Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Great Slasher Research Project of '10: ANTSS needs your help.

In The Onion A.V. Club's "Gateway to Geekery" series, there's an entry on gateways into the slasher horror subgenre. I don't bring up this article to defend its choice of the film to start with - writer Zack Handlen chooses the ironic, post-golden age Scream as the threshold flick - but to point out his definition of what a slasher film is. From the article:

Plus, just what the hell is a slasher? Even seasoned horror junkies have a hard time agreeing on a definition. Much as “torture porn” resists easy classification (although it seems to be, for whoever’s using the term, “violent movies I don’t like”), a slasher film can only be defined by general terms and personal taste. For the purposes of this article, supernatural killers are out, which means no Nightmare On Elm Street. (Also no Leprechaun, Child’s Play, or Friday The 13th movies from part 6 on.) There’s a killer, or a pair of killers, and they’re bumping off people, until a lone survivor (a.k.a., the Final Girl, a virginal young woman who’s probably a bit smarter than her friends) stumbles across the bodies the killer has carefully planted for her to find; a cat-and-mouse game ensues, the Final Girl turns the tables on the killer, and then there’s one final scare before the end credits.

Definitions are always a sticking point - I think most slasher fans count Freddy's films in their canon - but the problem with this particular formula is that not even Handlen follows it. For example, there's no "Final Girl" in Sleepaway Camp, a film he cites as an example of the genre. Nor is Sidney the lone survivor of the killers' murderous spree in Scream.

This isn't to pick on Handlen's definition, but to point to something that's been nagging me lately: I'm not certain that there is a "slasher" formula. From high-minded criticism (see Women and Chainsaw's, the book that spawned the "final girl" trope) to genre in-jokes (see Scream), there's an long-running assumption that there is a widely recognized, essential "formula" of genre conventions inherent to the slasher film. Some of the elements of this alleged formula can be found in Handlen's fomulation: the final girl, the lone killer, the last jump scare, etc. Others get suggested from time to time: nudity; a punitive attitude towards sin; the presence of a signature weapon; a predictable victim-order that requires minorities and sybarites go before the good, white kids; useless adults and authority figures; and so on.

The problem is, when I start talking cases, most of the films I'd consider slashers omit most of the elements people would put on their list. I'm coming to the conclusion that the slasher "formula" is mostly a critical crutch, a convenient catch-all that lumps together the horror films of a certain era, that has become a fan shibboleth.

But instead of just speculating, I want to put this idea to the test. And that's where you come in.

I need some research assistants for what I'm calling The Great Slasher Research Project of '10. This project will have two parts: First we cook up a working definition of a slasher flick, then we watch a bunch of movies to see if the definition holds. We're going to start that first step today.

Part 1: Create a Definition

When I wrote about the characteristics typical of torture porn flicks, I was fairly called to task for defining the genre in a tautological way: to prove torture porn flicks exhibited certain characteristics, I defined films with those characteristics as torture porn. While that certainly makes arguing one's case easier, it's acting in bad faith as a critic. To avoid this, we're going to crowd-source our definition of the slasher flick. Here's how it will work: from now until the 20th, leave a comment on this post that details elements you believe define the slasher subgenre. To keep things simple, use a standard, list like format. Here's a non-slasher example:

I think the elements common to all chocolate chip cookie are:
1. chocolate chips
2. cookie

That's all you've got to do. Don't worry about other people's responses - in fact, don't even look at the other responses before creating your own - just write out the elements that come to mind when you think "slasher." On the 20th, I'll compile the answers, find a subset of broadly agreed upon elements, eliminate outliers, and we'll have a definition reflects the consensus rather than an individual's point of view.

We'll take that definition and use it to complete step 2.

But that's later! Right now, I want to hear from you. Leave a comment. Tell friends to leave comments. The more data, the better. Comment like the wind, my friend!


Sean T. Collins said...

