Is there a more-maligned genre than horror? When master of horror fiction Stephen King won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a Yale professor complained,
He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.
Only six horror films have ever been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar [The Exorcist (1974), JAWS (1976), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sixth Sense (2000), Black Swan (2011) and Get Out (2017)]; of those, only The Silence of the Lamb has ever won.
But I’m a true believer, one of those horror fans who knows there’s more than just blood and guts. Something powerful lurks beneath the surface.
The original Ghostbusters hooked me on horror. I saw it when I was five, and I remember hiding behind my dad as Dana and Louis were transformed into Hellhounds. I was terrified, but I had to keep peeking over his back to see if Zuul and the Keymaster were going to summon Gozer.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter past Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. From then on, I caught glimpses of Dracula, the Wolfman and the Bride of Frankenstein on Saturday afternoon during summer weeks I was lucky enough to stay with my grandmother who had cable. I saved my allowance to buy every Goosebumps book the very day it was released, and I spent the next couple of days devouring it, knowing the twist at the end would leave me peeking out from under the covers, sure every shadow was a monster’s hand.
My poor mother was convinced I was a budding serial murderer.
Scott Poole, my favorite monster whisperer, observes that monsters are borderland creatures – both living and dead, both human and animal. As liminal creatures, monsters engender both empathy and anxiety in us. We desperately want to look away, but we need to keep staring. And in this is a gift: monsters haunt the edges of our world. They live in the cracks in the stories we tell ourselves to get by. If we’re willing to be brave, to face them, to listen to them, we’ll hear truth amid the growls, howls shrieks and screams.
The word monster comes to us from the Latin monstrum, which means ‘warning’ or ‘omen’. We tell monster stories because we’re really trying to tell ourselves something. We’re warning ourselves to listen to the things that go bump in the night. They have something to teach us.
Is there a more-maligned horror sub-genre than the slasher? (Yes, probably found-footage. But slashers are a generation older. They’re the grumpy Gen-Xer who’s bitter Millennials get credit for killing everything.) Though it was conceived in the 60s and born in the 70s (more on that in a bit), the slasher is a child of the 1980s. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Sleepaway Camp‘s Peter and the Candyman led a parade of lesser monsters through countless sequels. By the mid-90s, slashers had become the butt of every joke, such that slasher master Wes Craven managed to parody himself (and the whole genre) in 1996 with Scream.
Slasher parodies like A Cabin in the Woods and Final Girls, along with Scream (and its lesser sequels), skewer tropes that – like the killers they lovingly mocked – never quit shambling along, no matter how tired they got. Scream elaborated the rules of slashers, including “Never say, ‘I’ll be right back,'” but also “Don’t have sex or do drugs.” Craven was doubtless drawing not only on his own long experience of making horror films, but on Carol J. Clover’s landmark 1987 essay, “Her Body, Himself” which analyzed the role slashers play in the larger cultural conversation from which they arose.
Clover coined the term “Final Girl”, which references the girls like Halloween‘s Laurie Strode. Clover’s Final Girl is an encapsulation of the strange gender politics of the slasher. The Final Girl is, appropriately enough, the last girl to survive. She is Laurie, Jess Bradford (Black Christmas), Ginny Field (Friday the 13th), Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Sydney Prescott (Scream). Even sci-fi horror like Alien (Ellen Ripley) and The Terminator (Sarah Connor) lean heavily on the Final Girl.
The Final Girl always goes up against a killer who is gender-fluid or sexually arrested in some way. Michael Myers has been in an asylum, and refused to speak, since he was six years old. Jason Voorhees was drowned as a child. Freddy Krueger is a pedophile. The xenomorph is a monstrous form of sexual assault. Angela (Sleepaway Camp) is actually Peter, who was raised as a girl after his sister died. Maybe because they’re compensating, the killers use strikingly phallic weapons – Michael has a kitchen knife, Jason uses a machete, Russ Thorn (Slumber Party Massacre) uses a power drill, and Freddy has his finger knives.
Slashers are more than just serial killers or mass murderers. Because they live between worlds, they become monsters. They are both boy and man, physically matured but emotionally and/or sexually immature. They are borderland creatures. It’s no accident that their victims are almost uniformly “bad kids” – teenagers using drugs, having sex or both. These teens have crossed the boundary (of proper behavior) and so transgressed into the realm of the monster.
