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Monday, June 15, 2020

Slice & Dice: How Post-Pandemic Horror Could Lead to the Next Golden Age of Slashers

No genre of film is shifted more by whatever current state the world is living in than the horror film. When baby boomers started maturing and questioning their faith in a Christian god, along came Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. As Charles Manson and his cult violently invaded homes, and the Vietnam War was on its way out, we got The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After a new president was elected, and Americans were reminded of their issues with liberal racism, Get Out premiered. If it haunts us in our real lives, it’s almost guaranteed to make its way into our horror fiction, and the ongoing global pandemic we’re dealing with is about to affect a whole new wave of horror movies— just, perhaps, in a less apparent subgenre than you’d think. 

While the obvious (read: tired) assumption would be to expect more isolation/contagion movies that, one suspects, nobody will be in the mood for when this ends, horror (at least the best kind) isn’t always that literal, and manifests itself in sometimes surprising but reliable ways. Which is why, perhaps, the classic slasher film may slice and dice its way into a new wave of post-pandemic horror. 

It may sound far-fetched on the surface, but it’s not. Pandemic/quarantine life has become one, big backdrop for a slasher movie allegory, and both come with a rigid set of rules: “Don’t leave the house. (It) could be anywhere, stalking all of us. Don’t party with friends. Don’t touch each other. Don’t have sex.” Rightfully so, of course— as responsible behavior is crucial right now— but all very reminiscent of the conservative tropes that are layered within the killer-stalking-victim subgenre. “Every subgenre of horror has its day, and I think we’re long overdue for a slasher boom,” Blumhouse VP Ryan Turek told me. “There are new rules and new themes worth exploring now.” Screenwriter and Attack of the Queerwolf! co-host Michael Kennedy confirmed, “I’ve heard various studios actually in the process of either developing or ready to roll on a slasher movie when this is all over.” 

While oft-regarded as the dumbest, deadliest, most disreputable of horror’s subgenre tier, the slasher film doesn’t always get enough credit for its perceptiveness. Un-affectionately referred to by Roger Ebert as “Dead Teenager flicks,” slashers (particularly those made within their Golden Age) represented everything about the 1980s— especially the Ronald Reagan administration— that feels awfully familiar to our experience now. In fact, a pre-Trump presidency Flavorwire article from 2013 was eerily more on-the-nose than it probably even realized at the time: You might say that Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were the Donald Trumps of their time— they trampled over bystanders to get what they wanted, and a certain sect of American society embraced them.” Author Sotiris Petridis classifies slashers within three different eras: the classical that established the “rules” (1974-1993, Black Christmas, Halloween), the self-referential (1994-2000, New Nightmare, Scream), and the neoslasher of the early 2000s through 2010s (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Friday the 13th remake). Could a post-quarantine era be next? 

Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.”

The stalking and pervasiveness of COVID-19 feels like Michael Myers making his way through our streets, in what could be any of our respective little Haddonfields. Myers does not care (nor does COVID) how nice and benign our neighborhoods are, nor does he care how affluent (or not) we are— he could make his way into our safe havens if he really wants to, which mirrors our fears of contracting the virus. It could be anywhere, and it is more powerful than us, which is also the scariest aspect of slashers, according to researcher Kara M. Kvaran: “In slasher films, the trappings and protections of modern society merely create an illusion of safety; in the end, everyone is at the mercy of unstoppable forces.” The benignity of suburbia, small towns, and summer camps is irrelevant, as it’s just as unsafe in those places as it is anywhere considered “less” idyllic. 

Michael may have had a type in victims with babysitters, but he didn’t show bias, and neither does the virus: “The slasher genre doesn’t discriminate, which is an interesting commentary in itself,” Satanic Panic director Chelsea Stardust explained. “We’re all at risk— just like we’re all at risk right now with this virus. The idea of someone stalking you, chasing you, never letting up, etc., is terrifying to me, because it’s something that has happened and does happen everyday.” The grounded-ness of the slasher film feels just as tangibly real as our fears of COVID. Peril in slashers is just as likely to occur in suburbia as it could in a city (Candyman), and someone in Haddonfield could just as easily become infected by the virus as could a resident of Cabrini-Green. 

