What is it about horror movies that draw audiences in to see them? There is the thrill of being scared, sure, but is that really as far as it goes? I think not.
You see, more than any other genre, horror films are a product of their generation and they typically speak to or highlight the societal issues that are going on around the time that a given horror film is made. In many ways, horror films help us understand or comment on important issues such as race (Get Out), sexuality (It Follows), and mental/physical/emotional issues (The Babadook). Horror is a genre with many faces but for this particular article, I will touch on what I believe to be the best horror sub-genres, the slasher film.
I can understand why some people may dislike slasher films. In many ways they are a lot closer to reality than a monster or demonic horror movie. Many slasher films involve real humans being evil and simply butcher people for their own satisfaction. These things happen in real life which makes the whole experience even more terrifying. If we can look past the gore and violence that often comes with these films, however, we can then see how smart these movies can be. Let’s take a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This is often referred to as the first slasher, though the argument could be made that the movie Peeping Tom deserves that recognition. Psycho represents voyeurism and how our repressed sexual desires can manifest themselves in murderous ways. Unlike most of the slashers that would follow in its path, Psycho is pretty tame when it comes to violence. You only really see blood once, in the now-iconic shower scene, and it is because of this scene that Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in black-and-white. What is truly horrifying here is the way in which Norman Bates spies on Marion as she undresses herself. Before that we thought him to be a quiet but friendly guy who was burdened with caring for the family-owned motel. When we realize that this seemingly average man is actually not what he seems, that’s when things really get scary. This is the type of person we all encounter on a daily basis and the thought that we never really know who people are is what makes Psycho so special. When we find out what happens when Norman’s sexual urges surface that the film really becomes a horror movie.
Skip forward 18 years. The film’s setting is a small town by the name of Haddonfield, Illinois. The killer is a cold-blooded, seemingly immortal force of nature by the name of Michael Myers. The movie? Halloween. Even people who haven’t seen any of these movies know who Michael Myers is, that’s how iconic this movie is. But why is this movie such a landmark in horror cinema? For one, John Carpenter’s film gave us the “final girl” trope that would be used endlessly after Halloween’s release. However, this idea was new at the time and it let audiences know that women could be their own heroes. Like most horror films, sex plays a huge part in this movie. Here, it is those who are sexually active who are most likely to die and it is only someone pure and innocent like Laurie that is able to fight back and defeat the villain. Carpenter scares us by making Michael a lurking presence who never speaks, he simply stalks and awaits his next victim. Mixed with Carpenters incredibly chilling score, it makes for a terrifying and thrilling ride.
Now, another 18 years go by and the horror genre, and slashers in particular, has been run to the ground. By this point, in 1996, horror classics such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street had had an extensive line of sequels that got seemingly worse with each addition to their respective franchises (no really there is a Friday the 13th sequel film called Jason Takes Manhattan, I’m not joking.) It seemed as if nobody cared about slashers anymore. And then Wes Craven came along and with one movie redefined and revitalized the horror genre. Scream was a movie so aware of itself that it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It paid homage to those that came before it but did so in a way that added to the story. It deconstructed the genre and explained to its audience the “rules” one must obey when in a horror movie. Its characters knew these tropes so it made them smarter than your typical horror movie victims, oftentimes doing the opposite of what you would expect them to. It is a film that provides laughs almost as much as it provides scares. It is grounded in reality and has a villain that can very easily be hurt and defended against. Scream is insane in all the right ways and keeps you guessing right up to the end reveal. So, in the words of Ghostface, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
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