Discussion of horror film history, in this post looking specifically at the slasher sub-genre, sexuality, and the 1980s.

The previous three blog posts in this series have addressed what we might call “monsters proper,” or recurring figures/characters/types in the monster-movie subgenre that are, ostensibly, non-human in appearance and classification. Moving into the 1980s, the horror film landscape changed rather dramatically though, so that, while there were still monster films that figuratively echoed those of the past three decades (I’m thinking specifically of films like Gremlins, Ghoulies, Troll, etc.), one of the most heavily-theorized sub-genres in horror also picked up steam in this era, that of the slasher film. To subsume slasher movies into the monster sub-genre is potentially both misguided and reductive, but when we consider the social, cultural, and historical placement of figures such as Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger alongside their would-be counterparts, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and Sister Hyde (as previously discussed) the division between sub-genres begins to blur.

Any discussion of slasher films that failed to address Carol Clover’s formative text Men, Women, and Chain Saws, would be woefully inadequate. Clover’s text began, first, with her essay “Her Body, Himself,” published almost thirty years ago (happy almost-birthday), discussing the intertwining roles of gender, identification, spectatorship, and violence in the slasher sub-genre, and most notably introduced the term “Final Girl” into both popular and academic horror discourse. For Clover, the Final Girl’s position within the slasher, and more importantly her survival to the end of the film and emergence as victor over the film’s antagonist, signaled a shift in audience identification in which male audience members were encouraged to identify with the female Final Girl, both when she is in pain and when she is triumphant, rather than the male serial killer, the monster, regardless of preexisting representational gender binaries. Clover’s theory goes into great detail, engaging the fields of psychoanalytic theory, sociology, and feminist theory, among others. Where Men, Women, and Chain Saws begins to break down, both due to its publication in 1992 (when queer theory was still developing) and it’s adherence in places to biological essentialism, is in its consideration of sexuality.

While a critical consideration of slasher films in terms of gender is certainly useful and informative, it is also possible to read these films as monster movies through the lenses of sexuality and sociocultural anxiety. This becomes especially apparent considering that the sub-genre emerged in the form that we now recognize it[1] in the United States in the 1980s, in the midst of one of the most devastating and influential events in queer/LGBT history: the AIDS crisis. Discussions of HIV/AIDS, both historical and recent, are often fraught with questions and debates regarding ownership/labeling (AIDS is not, as initially publicized, a “gay disease” so discussions of it that center around sexuality are problematic from the outset), fault/blame (attributed variously to scientists, bureaucratic ineptitude, Ronald Regan, etc.) and respectability politics (that is, the concept that gay and lesbian people in committed, long-term relationships are not susceptible, therefore the initial crisis, and any illness/death since, could have been prevented by strict condemnation of promiscuity). This blog post will not address these questions for various reasons (both personal and academic), but rather seeks to engage with the slasher sub-genre’s development as a means by which to displace anxiety and consequent dehumanization of gay men (and the LGBT community broadly) onto the figure of the monstrous serial killer.

Slasher films, in their simplest form, follow a relatively standard formula or set of rules:

  • Epilogue: the film begins with a young couple (who are notably not long for this world) having sex or otherwise grievously misbehaving (drinking too much, doing drugs, etc.), the film’s antagonist kills one or both of them.
  • Narrative beginning: enter a group of 3-5 young people (always at least 1 woman), each of whom represents some form of character deficiency (frivolousness, promiscuity, aggression, etc.) except for the Final Girl, who is typically set apart from the other women in the group precisely because she is serious, careful, chaste, and conscientious.
  • As the film progresses, members of the group are picked off by the killer, with the men murdered either briefly or off-screen altogether while the killer, and the camera, take time torturing and brutally killing the women. The Final Girl, while she evades death and eventually fights back, still endures considerably mental/emotional torture as she is stalked and watches her friends die.
  • By the end of the film, the Final Girl and the killer face off, with the Final Girl having devised some way to outsmart or otherwise subdue the killer so that she can either escape or kill him (if she kills him she does so in a distinctively phallic way, such as stabbing). The killer is either evaded or defeated, and the Final Girl emerges very much worse for the wear.