You can never have sex. Sex equals death.”

Whether you make the argument that slasher films have been advocating for conservatism or mocking it entirely, there’s no denying the amount of punishment that occurs for so-called “bad behavior” within them. And as social distancing has become enforced and social gatherings have become displaced, we too, are being warned against engaging in, well, anything physical— fearing punishment for our own indiscretions in the form of contracting Coronavirus from an infected person. As evident in pretty much the entire Friday the 13th series (along with Pieces, Prom Night, and about 90% of others in their ‘80s kin), slashers have traditionally been considered contemporary immorality tales in which general deviancy, drugs, and especially sex are worthy of death by the hands of a disapproving killer. (Namely, Pamela Voorhees, before her son inherited the punisher role in subsequent sequels, as every camp counselor who engaged in sex was arrowed, machete-d, etc.) Carol J. Clover has contended that many killers in slashers used their weapons as means of sexually frustrated penetration against their victims, which would make sense for the abstinence-only ethos of the time. 

In a similar vein to the infuriation we’ve felt when college students are partying on the beach during their spring breaks— instead of staying at home, practicing social distancing— slashers provide a fictional catharsis for those who are ignorant enough to break the rules. A slasher film’s ability to help us satisfyingly process any of our moral quandaries is probably why we cater to them so much, which Kara M. Kvaran describes is our ability to “interpret and decode” slashers to fit our particular situations

You can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.”

Much of this right-winged agenda boasted in the slasher boom is to be blamed on the traditionalist, biblical ethics presented in Reagan’s presidency, which also oversaw the height of another viral crisis, HIV/AIDS. In the same way that many would criticize the Trump administration for failing to acknowledge the gravity of COVID-19 before its spread grew, the Reagan administration had long been condemned for its prolonging of treatment for AIDS due to homophobia. By turning the other cheek and rejecting awareness and safe-sex practices for the endorsement of abstinence-only education, Reagan’s mishandling of the AIDS epidemic instilled fear and hysteria, instead of a means to a solution. As a gay man, Michael Kennedy told me he’s been anxiously reflecting on the likenesses between now and then: “During this downtime, I’ve read a lot up on Reagan, and I haven’t decided if it’s comforting or discomforting that what is happening now is not that different from what was happening forty years ago,” he said. “Is it comforting to know that we’ve been through this before? Or scarier that we have been through it, gotten through it…and now we’re doing it again?”

To make matters worse, aside from the subgenre (sometimes insensitively) commenting on sex as a death sentence, slashers had notoriously underrepresented or wrongfully represented LGTBQ+ persons who may have been especially affected by the AIDS crisis. Freddy’s Revenge was accused of writing Mark Patton’s character as repressing his homosexuality, while Cruising was met with criticism for exploiting the gay community. Perhaps post-COVID filmmakers may feel compelled to address and make up for the current lack of pandemic empathy that wasn’t always present in slashers of the past: “There’s definitely a rising wave of conservatism and a lot of political unrest in this country, however, so I hope— and urge— filmmakers to respond to that in ways that are different from the old language of slasher cinema that audiences are well-versed in,” Turek said. For one of his upcoming slasher movies, Kennedy even had to reconsider including a line of dialogue which referenced the quarantine that he feared may be misconstrued as ill-timed or insensitive: “(Producers and I) don’t think anyone is going to want to read that as it’s going on.”

