A taxonomy that breaks down the horror genre into a moderately comprehensive collection of sub-genres, each with their own list of must-see films. This section deals specifically with (serial) killer films.
- Urban Legend
- True Crime
- Murder Mystery
- Backwoods and Redneck
This sub-genre encompasses horror media in which the antagonist is human and could be best described as a murderer. This category does not encompass films where the killer only kills on accident or through happenstance.
Intensely formulaic, follows a strict progression: warning, death, discovery, death, discovery, Final Girl call to action, climactic battle, and either ending A or B (see below).
The Final Girl is a term that emerges in Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws and is a trope in the horror genre that comes about with the rise of late 1970s and early 1980s slasher movies. The Final Girl has, of course, evolved since her introduction to horror film/theory but a few aspects of the trope remain constant. First and foremost, the Final Girl does not die. When Clover’s book was originally published in 1992 most Final Girls in horror were significant because they were the only survive, or sometimes the only female survivor. This trend has changed, especially with films like Sorority Row (2009), and television series like Scream (2015-present) allowing for two or more Final Girls who survive the narrative. Second, the Final Girl survives the narrative but does not do so unscathed. She operates, at least for part of the story, as the audience stand-in, and as such is subjected to torture, fear, and physical violence throughout the narrative in a way that (is at least meant to) illicit audience empathy for her pain. Additionally, throughout her trials she is acutely aware of the danger that she and her friends are in, so while other characters only learn of their impending death moments before it happens, the Final Girl knows that it’s coming long before she has to face the killer. Along with this she is often responsible for bearing witness to her friends’ deaths; she finds their bodies, often staged, and through this process becomes aware of the particularly gruesome nature of the violence that will soon befall her.
In addition to these aspects of the trope that hold true across most if not all of the slasher sub-genre, there are a few that occur with relative frequency but are by no means prerequisites for classifying a character as a Final Girl. First, in some cases the Final Girl is related in some intimate way to the killer. This can mean that she’s literally related to the killer by blood or adoption, that she’s (unknowingly) romantically involved with the killer, or that she and the killer have some other, often obfuscated, connection (in the vein of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Second, if she does defeat the killer (see ending B below), she often does so with a phallic object or in a way that symbolically simulates sex. This means that, while some Final Girls do use guns to accomplish this, far more often the Final Girl uses a knife, chainsaw, or convenient length of pipe to kill the serial killer.[i] Finally, the Final Girl is often smarter and/or more bookish than her female counterparts, more observant and aware of the world around her, more responsible, and most importantly less interested in sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (put differently, she’s a straight edge virgin). This trend holds true throughout 1980s and early 90s US slashers but has begun to change, and has never really been a requirement for the Final Girl outside of the US (consider Canada’s Black Christmas for example).
Returning to my note above about possible endings in slashers, Clover allows for two possible resolutions. In ending A (seen most often in early slashers), the Final Girl’s purpose is to survive and distract the killer long enough to be rescued, usually by a man. In ending B, the Final Girl herself must both subdue and defeat the killer because, as these films make clear early on, there is no help coming, there will be no one to save her but herself. While it’s tempting to argue that films that follow ending B present the Final Girl with more agency, keep in mind that the rescuer in films following ending A are not necessarily heroes (consider the ending of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, where Sally is rescued by a truck driver that happens along the road at just the right moment).
It’s important to note that not every slasher film concerns teens, some (many?) are expressly concerned with young adults, 20-somethings, or adults. These iterations of the sub-genre carry with them their own implications, narrative distinctions, and complications. For this reason, slashers that do deal expressly with teenagers merit their own category within the slasher sub-genre because of the social context in which they invariably exist. These are films where the threat of death is specifically a threat to a society’s future survival, to its continued existence. Further, these films in particular present a lethal threat at the point of a liminal rite of passage.
Rites of passage, as per Arnold van Gennup, consist of the pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal. For anyone who’s followed my podcast and blog, the term liminal is pretty familiar. For anyone new to the site, put simply, the term ‘liminal’ refers to people, places, things, spaces, times, etc. that exist in the in-between. What this means is that rituals that signal a crossing-over from one state to another (like graduations and weddings) are all always liminal. Similarly, according to Victor Turner’s reading of the concept, liminality can also describe places, people, figures, and beings. More specifically, recurring figures in horror like ghosts and zombies are liminal, existing between life and death, while images/objects such as mirrors, hallways, and doorways signal a transition between distinct spaces.
