Gender in slasher films

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Slasher films, such as Friday the 13th, He Knows You're Alone, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Prom Night, feature acts of extreme violence portrayed in graphic detail. "The slasher film typically involves a killer who stalks and graphically murders a series of victims in a typically random, unprovoked fashion. The victims are usually teenagers or young adults who are away from mainstream civilization or far away from help. These films typically begin with the murder of a young woman and end with a one female survivor who manages to subdue the killer, only to discover that the problem has not been completely solved".[1] Critics and researchers have claimed that these films portray: (1) Acts of extreme violence displayed in graphic detail[2] (2) they are labeled as "women-in-danger" or "violence-to-women" films because women are singled out for injury and death and (3) scenes in these films are couples with explicit violence that contain sexual or erotic images[3] encroaching vigorously on the verge of pornography.[4] Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is generally thought of to be the cornerstone work of studying gender in slasher films.

Women vs. men[edit]

Men are often praised and revered for their sexual prowess; however, women are often punished for sexual promiscuity. In slasher films, the final girls who survive at the end of the film almost always remain virgins. Those who engage in sexual behavior often die at the hands of the killer. Evidence produced from the Molitor and Sapolsky study on slasher films from 1980 to 1993 shows that "it takes women twice as long to die as men in these films" and "females are shown in terror for obviously longer periods of time than males".[3] Molitor and Sapolsky's data revealed huge differences between the treatment of men and women which indicate that females are singled out for victimization in special ways in these films. One of the studies they conducted is the number of seconds that males and females display fear in these films. If a person watched all 30 films in the Molitor and Sapolsky study, they would see a total of almost five solid hours of women in states of fear and terror. This compares to less than one hour for males.[5] Molitor and Sapolsky study also reported that the number of violent acts against males increased across the 1980s, but tended to decrease for females. Apparently, the producers were criticized for the depiction of women as victims in slasher films, so they toned down such attacks.[3]

Linz and Donnerstein state that slasher films single out women for attack.[5] They argue that the female body count in slasher films should be examined in the context of other film genres. Linz and Donnerstein affirm that "across most television and film content females are less often murdered and brutalized than males by a very large margin."[5] Researchers do not specify the genres they compared the slasher films to for the level of aggression against women. The study is an attempt to test this assertion of Linz and Donnerstein compared with the genre selected for analysis which is popular action/ adventure films containing violence.[5]

Gloria Cowan conducted a study on 57 different slasher films. Their results showed that the non-surviving females were more frequently sexual than the surviving females and the non-surviving males. Surviving as a female slasher victim was strongly associated with the absence of sexual behavior. In slasher films, the message appears to be that sexual women get killed and only the pure women survive. Slasher films reinforce the idea that female sexuality can be costly.[6] Films such as Fatal Attraction feature actresses sexualized for viewer pleasure. "Beth acts the perfect Total Woman, wearing clingy undershirts and bikini panties around the apartment, primping before the mirror in lacy black undergarments, making a voluptuous ritual out of the nightly bath and applying lipstick with sensuous strokes to the accompaniment of Dan's and the camera's admiring gaze.[7]

Sex and violence[edit]

According to Cowan, sex in slasher films is broken down into the following behaviors: flirting, kissing, petting, exposed breasts or genitalia, masturbation, intercourse, or forced sex.[6] In slasher films from 1980 to 1993, studies in Linz and Donnerstiens article have concluded that 33% of occurrences of sex were connected to violence (male or female). 14% of all sex incidents were linked to the death of a female. A slasher killed 22% of all "innocent" female protagonists during or following a sexual display or act.[5] If a person watched all of the slasher films included in the Molitor and Sapolsky study they would have seen sex and violence paired 92 times. Sexual behavior included female characters shown in undergarments, partially or completely nude, or teasing or enticing male characters in a sensual manner. Couples seen kissing, fondling, or involved in sexual intercourse were also coded as acts of sex. According to Molitor and Sapolski, sexual behavior is considered linked to violence when one of three types of circumstances occurred. A partially nude female was shown being tortured by the central villain. In other cases, violence immediately followed, or interrupted, a sexual act, such as when a couple was shown kissing passionately and the central villain then attacked both or one character. The third type of circumstance consisted of continuous cuts between two scenes, one sexual and one violent. This third type of sex and violence combination occurred to a lesser extent than the other two.[3]

