Violent Women and the Sadism in Slasher Films

Patricia Erens

Patricia Erens

For the past seven years, the slasher film (alternatively called the “Woman in Danger Film”) has performed exceptionally well at the box office. In a 1981 news article, Variety claimed that thirty percent of all the new movies involved horror or violent themes. Most prominent in this group have been ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979), ‘Silent Scream’ (1980), ‘He Knows You’re Alone’ (1980), ‘Prom Night’ (1980), ‘Final Exam’ (1981), ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ (1981), ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (1981), ‘Student Bodies’ (1981), ‘Psycho II’ (1983), ‘Body Double’ (1984), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984), and ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’ (1984), as well as ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (1980), a particular case which I will mention later. This, of course, represents only a partial list. Sequels and spin-offs abound, as well as other films which incorporate violence against women but which do not posit this theme as the central action.

What is relevant about these films is, first, their popularity — an indication that they have touched something in the popular consciousness; second, the degree to which these works reflect certain conventions previously associated with pornography; and third, the way in which these films are responsive to contradictory societal attitudes about sexuality, sex roles, and women (both about male attitudes towards women and women’s attitudes towards themselves), and how these works move toward a synthesis or reconciliation, however tenuous.

I would like to approach the slasher film using ‘The Seduction’ (1981), directed by David Schmoeller and starring Morgan Fairchild, Michael Sarrazin and Andrew Stevens, as an aspect of mass culture which produces shifting meanings. The film can be interpreted as an open text which allows for multiple readings, dependent upon viewers’ interaction and gender identification. Although the high gloss production values and the romantic elements associated with Hollywood melodrama and television soap opera seem to set this film apart from those mentioned above, it is my contention that the film’s structure, iconography, thematic material, and underlying ideology differ little from the more blatantly exploitative works. In treating the slasher film, my approach is similar to readings of Hollywood melodrama, television soap operas and romantic fiction which have been offered by Screen Magazine, by Tania Modleski, Ellen Seiter, and Janice Radway, each of whom demonstrate how the production of popular culture simultaneously reinforces patriarchal values while at the same time subverting them.

First, some general observations about the slasher films. The majority of these works focus on a female protagonist, which sets them apart from the traditional horror film, which centres on a male protagonist. Thus the presence of the female body dominates the screen as in pornography or the men’s magazines. In most films, the central character (and sole survivor) is sexually innocent (for example, ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 1th’, and ‘Prom Night’). As a foil to this character, other female characters are more sexually active. The threat in these films comes from an unknown, frequently unseen, assailant who victimises the innocent heroine in a variety of ways. Often we share the assailant’s perspective through subjective tracking, the point of view shots. This sets the slasher films apart from older horror films where audiences, through camera angles and editing, tend to identify with the victims. By placing us in the position of the attacker, frequently aided by the sounds of breathing, we become accomplices to the crime. As most of the assailants are male (the exceptions tend to be previously victimised women), the films seem to be constructed to capitalise on male anger toward women and to allow for easy identification of the male viewer with the assailant. It is my assumption. However, that female viewers react with terror, and this assumption is similar to Peter Michelson’s interpretation of the double reading of ‘The Story of O. Michelson’ writes: “The story provides, thus, two erotic points of view. From the masculine perspective, it describes a complete liberation of the sexual libido. Men possess and enjoy O anonymously, with no consequence or emotional responsibility […] they have in fact the power of life and death, another nice male power fantasy. But from the female viewpoint, the story arouses intense anxiety.”

The question arises: Where does misogyny, which finds expression in pornography, derive from, and why has it become so pervasive at this time? In trying to come to terms with this phenomenon of misogyny, writers have drawn upon the works of Sigmund Freud and his later interpreters. For example, a concise psychoanalytic explanation is offered by Susan Lurie in ‘Pornography and the Dread of Women: The Male Sexual Dilemma’: “Because men are afraid that their lovers, being women, may harbor the castrating power they fear from their mothers, and because the experience of sexual intercourse complicates matters with its physical analogs to ‘castration and the revelation of a female sexuality less vulnerable than the male’s,’ the Sphinx (the hostile female principle) enters the picture most dangerously in the context of male adult loving/sexual unions with women. For sexual intercourse is the paradoxical occasion that both promises to celebrate male phallic individuality and threatens to annihilate it.”

More specifically, the infant who is almost always nurtured from birth by a female body has almost all of his or her needs met and feels at one with the source of this gratification which at first has no sexual identity but is thought of as an “it.” Eventually, the infant finds him or herself, subject to the will of another, which does not always correlate with his or her own. As Dorothy Dinnerstein explains in ‘The Mermaid and the Minotaur’, “the defeat is always intimately carnal, and the victor is always female.”

Thus the child develops anger against the mother and a fear of her power, which sometimes results in fear of being possessed. The child also comes to recognise that the source of his or her sustenance lies outside of him or herself. This source, women, comes to embody the power of life and death. For the female child, however, this source is not an “Other.”

As the male child is weaned and grows, he models himself on the father figure and learns of the privileges of being male, which include the possession of the penis. In part, this is a compensation for the loss of the pleasures of union with the mother. However, the penis is a vulnerable organ, first because of its placement outside the body, and second because of its responsiveness to stimuli which the male cannot always control.

As the male matures, the issues of control become dominant — control of his body, control of his emotions, and especially control of women. One avenue is through masturbation and fantasy in which the child can create a world entirely to his liking, better than the real world. Such auto-erotic fantasies are used to repair the separation from mother and set patterns for adult sexual responses. A useful analysis of the differences between male and female sexual development can be and in the writings of Ethel Jane Spector Person Sherman Diamond, and in film theory, Laura Mulvey’s important essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ sheds light on the relationship between voyeurism and sadism.

Another way to gain control is to reverse the process of female power and to gain control over women. What one means is to dominate women socially, politically and economically, which men have done. Another is to control female sexuality, which during intercourse remind a man of his recent vulnerability and also of the present loss of strength after ejaculation. Further, the man can feel a desire to castrate, based on what Norman Oliver Brown calls the child’s fantasy that this is what mother wishes or could do. Mutilating women thus can become a means of protecting self and reversing the threat. John Hoyer Updike has put it very succinctly: “We want to fuck what we fear.” But as Robert May points out in a recent book entitled ‘Sex and Fantasy’, “To try to do so, however, lands him on a treadmill of endless repetition” (a feature of most pornographic texts).

Dorothy Dinnerstein describes men’s need to control and its origins as follows: “He will discover that authority over a woman or women is a mark of status, respected by men. This discovery will help him reconcile what were once competing wishes: the wish for secure access to certain essential emotional resources, which in his experiences reside in females, and the wish to take part in certain essential human activities, which in the world he now enters are defined as male.”

As most pornography is created by men to be consumed by men, it necessarily calls upon male fantasy structures. In its depiction of sexuality, it reproduces the sexual world as men would have it. And it gives full play to their fears and desires, especially since the genre has a minimal character or narrative development. Thus we find willing female sex partners with little subjectivity of their own, often objectified as the infant objectified the mother or females in his early auto-erotic fantasies.

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