Her Body, Himself:
Gender in the Slasher Film
Carol J. Clover
The Cinefantastic and Varieties of Horror
On the high side of horror lie the classics: F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein , and various works by Alfred Hitchcock, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and a few others—films that by virtue of age, literary ancestry, or fame of director have achieved reputability within the context of disreputability. Further down the scale fall the productions of Brian De Palma, some of the glossier satanic films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist ), certain sci-fi hybrids (Alien/Aliens, Blade Runner ), some vampire and werewolf films (Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London ), and an assortment of other highly produced films, often with stars (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Shining ). At the very bottom, down in the cinematic underbrush, lies—horror of horrors—the slasher (or spatter or shocker) film: the immensely generative story of a psycho-killer who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.
Drenched in taboo and encroaching vigorously on the pornographic, the slasher film lies by and large beyond the purview of the respectable (middle-aged, middle-class) audience. It has also lain by and large beyond the purview of respectable criticism. Staples of drive-ins and exploitation houses, where they “rub shoulders with sex pictures and macho action flicks,” these are films that are “never even written up.” Books on horror film mostly concentrate on the classics, touch on the middle categories in passing, and either pass over the slasher in silence or bemoan it as a degenerate aberration. The one full book on the category, William Schoell’s Stay Out of the Shower , is immaculately unintelligent. Film magazine articles on the genre rarely get past technique, special effects, and profits. The Sunday San Francisco Examiner relegates reviews of slashers to the syndicated “Joe Bob Briggs, Drive-In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas,” whose low-brow, campy tone (“We’re talking two breasts, four quarts of blood, five dead bodies. . . . Joe Bob says check it out”) establishes what the paper and others like it deem the necessary distance between their readership and that sort of film. There are of course the exceptional cases: critics or social observers who have seen at least some of these films and tried to come to grips with their ethics or aesthetics or both. Just how troubled is their task can be seen from its divergent results. For one critic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is “the Gone With the Wind of
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meat movies.” For another it is a “vile little piece of sick crap . . . nothing but a hysterically paced, slapdash, imbecile concoction of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.” Writes a third: “[Director Tobe] Hooper’s cinematic intelligence becomes more apparent in every viewing, as one gets over the initial traumatizing impact and learns to respect the pervasive felicities of camera placement and movement.” The Museum of Modern Art bought the film in the same year that at least one country, Sweden, banned it.
Robin Wood’s tack is less aesthetic than anthropological. “However one may shrink from systematic exposure to them [slasher films], however one may deplore the social phenomena and ideological mutations they reflect, their popularity . . . suggests that even if they were uniformly execrable they shouldn’t be ignored.” We may go a step further and suggest that the qualities that locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system—that indeed render it, along with pornography and low horror in general, the film category “most likely to be betrayed by artistic treatment and lavish production values” —are the very qualities that make it such a transparent source for (sub)cultural attitudes toward sex and gender in particular. Unmediated by otherworldly fantasy, cover plot, bestial transformations, or civilized routine, slasher films present us in startlingly direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body. The premise of this essay, then, is that the slasher film, not despite but exactly because of its crudity and compulsive repetitiveness, gives us a clearer picture of current sexual attitudes, at least among the segment of the population that forms its erstwhile audience, than do the legitimate products of the better studios.
Before we turn to the generic particulars, however, let us review some of the critical and cinematic issues that attend the study of the sensation genres in general and horror in particular. We take as our point of departure not a slasher film but Brian De Palma’s art-horror film Body Double (1984). The plot—a man witnesses and after much struggle solves the mysterious murder of a woman with whom he has become voyeuristically involved—concerns us less than the three career levels through which the hero, an actor named Jake, first ascends and then descends. He aspires initially to legitimate roles (Shakespeare), but it becomes clear during the course of a method-acting class that his range of emotional expression is impaired by an unresolved childhood fear. For the moment he has taken a job as vampire in a “low-budget, independent horror film,” but even that job is threatened when, during a scene in which he is to be closed in a coffin and buried, he suffers an attack of claustrophobia and must leave the set. A plot twist leads him to the underworld of pornography, where he takes on yet another role, this time in a skin flick. Here, in the realm of the flesh with a queen of porn, the sexual roots of Jake’s paralysis—fear of the (female) cavern—are exposed and
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finally resolved. A new man, he returns to “A Vampire’s Kiss” to master the burial scene, and we are to understand that Shakespeare is the next stop.
The three cinematic categories are thus ranked by degree of sublimation. On the civilized side of the continuum lie the legitimate genres; at the other end, hard on the unconscious, lie the sensation or “body” genres, horror and pornography, in that order. For De Palma, the violence of horror reduces to and enacts archaic sexual feelings. Beneath Jake’s emotional paralysis (which emerges in the “high” genre) lies a death anxiety (which is exposed in the burying-alive of horror), and beneath that anxiety lies a primitive sexual response (which emerges, and is resolved, in pornography). The layers of Jake’s experience accord strikingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, with Freud’s archaeology of “uncanny” feelings. “To some people,” Freud wrote, “the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psycho-analysis has taught us that this terrifying phantasy is only a transformation of another phantasy which originally had nothing terrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness—the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence [der Phantasie vom Leben im Mutterleib ].” Pornography thus engages directly (in pleasurable terms) what horror explores at one remove (in painful terms) and legitimate film at two or more. Beneath the “legitimate” plot of The Graduate (in which Ben must give up his relationship with a friend ‘s mother in order to marry and take his proper social place) lies the plot of Psycho (in which Norman’s unnatural attachment to his own mother drives him to murder women to whom he is attracted); and beneath that plot lies the plot of the porn film Taboo , in which the son simply has sex with his mother (“Mom, am I better than Dad?”). Pornography, in short, has to do with sex (the act) and horror with gender.
It is a rare Hollywood film that does not devote a passage or two—a car chase, a sex scene—to the emotional/physical excitement of the audience. But horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation. They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success: they “prove themselves upon our pulses.” Thus in horror-film circles, “good” means scary, specifically in a bodily way (ads promise shivers, chills, shudders, tingling of the spine; Lloyds of London insured audiences of Macabre against death by fright); and Hustler’s Erotic Film Guide ranks pornographic films according to the degree of erection they produce (one film is ranked a “pecker popper,” another “limp”). The target is in both cases the body, our witnessing body. But what we witness is also the body, another’s body, in experience: the body in sex and the body in threat. The terms “flesh film” (“skin flicks”) and “meat movies” are remarkably apt.
Cinema, it is claimed, owes its particular success in the sensation genres (witness the early and swift rise of vampire films) to its unprecedented ability to manipulate point of view. What written narrative must announce, film can accom-
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plish silently and instantaneously through cutting. Within the space of seconds, the vampire’s first-person perspective is displaced by third-person or documentary observation. To these simple shifts can be added the variables of distance (from the panorama of the battlefield to the closeup of an eyeball), angle, frame tilt, lighting effects, unsteadiness of image, and so on—again, all subject to sudden and unannounced manipulation. A current horror-film favorite locates the I-camera with the killer in pursuit of a victim; the camera is hand-held, producing a jerky image, and the frame includes in-and-out-of-focus foreground objects (trees, bushes, window frames) behind which the killer (I-camera) is lurking—all accompanied by the sound of heartbeat and heavy breathing. “The camera moves in on the screaming, pleading victim, ‘looks down’ at the knife, and then plunges it into the chest, ear, or eyeball. Now that’s sick.”
Lagging behind practice is a theoretical understanding of effect. The processes by which a certain image (but not another) filmed in a certain way (but not another) causes one person’s (but not another’s) pulse to race finally remains a mystery—not only to critics and theorists but even, to judge from interviews and the trial-and-error (and baldly imitative) quality of the films themselves, by the people who make the product. The process of suture is sensed to be centrally important in effecting audience identification, though just how and why is unclear. Nor is identification the straightforward notion some critics take it to be. Where commentators by and large agree is in the importance of the “play of pronoun function.” If the fantastic depends for its effect on an uncertainty of vision, a profusion of perspectives and a confusion of subjective and objective, then cinema is preeminently suited to the fantastic. Indeed, to the extent that film can present “unreal” combinations of objects and events as “real” through the camera eye, the “cinematic process itself might be called fantastic.” The “cinefantastic in any case succeeds, far more efficiently and effectively and on a far greater scale than its ancestral media, in the production of sensation.
The fact that the cinematic conventions of horror are so easily and so often parodied would seem to suggest that, individual variation notwithstanding, its basic structures of apperception are fixed and fundamental. The same is true of the stories they tell. Students of folklore or early literature recognize in the slasher film the hallmarks of oral story: the free exchange of themes and motifs, the archetypal characters and situations, the accumulation of sequels, remakes, imitations. This is a field in which there is in some sense no original, no real or right text, but only variants; a world in which, therefore, the meaning of the individual example lies outside itself. The “art” of the horror film, like the “art” of pornography, is to a very large extent the art of rendition, and it is understood as such by the competent audience. A particular example may have original features, but its quality as a horror film lies in the ways it delivers the cliché. James B. Twitchell rightly recommends an
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ethnological approach, in which the various stories are analyzed as if no one individual telling really mattered. . . . You search for what is stable and repeated; you neglect what is “artistic” and “original.” This is why, for me, auteur criticism is quite beside the point in explaining horror. . . . The critic’s first job in explaining the fascination of horror is not to fix the images at their every appearance but, instead, to trace their migrations to the audience and, only then, try to understand why they have been crucial enough to pass along.
That auteur criticism is at least partly beside the point is clear from interviews with such figures as John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog )—interviews that would seem to suggest that, like the purveyors of folklore, the makers of film operate more on instinct and formula than conscious understanding. So bewildered was Hitchcock by the unprecedented success of Psycho that he approached the Stanford Research Institute about doing a study of the phenomenon.
