Any horror fan who grew their first pubic hairs during the golden age of the genre in the ’80s has a special place in their cold, dead hearts for slasher movies. How could we not? We were surrounded by game changing flicks like Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a VHS darling in my neck of the woods), and A Nightmare on Elm Street. And then there were the likes of Maniac, The Burning, Madman, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night and so many others, good and very, very bad. It seemed like every month there was a new villain hacking his way through scores of pot smoking, beer swilling, hormone raging teens and twenty-somethings.
As much as I loved monsters, having feasted on everything Universal had to offer and the nuclear age beasts of the fifties and sixties, I became a slasher fanatic. I can’t tell you how many times I rented The Hills Have Eyes or April Fool’s Day. It got to the point where I spent more time fiddling with the tracker than actually sitting back and enjoying the tension and gore. Best part of the ’80s—we were getting a ton of new slasher movies in the theater and hacking our way through the ones that had come out earlier that were now on video tape. Is it strange that The Last House on the Left was considered family viewing in my house? Black Christmas became something I wanted in my stocking. And of course there was Psycho and Alice, Sweet Alice and the Italian movies that never made much sense to me, but hey, people died in savage ways, so that was cool.
What I never stopped to ask myself as I was consuming so much human misery was this—why the fuck were all these slasher movies hitting my sweet spot? I mean, what in the unholy hell is wrong with anyone who takes delight in watching a remorseless killer chase and slay everyone who steps within their sightline?
Monsters are cool and can be fun. They’re so removed from reality, they can be enjoyed just like sitting back and gorging on Tom and Jerry. Vampires are spooky and can be sexy, but again, I don’t think I’m ever going to run into one in the dead of night. Ghosts can raise your short hairs, but they don’t (typically) kill. Those movies are all about tension and suspense. Possession movies tug on predominantly Catholic guilt and fears of never being good enough for a free pass to Heaven, but they’re usually so over the top, you again don’t feel threatened by them.
I grew up in the Bronx, and some psycho killing you for kicks was all too real. Lucky us, we moved when I was a kid to Yonkers and spent an entire summer terrified of The Son of Sam who turned out to be just another friendly neighbor.
Slashers scare us because hell, we can fall victim to some lunatic at any time. This is why a movie like Maniac is so goddamn disturbing. It feels real. I once ran into Joe Spinell in a club in the ’80s and even though I knew he was just an actor, he freaked me the hell out. I left my illegally purchased beer half-full on the bar and went straight home. The Shea movie night favorite of Last House on the Left was no laughing matter. I know I listened extra hard those nights for any strange sounds after we went to bed, and lived in fear of a stranger knocking on our door after dark.
Then came Jason, and sure, he was one scary dude, but what I and everyone else around me wanted to see was exactly how he was going to lay waste to the hapless cast. The crowds in the theaters erupted in applause with every arrow through the chest, beheading with a sharp slap to the face, machete to the throat and head crushing until an eyeball popped out—in 3-D no less!
Other slashers had to step up their game in a kind of Mousetrap fashion to elicit oohs and cringes when teeny boppers bit it hard. It became a game, devising fresh hells to visit upon buxom babes and tight-jeaned dudes. Whether it was a blender to the face or a band saw to a crotch, we loved every minute of it. And we still do. A flick like You’re Next is both an extension of and an homage to the slasher movies of the ’80s. Sharni Vinson is the baddest bitch on the planet in the movie that resurrected Barbara Crampton’s career (can I get an amen!) and man, does she prove to the baddies that crime doesn’t pay.
I ask again. Why? Yes, the idea of a killer is genuinely scary in that it is based in real life, a potential vision of what’s to come. But I doubt there’s an immortal guy in a hockey mask or a Catskills comedian waiting for me in my dreams. So is it more about the kills? Well, yeah. The killers can be fun and all, but show me how that couple having unprotected sex—and without a wedding ring!—are going to be ripped to shreds. I want to see what Mr. Slasher can come up with after a visit to the tool shed or a well-stocked kitchen or the general store after smashing the window in with a parking meter.
I know other, more scholarly people than me have tackled this very question to varying degrees of satisfying success. I’m going to lay it out real simple for the rest of us who don’t feel like breaking something down as exhilarating as a horror movie into an academic exercise in boredom.
Are you ready?
It’s simply this. When we watch these victims fall, it comes down to the phrase, “Better them than me.” We don’t identify with the victims, but we do like to mentally paste the faces of the rude buttwad who checked us out at the store or the neighbor who lets his dog shit all over our lawn onto the bodies of the people hanging from a meat hook. And then we can sit back, shovel some popcorn in our mouths and chuckle, “Better them than me.”
We all like to think that when bad shit goes down, whether it’s a home invasion, earthquake or zombie apocalypse, we’ll be the last ones standing. When we watch a slasher flick, we know that other than the final girl, we are the last ones left alive. Better all those suckers got the life choked out of them. They probably deserved it anyway. Because aren’t we all a little misanthropic? Doesn’t rich veins of schadenfreude run through our blood? Jesus said to love your neighbor, but he never had to deal with the DMV or robo calls. When we watch a slasher movie, we get a little two for one. We get scared because of the hint of reality, and we take pleasure in watching those clumsy, cocky, snarky, stoned, misinformed, unfunny, lazy, lecherous, addle-brained, rich, poor, innocent, trashy gals and guys try to run but end up worm food.
Face it. We are some low down sons of bitches. Better them than me. I win!
And I think that’s great.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.