80s Slasher Films and the Female

Being a female myself, I’m regularly asked what the attraction to horror movies is and why I would ever want to subject myself to witnessing such cruelty against women. This question always dumbfounds me, because since when were women in horror films always the victim? Correct, there are many films that exploit women as purely a piece of meat to butcher in front of an audience, however, that’s not much different to how we’re treated in everyday life. Regardless, there are horror films that deliberately celebrate the female, and make it quite obvious that the supposed victim in their film, is actually the heroine, as although she is consciously stalked and terrorised by the killer, her ambition to escape, destroy and combat the monster is never compromised by being a woman. We can argue that the amount of blonde bimbos with tight arses, Playboy breasts and little more than a few thoughts on why the Kardashians are the greatest human beings, completely outweigh women that we can resonate with, however, this is a common misconception, which has evolved into some form of reason for women to protest horror films as misogynist and demeaning. I’ve always wanted to explore the idea that horror films can most certainly been seen as a feminist movement, an art work that supports women in every way possible, but until now I’ve always stumbled over the right words and not really known how to defend the films against counter attacks. A friend suggested that we partner up in this realm, and head into the unknown together to make an even more convincing argument as to why more females and males, recognise the pure strength and power that many women exhibit in horror films. Alas, we came to a stand still and neither of us made much movement on our articles. I decided to go ahead and finally finish this piece. Focusing on 80s slasher movies, and taking an in-depth look at how they portray their female protagonists in only the most positive light, showcasing that even though women are forced into the victim role within these films, they have an inner will that means they can overcome any demon thrown into their path and fight evil with wits, intelligence and courage. 

I first started watching horror movies as a very young and impressionable young girl, which meant I needed to see influential women combat monsters successfully and take on the world. If from that age, I had watched numerous women running face first into danger, and then being hacked into edible squares, my outlook and attitude may have been very different. Fortunately, my biggest influence was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which encompasses female power and dominance with every stake forced through a chest plate, and became a Bible for my pubescent years when needing to be strong and battle my inner demons and outer monsters was of high importance. However, there were films that I probably shouldn’t have watched from within my pink pyjamas, peering from behind a pillow as I sat both fascinated and terrified in between my parents, slowly becoming obsessed with this world where it wasn’t just humans that were the nastiest things to crawl the curbs of the night. One of my very first viewing experiences was A Nightmare On Elm Street, which could be deemed as potentially too sinister for a 12 year old to watch, but by that point there was no stopping my yearning and desire to witness these unspeakable acts on screen. In ANOES, as always the audience is presented with a female victim in Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and a malevolent force not to be reckoned with in the form of the iconic Freddie Krueger. Something I’ve always liked about the late Wes Craven, is his understanding to give the audience female characters that are forced into being the victim, without any consent or consideration, but happen to quickly show the demon they’re fighting that in fact, it’s the woman they’ve chosen that is the force not to be reckoned with. She is smart, cunning and brave in everything she does, therefore always one step ahead of the game, and viciously fighting for her life, because she knows it’s worth more than what someone else wants to make it.

frank zito in maniac 19080 with mannequin

Maniac is another film, which represents the female in almost both lights, victim and heroine, but ultimately, she is the hero – unknowingly defending women all around her from being butchered and scalped for the collection. We follow Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) as he stalks the night, to find beautiful women with exceptionally beautiful hair to be scalped and forever remembered in his cemetery of mannequins, encompassing the lives of these females, thought to be too stupid to have survived his attack. His motive for such barbarity comes from an unhealthy obsession with his mother, similar to Psycho, constantly striving to make her proud through his work and show her that he capable of having other women in his life. Seeing women mutilated for vanity and insanity doesn’t sound exactly liberating for the female watcher, however, this changes when he meets the woman of his dreams – she is smart, she is fierce and she isn’t going to be a victim. After a lifetime of comforting his own personal demons and delusions through guilt driven murder, he accepts a life of normality and monotony for this woman who has promised him the world. Although completely unconscious to the dark secrets that the man of her dreams hides, she is unknowingly becoming the heroine that saves young girls from the monster that plans to take their life from them. Maniac portrays how women in 80s slashers carry out a public service to other women around them by putting themselves in the firing line, whether with knowledge or without, consequently preventing the man driven by urges and lust from committing his misogynist crimes. Although the inevitable happens, it is not due to anything she does that eventually leads to her death – it is his own feelings that are evoked by women in general, and specifically her because she is strong and intelligent, just like his mother was. You may look at Maniac and see another section of females tortured and brutalised for the pleasure and discord of a young man with mummy issues, but if you look a little closer you’ll see that our protagonist is inebriated with weakness and fear of women – by purely existing they make him feel castrated, and therefore he has to eradicate them in order to try and become powerful, something that doesn’t happen even once he has torn them to pieces. 

laurie strode with knife halloween michael myers

This brings us to the final girl theorem. Monitor and Sapolsky studied the treatment of men and women in slasher films, and the amount of fear that they exhibit on screen and for what duration. They found that females were in terror for longer periods of time than their male counterparts, however, it was more than always the female that would be the sole survivor of the murderer at large. Interpretation is key when it comes to film and how a specific gender, race or religion is portrayed, and therefore there are many factors from the person studying the film that will play a part. Having the women in terror more so than men, does not show that they are weak and always frightened, I believe it shows a sense of intuition and understanding. In many horror films, the ballsy characters are the first to die, because they have no sense to realise that something awful is about to transpire. These women always have a right to be frightened, they have an underlying intuition that something is about to happen and they openly express that, which often saves their life. Out of all the males (and yes, other females), the single survivor of the attack is female. She has outwitted and overcome every damning obstacle put in her way to ensure her life is secured. Another theory comes from Clover, who suggests that through our female no longer being the damsel in distress, she is masculinated through a series of factors including gender neutral name, and always battling her attacker with the use of a weapon, which acts as phallic symbolism. This theory therefore presents the idea that no matter how much the female embodies strength and courage, she is always associated as male, leading back to the ideology that women are weak and men are strong. I disagree with Clover’s theorem; in a genre dominated by men, it’s a bold move to force the audience to have to identify with a completely female character, regardless of whether their name is androgynous or their weapon of choice is a chainsaw. If there is a male character out there that can battle Jason Vorhees with his bare hands, then I would like to see it. There are certain aspects of Clover’s theory that I do agree with however, including the notion that most of the final girls are pure and whole – they have not indulged in sex, drugs or alcohol in anyway, therefore, always suggesting that in order to be the female that survives the kill, you need to be a virginal, Mother Theresa type figure, which in the real world is far from the truth.

There is no right nor wrong when it comes to associating a positive female outlook with 80s slasher films, but it’s one with an ongoing debate. As a female myself, and with many women saturated with love for the horror genre, it’s obvious that regardless of certain films which do portray women as pieces of meat, purely there for fucking and slaughtering, the genre offers brave, powerful women, that always overcome the toughest situations. I won’t say that 80s slasher films are the feminist films of the world, because clearly they’re not, however, they do provide women with characters they can identify with, possibly not on all levels, and realise that whatever demon is hunting them, they have the inner strength to abolish that monster. As horror has, and will, progress over the years we’re presented with more and more iconic women designed to provide a positive role model for those who love the genre.

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