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Survivor Girl

by Amy Davis, October 2016

With the next four posts, Amy takes a look at female archetypes in horror, specifically the modern slasher movie.

Not being a slasher fan, I must say I did learn quite a lot from reviewing her work and did a bit of investigating into the genre myself.

Rich

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The “survivor girl” (or “final girl”) kills to make it through her perils. She is also the one most willing to save others. When her efforts fail, she grieves her loss, which often exacts an emotional toll on her.

If the survivor girl is in a group of that outlasts the killer she will return throughout the franchise (the follow-up films). Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an early popular example of this formula. Sally is the only one to escape Leatherface (he is masked) by flagging down a trucker. Leatherface flings his chainsaw around in frustration implying she is the first to escape him. Sally sets the tone for Leatherface’s defeats at the hands of women in the rest of the series.

the_texas_chain_saw_massacre_1974_theatrical_posterIt’s also worth mentioning that Chainsaw establishes another horror archetype, the psychological killer.

And while we are offering up side notes, Anthony Peraino’s Bryanston Films produced and distributed Chainsaw.

The Perainos were the mobsters who also financed Deep Throat (1972), the movie that initiated the modern era of adult film, and used Bryanston as a legitimate cover to distribute that film.

They jolted American culture with off-the-wall violence in one production and hardcore sex in another, forever changing how we regard free speech in film and slamming the door for good on the puritanical Hayes Code that dominated Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.

The Slumber Party Massacre films (1982, 1987, 1990) pits scantily clad girls against The Driller Killer. the_slumber_party_massacre_film_posterWhile this doesn’t sound like an improvement for the empowered female, the film series, written and directed by women incidentally, is actually meant to be a slasher parody though it was received as straightforward horror.

In that same vein, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) includes a survivor girl who faces her fears and destroys the evil disfigured Freddy Kruger.

The Virgin Question

In these early films, there was one unfaltering rule every horror filmmaker followed: the virgin lives. If she doesn’t have sex with anyone and tends to abstain from drinking and drugs, she becomes a model “survivor girl” ensuring that our culturally programmed moral ethos emerges victorious.

A shift in the survivor girl archetype begins with Scream (1996) when the character Randy so famously recites the rules for a horror film. “Number one, you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?” So our heroine, Sidney, remains virginal through most of the film before facing the mysterious killer known as Ghostface.  (He wears mask, of course. Freddy doesn’t need one, he’s burn victim.)

scream-1996In a twist in the tale, Ghostface turns out to be her boyfriend.

By the way, Sidney’s deceased mother is referred to as a whore and the sexual conquests of the other survivor girl, Gale Weathers, are suggested as the film progresses.

These references are intentional. By outlining the rules of horror and then smashing them, Director Wes Craven makes it clear that the virginal archetype needs to be called into question and does so when Sidney and Gale become familiar faces in the Scream franchise.

In the 2009 production Laid to Rest, the main character Princess, who has amnesia, sees a videotape of her former life as a prostitute. When the murderous Chromeskull (you guessed it, it’s a mask) abducts her, she defies the whore stereotype and makes it to the end.

In other words, a checkered sexual pass is not a deterrent to survival.

The Good Girl Revisited

Currently horror is taking a more subtle approach to the survivor girl as the stereotypical good girl.

In the Hatchet series (2006, 2010, 2013), Marybeth is called poor white trash, suggesting that she may not be virginal. However, her sexual status is irrelevant to the plot so it’s not addressed. She rebuffs any advances because they interfere with her vain attempts to eliminate the deformed swamp creature, Victor Crowley (back to disfigurement as a disguise). Protecting her virtue is given little thought. After all, she has a series of films ahead of her.poster-hatchet

As part of the slasher movie mystic, most survivor girls brush off unwanted advances due to lack of interest or wanting to stay a virgin. That’s fortunate because the narratives do stick to the old formula of anyone (male or female) being outwardly sexual dies.

But times are changing and perhaps the modern sexually active woman who sits in the audience is more accepting of the non-virgin heroine . . . and keep in mind that consumer dollars drive any industry.

The Purge (2013) deals with this in subtle fashion. The heroine Mary outlasts her tribulations. By the way, this film has a political message about the class system and how America treats its veterans. No one cares that Mary has had sex; they do care about her surviving Purge night because she has children to raise.

