Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Why the “Slut” Always Dies: Moving Past the Slasher Film Cliche

June 16, 2015
FILE - In this 1960 file photo, actress Janet Leigh appears as Marion Crane in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic thriller "Psycho." Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is a film that 52 years after its shocking premiere still hasn’t released audiences from its subversive thrall. The film, which Hitchcock called “a fun picture,” was revolutionary in its violence, its sexiness, its sympathy to the perspective of the criminal mind, and, perhaps above all, its technique. (AP Photo/File)

Badass writer and academic, Kristen Cochrane, looks back at film history and asks: why is it that in horror films, the girls who have sex always die, and usually first?

You don’t have to be a movie buff to remember Coach Carr’s infamous line from Mean Girls, preached to his young female students during sex-ed: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.”

While absurd, the line actually holds some truth. It calls to mind a trend that’s been noticed not only by scholars and researchers, but also by us regular movie-goers: in horror films, the female characters who have sex are usually rewarded with an untimely death. AKA: the “sluts” in horror films always die, and usually first. But what does this mean? Does it mean that filmmakers— particularly filmmakers in the horror genre—hate women? Does society just condemn people (mainly women) who have sex? And, as society continues to stride toward gender equality, are we moving past this dumb cliche, or are we doomed to watch sexually awakened women get their throats slit on screen for eternity?

To begin answering these questions, it’s useful to look back on the history of the slasher film, and when it emerged. First of all, a “slasher” can be identified as a film with an antagonist or villain who uses weapons other than guns—think knives, machetes, ice picks, hammers, and chainsaws—meaning the killings are arguably more graphic. Secondly, there’s the screaming, semi-nude women (which hits close to home in a culture where women have to carry rape whistles and hold our keys between our fingers on our walks home from work).

Film scholars, such as Sotiris Petridis, tend to agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was very influential to the future slasher film genre, in terms of its formula. The film’s historic moment is when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is stabbed to death by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the seminal shower scene. According to film scholar Carol J. Clover, Marion Crane is a “sexual transgressor”—she demonstrated a sexuality that deviated from what a woman was supposed to embody. And as a result, she’s stabbed to death.

Fourteen years later, in 1974, the extremely unsettling, low-budget slasher Texas Chainsaw Massacre emerged, and gave film scholars and spectators more food for thought. In the film, the character Pam (Teri McMinn) wears a halter top that, from the back, looks like she’s topless. In genuine 1970s sartorial authenticity, she has complemented the look with very short shorts. Her outfit is emphasized by the famous tracking shot with an angle that looks up at her body while she saunters over to the house where Leatherface, the villain, is hanging out. These visual signs and signifiers, like exposed skin and “provocative” clothes, were a precursor to a message relayed by many horror films: suggestive female sexuality can be deadly.

This message was made painfully obvious in the landmark slasher Halloween (1978), directed by John Carpenter. A few years before the film’s release, psychoanalytic film theory was flourishing, and one female film scholar by the name of Laura Mulvey theorized that mainstream narrative cinema was causing the male spectator to view the female characters in a sadistic, voyeuristic way. With this contention, Mulvey’s notion of the “male gaze” was brought into academic and critical parlance. In Halloween, the protagonist Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an androgynous, mostly responsible teenager who doesn’t have sex on-screen. Basically everyone else, however, does have sex on screen, and then ends up being murdered by Mike Myers (the villain, not the Canadian actor, obvs). In another slasher series, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-), villain Freddy Krueger also kills women who have sex, or who are implied to have had sex on-screen.

It was the aforementioned Carol J. Clover who came up with the theory of the Final Girl: the androgynous, morally responsible young woman who survives despite being hotly pursued by the killer. Contrary to Laura Mulvey’s theory of the sadistic, voyeuristic male viewer, Clover suggested that the male spectator identifies with the Final Girl—she is neither male nor female, but the villain’s attempts to maim her are illustrative of the male spectator’s castration anxiety. Clover’s argument was so influential that the Final Girl nomenclature is used regularly by horror and slasher fans.

In my last article for Slutever (about the myth of the “crazy slutty bisexual”), I pointed out some problematic features of filmmaker Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body and its pansexual demon. However, Lynne Bond, a screenwriter and film historian, claims that Jennifer’s Body is more subversive in its re-imagining of sexuality and the Final Girl. “Jennifer’s Body actually goes against the slut being killed because Jennifer wasn’t the slut. Jennifer wasn’t the one that was sexually active.” When we look at Jennifer’s Body, Bond says we tend to look at Megan Fox’s character as the “slut,” simply based on her looks. Once you follow the narrative, however, it is Needy (Amanda Seyfried) whom, in all her geekiness and dated clothing, is the sexually active female.