What makes horror “crucial enough to pass along” is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings. Horror films thus respond to interpretation, as Robin Wood puts it, as “at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences—the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology.” And just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror film. Our primary and acknowledged identification may be with the victim, the adumbration of our infantile fears and desires, our memory sense of ourselves as tiny and vulnerable in the face of the enormous Other; but the Other is also finally another part of ourself, the projection of our repressed infantile rage and desire (our blind drive to annihilate those toward whom we feel anger, to force satisfaction from those who stimulate us, to wrench food for ourselves if only by actually devouring those who feed us) that we have had in the name of civilization to repudiate. We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, the horror, comes from “knowing” both sides of the story—from giving ourselves over to the cinematic play of pronoun functions. It is no surprise that the first film to which viewers were not admitted once the theater darkened was Psycho . Whether Hitchcock actually meant with this measure to intensify the “sleep” experience is unclear, but the effect both in the short run, in establishing Psycho as the ultimate thriller, and in the long run, in altering the cinema-going habits of the nation, is indisputable. In the current understanding, horror is the least interruptable of all film genres. That uninterruptability itself bears witness to the compulsive nature of the stories it tells.
Whatever else it may be, the slasher film is clearly “crucial enough to pass along.” Profits and sequels tell much of the story. Halloween cost $320,000 to make and within six years had grossed over $75,000,000; even a highly produced film like The Shining has repaid itself tenfold.The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw
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Masacre , and Alien (a sci-fi/slasher hybrid) are currently at Part Two. Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street are at Part Three. Halloween is at Part Four, and Friday the Thirteenth is at Part Six. These are better taken as remakes than sequels; although the later part purports to take up where the earlier part left off, it in most cases simply duplicates with only slight variation the plot and circumstances—the formula—of its predecessor. Nor do different titles indicate different plots; Friday the Thirteenth is set at summer camp and Halloween in town, but the story is much the same, compulsively repeated in those ten films and in dozens like them under different names. The audience for that story is by all accounts largely young and largely male—most conspicuously groups of boys who cheer the killer on as he assaults his victims, then reverse their sympathies to cheer the survivor on as she assaults the killer. Our question, then, has to do with that particular audience’s stake in that particular nightmare; with what in the story is “crucial” enough to warrant the price of admission, and what the implications are for the current discussion of women and film.
The Slasher Film
The immediate ancestor of the slasher film is Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness. None of these features is original, but the unprecedented success of Hitchcock’s particular formulation, above all the sexualization of both motive and action, prompted a flood of imitations and variations. In 1974, a film emerged that revised the Psycho template to a degree and in such a way as to mark a new phase: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper). Together with Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), it engendered a new spate of variations and imitations.
The plot of Texas Chain Saw is simple enough: five young people are driving through Texas in a van; they stop off at an abandoned house and are murdered one by one by the psychotic sons of a degenerate local family; the sole survivor is a woman. The horror, of course, lies in the elaboration. Early in the film the group picks up a hitchhiker, but when he starts a fire and slashes Franklin’s arm (having already slit open his own hand), they kick him out. The abandoned house they subsequently visit, once the home of Sally’s and Franklin’s grandparents, turns out to be right next door to the house of the hitchhiker and his family: his brother Leatherface; their father; an aged and only marginally alive grandfather; and their dead grandmother and her dog, whose mummified corpses are ceremonially included in the family gatherings. Three generations of slaughterhouse
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workers, once proud of their craft but now displaced by machines, have taken up killing and cannibalism as a way of life. Their house is grotesquely decorated with human and animal remains—bones, feathers, hair, skins. The young people drift apart in their exploration of the abandoned house and grounds and are picked off one by one by Leatherface and Hitchhiker. Last is Sally. The others are attacked and killed with dispatch, but Sally must fight for her life, enduring all manner of horrors through the night. At dawn she manages to escape to the highway, where she is picked up by a passing trucker.
Likewise the nutshell plot of Halloween : a psychotic killer (Michael) stalks a small town on Halloween and kills a string of teenage friends, one by one; only Laurie survives. The twist here is that Michael has escaped from the asylum in which he has been incarcerated since the age of six, when he killed his sister minutes after she and her boyfriend parted following an illicit interlude in her parents’ bed. That murder, in flashback, opens the film. It is related entirely in the killer’s first person (I-camera) and only after the fact is the identity of the perpetrator revealed. Fifteen years later, Michael escapes his prison and returns to kill Laurie, whom he construes as another version of his sister (a sequel clarifies that she is in fact his younger sister, adopted by another family at the time of the earlier tragedy). But before Michael gets to Laurie, he picks off her high school friends: Annie, in a car on her way to her boyfriend’s; Bob, going to the kitchen for a beer after sex with Lynda; Lynda, talking on the phone with Laurie and waiting for Bob to come back with the beer. At last only Laurie remains. When she hears Lynda squeal and then go silent on the phone, she leaves her own baby-sitting house to go to Lynda’s. Here she discovers the three bodies and flees, the killer in pursuit. The remainder of the film is devoted to the back-and-forth struggle between Laurie and Michael. Again and again he bears down on her, and again and again she either eludes him (by running, hiding, breaking through windows to escape, locking herself in) or strikes back (once with a knitting needle, once with a hanger). In the end, Doctor Loomis (Michael’s psychiatrist in the asylum) rushes in and shoots the killer (though not so fatally as to prevent his return in the sequels).
Before we turn to an inventory of generic components, let us add a third, more recent example: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II , from 1986. The slaughterhouse family (now named the Sawyers) is the same, though older and, owing to their unprecedented success in the sausage business, richer. When Mr. Sawyer begins to suspect from her broadcasts that a disk jockey named Stretch knows more than she should about one of their recent crimes, he dispatches his sons Leatherface and Chop Top (Hitchhiker in Part One) to the radio station late at night. There they seize the technician and corner Stretch. At the crucial moment, however, power fails Leatherface’s chainsaw. As Stretch cowers before him, he presses the now still blade up along her thigh and against her crotch, where he holds it unsteadily as he jerks and shudders in what we understand to be orgasm.
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After that the sons leave. The intrepid Stretch, later joined by a Texas Ranger (Dennis Hopper), tracks them to their underground lair outside of town. Tumbling down the Texas equivalent of a rabbit hole, Stretch finds herself in the subterranean chambers of the Sawyer operation. Here, amidst all the slaughterhouse paraphernalia, the Sawyers live and work. The walls drip with blood. Like the decrepit mansion of Part One, the residential parts of the establishment are quaintly decorated with human and animal remains. After a long ordeal at the hands of the Sawyers, Stretch manages to scramble up through a culvert and beyond that up onto a nearby pinnacle, where she finds a chainsaw and wards off her final assailant. The Texas Ranger evidently perishes in a grenade explosion underground, leaving Stretch the sole survivor.
The spiritual debt of all the post-1974 slasher films to Psycho is clear, and it is a rare example that does not pay a visual tribute, however brief, to the ancestor—if not in a shower stabbing, then in a purling drain or the shadow of a knife-wielding hand. No less clear, however, is the fact that the post-1974 examples have, in the usual way of folklore, contemporized not only Hitchcock’s terms but also, over time, their own. We have, in short, a cinematic formula with a twenty-six-year history, of which the first phase, from 1960 to 1974, is dominated by a film clearly rooted in the sensibility of the 1950s, while the second phase, bracketed by the two Texas Chain Saw films from 1974 and 1986, responds to the values of the late sixties and early seventies. That the formula in its most recent guise may be in decline is suggested by the campy, self-parodying quality of Texas Chain Saw II , as well as the emergence, in legitimate theater, of the slasher satire Buckets of Blood . Between 1974 and 1986, however, the formula evolved and flourished in ways of some interest to observers of popular culture, above all those concerned with the representation of women in film. To apprehend in specific terms the nature of that mutation, let us, with Psycho as the benchmark, survey the genre by component category: killer, locale, weapons, victims, and shock effects.
Killer. The psychiatrist at the end of Psycho explains what we had already guessed from the action: that Norman Bates had introjected his mother, in life a “clinging, demanding woman,” so completely that she constituted his other, controlling self. Not Norman but “the mother half of his mind” killed Marion—had to kill Marion—when he (the Norman half) found himself aroused by her. The notion of a killer propelled by psychosexual fury, more particularly a male in gender distress, has proved a durable one, and the progeny of Norman Bates stalk the genre up to the present day. Just as Norman wears his mother’s clothes during his acts of violence and is thought, by the screen characters and also, for a while, by the film’s spectators, to be his mother, so the murderer in the Psycho -imitation Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), a transvestite psychiatrist, seems until his unveiling to be a woman; like Norman, he must kill women who arouse
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him sexually. Likewise, in muted form, Hitchhiker/Chop Top and Leatherface in the Texas Chain Saw films: neither brother shows overt signs of gender confusion, but their cathexis to the sick family—in which the mother is conspicuously absent but the preserved corpse of the grandmother (answering the treated body of Mrs. Bates in Psycho ) is conspicuously present—has palpably arrested their development. Both are in their twenties (thirties, in Part Two), but Hitchhiker/Chop Top seems a gangly kid and Leatherface jiggles in baby fat behind his butcher’s apron. Like Norman Bates, whose bedroom still displays his childhood toys, Hitchhiker/Chop Top and Leatherface are permanently locked in childhood. Only when Leatherface “discovers” sex in Part Two does he lose his appetite for murder. In Motel Hell , a sendup of modern horror with special reference to Psycho and Texas Chain Saw I , we are repeatedly confronted with a portrait of the dead mother, silently presiding over all manner of cannibalistic and incestuous doings on the part of her adult children.
No less in the grip of boyhood is the killer in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). The son of a hooker, a hysterical woman gone for days at a time, the killer has up to now put his boyish anger to good use in police work—the film makes much of the irony—but the sight of Laura’s violent photographs causes it to be unleashed in full force. The killer in Hell Night is the sole member of his family to survive, as a child, a murderous rampage on the part of his father; the experience condemned him to an afterlife as a murderer himself. In Halloween the killer is a child, at least in the first instance: Michael, who at the age of six is so enraged at his sister (evidently for her sexual relations with her boyfriend) that he stabs her to death with a kitchen knife. The remainder of the film details his return rampage at the age of twenty-one, and Dr. Loomis, who has overseen the case in the interim, explains that although Michael’s body has attained maturity, his mind remains frozen in infantile fury. In It’s Alive , the killer is literally an infant, evidently made monstrous through intrauterine apprehension of its parents’ ambivalence (early in the pregnancy they considered an abortion).
