Slasher films (and occasionally TV shows) have been a critical and lucrative subgenre within horror for several decades. Its roots stem back to the 1920s with “madman on the loose” plots and giallo films of the 1960s. Psychological thrillers like Psycho also have a firm stamp in these types of films. But this subset really began to build its own place in horror during its ascent in the 1970s. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween established characters, tropes, and narratives that provide foundational concepts for slashers today. One of those crucial slasher film elements is having women as central characters.
They are rarely the antagonists in slashers but rather disposable victims or the ever-famous Final Girl. We know her: the survivor who makes it through (although not without loss and trauma). As the genre experiences yet another renaissance of sorts with films like Scream (2022), we must continually look at how slasher genre is evolving in terms its treatment of women and girls.
From an overarching perspective, it appears that a killer’s targets in slasher films are overwhelmingly women who die in gratuitously graphic and needlessly sexualized scenarios. But is this true? If the deaths are more “equal opportunity,” are there noticeable differences in methods and framing? And what does all of this suggest about the genre and us as a viewer collective?
Do Women Really Die More than Men in Slasher Films?
Of course, it is nearly impossible to do an official tally of all the men versus women who died in every slasher film in existence. But we can pull a few well-known examples to get a general gist. Let’s go back to the slasher genre’s Golden Age between the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In Halloween (1978), three of the four named character deaths are women. Sadly, two of them meet their fate after a sexual encounter. This isn’t shocking for this era. The “promiscuous” women die while the “good girl” survives (hello, Laurie Strode) reigns supreme. It seems like a pushback of sorts to the time period. Women’s revolutions raged against patriarchal double standards and inequities in favor of women gaining autonomy over their bodies and lives.
The original Friday the 13th (1980) film, however, piles up the bodies with more men dying than women. Some of those male deaths come in the form of them occupying the “traditional” male role of a protector. The final girl, a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, is once again the most “tame” one among the bunch. The women’s deaths like Marcia’s axe to the head and Annie’s limping chase scene (complete with falling down) are pretty graphic and/or memorable. Interestingly, it is the rare film where a woman is the antagonist.
In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) only one woman dies; however, the crux of this story is about absolutely destroying Sally Hardesty both mentally and physically. And she doesn’t really fight back at all but runs and cries until a male trucker comes to her rescue. There are films that largely tip the scale due to their plots like The House on Sorority Row (1982). It takes place in an all-women environment so of course several women die. Even then, there are ancillary men who get murked too.
Let’s move on to another popular time period for horror: the ‘90s and 2000s. The original Scream (1996) takes out more men than women. There’s Steve Orth, Kenny the cameraman, and Principal Himbry’s deaths versus Casey Becker and Tatum Riley. (Maureen’s death takes place prior to the events of the film.) However, the men are either killed off-screen (like Steve) or have less violent deaths.
Meanwhile, we get a lengthy opening scene of Casey’s psychological torture. Even people who are only mildly familiar with the franchise recognize this scene. It ends with a close up of her swaying from a tree with her insides hanging out. And, although Ghostface doesn’t directly kill Tatum, she too goes through a short game with the killer before being crushed in a garage door. The women’s deaths are definitely more memorable.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is a slasher film sequel that evens the score with two men and two women dying. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen gets quite the chase scene and build up to her death. Meanwhile her boyfriend gets a quick hooky hook that she witnesses. Films of the 2010s and 2020s (so far) haven’t really had the infamy of the aforementioned ones. But it is worth noting a couple of things. The Scream franchise as a whole (including its last two installments of this era) has more male victims than women. (Yes, I actually counted.)
But who can forget the very gruesome death of poor Olivia in Scream 4? And there’s yet another opening scene in Scream (2022) that features a prolonged, gnarly scene between a sobbing, terrified Tara and Ghostface. Even remakes like Friday the 13th (2009) still take out majority men in the midst of being wildly racist and misogynistic. Hmmm. It’s a small sample for sure that doesn’t take into account the many, many indie slashers out there. But in a lot of slasher films, men are just as likely to end up on the wrong side of a slasher weapon as women. However, the framing of women’s deaths seems to be quite different. There’s a deep focus on the sheer terror and emotional upheaval. Why is this the case?
Women Victims, the Male Gaze, and Films Imitating Life
The male gaze and misogyny are two rather obvious culprits, particularly in earlier slasher offerings. Men reigned supreme behind the cameras and scripts. They got to tell a woman’s narrative from their perspective, inserting their own thoughts about morality into the mix, whether consciously or subconsciously. I certainly don’t think all male directors and writers have been using their craft to “teach and preach” or satisfy some inner sadistic urge to torture/hurt/kill women. However, it is not farfetched to say that the subjugation of women in slasher films speaks to how some men, especially those fueled by power, influence, and money, treat and perceive women.
They see us as sexual vehicles, yet demonize us for being sexually liberated. The virginal (at least, that’s the presumption), sweet, and/or pious woman is the one “worthy of saving” while her sexually active women counterparts should die. It’s a reflection of the still-too-pervasive “slut shaming” we see in our daily lives. The messaging is clear: you “get what you deserve,” whether that’s an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease in real life or a knife to the breast in a horror film for having (and enjoying) sex. The “loose” girls are not worthy of protection and empathy.
