Can the slasher film be feminist?
Horror films are as much a part of the Halloween ‘tradition’ as pumpkins and badly applied costume make-up – from the Netflix ‘top ten’ listings through to the opportunistic TV scheduling of a film from a bloated slasher franchise.
The slasher film, featuring ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) and ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980) amongst its dubious roll call, probably best exemplifies this concept of ‘tradition’.
For these films, in their original incarnations, are a relic of a particular time and type of film-making. They are to our twenty-first century eyes visually and thematically distinct; low budget, amateurish, stilted in dialogue and consequently short on realism.
Despite being narratively and thematically problematic, they are sufficiently ‘not of this time’ to enable, for some, passage into innocuity.
And after all, October 31st is not meant to be frightening in any real sense, but rather a glorious theatre of recognised tropes and a carnivalesque joy of the grotesque.
As such, the degraded quality of the film stock, the proliferation of 1970s fashion and the established iconography – Freddy’s glove or Michael Myers’ mask – mean these films can be enjoyed and ritualised into tradition in a way that contemporary ‘torture porn’ such as Saw, Hostel and A Serbian Film cannot.
Yet we can still, 35 years after the release of Halloween, legitimately ask how as feminists we both interpret – and enjoy – the slasher genre.
On the face of it, slasher films both fetishise and glorify male violence against women.
Horror’s repeated tropes of bloody female bodies, gaping (read: axe) wounds and gratuitously revealed inner and outer flesh are traditionally seen to represent the abjection and fear of, largely reproductive, femininity.
The inevitably phallic objects of the kill, coupled with the ‘penetration’ scenes in which we watch in terror as the crazed killer slashes his way through the female’s hiding place, legitimise Carol Clover’s view that ‘horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation’.
In pornography this may often be sexual; in the slasher genre it is a blend of the sexual, the masochistic and the terrifying in a world where fear of sexual or violent attack is a potential threat for most women.
Men are invariably killed off swiftly and relatively bloodlessly while women are chased by a lone male killer through interminably long sequences.
We have only to think of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the final sequence of the film in which we watch lone survivor Sally, dirty and sticky with blood, flee from the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface.
This sequence is often held up as a masterclass in visual cinema, the benchmark for horror films everywhere.
Yet there is no escaping the fact that we are forced to watch and hear – for thirty minutes – a pursued woman fight for her life, as female terror is centralised and we quite literally have no choice but to watch.
Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ suggests that the ‘gaze’ of the film camera, and thus the viewer, is identified as male, rendering the female as objectified, fetishised and watched.
Using psychoanalytic theory, Mulvey argued that “Woman…stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman.”
Then, with Clover’s 1992 Men, Women and Chainsaws, a new, feminist interpretation of the slasher film was born.
In Clover’s reading, the slasher film does, in the end, celebrate female agency and allows for more fluid gender boundaries in audience identification than conventional film theory allowed for.
Clover formulated what became known as the ‘Final Girl Theory‘. She noticed that the only character to have any psychological depth and resourcefulness was the one still alive at the end. And this character was always female.
Clover also suggested that often the names of these final girls – Stretch, Laurie, Terry, Stevie, Will – rendered them ‘boyish’ and gave a clue to their position as the hero of the film; a hero both male and female audiences ultimately identify with and root for.
As Diablo Cody, writer of Juno and the slasher horror Jennifer’s Body has said: “When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures. When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating up Freddy. It was that simple.”
Clover’s theories have been misinterpreted somewhat and are often seen as an unequivocally ‘feminist’ championing of the genre at the expense of its more obviously problematic features.
Yet her book explains that ‘to applaud the final girl as a feminist development…is a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking’. Clover is simply positing a new reading of the genre, and a reading that loosens the categories of gender, ‘or at least the equation of sex = gender’.
Carol Clover’s take, however, still does not explain why so many women watch and enjoy horror films.
Rather than see the slasher genre as solidifying victimhood in women, playing on a tired ‘damsel in distress‘ trope and allowing men the vicarious, sadomasochistic pleasure of watching violence against women, Isabel Pinedo gives a different interpretation.
In ‘Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror’, Pinedo saw the agency of the final girl as expressing very real female anxieties about male violence and the ‘cultural need to express rage and terror’ against this.
The final girl is expressive of women fighting back in a world that demands their silence and their acquiescence to a culture in which male violence against women is both celebrated and ignored.
In an industry that constantly projects women as the ‘done to’ the symbolism of a woman fighting back, and winning, cannot be ignored.
However, just how we got to a situation in which managing not to get brutally raped and murdered is seen as a triumph for womanhood is an altogether more knotty issue.
We can, of course, also take a modern-day viewpoint; that these films are so coded in the ‘not-real’ – from the obviously fake blood to the aforementioned distancing of time – that we can enjoy them for what they are. Fiction.
If we, as women, deploy our willing suspension of disbelief and use our rational and logical minds to see life outside of the text as separate from life within, can we enjoy these films not as some masochistic pleasure of the eroticisation of violence against women but as a suspended moment of terrorised thrill-seeking?
We have certainly learned the conventions of the slasher genre, and the post-modern interpretations of the ‘Scream’ franchise probably helped to dismantle any further ‘serious’ interpretations of these films, or our capacity to see them as anything other than a set of conventions and tired-looking iconography.
The question of whether we can have a truly feminist slasher film has as yet been unanswered.
But to know the conventions is not enough; metatextual readings written and directed by women do not automatically escape the problems inherent in the genre; to know is not necessarily to overcome.
The 1982 film ‘Slumber Party Massacre’ which knowingly used all of the tropes of the genre, enhancing female agency and writing large the male fear of castration, possibly came close. It’s just a shame it wasn’t a very good film.
The threat of male violence is just as important an issue for women today as it was during the slasher heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. As is the gratuitous use of female flesh, the eroticisation of sexual violence and the lack of female agency in film.
We can suggest that the slasher film is so steeped in tradition and now almost creaky in its evocation of violence that we can enjoy it as a frozen moment in cinematic time, much in the same way an appreciation of film noir need not be hampered by the inherently sexist notion of the femme fatale.
However, this does not let the recent crop of remakes off the hook. ‘Halloween’ (2007), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (2010), ‘Friday the 13th’ (2009), ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2003) and ‘Prom Night’ (2008) have all, as it were, come back to haunt us in recent years.
Aside from the fact that re-makes rarely, if ever, capture what made the original so good, we have been surrounded by misogynistic depictions and treatments of women since the birth of film.
To replicate an existing and problematic genre such as this is lazy, retrogressive and pointless.
Still, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is as much a part of my October 31st, as are sticky sweets and green food colouring; ultimately bad for me but inexplicably pleasurable while it lasts.