Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Blood, Screams, and Sex: Female Bodies in the Slasher Film

[Adapted from a paper I wrote for a class on violence in Fall 2011]

Paul Wells once wrote that the analysis of horror films offers a particularly interesting insight into a society—that of its fears and anxieties. Horror films are one such way that audiences’ fascination with graphic violence is capitalized upon. The genre constantly goes through reinvention, becoming more graphic, shocking, and violent to respond not only to boredom with a certain type of depiction, but to the lucrative power of truly horrifying and controversial images.

Slasher movies in particular have been analyzed as one such catalyst for constantly escalating violence in modern horror films. The first commercially successful slasher film, 1978’s Halloween, set the stage for similar films to try to replicate its violence and commercial success throughout the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. One of the most characteristic features of slasher films is the use of graphic violence against women, and Carol Clover's idea of the "Final Girl". Although many slasher films feature the Final Girl trope, who can be for many reasons interpreted as empowering, she is often left after friends and/or numerous other women have been murdered.

A common theme among the deaths of characters in slasher movies of the 1980s to mid-1990s, especially for women, is their explicit sexualization immediately preceding being brutally murdered. This eroticization is used to arouse the viewers, and directly porns the audience’s understanding of violence. Whether used as a tactic to punish deviant sexuality or as simply a technique of arousal, the eroticization of violence in horror films demonstrates a trend in which domination, violence, humiliation, and terror are popularly portrayed through a lens of porn.

Second Wave Feminism reached its height in the 1960s and 70s, but the 1980s and 90s are characterized as periods of great backlash against women. As the religious right gained prominence in politics, depictions of women in film and the media began to much more frequently punish sexuality and push women into supporting and disempowered roles. Within this context, the slasher film of the 1980s and 90s often punish deviant femininity, while lingering on its sexualized aspects. This contradiction of depiction, in conjunction with horrific violence, has succeeded in strengthening a genre that relies on the combination of sex and violence for entertainment.

Some porn makes use of violence and horror movie conventions, while many horror movies make use of porn. The release of Halloween in 1978 heralded a new era of horror movies: the slasher film. Characterized by bloody, gratuitous violence, the slasher generally featured long, drawn-out sequences of female characters being terrorized and murdered. Although Laurie Strode, Halloween’s “final girl,” survives to the end of the film, her friends are not so lucky.

Eighteen years later, Scream revisited the slasher, and made it a little punchier by satirizing horror movie conventions. The self-referential feel of Scream sets it apart from serious slasher films, as the characters frequently complain about slasher film characters not knowing when the killer is about to sneak up on them—right as the audiences are watching this very convention unfold on screen. One scene from Scream stands out in particular.



Unable to fit her hips through the dog-door, Tatum is stuck half-in, half-out, with her face, arms and breasts (with inexplicably erect nipples) sticking out one end and legs out the other, sectioning off her body into very typically sexualized regions. Tatum hangs limply from the dog-door, with only her butt and legs showing.

While many of the mainstream slasher films from the 1980s do not use humor the same way Scream did and could, the violence unfolds in similar scenes. Laurie’s friends in Halloween are unceremoniously knocked off one after another, with much longer sequences for the deaths of female characters than male ones. Emphasizing a female character’s sexuality during a death scene for audience members sets up some severe psychological consequences for audience members. If male spectators are ostensibly expected to identify with male characters, their identification process during a scene in which a female character is sexualized and then brutally murdered brings them to identifying with the killer. According to Laura Mulvey's work on visual pleasure, female spectators are forced to identify with the female characters, which at best have one “final girl,” or with the male characters. The lesson taught by slashers is, for women, too much sex foreshadows death. Sexy death.

Following Halloween, Friday the 13th was released in 1980. Although the killer is a woman (at least in the first film of the series), Friday the 13th is more conspicuously punishing of deviant sexuality and emphasizing the castigation of young adults who do not listen to their elders than most slasher films.

The generational divide in Friday the 13th is key. The young camp counselors are portrayed as foolhardy for not listening to the older locals warn them about “Camp Blood” and are disrespectful to a police officer who visits early in the day to check out the situation. As they fall prey to the mysterious killer, it is implied that all this could have been avoided if they had known to listen to their elders. In a twist on the generational conflict, the killer turns out to be an older woman. When Mrs. Voorhees is finally shown, she is first anticipated as a savior by the film’s final girl, Alice. However, as Mrs. Voorhees surveys the damage in the cabin and the dead bodies of Alice’s friends, her monologue reveals that something is wrong:



Partial transcript: Oh my lord. So young. So pretty. What monster could have done this? Oh, god this place. Steve should never have opened this place again. There’s been too much trouble here. Did you know that a young boy drowned? The year before the two others were killed? The counselors weren’t paying any attention. They were making love while that young boy drowned! His name was Jason. I was working the day that it happened, preparing meals here. I was the cook. Jason should have been watched! [Mrs. Voorhees grabs Alice and shakes her] Every minute! He was—[pause] He wasn’t a very good swimmer. We can go now… dear.

Although Mrs. Voorhees is killed at the end of the film, her reason to kill extends from an empathetic place—revenge for her son—while other slasher villains are simply understood to be psychopaths. Michael Myers of Halloween is described as soulless, and someone who lacked humanity from his earliest murder as a five year old. Freddy Kruger, of Nightmare on Elm Street, is a child-murderer who inhabits the dream world. Both Myers and Kruger have tenuously explained psyches, while Mrs. Voorhees has a much clearer motive for her actions. Although she is clearly in the wrong for committing murder, her actions for killing teenagers who are out doing the dirty deed have some narrative justification in the film.

What society finds frightening, horror films capitalize on. In the 1980s, expanding teen culture and fear of safety in the suburbs influenced the creation of many horror films. While many horror films in past decades were set in faraway castles or rural and isolated areas, terror began creeping into the normal, suddenly turning an orderly world into one filled with serial killers and the potential for violence. The financial success of Halloween was unexpected as the film was, at its core, so very conservative in its values and castigating toward the behavior of adolescents—who made up most of the audience.

The specific codes used in horror movies help form audiences’ ideologies on fear and horror. As the world has become more violent, so have our scary movies. Slasher movies in particular commodify violent death by packing in as many bloody murder scenes as possible into one movie (or perhaps, its series of sequels). While dramatic film may use aspects of life that are horrifying and violent, slasher films capitalize on the potential for entertainment through the repeated demonstration of gruesome death scenes.

Repeatedly showing images where certain people are devalued and brutally cut down will not inspire any sort of positive social change. While many audience members can connect the absurdity of directors’ choices to show women in ridiculous situations, where they are naked or partially unclothed or impeded by formal dress, with the irrationality of cutting down main characters for the purpose of entertainment, visual narratives are incredibly powerful and influential.

Repeatedly showing “slutty” characters meeting bloody ends has a direct correlation to society’s treatment of women’s sexuality, which is overall hostile. Additionally, sexualizing a body before, during and after a violent scene has the potential to arouse the audience, connecting the pornographic voyeurism of sexualized women’s bodies with the pornographic voyeurism of graphic and gratuitous violence.

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