A Look at Postmodern Horror

Armed with Norman Bates’ infamous butcher knife and a plastered white William Shatner mask, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), with the introduction of Michael Meyers, ushered in a new brand of horror – the Slasher film. The popular resurgence of the American horror film in the 1970s marked the transition away from classical monsters of the old regime in favor of the stalking “boogeyman” (Phillips 132) that lives three houses down (Hutchings 174). Characterized by the viewer’s insatiable appetite for gore and violence, made possible through changing values in society and the breakdown of censorship, reached unprecedented levels, the Slasher film rejuvenated the horror genre; its main selling point centered on the display of the human, usually female, body and its subsequent destruction (Hutchings 193- 194).

Plot and characterization, even the killer to some degree, became secondary to the bloodshed. And as demonstrated by Michael’s reign of terror on the small town of Haddonfield, the body count never ends; the killer is no longer destroyed by the end credits of the film but instead lives to butcher another day. Yet, there is nothing truly original to be found in ‘The Night He Came Home.’ Indeed, much of Carpenter’s cinematic narrative echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); the icon of the butcher knife, the stabbing of young women, the placement of the viewer in the killer’s point of view, and the use of suburbia as the site of the horrific are all elements with which the viewer is familiar. Not only is the Slasher nothing new for the audience, but what little originality that does exist in Halloween vanishes in the continued variations of the Slasher sub-genre.

However, the truth cannot be denied; in terms of popularity, the Slasher film is not going anywhere. In fact, the violence of the Slasher sub-genre has increased, spawning new variations such as the Splatter Film and the Torture Porn film. The question, then, becomes: what exactly is the appeal behind this escalation of violence in the American horror film? As a Slasher fan, myself, I believe the answer is simple; the appeal of the Slasher film hinges upon the film’s target audience – teenagers (Hutchings 198- 200; Phillips 137). The modern horror film, through its focus on adolescent characters and the presentation of teenage sexuality along with the noticeable absence of adult authority, aims to appeal to a younger generation.

And this younger generation, due to the increased availability of television which featured old horror classics, are well aware of the conventions of horror. They have seen the gothic castle and the alien pods … they know what lies in the fruit cellar; the youth generation has seen all that horror has to offer, and they are bored. In order to counteract this ‘been there done that attitude’ of the viewer, the horror film had to constantly reinvent itself. This process of reinvention is demonstrated by the film texts of Night of The Living Dead (George A. Romero 1968), Halloween, and Scream (Wes Craven 1996); these three films take familiar conventions of the horror genre and refashion them for a new generation, moving the horror film through three distinct phases: violent cynicism, shock horror, and postmodern horror.

Before the Slasher phenomena could even be conceived, that is as a comprehensive subgenre of Horror and not just as a stand-alone film, audience expectations regarding horror had to be violated, particularly in relation to its optimistic tone. To this extent, Romeo’s Night of The Living Dead was a game – changer as it featured not only an African American protagonist but also the film altered the overall feel of horror. Before the emergence of this ghoulish delight, mainstream horror films were, typically, characterized by their disruption of the established order, via the threat imposed the monster’s introduction, and subsequent return to normalcy upon the monster’s destruction. Night of the Living Dead, however, abandons this tradition, leaving the viewer stuck with an overwhelming sense of cynicism, indicative of society’s malaise after the failure of the 1960s youth rebellion (Phillips 87-89), rather than relief.

Though the ghouls are seemingly destroyed, all of the characters suffer violent deaths. And worse, the viewer is almost left wishing for their deaths as all of the characters are completely ineffectual (Phillips 96) against the siege of the undead. Barbra, after stumbling along a ghoul in the cemetery and watching her brother die, is left in a state of trauma throughout the rest of the film. The young lovers are caught in an explosion created by their own incompetence. The mother and father in the basement show no compassion to others, spend their confinement bickering and sniping at each other along with other survivors, and are ultimately stabbed and devoured by their own child. Even, Ben who functions as the only character that is actively trying to fight for survival (Phillips 94-95), for both himself and others, is shown to be ill-tempered and overly aggressive which downplays his heroism; his attempts to board up the house are little to no help since the ghouls ultimately break into the farmhouse.

Furthermore, while the film still draws upon the threat of the monster; this threat is undermined by the threat posed by the characters themselves; the characters are doomed more by their own actions and their inability to cooperate with one another more than the apocalyptic situation in which they are stranded. The viewer is left to believe that if only they worked together, perhaps they would have survived. Instead, the characters turn on each; indeed, the need for control, illustrated by the conflict between the father and Ben who both leave the others to die, depicts the characters and, by extension, all individuals to be more savage than the hordes of ghouls who are waiting to eat them.

The savagery of the characters trapped inside the farmhouse is paralleled by the brutal gang of rednecks who eradicate the threat of the ghouls (Phillips 97-98). These local farmers and country boys shoot Ben the moment they see movement in the farmhouse; their lack of investigation reveals their callous nature as they obviously do not care if they kill a living person. As Ben‘s body is thrown in to be burned with all the other undead corpses, the film makes clear that there will be no return to normalcy; all governing systems, the same systems which created this monstrosity in the first place, have completely broken down (Phillips (97- 98), and chaos, in the form of the gun-toting locals, reigns.

The Slasher film, initiated by Halloween, co-opts Romeo’s cynical legacy, albeit in a more subdued form; like Night of the Living Dead, Halloween lacks narrative closure as demonstrated by the killer’s survival. Michael, ultimately, lives and his terror on the town of Haddonfield continues. Halloween also features unlikeable characters whose incompetence, illustrated through their failure to pay attention to their surroundings rather than indulging in their own sexual desires, results in their deaths.

