Though it’s been said before, I can’t think of a better segue into my topic today than to reiterate the idea that horror films—like all films—say a lot about the culture that created them. If other types of movies reflect a society’s desires, lusts, hatreds, needs, and what makes them laugh, horror films are a great big cinematic mirror of what we fear. It’s no coincidence that the Red Scare and Atom Age produced myriad films dealing with alien invaders, body snatchers, nuclear monsters, and other baddies that served as metaphors for Commies and the bomb; nor is it an accident that body horror reached its zenith in the 1980s, the age of HIV and AIDS.
There’s something interesting, though, that I never noticed going on with the slashers of the 1970s and 80s. I’ve read several other critics and scholars take on the trend, and they’ve tackled the craze from multiple angles: There are those who say the slashers succeeded because they were born of an intensely misogynistic age, and were a way for male filmmakers to live out fantasies of ultimate female domination through the murder of naked, post-coital models; on the flip side, there are those (Carol Clover chief among them) who see the slashers as the product of the sexual revolution, with the final girl as the ur-feminist tackling both patriarchal monsters and excelling beyond her sex-obsessed, non-actualized peers. Back on the pessimistic tack, there’s the theory that the slashers were a reflection of the era’s nihilism, a distillation of post-Vietnam, Reagan-era cultural Darwinism, the worst products of an age in which we’d become so dumbed to death and so blinded by poverty (and later, wealth) that human suffering had become entertainment. They’re all valid theories; one that I’ve never come across, though, is one that addresses the socio-economic struggle implicit in most slasher movies.
Before delving into the 70s-80s slasher cycle, I’d first like to take a brief detour back to the first big horror movie boom of the 1930s. It’s worth pointing out that, throughout cinema history, horror movies have tended to really prosper during eras of economic uncertainty: Just as classics such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Omen, and countless others premiered at the box office during the recession-driven 70s, the first great wave of horror swept America in the throes of the Great Depression. Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and the Bride of Frankenstein all premiered during the worst economic time in the country’s history, and audiences eager to distract themselves from real-life horrors flocked to the cinemas to watch fantastic tales of monsters and mad scientists. While the films were all inspired by classic literature to some extent (The Mummy is only vaguely similar to a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, The Ring of Thoth), they also possessed a certain socio-economic subtext: All of the monsters were rich. Dracula is landed gentry; Imhotep was a high priest; and both Doctors Frankenstein and Griffin come from wealthy families, to say nothing of the implied income from their medical degrees.
It makes sense that audiences suffering from severe financial uncertainty would look with disdain on those who not only didn’t share their financial woes but who actively preyed on the poor and struggling: Even if the heroes in the films weren’t thoroughly middle-or-working class, then the victims certainly were, from the villagers in Frankenstein to newly-minted real estate lawyer Jonathan Harker. While migrant farmers struggled in the fields and the Dust Bowl wrecked Oklahoma, Newport Beach socialites were inventing new fashion trends, and the Universal Monster movies were a way for the workaday folks in the audience to vicariously live out the fantasy of getting revenge on the wealthy and apathetic. Even moving into the 1940s, The Wolf Man’s Larry Talbot is a spoiled playboy with a silver cane who runs roughshod over innocent townsfolk; it wasn’t until the country’s post-WWII prosperity that we began to see a different class of heroes and villains, as the aristocratic ghouls of the Depression were replaced by analogues for Soviet Agents and nuclear fears.
This brings us to the slashers. In many ways, the 1970s was the 1930s redux: a crippling recession, cultural malaise, and uncertainty about the country’s future were further bolstered by the gas crisis, political corruption, and the end of the Vietnam War. The death of the Rust Belt was a techno-industrial retelling of the Dust Bowl, plunging swaths of the country into the economic hell of unemployment and underemployment. Just as had happened forty years before, horror movies once again reigned supreme at the box office; this time, though, there was a notable difference.
