The majority of the people who know me are aware that I love Scream. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best horror films ever made. It manages to tackle meta-humour, whilst still creating compelling characters and a creepy atmosphere. For that alone it occupies a special place in my heart. However, my unwavering adoration for Craven’s masterpiece is also due to my love of the slasher genre in general. With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve begun to think about the origin of this odd obsession.
I can’t quite remember when it started. I was a nervous child with a fear of strangers and perhaps over time that fear turned into fascination. If I had to pinpoint a particular film that sparked my interest, I’d have to pick The Nightmare on Elm Street. Before I’d even seen it, I was struck by the image of this strange scarred man with his snazzy knifed glove on the poster. It terrified me, but at the same time I thought it looked cool. When I sat down to watch the film years later it was love at first sight.
In the end, I don’t remember being scared at all. The cheesy 80s synths, pun-ridden dialogue and wooden acting from its teen stars hardly helped to create an atmosphere of dread. In fact I can count the slasher films that I find frightening on one hand. Many people think that horror films are all about fear and that all genre has to offer is a good scare. But it’s clear that in the case of slasher films, fear-factor wasn’t what drew me in and isn’t what keeps bringing me back. Part of the appeal is the way in which they mix humour with terror; a good slasher film can have audiences screaming in one moment and laughing to the point of tears in the next. For me they’ve acted as a kind of cynical comfort food. There’s something about the combination of familiar genre tropes, comedy and tension that can set me at ease whilst still keeping me engaged enough to remain distracted.
As well as providing some much needed representation, this film does a better job of exploring race, class and historical memory than most dramas.
That’s not to say that serious slasher films don’t exist. Another one of my personal favourites is Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), soon to be remade by Jordan Peele. The casting of Tony Todd as the titular character, long before Peele brought black horror into the mainstream, was a revelation to me as young horror fan. With a few notable exceptions, such as Blacula, Tales from the Hood and Blade, the genre was and still is overwhelming white. As well as providing some much needed representation, this film does a better job of exploring race, class and historical memory than most dramas.
For better or for worse the slasher film is a vehicle for exploring various social issues. Halloween explores suburban anxieties, whereas the Texas Chainsaw Massacre tackles the dark side of the American family. As many critics have noted the messaging of some these films is questionable at best. The Friday the 13th series, which inspired most slasher films that came after it has often been lambasted for associating promiscuity with death and virginal purity with survival. But as Candyman demonstrates there’s plenty of room for more nuanced and tasteful themes. While I often put on a slasher film when I’m looking for mindless entertainment, I do enjoy picking up apart the social commentary that many of them contain.
It’s impossible to think about the genre’s popularity and appeal without considering the role of the villain
The concept of the ‘final girl’ has also contributed to my enjoyment. In a large proportion of these films, we enter the third act with one female survivor remaining— our final girl. Unlike in many action films where women are sidelined, in slasher films they do most of the heavy lifting. Characters such Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996) and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) have always been a source of inspiration for me. They’re scared and often physically weaker than their opponents, but they’re also tough, resourceful and single-minded in their determination to survive.
It’s impossible to think about the genre’s popularity and appeal without considering the role of the villain, the person or thing doing the slashing. Characters such as Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers have come to dominate the image of horror movies in the public eye, becoming pop culture icons in their own right and garnering their own enthusiastic fan bases. They often represent a dangerous aberration in an otherwise ordinary community. Whilst the concept of something abnormal hiding under a veneer of normality is supposed to invoke fear it can also strike a chord with audiences. Usually social outcasts and sometimes larger than life, the slasher villains can inspire fascination as well as fear. And, above all else, they’re great fun to watch.
This sums up my love of the genre as a whole. Whilst slasher films are able to tackle serious issues and provide opportunities for the audience to see themselves represented on screen, they do so with some amount of flair and style. Amongst the wide variety of slasher films that exist, one thing remains consistent: they’re always entertaining.