I still remember the first slasher horror movie I ever saw. I was twelve years old, and it was at a sleepover for my friend Belinda’s birthday party. The movie chosen for this occasion was Friday the 13th Part 2 — I can only suppose because Belinda’s mother hated mine, and wanted to bury her under a mountain of therapy bills — and as we all sat there watching this heretofore forbidden fruit, dosed up on sugar and adrenaline and the grown-upness of it all, I had never been more terrified of anything in my life.
As the foreboding music eeked its way towards each gruesome kill, I covered my face with my hands so repeatedly that my cowardice drew the notice of the assembled pajama-clad girls. Much teasing ensued, but despite it revealing me as a Grade A chicken, I simply could not watch. Eventually, I couldn’t even stand to listen. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and just stayed there until our friend Sam came to check up on me half an hour later, presumably to make sure I hadn’t been waylaid by a hockey mask-wearing lunatic on my way back. I could not be coaxed out of the bathroom until I was at last assured the movie was over and that those big-haired teens at Camp Crystal Lake had squealed their last.
Needless to say, slasher horror and I have not been on good terms ever since.
Now, admittedly, I had always been one of those scaredy-kids who’d hide behind the couch during Doctor Who (for me, it was always the fearsome Cybermen who sent me diving for cover). And my parents, while very liberal and careless with my viewing habits by today’s standards — I knew all the words to the raunchy Grease soundtrack by the time I’d turned 6, and by 8 I knew about exciting career opportunities in exotic dance and prostitution from watching Flashdance and Risky Business — were not themselves fans of the horror genre, and so I had not really been exposed to it. But my reaction to this movie, far different from that of the other girls watching it with me — and who were equally inexperienced of such things — cannot be so simply explained.
It was not the blood and guts that disturbed me, though to be sure, I liked it not. It wasn’t even that damned effective score, which definitely accomplished its dread purpose in raising my pulse rate dramatically. No, I hated this first taste of the slasher movie genre because everything that was happening in it was just so wrong. There was this guy gleefully slicing up innocent youth and it seemed we were supposed to be happy about this — even supposed to be cheering him on. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t cheering. I was aghast. Just why, I wondered, was the senseless slaughter of these unfortunate teenagers being so… celebrated? Why was this bloodthirsty villain being made out to be a hero? Did no one else consider the inevitable sadness of these kids’ parents, when their deaths were discovered? Did no one else wonder how many lives would be destroyed, due to this one criminal’s insane acts of random violence?
Okay, yes, even then I had too many thoughts.
Since this unsuccessful first attempt, there has, of course, been more than one chance for the genre to redeem itself in my eyes. As I grew older, it became a social necessity to watch horror movies — that was far from the first sleepover at which such a trauma had to be endured — and I had to find mechanisms I could use to cope with them rather than hiding in the bathroom for hours at a time (though Halloween left me with no alternative. It was either that or poke out my own eyes with a nail file. HE WAS IN THE HOUSE.) The only way I managed to get through these movies was to de-humanize the people in them. I would make of the killer some kind of monster hunter and of his seemingly blameless prey merciless demons in disguise; in that way, I could cheer for Michael Myers or Alex Hammond or Leatherface and somehow make it through the awfulness, if not happily, at least without complaint. (I must admit, this mind trick never worked with Freddy — but then, Freddy was somewhat supernatural himself, and also enjoyed the benefit of the occasional pithy quip; of all these movies, I found the Nightmare on Elm Streets the least arduous.) Since I reached adulthood, I can count on one hand the amount of slasher horror movies I have seen, and not a single one has changed my mind on this topic… which is not to say that I don’t often enjoy movies from the horror genre.
I love the Evil Dead flicks and most anything featuring vampires, and I don’t mind a good ghost story (though one particularly foolish solo viewing of The Ring led to a week’s worth of nightmares). And, of course, there’s all things Hitchcock, who was a genius and a wonder and is the person I always choose in one of those hypothetical “Who would you most like to have dinner with, dead or alive?” scenarios. On TV, Buffy and Supernatural have been known to scare the bejeezus out of me and yet I adore them both with an almost unnatural passion, and I was even a huge fan of Dexter, in its early, less incesty seasons, at least… which is odd, because it is the very human nature of its anti-heroes that is what so disturbs me about the slasher horror genre as a whole.
Now, I don’t want to go all televangelist fake-moralizing here, ’cause those people are just tiresome. To be clear, I don’t think that slasher movies are any more to blame for the evils that men do than I believe Grand Theft Auto will make kids grow up to be amoral, drug-dealing carjackers. Humanity dealt with crazed killers long before Hollywood made them cool, and the fact that there are more serial killers nowadays (with a goodly percentage coming out of America) can be more reasonably attributed to a massive rise in worldwide population and standards of living than it can to, say, Wes Craven’s body of work. But I do think that slasher horror movies, with their gratuitous bloodshed and focus on the cult of the killer — and innate sexism, though that is somewhat beside the current point — cannot help but desensitize us to the suffering of others, and perhaps even suggest a viable career option to anyone already that way inclined. Craven’s Scream is a terrific movie and I love it a lot, not only for its amusing self-referentiality and its clever, clever twists, but because it also highlights the genre’s biggest danger: not everyone has it in them to be a conscienceless killer, but for those few that do, a steady diet of scary movies would probably act as a pretty decent guidebook of how to best go about it.
I concede without argument that horror, as a whole, plays an essential role in narrative fiction, especially in the way that its monsters often act as compelling metaphors for our manifold human frailty and vice. But the subgenre of slasher horror does nothing but provide us with detailed and almost loving depictions of senseless, needless human evil — and I think there is enough of that in real life.
Read the Opposing View
Slasher Films: Terribly Addictive
by David Baldwin