Women in Danger | Dissecting the Voyeuristic Gaze of the Modern Slasher Film
Following Andrew Carroll’s analysis of Kill List‘s domestic disharmony and Paddy O’Leary’s Netflix horror list is Graham Connors, who in this Halloween feature looks at the slasher film and its dangerous voyeristic gaze.
It’s hard not to over-emphasise the effect the slasher film has had on horror cinema. Virtually all the tropes a modern audience expects from a horror film, be it slasher or not, were either experimented with by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Brava or perfected during the glut of slasher films in the late 70s and early 80s by John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven. The slasher film not only re-invigorated the horror genre during the 1970s but, following the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, ensured the viability of independent American cinema as virtually all popular slashers were independently made, low budget American movies. And what made these films so popular and, maybe more importantly, profitable? Two simple and basic things attracted the teenage audiences – sex and violence.
There are two reasons for this, firstly the puritanical Hays Code had been repealed in 1968. Due to the restrictions of the Hays Code, which was established in 1930, American audiences had not been exposed to even moderate levels of sex or violence, let alone gratuitous sex and violence. Under this strict moral code of filmmaking, audiences became hyper-sensitive to blood, gore and sex due to the near total absence of them from horror cinema, or films of any kind (it shouldn’t be dismissed that the golden age of the family friendly Hollywood musical occurred during the Hays Code years). During the Hays Code era the standards of sex and gore were minimal but to audiences of the 70s, nipples and flowing blood (as opposed to a low cut neckline and two red lines running down Christopher Lee’s chin) were revolutionary and audiences lapped it up, to an unsettling degree.
The 1960s also saw the rise of the Second Wave of Feminism and the Women’s Lib movement and the slasher film appeared to grow in response to it. There are two ways of looking at this, one positive and one negative. We’ll go with the positive first. While the slasher genre is concerned with the almost ritualistic killing of teenagers and young adults (particularly female but not solely) engaging in promiscuous or morally wrong behaviour, the last survivor (known as the “final girl”) was always female and the audience, viewing the killings through the eyes of the male slasher killer, recognised her as being the hero. Barbra Dozier, in her 2010 essay on women’s sexuality in horror cinema, said, “In observing the entire history of the genre, it is stressed that women’s roles have changed greatly, from the women’s role as primary victims to women’s liberation in the 70s in which there is a clear picture of woman as a warrior, a survivor.” The slasher film presented women as both a helpless victim and a bold hero, moving her from being the damsel that needed saving to one clever enough to outwit the killer and also outlast the male characters.
Roughly starting with John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, the more popular slasher films became the baser they also became, the deaths more gruesome (some would argue inventive) and the sex more frequent. And it’s not surprising as for so shallow a sub-genre of horror it was mined very deeply; Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned several sequels, some which climbed into double digits. There are only so many times you can go to the well before it runs dry and soon the slasher came to be nothing more than a collection of ridiculous deaths and of buxom beauties undressing their way from one scene to the next. It became a parody of former glories, proven by some of the latter entries in the Friday the 13th series. The unsettling element is that the substitution of story with sex and violence was exactly what audiences were lapping up, in their droves. It became so concerning that in the early 1980s Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two of the leading film reviewers at that time, led a charge against the slasher film, or ‘women in danger’ films as they labelled them. And it’s hard to argue against that tag, something I feel the early slasher films did not solely espouse but the subsequent deluge almost exclusively aspired to.
Viewing the slasher film as a reaction to the growth of the Women’s Lib movement could be looked at one of two ways, the positive being the female survivor who always outwits the killer, or the negative, that the killer cuts through a swathe of young people first before this “final girl” survives. Due to this the slasher genre has been labelled as a misogynistic genre, one that details the male gaze on the female form. A part of the slasher genres DNA is the subjective point of view, how the stabbing of (almost always) a female character is captured through the eyes of the killer. This placing of the audience’s viewing of the death scene invites the audience to not only view the killings through the eyes of the killer (the male killer) but to subconsciously identify with the killer and the action of killing.
