Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Let's imagine that the world as we know it was devastated by a global catastrophe of some sort, and one hundred years after the fact, archeologists start rummaging through the remains of our civilization. As they make their way through the debris, they stumble upon what once was a large video store filled with movies from every genre accompanied by a plethora of catchy and not so catchy titles. Continuing their investigation, they stumble across the horror section of the store and a sub-genre entitled "slasher films." Back at their campsite, they start to view some of the cinematic offerings. Cringing at what unfolds on the screen in front of them, the archeologists witness psychopaths and sociopaths reveling in a smorgasbord of human slaughter and multiple mutilations all gleefully accomplished with the aid of either chainsaw, machetes, or butcher knives. As the carnage unfolds, they wonder "what the hell is this seemingly mindless desecration of human flesh supposed to symbolize? Is it;
A) popular entertainment for a certain segment of society, if so who?
B) Is it exploitation of sex, or Q perhaps something deeper?" Ever since the insurgence of the horror film into American popular culture, it has served as a reflection of the societal fears of that particular time. In the 1950s the classic "big bug" films (such as Them and The Beginning of the End) echoed the cold war mentality by offering a visceral response to the nuclear threat.
Other films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Tiling mirrored our indulgences into anti-communist hysteria by combating alien life forms that threatened "the American way of life." In the late sixties and early seventies, the zombie marked its return in a much more contemporary mode than their early voodoo induced brethren of the thirties and forties. This is due largely in part to George A. Romero's cult classic Night of the Living Dead. They (the zombies) are the ultimate liberal nightmare, the huddled and mindless masses of conformity yearning to breathe free.
The 1980s brought forth a "new" era of monsters and mayhem. The wolfman has been declawed, Dracula de-fanged, and Frankenstein merely a Hollywood novelty of bygone years. Plagiarized and pushed into sentimental limbo, they are replaced by a congregation of psychotic slash-n-bash maestros starring in what is collectively called in cinematic jargon "slasher or splatter films." The plot formulas are usually simplistic and most aim for (and achieve) the lowest denominator in entertainment (after all that is part of the film's appeal). Take a certain number of attractive high school or college-age men and women and put them into a dark or shadowy place. Now, intrude into that erotic setting the presence of a maniac with a knife, axe, clever, chainsaw, or what have you. Let the camera caresses every shadow for as long as possible while the young people caress each other, until the killer kills brutally, ingeniously, swiftly, spilling as much blood as possible.
There is a little argument concerning the popularity of these movies, especially among teenagers (mostly male according to statistics). Certainly, the two most popular movie slashers of the eighties (Micheal Myers of Halloween 1,2,3,4,5 and Jason from the (count em) nine Friday the 13th films) bear his out. Altogether these two film series have grossed more than 350 million dollars at the box office and video rental sales. Why are these films so popular? According to Robin Cook, "The satisfaction that youth audiences get from these films is presumably two-fold: they identify with both he promiscuity and with the grisly and excessive punishment". Another reason for their popularity may rest in the notion that the films offer the viewer a "safe" formalized way of playing with death. They like to be scared. Fear is fun.
The early horror films notwithstanding slasher films are also steeped in (although somewhat limited reactionary themes. In the words of Douglas E. Winter; "Conventional horror has always been rich with Puritan subtext: if there is a single certainty, it is that teenagers who have sex in cars or in the woods will die. Most books and films of the eighties offer a message as conservative as their morality: conform. The bogeymen of the Halloween and Friday the 13th films are the hitmen of the homogeneity. Don't do it, they tell us, or you will pay an awful price. Don't party. Don't make love. Don't dare to be different".
Unlike the horror films of the thirties, forties, and fifties, it is not silver bullets or crucifixes that ward off this breed of monster, but rather moral and good behavior. Their nemesis is not always a burly handsome hero, but rather a monogamous or virginal heroine who holds true to the teachings of her middle-class conservative parents. One piece of evidence to back him up is Jamie Lee Curtis' prudish character (Laurie Strode of the first two Halloween films) not only survives but succeeds in stopping or killing the madman. Likewise, with the Friday the 13th movies, most of the time Jason is stopped by a virtuous young woman. In fact, in Friday the 13th Part Seven Jason's nemesis is a young woman trying to help her father. A rather interesting side note to slasher films is that their popularity rose and peaked during the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
The primary objection to these films seems to come from anybody and everybody connected or unconnected with the realm of mass media entertainment. Many of these individuals have their own interpretation of what exactly is transpiring throughout the movie and mostly to whom. Many critics such as Siskel and Ebert argue that the first person tracking shot used extensively in these films to signify the approach of the killer is an invitation to sadistic indulgence on the part of the viewer.
However, Halloween (a film both men praised) was one of the very first slasher films to use his first-person tracking shot. According to Robin Cook, "The sense of indeterminate, unidentified, possibly supernatural or superhuman menace feeds the spectator's fantasy of power, facilitating a direct spectator/camera identification by keeping the intermediary character, while signified as a present, as vaguely defined as popular". The counter-argument to this is that the filmmakers need to preserve the secret of the killer's identity for a final surprise ending.
Another criticism, perhaps the biggest, centering on slasher films is that the violence is allegedly directed mostly at women. Some critics cite the fact that the audience for these films is overwhelming of males. Their theory for this is that the men secretly sympathize and bond with the killer in his hatred of women and in the killing of them. However, arguments persist in contradiction to this. One, there is no significant difference in the ratio between numbers of men killed to the women in these films. The demise of the victims seem to be based more on circumstance and their ensuing actions rather than gender. Two, some of the killers (admittedly a small number) turn out to be women. Friday the 13th Part One is a strong example. Three, no scenes were observed involving nonconsenting sexual aggression (i.e. rape) being committed by either slasher or other actors. Four, women in the early days of horror films were always portrayed as helpless and hapless victims, most of which were rescued by the man/hero of the movie. In modern slasher films, the women (usually virtuous) are the ones who are the heroes because they stop the killers. It is Jody Foster's independent character in Silence of The Lambs whose courage and intelligence stops the reign of terror by "Buffalo Bill."
In conclusion, what the slasher film represents is merely a phase, much like many other phases in American horror cinema that have come and gone. The novelty of slasher films is wearing thin and soon will undoubtedly be replaced by another breed of "monster." However, like those early horror films which reflected many of society's fears at the time, slasher films will continue to be at the focus of controversy lead by condescending media personalities preaching movie "morality."