The inherent savagery of the human condition is also borrowed from Romeo’s ghoulish narrative. In Halloween, this savagery is not acted out through characters within the film. Instead, it is demonstrated in the relationship between the film’s characters and the audience where teenagers are watching their cinematic counterparts being slaughtered. Halloween is marketed toward a younger audience and this audience, due to films like Night of the Living Dead, are expecting death. Therefore, regarding the characters in Slasher films, the question for the audience becomes not will the characters survive but how will they die? Indeed, it becomes a kind of game for the viewer. Thus, the Slasher film encourages the audience’s active participation; this engagement with the audience strikes at the heart of the appeal of the Slasher sub-genre.

Beyond the game-like appeal of guessing what gruesome fate lies in the store for the characters, Halloween cultivates viewer participation in two other ways: the use of shock horror and the cheering for the final girl (Hutchings 202). Much of Halloween’s style can be attributed to the contributions made by Hitchcock’s Psycho (Phillips 135); this includes the use of the camera to instill sudden, somewhat cheap shocks. In Halloween, the camera’s position is often aligned with the killer which creates a continuous source of tension for the audience (Hutchings 195- 197); the knowledge of the killer’s continuous presence forces the viewer to wait in anticipation for the killer to strike (196). When the camera leaves Michael’s perspective, the audience is then positioned with either Laurie, the film’s heroine, or in a third perspective reserved for the moment of death for the other characters. When the camera follows Laurie, the audience watches as Michael appears behind bushes or in glass reflections. The sudden jolt of the lens signals Michael’s presence as does the increased pitch of the film’s music. Michael seemingly appears out of thin air as the camera often focuses on an empty doorway or window only to violently shift and reveal Michael standing in the previously unoccupied space.  

The last legacy of Halloween is the creation of what Carol Clover terms, the final girl (Clover 79). The final girl is the masculinized female who serves as a point of reference with which adolescent males can identify (84). Unlike her friends, she characterized by intelligence, outsider status, and her virginity; she is the good girl who fights back against the killer and is rewarded with her life at the end of the film (Phillips 139-140). Halloween’s Laurie serves as the quintessential final girl. Laurie is the tomboy; she wears either conservative, full covering skirts or pants. Unlike her friends who are busy engaging in sexual rendezvous with their boyfriends, Laurie stays at home and babysits. Though she is repeatedly attacked by the killer, she is the only character to successfully fight back. By stabbing him with the phallic shape of an unwound close hanger and his own knife, Laurie becomes a symbol of phallic power, herself, while the killer becomes a feminized male (Clover 80- 81). This reversal allows her viewers, both male, and female, to identify with her and accept her position as the sole survivor.  

As demonstrated by Halloween, the horror film of the late 1970s and early 1980s abandoned its emphasis on slow-building tension in favor of sudden shock; this along with the legacy of the final girl became the trademark of the Slasher wave which ensued after Halloween. Yet, the guessing game appeal of the Slasher eventually faded, becoming lost as the narrative structure of the Slasher, which was overly simplistic to begin with, grew old and weary. The horror genre once again fell into an endless cycle of repetition until the postmodern Slasher emerged – embodied by Wes Craven’s, Scream. Like its predecessor, the original Slasher, Scream offers the same formulaic, killer stalks and murders teenagers, plot. The appeal of guessing how a character will die also continues in this post Slasher phase. Actually, this game is somewhat heightened given that the death scenes feature more guts and gore; in Scream this is apparent in the death of Casey Becker who is shown hanging from a tree with her ‘insides on the outside” as Tatum, another character of Scream, explains. The characters, however, have broken away from their one-dimensional molds found within Halloween, becoming whittier, more glamorous as demonstrated by the actors playing them, and, overall more, likeable (Hutchings 213). The audience can relate to Randy as the video nerd. They can be attracted to Billy’s dark good looks. They can cheer for Sidney, the film’s final girl. They can even embrace their inner- mean girl with Gale Weathers. The characters serve as placeholders for their adolescent audience; therefore the audience must be able to recognize themselves in the characters. Thus, a viewer actually feels more sympathy for the characters that do not make the ‘final cut.’

However, the main appeal of Scream lies in its classification as a postmodern text which is evident in the film’s own tagline: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” The narrative of Scream is ripe with intertextuality (Phillips 170), meaning that the film is consciously aware of its own placement in horror genre (Hutchings 215) and constantly references other texts within genre; this referencing is both situational, demonstrated by the death of Drew Barrymore’s character as homage to Psycho, and expressed within the dialogue of the characters themselves, notably Billy who echoes the Norman Bates’ infamous line about being mad, and Randy who as a video nerd recalls lines and situations from other horror texts throughout the entirety of the film. The character of Randy, himself, reminds both his fellow characters and the audience of the rules to surviving a horror film; thus, the characters know they are, in some sense, in a Slasher film and are trapped by it.

Yet, Scream while acknowledging the rules in horror cinema, also breaks them. Randy while drinking beer reminds his friends that drinking and drugs in the horror film lead to death. However, Randy survives the film. Sidney, the film’s final girl, loses her virginity and still manages to slay the killers – something that even Halloween’s Laurie Strode failed to accomplish (Phillips 178- 179). These are but a few examples of Scream’s awareness of its own genre; the film is littered with allusions to Psycho, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Howling, Silence of the Lambs and more. These allusions take the concept of actively engaging the viewer to next level, as the game transcends the limits of guessing who will die and instead challenges the viewer to recognize every text that is referenced – creating an inside joke effect between the film and the viewer.

Works Cited

Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.”  The Horror Film Reader. Ed. Mark Jancovich. Routledge: New York, 2002. Print.
Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Pearson Education Limited: London, 2004. Print.
Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Praeger Publishers: USA, 2005. Print.


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