Hearths of Darkness
by Tony Williams

Chain Saw Massacres: The Apocalyptic Dimension

. . . The 1980s saw a drastic change in the form and character of the American horror film. In 1980 a work appeared that heralded the genre's degeneration - Friday the 13th. This film initiated another subgeneric movement variously entitled "slasher" or "stalker" film. Although most commentators dismiss these films as worthless trash, they are symptomatic of their particular era and deserve attention. The phenomenon did not emerge un heralded. As part of a corpus described as "Reaganite Entertainment," they belong to a cultural movement that gained momentum in the 1970s, erupting during the next decade. These visually repugnant and thematically debased "slasher" films belong to an apocalyptic dimension influencing contemporary horror. Works such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973), Race with the Devil (1975), Eaten Alive (1977), The Brood (1979), The Funhouse, Scanners (both 1981), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986), and Leatherface (1988) exemplify a particular apocalyptic vision moving from disclosing family contradictions toward self-indulgent nihilism. . .(p. 183).

. . .Although Jason, Michael, and Freddy lack explicit supernatural attributes, their various resurrections exemplify punitive biblical atavistic actions against youthful transgressors. "The horror film, even as it steadily ignores the supernatural, becomes the best representation of the hold of Old Testament moralism in popular culture, a hold enhanced by dominant ideology." Stability collapses. Family figures in the various Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street films appear weak and ridiculous. But nothing further results. As Sharrett notes, "The apocalyptic at work momentarily inoculates the spectator with criticisms of a failing dominant order, but then reneges on this criticism by denying that there is any worth in carrying this critical process through to a conclusion." Instead there is only despair and a collective death wish involving cinematic sacrificial victims articulating fears within the audience's psyche. . . (p. 184).

The Return of Kronos

. . .The reactionary nature of 1980s horror represents a culture in crisis attempting to deny social breakdown. Teen characters escape either into random sexual experiences or other avenues (drugs, comic books, rock music). Contemporary horror films attempt to inoculate the radical potentialities of the Gothic by abandoning the monster's identification with the return of the repressed. However, although these films try to remove the monster from its cultural context and identify characters with dominant social norms, they are never totally successful. In contrast to a commonly held belief, family horror films did not die in the 1980s. It took on a new form. Films such as Grave of the Vampire and Black Christmas (both 1974) anticipated motifs within the Friday the 13th, Halloween, Poltergeist, and Nightmare on Elm Street series. The monster is now the patriarchal father. . . (p. 211).

. . .The brutal slaughter and high body count within various slasher films articulate deep-seated fears of insecurity. In an era reacting against supposed permissiveness of earlier decades and lacking viable radical alternatives, there is no exit for those hesitant to follow conformist patterns. Childhood experience no longer remains sheltered from a violent world as kids within the Child's Play series and Craven's The People under the Stairs (1991) discover. During a sequence played for laughs, but having disturbing consequences beyond the "in-joke" context in Friday the 13th Part VI, Jason Lives (1986), one sleeping eight-year-old has a copy of Sartre's No Exit on his bed. Cynically bemused at Megan's survival tactics, he sees himself as little more than "dead meat" for Jason. Before an expected sacrificial holocaust, his companion calmly responds, "So what were you going to be when you grew up?". . . (p. 212).

. . .Despite reductive formulas and gratuitous special effects, the Friday the 13th series contain family elements. The basic conservative formula appears in Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980). A stalker who ritually slaughters promiscuous teenagers proves to be Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). She is avenging her deceased son, Jason. She is a phallic avenging mother, speaking with his voice ("Kill her Mummy. Kill her"). Although Alice (Adrienne King) wins the battle, she loses the war. A nightmare epilogue shows Jason emerging from Camp Crystal Lake to drag her beneath the depths. In the prologue to Steve Miner's Friday the 13th, Part II (1981), Jason returns to slaughter a no-longer resourceful, terrified Alice. Before Alice dies, she answers a phone call from her dominating mother, an even hardly coincidental because Jason continues mother's disciplinary mission in the film.

. . .Although Ginny (Amy Steel) recognizes Jason as a "child trapped in a man's body. .. The only person he knew was his mother," she can only survive by masquerading as his deceased phallic mother. Any intuitive feminist sympathy with the monster's plight becomes lost. Jason's hut is a religious shrine with mother's decapitated head as a holy object. Although Ginny survives, she is in a state of "severe hysterical shock." Friday the 13th, Part II ends with a track-in shot to the real winner, Mrs. Voorhees; Although dead her decapitated head displays an active malignant influence.

. . .Miner's Friday the 13th, Part III (1982) continues Ginny's insights into Jason's violence which possibly results from child abuse. It initially identifies him with a future victim - inadequate, unloved teenager Shelley. Shelley plays scary practical jokes and wears masks (one of which is Jason's hockey mask!). In an early scene he actually staggers around with a fake axe in his head, anticipating Jason's demise. Although marginal in the film, these scenes suggest Jason's violent acts represent repressed family rage which originates from abuse and neglect. However patriarchal violence still wins. Mrs. Voorhees assaults survivor Chris (Dawn Kimmel) in traumatic nightmares while Jason's executioner, young Tommy (Corey Feldman), takes on his role in the climax of Joseph Zito's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).