Slashers, those horror movies that consist of a monster or maniac stalking and or killing a succession of people, usually teenagers, are considered even less deserving of study. They are “at the bottom of the horror heap” critically, “the most disreputable form of the horror film,” and although a few slashers from the 1970s, such as ‘Halloween’ or ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ have been examined for cultural significance, these are rare examples. The 1970s are considered a brief “renaissance” in horror, where progressive films challenged societal norms and traditional depictions of female subjectivity, yet the late 1980s as an era are denied that status.
Yet the legacy of the three major horror characters to emerge during the 1980s, Freddy Krueger of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ Jason Voorhees of the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, and Pinhead of ‘Hellraiser,’ lives on as the virtual definition of film horror today. These slasher films, although “beyond the purview of the respectable (middle-aged, middle-class) audience,” have importance as cultural texts, both because of their immense and enduring popularity with adolescents, and because of their firmly entrenched status as “outsider” cinema, apart from more accepted forms of film and their more acceptable mainstream messages.
The primary rationale for the slasher film’s status as a low culture within academia is its consistent depiction of targeted female victims: Even approving discussions of horror consistently bemoan the slasher as “explicitly about the destruction of women.” Films that prominently feature women victims are harmful to women, the argument states, and slashers fit that description perfectly. Women are repeatedly killed, apparently in conformance to the monster’s attempt at repressing the dangerous sexuality they exhibit (during the obligatory nude scene) or seek out during the course of the film. Thus, the ‘Hellraiser’ series, in which a woman is stalked after finding a symbolic Pandora’s box, “share[s] with the slasher film the simple notion of adolescent sexual curiosity deserving immediate, violent retribution.” This is the predominant opinion in horror film criticism and has produced the stereotypical reaction among both filmmakers and critics of the John Howard Carpenter opening quote: Horror films, because of their seemingly anti-woman stance, are no place for feminists to be.
Female viewership of slashers is therefore considered problematic: Isabel Cristina Pinedo, in her discussion of female horror film viewing, details how for “the female viewer accused of masochism or the female fan labelled an apologist for a woman-hating genre, there is no room for pleasure.” A female horror viewer is a “sex traitor,” blindly perpetuating oppressive norms, or else misunderstanding what she is seeing. The only “proper” response to these films for a feminist is condemnation and avoidance.
Yet, although the statistical proportion of female to male viewers of horror films is largely contested, there is no denying that female viewership of slashers exists. The ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ series, in particular, is noted by at least one critic for its increased viewership by adolescent girls, usually in groups. Dismissing these films without careful consideration is too simplistic, especially in light of their cultural complexity. The “seemingly endless” sequels of the 1980s are not merely exploitation. Rather, as texts, they go surprisingly out of their way to present images of women and youth that subvert mainstream expectations. In fact, the people these films aim to speak to most are the “feminists, children under seventeen, and wimps,” the unprivileged “other” groups of society that are excluded from John Howard Carpenter’s imaginary audience.
The most consistent element in slasher sequels is the “final girl,” the surviving female Carol J. Clover speaks of in her examination of horror and gender ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws.’ After all her friends have been eliminated by the film’s monster, this woman is the one who recognizes the horror surrounding her and fights back against her attacker and defeats him, typically single-handedly, She is the undisputed main character, both because of increased character development afforded to her throughout the film and because of her early discovery of the killer, evident to the viewing audience from the beginning of the film. In this position, her “perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation:” She knows what we know, and the “final girl” becomes an “I” for the audience to identify with.
Carol J. Clover describes how the genre has evolved, from the passive defense of the surviving female of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (she eludes Leatherface until she is ultimate rescued by a passing truck driver) to the active defense of Laurie from ‘Halloween,’ who, in the last sequence of the film, ceases to run and retaliates against Michael Myers, matching him in violence. In the major 1980s slashers, this shift increases and the “final girl” is depicted as more powerful than ever before. Unlike the 1970s slasher heroines, who usually survived seemingly at random, based on their ability to scream, run, and avoid the pursuing monster, the new generation of “final girls” is notable for its unflinching determination and strength. While their supposedly more progressive 1970s ancestors are said to exude the “qualities of character that enable her, of all the characters, to survive what has come to seem unsurvivable,” the heroines of the 1980s series go much further than simply defending themselves, matching or exceeding the powers of their monsters with their own.