In the context of defining teen slashers as their own category, understanding the significance of liminality to social relations becomes important because so many teen slashers deal not only with the transitions between life and death, but with other societal transitions as well. Many of these films are primarily concerned with less socially demarcating transitions for teens like sex and the notion of becoming an adult (without the rituals in place to mark this distinction in the US like graduation, voting, and military service).
Finally, I’d like to point out that, often in classic teen slashers of the 1980s, the Final Girl is distinctive for her lack of transition in some ways. She doesn’t have sex and doesn’t accept sexuality as a primary means of female transition from childhood to adulthood. What she does, however, is accept responsibility for her community as a means of transition. Now, Clover spends a great deal of time in her book discussing how climactic scenes in slasher films are symbolically sexual, but in early slashers the Final Girl is still always a virgin in the literal sense. For this reason, teen slashers take on extra meaning in the context of gender.
Although less imbued with theoretical meaning than the distinction of teen slasher, the urban legend horror has garnered enough attention and attention since the 90s to constitute its own category. Urban legend slashers generally follow the same formulas and tropes as standard slashers, but with the added overarching context of an urban legend, modern myth, or other form of folktale. This means that while all slashers are concerned with the social implications of mortality, urban legend slashers are specifically concerned with the anxiety around provoked viral mortality. What I mean by this can be pretty well summarized in an explanation of the influence of internet-era chain letters on these films. That is to say that, with the advent of quick, easy, broad dissemination of information brought about by the internet, anxiety began to build regarding what kind of information was being disseminated. Now, of course, urban legends in general predate the internet, but this categorization in horror really picks up in the 90s, so that it’s possible to link these anxieties together as influencing the development of the sub-genre.
A note for the films I’m considering in this category as well as those included in the list below: I’m not defining “urban legend” horror as those films that exclusively build on pre-existing urban legends. Rather, those section includes films that function in the same way, that contain a similar structure, to urban legends themselves. That is to say that films like The Ring, which opens with a discussion of a “video tape that kills you if you watch it” count, here, as urban legend films, whether or not that story existed in popular consciousness prior to the film’s release.
Like many categories in the killer sub-genre, rape-revenge films tend to follow a fairly straightforward progression. In the following list first-tier items—“1.)”— denote consistent aspects across most or all films in this categories, whereas second-tier items—“1a.)”—denote recurring narrative trends in the sub-genre that are not necessarily consistent across all the sub-genre as a whole.
1.) The film’s protagonist(s) (usually a woman) enters a space where she shouldn’t be, like the rural countryside, a dark alley, or her own apartment.
1a.) The woman transgresses in some way that makes her difference or superiority apparent to both the audience and her aggressor.
1b.) The woman is pursued, stalked, and/or chased through the aforementioned space where she does not belong.
2.) The woman is caught, subdued (beaten, pinned down, drugged), and raped. Note that this step can be repeated any number of times as determined by the narrative going forward, as is the case in I Spit on Your Grave where Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) is raped 4 times over the course of the first 40 minutes of the film.
2a.) There is a montage or some other means of signaling the passage of time that serves to demarcate the film’s turn from rape to revenge. This also tends to serve as a recovery and planning period.
3.) She sets out to, and succeeds in, maiming, torturing, and killing her attackers.
3a.) In some iterations of the rape-revenge film she is captured and/or killed, but the majority of these films are notable for their lack of focus on consequences for the woman.
Horror films that are specifically framed within the context of criminalization, legality, and law enforcement.
Films that are based, to any degree, on actual events or profiles of actual killers. True crime horror films tend towards documentary aesthetics in order to promote a sense of fairness, authenticity, and factuality. This means that true crime horror films will often utilize intertitles, voice over narration, and direct interviews in order to convey both narrative and opinion regarding a given subject’s criminal outcome.
Films where the narrative is either entirely fabricated or where a particular historical killer is represented but the events of the film in no way resemble actual historical accounts.
The term “giallo” originates in 1929 with the advent of mystery and detective novels (published with yellow covers, hence the name, which translates to “yellow” in Italian). These novels were often either direct translations of or modeled after the work of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. In the 1940s, under Mussolini, translations of imported detective novels were prohibited because of their glorification of crime and potential cultural influence. While the literary genre continued to grow, expanding to a strong base of domestic giallo writers in the following decades, giallo films didn’t emerge until the 1960s. When giallo films did emerge, the category was much more loosely constituted than it had been in literature, ranging from what we might recognize as horror in terms of Hollywood genre conventions to related genres like crime dramas and police procedurals.
