The History and Evolution of the Slasher Film
"Do you like scary movies?"
Seeing as it's spooky season at the moment, I thought I would share my college coursework on slasher films which I made all the way back in 2017. Please enjoy and excuse the punctuation and grammar mistakes; I made this when I was 17 so there's probably a ton.
The first cut:
Slashers are a sub-genre of Horror. They are famous for conventions such as; objectifying women, indestructible psychopaths, graphic deaths and, of course, the final girl, the virgin who survives and kills the murderer, before they come back in the sequel.
A popular view is that Slasher films promote and celebrate violence. Many people also think that Slashers are misogynistic. However, in my opinion, this is not the case. Slasher films simply represent what is wrong with the world, which may be why people don't like them. The way I see it, the killers act as metaphors for real life hardship. Sure, some Slashers are misogynistic, but this may be to show how badly some women are treated and stereotyped. So, my aim is to take you through the history of Slashers and show you how they have changed over the years whilst reigniting an interest in the genre and proving to you that they aren't misogynistic or promote violence.
I will focus on three films; Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. These three films are not only some of the most famous Slashers, but they are also some of the most famous films of all time. They have had the largest impact on the Slasher genre and are a big reason why the genre is so financially successful.
There is a big debate over what the first Slasher film was. You have films like Psycho or Black Christmas that could be classed as the first Slasher, however, in my opinion the first true Slasher is Halloween. Halloween originated several tropes such as the final girl, the masked killer with a twisted backstory and unreliable technology, to name a few. It is the first Slasher because it is what later filmmakers would imitate.
The late 70s was a bizarre time for America. Their president, Jimmy Carter, was a very unpopular leader and Jim Jones had just made 918 of his followers "Drink the Kool-Aid." Many people were worried for their safety and, like John Carpenter said, "Halloween came around at the time when people just wanted to have a safe scare." People went to see Halloween to get away from the violence in the real world. In a way, Slashers allow viewers to let go of frustrations vicariously through watching violence. This supports the argument that Slashers don't lead to violence, they make us forget about the dangers of the real world.
Halloween was a massive success, grossing $70 million on a minute budget of $325,000. Although Halloween was financially successful, when it was first released it was very unpopular with critics. One critic called the film "A plodding exercise in sham apprehension." Halloween was criticized for being misogynistic, and sure, it may have been, but weren't most films back then? To me, Slasher films are just a bit of fun and after doing some research I found that more men are seen being killed on camera than women and more teenage girls watch Slashers than teenage boys. It is hard to find a correlation between misogyny and Slashers when very few women are seen being killed on camera and the mass audience is female.
Many critics didn't like the fact that there was a misogynistic undertone in Halloween, but that didn't stop it from becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time. Although this was the end of the first Halloween film, it was the beginning of a new era, one that some would love and some would hate.
A Nightmare on Elm Street:
After the success of Halloween other studios started to make Slashers, because it meant an easy profit. However, by 1984 the genre was slowly starting to decline, audiences had finally grown tired of seeing mute psychopaths killing dumb teenagers. The conventions of the Slasher had become too predictable and most of the films released after Halloween were just plain boring. Audiences wanted something fresh, and then came Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Audiences had never seen a Slasher that combined comedy, Sci-fi, and horror yet, which is why they fell in love with the film and why it was such a success at the box office, grossing $25 million worldwide. Critics praised the film for its new take on the genre, the comedic killer and most of all, its strong female lead. As the critics were no longer focusing on the misogyny, they started to dig deeper into the film and look at its political and social context. They started to appreciate the film for its metaphorical relevance to society and it received rave reviews. Due to the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, everyone started making Slashers again. However, it wouldn't be long before the genre would die off again.