Even killers whose childhood is not immediately at issue and who display no overt gender confusion are often sexually disturbed. The murderer in Nightmare on Elm Street is an undead child molester. The killer in Slumber Party Massacre says to a young woman he is about to assault with a power drill: “Pretty. All of you are very pretty. I love you. Takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You want it. Yes.” When she grasps the psychodynamics of the situation in the infamous crotch episode of Texas Chain Saw II , Stretch tries a desperate gambit: “You’re really good, you really are good,” she repeats; and indeed, immediately after ejaculation Leatherface becomes palpably less interested in his saw. The parodic Motel Hell spells it out. “His pecker don’t work; you’ll see when he takes off his overalls—it’s like a shrivelled prune,” Bruce says of his killer-brother Vincent when he learns of Terry’s plans to marry him. Terry never does see, for on her wedding night he attempts (needless to say) not sex but murder. Actual
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rape is practically nonexistent in the slasher film, evidently on the premise—as the crotch episode suggests—that violence and sex are not concomitants but alternatives, the one as much a substitute for and a prelude to the other as the teenage horror film is a substitute for and a prelude to the “adult” film (or the meat movie a substitute for and prelude to the skin flick). When Sally under torture (Texas Chain Saw I ) cries out “I’ll do anything you want,” clearly with sexual intention, her assailants respond only by mimicking her in gross terms; she has profoundly misunderstood the psychology.
Female killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly different from men’s. With the possible exception of the murderous mother in Friday the Thirteenth I , they show no gender confusion. Nor is their motive overtly psychosexual; their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience but from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men (Strait Jacket, Play Misty for Me, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman ). (Films like Mother’s Day, Ms. 45 , and I Spit On Your Grave belong to the rape-revenge category.) Friday the Thirteenth I is something of an anomaly. The killer is revealed as a middle-aged woman whose son, Jason, drowned years earlier as a consequence of negligence on the part of the camp counselors. The anomaly is not sustained in the sequels (Parts Two to Six), however. Here the killer is Jason himself, not dead after all but living in a forest hut. The pattern is a familiar one; his motive is vengeance for the death of his mother, his excessive attachment toward whom is manifested in his enshrining of her severed head. Like Stretch in the crotch episode of Texas Chain Saw II , the girl who does final combat with Jason in Part Two sees the shrine, grasps its significance (she’s a psych major), and saves herself by repeating in a commanding tone, “I am your mother, Jason; put down the knife.” Jason, for his part, begins to see his mother in the girl (I-camera) and obeys her.
In films of the Psycho type (Dressed to Kill, Eyes of Laura Mars ), the killer is an insider, a man who functions normally in the action until, at the end, his other self is revealed. Texas Chain Saw and Halloween introduced another sort of killer: one whose only role is that of killer and one whose identity as such is clear from the outset. Norman may have a normal half, but these killers have none. They are emphatic misfits and emphatic outsiders. Michael is an escapee from a distant asylum; Jason subsists in the forest; the Sawyer sons live a bloody subterranean existence outside of town. Nor are they clearly seen. We catch sight of them only in glimpses—few and far between in the beginning, more frequent toward the end. They are usually large, sometimes overweight, and often masked. In short, they may be recognizably human, but only marginally so, just as they are only marginally visible—to their victims and to us, the spectators. In one key aspect, however, the killers are superhuman: their virtual indestructibility. Just as Michael (in Halloween ) repeatedly rises from blows that would stop a lesser man,
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so Jason (in the Friday the Thirteenth films) survives assault after assault to return in sequel after sequel. Chop Top in Texas Chain Saw II is so called because of a metal plate implanted in his skull in repair of a head wound sustained in the truck accident in Part One. It is worth noting that the killers are normally the fixed elements and the victims the changeable ones in any given series.
Terrible Place. The Terrible Place, most often a house or tunnel, in which the victims sooner or later find themselves is a venerable element of horror. The Bates mansion is just one in a long list of such places—a list that continues, in the modern slasher, with the decaying mansion of Texas Chain Saw I , the abandoned and haunted mansion of Hell Night , the house for sale but unsellable in Halloween (also a point of departure for such films as Rosemary’s Baby and Amityville Horror ), and so on. What makes these houses terrible is not just their Victorian decrepitude but the terrible families—murderous, incestuous, cannibalistic—that occupy them. So the Bates mansion enfolds the history of a mother and son locked in a sick attachment, and so the Texas Chain Saw mansion/labyrinth shelters a lawless brood presided over by the decaying corpse of the grandmother. Jason’s forest hut (in the Friday the Thirteenth sequels) is no mansion, but it houses another mummified mother (or at least her head), with all the usual candles and dreadful paraphernalia. The terrors of the Hell Night mansion stem, we learn, from an early owner’s massacre of his children. Into such houses unwitting victims wander in film after film, and it is the conventional task of the genre to register in close detail those victims’ dawning understanding, as they survey the visible evidence, of the human crimes and perversions that have transpired there. That perception leads directly to the perception of their own immediate peril.
In Texas Chain Saw Massacre II , house and tunnel elide in a residential labyrinth underground, connected to the world above by channels and culverts. The family is intact, indeed thrives, but for reasons evidently having to do with the nature of their sausage business has moved residence and slaughterhouse underground. For Stretch, trying desperately to find a way out, it is a ghastly place: dark, full of blind alleys, walls wet with blood. Likewise the second basement of the haunted mansion in Hell Night : strewn with decaying bodies and skeletons, lighted with masses of candles. Other tunnels are less familial: the one in Body Double that prompts Jake’s claustrophobic faint, and the horror-house tunnel in He Knows You’re Alone in which the killer lurks. The morgue episode in the latter film, certain of the hospital scenes in Halloween II , and the bottom-cellar scenes from various films may be counted as Terrible Tunnels: dark, labyrinthine, exitless, usually underground and palpably damp, and laced with heating ducts and plumbing pipes. In Hell Night , as in Texas Chain Saw II , Terrible House (the abandoned mansion) and Terrible Tunnel (the second basement) elide.
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The house or tunnel may at first seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in. A phenomenally popular moment in post-1974 slashers is the scene in which the victim locks herself in (a house, room, closet, car) and waits with pounding heart as the killer slashes, hacks, or drills his way in. The action is inevitably seen from the victim’s point of view; we stare at the door (wall, car roof) and watch the surface break with first the tip and then the shaft of the weapon. In Hitchcock’s The Birds , it is the birds’ beaks we see penetrating the door. The penetration scene is commonly the film’s pivotal moment; if the victim has up to now simply fled, she has at this point no choice but to fight back.
Weapons. In the hands of the killer, at least, guns have no place in slasher films. Victims sometimes avail themselves of firearms, but like telephones, fire alarms, elevators, doorbells, and car engines, guns fail in the squeeze. In some basic sense, the emotional terrain of the slasher film is pretechnological. The preferred weapons of the killer are knives, hammers, axes, icepicks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks, and the like. Such implements serve well a plot predicated on stealth, the unawareness of later victims that the bodies of their friends are accumulating just yards away. But the use of noisy chainsaws and power drills and the nonuse of such relatively silent means as bow and arrow, spear, catapult, and even swords, would seem to suggest that closeness and tactility are also at issue. The sense is clearer if we include marginal examples like Jaws and The Birds , as well as related werewolf and vampire genres. Knives and needles, like teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws, are personal, extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace. In I Spit On Your Grave , the heroine forces her rapist at gunpoint to drop his pants, evidently meaning to shoot him in his genitals. But she changes her mind, invites him home for what he all too readily supposes will be a voluntary follow-up of the earlier gang rape. Then, as they sit together in a bubble bath, she castrates him with a knife. If we wondered why she threw away the pistol, now we know: all phallic symbols are not equal, and a hands-on knifing answers a hands-on rape in a way that a shooting, even a shooting preceded by a humiliation, does not.
Beyond that, the slasher evinces a fascination with flesh or meat itself as that which is hidden from view. When the hitchhiker in Texas Chain Saw I slits open his hand for the thrill, the onlookers recoil in horror—all but Franklin, who seems fascinated by the realization that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation. It is no surprise that the rise of the slasher film is concomitant with the development of special effects that let us see with our own eyes the “opened” body.
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Victims. Where once there was one victim, Marion Crane, there are now many: five in Texas Chain Saw I , four in Halloween , fourteen in Friday the Thirteenth III , and so on. (As Schoell puts it, “Other filmmakers figured that the only thing better than one beautiful woman being gruesomely murdered was a whole series of beautiful women being gruesomely murdered.”) Where once the victim was an adult, now she is typically in her teens (hence the term “teenie-kill pic”). Where once she was female, now she is both girl and boy, though most often and most conspicuously girl. For all this, her essential quality remains the same. Marion is first and foremost a sexual transgressor. The first scenes show her in a hotel room dressing at the end of a lunch hour, asking her lover to marry her. It is, of course, her wish to be made an honest woman of that leads her to abscond with $40,000, an act that leads her to the Bates motel in Fairvale. Here, just as we watched her dress in the opening sequences, we now watch her undress. Moments later, nude in the shower, she dies. A classic publicity poster for Psycho shows Janet Leigh with a slightly uncomprehending look on her face sitting on the bed, dressed in a bra and half-slip, looking backward in such a way as to outline her breasts. If it is the task of promotional materials to state in one image the essence of a film, those breasts are what Psycho is all about.
In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction. The genre is studded with couples trying to find a place beyond purview of parents and employers where they can have sex, and immediately afterwards (or during) being killed. The theme enters the tradition with the Lynda-Bob subplot of Halloween . Finding themselves alone in a neighborhood house, Lynda and Bob make hasty use of the master bedroom. Afterwards, Bob goes downstairs for a beer. In the kitchen he is silently dispatched by the killer, Michael, who then covers himself with a sheet (it’s Halloween), dons Bob’s glasses, and goes upstairs. Supposing the bespectacled ghost in the doorway to be Bob, Lynda jokes, bares her breasts provocatively, and finally, in irritation at “Bob’s” stony silence, dials Laurie on the phone. Now the killer advances, strangling her with the telephone cord, so that what Laurie hears on the other end are squeals she takes to be orgasmic. Halloween II takes the scene a step further. Here the victims are a nurse and orderly who have sneaked off for sex in the hospital therapy pool. The watching killer, Michael again, turns up the thermostat and, when the orderly goes to check it, kills him. Michael then approaches the nurse from behind (she thinks it’s the orderly) and strokes her neck. Only when he moves his hand towards her bare breast and she turns around and sees him does he kill her.