The survivor girl’s sexual history (or lack there of) is becoming more and more irrelevant. All we care about is her overcoming whatever obstacles are in her way.

Speaking of Mary, next we’ll look at another horror archetype, the “mother.”

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Gender Equality in Horror

by Amy Davis, October 2016

I’m taking a break for the next few days and handing over to my social media person the treat, if you will, of posting her thoughts on feminism in film.

Amy’s been with me for awhile, initially as a research assistant and reader for my first book. She does some writing on her own and with the upcoming posts explores  female empowerment in the horror genre.

Yours truly added a bit of editing and will introduce each of the posts over the next few days.

So enjoy and learn something new!

Rich

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As Halloween approaches I’d like to talk about a film genre that is too often classified as misogynistic and anti-woman: horror.

At its core, the horror tradition holds puritanical values especially if the films have supernatural themes. For example, characters messing with black magic, Ouija boards, or other methods of contacting the dead will soon find themselves among them. Likewise, the mad scientists or magic makers reanimating corpses while ignoring local superstition will see the pitchfork crowd destroy their work.

And if that’s not enough, they often face death themselves as the film closes.

them-movie-poster-10202519211In other words, playing God does not work in horror because the message is clear: science is the downfall of those who use it. Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein is a prime example of this anti-science theme.

Not until the horror narrative blends with science fiction does the focus shift to science as savior, a trope that runs through much of horror cinema popularized in the 1940s and the atomic-age classics of the 1950s.

While these films use science for the horror element (aliens, giant bugs, etc.), the populace often runs to their local oddball scientist for help.

So science becomes good versus evil in an age of unthinkable annihilation. In other words, technology causes the crisis and can also solve it. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Them! (1954), and The Blob (1958) are famous offerings in this nuclear age subgenre.

By the 1970s and 80s, horror is modernized but still reflects the folktale themes popular in the pre-World War II days when Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves were standard fare.

This new wave of films means that the typical ghost story or evil powers tale like The Omen, The Blair Witch Project, and Rosemary’s Baby competes with a new element, the urban legend and the demented weirdo of the slasher film.rosemarys-baby

In the posts of this series, the slasher product is our central focus with a preference for the horror feminist and the archetypes that emerge around her.

The Dichotomy

Here’s how the slasher genre works using a frequently repeated theme. Young people, usually teens or college students, escape supervision so they can drink, do drugs, and have sex. Unfortunately, all this “partying” becomes an automatic death sentence, much to the delight of the audience. In other words, the puritanical values reinforced in Hollywood film from the 1930s through the 1960s are still around and deviant behavior that violates society’s conservative norms must be punished.

While at their core these anti-social activities conflict with society’s predominant religious values, over the years modern audiences have become younger and more progressive. To get a broader range of people into the theaters, things had to change. The emergence of the strong female character was a major update.

tumblr_m2wow5ka9m1qzr8nao1_1280We normally don’t view the perversities in horror as conduits for pro-woman empowerment but that is the dichotomy of the genre. Though films like Blood Feast (1963), Bloodsucking Freaks (1976), and Snuff (1976) were condemned for their treatment of women, they became more enticing for moviegoers because of their perverse eroticism.

Some critics claimed women were there to die a violent death, which wasn’t completely untrue. To be fair it’s a horror film and most characters, male or female, die anyway.

Stereotype 

Most of the time when a horror film focuses on a group of young people it is evenly distributed between the sexes so that “hooking up” flavors the story line. The result is men are more likely to exit the scene early when the slaughtering wacko shows up. The boys will always go check out the strange noise alone, for example.

This plays into the stereotype of the male ego as a counterpoint to the frail female as can be seen in the old urban legend about the hook-handed killer. the-hook-01The girl would not leave the car or fornicate because she swore she heard something eventually causing her frustrated boyfriend to check it out. For her it’s safety first. In fact, most horror films have a female survivor that lasts until the closing credits.

As a result, the “survivor girl” emerges as a catchall for any woman who lives to the end. While she is a modern staple in horror, she is not alone.

Other females designed to fit the plot line are the mother, the revenge killer, and the female killer, with some of them taking on the characteristics of feminism.

We begin with the “survivor girl,” a shift that starts in the feminist-oriented 1970s when the female fighting to live becomes commonplace. However, despite being updated, the survivor girl remains an oversimplification in an often-oversimplified genre.

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