While COVID does not share the same stigmas AIDS had attached to it for LGTBQ+ persons— and as we navigate this pandemic with what often feels like too-much conflicting advice and too-little guidance from our current administration— the overall confusion parallels some of the fears that fueled the horror of 40 years ago (including slashers), as LGTBQ+ writer Aaron Lecklider accounts in a 2017 piece for Slate: “If earlier generations of gay youth had associated sex with anxieties about loneliness or social rejection, our sexuality in the 1980s emerged alongside a palpable fear of death (from contracting HIV/AIDS.)” An argument could be made that slashers have a responsibility to provide a safe escapism to their audiences, so why alienate them with apathy? “I lost myself in (slashers),” Kennedy explained. “Growing up as a queer kid, at least in my experience, you tend to find something that you identify with that makes you feel safer than reality can, especially when you’re in the closet.” Empathy instead of flippancy is needed at this time— and this issue could be observed in post-quarantine slashers.

You’re all doomed!

A repetitive trope within the subgenre is the dire warnings from the “crazy” townies, the knowledgeable doctors, or the clairvoyant characters that insist something terrible will happen to our protagonists if they don’t heed their advice. Crazy Ralph in Friday the 13th, the jump-roping children in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween’s Dr. Loomis exist to tell the audience what we already know: these people are doomed. And yet, the teenagers ignore them, hop into their vans, and make that left turn into the campgrounds so they can party their way to their own demise. No one wants to be told what to do, but is not listening to someone who likely knows more than you really worth your life? Now, imagine how NIAID director Dr. Fauci feels right now. 

In a climate where “fake news” rhetoric runs rampant, and the President ignores and disbelieves critical advice from experts, it’s easy to sympathize with the real-life harbingers like Dr. Fauci during the COVID pandemic. As Fauci insists that way more testing accessibility is needed before states can re-open to Americans, Trump just sticks to his notion that his administration is doing a “great job.” Like the stubborn teens in all the slasher movies that prioritize partying in the unknown woods, rather than listening to the guidance of those who actually know said woods, the President has just been doing whatever he wants to do. And, alas, Trump’s irreverent dialogue is trickling into his supporters’ brains, as protestors object stay-at-home orders and make homemade “Fire Fauci!” signs— as if they’re immune from harm.

Father knows best.”

Another earmark of the Reagan era is the obsession of holding on to wholesome, all-American family values that were increasingly dissipating— and slashers played into this (or subverted it, depending on your interpretation). The “American dream” was challenged, and the subgenre got more personal, with the “evil” developing from inside the home, in the form of either adolescents questioning and distrusting their parents (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or, as the root cause of family members lashing out against others (The Stepfather). In Nightmare, the sins of the mothers and fathers are passed on to teens through Freddy’s reemergence. In the latter, a baby boomer-aged man, who few suspect due to his squeaky clean image, is motivated to kill members of his “families” when they don’t meet his utopian ideas of what, he thinks, a traditional family unit should be. 

While we’re all getting accustomed to staying at home with our families, for better or worse, it isn’t far-fetched to think that long-term quarantine life could have a lasting impact on the future of family dynamics in American households. Could some parents fail to steer their children properly during quarantine, a la Nightmare? Could divorces spike, and we get an onslaught of movies with blood-relative killers like Stepfather? While some families may grow closer, others are likely to become more strife-ridden and grow apart, which could be commented on in a next wave of slasher films. 

I’m into survival.” 

A common misconception of the ‘80s is blissful, economic excess— because it certainly didn’t begin that way. The early part of the decade (also peak slasher years) witnessed a pretty beaten-up economic recession, much of which, woefully, parallels ours at the moment. By the early ‘80s, unemployment had risen to 10%, while ours, as of this writing, is a painful 20% during quarantine, according to Fortune. Akin to how the rich yuppies reaped all the benefits of a flourishing, early ‘80s Wall Street stock market, the COVID pandemic has seen a disparity between testing access for The One Percent versus us regular folk, and frustrations of this could be reflected in upcoming slashers— as the subgenre has been a surprising embodiment of a wobbly economy in the past. Everything from Curtains, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and the later Child’s Play has made jabs (or stabs) at capitalism. 