I'm probably the last person to be participating in this since my slasher-film experience is comparatively minimal, but what the hey, I'll bite:

I think the elements common to all slasher movies are:

1. A killer
2. Killing a succession of people
3. With a bladed weapon
4. After stalking/chasing most of them

CRwM said...

Thanks for kicking things off Sean. This is just the sort of thing I'm looking for.

Gene Phillips said...

The one radical I associate most with slashers is a focus on "extreme bodily trauma." This could extend to anything from being chopped up to being caught in a sleeping-bag when Jason grabs you and slams you against the nearest tree.

Bladed weapons do seem to the weapons of choice, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are some strangler-slashers out there. Strange that an earlier generation, both in reality and fantasy, seemed to reflect more on strangling victims than slashing them.

But even earlier films with serial killers don't focus on extreme trauma to the extent of the early slashers, and I'm not even sure the mainstream horror films did either.

Sean T. Collins said...

Glad I could help, CRwM!

Gene, I thought about putting a criterion in there for focusing on the actual inflicting of wounds, but that's a point where my lack of thoroughgoing experience with the subgenre stymied me. I dunno how big a part of slashers that is, really.

One thing I like about my list is that you could see how certain movies qualify as proto-slashers but not full-on slashers. For example, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows only on person actually getting chainsaw-massacred; only two people die in Psycho, one of whom was mostly from the fall down the stairs; there's no stalkery/chase element to Peeping Tom, if I recall correctly (ironically enough!); I'm pretty sure Deep Red has more killings without bladed weapons than without; and so on. I think those movies are all important forerunners for the subgenre but aren't of the subgenre itself.

Unknown said...

There's a great book called "The Changing Vampire of Film and Television" that uses a familiar horror trope to look at the fact that genre is always in flux. It tends to operate in cycles and therefore a definition that works for one cycle (say, the early 1980s slasher boom) might not work for another (the late 1990s self-aware slasher revival).

The change in genres was explained using a genetic model. Mutations that are beneficial to the growth and sustainability of the genre move on to the next cycle. All others are culled. Success here means a combination of fiscal ("the kids like killers in masks! Let's give 'em more!") and social factors ("Man, I loved what that guy did there. As I am making my own slasher movie, I wonder how I can top/expand on it?")

Genre is tautological by nature. We create it to define and organize an existing set of films and then use it as a means of creating more of those films. Often our awareness of the genre then creates changes, like making the supposed Final Girl of Sleepaway Camp the killer or the multiplicity of survivors in the Scream series.

Sorry, I've been working on a book about the malleability of genre definitions, specifically with horror, for the past two years. There's a lot of this stuff in my brain.

Screamin' Dave said...

I think the elements common to all slasher movies are:

1) A person (the "slasher") commits multiple murders.
There's no hard number, but expect at least three victims, and less than twenty.

2) The slasher kills in person.
No traps or remote controls.

3) The slasher kills using hand-to-hand combat.
They use melee weapons (knives, chainsaws, fists) or hand-held projectile weapons (guns, bows, spears), but never heavy weapons (machine guns, tanks), area-of-effect weapons (bombs, missiles, fire) or toxins (poison, radiation).

4) The slasher kills methodically.
Their murders, while usually not planned, are committed in an orderly fashion.

5) The slasher kills from a pre-selected population.
Their victim pool may be small (teenagers on a camping trip) or large (residents of a particular town) but is never completely random. They are not spree killers, traveling where the wind blows and selecting victims via pure chance.

6) A slasher kills over time.
While multiple murders may occur in a short time period, there must be more committed at a later time or second location.

7) A slasher hunts.
Their victims are never imprisoned or completely confined.

Shon Richards said...

Not reading any of the comments,

A slasher film has

1. A killer
2. A group of victims.
3. 'And then there was none' process of elimination. What I mean is a group of people dying simultaneously is no good. It has to be one by one.

Funny, that is all I can think of. I can think of other bits that are personal preferences but I realize they don't qualify as definitions.

I think this is a great project and I'm looking forward to it.

