Recreational Terror
by Isabel C. Pinedo

The Acquisition of Insider Knowledge

. . .Repeated exposure to horror fiction constitutes a process of socialization that seasons the audience member. The competent audience acquires knowledge that conditions expectations about the genre. The genre, in turn, arouses, disappoints, and redirects these expectations. Innovations within instances of the genre, before they attain the status of cliche, ensure that the seasoning process is never complete. Even the most weathered audience is vulnerable to the possibility of innovation, to a shocking combination of elements that violates expectations based on preceding instances of the genre. The seasoned audience is familiar with narrative motifs and character types, with camera work and musical codes that warn of impending violence. When the adolescent rational skeptic wanders off into the woods of Crystal Lake (the preferred setting for Friday the 13th films), and the music takes on an ominous tone, can violence be far behind? Narrative pleasure derives from the intelligibility of the genre, from appreciating the deployment of generic conventions to discern the logic to the madness and from innovations that violate audience expectations.

. . .Insider knowledge is especially high in serial films such as Halloween, Fridaythe13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The serial audience shares the pleasure of privileged information about Michael, Jason, and Freddy, the respective killers in these films. As members of a competent audience, we can bask in the knowledge that we would not act as foolishly as the killer's victims; we would know what to do. Insider knowledge provides a measure of security. If we understand it, if we have some idea of what to expect, it becomes less menacing and we can brave it. In Aliens, when the search party nears the nest, those in the audience who have seen Alien know the soldiers are perilously close, but they are unaware of the danger. Even Ripley, the narrative link between the two films, does not know; she was not a member of the search party in the original film. This is the privileged position of the sequel audience. . .(p. 44-45)

The Slasher Film

. . .Drawing on Dika and Clover's discussions, the slasher narrative can be summarized as follows: A masked or hidden (largely off-screen) psychotic male propelled by psychosexual fury stalks and kills a sizeable number of young women and men with a high level of violence. The killer's rage derives from a traumatic childhood experience, which is recounted chronologically (e.g., Halloween) or in a flashback (e.g., Friday the 13th). The killer returns to the scene of the past event to reenact the violence. Although both women and men are killed, the stalking and killing of women is stressed. After a protracted struggle, a resourceful female usually subdues the killer, sometimes kills him, and survives. . .(p. 72)

By Any Means Necessary

. . .The surviving female's appropriation of the gaze enables her to use violence to defend herself effectively and to drive the narrative forward. We see him from her point of view. Indeed, the transition from the killer's point of view to the surviving female's point of view, which increases progressively in the second part of the film, is a pivotal shift that motivates audience identification with the surviving female. This shift in perspective culminates in the protracted struggle between the surviving female and the killer, which constitutes the climax of the film. During this sequence she is "abject terror personified" (Clover, 35). Preyed upon, tormented, and terrorized, she is pushed to the limit and driven to fight by any means necessary. The surviving female faces the daunting task of fighting a virtually indestructible attacker hell-bent on killing her, one who will not stay dead. She stabs him with a knife, hacks him with an ax, bludgeons him with a tree limb, lances him with a pitchfork, and gashes him with a chain saw. She fights with courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, and competence. In Halloween, Laurie bends a wire coat hanger to jab the killer in the eye, this piercing the opening in his protective mask. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy rigs up a series of booby traps using household devices and lures the killer into her trap. In The Stepfather, Stephanie fashions a knife from a broken shard of glass.

. . .Not only does she fashion weapons, the surviving female runs, screams, cries out for help, dodges blows, negotiates, and fights back with anything at her disposal. In other words, she employs the range of strategies which sociologists Pauline Bart and Patricia O'Brien (1984) argue are most effective in avoiding rape. When one strategy or weapon fails, she tries another, improvising from the materials and openings at hand. The most misogynous of the slasher films (e.g., The Entity) invariably play down this feminist element of the genre. But despite its misogynous inclinations, it must be acknowledged that horror, especially the slasher film, consistently shows women using self-defense effectively.

. . .This pattern has prevailed over time. Clover (p. 37) observes a shift from earlier films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre(1974) and Halloween(1978), where in the end women are saved by the intervention of men, to later films like Friday the 13th (1980), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2 (1986), and The Stepfather (1987), where women must rely on themselves to kill the killer and survive. The ascendance of this feature is borne out in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, where Barbara, virtually catatonic in the 1968 version, emerges in the remake as a fully self-reliant survivor. Moreover, this narrative convention has been appropriated by mainstream cinema. For instance, the resourceful female protagonists of Copycat (1995), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), and Blue Steel (1990) rescue themselves from murderous male psychotics by killing their pursuers at the conclusion of a protracted stalking sequence. Before Thelma and Louise there were Nancy and Stephanie and about a hundred other young women who fought back in the excoriated slasher film. . .(p. 76)

. . .To see the slasher film as an unmitigated celebration of male-on-female violence for a male audience is to ignore not only the surviving female but the female psychotic. Since the horror genre hinges on violating audience expectations, one variant of the twist ending is to cast a woman as monster, as in Friday the 13th. The female psychotic is an example of what Creed (1993,p.1) calls the "monstrous-feminine." Unlike Clover and Dika who focus on woman as the victim of the monster, Creed's focus is on woman as monster. Like Mulvey, she subscribes to the Freudian notion that women arouse castration anxiety in men, but questions that this is so simply because men perceive women as castrated. Creed contends that women strike terror in the hearts of men because men perceive women as castrating, a fear played out in intercourse as "the penis 'disappears' inside the woman's 'devouring mouth'" (Creed, p. 6). In marked contrast to Clover, Creed argues that far from allaying male fears, the slasher film works to keep castration anxiety alive in male viewers through the dual characterization of woman as castrated victim and castrating heroine (p. 127). Indeed, a substantial portion of the violence that the slasher film celebrates is female-on-male retaliatory violence. . .(p.80)

Race Horror

. . .The postmodern horror film violates the assumption that we live in a predictable world by demonstrating that we live in a minefield, a world in which the ideological construct of safety systematically unravels. The postmodern genre exposes the terror implicit in everyday life by locating it where it is ideologically least expected: a middle-class suburb in Halloween, a summer camp in Friday the 13th, the countryside in Night of the Living Dead. Because it seeks to disrupt everyday life and supplant security with paranoia, the genre locates the monster in an ideologically safe environment: the rural, innocent pastoral realm, or the suburb, the buffer zone removed from, and in opposition to the city, signifier of corruption. Horror films avoid locating monstrosity in the city where violence is, as a matter of public record, a routine element of everyday life.

. . .A word is in order here about which films this criteria excludes. Not all horror films that purportedly take place in a city do so (for example, Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan [1989] is a slasher film largely situated aboard a ship sailing to Manhattan, which bears only a tangential concern for race - the film throws in two gun-toting youths of ambiguous ethnicity). This slasher film cleverly exploited the iconoclastic urban twist in its title and ad campaign. The television ad featured Jason, the killer, standing on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade overlooking the Manhattan skyline to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Similarly, the subway poster campaign in New York condensed two icons - Jason's signature hockey mask and the "I Love New York" motto - by inscribing a hockey mask in place of the 'o' in the word 'love'. But despite this persistent invocation of the city, only two short scenes take place in Times Square. The scenes supposedly set on Manhattan's waterfront and subway system look nothing like Manhattan. Indeed, the film alludes to its Vancouver shooting location when Jason gazes quizzically at a billboard ad for a hockey league. . .(p. 113)