The Final Girl is virginal, usually in stark contrast to her slain friends. But to defeat the monster, the Final Girl must go through a transformation where she too becomes gender-fluid. It begins with her name (which is often androgynous – Laurie, Jess, Courtney, Ripley, Sidney). But in addition to being asexual, the Final Girl takes up a phallic weapon of her own to defeat the killer. Laurie uses an unwound wire coat hanger to poke Michael in the eye. Alice decapitates Jason with a machete. In order to survive the monster that has emerged from the borderlands to kill her and her friends, the Final Girl must enter the borderlands, become liminal herself. Only then can she slay this creature.
By the end of the film, the Slasher and his Final Girl are both male and female, both predator and prey. The monster draws his victim into the borderlands where he lives, and is thereby undone. But why?
The slasher gestated in the 1970s, which was a banner decade for horror. Halloween was preceded by proto-slashers like Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In addition, the 70s gave us Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Amityville Horror (1979), to name just a few. Much of the horror of the 1970s, particularly the stuff that resonated at the box office, was a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. With the introduction of “the Pill” in 1961, women gained, for the first time in human history, autonomy over their sexuality.
Much of the function of marriage in most human cultures has been to regulate female sexuality, to ensure that children born into a culture are protected and cared for. As far as we can tell, marriage originated in Mesopotamia as a way to control succession among nobility. While marriage has looked different in cultures all over the world and throughout time, regulating the reproductivity of women has nearly always been a significant function of marriage.
(“But what about Love!?” we exclaim in disbelief. Apologies to Mr. Sinatra, but love and marriage have gone together in the human imagination for significantly less time than have horses and their carriages. Marriage for love has roots in England’s Victorian era, but didn’t really come into vogue in the US until the last century. A couple of great reads on the history and meaning of marriage and The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston and Marriage Confidential by Pamela Haag. And on a personal note, I think this is a place the church has really fallen down. We seem incapable of imagining a better reason to marry than “because that’s what people always did” with some Bible verses slapped on the side of that tired old packaging. What vision of marriage would actually liberate both men and women? We need to ask better questions.)
By the time we get to modern America, the marriage system in places was the nuclear family. The nuclear family as a concept is only a few hundred years old. A home consisting only of two parents and their children wasn’t financially viable until the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. The term itself only dates back to the middle of the 20th century, specifically after World War II.
The nuclear family was inexorably bound up in gender politics. During WWII, to support the war effort, women flooded into factories, taking jobs vacated by their war-bound fathers and husbands. When the war was over, the men returned to find their positions occupied… by women who were none to keen to return home.
The nuclear family was deployed in part as a propaganda tool. With the post-war rise of the American Middle Class, keeping up with the Joneses meant the Mrs. stayed at home. The rhetoric was powerful – the bomb that ended the war was humankind’s greatest achievement. Nuclear power would fuel the atomic age, an age of marvels. And what sort of family would live in this nuclear age?
Why a nuclear family, of course. Like the atom, it’s the smallest, indivisible unit: two parents and their children. The nuclear family arose as a system by which to regulate Rosie the Riveter and all her newly independent girlfriends.
But the atomic age was predicated on the discovery that the atom is not, in fact, indivisible. And like the atom, if you split the nuclear family, it meant destruction of a social order in which men held positions of power (political and economic) while women were relegated to supporting roles.
Enter the sexual revolution. World War II had demonstrated women were as capable as men in the workforce. Despite efforts to convince women they would be happiest in the home, women weren’t buying it. And when the Pill hit the market, women enjoyed, for the first time in human history, the same level of social freedom as men. Women could earn their own income and pursue whatever social goals they wanted – including sex with whomever they pleased. No wonder feminist scholar Irena Dunn observed wryly, in a quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” (1970)
Men found this brave new world terrifying – is there anything scarier than not being needed? It wasn’t just men, of course. Anyone who was relatively comfortable with and in the nuclear family system found the sexual revolution threatening. Much in the same way Whites in the South opposed Emancipation whether they’d owned slaves or not, a lot of men and women found the idea of a liberated woman threatening in the 1960s and 70s (to say nothing of the anxieties created by the Civil Rights Movement and Cold War).
