The Slasher Genre Finally Gets a Sequel
The Slasher is a unique artifact in literature and cinema. In my view, there is no horror experience quite like it. It is a formula that on the surface of things seems almost ludicrously simple, yet this simplicity is precisely its power.
Many critics have written about the mythological origins of the Slasher. Arguably, one could trace the roots back to Beowulf, an epic penned circa 900 A.D. in Old English (which more closely resembles German, in many respects, than Modern English). In this legendary tale, the monster Grendel attacks the mead-hall of King Hrothgar, each night killing two of his servants and warriors. When Grendel is finally defeated, the hero Beowulf then has to contend with the monster’s mother, who proves a far worse foe. Giving Beowulf even a cursory analysis already reveals some fascinating insights. For a start, Grendel emerges from the swamps and fens, which seem to represent the roiling unconscious with their serpentine, reptilian forms. He attacks the bright hall of Heorot, which is illuminated by blazing fires, and seems to represent the conscious mind. Whilst Grendel could well represent a very real-world fear of the killer brute who comes for us at night, there is another fear, perhaps a deeper one, one what dwells in the depths of our quagmire-like minds.
One can also immediately see how Beowulf has informed Slashers. Grendel is a monster, a killer who emerges from a dismal swamp and picks off a group of victims one by one in increasingly gruesome and disturbing ways. He is inhuman – trollish, giant, hideous – but also disturbingly pathetic at the same time. Grendel even has a strange relationship with his uncanny mother. If your mind immediately leapt to Jason Vorhees, or even Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s Psycho (which is often consider a cinematic “proto-Slasher”), then you can easily be forgiven. Vorhees is certainly a Grendel in more ways than one. The fact he haunts a lake is not simply a reference to this classical source, but also another psychological dynamic. Water often symbolises sex, for reasons too numerous to list here. Suffice to say, the human mind naturally associates the two. Vorhees has a particularly distaste for sex, and one of the tropes of the Slasher genre is that only the pure or virginal survive. As I said before, what seems a simple formula is layered with meaning, and it is this layered meaning that makes Slashers so powerful.
In Grady Hendrix’s recent novel, The Final Girls Support Group, which utlises clever meta-narrative devices to deconstruct and analyse the genre, Hendrix also draws parallels between Slashers and the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the minotaur. The minotaur is the bestial killer, haunting a labyrinth. The hero Theseus can only overcome the killer with the help of Ariadne, the plucky “final girl” who helps him navigate and escape the labyrinth. Again, labyrinths are often psychological: they represent the human mind. Notice how the runnels of a brain seem like the paths in a maze. So, the killers are not only embodiments of things we fear—monsters and things that go bump in the night—they are also fear itself, the things dwelling in our mind that we do not consciously acknowledge, waiting deep at the heart of the labyrinth.
What we are dealing with is an archetype, something that speaks to the very depths of the human condition. A frightening monster on one hand, and some form of heroine who is capable of surviving the monster, or even overcoming them at times, on the other. It could be argued that the “final girls” who are so vital to the genre represent the better part of ourselves, the part that is able to face the id of our own mind. Whatever the truth, these images are seemingly hardwired into us, which explains why the Slashers of the ‘80s and ‘90s remain so iconic.
However, Slashers fell away during the Noughties and early 2010s. Perhaps the market was oversaturated? Perhaps the law of diminishing returns finally kicked in? A few failed reboots and sequels kicked the reputation of the genre into the dust. The creative spark was lost. All of these are possible, but I think these reasons are only part of why Slashers went away. The other part has to do with how our tastes and interests reflect what is really going on in our cultural psyche.
In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, a certain type of horror was in. But, at the turn of the millennium, we saw the rise of the Psychological Thriller and the decline of Horror in general. Thrillers dominated the Noughties and 2010s, both in cinema and in the literary world. Titles such as Before I Go To Sleep, The Girl On The Train, and Gone Girl (all of which are books and movies), in which the real enemy is often memory or perspective, replaced the crazed killers of an earlier epoch. There are a number of reasons why our tastes could have shifted so drastically. One is perhaps that the escalation of mass-shootings in the US, and the terrorist attack of 9/11, which made the killers of old-school Slashers seem, relatively speaking, quaint. With the rise of Psychological Thrillers also came a rise in Spy and Crime Thrillers, in which Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, or another hero with the initials J. B. has to stop a terrorist attack: a bomb, a WMD, a catastrophe of nuclear proportions. One might argue that James Bond existed long before any of these and contemporaneously with the Slashers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but note how Bond has changed from a suave spy into an action hero, how the plots he must foil are increasingly global in scale. This shift from fearing sickos with knives to fearing bombs going off in the middle of populated cities reflects a (very understandable) cultural anxiety that has dominated for 20 years.
