Motive of Murder

An Analysis of Slasher Films

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Anthony Galati & Cailee Dennis

Many people feel that the most exciting and thrilling genres of film are horror and Slasher films. Fear is one of the strongest emotions that one can feel because it attaches itself to your mind and body for an all-over experience. The fear you get from horror films is exciting because you’re putting yourself in the movie and in that situation, and you’re feeling those emotions… but in the end you know that you’ll be okay because it’s not real. And even though not all horror films are actually horrifying, they have a deeper level of artistic thought put into them, which makes the story more visually and emotionally appealing and effective.

Our strong interest in horror and fear led us to further analyze the elements of Slasher films, and more specifically, the motive of murder behind the popular characters Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. These men are the most iconic Slasher villains of all time, spanning across three decades of remakes and sequels. We’d like to take the time to reflect over how Slasher films have formed and developed over the years, and go into detail about some of the elements of what a Slasher film really is. But most importantly, we would like to analyze the method behind the madness in the lives of the three killers to try and understand why they end up committing these horrible acts of violence.

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Slasher films are synonymously known for being “teen thrill” films – and for a good reason. Most Slashers contain a mixture of the same ingredients; a group of young, promiscuous teens, a troubled murderer, and a ton of shock techniques used to make the audience jump. And of course, all of these things appeal to young teens that are looking for a good scare.

There have been countless Slasher films over the years, and the film Thirteen Women was at the forefront of it all in 1932. Being the first film to gain the “Slasher” title, it led to films such as The Leopard Man (1943), which was one of the first to leave the identity of the murderer a secret until the end. Not to mention one of the best known and most influential of early Slasher films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

__http://youtu.be/0WtDmbr9xy__

This film was first viewed as “low budget” and received mixed reviews, but box office sales proved different. It received four Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actress and Best Director and is now ranked along with the best horror films of all time. The US Library of Congress considers it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, thus selecting it to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

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There are said to be three different categories of Slasher films: a Splatter Film, an Italian Giallo, and an Exploitation Film. Splatter Films are filled with excessive amounts of gore, blood, and violence. The “Godfather of Gore”, Herschell Gordon Lewis directed the film Blood Feast in 1963 which contained more levels of blood and gore that had been “previously unseen” in film. Italian Giallo films played quite a significant role in Slasher films. They typically containmysterious killers, driving soundtracks, and explicit violence. This gave the films more elements of depth and suspense because it leaves the audience questioning each action throughout the movie. The Girl Who Knew Too Much directed by Mario Bava in 1963 was the very first film to use this method.

(__http://youtu.be/oOvzEnRsFFE__)

He played a huge role in Slashers, which led to a whole new wave of Italian Giallo films. Exploitation Films are probably the most relevant to what we know as a true Slasher film today. Elements of explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, gore, destruction, rebellion and/or mayhem are the main features. These were used because they are a cheap and easy way to create a low budget film with enough action to make them stand out to the audience. (Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers, p. 23-37) One of the most controversial Exploitation Films was Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left directed by Sean Cunningham in 1972.

(__http://youtu.be/8W9KPhmYYtg__)

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Aside from different categories, Slasher films come in two flavors; either they are shot from a “whodunit” angle where the identity of the killer is a mystery the entire time, or the killer is known from the start and he is typically the main character. Vera Dika wrote the book Games of Terror in which she breaks down each element of horror films. She goes into detail about each character within a Slasher film. They typically contain a hero, killer, victims, the first victim, the final girl, the adults, and the police. She also sees that Slasher films have one of three effects on the audience:

Catharsis: Through a release of fears about bodily injury of from political

or social tensions

Recreation: An intense, thrill seeking, physical experience akin to a roller coaster ride

Displacement: Audiences sexual desires are displaced onto the characters in the film

(Game of Terror, p. 53)

She also believes that Slasher films must follow this set formula:


Past events

1. The young community is guilty of a wrongful action.

2. The killer sees an injury, fault or death.

3. The killer experiences a loss.

4. The killer kills the guilty members of the young community

Present events

1. An event commemorates the past action.

2. The killer's destructive force is reactivated.

3. The killer re-identifies the guilty parties.

4. A member of the old community tries to warn the young community (optional).

5. The young community takes no heed.

6. The killer stalks members of the young community.

7. A member of some type of force like a detective etc., attempts to hunt down the killer.

8. The killer kills members of the young community.

9. The hero/heroine sees the extent of the murders.

10. The hero/heroine sees the killer.

11. The hero/heroine does battle with the killer.

12. The hero/heroine kills or subdues the killer.

13. The hero/heroine survives.

14. But the hero/heroine is not free.

(Games of Terror, p. 67)

Now that we’ve established the history of Slasher films, we can delve into the motive behind the murders. Three of the most prominent and staple works in the Slasher genre are the franchises of Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween. By analyzing the backstory of the antagonists of these three films, we are able to see the motives behind the Slasher figure and learn why he kills when he kills. We can also see the universal characteristics of the Slasher killer which can be found in almost every Slasher film.