Other directors are less fond than John Carpenter of the mistaken-identity twist. Denise, the English vamp in Hell Night , is simply stabbed to death in bed during Seth’s postcoital trip to the bathroom. In He Knows You’re Alone , the student having the affair with her professor is stabbed to death in bed while the professor is downstairs changing a fuse; the professor himself is stabbed when he returns
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and discovers the body. The postcoital death scene is a staple of the Friday the Thirteenth series. Part Three offers a particularly horrible variant. Invigorated by sex, the boy is struck by a gymnastic impulse and begins walking on his hands; the killer slices down on his crotch with a machete. Unaware of the fate of her boyfriend, the girl crawls into a hammock after her shower; the killer impales her from below. Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill presents the infamous example of the sexually desperate wife, first seen masturbating in her morning shower during the credit sequence, who lets herself be picked up later that day in a museum by a man with whom she has sex first in a taxi and later in his apartment. On leaving his place in the evening, she is suddenly attacked and killed in the elevator. The cause-and-effect relationship between (illicit) sex and death could hardly be more clearly drawn. All of the killings in Cruising occur during (homo)sexual encounters; the difference here is that the killer is one of the participants, not a third party.
Killing those who seek or engage in unauthorized sex amounts to a generic imperative of the slasher film. It is an imperative that crosses gender lines, affecting males as well as females. The numbers are not equal, and the scenes not equally charged; but the fact remains that in most slasher films after 1978 (following Halloween ), men and boys who go after “wrong” sex also die. This is not the only way males die; they also die incidentally, as girls do, when they get in the killer’s way or try to stop him, or when they stray into proscribed territory. The victims of Hell Night, Texas Chain Saw , and the Friday the Thirteenth films are, respectively, those who trespass in Garth Manor, those who stumble into the environs of the slaughterhouse family, and those who become counselors at a cursed camp, all without regard to sex. Boys die, in short, not because they are boys but because they make mistakes.
Some girls die for the same mistakes. Others, however, and always the main one, die—plot after plot develops the motive—because they are female. Just as Norman Bates’s oedipal psychosis is such that only female victims will do, so Michael’s sexual anger toward his sister (in the Halloween series) drives him to kill her—and after her a string of sister surrogates. In much the same way, the transsexual psychiatrist in Dressed to Kill is driven to murder only those women who arouse him and remind him of his hated maleness. In The Eyes of Laura Mars , the killer’s hatred of his mother drives him to prey on women specifically—and, significantly, one gay male. He Knows You’re Alone features a killer who in consequence of an earlier jilting preys exclusively on brides-to-be.
But even in films in which males and females are killed in roughly even numbers, the lingering images are inevitably female. The death of a male is always swift; even if the victim grasps what is happening to him, he has no time to react or register terror. He is dispatched and the camera moves on. The death of a male is moreover more likely than the death of a female to be viewed from a distance, or viewed only dimly (because of darkness or fog, for example), or
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indeed to happen offscreen and not be viewed at all. The murders of women, on the other hand, are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at greater length. The pair of murders at the therapy pool in Halloween II illustrates the standard iconography. We see the orderly killed in two shots: the first at close range in the control room, just before the stabbing, and the second as he is being stabbed, through the vapors in a medium long shot; the orderly never even sees his assailant. The nurse’s death, on the other hand, is shot entirely in medium closeup. The camera studies her face as it registers first her unwitting complicity (as the killer strokes her neck and shoulders from behind), then apprehension, and then, as she faces him, terror; we see the knife plunge into her repeatedly, hear her cries, and watch her blood fill the therapy pool. This cinematic standard has a venerable history, and it remains intact in the slasher film. Indeed, “tits and a scream” are all that is required of actresses auditioning for the role of victim in “Co-Ed Frenzy,” the fictive slasher film whose making constitutes the frame story of Blow-Out . It is worth noting that none of the auditioners has both in the desired amount, and that the director must resort to the use of doubles: one for the tits, one for the screams.
Final Girl. The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). She is inevitably female. In Schoell’s words: “The vast majority of contemporary shockers, whether in the sexist mold or not, feature climaxes in which the women fight back against their attackers—the wandering, humorless psychos who populate these films. They often show more courage and levelheadedness than their cringing male counterparts.” Her scene occupies the last ten to twenty minutes (thirty in the case of Texas Chain Saw I ) and constitutes the film’s emphatic climax.
The sequence first appears in full-blown form (ending A) in Texas Chain Saw I with Sally’s spirited self-defense and eventual rescue. Her brother and companions were dispatched suddenly and uncomprehendingly, one by one, but Sally survives the ninth round: long enough to see what has become of her fellows and is in store for her, long enough to meet and even dine with the whole slaughterhouse family, long enough to undergo all manner of torture (including the ancient grandfather’s effort to strike a fatal hammer blow on the temple as they bend her over a washtub), and long enough to bolt and rebolt, be caught and
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recaught, plead and replead for her life, and eventually escape to the highway. For nearly thirty minutes of screen time—a third of the film—we watch her shriek, run, flinch, jump through windows, sustain injury and mutilation. Her will to survive is astonishing; in the end, bloody and staggering, she finds the highway, Leatherface and Hitchhiker in pursuit. Just as they bear down on her, a truck comes by and crushes Hitchhiker. Minutes later a pickup driver plucks Sally up and saves her from Leatherface. The final shots show us Leatherface from her point of view (the bed of the pickup): standing on the highway, wounded (having gashed open his abdomen during the truck episode) but upright, waving the chainsaw crazily over his head.
Halloween ‘s Final Girl is Laurie. Her desperate defense is shorter in duration than Sally’s but no less fraught with horror. Limping from a knife wound in the leg, she flees to a garden room and breaks in through the window with a rake. Neighbors hear her screams for help but suspect a Halloween prank and shut the blinds. She gets into her own babysitting house—by throwing a potted plant at a second-story window to rouse the children—just as the killer descends. Minutes later he comes through the window and they grapple; she manages to fell him with a knitting needle and grabs his butcher knife—but drops it when he seems dead. As she goes upstairs to the children, the killer rises, takes the knife, and goes after her. She takes refuge in a closet, lashing the two doorknobs together from the inside. As the killer slashes and stabs at the closet door—we see this from her inside perspective—she bends a hanger into a weapon and, when he breaks the door down, stabs him in the eye. Again thinking him vanquished, she sends the children to the police and sinks down in pain and exhaustion. The killer rises again, but just as he is about to stab her, Doctor Loomis, alerted by the children, rushes in and shoots the killer.
Given the drift in just the four years between Texas Chain Saw and Halloween —from passive to active defense—it is no surprise that the films following Halloween present Final Girls who not only fight back but do so with ferocity and even kill the killer on their own, without help from the outside. Valerie in Slumber Party Massacre (a film directed by Amy Jones and scripted by Rita Mae Brown) takes a machete-like weapon to the killer, striking off the bit from his drill, severing his hand, and finally impaling him. Alice assaults and decapitates the killer of Friday the Thirteenth . Pursued by the killer in Hell Night , Marti pries the gate key from the stiff fingers of a corpse to let herself out of the mansion grounds to safety; when the car won’t start, she repairs it on the spot; when the car gets stuck in the roadway, she inside and the killer on top, she releases it in such a way as to cast the killer on the gate’s upper spikes. The grittiest of the Final Girls is Nancy of Nightmare on Elm Street I . Aware in advance that the killer will be paying her a visit, she plans an elaborate defense. When he enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then runs at him in direct attack. As they struggle, he springs the contraptions she has prepared; he is stunned by a swinging sledge hammer, jolted
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and half incinerated by an electrical charge, and so on. When he rises yet again, she chases him around the house, bashing him with a chair. In Texas Chain Saw II , from 1986, the Final Girl sequence takes mythic measure. Trapped in the underground slaughterhouse, Stretch repeatedly flees, hides, is caught, tortured (at one point forced to don the flayed face of her murdered technician companion), and nearly killed. She escapes with her life chiefly because Leatherface, having developed an affection for her after the crotch episode, is reluctant to ply his chainsaw as the tyrannical Mr. Sawyer commands. Finally Stretch finds her way out, leaving the Texas Ranger to face certain death below, and clambers up a nearby pinnacle, Chop Top in pursuit. At the summit she finds the mummified grandmother, ceremoniously enthroned in an open-air chamber, and next to her a functional chainsaw. She turns the saw on Chop Top, gashing open his abdomen and tossing him off the precipice. The final scene shows her in extreme long shot, in brilliant sunshine, waving the buzzing chainsaw triumphantly overhead. (It is a scene we are invited to compare to the final scene of Texas Chain Saw I , in which the wounded Leatherface is shown in long shot at dawn, staggering after the pickup on the highway waving his chainsaw crazily over his head.) In Part One the Final Girl, for all her survivor pluck, is, like Red Riding Hood, saved through male agency. In Part Two, however, there is no male agency; the figure so designated, the Texas Ranger, proves so utterly ineffectual that he cannot save himself, much less the girl. The comic ineptitude and failure of would-be “woodsmen” is a repeated theme in the later slasher films. In Slumber Party Massacre , the role is played by a woman—though a butch one (the girls’ basketball coach). She comes to the slumber party’s rescue only to fall victim to the drill herself. But to focus on just who brings the killer down, the Final Girl or a male rescuer, is—as the easy alternation between the two patterns would seem to suggest—to miss the point. The last moment of the Final Girl sequence is finally a footnote to what went before—to the quality of the Final Girl’s fight, and more generally to the qualities of character that enable her, of all the characters, to survive what has come to seem unsurvivable.
The Final Girl sequence too is prefigured, if only rudimentarily, in Psycho ‘s final scenes, in which Lila (Marion’s sister) is caught reconnoitering in the Bates mansion and nearly killed. Sam (Marion’s boyfriend) detains Norman at the motel while Lila snoops about (taking note of Norman’s toys). When she perceives Norman’s approach, she flees to the basement. Here she encounters the treated corpse of Mrs. Bates and begins screaming in horror. Norman bursts in and is about to strike when Sam enters and grabs him from behind. Like her generic sisters, then, Lila is the spunky inquirer into the Terrible Place: the one who first grasps, however dimly, the past and present danger, the one who looks death in the face, and the one who survives the murderer’s last stab.