Many felt the American ideal of nuclear family breaking down. We were entering a borderland of gender politics. And the borderlands are where the monsters live.
Rosemary’s Baby is about a young woman who feels constrained by her domestic life, is raped by the devil (with her husband’s consent) and ends up birthing the Antichrist.
The Exorcist features a single mother raising a young girl who is possessed by a male spirit (Captain Howdy/Pazuzu). She can only be saved when Fathers enter her home and exorcise the demon.
Black Christmas is set in a house that once belonged to a family but is now a sorority house. The boy who grew up in that house has returned to torment and murder the college girls living not in a home with a man, but together, away from the male gaze.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre features a family whose mother is notably absent. The twisted men kidnap a young woman (after murdering all her friends), and force her to join the family, bringing that missing female presence. She is at once mother, daughter and wife for this twisted family.
The Amityville Horror tells the (true?) story of a nuclear family who moves into a house with a dark history. The house causes the breakdown of the family, possessing one who kills the others.
Are you picking up on a theme? Much of the best horror that emerged from the anxiety of the 60s and 70s was a reaction to the perceived breakdown of the nuclear family. Which is exactly when Michael Myers strolls onto the scene, knife in hand, ready to punish all those sexually liberated young women.
Halloween, released in 1978, was the first true slasher. There’s some debate, of course. Clover points back to Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, which features a sexually disturbed, gender-bending man who kills women (uh… spoilers for Psycho!). And four years before Halloween scared us silly, both Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured many of the elements and themes that became slasher essentials. But it was when John Carpenter introduced us to Michael Myers stalking through Haddonfield, IL with his kitchen knife that the slasher truly came into its own.
Into the borderland of anxiety over gender politics, feminism, reproductive rights and what counts as family, walks a monster that embodies all that anxiety. He is both boy and man. He punishes the sexually liberated. He is defeated by that paragon of patriarchal virtue, the virgin.
Michael Myers is a monster, but he is also a hero of types to those who adhere to traditional sexual mores. He punishes those who don’t follow the old ways. And while we might not approve of his methods, the popularity of his films suggests that we might not altogether disapprove of his intentions. (A Cabin in the Woods exploits this uncomfortable truth to great effect, suggesting that horror films offer both vicarious thrills and atonement as these victims are sacrificed for our sins.)
Everything about Halloween is ambivalent, from the man-boy Michael Myers to Laurie Strode’s gender-bending Final Girl to the ending, where Michael is dead, then very much alive. This tension is the heart of horror. Michael is at once a critique of patriarchal gender assumptions and their embodiment. He is evil, but the so are the ones he kills (indeed, as Clover intimates, it is their “sin” that enables Michael to slay them. Were they virtuous like the Final Girl, they would be safe.)
The Slasher is, at the end of the day, a thoroughly male film. Halloween makes male gaze literal, showing Michael’s first kill through his eyes. (And in another weird layer of hyper-masculinity, the original Michael Myers mask was a James T. Kirk mask painted white.) As Clover observes,
Even in films in which males and females are killed in roughly even numbers, the lingering images are inevitably female. The death of a male is always swift; even if the victim grasps what is happening to him, he has no time to react or register terror… The murders of women are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail and at greater length.
It’s no accident that the films end shortly after the Slasher is killed. Once he exits the story, the story is effectively over. Because it’s a male story.
But what about that Final Girl? What of the trauma she’s witnessed? What of the trauma inflicted on her? Because she, too, has crossed into the borderland. She, too, has become gender-fluid. She, too, in a very real way, has become a monster.
What sort of slasher film can survive the gender politics of 2018? This is, after all, the age of #metoo, when “consent” has finally become a buzzword, when women are loudly insisting men can’t just grab them by the, well… you know what (we have standards on this blog).
Michael Myers feels different today. The original Halloween debuted in a world mercifully free of school shootings (though #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter insist we acknowledge that the 70s were not free of young white men committing violence against women and persons of color). As Dave scoffs early in the film, Michael only killed five people on that night forty years ago. Five victims seems like child’s play in the age of mass shootings. What horror does Michael hold for today’s teens?
Have you ever really liked a girl and couldn’t have her?
