you. And if you are one of those that don’t like slashers, then I must ask what are you doing here? Did you get lost?

Why did the genre die-out?

Here lies the slasher film?

It seems it was mainly due to audience fatigue. Studios released countless sequels of popular movies, flooding the market with the same old stuff. Friday the 13th has 12 movies alone, if you count the likes of the crossover Freddy Vs Jason, and the 2009 reboot. Like all things I suppose, people lose interest; especially if you don’t try to add anything new and repeat the same old formula again and again.

Horror movies have become more intelligent as well, not only in the narrative structure, but also the story-telling and the types of themes they explore. Slasher films were always the dumb sibling of other genres of horror, they are the equivalent of cheap carnival rides in a world full of Bentleys.

The characters within slashers have cardboard personalities, and their intelligence seems to be on the same par, as they make the most ludicrously stupid decisions: no, you shouldn’t split up while you are being chased by the killer. Don’t pick up that stranger on the side of the road. If you manage to knock the killer down make sure you double-tap… oh look he’s back up again, ugh!

Furthermore, slashers don’t have much to say about the world outside the screen. Horror movies like Hereditary, Get Out, and Us offer deep social commentary on topics like mental health, racism, identity, and other relevant topics in society today. Slasher films, on the other hand, are empty in comparison.

Worse yet, the slasher films of the past seem to reinforce toxic ideals of purity that have dominated our culture for a long time, hence in a lot of slasher movies the “final-girl” (the lone survivor) is usually a white virginal pure teen. While the victims of the killer are typically those that engage in activity that run counter to the prevailing cultural ideals: engaging in pre-marital sex, experimenting with drugs etc. And if you happen to be a person of colour and find yourself inside a slasher film, you’re toast.

Of course, slasher films are not the only genre of fiction that reinforce cultural ideals, this happens with any form of art, but it is unfortunate.

The post-modern slasher Scream, and the reinvention of the slasher genre

Scream (1996)

There was a resurgence in the late-90s onwards that started with the post-modern slasher Scream. By “post-modern” I mean that the film attempted to deconstruct the tropes and narrative structure of the slasher movie genre.

The characters within Scream are slasher connoisseurs, they know the ins-and-outs of slasher movies. They refer to “rules” to survive a horror movie like “you can never have sex”, and “you can never drink or do drugs”, and “never say ‘I’ll be right back’”. This kind of fourth-wall breaking was innovative, offering nostalgia for those familiar with the golden age of slasher movies, as well as being critical of the clichés, and purity culture, of the past.

What followed was a wave of resurgence, as studios tried to reinvent the slasher and actually try to be innovative and creative. To not rely on the same stale formula that people had seen countless times in the past; the formula that Scream effectively critiqued and tore down.

This era saw the creation of one of my favourite slashers: Final Destination. A film that —in my mind— was unique, distinctive, and creative. In Final Destination the group of hapless victims survive a plane crash thanks to a premonition of the accident by their friend Alex Browning, who manages to get all of his friends off the plane before it takes off and explodes into a ball of fire. This of course is not the end of the story, as we the audience become a fly on the wall as the survivors start to die in bizarre and gory “accidents”. Even stranger, they die in the same order that they did in the premonition.

Final Destination (2000)

If it has not clicked yet, the group are being stalked by death itself, which was cheated out of its prize of victims due to Alex’s premonition. We never see this entity; we only see the consequence of this ethereal personification of death: The strange Rube Goldberg-like accidents that lead to bloody ends. There is no physical enemy for the survivors to fight, no way to run or hide, and no cliched “rules” that the film follows; there is only a pervading sense of dread as the survivors are picked off one-by-one. It is an interesting concept that allows for many suspenseful death-scenes, and a unique puzzle for our survivors to solve: how can you outrun death itself?

The future of slashers

Slasher films seem to be making somewhat of a come-back, but will it last? I’m not sure, maybe. Halloween (2018) is one example of a recent foray into the slasher genre that has done quite well for itself, and on a personal note I am very much looking forward to the follow-up, Halloween Kills.

Happy Death Day, and its groundhog-day type structure, was an interesting twist on the slasher formula which hopefully creates a benchmark for future innovation in the slasher genre

As with any genre of film, there will be times when it is going strong, and times when the audience gets tired of seeing the same old thing and craves something new. Nothing lasts forever.

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