It’s Halloween in an Election Year, So Let’s Talk About the Politics of Horror Movies
Here’s a fascinating At the Movies clip from an unspecified year (presumably the early 80s) in which Siskel and Ebert explain how they can both think that Halloween is a brilliant horror film but most of the slashers that followed it are deplorable garbage.
In the clip (which is, unfortunately, way too short), they seem to mostly be talking about the inherent sexism in the slasher sub-genre. As far as I can tell, the episode this was from was about the way that the big slasher craze (which originated with the likes of Halloween and Black Christmas and then broke wide open with movies like Friday the 13th) objectified and mistreated women. Ebert is heard explaining that the original Halloween is different because, when Jamie Lee Curtis hides in the closet, the viewer isn’t sympathizing with the monster chasing her, but relating to her predicament. Siskel goes further, explaining that he watches that scene without cognizance of gender, merely imagining himself in that closet.
I made a very similar argument in a broader context while discussing slasher films a few months ago. Instead of discussing their treatment of women, I was discussing the political leanings of the sub-genre in general.
One of the things that are very interesting about two of Western fiction’s more fantastical genres (horror and science fiction) is its political trappings. Any person with a passing knowledge of films can point out that genre filmmaking allows artists to explore serious issues in ways that they can’t in “serious” genres (my favorite example always being the way the original Godzilla enabled Japan to tackle the pain over the nuclear blasts of WWII at a time when showing actual twisted and deformed bodies would be unspeakable).
One thing that’s interesting is that these genres almost always tend to lean progressive. While the Western genre can almost always be read as conservative (so many westerns feature a beatific pastoral paradise tainted by progressive “advancement”), horror films and science fiction films frequently show a world where progress and the quest for knowledge is thwarted by those that fear it.
In the 70s, hippie directors used the horror genre to tackle the way an older generation punished and demoralized the youth (take Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Vietnam “meat grinder” metaphor). However, by the time the 80s swung around, the slasher sub-genre was king and it could easily be viewed as some of the most conservative scare films since Harry Anslinger was telling kids reefer would make them serial killers.
So what happened? Did the Romero’s and Craven’s and Carpenter’s of the world suddenly get hair cuts and run to Wall Street the instant Reagan was elected?
Well, I was discussing this with some folks at a party a month or so ago and we came up with an interesting theory. The filmmakers didn’t become more conservative. They just fell victim to the marketplace.
Of course, what could be more conservative than that?
The reason I posted that At the Movies clip is because of that idea Ebert points out; slasher films of the 80s sympathize with the villain. Why is that? Is it because they hate women?
No. It’s much simpler than that. It’s because it’s more fun that way.
When the earliest slasher films came out, filmmakers (inspired by movies like Psycho and Peeping Tom) were attempting to really scare audiences. Movies like Halloween and TCM weren’t meant to be “fun.” They were meant to be scary as shit. And the way to do that is to put audiences in the shoes of the victims.
But then Halloween became the most profitable independent film in history and suddenly every single mom and pop studio was off to the races. Slasher movies were printing money and everyone wanted a piece.
Once these movies became about money and not about scares, filmmakers tried to ensure their box office by letting the audiences off the hook. They made the victims dumber stereotypes who were more “deserving” of death. By doing so, they began to move the audience sympathies to the masked killers. While once filmgoers were supposed to relate to the countercultural teens getting struck down, suddenly Jason Voorhees was a noble warrior striking a blow against the doper freaks.
As such, the movies became about righteous punishment instead of scary punishment. Now the teens weren’t having sex to make them feel real (Halloween co-writer, Debra Hill, purposefully tried to make the teenage girls feel as realistic as possible, that’s why they were trying to hook up with their boyfriends), they were doing so because it was a sin. A sin that needed to have bloody consequences.
Instantly, the movies went from hippie nightmares to yuppie fantasies. Kill the stoners! Protect the status quo! Slasher films, a sub-genre created by progressive visionaries, became a ghetto where reductive atitudes thrived.
I find it hard to believe that there’s a more substantial political switch in any one narrative trend in movies, TV shows, books, or anything. Pretty interesting.