The question is posed to a lurking Michael Myers by Oscar, the “best friend” who hasn’t learned the meaning of consent. After discovering that Allyson has broken things off with his friend Cameron, Oscar leads Allyson on a “short cut” that turns out to be a thinly veiled excuse to kiss her. When she rebuffs him, he blames both alcohol and the way girls were dressed at the Halloween party they’d left. Allyson leaves in a huff, and Oscar bares his soul to Michael shortly before his inevitable – and surprisingly brutal murder.
The scene confirms what we’ve been sensing throughout the film: this is not your grandma’s slasher movie.
The grandma in question is, of course, Laurie Strode, who became a doomsday prepper in the wake of Michael’s attack forty years earlier. (If you haven’t heard, this new Halloween is a direct sequel to the original, ignoring the other seven films and two remakes in the admittedly convoluted franchise.) In nearly every way imaginable, Halloween is an inversion of the slasher film. It’s a Slasher film for the #metoo movement, one that centers Laurie, not Michael, and one that insists we #believewomen.
Director David Gordon Green brings the gender-bending to the forefront, from the boy who would rather dance than hunt in the woods (“This is who I am!” he insisted.) Before she dumps him, Allyson attends the Halloween dance with Cameron. Their couple’s costume is Bonnie and Clyde with a twist: Cameron is Bonnie and Allyson is Clyde. Green wants us to know that this film begins in the borderlands. Liminal is the new normal. In 2018, boys don’t own girls, and girls don’t owe boys anything, as Allyson insists when she shoves away Oscar’s unwanted kiss. What do monsters mean when the whole world is a borderland?
The new Halloween is a film about surviving the trauma of powerful men. Michael’s assault forever altered Laurie’s life (I saw in Laurie the story of Pat Baranowski, the former assistant of Bill Hybels whose brave confession finally toppled the Willow Creek empire, the woman whose life Hybels’ abuses devastated).
Strode is both an object of fear and pity – Poole’s image of a monster. Her daughter fears her (and so did the state, enough to remove a young Karen from Laurie’s custody). But everyone wants to hear Laurie’s story. The podcasters and Dr. Sartain (whom I will only refer to as “New Loomis”) see Laurie as a victim, and believe she can help them understand Michael’s obsession with her.
This is their true goal: to understand the monster, to gain insight into what drives him to obsess over Laurie. Again and again, they beg Michael to speak, sure a single utterance will unlock secrets, shed light on his darkness. Laurie warns them repeatedly that there’s nothing to understand, a warning that goes unheeded.
Halloween is Laurie Strode’s film. In the original film, Michael haunted every scene, appearing and disappearing at will. Now Laurie is the one appearing outside Allyson’s school, the one whose body disappears from the lawn. The final sequence becomes a reverse slasher, with Michael creeping uncertainly through the house while we wait, anxious for Laurie to attack from the shadows.
This sequence clarifies what the new Halloween is doing with the slasher formula. The trauma that transformed Laurie into a Final Girl left her forever altered. She never returned from that borderland; Laurie is still a monster. She remains able to slay the monster because she too is a monster. She has made her home in the borderland, and it is both cage and trap, because she has always been both prey and predator. Trauma cannot be undone; only confronted. Laurie Strode is forever the Final Girl.
It matters that Michael Myers is now a faceless old (white) man. Forty years have passed, but the violence done by white men hasn’t lessened; it’s only been dragged into the light. Though we get a brief glimpse of Michael’s face in the original film, in the new film, we never see more than the back of his head – this despite the fact that he’s mask-less for the first act. In this way, Michael is a stand in for every man who benefits from patriarchy. He is the Brock Turners and Ryan Lochtes excused from justice so they can grow up to become Brett Kavanaughs and Louis CKs. Michael Myers isn’t a lone psycho with a knife. He is the patriarchy, the system of male entitlement that rests on objectifying women, treating them as objects, prizes and victims, the system that will defend this entitlement with violence.
The monstrous Final Girl hunts down the patriarchy and springs her trap. She locks him in the basement and burns down the whole thing. There’s a new world outside, one that doesn’t require Allyson to become a Final Girl because it’s a brave new world free of the constructs that supported patriarchy. But then again, Michael disappears from the flames. The monster is an omen: a reminder that the patriarchy won’t die without a fight, and we may be haunted by its ghost for a while yet.