Sarah said...

Dagnabbit C, I think you're onto something.

My own response will likely deconstruct itself.
1. A mysterious killer who is not so mysterious if sequels were made (exceptions being Halloween III, Friday the 13th Part IV [? - correct me if I'm wrong, but you know which one I'm talking about], Scream)
2. A final person or couple of persons. Because there is not always a "final girl".
3. The order in which people are killed, i.e., people who are not straight-edge and/or have sex, people of color, the funny and/or overweight friend.
4. Killer was wronged in some way or had a traumatizing incident in the past and/or there is deep psychological damage because of said incident.

copgoid is the verification word, fyi.

Anonymous said...

Embellishing Sarah's #4, the killer is insane (obviously) and seeks no direct benefit from the murders (aside from, I guess, the pleasure of killing people). If a financial motive is in play, it becomes a mystery or thriller instead.

It also has to feature horsehead bookends.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

"It also has to feature horsehead bookends."

You're awesome!

If a financial motive is at play, then it's a thriller, mystery, or giallo. At least if it's Italian. This would also rule out Twitch of the Death Nerve/Bay of Blood as one of the early slashers.

jmcozzoli said...

Important elements are:

1. Specific attack weapon modality for killing.

2. Traumatic childhood rationale for killing.

3. Victim chase ending badly for victim.

4. Revolving door ending: ain't over till the slasher sings kind of thing.

B-Sol said...

I'd say:

1. Virtually unstoppable killer
2. Group of victims
3. Picked off one by one, usually for reasons of moral turpitude
4. One final survivor (usually female) stands up to killer
5. Killer believed dead, but isn't.

Corey said...

i'm not certain whatever definition you come up with needs to be absolute -- many of the ingredients of any complex formula are optional, with the important thing being it contains many (if not all) of the ingredients listed. in any case, here is what jumps to mind...

1. a single killer.

2. kills involve the use of personal weapons (i.e., no guns, bombs, etc.)

3. a secluded but often considered "safe" location (e.g. a camp, a suburban neighborhood, a farm house)

4. a group of victims separated from outside help either by location (e.g, the woods) or age and situation (e.g., authorities won't believe them)

5. a focus on the stalking and killing of individuals, with emphasis placed on suspense

6. a "final girl" or guy who stands up to the killer in the final reel

7. a final scare at the end which occurs after everyone has assumed the killer to be dead

8. members of the "victims" group often split up either alone or in pairs, even when aware murders are taking place.

9. either a) a "monster" killer known to the audience or b) an unknown killer who is later revealed to be a member of the "victim" group

10. a tendency for the more stereo-typical and shallow characters to die first (the jocks, sluts, etc.), particularly those that exhibit cruelty or socially immoral behavior

11. a recurring musical theme that designates stalking is goin'-on or that the killer is near

Dave S said...

I define a Slasher Film as a flick in which a person/people (supernatural or not) stalk and kill victims. The movie must devote a significant amount of time to the stalking sequences.

CRwM said...

Thanks to everybody who has commented so far. Already there are some interesting trends.

I especially thank everybody who has spread the word and directed others to this informal genre study.

For anybody wondering if they should still comment: heck yeah you should! I want to hear from everybody - slasher fanatics to people who hate horror. I want a picture of what we talk about when we talk about slashers. Comment away!

Curt Purcell said...

1) Multiple kill scenes
2) most of which involve hand-held bladed and/or pointed weapons.

Curt Purcell said...

3) A human (though not necessarily living) "killer figure" (who may turn out to be more than one person)

Anonymous said...

1. A character with a backstory, maybe two such characters.
2. A bunch of one-dimensional characters, preferably people you can't wait to see getting killed.
3. Multiple motives for murder.
4. A killer with a big blade, ideally someone who isn't revealed until the end. Bonus points if each victim says something like, "oh it's you," before they die; knowing the killer makes guessing who it is more fun.
5. Sex, drugs, or sex and drugs.
6. Breasts.

