Genre Elements in the Slasher Narrative

What is it about slasher movies that keeps the audience both paralyzed with fear and constantly coming back for more? More than any other sub-genre, the slasher is a testament to the film narrative’s ability to reconcile itself Hollywood’s capitalistic urges. However, before it can do that, Hollywood must recognize what works and what doesn’t in the realm of slasher cinema. For instance, Jason X, which had the highest budget of the Friday the 13th franchise but the lowest box office return, is proof that money doesn’t make the movie. It’s got to be relatable for audiences to be able to invest in it. Kendall Phillips states in his chapter on Halloween that part of the film’s initial success is its choice in victims. After all, “baby-sitters… were an almost universal aspect of American culture” (Phillips 2005, 123). This idea of relatability can be found throughout horror analysis. It helps to create a direct link between the film and the audience. While I don’t want to delve too deeply into reception studies, Phillips chapter manages to strike an even tone. He accounts for the audience, but doesn’t rely solely on them to prove his point. I’d like to do the same by establishing a link between what some members of the audience see and/or feel based on what the movies present to its viewers. Another good example of horror’s impact on viewers is Clover’s landmark analysis of horror Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. While her argument for slashers was gender-focused, her groundbreaking text remains useful as she investigates how viewers relate to the images onscreen. She provides some useful ideas for why that might be, so at the very least, Men, Women, and Chainsaws should be a useful reference.
All of these horror franchises share one thing in common: the way the cast is utilized, by establishing a villain, a hero or heroine, and a ragtag group of expendable victims. I’d like to explore how each of these films uses their cast in the same general way. The victims are there purely for the audience’s enjoyment and for the villain to dispose of in any manner that he sees fit. Whether it be sexy co-eds or authority figures, the main cast is largely interchangeable. This can be done with either the blow of a machete or a simple line of dialogue in the next film to explain a character’s absence because, in the end, most characters are unimportant.
Still, it’s not about the audience finding a way to connect to the victims or invest in their survival. Part of what makes horror movies so fascinating is the mythos behind the villains as well as their recognizability. For instance, how many people recognize a hockey mask as Jason’s trademark? How many people know the difference between Kane Hodder and Warrington Gillette? I can assure you not many because it isn’t about the man behind the mask. It’s the identity of the mask itself as a symbol of terror. There are a number of texts that explore the iconography of slasher figures and question what makes them memorable. Adam Rockoff attempts to make sense of it in Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978 – 1986 in his piece on A Nightmare on Elm Street. “If there is one thing, aside from his wicked sense of humor, for which Freddy Krueger is known, it is his weapon of choice” (Rockoff 2002, 153). Part of the crucial connection among these three franchises I’ve selected is that all of them have a trademark. Exploring that identity is a crucial element of my paper. Using Rockoff’s work as well as various horror docs, I’d like to explore these villains as icons in their own right.
It is the villain that seems to bring audience members back time after time. It is the villain’s identification that is most important and crucial in establishing a franchise that can span as many decades as these three have, which fortunately for filmmakers can be achieved in a number of ways. For some villains, it is their disguise that strikes fear into audience members or a certain musical motif that spells trouble. Regardless of what it is, it only matters that Freddy, Michael, or Jason are lurking behind that corner. Furthermore, the idea of the cast being replaceable even extends to the villain himself. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees have been played by a number of actors. Freddy Krueger is the only one who has been consistently acted by the same person, aside from the reboot. This returns us to the idea of identity. For audiences, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Kane Hodder or Warrington Gillette behind that hockey mask; it’s what the hockey mask represents. This seems to suggest that by establishing cult horror figures, slashers tend to lend themselves towards franchising more than most other genres.
One of the final contributing factors to this understanding of genre studies, is the general set up of the slasher, particularly in regards to the villain’s demise. Halloween was the first of these three franchises, arguably setting the tone for slashers to follow. The film ends with Dr. Loomis shooting Michael Myers out of a window and rescuing Laurie. When Loomis looks out the window, he sees Myers’ body is gone. Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street upped the ante, by adding “gotcha” scares in their final moments, such as Jason grabbing Alice just as the audience thinks she’s safe in Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street’s unhappy ending where Craven suggests that Nancy, as well as the audience, haven’t seen the last of Freddy. However, these moments of uncertainty serve two functions. On one hand, it certainly unnerves the viewer with the idea that the masked killer may still be out there, but in regards to the economic factors, it allows for a simple continuation, with the villain already established. Once again, this returns to the idea of the villain being the central driving force, but also allows for the “sequelization” of these three franchises.

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