‘Bloody lessons: what forty years of slasher films tell us about privilege and women’s survival’ by Matt Freeman 

‘Bloody lessons: what forty years of slasher films tell us about privilege and women’s survival’ by Matt Freeman 

‘Bloody lessons’ by student Matt Freeman was developed in Freelance Writing for the Media in 2022. 


After four decades, thirteen films and over a hundred on-screen deaths, the Halloween series has been finally laid to rest. In 1978, the art-film disguised as a horror movie had a lot to teach us about the experience of women’s survival, white suburban obliviousness, and the moral failures of male authority. In 2022, the lessons are still relevant.  

The original film created a genre. At the time, it was the most profitable independent film ever made − filmed on a tiny budget of $300,000 but returning $70 million. A horde of imitators chased its success and their devotion to its formula created the slasher genre − A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, the hockey-masked juggernaut of Friday the 13th, countless straight-to-video maniacs, and the playful meta-horror of Scream  

The violence and schlock sensibilities of slasher films often meant they were ignored by serious reviewers, or critically skewered – Pauline Kael called the original Halloween ‘dumb scariness’ in her New Yorker review – but these critics missed the point. With their basic plots and archetypal characters, slashers are deceptively simple in the way that fairytales are simple, and they have a lot to teach us.  

The precise formula for a slasher film is up for debate, but certain elements recur. The killer must be human, or at least resemble one. Halloween’s Michael Myers is an unsettling blend of psycho-killer and supernatural evil embodied in human form, suggested by his listing in the credits as ‘The Shape’. Slasher films must focus on multiple deaths, whether through suggestion, as in the surprisingly bloodless Halloween, or through buckets of increasingly comedic gore, as in the film’s later imitators.   

Most importantly, the film must focus on the plight of a lone, female victim – the ‘final girl’.  

In Halloween, Laurie Strode – played by then-unknown Jamie Lee Curtis – provides an impressive template for this role. She is clever, and it is her wits that allow her to survive the film’s climax. She is initially the most timid in her group, but she will be the only character with the power to face the killer and survive. And, in 1978, she was arguably the first female character that the male target audience had ever fully identified with.   

Slasher films seem misogynistic. They are concerned with young women being murdered and terrorised. They sometimes seem to celebrate their killers − affording Freddy, Jason and Michael  

Myers an atavistic quality not bestowed on their female victims, although Halloween’s Laurie Strode and Scream’s Sidney Prescott come close. Horror fans in cinemas even reportedly cheer for the killer when they claim another victim, especially if the death depicted is particularly baroque. Critics who weren’t fans could be forgiven for thinking that this was all a spectacle of vicarious violence against women.  

The reality is more complex. In her seminal examination of the slasher genre, Men, women and chainsaws: gender in the modern horror film, Carol J Glover highlights how, while slasher movies are superficially about men committing violence against women, it is the audience’s identification with the victim that drives their investment in the experience. Early scenes in slasher films may focus on the killer, perhaps even showing murders from his point of view, but for the film to work the audience must ally with the final girl by the end of the film.   

The identification is particularly strong and visceral − the audience will cringe when she is hurt and hold their breath when she hides. As brutality forces her to fight back − empowering herself by using the violence of her attacker against him – audiences cheer. When she triumphs (the final girl must always win, even if their victory is temporary) viewers urge, ‘Hit him again! He’s not dead!’  

Glover also notes that male viewers who have trouble identifying with women have little choice in a slasher film – male characters are frequently weak or absent. Slasher films explicitly show the traditional male heroes of cinema – fathers, sheriffs, doctors and boyfriends − failing in their duty to protect the women around them. When they ignore their daughters’ warnings or tell their girlfriends to relax, they are enabling the violence of the killer to continue.  

Alone, the final girl has only her own strength to aid her. She was a new archetype for female characters in popular film, and one that is still necessary. Reflecting on her portrayal of Laurie in an interview with Collider in 2018, Curtis laments that the contemporary trend for ‘strong women’ in film too often focuses on hyper-competency and physical prowess. ‘We’ve turned strong women into superhero women, and that isn’t what makes a woman strong. [In Halloween] we’re not talking about physical strength − we’re talking about intelligence and wile and all the beautiful things that make a strong woman so dynamic.’  

With their focus on violence, gender and shifting power, slasher films were always political, but their exact politics are ambivalent.  

Early film-theorists interpreted them as conservative morality tales in which fatal punishment is meted out to young people who transgress conventional rules, neatly summed up by the ‘Rules for surviving a horror movie’ listed in 1996’s self-aware slasher, Scream: ‘You can never have sex. You can never drink or do drugs.’  

But in Halloween, choice and consequence are more complex. Only-survivor Laurie smokes a sneaky joint in the film’s opening half-hour, and although she doesn’t have sex, she does want to. She’s crushing on Ben Tramer, her ideal prom-date. She walks to school hugging her books to her chest and singing, ‘I wish I had you all alone – just the two of us.’ Later, it is suggested that the problem is the men around her, not prudishness on her part. ‘Boys think I’m too smart,’ she says.  

At the film’s outset, Laurie’s friends are more assertive than she is. One couple sneaks into an unwatched home and chooses the parents’ bed for a tryst. Another leaves the kid from her babysitting gig with Laurie to have sex with her boyfriend. All of them face the knife soon after, but the film’s creator, John Carpenter, maintains that it is not sexuality being punished. In a 1980 interview for Film Comment, he stresses that victims are punished for inattention. ‘They’re interested in their boyfriends, so they’re ignoring the signs. [Laurie] is aware of it because she’s more like the killer – she has problems.’  

Laurie’s friends die for their mistaken assumption that they are safe wherever they go and that their actions are consequence-free, and this cycle is repeated again and again in the slasher films that follow. What slasher movies really punish are not momentary pleasures, but the entitlement and obliviousness of the white, suburban middle-class.   

In contrast to this presumption of security, slasher films present a vision of safe places – suburban homes, summer camps and country houses – transformed into danger-zones. Their killers are often not from outside white communities but rejected members of the community itself. Sometimes, as in the case of Freddy or Jason, the community partly create them. As the tagline for Halloween says, it is ‘the night he came home’.  

Go and see Halloween Ends. It’s apparently pretty silly, but it just might teach you something. 


Author bio: Matt Freeman is a Melbourne-based writer and podcaster whose work has appeared in Aurealis. His writing has been commended by the Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Jim Hamilton Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. He is currently enrolled in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University and writing a collection of horror stories. 

Photo credit: A still from Scream