A variety of events caused the Slasher to fade into the background. The first reason was that the Slashers that came after Nightmare seemed to forget what made it so popular, the comedic killer. After the success of Nightmare everyone went back to making mundane Slashers with a killer that never spoke. They didn't realize that what made Nightmare a classic was the wise-cracking killer. The second reason why Slashers died was parents and the moral panic generated by them. Parents were disgusted by Slashers, they claimed that they celebrated violence and encouraged it; however, most Slashers are just a by-product of the violence in our society, not the other way around. Finally, the most important reason why the Slasher died was merchandising. Due to the success of Nightmare, companies started making toys of famous and once feared killers. Freddy was no longer a feared child molester but a cuddly toy. This had a large impact on Slashers and with boredom settling in, an angry audience and far from frightening killers, the Slasher's popularity died.
But Wes Craven wasn't going to give up on the Slasher genre and in 1996, Scream, a self-aware Slasher was released. The movie was financially and critically successful; however, Craven wasn't interested in the project when it was first offered to him. Craven knew the genre was dead and of the bad stigma surrounding it, so he distanced himself from the project. However, he eventually signed on to the film when Bob Weinstein convinced him that they could make it work.
Bob Weinstein was right. Scream made a massive $173 million worldwide and the film was celebrated for having two strong female characters in Sidney Prescott and Gale Weathers. The film was so successful because it turned the genre on its head. The film contained elements of a mystery and a comedy, but it was still a Slasher at heart. It was a postmodern horror movie that both celebrated and parodied the genre. No one had ever seen a Slasher like this that actually congratulated the audience on its knowledge of the genre, and that is why it was so successful. Parents were pleased because they thought it was more comedic than violent. Critics were happy because it wasn't misogynistic. And Slasher fans were happy because the killer was scary again and they were being recognized by the filmmakers. The film hit absolutely every note and reinvented the Slasher genre. And, like before, everyone was making Slashers again.
However, as with a Nightmare on Elm Street, imitators forgot to focus on what made Scream great, the comedy. Slashers almost instantly died off again. However, it seems that Slashers are finally making a comeback. Films like The Cabin in the Woods and Happy Death Day have been a surprise hit with audiences and critics alike, mainly due to the mixture of comedy and horror in these films. Not only this, but these films also contain elements of a mystery. They have become increasingly more intellectual which may be why they have seen a resurgence. Slashers used to only offer audiences emotional and visceral pleasures but now they offer intellectual pleasures. Like Scream, the most successful slashers in recent history have focused on the mystery and 'whodunit' and this is why they have become increasingly popular again. And with other sub-genres of Horror such as torture porn films and found-footage films slowly declining, it seems that now is the perfect time for the Slasher to come back to our screens. Now would also be the best time as they would be relevant to society, like they were back in the 70s and 80s. Like in 1978, America has an unpopular leader in Donald Trump who represents the psycho killer. Also, as in 1978, there are a lot of terrorist attacks and unexplained attacks. Now is the perfect time for people to enjoy a safe scare.
After carrying out my research I found out three things about the Slasher genre. Firstly, it seems that over the years Slashers have become more hybridized with other genres. Slashers used to be one of the least comedic genres but now they are one of the most comedic. They also used to be very simplistic in terms of narrative. They were mostly linear and they very rarely focused on the mystery and 'Whodunnit'. However, it seems that in recent years Slashers have focused more on the mystery. Instead of the killer being an escaped lunatic with no backstory, the killer is now friends with the protagonist and we're working alongside them to figure out who the killer is and their motive. This change has been a blessing for Slashers as it has kept them relevant and prevented the genre from dying forever. The second thing I found is that over time Slashers have embraced the final girl. This was probably the result of changing gender attitudes in society. However, you could make an argument that Slashers contributed to this change. The final girls were once helpless victims, too afraid to fight the killer, like in Halloween, but now they are heroes in the proper sense and they stand up to the killer and face them head on, like in Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street. This has led to people being more accepting of Slashers, however, some people still have negative views. This leads me onto my final point, Slashers don't lead to violence. Slashers have constantly been the scapegoat for social problems but in fact, many Slashers are inspired by real-life events, not the other way around. Real-life is much more gruesome than Slashers. Hopefully one day Slashers will be appreciated for what they are, fun, exciting and sometimes intelligent films.