So is our very conception of what a “slut” entails blurring our understanding of “The Slut Always Dies” trope? Or are modern films getting more socially responsible in their depiction of women? Devil’s advocates and contrarians will say, “It’s just a film, it doesn’t mean anything!” But that’s ridiculous, because movies, like books, help us make sense of the world. And making sense of the world is inextricably linked with contemporary culture and politics, so it’s important to think about the context in which these films were created.

Let’s turn the clocks backward for a second: When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shocked audiences in 1974, second-wave Feminist activism had already began. Although it wasn’t entirely admired by the second-wave feminist cohort, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had shocked polite society with its publication in 1949. Eleven years later, Betty Friedan’s 1963 manifesto The Feminist Mystique called for women to contemplate the “problem that has no name”—i.e. homogeneous, enforced femininity, and women being told they needed to be housewives with husbands and children in order to be happy. Simultaneously, there was a huge increase in consciousness about issues like sexual harassment and discrimination.

By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement had gotten the attention of Western society’s cultural consciousness. And what happens when something swings towards a particular ideology? Backlash. Some began to believed that people who were speaking out for civil rights for black people, gay people, and women were just a bunch of whiners. What happened was the emergence of a “silent majority,” or a New Right. While films and other cultural artifacts help us make sense of the world, popular culture and politics bleed onto one another. It makes sense, then, that despite so much resistance to white supremacist, heteropatriarchal structures and institutions, women were being systematically slaughtered, abused, and tortured on-screen. Forget all the psychoanalytic analyses of cinema—what if filmmakers in the 60s and 70 were just representing on-screen what they saw in everyday life? Namely, women and the sexually awakened being condemned for having premarital sex, and for so-called promiscuous tendencies. This could also help explain why the black characters in horror films are often the first to die (save for the virtuous hero Ben (Duane Jones), in George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie film, Night of the Living Dead). Although these films are not explicit backlashes per se, they reflect how society felt, and currently feels, about “Sluts.”

The structures surrounding the conservative silent majority and the New Right undoubtedly influenced how filmmakers depicted a society that was dealing with open sexualities. In other words, not very well. Not only do the slutty girls and black people die first, but the villains are often portrayed as “sissies,” transgender, or homoerotic. Think of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1990), who murders women to use their skin as a “woman suit” after failing to be eligible for gender reassignment surgery. Or, in the context of the slasher, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who dons an apron and tacitly harbors a matronly role as the fearful protector of the house and the family estate.

I asked Lynne Bond if these tropes were changing—if we are seeing more variety in the sexualities of women in horror films. With some exceptions, Bond is skeptical. But if you need a break from the status quo, Bond says to look outside of the United States, at the work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who “looks at the complexities of women in a much better way than most American films do.” Alternatively, Bond suggests the work of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Ultimately for Bond, the insistence on continuing the sexist, dated tropes in horror films are part of Hollywood’s resistance to trying new formulas.

But do we need new formulas, or are we reading these films in the way we want to read them? You don’t need to read Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author to know that meaning is subjective. An author’s intent invariably gets lost in translation, and sometimes we are too bound by our own cultural frameworks to see that something more subversive is at play. For instance, like I mentioned before, maybe Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body is actually not “the slut,” but we just think she is because she embodies what we think of as “sexy” at the moment. Or what about the belief that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually a highly feminist film? Okay, so maybe this is all in the subtext, but this is what Matt Risnes at Rope of Silicon argued:

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film about the degenerative neuroses of the patriarchal white male mindset… It is the eventual souring of the corporate business model and how that inevitably leads to compulsive societal cannibalism. Consider Jim Siedow as the Cook, seemingly a kindly old shopkeeper, in actuality an abusive head of a malignantly dysfunctional family. A family devoid of any legitimate feminine influence, their entire existence revolves around procurement of the next meal and the aggregation of material goods unwillingly contributed by the unfortunates they ensnare.”

Obviously, it’s important to study and think about these films for their conspicuous nuances, but we shouldn’t entirely reject their latent, untapped subtleties.

Meanwhile, we are seeing the end of Carol J. Clover’s Final Girl: the “virgin” up for sacrifice in the 2012 meta horror Cabin in the Woods is not actually a virgin, but The Director (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t think this is a big deal, and is still down to sacrifice her to the gods as a makeshift virgin. In last year’s It Follows, Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex at the beginning of the film, but is ultimately a survivor of the mysterious entity that follows those who contract the “curse” or “infection.”

We’re seeing changes. Yet we have to deal with films that re-enact what is symptomatic of a diseased culture, where women and marginalized identities who choose to conduct themselves with sexual independence are punished. To make judgments on the symptoms of a diseased society is incompatible to a humanist approach to social and political justice. What we need to do is make radical changes, starting at the root of these problems, rather than by their consequences.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “What Does Society have Against Bisexual People?” HERE :)

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