The shift in portrayal of cinematic monsters is apparent from what is largely accepted as the first American slasher film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (while some scholars attribute that title to Psycho, and that film may have influenced the later slasher cycle, it came too early and bears too many unique traits to be counted as part of it). Though we’ve got to read between the lines, the family in the film are apparently unemployed, save for The Old Man’s job as proprietor of a struggling service station (in a reflection of the country’s fuel shortages, he’s out of gas when the protagonists try to fuel up). The Hitchhiker indicates that they once worked at the local slaughterhouse, but technological innovations have since put them out of work, providing an apparent motive for their madness—all they know how to do is kill meat, and, in the absence of livestock, they’ll ply their trade on people. Whether their cannibalism is the result of a mental aberration or an insanely desperate reaction to unemployment is left for the audience to decide, although the family pointedly does not appear to have many basic amenities: their electricity has been shut off and is being provided by a series of generators, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess that they haven’t got any running water, either. They are, quite simply, poor.
While Michael Meyers in Halloween appears to come from a comfortably middle-to-upper middle-class family, he surrounds himself with the trappings of blue-collar America. Though he could blend in with a variety of outfits, he chooses the coveralls of a truck driver and spends a good portion of the movie cruising around in a station wagon (conversely, Dr. Loomis drives a brand-new 1977 BMW 320i). Similarly, although it’s also a matter of convenience/obsession, he hides out in his own abandoned house like the world’s creepiest squatter. Even in later entries, Myers keeps going back to the coveralls, continually bedecking himself in the attire of a laborer.
We see a pattern continuing in the Friday the 13th films: Mrs. Voorhees is a cook—not exactly the world’s best-paying profession—and Jason himself, like Michael Myers, spends his time clad in comfortably blue-collar, lower-class outfits, from overalls to Dickeys he steals from people’s backyards—the slasher equivalent of shopping at Goodwill. (Astute viewers have pointed out that the first time Jason dons his green work shirt, it’s already missing one of its pockets). What’s more, we also get to see Jason’s house, a crumbling shack in the woods with no electricity but, apparently, a functioning toilet, indicating that he only makes enough money from killin’ to keep the water on.
By the time we make it to Freddy Krueger, it should be obvious that we aren’t going to be dealing with a murderous doctor or corporate raider. Rather, he works in a boiler room in what’s later identified as a power plant; the films are vague about what exactly he does, though it’s indicated he sleeps in the boiler room and Nancy’s mom indicates that his sweater is one of only a few changes of clothes he owns. Once more, we aren’t dealing with a skilled craftsman or white-collar professional—Freddy is blue-collar, through and through, just like the rest of the slashers.
What was it about the 70s, then, that flipped the script? Why were the monsters of the slasher cycle so very much like the audiences themselves? Was it an effort to seek some sort of retributive vengeance? The victims in slasher movies, after all, tend to be of a fairly high socio-economic status. Were horror fans identifying more with the monster now, vicariously thrilled by the deaths of people more well-off than themselves? If so, why? Had Vietnam and the cultural violence of the 1960s and 70s hardened audiences to the point that they were more comfortable seeing themselves as the victimizer rather than the victim? It’s difficult to say; non-slasher horror films of the era have an equal smattering of both lower and upper-class protagonists, from the Hollywood elites and globe-trotting diplomats of The Exorcist and The Omen to the cops in Dawn of the Dead and the struggling family in The Amityville Horror. Was it a way for audiences to distance themselves from their own situation? Could they look at Jason and Leatherface and think to themselves, “I’m bad off, but I’m not that bad off?” It’s a question that requires much more research on my (or someone else’s part) to answer, and I don’t think I’m in a position to even pose a guess when my thought process hasn’t moved far beyond noticing this trend. (To complicate matters further, the 1990s produced two of the most high-profile horror villains since the end of the slasher era—Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman—both of whom belong to the extreme upper-class). Perhaps I’ll revisit it one day when I’ve had the time and opportunity to delve into the topic a bit more. Until then, I’d be curious to hear reader input on whether anyone else has noticed this trend, and, if so, what you think of it. Why was the second great wave of horror baddies so desperately blue collar? And what does that say about the people who initially consumed them in the 70s and early 80s?