What I learned from a half-century of horror films…

Or, how the sartorial conventions of slasher films might be less than we think

Array of archetypal characters in 2012’s The Cabin In The Woods: from left, the “scholar”, the “virgin”, the “jock”, the “whore” & the “fool”

I’m writing this because it represents, after 60 years, one of the few authentically original revelations I’ve experienced. But, I must warn you, it’s so potentially trivial that you are either not interested, or so glaringly obvious that your reaction, if you make it that far, is likely to be a resounding “duh, dude!”

As a life-long fan of horror, and, to a lesser extent, its slasher sub-genre, I’m well acquainted with the conventions established largely by John Carpenter in “Halloween”. Of the pulchritudinous teens at risk, it’s the quiet, serious, shy and modest girl who survives the mayhem. Or, in later years, survives the longest. Show me a group of three or more girls on the verge of being menaced by some masked, blade-wielding antagonist, and I’ll tell you precisely in what order they’ll go based on how they’re dressed: e.g. shorts-and-halter usually goes before skirt and skirt before jeans, and so on.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Stephens & P.J. Soles in Halloween

Drew Goddard’s astonishing The Cabin In The Woods skillfully deconstructed the Carpenter doctrine, followed more or less faithfully by two generations of filmmakers. Attractive youngsters under threat were divided into classic roles — the jock, the scholar, the clown, the whore and, most importantly, the virgin. Without spoiling a truly original entry into the genre any further, suffice to say that the last, the virgin, had to survive while the others were consumed. She might make it out in the end, or she might not. But even if she did survive, it was only by dint of great suffering and punishment.

Before reading any symbolism into her suffering, it’s probably worth remembering that without it — if those silly teens actually pursued their momentary advantage over the psycho and killed him rather than just knocking him for a loop before taking flight — the movie would be only half-as-long and viewers would be demanding their money back.

But why is it so important to put the virgin last?

Shortly after seeing Cabin In The Woods for the first time, I happened to re-watch Tobe Hooper’s sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s when it struck me.

Caroline Williams as “Stretch” the solo protagonist of TCM 2

In TCM 2, the protagonist, Stretch, played by a wonderful Caroline Williams, runs afoul of the Saywers while trying to save her engineer who has been kidnapped and brought to their Vietnam War theme park for the most nefarious of purposes. Eschewing the teens-in-a-pickle scenario, TCM 2 focuses entirely on Stretch and her circumstantial partner, Lefty. With nearly all of the action taking place in one afternoon and evening, Stretch has no opportunity to change out of our her short-shorts. And that’s really too bad, because after narrowly avoiding an intimate moment with Leatherface’s chainsaw, she falls down a tunnel, crawls through an underground junkyard, gets cold-cocked with a ball-peen hammer, and then, in one especially gruesome scene, scrambles up an artificial Matterhorn while Bill Moseley’s Chop Top slashes at her from behind with a rusted straight-razor.

Watching it, the stray thought entered my mind: even with stunt-doubles and generous use of props, those scenes must have been hell on Williams’s legs….

And there it was.

Is that all body make up on Ms. Williams’s lower extremities?

Whole libraries have been filled with essays and dissertations on the sexual politics of slasher films, often focusing on the role of the Last Woman Standing and the ways in which she’s characterized. Her sartorial contrast to the other victims draws especial attention, because she never shows a lot of skin — perhaps early on and for a few moments, because even heroines have to shower or change into their pajamas or take a dip in the lake — but by the time all hell breaks loose, she’s covered up and ready for action.

Now suppose, just suppose for a moment, that rather than adopting the standard-issue patriarchal virgin/whore dichotomy, or implying that the strength to survive is inherently a male quality embodied by the wearing the jeans and long sleeves, filmmakers dress their actors in accordance with how much abuse their bodies are likely to undergo in the course of completing the film.

The message, pretty standard in fundamentalist versions of Abrahamic religions, that women who fail to conform to standards of modesty get what’s coming to them, might be unintentional, because it’s not the character being costumed thus, but the actor.

Of course, what is intentional is labeling a woman who shows skin a “whore” and a woman who does not a “virgin”. The Cabin In The Woods slyly subverts this by making Jules, the “whore” a pre-med major, while Dana’s “virgin” tells Jules about an affair with one of her professors, cut off by him with a mere e-mail. “Hey, I knew what I was getting into,” Dana casually explains. Later on, when Dana exclaims, “Me, a virgin?” Sigourney Weaver’s Director shrugs: “We work with what we have.”

What’s the point of all this? Only that there might be less subtext in slasher/horror films than generations of film, women’s studies and sociology majors have posited. Rarely are advanced degrees awarded to a thesis concluding, “Well, really, there’s not so much there after all.”

Storytelling demands certain conventions in order to flow smoothly: characters who should not have clean homes do because a messy, cluttered environment is distracting to the viewer; the characters slated for early demise generally aren’t as sympathetic as those who endure longer because the audience isn’t spending as much time with them. Those young women who will fall prey to slasher’s blade first dress more revealingly to put young, male buttocks in the theater seats, to be sure, but also because the setting is usually some kind outdoor, semi-wilderness location, and, perhaps most importantly, because they can. They’re killed off quickly and discretely — no need to run through endless forest, or bang around the empty house filled with splinters, or climb past jagged rocks and boulders. Not yet. Because the filmmaker isn’t ready to show all of his cards right then.

So, that’s it.

Don’t say you weren’t warned….

LA born & raised, now I live upstate. I hate snow. I write on healthcare, politics & history. Hobbies are woodworking & singing Xmas carols with nonsense lyrics