In fact, financial anxiety is said to be a major driving force behind the initial popularity of slashers, as they provided a catharsis for young adults that were entering a decade in which job uncertainty, rising tuition costs, and a reappearance of the Cold War seemed to be conspiring against their livelihood— particularly in the form of a film’s final girl, according to Kvaran. As parables for “survival of the fittest,” slashers gave its adolescent audience members hope that at least someone they relate to will make it out of these scenarios alive: “I especially found myself identifying with the female heroes that were forced into a position that they didn’t (ask) to be in necessarily, but coming out stronger on the other side,” Michael Kennedy noted, while name-checking Sidney Prescott (Scream) and Ginny Field (Friday the 13th Part 2) as his preferred. Not to mention, slashers are typically contained within a singular set location and cheap to make— an appealing prospect for financially crippled studios that need to greenlight projects quickly and don’t have the finances to greenlight expensive outbreak/zombie movies.

Don’t you know history repeats itself?

So what’s next? The craving for slashers amongst audiences is just as vivacious, even if they’re not being made to the point of oversaturation like they used to. “I think horror fans have been craving the ‘return’ of the slasher film for a while now,” Chelsea Stardust explained. “There is a comfort there that we as fans are always craving— like seeing an old friend again.” Blumhouse’s 2018 Halloween boomed; American Horror Story finally came around with 1984, to which AHS skeptics tuned in after years of disappointing seasons; even Chucky made a comeback. If all goes as planned, this fall will give us Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and Halloween Kills— before the return of Ghostface and Leatherface in the next iterations of Scream and Texas Chainsaw in 2021 or so. Maybe Jason too? But we won’t hold our breath on that one. 

However, while we may yearn for the simplicity of slasher horror after enduring the trauma that we’re currently experiencing, it may take a bit more than that to get us to fall in love with them entirely, as modern audiences’ tastes have grown more than they probably even realize. The recent trend and popularity of films akin to Get Out and Hereditary indicate that we may need more layers than purely visceral violence and transgression: “There is something very old-fashioned about slashers, and I wonder if audiences are simply too sophisticated for them now,” Freddy vs. Jason co-writer Mark Swift told me. “I think it would take a clever reinvention on a very old formula to make one really break out.” 

Swift continued, “Old titles and styles can certainly benefit from that more modern sensibility. For example, there’s no doubt Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele will bring a new level of sophistication to an old title like Candyman.” With two high-concept slasher projects in the works, Michael Kennedy concurred: “I’m finding success in giving the slasher movie a twist. For instance, with Blumhouse, I’m doing the body swap slasher movie,” he said. “I think it’s so fun to Trojan horse a universal emotion into a slasher movie, and the audience realizing halfway through that, ‘Oh, this is actually about that.’” Take it from the success of Blumhouse’s Halloween: the violence wasn’t minimalized, but neither were themes of PTSD, intergenerational trauma, and believing women. Even Happy Death Day (which Kennedy explained has been a major inspiration for one of his upcoming films), The Final Girls, and the less-overt slasher It Follows are packed with way heavier ideas than older titles like Madman and Motel Hell ever were. “I think there’s something always so (easy to swallow) about a Jason Voorhees figure just hacking his way through a camp, but I want more of Part 2, where you have a strong lead character who has a backstory and depth to her,” Kennedy said. “I hope we’re passed rooting for the villain; we’re ready to start rooting for the hero on a constant basis.”

Social consciousness aside, alternatively, future slashers also must not lose sight of what they’re set out to do, which is to give us something to lose sleep over, according to Ryan Turek: “I’d love to see a new original horror villain, male or female, step into the spotlight,” he explained. “History has shown that you can’t purposely set out to make the ‘next slasher icon’— the moviegoers determine that ‘icon’ status— but it would be cool to see a filmmaker introduce a slasher that’s (truly) someone to be feared.”

If there’s a silver lining to what we’re enduring, it’s the artistic horror that will be given to us on the other side of this, and it just may be told through the lens of those “stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl” movies— except, hopefully, in better form than ever before. 


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