Christian O. said...

Very loose thoughts that are uncategorized.

1. A killer (or killers) that takes on a near mythical property
2. Survivors, but people who are fundamentally broken afterwards. There are no happy endings, even when they live.
3. The victims are picked off one by one in solitary locations or unbeknown to people in their surroundings. This continues until the big reveal, whatever it is, and everyone is suddenly fair game.
4. Exceedingly elaborate deaths.
5. The killer always returns once after being killed off.
6. The killer generally prefers slashing or blunt weapons. Rarely is a gun used, and it's usually only used in a post-modern commentary on this very clause.
7. The killer doesn't make mistakes till later in the film.
8. The killer doesn't feel remorse and can usually be characterized as inhuman.
9. The complete ineffectuality of authority, be it police, firefighters or otherwise. They only have a chance as individuals.
10. The victims are undeserving. They might have committed bad acts or sins, but the punishment they receive is disproportionate to their actions.

Douglas A. Waltz said...

A slasher film has:

1. Copious amounts of blood.
2. Naked women.
3. Stalking of victims.
4. Reveal of victims as the last person is running from the killer.
5. A durable killer, hard to kill.
6. Up close and personal weapons. No killing from a distance. The exception might be Jason Lives where the victim kept Jason in line of sight and ran from him. Jason planted something sharp and metal in his head for the trouble.
7. Did I mention naked women?

CRwM said...

Finally, it's about time I was able to start tracking data for softcore nudity!

Thanks for all the great trait-lists everybody.

If you haven't submitted a list yet, what's the hold up, chief? It'll be the easiest thing you do all day!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I am a lurker, but not the creepy kind. Here's my list:

1. There is an unsympathetic killer; they may be human or supernatural, but you cannot sympathize with them and you cannot romanticize them. (For example, Dracula cannot be a slasher killer; he's typically portrayed in a romantic fashion. Dexter is not a slasher; he's portrayed too sympathetically.)

2. The killer's motives cannot be motivated by the following deadly sins: greed, lust, envy, sloth, pride, or gluttony.
They could involve disproportionate rage, disproportionate revenge, or complete randomness.

3. If you put someone else with the victim's attributes into the victims place, they would be killed. (If Mike Meyers had another sister, she'd be hunted. If that group of kids brought along another friend, they'd be in for it too.)

4. The killer hunts individuals or pairs of individuals at a time. They do not have grandiose plans to take over the world.

5. The movie largely seeks to evoke the following emotions:
fear, suspense, possibly disgust, possibly mild comedy/satire
There might be minor subplots, but emotions are a greater priority than plot/character development.

Spooky Sean said...


1.A killer, often supernatural in nature
2.Young adults, usually of the horny and stupid variety
3.A legend, that made said killer who he is in the present, killing time

OCKerouac said...

My humble opinion of a 'slasher film' incluses the following requirements:

1. A 'Human' killer. Said human *could* have more-than-human 'powers', but monsters and animals are out.

2. A tangentally related victim pool. Either by geopgraphy, age, or circumstance, all victims of the killer are in some way linked. This might be more based on convenience than requirement, but seems to me to be a constant.

3. The murders are central to the film. Again, to avoid moving from 'slasher' into a more high-minded drama based sub-genre, a slasher film should focus firstly on the killer, and his/her kills, rather than the cop or doctor looking for them. There certainly *can* be a 'chase' element to the film, but it should be the side-plot, not the meat of the story.

4. A moral message. Be it to assuage the film maker's guilt, or to keep teenagers from going all Michael Myers at home, the ever-present morality found in slasher films can be traced to all horror sub-genre flicks in some way, but rather than the social morality found in the monster flicks of the 50s, there is a very pointed *personal* morality message in the slasher sub-genre. Jason Voorhees didn't care if evil Camp Crystal Lake Co. was polluting his lake, but if some teenagers are gettin' it on, they're going to DIE!

I know my list is far from 'simple' but there it is... Awesome idea!