“Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or another. They’re us with hats on.” - John Carpenter
Everybody in a slasher film has some sort of family issue. It may be minor—Annie’s dad being a shouter in Halloween—it may be major—Sid’s mother sleeping around and breaking up at least two marriages in the process in Scream—but it’s there. The killer will have his own family issues—Michael Myers’ being left with his irresponsible sister is both a failure on the part of his parents, arguably, and on the part of his sister, for whom sex with her boyfriend is more important than familial obligations.
The slasher film, I’ve said before, could be taken as a response to liberal developments in American society going into and, especially, out of the 1960s. September 3, 1967, in the Los Angeles Times, Reverend Ross Greek called runaways “a national crisis” (Houston, 1967, p. F1). And the biggest danger was exposure “to the three-letter hazards of pot, LSD, STP and sex” because none other than the hippie movement (ibid). Black (2012)—yes, me, but this one was published—details the “moral battleground” of the 1960s, the sexual revolution giving youth the notion that they had, well, choices, with parents and authorities blaming everything from the counterculture to drugs to the pill (and not being entire wrong on every count there) for those choices. The Los Angeles Times ran a three-part series on “the American family in the nuclear age” in 1964, suggesting there was a “Puritanical-Freudian tug-of-war” over “America’s sexual morality” (Callan, p. C1). A study published in the New York Times in 1967 found “Permissive sexual activity... highly correlated with mental illness” (Janson, p. 41). Whether or not Dr. Seymour L. Halleck, who conducted the study, was onto something, the idea was already a sort of common knowledge around the country. Youths were stepping outside the boundaries set by society and that meant something was wrong with them.
But, I’ve already written on that subject. The point is that there was a conflict between what young people were doing and what they were supposed to be doing, well, probably since young people existed, but in the 1960s in America, it became a big topic. While the specific roots of the slasher film are put on Psycho in 1960 (which does not involve teenagers), the slasher film didn’t really become a thing until the 1970s, after the sexual revolution has gone through several iterations, the women’s movement had had its heyday, and advancements in contraception (i.e. the pill) made premarital (and extramarital) sex less risky. Meanwhile, the divorce rate had gone up and marriage had been “redefine[d]... as something optional” (Black, 2012, p. 22). Monster movies in the post-World War II era invoked nuclear age fears, horror films in the 1960s and especially the 1970s invoked fears over the dangers of the youths of the nation, as I said above, having choices—doing drugs, having sex, and basically ignoring the traditional rules for life in America (those traditional rules had probably been rewritten every decade, but the same conservative worldview that inhabits the slasher film is really good at pretending the current standards have always been and always will be.
So, essentially, the slasher film emerged as the nuclear family had been left behind for something more malleable, and young people were going wild. Ultimately, on some level, slasher films are all about family, or really the breakdown of familial bonds and intrafamilial security. That is to say, if the family unit were secure, then those young people would not be out of the home, rebelling, and they wouldn’t be available to be killed. Derr (2012) argues that horror films “suggest that changing family structures—even when change is for the better—can scare the bejeezus out of us.”
Case in point (before I fully make my point), Scream: Casey dies because she is home alone, and her boyfriend was coming over as well. The conservative morality of the slasher film tells us that, just like the Halloween example above, this is a failure of parental obligations and a moral lapse on Casey’s part as well. As soon as we’re introduced to Sidney, we learn that her father is headed out of town for the weekend, leaving her home alone. After the town institutes a curfew, what do the teenagers of Woodsboro do? They have a party. And, conveniently to the plot, but also vitally important to the subtext, Stu’s parents are gone.
