The Gender Politics of Slashers: My 31 Days of Slashers Conclusion

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

If you haven’t read the original post for this challenge, be sure to look it over. There you’ll find the rundown of the films that I watched and what I hoped to discover with the challenge.

The Quick Take

Number of films watched: 27 out of 31

 Most Likely to Recommend

Women in Danger Films: 

  1. Boogeyman (1980)
  2. Terror Train (1980)
  3. Motel Hell (1980)

Women Directed Slashers:

  1. Amer (2009)
  2. Sorority House Massacre (1986)
  3. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Vincent’s Favorites: 

  1. Candyman (1992)
  2. Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
  3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Least Favorite Slashers in the Project

  1. Mother’s Day (1980)
  2. I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

What Siskel and Ebert Got Wrong

If you have ever watched Siskel and Ebert’s special “Women in Danger” episode of Sneak Previews, you know that the entire episode is spent talking about how the slasher movies of the 1980s brutalize women. In Siskel and Ebert’s discussion this brutalization comes by virtue of the violence shown towards young women in the films. This “hot take” unfortunately lacks a startling amount of nuance.

Slasher films are inherently violent films. They are going to show violence against people. While Siskel and Ebert were correct to point out that women are shown in terror for a longer period of time than their male counterparts, most slashers show equal violence towards both women and men victims.

Some of the slashers I watched for the project absolutely did contain terrible messages about women. However, these messages did not come from the deaths of beautiful young girls, they come from an often off-screen female presence. Don’t Go Into The House, Mother’s Day, and Boogeyman all feature abusive mothers who are blamed for the violence of the film.

In Don’t Go Into The House, a man burns women alive because his mother’s abuse made him crazy. In Mother’s Day, men rape and torture women for their mother’s amusement. In Boogeyman, a neglectful mother invites an evil man into her children’s lives. Monstrous motherhood can be seen in quite a few horror movies; these women are characterized as dominant, possessive, overbearing, and often abusive to their sons.  The sons of monstrous mothers often become monsters themselves, and this is typically expressed in the murder of women. These acts are then blamed on the character flaws of their mothers rather than their own character; mothers become the scapegoat for men’s actions, and by extension women are the source of bad in the world. However, the monstrous mother isn’t just seen in (apparently terrible) slashers of the 1980s, they are found in well respected horror films as well, such as Psycho (1960).

Siskel and Ebert’s assertion that these slasher films add no artistic value to the art of filmmaking is the most biased and untrue point they make in the 30 minute episode.

What Siskel and Ebert are missing in their discussion is that the negative representation in these slasher films is not accurately depicted by who is literally killed in the film. Instead we should be looking at who the films show a damaging portrayal of. Just as mothers are blamed for violence in many of these films, so is mental illness.

Five of the films portray their violent killers as man-driven crazy. The idea of losing control of one’s actions is a theme found in many horror films, one that the audience is meant to identify as a part of their own fears. In this way Siskel and Ebert are right to point out that by identifying with the killer, the audience sees their own potential to go crazy, their ability to snap, their ability to become violent even if they don’t want to be.

However, validating those fears has harmful consequences. The idea that violent men are the way that they are because something has driven them crazy is used to excuse the actions of violent people who are in control of their behavior. This removes all responsibility from violent men and puts it on the person who drove them crazy, often a woman: their overbearing mother, their bitch ex-wife, the girl that was just too hot to let go.

Furthermore, conflating men’s violence with mental illness harms people who actually have mental health issues. It creates an “us” and “them” mentality. The audience is afraid of becoming one of them, one of those people who are crazy. And, of course, it perpetuates the false idea that people with mental illnesses are more dangerous than people without a mental illness.

I debated including this observation, mostly because my specialty is writing about the messages of films rather than the aesthetics of films, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Siskel and Ebert’s assertion that these slasher films add no artistic value to the art of filmmaking is the most biased and untrue point they make in the 30 minute episode. Boogeyman, one of my favorite Women in Danger films, for instance, is filled with stylized approaches to traditional slasher imagery. Don’t Go Into The House has a captivatingly interesting dream sequence. The lighting during Prom Night’s dance number is gorgeous. Many of the films, such as Motel Hell and Phobia, offer surprisingly unique storylines. People don’t have to like these films, but to say they offer nothing of value is an elitist approach to film viewing. Low budget slashers are filled with excitement, visual interest, and experimentation.

Carol Kane
When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Women in Danger vs. Women Directed

Women in Danger films do not show respect for women’s boundaries

The most obvious difference between Women in Danger films and female written and directed slashers is how the killer is characterized. In all but one Women in Danger films, the audience learns a good amount of background about the killer.

Many of the Women in Danger films follow the life of the killer as he searches for victims, instead of following a group of victims terrorized by a killer. While some of the slashers directed by women do give the killer backstory, three of the seven I watched had faceless killers.

Even more interesting is the divide in what types of men each set of films deemed likely to commit violence. Most of the violent men of the Women in Danger films are socially deficient in some way. They are crazy, bad with women, effeminate, old, low class, or stupid. The Women in Danger films associate violent men with outcasts. Women directed slashers, however, are more likely to associate their killers with powerful men. Both Boxing Helena and American Psycho follow violent men who hold respected positions, have money, and are well liked in their social circles.

A more subtle, but equally interesting, difference between the Women in Danger films and the women directed slasher is the importance of women’s boundaries. The Women in Danger films do not show respect for women’s boundaries. This can be seen not by looking at the villains of the films – because one would not expect a bad guy to be respectful of boundaries – but by looking at the films’ heroes. I noticed this in the first film I watched for my Women in Danger marathon, When a Stranger Calls.

In the film, private investigator John Clifford is positioned as the savior of the film. He is the one who is going to track down and stop the violent man. However he breaks many of the same boundaries as the killer, Curt Duncan. Tracy, a woman in the film, is stalked by Duncan, who later invades her apartment when it is clear she is uncomfortable with his presence. Clifford also invades Tracy’s apartment, despite her protests, but she is not uncomfortable with him.

In Motel Hell, the man who eventually saves the day sexually assaults a character he is on a date with early in the film. Despite this he is not shown in a bad light by the film, nor does the woman, whose protests he ignored, dislike him. The idea that women are, or at least should be, ok with good guys breaking their boundaries can be found throughout Women in Danger films. This is not a trend I saw reflected in slashers directed by women.

Mark Patton, Robert Englund
Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

What I Learned About My Favs

Finding patterns in my favorite slasher movies proved to be the hardest task of this challenge. I thought I would come away with a clear type, or some insight into what attracts me to slasher films, but the favorites I chose for the challenge were all over the place. I have favorites with women killers, favorites with crazy killers, favorites with a monstrous mother figure, favorites with killers that have very little background, and favorites with killers that have a lot of background.

Some of my favorites can be seen as a push back to the idea that identifying with the killer is inherently a bad thing. Horror has a history of typecasting its villains with marginalized identities (ie: identifying with a queer coded killer who punishes symbols of a heteronormative society, which is inherently different from identifying with a killer that simply hates women). Freddy’s Revenge, Sleepaway Camp, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Candyman all feature killers that are coded, either blatantly or subtly, with a marginalized identity.

My favorites also show that slasher films can be loved for their aesthetic value. My Bloody Valentine, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes are all films that I value for their beautiful, gritty aesthetic. Candyman, with its soft diffused lighting, is also very beautiful.

Although the 10 slashers I chose for this project are not a complete list of my favorites, it is telling that not a single one is written or directed by a woman. One of my goals for 2019 is to complete a 52 films by women challenge; hopefully that will include some more great women directed slashers!

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