It is important to note that because of the giallo film’s flexible, unfixed definition, it does not so much constitute a proper sub-genre in the way that teen slashers and rape-revenge films do, but instead describes a much broader body of films that include, but are not restricted to, the horror genre. This is why gialli are listed both in this category and in the Horror Movements category.
Mario Bava is credited with directing the first “proper” giallo film with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963, however, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) helped lay the foundations upon which Bava’s career would later be built.
According to Gary Needham, gialli can be defined or described by a number of coinciding elements. First is the self-reflexivity of the giallo that directly references its own literary heritage, typically through mise-en-abyme or other recursive strategies. Second, gialli tend to emphasize national displacement, in that many films feature narratives that revolve around outsiders or tourists entering Italy. Third, following from the proliferation of tourists in these films, gialli often feature iconic Italian landmarks (although this trend is less prevalent in gialli produced since the 1990s). Finally, and perhaps most consistently across giallo cinema, these films are highly stylized, tend toward bright, highly saturated colors (with Black Sunday as a notable departure here), and surrealist overtones.[ii]
Films where the primary conflict derives from one or more murders and in which the narrative is structured around the slow accumulation of information leading to the revelation of the murderer’s identity.
Backwoods and Redneck
Before outlining this sub-genre, I should note that it overlaps with several other categories including rape-revenge, horror road movie, and paranoia sections of this taxonomy[iii]. This is, in part, because this section could more accurately be described as a recurring theme than a proper sub-genre. That said, I’m including it here because, while these films span multiple sub-genres, they typically follow similar narrative arcs, explore similar socio-political anxieties, and encompass similar aesthetic patterns.
According to Clover’s explanation, these films are primarily concerned with constructing the division between the audience (the urban “us”) and the “threatening rural Other.”[iv] For Clover, these films present us with a complex relationship between class conflicts. First, the rural Other is defined by a number of common traits. They tend to be men (or particularly unfeminine women at the periphery), are dirty, poor, and they subsist rather than live. When they are presented as part of a family unit, that family is deeply dysfunctional because of internal gender relations. When not constructed within a family unit, individuals exist within communal relations that mimic familial relations but are significantly not codified by recognized legal and biological classifications of family. By contrast, urban people are clean, wealthy, educated, successful, hard-working, and exist either as individuals or as members of cohesive social units.
On their surface, these films would seem to valorize urban wealth, demonize rural poverty, and encourage the audience to long for the utter annihilation of the rural Other at the hands of the urban “us.” There is another dimension to this, however, especially if we take Deliverance (1972) as a foundational example, as Clover does. Many of these films make clear the fact that rural poverty is the direct result of urban wealth. Sometimes this comes as part of an explicit conversation about natural resource allocation or veiled discussion of valid vs. non-valid forms of labor.
While the acknowledgement of urban poverty in these films is initially encouraging, this responsibility, and subsequent guilt, are eventually assuaged for the audience in a number of ways. First, as with many rape-revenge films, divisions of class are often subsumed into “larger” arguments about gender, race, and/or sexuality. This trajectory follows from a similar logic to that which Christina Hanhardt lays out in her book Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence. Hanhardt’s argument is specifically concerned with gentrification and mainstream gay and lesbian politics in San Francisco. Her primary assertion, that racial others are automatically classified as homophobic as a means of criminalization, is also broadly applicable. What I mean by this is that the concept of constructing an Other (as determined by any number of traits) as intolerant, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is an effective way to openly acknowledge that Other’s subjugation while at the same time excusing their annihilation.
[i] It’s important to note that in some cases this is for practical reasons because the killer’s weapon of choice is phallic, which is often the same weapon that the Final Girl turns on the killer. While this is, of course, convenient for the filmmaker, it also allows for an interesting psychosexual turn in that the killer’s phallus is used against them.
[ii] Needham, Garry. “Playing with Genre An Introduction to the Italian Giallo.” Kinoeye 2.11 (2002).
[iii] Clover also draws a link here to folk and fairy tales via her reading of Red Riding Hood.
[iv] Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: BFI, 1992. Print. 124.
Image Credit: Dimension Films and Occupant Films © 2006
Author: Geneveive Newman