Molitor and Sapolsky looked at the mixture of sex and violence in films of the 1980s versus those of the 1990s. Films from the 1980s contained an average of 9.3 instances of sexuality and 3.1 of these were linked to violence. "Due to the low number of instances of sex commingled with violence appearing in 1990s films, a test of difference was not conducted between the 1980 and 1990 samples".[3] The data do suggest that while the amount of sexual content in the most popular slasher films of the past two decades has remained constant, sexual displays immediately before or during acts of violence have been reduced to a rare event in slasher films released in the 1990s.[3]

Effects on viewers[edit]

Linz and Donnerstein conducted a study on the way viewers reacted to sex combined with violence in slasher films. "Studies show that pleasant, mildly arousing sex scenes that are paired with graphic violence can be expected to diminish aversive reaction to violence in the long run" (Linz, Donnerstein). The combination of sex and violence is shown to grab viewers' attention, making it a more "depthful" process.[5] "Horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation. They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success: they 'prove themselves upon our pulses".[4] Exposure to scenes of explicit violence combined with sexual images is believed to affect males’ emotional reactions to film violence. It has also shown to lead males to be less disturbed by scenes of extreme violence and degradation directed at women, claims the Molitor and Sapolski article.[3] Carol Clover states that the implied audience for slasher films are "largely young and largely male".[8] The specific content in this genre draws this particular audience towards it.

Studies show that the most popular slasher films of the 1990s are more violent than the most commercially successful slasher films released in the 1980s. Specifically, according to this article, there was a 44% increase in the number of violent acts suffered by innocent victims in the 1990s crop of slasher films. Slasher films of the 1990s portray an act of brutal violence an average of once every two and a half minutes. Also, characters are shown in terror an average of three and a half minutes longer in slasher films in the 1990s.[3] According to Gloria Cowan and Margaret O'Brien, experimental studies have been done to show the effects of viewing R-rated violent films have found "increased acceptance of interpersonal violence and rape mythology". These studies have also found desensitization with "carry-over attitude effects" towards victims of violence. These studies have shown, that after viewing slasher films, college male students have less sympathy for rape victims, see them as less injured, and are more likely to endorse the myth that women enjoy rape.[6] "Watching horror films is said to offer viewers a socially sanctioned opportunity to perform behaviors consistent with traditional gender stereotypes and early work on this topic found that males exposed to a sexually violent slasher film increased their acceptance of beliefs that some violence against women is justified and that it may have positive consequences".[9]


  1. ^ Rockoff, A (2002). R Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film 1978-1986. NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 
  2. ^ Bass, Bass (19 March 1988). "Do Slasher Films Breed Real-Life Violence?". Boston Globe. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Sapolsky, Barry S.; Molitor Fred; Luque Sarah (2003). "Sex and Violence in Slasher: Re-examining the Assumptions". Journal & Mass Communication Quarterly. 1. 80: 28–38. doi:10.1177/107769900308000103. 
  4. ^ a b Clover, Carol J. (Fall 1987). "Her Body, Himself; Gender in the Slasher Film". University of California Press. Representations. 20 (Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy): 187–228. doi:10.2307/2928507. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward (1994). "Dialogue: Sex and Violence in Slasher Films: A Reinterpretation". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 2. 38: 243–246. doi:10.1080/08838159409364261. 
  6. ^ a b c Cowan, Glora; O'Brien, Margaret (1990). "Gender and Survival vs. Death in Slasher Films: A Content Analysis". Sex Roles. 23: 187–196. doi:10.1007/BF00289865. 
  7. ^ Babener, Liahna (1992). "Patriarchal Politics in Fatal Attraction" (PDF). Journal of Popular Culture. 26 (3): 25–34. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1992.2603_25.x. Retrieved 12 April 2012. [permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Clover, Carol (1992). Man, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton DP. 
  9. ^ Zillmann, D.; Weaver, J. (1996). Gender-socialization theory of reactions to horrow. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 85–88.