The conservative world of the slasher film, where sex is punishable by death, finds its foundation in nostalgia for a time when parents were available to look after their kids, and they didn’t even have to because the suburbs were safe enough that you could just leave the door unlocked and play in the street. Gill (2002) argues that the danger in the slasher film explicitly applies to the children of the suburbs—even if they are often killed while camping in the woods. You may not remember all the details but most of the “campers” in the Friday the 13th are not out camping in tents. They are at summer camps or at lakeside cabins, or out paintballing, or on a senior trip. These are middle-class kids, the kind whose parents had moved out to the suburbs in the 50s. Gill writes:
The suburban haven, away from the dangers of the city, not only fails to protect its children, it has become the breeding ground of living nightmares unknown to urban landscapes. (p. 16)
I’m reminded of a counterpoint to this—Candyman, which takes place in the projects but invokes very few of the staples of, say, slasher films. Sex doesn’t kill. Asking Candyman to show up kills. Effectively, making the choice to live in the projects kills you. The suburbs are supposed to be safe. Leave it to Beaver and Brady Bunch safe. The thing is, just like in Scream, parents are generally absent and/or useless
(Not necessarily just when their kids are in mortal danger, mind you. Gill, obviously agreeing with me, writes:If the roots of these myths [that children of divorce will inevitably be messed up, for one example] are in stresses introduced into the late-twentieth-century American family by the intensified prevalence of divorce, the result in these films is a world emptied of the family as a resource for coping with growing up. The self-absorbed parents of these films, whether divorced or together, provide no useful knowledge, no understanding of their children’s needs or fears, no viable models for negotiating the world, and certainly no protection from that world. (p. 19)
In the films, out of the films, parents are not as available for their kids as we want or expect them to be. But especially in the films. Even before the killer arrives on the scene, the parents are simply not doing their job. Gill says slasher films “covertly engage an odd nostalgic yearning for a traditional family and traditional family values” (p. 20), but I think that nostalgia is neither particularly odd nor in any way covert. In fact, as I’ve cited the conservative worldview of the slasher film several times already, I argue, that nostalgia is a fundamental piece of the slasher film.)
so the suburb becomes dangerous. Gill writes:
Slasher films show teenagers in peril, with no hope of help from their parents. Mostly these parents are generally too busy or too involve in their own problems or pleasures to help. Even caring, concerned parents are impotent; often they are hapless and distracted, unaware of their children’s problems and likely to dismiss or discount their warnings and fears. (p. 17)
Finally, Gill (2002) says, “The danger is within, the films seem to say; the horror derives from the family and from the troubling ordeal of being a late-twentieth-century teenager” (p. 16). Per John Carpenter’s aphorism, quoted at the top of this entry, the teenagers at the heart of a slasher film are not only the victims but also the monsters, responsible by their own choices, for their deaths. That is what the slasher film tells us. That is why, for example, the original Halloween works better than the remake. We don’t want or need a down-to-earth explanation for Michael Myers’ homicidal tendencies. The danger he represents is not supposed to be unique and realistic. It is supposed to be so fantastic and supernatural that he represents every real danger while being entirely fictional. Really, the biggest upset of the slasher film that the Scream series undertakes is making each killer entirely human. The story becomes much more specific, much more real.
Note, of course, this iteration of the slasher film came in the late 1990s, well after the Cold War had ended, and even farther removed from the sexual revolution. There were no obvious worldly fears to be encapsulated in and represented by the killers. So, they are simply... killers.
Works CitedBlack, R.E.G. (2012). Smash Monogamy: From Sexual Revolution to Political Revolution. Perspectives: A Journal of Historical Inquiry 39. pp. 1-22.
Callan, M.A. (1964, March 12). Nuclear Family: Sex Morality Tug-of-War. Los Angeles Times. pp. C1,C8-9.
Derr, H. (2012, October 5). A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part One: Daddy Knows Best. Ms. Magazine. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/10/05/a-feminist-guide-to-horror-movies-part-one-daddy-knows-best/
Gill, P. (2002). The Monstrous Years: Teens, Slasher Films, and the Family. Journal of Film and Video 54:4. pp. 16-30.
Houston, P. (1967, September 3). Young Girls Running Away at Record Rate. Los Angeles Times. p. F1.
Janson, D. (1967, May 20). Campus Sex Tied to Mental Ills. New York Times. pp. 37, 41.