Thankfully, this trope is starting to shift with characters like Sidney Prescott and Karla Wilson, who have sex in their films and don’t get the punishment of death. However, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer features Karla and Julie running around in the rain with their bras showing for far too long. It’s interesting consider the franchise is based on a book written by a woman. And the amount of sexual shaming and victim blaming heaped on Sidney and her mom is astounding. Imagine how these films would be different if the right women were behind them to nix the unnecessary elements.
Women often find ourselves in real-life situations where we lack agency or fear for our safety. We have to quell our actions and responses. We don’t want to evoke the wrath of a potentially dangerous man, many of whom seem to appear out of thin air. When we “run for help,” we are labeled hysterical and easily dismissed until the violence sharply escalates.
This gaslighting is the crux of many slasher narratives. People start going mysteriously missing as the killer picks them off. Someone (usually a woman) points out that something isn’t right only to be met with derision. A disturbing amount of men use those social politics to their advantage. They hurt women and girls because of their sense of entitlement and superiority… and they can get away with it. And women have encountered these types of men at the grocery store, the workplace, the nightclub, and sometimes in our own homes.
Considering all of this, there’s no wonder that many antagonists are either male or male coded while the main target in their pathway is a woman or girl. Most slashers’ general framing is about a woman’s fear, loss, and suffering. It’s an unfortunate reflection of the horrors we face in society. And, the woman who goes on a journey of rising up against an antagonist and reclaiming her power doesn’t win either.
She’s left with awful scars, isolation/paranoia, and perhaps only a slight reprieve until the sequel. Horror has never shied away from metaphors and commentary about social issues and that isn’t a bad thing. But it becomes a problem when stories center women and they are not directly involved in crafting them. Those elements can easily get lost in the need to show women partially naked and/or enduring much strife before their brutal demise.
So, Why Do We Like Slashers?
It is a valid question. When it comes to horror and anything that falls under the “this is about bad sh*t happening” umbrella, there are a few common threads. We encounter the tension of good and evil as children through fables and animated films. We realize that dark and light naturally co-exist in our world and within humanity. And we have a general intrigue and draw to it. There are countless true crime TV shows, murder thrillers, serial killer documentaries, and generally macabre offerings about zombie apocalypses and dystopian futures for a reason.
We want to experience the heart pounding thrill of the investigative chase. Or perhaps we seek to understand those among us who commit heinous crimes. And, we subconsciously know that we aren’t immune to experiencing this darkness in some form. It could come knocking at our door. Or we could be the darkness at someone else’s door. It is a part of the human experience to have an interest in evil, whether it is the “pure, unprovoked evil” of Michael Myers or the Night Stalker.
According to Clover, slasher films let us experience this unthinkable evil through aligning with the survivor. It makes sense to identify with the protagonist because, well, the average person doesn’t relate to a psychopathic murderer or unkillable entity. But killers like Leatherface, Ghostface, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees have become cultural icons. Their faces, masks, weapons, and catchphrases inspiring everything from artwork to tattoos to Halloween costumes.
So what is going on here? Do we really watch slashers to feed some smidgen of potential killer in our hearts? Or do we want to see people survive seemingly insurmountable odds that make our issues look tame? I am certainly no scholar or “expert,” but I believe it’s a bit of both. And that scary bit of truth along with the sheer thrill of fear are why we like slasher films.
As a woman, I can appreciate horror’s penchant for putting us in protagonist roles. There are many genres where we rarely, if ever, get to be the hero or exact unchecked revenge. I love it even more when we get to hold the knife, like the fame-hungry killer like Jill Roberts or vengeance-seeking Mrs. Voorhees. Will the problematic aspects of horror ever completely fade? No. Will the thrills of watching someone escape the clutches of a horrible person or entity ever die? Also no. We like to be scared, to teeter on the lines of fear and adrenaline. We want to experience the macabre, and, at times, to root for the wrong side. And that’s not inherently wrong.
The New Age of Creators, Final Girls, and the Future in Slasher Films
When it comes to modern slasher narratives, it is like most things: a mixed bag. During the era Clover wrote her book in, examinations about the intersections of race and sexual orientation in slashers didn’t have much prevalence. The infamous slasher survivor girls are overwhelmingly white and presumed heterosexual. Now there are more non-white women characters who get to be more than the disposable best friend or backgrounder.
Scream (2022) gave us the Carpenter sisters and Mindy, a Black girl who gets to be the horror geek expert. American Horror Story: 1984 let a Black woman become a slasher final girl after starting off as a tertiary antagonist. And we got Deena, an emo Black girl protagonist in the Fear Street series who takes down generational trauma. This is a vital shift because, in society, women who aren’t white face stereotyping in monolithic ways that strip away their humanity. To have a non-white woman be the protagonist opens up a completely new avenue of examining our world. That is, if the creators let it happen.
In the mainstream (read: not independent) slasher space, men still have a strong foothold behind the scenes. But women are coming into the fold. Films like Black Christmas (2019) have women directing and writing their narratives to better reflect what women would do, say, and care about. And, the idea of the sweet, cute final girl is over now. They are willing to get gory, throw a punch, curse, and don’t have to be a “likeable” woman who subscribes to heteronormative ideals.
Still, it is rather hard to find many slasher films that don’t have men controlling the narrative off-screen in some way. And that needs to change if we want to see the future we deserve: a woman wielding the axe while a man runs, trips, and cries in the woods wearing his underwear. (I’m kidding… but not really.)