Blood Spattered Babes: What does loving gratuitous slasher movies really say about us?
When MTV teased the opening eight minutes of their "Scream" spinoff series late last month, I described the scene, which depicted the brutal, jugular-spurting murder of Bella Thorne's character, as "lazy, gratuitous and boring." I might have added "misogynistic" to the list of descriptors. It's a piece I probably wouldn't have written five years ago.
My freshman year of high school, I caught a Friday-night showing of "Halloween" and "Halloween II" back-to-back -- on basic cable, with all the sex and nudity cut out. Since this is America, what remained intact was the violence: stabbings, stranglings, impalings, deadly hot-tub scaldings, eyes gouged with hypodermic needles. I loved it all, innocently. I still do, but with less assurance. What is it, after all, that draws me to this macabre spectacle? More to the point: should I really feel good about enjoying it?
The slasher film, as a rule, is a celebration of violence. It is designed to titillate with images of half-naked teens and twentysomethings being brutalized in shocking ways. In the horror community, "kills" are a thing to be celebrated and ranked in order of gruesomeness. And as has been noted in numerous think pieces on the genre, slashers tend to have a puritanical, sexist streak: men and women (but especially women) are generally killed off if they are promiscuous or beautiful or take off too much of their clothing. With few exceptions, the Final Girl is virtuous and pretty-bordering-on-plain. Shockingly little has changed since the genre became a phenomenon in the early 1980s.
"Friday the 13th Part 2" (1981) (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)
I love horror films. I write about them often here on HitFix and previously wrote about them for Bloody-Disgusting.com. Up until a few years ago, I accepted the level of violence and misogyny in slashers and the so-called "torture porn" genre with an uncritical eye. When suggestions would be made of a link between real-life violence and movie violence, my reaction was knee-jerk: Hollywood was being scapegoated for a problem wholly unrelated to the product they put out.
But I don't believe that's true anymore. I don't think that a visual medium so regularly upheld on the one hand as a powerful, vital part of our culture, sometimes even a force for change -- be it TV, movies or video games -- can on the other be completely dismissed as a powerful force in the other direction. I can't accept that regular exposure to violence packaged as entertainment has zero adverse effect on the human brain.
There is a scientific basis for this. As noted in the New York Times in 2013, "there is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior," a conclusion buttressed by the meta-analysis of studies taking place as far back as the 1950s:
"...in 2005, [U.K. medical journal] The Lancet published a comprehensive review of the literature on media violence to date. The bottom line: The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children."
"Consensus" may admittedly be overstating things. There is still much debate on what, if any, negative effect media violence has on the human brain (with particular questions surrounding whether there is a direct correlation between consumption of violent media and violent crime), and the Lancet meta analysis found only "short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially in boys. The evidence becomes inconsistent when considering older children and teenagers, and long-term outcomes for all ages." And yet the authors' final conclusion -- that "a small but significant association is shown in the research, with an effect size that has a substantial effect on public health" -- cannot be ignored.
"The Prowler" (1981)
The negative societal impact of media violence is an issue that obviously extends far beyond the slasher genre. High body-count action films, TV crime procedurals that linger over gruesome images of dead bodies and blood-spattered video game franchises like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Doom" are all pieces of a much larger puzzle that includes, most pertinently (albeit outside the bounds of this article), our country's longstanding obsession with firearms and unconscionably lax gun control laws.
But my enduring fascination with and love of slasher movies represents the crux of a personal moral dilemma: namely, how do I square a deep-rooted adoration of the genre with my evolving attitudes on the subject of violence as entertainment?
It's not an easy question to answer. "Halloween" was my main entry into the genre and remains my favorite horror film of all time. I can't imagine I'll ever stop revisiting the autumnal, quietly creepy world John Carpenter created, despite its flashes of brutal (albeit largely blood-free) violence. The film exercises the kind of restraint that's more akin to Hitchcock than the genre of cheap, exploitative movies that it spawned. I simply do not hold titles like "Friday the 13th," "Prom Night," "The Prowler," "My Bloody Valentine" (either version) or "Halloween's" inferior, bloodier sequels in the same regard as I do "Halloween," Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" or even Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street." The sole aim of the former category is titillation, with each kill designed to top the last in terms of sheer creativity and/or gruesomeness. We are meant to cheer at the carnage. Very little if anything is done to humanize the hapless victims who are lined up for the slaughter like so many cattle.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003) (Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)
The science may be inconclusive, but I have seen the desensitizing effect of these films in my own life and mind. Grotesque images that once had me peering through my fingers are now consumed with dinner. Only the most extreme horror films have the power to break through my defenses. This level of narcoticization is often held up as a point of pride by the hardcore horror fan, but I'm not sure that hardly batting an eye at the gory, often highly realistic depiction of human suffering is something to be celebrated. In fact, I know it isn't. And it bears asking: when horror films cease to horrify, what then is the point of watching them?
