The Slasher Film as Examination of Male Fear of Female Empowerment

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Michael Myers, H2
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Michael Myers, H2

The slasher films of the late 1970s and 1980s have never gotten much respect. As crude examples of exploitation horror films, this is understandable. October is Halloween horror time on television, and you can bet every year that many of the slasher films will be airing. You may have already seen these films a number of times, but this Halloween season why not take a look at them through a different prism? Look at slasher films from the perspective of their being about male fear of female empowerment.

"Halloween" is the official kickoff of this generation of horror film that, admittedly, drew its inspiration from such classics as "Psycho" and "Peeping Tom." The slasher film differs somewhat from those prototypes and differ substantially from the classic horror film architecture established over the course of Hollywood studio era history.

One of the hallmarks of the slasher film is directly related to the loosening of censorship between "Psycho" and "Halloween." The latter film and its immediate successors established the trope that female victims will be those who are promiscuous. This promiscuity can be viewed as a threat to the established patriarchal order based on the evolutionary imperatives of women as monogamous breeders and men as polygamous, fruitful multipliers.

Another slasher film trope commonly overlooked is that while promiscuous teens and young women are punished, the ultimate victor over the threat will also be female. The woman who rises to finish off the slasher is virginal, repressed, and possessed of an underlying ladylike personality that represents a throwback to another time

The slashers in these films occupy a space somewhere between the otherworldly monsters of the Universal Studios horror films and the unadorned humanity of the killers in "Psycho" and "Peeping Tom." Slashers are generally entirely human who wear masks to hide the real face. That face is the countenance of the male power structure and must be obfuscated. The disguise is almost always directly related to a lesser aspect of the male identity. Halloween masks position the male predator as a harmless kid; a hockey mask is a masquerade that transforms the face of male dominance into the face of the sports-crazed idiot who is too oblivious to what really matters to pose a real threat to female empowerment.

The single greatest cinematic compositional change associated with the slasher film is the identification with the monster rather than the victim. This association between viewer and patriarchal system is accomplished with the revolutionary transformation of the first-person POV from victim to killer. Despite the masks, identification with conservative sexual ideologies is established. The audience identifies with the killer, not the victims.

Until the end.

Slasher films were initially ripped apart by critics because they victimized women as the objects of violence, but in fact men and women were treated more equally as victims in these films than traditional horror movies. Women have always been the victims of horror films, especially promiscuous women. From the Frederic March version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" -- in which the prostitute becomes the object of Hyde's sadistic ire -- to unmarried Marion Crane in "Psycho" who sleeps with her love, the victims of the manly beast were women of easy virtue.

The more virginal, conservatively acceptable, domesticated female characters could also become targets of violence but were rarely fatally attacked. These women had to live on in order to propagate the patriarchal order; slashers wielded their blades with no distinction between male and female. The only distinction is that the innocent girl still manages to be spared, but this time around she doesn't faint or wait for a hero to save her. Instead, she is transformed through empowerment to act on her own and destroy the only male left: the one who is attempting to cut her down just as she has learned to stand up for herself.

But of course, she doesn't destroy him. A unifying element in the slasher genre is the inability of the monster to actually be killed. Because he is a symbolic representation of the historically unchallenged supremacy of the patriarchy, he can be outmaneuvered but he will never be vanquished. The heroine may live to see another day, but male dominion can only be temporarily restrained and not permanently subjugated. When the newly strong female reaches the point of forgetting the nightmare, the repression will be unleashed and make its way back to the consciousness to begin all over again in what is referred to as a sequel, but is actually a remake.

For more articles by Timothy Sexton, check out:

Sexton Classic Movies: Peeping Tom

Movie Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

The Poseur's Guide to Horror Films, Part One

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