Freuday the 13th: Sex and the Slasher
By Desmond Reddick
23 April 2007 — Even as a very young boy I knew slasher films were a special breed. Pacing the horror aisle of the local video store, looking at VHS cassette covers fraught with amazement, I knew there were films on that rack I was not supposed to see. The stylized painted covers depicting blood and promising violence always enticed me to turn them over. If I was lucky, the backs of the boxes would show terrifying stills, whetting my young appetite for gore. Of course, reading the copy was the final nail in the coffin. It was often the copy that would lead to a rental. Being a curious young man, I would see patterns in phrases. Sentences that started off with "A sorority house is terrorized..." or "When camp counselors abandon the children in their charge..." were promising. From a very young age, I have always known that the slasher film has an intimate tie with sex.
The connection between sex and the slasher film runs deep. One only has to look at the central tenets of the subgenre in order to make those connections explicit. I will be exploring the connection with a short look at its history, an examination of the aggressor, the weapons, the victims and the final girl.
Since the subgenre's beginnings there have always been sexual overtones. In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, what many consider to be the first and definitive slasher film, a criminal woman is stabbed repeatedly in the shower by a maniac dressed as his dead, overbearing mother. From there, you can follow the trail from Peeping Tom to Black Christmas to Halloween and then on to every other slasher film made since the 1970s. Because of these films, a crazed — sometimes masked, always knife-carrying — lunatic hunting down nubile young coeds is not only a good idea for a film, it's a convention.
The aggressor in every example I can think of is portrayed with at least some semblance of sexual deviance. Whether they wear their mother's dress or watch their prey through the woods, there is always some form of sexual desire applied to them. He is the one lurking outside your window, hiding in your closet while you undress, dragging his leather-gloved finger across your cheek while you sleep. Occasionally, he is "outside" in the way that all he wants is acceptance of a certain female. Of course he doesn't have the social skills to simply ask her out for a drink. Often, he is there to impose morality — like a misguided vigilante. Those who get high or have sex find themselves on the receiving end of some hedge clippers. So, why is it that the aggressor has this preoccupation with sex? There are several explanations that all seem to make sense: overbearing mothers, witnessing one's sister having sex, delusions of love and acceptance, outright sexual deviance, etc. Any number of slasher films can give an explanation, but it is not necessary to do so. It is not the reason for the deviance that is the point; it's the delivery of the archetypal male dominator. Of course, this is all based on the fact that the aggressor is a man. In some cases, a woman is the slasher. But Friday the 13th is as much a revenge drama as it is a slasher — which is the case with many slasher films. And Mrs. Voorhees' motivations are in line with those of male killers. Although I won't transgress the spoiler line in this column, Sleepaway Camp and its subpar sequels is another exception to the rule. Despite these exceptions, the traditional aggressor is an archetype of the classic dominant male villain.
What male aggressor role is complete without phallic imagery? Well, Ms. Steinem, I'll tell you. For a subgenre entitled "slasher," most people in these films are actually impaled rather than slashed. I don't think I have to explain the blatant sexual overtones of this image. There is no debating the masculinity of this method of murder; it is the instrument of this murder which is the most interesting. Remember the last film you saw where the aggressor hunted his victims with a Swiss Army knife? Neither do I. In almost every case the weapon is a large knife or elongated object; machetes, axes, chef's knives, sickles, pitchforks, shovels and the aforementioned garden shears have all been popular choices. At the risk of sounding too feminist, these weapons are nothing more than metaphorical representations of the sexual organs used to run through teenagers with loose morals.
These teenagers very much represent the stereotypical kids found in other films of the same period, such as Porkys: they drink, smoke, take drugs, skinny-dip and have premarital sex. Clearly, their attention is diverted. The way teenagers are portrayed makes me wonder if the subgenre that has its roots firmly planted in the 60s was resurrected in the 1980s to satire the conservative atmosphere provided by Ronald Reagan and his ilk. Twenty years later, one has to wonder if the latest slew of raunchy teenage horror films is another response to conservative attitudes.
Of course, it isn't every teenager who ends up on the receiving end of the killer's pointy phallic symbol. The final girl, a horror cinema archetype, is the most commonly used character in the genre. Often she is emotionally damaged and is always fending off her boyfriend's sexual advances. He wouldn't be saying, "C'mon baby, we've been steady for two months," if he knew her frigid nature might save him from a harpoon being jabbed through his throat! Her guarded virginity and reluctance to drink or do drugs is her purity, and only the pure can escape death in a slasher film. In fact, many films show the final girl snapping and killing the aggressor. Here, she becomes the righteous avenger and shows everyone that she can come out of this horrendous experience stronger — because of her purity and restraint.
Sex in a slasher film is not only for the enjoyment of prepubescent boys; it's a Freudian / feminist metaphor twisted into a morality tale. It is either a subversive attempt to convince the audience of the virtues of purity, or a subversive satire of the conservative culture that pushes things like Growing Pains and Seventh Heaven on the masses. I hope I haven't ruined the subgenre for you. But if you think I have... there's always boobies.