Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Monstrous Years: Teens, Slasher Films, and the Family

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Monstrous Years: Teens, Slasher Films, and the Family

Article excerpt

IN 1978, HALLOWEEN HERALDED a new subgenre of horror, the teen slasher film. Combining inventive violence and a clever, eerily evocative suburban mise-en-scène with engaging, believable, contemporary teen protagonists and a superhuman killer, director and co-writer John Carpenter created a new, effective type of film thriller. There were earlier films that featured teen-aged protagonists, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Carrie (1976), some of them gorier and almost all of them more expensively made,1 but Carpenter's camera work and narrative style distinguished HaIloween from these predecessors. Accompanied by creepy piano music composed by Carpenter, the Steadicam roams through the small town streets, stalking the victims. Its point-of-view merges into and out of the killer's; every innocuous movement is made suspicious, every suburban commonplace menacing. The suburban haven, away from the dangers of the city, not only fails to protect its children, it has become the breeding ground of living nightmares unknown to urban landscapes.

In films following Halloween, suburban and small town teenagers are put in danger time and again, at home, at school, at camp, and on holiday. These films seem to mock white flight to gated communities, in particular the attempts of parents to shield their children from the dangerous influences represented by the city: widespread crime, easy access to drugs, unsupervised friendships. The danger is within, the films seem to say; the horror derives from the family and from the troubling ordeal of being a late-twentieth-century teenager. Several critics have noted horror films' overt relation to and covert dependence on the American family, and I rely on their excellent discussions in the argument that follows.2 My focus is much narrower than the general category of horror, however, and much more punctual. I focus on teen slasher films, posit the reason for their arrival in the late 19705, their modifications through the years, and their recent parodie incarnations.

Slasher Roots

Linked to a tradition of horror whose inception is most often located in English gothic, contemporary horror films extend and revise themes that dominated earlier horror films. Critics generally fix the beginning of English gothic in the second half of the eighteenth century, with Horace WaIpole's The Castle ofOtranto (1764).3 Contemporary horror plays out many of the defining characteristics of the gothic: defenseless heroines; suppressed passions; unspeakable desires; fearful landscapes and haunted, uncanny interiors; untrustworthy and suspicious relations and relationships; terrifying uncertainty and stifling knowledge; familial secrets and their dreadful exposure; and jarring juxtapositions of the moral and the monstrous, the sexual and the grotesque, the virtuous and the violent.

Mark Edmundson believes that contemporary horror films representa degradation of the gothic tradition. He explains that the initial wave of gothic fiction afforded a "means of insight," a "vitalizing effect" (xiii) in its revelation, in darkened shades, of a world of layered complexity. He finds that most of today's gothic does no such thing, calling contemporary gothic (as manifested in selected films, sordid confessional television talk shows, the reporting and analysis of the O. ). Simpson trial, and some recent fiction), "no-fault, dead-end and politically impotent" (68). The attraction of this latter type of gothic, Edmundson explains, is that it "offers epistemological certainty; it allows us to believe that we've found the truth" (68). The truth is that the world is a hopeless, terrifying nightmare.

For Edmundson, gothic despair is a salve, a manufactured, albeit gloomy, meaning that relieves us of making meanings of our own, of living through an engagement with "the complexity of our problems and the breadth of our responsibilities" (68). It is also a catalyst for what Edmundson calls "a culture of facile transcendence," a contemporary willingness to look for salvation in the forms of simplistic pop psychologies and group therapies, psychic hotlines, uplifting popular novels and self-help books, narratives of angelic intercession and spiritual redemption, and "fantasies of renewal" such as Forrest Gump and Iron John (179). …

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