A babysitter receives a phone call. The man on the line asks about the children she’s babysitting. After several calls, she calls the police and they trace the next call—it’s coming from a second line inside the house. The version of this story that I know best comes not from someone telling the story around a campfire or wherever but from When a Stranger Calls. Interpretation of this story can go a lot of directions. The babysitter not doing her job thoroughly may stem from fear of such in an age when young women were claiming more independence and, like Jess in Black Christmas rejecting motherhood and other “womanly” ideals. Like the notion (somewhat via Clover (1992)) that female sexuality is being punished in the slasher film, the urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs deals in feminine independence (not necessarily or exclusively sexuality) being punished by a man positioned literally and figuratively above her. It’s arguably about patriarchy, paternalism, the punishment of feminism. Brunvand (1981) cites examples of the story from 1971 and 1973—that’s when folklorists were hearing it. This puts it a good way into the sexual revolution, and even longer after women were working outside the home more. And in between Peeping Tom and Psycho—in which sexually active women were murdered—and Black Christmas, Halloween and Friday the 13th—in which, again, sexually active women were murdered.
Children and Youth in History tells us that this legend
reflect[s] the intense anxieties of: (1) parents worried about the safety of their children while under the care of babysitters; (2) mothers apprehensive about leaving the home for work; (3) fathers frustrated by their decreasing authority; (4) society growing increasingly uneasy about girls’ accelerating rejection of conventional feminine expectations set into motion by the counter culture, second-wave feminism, and the sexual revolution; (5) girls [sic] uncertainties about the dangers they faced in their pursuit of independence; and (6) children’s fears of strangers in an increasingly mobile society.
Regarding #1, you could also get into the urban legend of the hippie babysitter who cooked the baby in her charge. The key here was the timing, a decade (or more, depending from where you measure) into the counter culture—supposedly drug-addled youths freaking out parents all over the country.
Brunvand (1992), citing Sue Samuelson’s “The Man Upstairs: An Analysis of Role Models and Sexuality in a Baby-sitting Legend”) writes:
Folklorist Sue Samuelson, who examined hundreds of unpublished “Man Upstairs” stories in American folklore archives, concluded that the telephone is the most important and emotionally-loaded item in the plot: the assailant is harassing his victim through the device that is her own favorite means of communication. [Jess talks to Peter on the phone more than once in Black Christmas.] Babysitting, Samuelson points out, is an important socializing experiences for young women, allowing them to practice their future roles, imposed on them in a male-dominated society, as homemakers and mothers. Significantly, the threatening male figure is upstairs—on top of and in control of the girl—as men have traditionally been in the sexual relationship. In killing the children who were in her care, the man brings on the most catastrophic failure any mother can suffer. Another contributing factor in the story is that the babysitter herself is too intent on watching television realize that the children are being murdered upstairs. Thus, the tale is not just another scary story, but conveys a stern admonition to young women to adhere to society’s traditional values. (p. 67)
Children and Youth in History agrees:
Among the many morals this urban legend issued were those directed at girls. (1) As babysitters girls were exhorted to behave responsibly. (2) Girls were informed that they should conform to gendered expectations (e.g., submission, maternity and domesticity) or else. (3) Girls were warned about the high cost of pursuing independence.
But, there is one problematic area in the comparison of the babysitter and the man upstairs story and Black Christmas: the killer may reference (perhaps inadvertently) Jess’ unborn baby, but he does not kill any children. He kills other girls whose independence might be problematic for society. Clare’s father specifically complains about the atmosphere in the sorority house when he talks to Mrs. Mac. All of the girls at Pi Kappa Sigma are moving into adulthood and independence in a post-sexual revolution world, not just Jess. Clare has a boyfriend unbeknownst to her family. She dies first (that we see). Mrs. Mac is supposed to be the “house mother” responsible for all of these girls but she is an alcoholic who hides bottles all over the house and enables all of the girls’ nontraditional behavior. She dies next. Barb also drinks and openly discusses sex with, well, anyone, but specifically her friend’s father and a police officer. She dies third. Finally, he tries, and fails, to kill Jess, who is sexually active, pregnant by her boyfriend, and plans to get an abortion.
I am sure I will return to horror films again, maybe even slasher films, though I am running out of them. The point is that slasher films from the start involved a direct link between immoral behavior (often premarital sex) and death. Early on, this is almost entirely aimed at the female characters. Later, the male characters are included as well, but the movies spend more time on the female deaths; Keisner (2008) tells that the postmodern horror film “spends more time following the females in the film, lingers on the female body and its anatomy [more] than on the male body, even when both are murdered in the same scene” (p. 423).
Things I did not get to do, regarding Black Christmas:
Figure out why Jess wears two different outfits of yellow and black throughout the film. Peter also wears a yellow and black blazer during his piano recital and subsequent destruction of the the piano, and Clare’s boyfriend also wears yellow and black at the hockey rink. I am not sure if this means anything.
Figure out if there is a good reason for this movie to be a Christmas movie. I mean, since I argued that Home Alone is not really a Christmas movie, it would be difficult to argue that Black Christmas is necessarily a Christmas movie. Silent Night, Deadly Night has a better claim to being a Christmas movie, for obvious reasons, while Black Christmas just happens to be set around the holiday... unless there is room for a discussion about the baby Jesus in relation to Jess’ and Peter’s baby. Given more days with this movie, I’m sure I’d get to something crazy like that.
Tomorrow, a real Christmas movie.
Works CitedBrunvand, J.H. (1992). New legends for old. In Nachbar, J.G. & Lause, K. (Eds.), Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 58-67.
Brunvand, J.H. (1999). Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends. New York, NY: Norton.
Brunvand, J.H. (1981). The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings. New York, NY: Norton.
Baby sitter and the man upstairs. (n.d.). Children and Youth in History. Retrieved 14 December 2014 from http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/327
Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Keisner, J. (2008). Do you want to watch? A study of the visual rhetoric of the postmodern horror film. Women’s Studies 37, 411-427.
By the way, The Groundhog Day Project has a Twitter and a Facebook page. Follow and like them respectively and help spread the word. And, if you want to support the Groundhog Day Project financially, you can do that too...