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In Jason’s backstory, from the Friday the 13th franchise, we find a true Slasher film rarity. This rarity is the female Slasher, it is almost unheard of in the genre. To give a very brief summary, Jason’s mother is actually the first antagonist of the franchise, Jason himself doesn’t kill anyone in the first movie. Her son, Jason, drowns at a summer camp he was attending and she was actually the cook at. Learning of his drowning she begins killing all the counselors because they were out partying instead of attending to the children late at night when Jason drowned. She continued to wreak havoc on the camp to ensure that no one would ever drown there again. Eventually, she tries killing the last survivor of a new set of counselors but is overcome and beheaded by her. The counselor who killed Jason’s mom did so with a machete which gives reason as to why that is his weapon of choice. The weapon of choice aspect is a recurring characteristic within the Slasher genre, though it isn’t always necessary it does help build the identity of the otherwise mysterious killer (Cunningham, 1980).

Jason drowned because he was trying to prove the tormenting kids wrong who teased him about his inability to swim. Jason was a deformed child which is worth mentioning. The idea of being an outcast and the subject of some sort of cruel treatment is another prevalent theme in the life of the Slasher killer.

(__https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0Imr4Qm38Q&feature=youtu.be__)

As we learned earlier, the obvious motive of revenge that Jason takes up for his own cruel treatment is also very common but Jason has another rather unique motive which is that of his mother’s death. Jason is not only seeking revenge but he is also avenging, this is not completely unique to the genre but encompassing both motives in within one character is. I wouldn’t dare to say that Friday the 13th was meant to teach a lesson on the effects bullying can have on children, but in its bloody gruesome story telling, it displays a character consumed by rage and fueled by revenge brought on by the unacceptance and ridicule from his peers. As we know today, psychologically, bullying can create a similar sort of destructive monster that may wreak havoc on others or himself.

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In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first movie of the franchise, we meet Freddy Krueger whose background story is much more ambiguous. We are told that Freddy was a serial child murderer who was not able to be convicted by law so the parents of the town got together and burned him to death.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlLo-6Rh3Zs)

It is important to note that all of these three films (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween) were seminal films for the Slasher genre so they weren’t following its conventions as much as they were creating them.

(__https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=609GY6-QDSg&feature=youtu.be__)

With that being said, we go back to Freddy’s character makeup and find a character who was initially bad (a child murderer) before he seeks to revenge his death. There seems to be no explanation for why this man is cruel, but that he is pure evil. This does not fit the archetype Slasher killer. It isn’t until the franchise progresses to about the third film, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, that we begin to have a better understanding of Freddy’s past. Freddy’s mother was a nun who was brutally raped by a hundred patients at the mental asylum that she worked. The event resulted in Freddy’s conception and after his birth he was adopted by an alcoholic, abusive man. Freddy’s adoptive father teaches him to hurt animals and himself as ways to deal with life. He teaches Freddy to do this with a razor which becomes his first murder weapon when he kills his father. The use of a razor develops into Freddy’s weapon of choice, the glove with razored fingers. In addition to this, Freddy was also ridiculed by kids in school about bring the bastard child of a nun and psychopaths. Now we understand where the evilness emerges from through the background of his story. Freddy begins murdering children because he was taught to inflict pain on helpless beings to deal with his own pain, and of course he is a bit of a sociopath (Shaye, 1984).

The familiar qualities of the Slasher film are now started to become evident. Freddy and Jason both suffer from a backstory of trauma and ridicule which creates the heinous creature that they become. When watching these films though, they do not at all same like the same story. What sets them apart so much is how the antagonist kills. In Friday the 13th, Jason simply attacks with vicious swings of his machete. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy attacks his victims in their dreams. When Freddy was burned to death he didn’t resurrect in the way that Jason did, he was limited to only surviving within dreams. Occasionally, Freddy enter the human world when people pull him out of their dreams and at that point he is reduced to the human form. He has no superhuman powers or strength and is finally vulnerable in the human world. In this way Freddy and Jason differ greatly. It is also important to note that Freddy’s character is much more sexual which becomes evident by the way he attacks his characters. The most important concept to recognize though is the initial evils that are experienced by the antagonists from fellow peers. While these movies may be so far detached from reality, this is a true experience that occurs for all people. Even Wes Craven himself, director and writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street, admits that the Freddy Krueger character was named after a childhood bully (Wooley, 2011). This proves that true parallels and experiences exist within the foundation of the Slasher killer.