Last May, Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday questioned what role the "sexist movie monoculture" could have played in the deadly mass shooting perpetrated by Elliott Rodger in Isla Vista, California. It was a fair question, particularly in context of the chillingly cinematic six-minute video clip the 22-year-old recorded prior to the attack, which saw his "face bathed in magic-hour key light":
"Indeed, as important as it is to understand Rodger’s actions within the context of the mental illness he clearly suffered, it’s just as clear that his delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in," Hornaday wrote. "With his florid rhetoric of self-pity, aggression and awkwardly forced 'evil laugh,' Rodger resembled a noxious cross between Christian Bale’s slick sociopath in 'American Psycho,' the thwarted womanizer in James Toback’s 'The Pick-Up Artist' and every Bond villain in the canon."
It's not unreasonable to imagine that violent media could have a potentially harmful effect on the vulnerable mind of a budding sociopath, and yet the public response to Hornaday's piece largely revolved around a critical tweet by Seth Rogen, whose blockbuster comedy "Neighbors" was included as an example of the type of film that might lead a man like Rodgers to feel "unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of 'sex and fun and pleasure'":
.@AnnHornaday how dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 26, 2014
You can hardly blame Rogen for being offended (even if he did do Hornaday's piece a grave disservice by greatly oversimplifying her argument), and yet his tweet is representative of the kind of dismissive, knee-jerk response that ensues whenever I dare to venture my own evolving feelings on the relationship between media violence and real-life violence and aggression in conversation.
"Halloween: Resurrection" (2002) (Photo Credit: Miramax Films)
In fairness, to be brought up in a culture that's steeped in violence, as ours is, practically conditions us to respond defensively. But it tends to obscure real questions that merit being asked. If the consumption of violent media leads to aggression, even in a small percentage of individuals, don't we owe it to ourselves and future generations to be more responsible creators and consumers, or at least to think more critically about the diet of carnage we're fed on a regular basis? To categorically pooh-pooh decades of positive correlations between violence on screen and aggressive behaviors isn't an argument; it's ignorance of real science, willful or not.
The individualistic bent of our culture can serve as a barrier here. In a nutshell: if I can consume a steady diet of violent media without becoming a serial killer or a mass shooter, there is therefore no correlation between screen violence and real-life violence. Which of course ignores the fact that we live in a society made up of all varieties of people, some of whom are simply more vulnerable and impressionable to violent imagery than the average individual. How can we categorically ignore the effect violent media may have on those individuals? How can we ignore the multiple studies that have shown a short-term increase in aggression on large groups, particularly young boys?
This is not a matter of blaming anyone, and I'm in no way suggesting that we categorically bar all depictions of violence in movies and on television. In our best films, violence can serve a thematic purpose or be used to illuminate the suffering of an "invisible" class of people. Nor am I suggesting that we bar gratuitous depictions of violence (i.e. violence that serves no thematic purpose). That's censorship. Lastly, I don't believe that filmmakers involved in creating exploitative genre films should be held responsible for indirectly influencing an unbalanced individual to commit a violent crime. I'm simply suggesting that to think more critically about the media we produce and consume -- to consider even for a moment the "public health" component (to use a term from the Lancet meta analysis) of mediums that have such powerfully persuasive potential -- is something that would behoove all of us.
I'm a firm believer that part of being a good fan of something is to continue questioning our obsessions, to not accept every facet of them uncritically. As a longtime horror fan, and specifically a longtime fan of slasher films, I've reached a place where I'm beginning to tease out which parts of the genre I want to champion and support. This past year has brought two excellent, adult horror films in Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" and David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows," movies perhaps most exceptional for bringing a humanistic bent to a genre that too often lacks it. They are films about real people, with monsters that represent real human dilemmas. As my attitude with respect to the genre has changed, so has my embrace of horror films with real meat on their bones -- and not just of the nubile variety.
Ultimately, coming to terms with the critical disconnect between my visceral enjoyment of violent horror films and my moral qualms about them isn't easy, and I will inevitably watch more exploitative slasher movies, either in the course of my job or on my own free time. I'm still trying to find the line. But a part of the imperfect process of grappling with this dilemma will be accepting that some things I garner enjoyment from are not, at the end of the day, things that are worthy of my support. I would hope that fans of every genre would take the same step back, and ask themselves some of the same questions.