However, whilst this shift was inevitable and certainly had just cause, it moved prevailing cinema and literature away from archetypal and mythological roots that imbue it with deeper meaning. Bombs are scary but they are impersonal. We can represent explosions on the screen, but often it devolves into spectacle over emotional resonance. There is a reason that, with this shift towards modern fears, came a pining for ‘80s and ‘90s memorabilia like never before. And furthermore, much criticism levelled at the “emptiness” of modern cinema. Whilst it would be easy to dismiss these kind of remarks as simply one generation’s nostalgia, or comments by people who are out of touch with today’s society, there is clearly a disconcerting ring of truth to it. It isn’t just one generation saying it, either: many younger creators and critics I know remark often that “they don’t make them like they used to”. Whilst I don’t fall strictly into either camp—there are plenty of recent films I adore, though they tend to be independently produced—it’s worth reflecting on what this means, because a society’s artistic output reflects its fears, hopes, and psychological abherrances. Horror in particular exemplifies this. What are we really scared of? Once it was clowns and dream-rapists and swamp-things. Now, it is something else. We’ve shifted from highly personalised demons such as Freddy Krueger to the impersonal fear of societal destruction and catastrophe. Or, we had. Things are changing.
The world moves in seasons and cycles, and we’re currently experiencing something of a revival of Slashers. The Halloween reboot exploded onto the cinema screen in 2018, and the sequel, Halloween Kills, which came out October of this year. Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians won not only the Bram Stoker but also the Shirley Jackson award. Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group is a love-letter to the genre that has smashed the bestseller lists. Whilst there is a healthy dose of trepidation for Scream 5, given that it will lack the brilliance of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, there is also a great deal of excitement. Love them or hate them (I am personally in the former camp), the Fear Street movies on Netflix have been voraciously devoured across the world. This resurrection of the genre indicates yet another cultural shift, and perhaps a welcome one.
The intimacy of the Slasher genre seems more appropriate to us, given that most of our worlds shrank drastically as a result of Covid-19 and lockdown. Sadly, domestic violence rose dramatically during this period, and it is likely that many of us had to confront demons, be they people we live with, skeletons in our families’ past, or even more profoundly: within our own minds. The modern world, with its rapid pace and relentless insistence of busyness, has a tendency to drown out reflection. Lockdown forced many of us to turn our attention inward for the first time, and perhaps not all of us liked what we saw in this interior and neglected world. The swamp of the unconscious is a perfect home, after all, for the Grendel-terror to come forth from. I am only guessing, of course, and there is no single, true answer to “why”. But certainly, the personal nature of Slashers, where people are not just blown up en masse but almost lovingly killed (and yes, often psycho-sexually as well), does seem to correlate with our current psychological temperament and the altered cultural norm.
We’re not quite there yet, however. The new Slasher revival has some teething problems, the main one being that we still seem to be either regurgitating the same franchises, or else deconstructing the genre with modern twists to such an extent that it no longer has the mythological feel and scope of the haunting originals. I cannot help but think we are due a true, original Slasher, something condensed from the psychic cultch of the western world, fermented in the fear of Covid and the pressures of lockdown, and imbued with a mania born out of 20 years of repression. We are due not just the sequel and reboot of the Slasher, but the glorious claw-out-of-the-grave resurrection.
And I want to be in the front row seat when it airs.
Joseph Sale is a novelist and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his fantasy epic Dark Hilarity. He grew up in he Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as You Are Not Alone (Storgy), Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.
Dark Hilarity —
Tara Dufrain and Nicola Morgan are eleven year old girls growing up in the ‘90s, obsessed by Valentine Killshot, a metal screamo band. In particular, they’re enamoured by the lead singer, the mysterious yet charismatic Jed Maine who bears the epithet “The Cretin”. In Jed’s lyrics, he describes a world beyond the Dark Stars that he hopes one day to reach. The girls think it’s all just make-believe they share together, until a freak, traumatic incident makes this world very real. As adults, Tara and Nicola try to come to terms with the devastating catastrophe that changed their lives growing up, but to do so they will have to step once more into Jed Maine’s world, and confront the man who took everything from them. Dark Hilarity is My Best Friend’s Exorcism meets The Never-Ending Story, a fantasy that explores addiction, depression, and the healing power of friendship.