There the correspondences end, however. The Psycho scene turns, after all, on the revelation of Norman’s psychotic identity, not on Lila as a character—she
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enters the film midway and is sketchily drawn—and still less on her self-defense. The Final Girl of the slasher film is presented from the outset as the main character. The practiced viewer distinguishes her from her friends minutes into the film. She is the girl scout, the bookworm, the mechanic. Unlike her girlfriends (and Marion Crane) she is not sexually active. Laurie (Halloween ) is teased because of her fears about dating, and Marti (Hell Night ) explains to the boy with whom she finds herself sharing a room that they will have separate beds. Although Stretch (Texas Chain Saw II ) is hardly virginal, she is not available, either; early in the film she pointedly turns down a date, and we are given to understand that she is, for the present, unattached and even lonely. So too Stevie of Carpenter’s The Fog , like Stretch a disk jockey; divorced mother and a newcomer in town, she is unattached and lonely but declines male attention. The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore she takes in and turns over. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in extreme situations. Thus Laurie even at her most desperate, cornered in a closet, has the wit to grab a hanger from the rack and bend it into a weapon; Marti can hot-wire her getaway car, the killer in pursuit; and the psych major of Friday the Thirteenth II , on seeing the enshrined head of Mrs. Voorhees, can stop Jason in his tracks by assuming a stridently maternal voice. Finally, although she is always smaller and weaker than the killer, she grapples with him energetically and convincingly.
The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine—not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself. Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will. Not only the conception of the hero in Alien and Aliens but also her name, Ripley, owes a clear debt to slasher tradition.
With the introduction of the Final Girl, then, the Psycho formula is radically altered. It is not merely a question of enlarging the figure of Lila but of absorbing into her role, in varying degrees, the functions of Arbogast (investigator) and Sam (rescuer) and restructuring the narrative action from beginning to end around her progress in relation to the killer. In other words, Psycho ‘s detective plot, revolving around a revelation, yields in the modern slasher film to a hero plot, revolving around the main character’s struggle with and eventual triumph over evil. But for the femaleness, however qualified, of that main character, the story is a standard one of tale and epic.
Shock . One reason that the shower sequence in Psycho has “evoked more study, elicited more comment, and generated more shot-for-shot analysis from a technical viewpoint than any other in the history of cinema” is that it suggests so much
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but shows so little. Of the forty-odd shots in as many seconds that figure the murder, only a single fleeting one actually shows the body being stabbed. The others present us with a rapid-fire concatenation of images of the knife-wielding hand, parts of Marion, parts of the shower, and finally the bloody water as it swirls down the drain. The horror resides less in the actual images than in their summary implication.
Although Hitchcock is hardly the first director to prefer the oblique rendition of physical violence, he may, to judge from current examples, be one of the last. For better or worse, the perfection of special effects has made it possible to show maiming and dismemberment in extraordinarily credible detail. The horror genres are the natural repositories of such effects; what can be done is done, and slashers, at the bottom of the category, do it most and worst. Thus we see a head being stepped on so that the eyes pop out, a face being flayed, a decapitation, a hypodermic needle penetrating an eyeball in closeup, and so on.
With this new explicitness also comes a new tone. If the horror of Psycho was taken seriously, the “horror” of the slasher films is of a rather more complicated sort. Audiences express uproarious disgust (“gross!”) as often as they express fear, and it is clear that the makers of slasher films pursue the combination. More particularly: spectators fall silent while the victim is being stalked, scream out at the first stab, and make loud noises of revulsion at the sight of the bloody stump. The rapid alternation between registers—between something like “real” horror on one hand and a camp, self-parodying Horror on the other—is by now one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the tradition. In its cultivation of intentionally outrageous excess, the slasher film intersects with the cult film, a genre devoted to such effects. Just what this self-ironizing relation to taboo signifies, beyond a remarkably competent audience, is unclear—it is yet another aspect of the phenomenon that has lain beyond criticism—but for the time being it stands as a defining characteristic of the lower genres of popular culture.
On the face of it, the relation between the sexes in slasher films could hardly be clearer. The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakeably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful ones. Just how essential this victim is to horror is suggested by her historical durability. If the killer has over time been variously figured as shark, fog, gorilla, birds, and slime, the victim is eternally and prototypically the damsel. Cinema hardly invented the pattern. It has simply given visual expression to the abiding proposition that, in Poe’s famous formulation, the death of a beautiful woman is the “most poetical topic in the world.” As slasher director Dario Argento puts it, “I
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like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man.” Brian De Palma elaborates: “Women in peril work better in the suspense genre. It all goes back to the Perils of Pauline . . . . If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” Or Hitchcock, during the filming of The Birds : “I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said ‘Torture the women!’ The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” What the directors do not say, but show, is that “Pauline” is at her very most effective in a state of undress, borne down upon by a blatantly phallic murderer, even gurgling orgasmically as she dies. The case could be made that the slasher films available at a given neighborhood video rental outlet recommend themselves to censorship under the Dworkin-MacKinnon guidelines at least as readily as the hard-core films the next section over, at which that legislation is aimed; for if some victims are men, the argument goes, most are women, and the women are brutalized in ways that come too close to real life for comfort. But what this line of reasoning does not take into account is the figure of the Final Girl. Because slashers lie for all practical purposes beyond the purview of legitimate criticism, and to the extent that they have been reviewed at all have been reviewed on an individual basis, the phenomenon of the female victim-hero has scarcely been acknowledged.
It is, of course, “on the face of it” that most of the public discussion of film takes place—from the Dworkin-MacKinnon legislation to Siskel’s and Ebert’s reviews to our own talks with friends on leaving the movie house. Underlying that discussion is the assumption that the sexes are what they seem; that screen males represent the Male and screen females the Female; that this identification along gender lines authorizes impulses toward sexual violence in males and encourages impulses toward victimization in females. In part because of the massive authority cinema by nature accords the image, even academic film criticism has been slow—slower than literary criticism—to get beyond appearances. Film may not appropriate the mind’s eye, but it certainly encroaches on it; the gender characteristics of a screen figure are a visible and audible given for the duration of the film. To the extent that the possibility of cross-gender identification has been entertained, it has been in the direction female-with-male. Thus some critics have wondered whether the female viewer, faced with the screen image of a masochistic/narcissistic female, might not rather elect to “betray her sex and identify with the masculine point of view.” The reverse question—whether men might not also, on occasion, elect to betray their sex and identify with screen females—has scarcely been asked, presumably on the assumption that men’s interests are well served by the traditional patterns of cinematic representation. Then too there is the matter of the “male gaze.” As E. Ann Kaplan sums it up: “Within the film text itself, men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze; the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze, and to objectify the women on the screen; and the
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camera’s original ‘gaze’ comes into play in the very act of filming.” But if it is so that all of us, male and female alike, are by these processes “made to” identify with men and “against” women, how are we then to explain the appeal to a largely male audience of a film genre that features a female victim-hero? The slasher film brings us squarely up against a fundamental question of film analysis: where does the literal end and the figurative begin; how do the two levels interact and what is the significance of the particular interaction; and to which, in arriving at a political judgment (as we are inclined to do in the case of low horror and pornography), do we assign priority?
A figurative or functional analysis of the slasher begins with the processes of point of view and identification. The male viewer seeking a male character, even a vicious one, with whom to identify in a sustained way has little to hang on to in the standard example. On the good side, the only viable candidates are the schoolmates or friends of the girls. They are for the most part marginal, undeveloped characters; more to the point, they tend to die early in the film. If the traditional horror film gave the male spectator a last-minute hero with whom to identify, thereby “indulging his vanity as protector of the helpless female,” the slasher eliminates or attenuates that role beyond any such function; indeed, would-be rescuers are not infrequently blown away for their efforts, leaving the girl to fight her own fight. Policemen, fathers, and sheriffs appear only long enough to demonstrate risible incomprehension and incompetence. On the bad side, there is the killer. The killer is often unseen, or barely glimpsed, during the first part of the film, and what we do see, when we finally get a good look, hardly invites immediate or conscious empathy. He is commonly masked, fat, deformed, or dressed as a woman. Or “he” is a woman: woe to the viewer of Friday the Thirteenth I who identifies with the male killer only to discover, in the film’s final sequences, that he was not a man at all but a middle-aged woman. In either case, the killer is himself eventually killed or otherwise evacuated from the narrative. No male character of any stature lives to tell the tale.
The one character of stature who does live to tell the tale is of course female. The Final Girl is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail. We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main story line. She is intelligent, watchful, level-headed; the first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the patterns and extent of the threat; the only one, in other words, whose perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation. We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades. When she downs the killer, we are triumphant. She is by any measure the slasher film’s hero. This
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is not to say that our attachment to her is exclusive and unremitting, only that it adds up, and that in the closing sequence it is very close to absolute.
An analysis of the camerawork bears this out. Much is made of the use of the I-camera to represent the killer’s point of view. In these passages—they are usually few and brief, but powerful—we see through his eyes and (on the sound track) hear his breathing and heartbeat. His and our vision is partly obscured by bushes or windowblinds in the foreground. By such means we are forced, the argument goes, to identify with the killer. In fact, however, the relation between camera point of view and the processes of viewer identification are poorly understood; the fact that Steven Spielberg can stage an attack in Jaws from the shark’s point of view (underwater, rushing upward toward the swimmer’s flailing legs) or Hitchcock an attack in The Birds from the birds-eye perspective (from the sky, as they gather to swoop down on the streets of Bodega Bay) would seem to suggest either that the viewer’s identificatory powers are unbelievably elastic or that point-of-view shots can sometimes be pro forma. But let us for the moment accept the equation point of view = identification. We are linked, in this way, with the killer in the early part of the film, usually before we have seen him directly and before we have come to know the Final Girl in any detail. Our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by story line as well as camera position. By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her, watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top, and so on. With her, we become if not the killer of the killer then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film’s course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth, and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative. When Stretch eviscerates Chop Top at the end of Texas Chain Saw II , she is literally the only character left alive, on either side.
Audience response ratifies this design. Observers unanimously stress the readiness of the “live” audience to switch sympathies in midstream, siding now with the killer and now, and finally, with the Final Girl. As Schoell, whose book on shocker films wrestles with its own monster, “the feminists,” puts it:
Social critics make much of the fact that male audience members cheer on the misogynous misfits in these movies as they rape, plunder, and murder their screaming, writhing female victims. Since these same critics walk out of the moviehouse in disgust long before the movie is over, they don’t realize that these same men cheer on (with renewed enthusiasm, in fact) the heroines, who are often as strong, sexy, and independent as the [earlier] victims, as they blow away the killer with a shotgun or get him between the eyes with a machete. All of these men are said to be identifying with the maniac, but they enjoy his death throes the most of all, and applaud the heroine with admiration.
