Politics & Policy

Babes in the Woods

A franchise of fear.

This week brings us Friday the 13th twice over: once on the calendar and again in the movie theater, with a remake of the horror film Friday the 13th. The original 1980 movie was a typical American success story: a low-budget horror flick that managed to spawn a cottage industry of sequels (ten of them), comic books, novels, video games, merchandise, a syndicated TV series, and now a “reboot” of the original–plus a highly popular genre known as the slasher film.

By some accounts, the Friday the 13th film series already has grossed almost $600 million, making it the most financially lucrative horror-film franchise of all time. Critics, generally speaking, have savaged the genre it spawned. Few of the films had much to offer aesthetically, which suggests that they appealed in other ways. Indeed, they carry hidden warnings about the fatal consequences of self-indulgence and self-absorption.

The seeds of the Friday the 13th franchise’s stupendous success were hardly evident in 1980. Coming on the heels of John Carpenter’s innovative and skillful Halloween, which was released just two years earlier, director Sean Cunningham’s presentation of a similar story set in a dilapidated summer camp was nowhere near as clever as Carpenter’s film. Instead, it was simple, straightforward, and not particularly imaginative in its plot, visual effects, or scene construction. Where Carpenter created some startling surprises in Halloween, Friday the 13th didn’t bother with such niceties.

What Friday the 13th did very successfully, however, was to codify the formula suggested by Carpenter’s film by boiling it down to its essentials, which could then be copied by others. The slasher-film formula is quite simple: Follow the ordinary lives of some fun-loving, pleasure-seeking American teens for a few scenes, then start killing them off in deaths that take the victims (and, ideally, the audience) by surprise. Leave one of the teens to confront the killer, reveal the killer’s revenge motive, and finish with a plot twist that sets up a sequel. Although few of the people at the center of the story survive, the killer himself usually does.

There is one way in which Friday the 13th was quite new. During the 1970s, the American horror-film genre was dominated by grindhouse fare such as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1977). In each of these films, the victims are established as real characters (although not usually in great depth) before the killing begins. As in the Italian giallo films of Dario Argento, which influenced these filmmakers, the fact that we can care at least a little about the victims gives the films their power.

Friday the 13th changed the horror genre significantly by removing any chance of identification with or concern for the victims beyond the most basic humanitarian feelings. The victims are presented as generic American teens, and beyond that we know nothing about them. As the film establishes its narrative pattern, we watch these characters go about their business while we try to guess when they’ll meet their doom. As the killings occur, the audience does not look upon the characters with sympathy or even assimilate their demises as the deaths of real human beings. On the contrary, the entire film is a stylized presentation of bloody but strangely unaffecting mayhem.

Yet there is always at least one character whose personal history and motivations are explored in some detail: the killer. Friday the 13th ultimately provides an extensive scene of exposition, in which the motive for the killings is made explicit. Back in 1958, the killer says, the neglect of two camp counselors led to the drowning death of a young boy named Jason Voorhees. “The counselors weren’t paying any attention,” the killer says. “They were making love while that young boy drowned.” The present counselors bear no responsibility for this, but the killer is crazy, after all.

This revelation makes an important point that was often repeated, like variations on a theme, in horror films such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Saw, the Hannibal Lecter films, and the Halloween sequels: The killings are typically initiated by a grievous wrong against the killer or someone the killer cares about, usually done by ordinary people who didn’t know any better. The genre therefore conveys the impression of a world gone unaccountably violent, with vengeance often visited not upon those responsible for wrongdoing but instead upon innocents. Born in the moral chaos of the 1970s and their aftermath, these films spoke directly to fears of increasing crime and social dislocation. They also provided audiences with ways to detach from these worries and conquer their fears of violence by laughing at it.

Contemporary critics failed to see this possibly salutary effect, however, and attacked Friday the 13th and its successors as both irresponsible (for numbing audiences to violence) and puritanical (for showing the murders of sexually active teens). The consensus was that the slasher films encouraged moviegoers to take pleasure in brutality, particularly toward women. The charges of sexism weren’t entirely fair, however, because boys and men were commonly slaughtered in these films as well.

Critics, always a liberal bunch, further condemned the genre as prudish, based on the observation that some of the murders in the films occurred after characters engaged in premarital sex. Many objected to the alleged condemnation of sexual activity, but Halloween director Carpenter once commented that the teens thus dispatched became victims not as punishment for sexual activity but simply because they were too preoccupied to notice the presence of a murderer. That is clearly the case in Friday the 13th as well, for what leads to the killings in every instance is a failure of the characters to pay attention to what’s going on around them, and the motive for the murders is revenge for a fatal instance of personal indifference.

Carpenter’s observation brings out what is really at the heart of the slasher genre and how badly the critics misunderstood these films’ effect. In his review of Friday the 13th, Part 2, for example, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert observed with dismay that the young people at his screening demonstrated no sympathy for the victims: “Everybody in the audience imitated hoot-owls and hyenas. Another girl [in the film] went to her room and started to undress. Five guys sitting together [in the theater] started a chant: ‘We want boobs!’”

As Ebert’s anecdote makes clear, indifference toward others is a central effect of the slasher film, and these movies ingeniously drive their point home by forcing audiences to experience the very thing that motivates the murders: a lack of compassion. Critics who bemoaned the films as puritanical were thus missing the point. Slasher movies didn’t push personal piety as much as show, in a stylized, imaginative way, the destructive consequences of self-indulgence and self-absorption. They also revealed that audiences could be just as indifferent and callous as the characters in the films.

The thrill-seeking teenage fans of these films probably didn’t realize that they were being made complicit in the evils the movies showed. That, of course, is the power of pop culture: It works its will on many levels, often without our realizing it. Sometimes even the humblest of cultural products have powerful and surprising implications.

S. T. Karnick is editor of the American Culture website, http://stkarnick.com.


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