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Finally, we are introduced to our last character and arguably the most influential Slasher antagonist, Michael Myers. The Halloween franchise was the first to emerge of these three franchises, so it became a preeminent Slasher film. In Halloween we meet Michael Myers as a small child who after being neglected by his sister and her boyfriend, who were supposed to be babysitting him, murders them with a butcher knife (his weapon of choice) which he finds in the kitchen. Michael is then sent to a mental institution where he is kept for 15 years until he finally escapes and goes back to his old town in search for his last surviving sister, killing anything in his path. Throughout the entire first film Michael is constantly trying to track down and kill his remaining sister. Much like the first A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, we are introduced to a character with little backstory who is perceived as only an evil being. As we found in the Elm Street franchise, Freddy’s backstory finally began to shed light on while he was so evil but in the Halloween franchise that doesn’t really happen. The idea of the Michael Myers character was that he was a living representation of evil, as writer Debra Hill explains,

“...the idea was that you couldn't kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived. And when John came up with this fable of a town with a dark secret of someone who once lived there, and now that evil has come back, that's what made Halloween work” (Blake & Bailey, 2013, p.64).

In Halloween there was to be no purpose for Michael’s evil other than he was evil. It was the first film of its sort and being so, it didn’t follow the qualities most movies in its footsteps would come to do (Hill, 1978).

In 2007 the Halloween film that started it all was reimagined by newly acclaimed Horror movie director Rob Zombie. In this film, Michael Myers’ past was focused on more than ever before. Myers’ childhood is shaped by the abuse of his mother and her current boyfriend. Young Michael kills them both and is sent to a mental institution where he later breaks out of similar to the earlier film. This time though, when Michael returns to his hometown he does so to be with his sister who misinterprets his intentions and tries to kill him, thus starting the violent cat and mouse game (Akkad, 2007). In this version, Zombie recreates the original Halloween film to make its qualities match up with those of its Slasher proponents. In this movie Michael is more humanized, it suggests that human is not innately evil, like the original Michael Myers was, but that humans can act evilly in response to their environment.

It is plain to see, the Slasher genre is one of horror and gore but also of cruel and harsh beginnings. By analyzing the backstory of Jason, Freddy, and Michael we are able to understand why they have become awful killers. We see a clear representation of what the effects of abusive parenting and horrid mockery can have on people. We don’t necessarily sympathize with the murder but at times we are able to understand why they have made the horrible choices they have and realize that the hatred inside them was started from someone else.

References

13 Women. Dir. George Archainbaud. Prod. David O. Selznick. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932.

Akkad, M. (Producer), & Zombie, R. (Director). (2007). Halloween [Motion Picture]. United States: The Weinstein Company.

Blake, M. & Bailey, S. (2013). Writing the Horror Movie. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Blood Feast. Dir. Herschell G. Lewis. Prod. David Friedman. Box Office Spectaculars, 1963.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routlege, 1990. Print.

Cunningham, S. S. (Producer), & Cunningham, S. S. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th [Motion Picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Dika, Vera. Games of Terror a Definition, Classification, and Analysis of a Subclass of the Contemporary Horror Film, the Stalker Film 1978-1981. N.p.: n.p., 1985. Print.

The GIrl Who Knew Too Much. Dir. Mario Brava. Prod. Massimo De Rita. 1963.

Hanich, Julian. Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear. New York: Routlege, 2010. Print.

Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween [Motion Picture]. United States: Compass International Pictures.

Last House on the Left. Dir. Wes Craven. Hallmark Releasing Corp, 1972.

The Leopard Man. Dir. Edward Dein and Ardel Wray. 1943.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Janet Leigh, and Anthony Perkins. N.d

Shaye, R. (Producer), & Craven, W. (Director). (1984). A Nightmare on Elm Street [Motion Picture]. United States: New Line Cinema.

Welsh, Andrew, Ph.D. "Sex and Violence in the Slasher Horror Film: A Content Analysis of Gender Differences in the Depiction of Violence." (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Wooley, J. (2011). Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.