What filmmakers seem to know better than film critics is that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane.
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No one who has read “Red Riding Hood” to a small boy or participated in a viewing of, say, Deliverance (an all-male story that women find as gripping as men) or, more recently, Alien and Aliens , with whose space-age female Rambo, herself a Final Girl, male viewers seem to engage with ease, can doubt the phenomenon of cross-gender identification. This fluidity of engaged perspective is in keeping with the universal claims of the psychoanalytic model: the threat function and the victim function coexist in the same unconscious, regardless of anatomical sex. But why, if viewers can identify across gender lines and if the root experience of horror is sex blind, are the screen sexes not interchangeable? Why not more and better female killers, and why (in light of the maleness of the majority audience) not Pauls as well as Paulines? The fact that horror film so stubbornly genders the killer male and the principal victim female would seem to suggest that representation itself is at issue—that the sensation of bodily fright derives not exclusively from repressed content, as Freud insisted, but also from the bodily manifestations of that content.
Nor is the gender of the principals as straightforward as it first seems. The killer’s phallic purpose, as he thrusts his drill or knife into the trembling bodies of young women, is unmistakeable. At the same time, however, his masculinity is severely qualified: he ranges from the virginal or sexually inert to the transvestite or transsexual, is spiritually divided (“the mother half of his mind”) or even equipped with vulva and vagina. Although the killer of God Told Me To is represented and taken as a male in the film text, he is revealed, by the doctor who delivered him, to have been sexually ambiguous from birth: “I truly could not tell whether that child was male or female; it was as if the sexual gender had not been determined . . . as if it were being developed.” In this respect, slasher killers have much in common with the monsters of classic horror—monsters who, in Linda Williams’s formulation, represent not just “an eruption of the normally repressed animal sexual energy of the civilized male” but also the “power and potency of a non-phallic sexuality.” To the extent that the monster is constructed as feminine, the horror film thus expresses female desire only to show how monstrous it is. The intention is manifest in Aliens , in which the Final Girl, Ripley, is pitted in the climactic scene against the most terrifying “alien” of all: an egg-laying Mother.
Nor can we help noticing the “intrauterine” quality of the Terrible Place, dark and often damp, in which the killer lives or lurks and whence he stages his most terrifying attacks. “It often happens,” Freud wrote, “that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is an entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. . . . In this case too then, the unheimlich is what once was heimisch , familiar; the prefix ‘un ‘ [‘un-‘] is the token of repression.” It is the exceptional film that does not mark as significant the moment that the killer leaps out of the
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dark recesses of a corridor or cavern at the trespassing victim, usually the Final Girl. Long after the other particulars have faded, the viewer will remember the images of Amy assaulted from the dark halls of a morgue (He Knows You’re Alone ), Sally or Stretch facing dismemberment in the ghastly dining room or underground labyrinth of the slaughterhouse family (Texas Chain Saw I–II ), or Melanie trapped in the attic as the savage birds close in (The Birds ). In such scenes of convergence the Other is at its bisexual mightiest, the victim at her tiniest, and the component of sadomasochism at its most blatant.
The gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance (penetration, it seems, constructs the female), her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the “active investigating gaze” normally reserved for males and hideously punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer, even tracking him to his forest hut or his underground labyrinth, and then at him, therewith bringing him, often for the first time, into our vision as well. When, in the final scene, she stops screaming, looks at the killer, and reaches for the knife (sledge hammer, scalpel, gun, machete, hanger, knitting needle, chainsaw), she addresses the killer on his own terms. To the critics’ objection that Halloween in effect punished female sexuality, director John Carpenter responded:
They [the critics] completely missed the boat there, I think. Because if you turn it around, the one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. She’s the one that killed him. Not because she’s a virgin, but because all that repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy. . . . She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression.
For all its perversity, Carpenter’s remark does underscore the sense of affinity, even recognition, that attends the final encounter. But the “certain link” that puts killer and Final Girl on terms, at least briefly, is more than “sexual repression.” It is also a shared masculinity, materialized in “all those phallic symbols”—and it is also a shared femininity, materialized in what comes next (and what Carpenter, perhaps significantly, fails to mention): the castration, literal or symbolic, of the killer at her hands. His eyes may be put out, his hand severed, his body impaled or shot, his belly gashed, or his genitals sliced away or bitten off. The Final Girl has not just manned herself; she specifically unmans an oppressor whose masculinity was in question to begin with. By the time the drama has played itself out, darkness yields to light (often as day breaks) and the close quarters of the barn (closet, elevator, attic, basement) give way to the open expanse of the yard (field, road, lakescape, cliff). With the Final Girl’s appropriation of “all those phallic symbols” comes the quelling, the dispelling, of the “uterine” threat as well. Consider again the paradigmatic ending of Texas Chain Saw II . From the underground
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labyrinth, murky and bloody, in which she faced saw, knife, and hammer, Stretch escapes through a culvert into the open air. She clambers up the jutting rock and with a chainsaw takes her stand. When her last assailant comes at her, she slashes open his lower abdomen—the sexual symbolism is all too clear—and flings him off the cliff. Again, the final scene shows her in extreme long shot, standing on the pinnacle, drenched in sunlight, buzzing chainsaw held overhead.
The tale would indeed seem to be one of sex and parents. The patently erotic threat is easily seen as the materialized projection of the dreamer’s (viewer’s) own incestuous fears and desires. It is this disabling cathexis to one’s parents that must be killed and rekilled in the service of sexual autonomy. When the Final Girl stands at last in the light of day with the knife in her hand, she has delivered herself into the adult world. Carpenter’s equation of the Final Girl with the killer has more than a grain of truth. The killers of Psycho, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Friday the Thirteenth II–VI , and Cruising , among others, are explicitly figured as sons in the psychosexual grip of their mothers (or fathers, in the case of Cruising ). The difference is between past and present and between failure and success. The Final Girl enacts in the present, and successfully, the parenticidal struggle that the killer himself enacted unsuccessfully in his own past—a past that constitutes the film’s backstory. She is what the killer once was; he is what she could become should she fail in her battle for sexual selfhood. “You got a choice, boy,” says the tyrannical father of Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw II , “sex or the saw; you never know about sex, but the saw—the saw is the family.”
But the tale is no less one of maleness. If the early experience of the oedipal drama can be—is perhaps ideally—enacted in female form, the achievement of full adulthood requires the assumption and, apparently, brutal employment of the phallus. The helpless child is gendered feminine; the autonomous adult or subject is gendered masculine; the passage from childhood to adulthood entails a shift from feminine to masculine. It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). When De Palma says that female frailty is a predicate of the suspense genre, he proposes, in effect, that the lack of the phallus, for Lacan the privileged signifier of the symbolic order of culture, is itself simply horrifying, at least in the mind of the male observer. Where pornography (the argument goes) resolves that lack through a process of fetishization that allows a breast or leg or whole body to stand in for the missing member, the slasher film resolves it either through eliminating the woman (earlier victims) or reconstituting her as masculine (Final Girl). The moment at which the Final Girl is effectively phallicized is the moment that the plot halts and horror ceases. Day breaks, and the community returns to its normal order.
Casting psychoanalytic verities in female form has a venerable cinematic history. Ingmar Bergman has made a career of it, and Woody Allen shows signs of
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following his lead. One immediate and practical advantage, by now presumably unconscious on the part of makers as well as viewers, has to do with a preestablished cinematic “language” for capturing the moves and moods of the female body and face. The cinematic gaze, we are told, is male, and just as that gaze “knows” how to fetishize the female form in pornography (in a way that it does not “know” how to fetishize the male form), so it “knows,” in horror, how to track a woman ascending a staircase in a scary house and how to study her face from an angle above as she first hears the killer’s footfall. A set of conventions we now take for granted simply “sees” males and females differently.
To this cinematic habit may be added the broader range of emotional expression traditionally allowed women. Angry displays of force may belong to the male, but crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belong to the female. Abject terror, in short, is gendered feminine, and the more concerned a given film with that condition—and it is the essence of modern horror—the more likely the femaleness of the victim. It is no accident that male victims in slasher films are killed swiftly or offscreen, and that prolonged struggles, in which the victim has time to contemplate her imminent destruction, inevitably figure females. Only when one encounters the rare expression of abject terror on the part of a male (as in I Spit on Your Grave ) does one apprehend the full extent of the cinematic double standard in such matters.
It is also the case that gender displacement can provide a kind of identificatory buffer, an emotional remove, that permits the majority audience to explore taboo subjects in the relative safety of vicariousness. Just as Bergman came to realize that he could explore castration anxiety more freely via depictions of hurt female bodies (witness the genital mutilation of Karin in Cries and Whispers ), so the makers of slasher films seem to know that sadomasochistic incest fantasies sit more easily with the male viewer when the visible player is female. It is one thing for that viewer to hear the psychiatrist intone at the end of Psycho that Norman as a boy (in the backstory) was abnormally attached to his mother; it would be quite another to see that attachment dramatized in the present, to experience in nightmare form the elaboration of Norman’s (the viewer’s own) fears and desires. If the former is playable in male form, the latter, it seems, is not.
The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality. Her sexual inactivity, in this reading, becomes all but inevitable; the male viewer may be willing to enter into the vicarious experience of defending himself from the possibility of symbolic penetration on the part of the killer, but real vaginal penetration on the diegetic level is evidently more femaleness than he can bear. The question then arises whether the Final Girls of slasher films—Stretch, Stevie, Marti, Will, Terry, Laurie, and Ripley—are not boyish for the same reason that
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the female “victims” in Victorian flagellation literature—”Georgy,” “Willy”—are boyish: because they are transformed males. The transformation, Steven Marcus writes, “is itself both a defense against and a disavowal of the fantasy it is simultaneously expressing—namely, that a “boy is being beaten—that is, loved—by another man.” What is represented as male-on-female violence, in short, is figuratively speaking male-on-male sex. For Marcus, the literary picture of flagellation, in which girls are beaten, is utterly belied by the descriptions (in My Secret Life ) of real-life episodes in which the persons being beaten are not girls at all but “gentlemen” dressed in women’s clothes (“He had a woman’s dress on tucked up to his waist, showing his naked rump and thighs. . . . On his head was a woman’s cap tied carefully round his face to hide whiskers”) and whipped by prostitutes. Reality, Marcus writes, “puts the literature of flagellation out of the running . . . by showing how that literature is a completely distorted and idealized version of what actually happens.” Applied to the slasher film, this logic reads the femaleness of the Final Girl (at least up to the point of her transformation) and indeed of the women victims in general as only apparent, the artifact of heterosexual deflection. It may be through the female body that the body of the audience is sensationalized, but the sensation is an entirely male affair.