The excitement the viewer experiences at this point begs the question, is the slasher genre a step towards voyeuristic cinema; does the audience enjoy watching a slasher film solely for the death scenes? Not to put too fine a point on it but the answer is yes, the latter entries in the Friday the 13th series, anything from Part IV onwards really, are entirely geared towards humorous, dare I say, novel ways of killing. In Jason X there is one ridiculously contrived scene where Jason attacks two bikini-clad females who are lounging around provocatively in two sleeping bags. The scene is intercut with a horrified reaction shot from another character and when we return to Jason we find he has zipped both bags shut and is using one to bludgeon the other to death like some demented whack-a-mole game. This is done purely for the humour but is, at its core, the violent death of two female characters.
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Yes, the entire slasher genre is built upon the deaths of female characters; the slasher killer’s victims are primarily scantily clad females and their beau’s either in the act or just after having sex. This implies that there is an automatic assumption that the audience is a male one and, while possibly not being a conscious decision on the audience’s part, encourages them to identify with the killer and not the victim. It has also been argued though, by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992), that the viewer’s ability to adapt their point of view from killer to victim is essential to a slasher film. The audience wishes to see the killer make his way towards the “final girl” but ultimately her survival is a feminising of the audience as no viewer will cheer for the final girl’s death, they naturally want her to survive.
It should be noted that the “final girl” will always be a female character who has not had sex during the course of the film and this draws morality into the equation – is the slasher killer a response to sexual liberation? Robin Wood, one of the leading theorists on the horror genre, has labelled the slasher “sinister and disturbing”, one where the sexually liberated young woman is targeted for her newly found sexual confidence. A conservative film genre, the slasher film exemplifies Wood’s belief that the slasher is a response to the sudden explosion of women’s liberation and the casting aside of the shackles of sexual oppression. The genre almost reads like a slam down of the liberated female, a ‘get back in your box’ type of comment if you will. John Carpenter, once interviewed about this very subject joked, “I didn’t mean to put an end to the sexual revolution – and for that I deeply apologise.”
As mentioned above, the slasher films draw a comparison between sex and death, something that Wes Craven so ably commented on during his 1996 hit film Scream. In a slasher film if you have sex then you die, the ultimate response to the ultimate immoral act – sex before marriage or some form of sexual transgression is a sure fire way of stepping into the killer’s line of sight. It was rule number 1 in Jamie’s list of slasher film no-no’s. Scream, while being a humorous commentary on the path the slasher film took, is also recognition from within the genre of the very things that make the genre tick. While not being an attempt to right the wrong it certainly is a knowing nod to the audience that we know what’s going on, we know the rules.
In terms of voyeurism and pleasure gained from watching not only young sexually confident women dying, it should also be noted that the slasher killer is always masked. Very rarely is the killer’s face glimpsed, allowing the killer to represent anyone and everyone in society; being a faceless killer allows for a certain amount of anonymity, like a cyber bully. Though the killer will always have a name and be identifiable by that name, they have no form. In fact, in the first Halloween film Michael Myers is credited as The Shape. The mask allows female audience members to identify with the killer and not necessarily the victim as without seeing the killer’s face, the killer could be anybody, a real Schrodinger’s Cat kind of problem.
In terms of violence on screen, be it television, cinema or role playing videogames, the idea of killing is inherently aimed at creating pleasure (be that excitement, anticipation, fear), the fact that the victim is female and naked creates a more troubling problem. Are audiences not only enjoying watching a young woman being knifed to death, but a young naked woman? It would seem so; a bunch of naked, nubile teenagers is the one thing a slasher film promises. One of the defining traits of the slasher genre is the dearth of originality. No one watches a slasher film for the plot or the ingenious twists and turns. After Carpenter’s original Halloween the slasher became a very artless genre. If you have seen two or three slasher films then you can make a pretty good stab at who is going to die, it is just the manner of how they die that stokes our interest. As opposed to watching a film to see how a character will survive, we are instead watching it to see how the killer will kill, which is innately a sense of voyeurism. The slasher film has always been and always will be one where all characters are simply fodder for the killer, the females characters will always be sexualised (walking around in underwear or provocative clothing or in the act of having sex) and in such a way seemingly deserving of their brutal murder. I think Sidney Prescott, the final girl of the Scream series said it best when first asked if she liked scary movies – “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”
The slasher film has evolved greatly from John Carpenter’s Halloween and it is the imitators who have turned it into a comic pastiche of better, stronger films. They will always feature young women and men being murdered for our entertainment, but we have to ask ourselves, do we enjoy slasher films because they are scary or because they are funny? I’m not sure which answer is the more valid to watch a slasher film.