There are, of course, exceptions to and deviations from this formula, just as there are cases in which these steps are shuffled or reconfigured so that a given plot point (the epilogue, for example) comes about much later in the film or takes a different form while serving the same purpose nonetheless. The important pattern for my analysis of the sub-genre in historical context though is the preoccupation with promiscuity as the primary way that characters may be deemed less-than-human or otherwise deserving of death. This pattern is significant, yes, for an analysis of gender in the sub-genre, but it also has strong implications for a reading of these films through the lens of queer displacement and heteronormative anxiety.

The film that comes most to mind from this vantage point is Wes Craven’s 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its particularly monstrous Freddy Krueger. The film does not necessarily follow the same point-by-point formula as above, but it does share a commonality with pervious monster movies via its decidedly non-human Freddy. According to the franchise’s internal lore, Freddy is something between a ghost and a boogeyman who can initially only manifest himself in the dreams of his victims. He attacks his victims with a set of knife-gloves that, while not being part of his physical body, are nonetheless part of his monster persona. He is physically grotesque, his flesh melted and torn across most of his face and body as a result of having been burned to death by the parents of children he molested. And this is where queer displacement enters the conversation. Throughout the decades, homophobia and “fear for the children” have very often been intrinsically linked in conservative discourse, so that despite how gender, sexuality, and desire actually intersect, very often political discourse seeking to disenfranchise LGBTQ people does so under the pretense of protecting children. While there can be no definitive answer to why these notions are so often linked by opponents of LGBTQ rights, a critical analysis of the slasher sub-genre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular, may begin to explain the cultural and theoretical linkage.

Children in film represent the future, hope, renewal, a chance to change the world around us for the better, to have a positive impact and to leave something of ourselves behind in the world when we die. Children in horror films, then, represent either the threatened future, the unstable precarity of the world as we know it, or the eventual corruption of the future (The Omen, Children of the Corn, The Bad Seed to name a few). In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the children represent the former, both in flashbacks to their childhood and when we meet them as teenagers they exist primarily to be threatened (and harmed/killed). Each death, then, is a countdown to catastrophe or apocalypse where the future has been lost or inalterably changed for the worse. The film (and its sequels and remakes) go to great lengths to make clear that Freddy is primarily interested in young girls, so as to guard against taking the taboo too far (he is also, notably, not only not related to any of the children but is not originally from this community, so that incest is also removed from the litany of horrors he enacts). For this reason, my analysis reads Freddy as an allegory, a stand-in for threatening, dangerous, non-productive expenditure (to borrow Georges Bataille’s term) of non-heterosexuality.

According to Bataille’s theory in “The Notion of Expenditure,” non-procreative relationships are untenable under a (neoliberal) capitalist system of expenditures wherein the means of production (including both resources and labor, meaning people) must be continuously reproduced. In this way, non-heterosexual relationships become a direct threat to the future (the filmic stand-in for which, remember, is children). Following this logic, Freddy, for all of his lethality and deviant sexuality, comes to represent the same threat to the future in the scope of the film that LGBTQ people supposedly posed in reality. The timing of the film is critical; with the AIDS crisis came a dangerous and persistent linkage between queer people and death, a link that came to make the terms synonymous in a way that, for mainstream horror film, blurred the line of who was doing the killing and who was dying. While A Nightmare on Elm Street is careful to classify Freddy as heterosexual, and pedophilia and queerness are not, by any means, intrinsically related, the public, heteronormative fear of both homosexuality and pedophilia revolve around the same anxiety, anxiety about the safety and security of the future. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, pedophilia is deemed the “safer” of the two subjects of this anxiety, and thus that homophobic anxiety prompted by increased LGBTQ visibility is displaced onto Freddy Krueger.

References, Sources, Further Reading:

Bataille, Georges. “The Notion of Expenditure.” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings (1939): 116-29. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader III. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2003. Print.

Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic, 1991. Print.

Janisse, Kier-La. House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. Godalming, UK: Fab, 2012. Print.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.

Subissati, Andrea. When There’s No More Room in Hell: The Sociology of the Living Dead. Saarbrücken, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic, 2010. Print.

Warner, Marina. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

[1] Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho is technically credited as the first slasher film, although as Clover discusses at length it deviates considerably from the sub-genre’s formula as it would come to be solidified in the 1980s.

Image Credit: New Line Cinema © 1984