At least one director, Hitchcock, explicitly located thrill in the equation victim = audience. So we judge from his marginal jottings in the shooting instructions for the shower scene in Psycho : “The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.” Not just the body of Marion is to be ruptured, but also the body on the other side of the film and screen: our witnessing body. As Marion is to Norman, the audience of Psycho is to Hitchcock; as the audiences of horror film in general are to the directors of those films, female is to male. Hitchcock’s “torture the women” then means, simply, torture the audience. De Palma’s remarks about female frailty likewise contemplate a male-on-“female” relationship between director and viewer. Cinefantastic horror, in short, succeeds in the production of sensation to more or less the degree that it succeeds in incorporating its spectators as “feminine” and then violating that body—which recoils, shudders, cries out collectively—in ways otherwise imaginable, for males, only in nightmare. The equation is nowhere more plainly put than in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome . Here the threat is a mind-destroying video signal and the victims television viewers. Despite the (male) hero’s efforts to defend his mental (and physical) integrity, a deep, vagina-like gash appears on his lower abdomen. Says the media conspirator as he thrusts a videocassette into the victim’s gaping wound, “You must open yourself completely to this.”
If the slasher film is “on the face of it” a genre with at least a strong female presence, it is in these figurative readings a thoroughly strong male exercise, one that finally has very little to do with femaleness and very much to do with phallocentrism. Figuratively seen, the Final Girl is a male surrogate in things oedipal, a homoerotic stand-in, the audience incorporate; to the extent she “means” girl
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at all, it is only for purposes of signifying phallic lack, and even that meaning is nullified in the final scenes. Our initial question—how to square a female victim-hero with a largely male audience—is not so much answered as it is obviated in these readings. The Final Girl is (apparently) female not despite the maleness of the audience, but precisely because of it. The discourse is wholly masculine, and females figure in it only insofar as they “read” some aspect of male experience. To applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development, as some reviews of Aliens have done with Ripley, is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction, and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty.
For all their immediate appeal, these figurative readings loosen as many ends as they tie together. The audience, we have said, is predominantly male; but what about the women in it? Do we dismiss them as male-identified and account for their experience as an “immasculated” act of collusion with the oppressor? This is a strong judgment to apply to large numbers of women; for while it may be that the audience for slasher films is mainly male, that does not mean that there are not also many female viewers who actively like such films, and of course there are also women, however few, who script, direct, and produce them. These facts alone oblige us at least to consider the possibility that female fans find a meaning in the text and image of these films that is less inimical to their own interests than the figurative analysis would have us believe. Or should we conclude that males and females read these films differently in some fundamental sense? Do females respond to the text (the literal) and males the subtext (the figurative)?
Some such notion of differential understanding underlies the homoerotic reading. The silent presupposition of that reading is that male identification with the female as female cannot be, and that the male viewer/reader who adjoins feminine experience does so only by homosexual conversion. But does female identification with male experience then similarly indicate a lesbian conversion? Or are the processes of patriarchy so one-way that the female can identify with the male directly, but the male can identify with the female only by transsexualizing her? Does the Final Girl mean “girl” to her female viewers and “boy” to her male viewers? If her masculine features qualify her as a transformed boy, do not the feminine features of the killer qualify him as a transformed woman (in which case the homoerotic reading can be maintained only by defining that “woman” as phallic and retransforming her into a male)? Striking though it is, the analogy between the Victorian flagellation story’s Georgy and the slasher film’s Stretch falters at the moment that Stretch turns on her assailant and unmans him. Are we to suppose that a homoerotic beating fantasy suddenly yields to what folklorists call a “lack-liquidated” fantasy? Further: is it simple coin-
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cidence that this combination tale—trials, then triumph—bears such a striking resemblance to the classic (male) hero story? Does the standard hero story featuring an anatomical female “mean” differently from one featuring an anatomical male?
As Marcus perceived, the relationship between the Georgy stories of flagellation literature and the real-life anecdote of the Victorian gentleman is a marvelously telling one. In his view, the maleness of the latter must prove the essential or functional maleness of the former. What his analysis does not come to full grips with, however, is the clothing the gentleman wears—not that of a child, as Marcus’s “childish” reading of the scene contemplates, but explicitly that of a woman. These women’s clothes can of course be understood, within the terms of the homoerotic interpretation, as a last-ditch effort on the part of the gentleman to dissociate himself from the (incestuous) homosexuality implicit in his favored sexual practice. But can they not just as well, and far more economically, be explained as part and parcel of a fantasy of literal femaleness? By the same token, cannot the femaleness of the gentleman’s literary representatives—the girls of the flagellation stories—be understood as the obvious, even necessary, extension of that man’s dress and cap? The same dress and cap, I suggest, haunt the margins of the slasher film. This is not to deny the deflective convenience, for the male spectator (and filmmaker), of a female victim-hero in a context so fraught with taboo; it is only to suggest that the femaleness of that character is also conditioned by a kind of imaginative curiosity about the feminine in and of itself.
So too the psychoanalytic case. These films do indeed seem to pit the child in a struggle, at once terrifying and attractive, with the parental Other, and it is a rare example that does not directly thematize parent-child relations. But if Freud stressed the maternal source of the unheimlich , the Other of our films is decidedly androgynous: female/feminine in aspects of character and place (the “intrauterine” locale) but male in anatomy. Conventional logic may interpret the killer as the phallic mother of the transformed boy (the Final Girl), but the text itself does not compel such a reading. On the contrary, the text at every level presents us with hermaphroditic constructions—constructions that draw attention to themselves and demand to be taken on their own terms.
For if we define the Final Girl as nothing more than a figurative male, what do we then make of the context of the spectacular gender play in which she is emphatically situated? In his essay on the uncanny, Freud rejected out of hand Jentsch’s theory that the experience of horror proceeds from intellectual uncertainty (curiosity?)—feelings of confusion, induced by an author or a coincidence, about who, what, and where one is. One wonders, however, whether Freud would have been quite so dismissive if, instead of the mixed materials he used as evidence, he were presented with a coherent story corpus—forty slashers, say—in which the themes of incest and separation were relentlessly played out by a
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female character, and further in which gender identity was repeatedly thematized as an issue in and of itself. For although the factors we have considered thus far—the conventions of the male gaze, the feminine constitution of abject terror, the value for the male viewer of emotional distance from the taboos in question, the special horror that may inhere, for the male audience, in phallic lack, the homoerotic deflection—go a long way in explaining why it is we have Pauline rather than Paul as our victim-hero, they do not finally account for our strong sense that gender is simply being played with, and that part of the thrill lies precisely in the resulting “intellectual uncertainty” of sexual identity.
The “play of pronoun function” that underlies and defines the cinefantastic is nowhere more richly manifested than in the slasher; if the genre has an aesthetic base, it is exactly that of a visual identity game. Consider, for example, the by now standard habit of letting us view the action in the first person long before revealing who or what the first person is . In the opening sequence of Halloween I , “we” are belatedly revealed to ourselves, after committing a murder in the cinematic first person, as a six-year-old boy. The surprise is often within gender, but it is also, in a striking number of cases, across gender. Again, Friday the Thirteenth I , in which “we” stalk and kill a number of teenagers over the course of an hour of screen time without even knowing who “we” are; we are invited, by conventional expectation and by glimpses of “our” own bodily parts—a heavily booted foot, a roughly gloved hand—to suppose that “we” are male, but “we” are revealed, at film’s end, as a woman. If this is the most dramatic case of pulling out the gender rug, it is by no means the only one. In Dressed to Kill , we are led to believe, again by means of glimpses, that “we” are female—only to discover, in the denouement, that “we” are a male in drag. In Psycho , the dame we glimpse holding the knife with a “visible virility quite obscene in an old lady” is later revealed, after additional gender teasing, to be Norman in his mother’s clothes.Psycho II plays much the same game. Cruising (in which, not accidentally, transvestites play a prominent role) adjusts the terms along heterosexual/homosexual lines. The tease here is whether the originally straight detective assigned to the string of murders in a gay community does or does not succumb to his assumed homosexual identity; the camerawork leaves us increasingly uncertain as to his (our) sexual inclinations, not to speak of his (our) complicity in the crimes. Even at film’s end we are not sure who “we” were during several of the first-person sequences.
The gender-identity game, in short, is too patterned and too pervasive in the slasher film to be dismissed as supervenient. It would seem instead to be an integral element of the particular brand of bodily sensation in which the genre trades. Nor is it exclusive to horror. It is directly thematized in comic terms in the recent “gender benders” Tootsie (in which a man passes himself off as a woman) and All of Me (in which a woman is literally introjected into a man and affects his speech, movement, and thought). It is also directly thematized, in the form of bisexual
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and androgynous figures and relations, in such cult films as Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show . (Some version of it is indeed enacted every few minutes on MTV.) It is further thematized (predictably enough, given their bodily concerns) in such pornographic films as Every Woman Has a Fantasy , in which a man, in order to gain access to a women’s group in which sexual fantasies are discussed, dresses and presents himself as a woman. (The degree to which “male” pornography in general relies for its effect on cross-gender identification remains an open question; the proposition makes a certain sense of the obligatory lesbian sequences and the phenomenal success of Behind the Green Door , to pick just two examples. ) All of these films, and others like them, seem to be asking some version of the question: what would it be like to be, or to seem to be, if only temporarily, a woman? Taking exception to the reception of Tootsie as a feminist film, Elaine Showalter argues that the success of “Dorothy Michaels” (the Dustin Hoffman character), as far as both plot and audience are concerned, lies in the veiling of masculine power in feminine costume. Tootsie ‘s cross-dressing, she writes,
is a way of promoting the notion of masculine power while masking it. In psychoanalytic theory, the male transvestite is not a powerless man; according to the psychiatrist Robert Stoller, in Sex and Gender , he is a “phallic woman” who can tell himself that “he is, or with practice will become, a better woman than a biological female if he chooses to do so.” When it is safe or necessary, the transvestite “gets great pleasure in revealing that he is a male-woman. . . . The pleasure in tricking the unsuspecting into thinking he is a woman, and then revealing his maleness (e.g., by suddenly dropping his voice) is not so much erotic as it is proof that there is such a thing as a woman with a penis.” Dorothy’s effectiveness is the literal equivalent of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
By the same literalistic token, then, Stretch’s success must lie in the fact that in the end, at least, she “speaks loudly” even though she carries no “stick.” Just as “Dorothy’s” voice slips serve to remind us that her character really is male, so the Final Girl’s “tits and scream” serve more or less continuously to remind us that she really is female—even as, and despite the fact that, she in the end acquits herself “like a man.” Her chainsaw is thus what “Dorothy Michaels’s” skirt is: a figuration of what she does and what she seems , as opposed to—and the films turn on the opposition—what she is . The idea that appearance and behavior do not necessarily indicate sex—indeed, can misindicate sex—is predicated on the understanding that sex is one thing and gender another; in practice, that sex is life, a less-than-interesting given, but that gender is theater. Whatever else it may be, Stretch’s waving of the chainsaw is a moment of high drag. Its purpose is not to make us forget that she is a girl but to thrust that fact on us. The moment, it is probably fair to say, is also one that openly mocks the literary/cinematic conventions of symbolic representation.
