Let's talk about slashers, shall we? Yes, I’m referring to that illustrious group of grisly movies where nightmares happen all around Elm Street and severed limbs are doled out along with Milky Ways on Halloween. Judge away, but I love those movies. Give me an omnipotent killer who never says a word as he preys upon suburban teenage archetypes in dark and isolated settings to the tune of a revving chainsaw as it slices into some nubile flesh, and I'll be a pretty happy girl.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to be normal. In fact, I was the one who considered climbing out the window at slumber parties when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was slid into the VCR after we’d grown tired of freezing the underwear of the poor girl who’d made the grave mistake of falling asleep first. For me, the visual carnage of torture that always seemed to be shot in extreme close-up was enough to give me waking nightmares for weeks. Friday the 13th was even tougher for me to take. I went to sleepaway camp, for fuck’s sake! I did not need the mental association of a wandering masked psychopath attacking counselors reverberating around my brain when I’d soon have to spend eight weeks in a remote setting with nothing to use as a weapon besides a lanyard. I mean, it was bad enough when they showed us Jaws on a rainy afternoon and then insisted that we jump into the lake for swimming lessons the next morning! I really couldn’t afford to be terrified of hockey masks as well.
The thing is, despite my very real wariness of all things horror, I was oddly drawn to those movies. I’d wander the aisles of Blockbuster with some Rob Lowe movie gripped in my hand, but I couldn’t help but check out the box covers in the Thriller section. I must have picked up I Spit On Your Grave a zillion times to check out the hatchet the woman was holding as well as the tagline that indicated that she had every right to have viciously slaughtered four people. Is that blood or dried small intestine on the tip of that hatchet? I’d wonder. I never rented I Spit On Your Grave while I was still in high school – I’d always chicken out – but I did eventually start enjoying the act of consuming cinematic fear. I can still recall that freezing chill that spread inside of me as I watched The Silence of the Lambs and I realized that there was something very powerful and almost hypnotic about the coupling of atmosphere and certain shots – of mixing explicit fears with an implied brutal subtext – and I would marvel at the way a great filmmaker is able to invade the psyche of someone he’s never even met.
Then came senior year of college and a high-level Film Theory course that was one of the last requirements for my major. For a class steeped in dense theoretical analysis, the professor elected to use all horror films as his visual texts. I perused the syllabus the first day with a heady mix of anticipation and palpable dread – and my heart almost stopped dead when I saw that one of the movies I’d be required to watch was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’d still never seen it, not a single frame, but it had morphed into something legendary in my mind, my very own blood-spattered white whale.
In somewhat of a daze, I went to the bookstore after class to pick up what was required and it was then that I first saw the book that would become one of my all-time favorites. The cover – a mix of black background and red text the color of plasma – was emblazoned with a shot of Leatherface glaring beneath the title: Men, Women, and Chainsaws. I took the book home with me, crawled on top of my bed in my sorority house, and opened it with more trepidation than I probably would if I were invading someone’s diary.
By the time I finished chapter one, I was all fucking in. The author delved into the violent terrain of slasher films in an effort to examine theories of representation and identification in cinema and every single movie she referred to became one I needed to see immediately. My friends were good sports about my newfound obsession. They were mostly Business or Education majors who were drawn to romantic comedies, but they’d sit beside me as I watched Sorority House Massacre in our living room. They would understand when I’d press pause and join them when they took a break to get a snack or follow them into the bathroom as they peed because they realized I was too scared to be left alone on the couch. But while the movies still frightened me, I wasn’t really looking at them in the same way anymore. I started to focus instead on the visual and thematic iconography of this gritty little subgenre known as “the slasher.” I read my textbook carefully and recognized the signs of a killer ruled by psychosexual fury and began to see how his violent lashing out was, for him, a release that felt almost sexual. I started to nod seriously and take notes while watching a shitty movie like Splatter University. My friends would either be cowering behind throw pillows in fear or laughing at the horrible acting and the absurdity of a killer priest hiding a weapon inside of a crucifix while I couldn’t help but mutter to myself, “Girls always get killed onscreen and their deaths are shot at close range.” I began to note how men often kicked the bloody bucket in rooms so dark that it was almost impossible to see the penetration of the killer’s weapon or that their deaths took place entirely off-screen. I saw with clarity that female characters are mentally toyed with before the axe comes down and that there clearly is only one character a viewer is able to root for in the slightest.
The “Final Girl” – as coined by the author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws – is the survivor of the slasher. She’s the only character we really know anything about and our knowledge of her likes and her dislikes and her fears are divvied out to us from the very start of the film. She’s the one who is different from her friends: she’s intelligent and thoughtful and she covers herself the hell up while the rest of the girls happily allow their clitorises to wave in the wind. She’s the one who hears the strange noise and doesn’t think it’s just a storm, the one who never suggests that right now would be the perfect time to disrobe and take a shower. She eventually stumbles over her friends’ body parts and she’s often got a unisex name and some stereotypically masculine energy because God forbid a universe of viewers form an identification with a classically feminine character. She is not sexually active and she’s the one we will all root for until the bitter bloodstained end.
“Her name is Jessie!” I’d exclaim to the friend sitting beside me, the one I’d made watch yet another one of these movies. She’d be hiding her eyes behind her fingers while contemplating making new friends. “Jessie is a unisex name! She’s our Final Girl!”
“You realize that you’re ruining the movie, right?” she would mumble.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” I’d respond with a serene smile. “It’s not like you didn’t know that the blonde chick named Tiffany would kick it the second you saw her. She laughed about forgetting her chemistry textbook at school and you can see her nipples right through her tank top! That chick is going down in no time. I think she’ll be impaled by something like a spear! What do you think?”
My friend would respond by staring at me blankly.
“I think that I can’t believe you are getting a degree in this bullshit,” she would respond seriously.
She had a point.
I think one of the reasons I eventually became so drawn to a genre I used to avoid like the flesh-eating plague was because of how satisfying it felt to apply the theory as I watched. Okay, I’d think to myself as the blades of a chainsaw ripped through a female character’s flesh. This girl is dying because she’s trespassing unknowingly on the killer’s turf and because of the killer’s psychosexual fury. She’s been coded as nothing but female and sexual since she first stepped onscreen and that’s why she’s a fucking goner. There was a quiet simplicity to it all. I liked that there could be zero discussion about which person to root for in one of these films. The other entertainment I was typically drawn to was way more complex, populated by characters who were both benevolent and hideously flawed. I didn’t love how conflicted I would feel when I’d start to care about a character who would lie or cheat or steal. I had enough of a problem giving assholes passes in real life.
Speaking of assholes, I think one of the problems I have these days with a show like Vanderpump Rules is that I can find nobody with whom I want to fully identify. If this series were a slasher, at this point I think I might have to cheer for the fucking chainsaw.