It may be just this theatricalization of gender that makes possible the willingness of the male viewer to submit himself to a brand of spectator experience that
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Hitchcock designated as “feminine” in 1960 and that has become only more so since then. In classic horror, the “feminization” of the audience is intermittent and ceases early. Our relationship with Marion’s body in Psycho halts abruptly at the moment of its greatest intensity (slashing, ripping, tearing). The considerable remainder of the film distributes our bruised sympathies among several lesser figures, male and female, in such a way and at such length as to ameliorate the Marion experience and leave us, in the end, more or less recuperated in our (presumed) masculinity. Like Marion, the Final Girl is the designated victim, the incorporation of the audience, the slashing, ripping, and tearing of whose body will cause us to flinch and scream out in our seats. But unlike Marion, she does not die. If Psycho , like other classic horror films, solves the femininity problem by obliterating the female and replacing her with representatives of the masculine order (mostly but not inevitably males), the modern slasher solves it by regendering the woman. We are, as an audience, in the end “masculinized” by and through the very figure by and through whom we were earlier “feminized.” The same body does for both, and that body is female.
The last point is the crucial one: the same female body does for both. The Final Girl 1) undergoes agonizing trials, and 2) virtually or actually destroys the antagonist and saves herself. By the lights of folk tradition, she is not a heroine, for whom phase 1 consists in being saved by someone else, but a hero, who rises to the occasion and defeats the adversary with his own wit and hands. Part 1 of the story sits well on the female; it is the heart of heroine stories in general (Red Riding Hood, Pauline), and in some figurative sense, in ways we have elaborated in some detail, it is gendered feminine even when played by a male. Odysseus’s position, trapped in the cave of the Cyclops, is after all not so different from Pauline’s position tied to the tracks or Sally’s trapped in the dining room of the slaughterhouse family. The decisive moment, as far as the fixing of gender is concerned, lies in what happens next: those who save themselves are male, and those who are saved by others are female. No matter how “feminine” his experience in phase 1, the traditional hero, if he rises against his adversary and saves himself in phase 2, will be male.
What is remarkable about the slasher film is that it comes close to reversing the priorities. Presumably for the various functional or figurative reasons we have considered in this essay, phase 1 wants a female: on that point all slashers from Psycho on are agreed. Abject fear is still gendered feminine, and the taboo anxieties in which slashers trade are still explored more easily via Pauline than Paul. The slippage comes in phase 2. As if in mute deference to a cultural imperative, slasher films from the seventies bring in a last-minute male, even when he is rendered supernumerary by the Final Girl’s sturdy defense. By 1980, however, the male rescuer is either dismissably marginal or dispensed with altogether; not a few films have him rush to the rescue only to be hacked to bits, leaving the Final Girl to save herself after all. At the moment that the Final Girl becomes her own
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savior, she becomes a hero; and the moment that she becomes a hero is the moment that the male viewer gives up the last pretense of male identification. Abject terror may still be gendered feminine, but the willingness of one immensely popular current genre to re-represent the hero as an anatomical female would seem to suggest that at least one of the traditional marks of heroism, triumphant self-rescue, is no longer strictly gendered masculine.
So too the cinematic apparatus. The classic split between “spectacle and narrative,” which “supposes the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen,” is at least unsettled in the slasher film. When the Final Girl (in films like Hell Night, Texas Chain Saw II , and even Splatter University ) assumes the “active investigating gaze,” she exactly reverses the look, making a spectacle of the killer and a spectator of herself. Again, it is through the killer’s eyes (I-camera) that we saw the Final Girl at the beginning of the film, and through the Final Girl’s eyes that we see the killer, often for the first time with any clarity, toward the end. The gaze becomes, at least for a while, female. More to the point, the female exercise of scopic control results not in her annihilation, in the manner of classic cinema, but in her triumph; indeed, her triumph depends on her assumption of the gaze. It is no surprise, in light of these developments, that the Final Girl should show signs of boyishness. Her symbolic phallicization, in the last scenes, may or may not proceed at root from the horror of lack on the part of audience and maker. But it certainly proceeds from the need to bring her in line with the epic laws of Western narrative tradition—the very unanimity of which bears witness to the historical importance, in popular culture, of the literal representation of heroism in male form—and it proceeds no less from the need to render the reallocated gaze intelligible to an audience conditioned by the dominant cinematic apparatus.
It is worth noting that the higher genres of horror have for the most part resisted such developments. The idea of a female who outsmarts, much less outfights—or outgazes—her assailant is unthinkable in the films of De Palma and Hitchcock. Although the slasher film’s victims may be sexual teases, they are not in addition simple-minded, scheming, physically incompetent, and morally deficient in the manner of these filmmakers’ female victims. And however revolting their special effects and sexualized their violence, few slasher murders approach the level of voluptuous sadism that attends the destruction of women in De Palma’s films. For reasons on which we can only speculate, femininity is more conventionally elaborated and inexorably punished, and in an emphatically masculine environment, in the higher forms—the forms that are written up, and not by Joe Bob Briggs.
That the slasher film speaks deeply and obsessively to male anxieties and desires seems clear—if nothing else from the maleness of the majority audience.
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And yet these are texts in which the categories masculine and feminine, traditionally embodied in male and female, are collapsed into one and the same character—a character who is anatomically female and one whose point of view the spectator is unambiguously invited, by the usual set of literary-structural and cinematic conventions, to share. The willingness and even eagerness (so we judge from these films’ enormous popularity) of the male viewer to throw in his emotional lot, if only temporarily, with not only a woman but a woman in fear and pain, at least in the first instance, would seem to suggest that he has a vicarious stake in that fear and pain. If it is also the case that the act of horror spectatorship is itself registered as a “feminine” experience—that the shock effects induce bodily sensations in the viewer answering the fear and pain of the screen victim—the charge of masochism is underlined. This is not to say that the male viewer does not also have a stake in the sadistic side; narrative structure, cinematic procedures, and audience response all indicate that he shifts back and forth with ease. It is only to suggest that in the Final Girl sequence his empathy with what the films define as the female posture is fully engaged, and further, because this sequence is inevitably the central one in any given film, that the viewing experience hinges on the emotional assumption of the feminine posture. Kaja Silverman takes it a step further: “I will hazard the generalization that it is always the victim—the figure who occupies the passive position—who is really the focus of attention, and whose subjugation the subject (whether male or female) experiences as a pleasurable repetition from his/her own story,” she writes. “Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the fascination of the sadistic point of view is merely that it provides the best vantage point from which to watch the masochistic story unfold.”
The slasher is hardly the first genre in the literary and visual arts to invite identification with the female; one cannot help wondering more generally whether the historical maintenance of images of women in fear and pain does not have more to do with male vicarism that is commonly acknowledged. What distinguishes the slasher, however, is the absence or untenability of alternative perspectives and hence the exposed quality of the invitation. As a survey of the tradition shows, this has not always been the case. The stages of the Final Girl’s evolution—her piecemeal absorption of functions previously represented in males—can be located in the years following 1978. The fact that the typical patrons of these films are the sons of marriages contracted in the 1960s or even early seventies leads us to speculate that the dire claims of that era—that the women’s movement, the entry of women into the workplace, and the rise of divorce and woman-headed families would yield massive gender confusion in the next generation—were not entirely wrong. We may prefer, in the eighties, to speak of the cult of androgyny, but the point is roughly the same. The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female—parent and Everyteen, respectively—would seem, especially in the latter
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case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the equation sex = gender. It is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation; it is that they fix on the irregular combinations, of which the combination masculine female repeatedly prevails over the combination feminine male. The fact that masculine males (boyfriends, fathers, would-be rescuers) are regularly dismissed through ridicule or death or both would seem to suggest that it is not masculinity per se that is being privileged, but masculinity in conjunction with a female body—indeed, as the term victim-hero contemplates, masculinity in conjunction with femininity. For if “masculine” describes the Final Girl some of the time, and in some of her more theatrical moments, it does not do justice to the sense of her character as a whole. She alternates between registers from the outset; before her final struggle she endures the deepest throes of “femininity”; and even during that final struggle she is now weak and now strong, now flees the killer and now charges him, now stabs and is stabbed, now cries out in fear and now shouts in anger. She is a physical female and a characterological androgyne: like her name, not masculine but either/or, both, ambiguous.
Robin Wood speaks of the sense that horror, for him the by-product of cultural crisis and disintegration, is “currently the most important of all American [film] genres and perhaps the most progressive, even in its overt nihilism.” Likewise Vale and Juno say of the “incredibly strange films,” mostly low-budget horror, that their volume surveys: “They often present unpopular—even radical—views addressing the social, political, racial, or sexual inequities, hypocrisy in religion or government.” And Tania Modleski rests her case against the standard critique of mass culture (stemming from the Frankfurt School) squarely on the evidence of the slasher, which does not propose a spurious harmony; does not promote the “specious good” (but indeed often exposes and attacks it); does not ply the mechanisms of identification, narrative continuity, and closure to provide the sort of narrative pleasure constitutive of the dominant ideology. One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representation. That it is an adjustment largely on the male side, appearing at the furthest possible remove from the quarters of theory and showing signs of trickling upwards, is of no small interest.