Turning the Gaze Upon Ourselves: Philosophy of the Slasher

Nathanael Bassett

in A Celebration of Slashers

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

It seems that philosophy has a lot to offer to the appreciation of horror and fantasy. A quick glance at a popular bookstore shelves reveals titles like True Detective and Philosophy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, American Horror Story and Philosophy, The Walking Dead and Philosophy, and so on. Looking at popular culture through the lens of philosophy is nothing new. But the relationship between each is a two way street – certain types of horror have been an inspiration to philosophers in recent times, specifically those centered around iterations of “cosmic horror.” This relates to an unknowable Other or the horror of a cosmic void (often based in the work of H. P. Lovecraft). Recent work in speculative realism draws out the philosophical potential of those forms of entertainment (Thacker, 2015). The body horror of David Cronenberg also helps to produce original philosophy (Riches, 2012). Even the traditional ghost story has lent itself to works focused around ethereal media and so called “hauntologies” (Sconce, 2000). But the slasher has been neglected, and I intend to argue that while these forms of philosophy based on other horror look outward, a philosophy of the slasher has the potential to look inward and reveal a critique of the human more uncomfortable than any mess of flesh from beyond.  

A philosophy of horror is typically concerned with three things: the “spectacle of the void” (Peak, 2014), the “world-without-us” (Thacker, 2011), and the intersubjectivity of ourselves and a world beyond phenomenological reckoning (Trigg, 2014). This is to say, it looks at the distance between our selves, our mind and our lived experience and everything beyond, outside, or impossible of direct encounters. It touches on biocentrism, decoupling our concerns from human-centric values, and thinking beyond just our personal, individual subjectivity. These are all laudable concerns, particularly in the anthropocene where our activity and our media is related to a growing environmental wasteland around us (Parikka, 2014). But while the horror of the other focuses on a fear of that which we have difficult relating to, our fear of ourselves is nearly forgotten. While we cannot be sure of others, we forget that even ourselves, the human, the neighbor or the family member is also a subject of uncertainty. As the old radio program claimed, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” (Buxton & Owen, 1966). The slasher film is the Shadow, showing the anima or animus of Jung, the hidden lizard brain or regressive beast we see in films like Altered States. Instead of regrowing a tail, the slasher takes up a knife, a phallic instrument, and penetrates the unsuspecting, spilling the life-blood and revealing the fleshy, carnal and uncomfortable reality under our skin: we are very fragile creatures.

The format of the slasher is nearly the same as the children’s cartoon “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You” and it’s various iterations (“Be Cool, Scooby-Doo,” “What’s New, Scooby-Doo,” and the maligned “Scooby-Doo and Scrappy -Doo,” though less so the more sinister “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo”). Most of us are familiar with the plot of any Scooby-Doo episode. Mystery Inc. come across some sinister haunting, discover clues, and eventually unmask a self-interested antagonist, who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. The slasher film likewise typically presents itself with a group of teenagers or young people, who are haunted by a sinister murderer armed with an edged weapon, and slowly discover clues as to the identity of the killer, who is defeated before the “final girl” is left alive (Clover, 1992; Christensen, 2011). What both Scooby-Doo and the slasher suggest is that the figure behind the mask is more familiar than their terrifying machinations suggest – it is a familiar face, who has either been slighted or wounded through unfair events as well. The slasher is someone who is nearly relatable.

This relatability is their most terrifying quality, not their weapons, their persistence or their mask. The slasher suggests a horror more near to us than the other-worldly. In many ways it evokes to the specter of domestic abuse and sexual violence, often committed by people the victim already knows. The actions of these serial killers are masked as entertainment, but they are meant to remind us of the terrible acts humans themselves are capable of, not just otherworldly monsters. Whereas in Scooby-Doo, the villain is discovered before they are able to commit their crime, by then end of the film, the slasher has already gotten away with it – several times.

We then have two premises. First, genre fiction has as much to offer philosophy as philosophy has to offer the appreciation of genre fiction. Second, slashers have as much to offer philosophy as cosmic and body horor. The insights from the slasher genre of horror differ from that of cosmic and body, so that while the cosmic and body focus outwards from the human to ask questions about intersubjectivity and phenomenology, the slasher is preoccupied with concerns about ethics, relationships and their power dynamics (critical, feminist and other identity-based analyses), and the psychoanalytic, to name a few. I will explore these briefly.  

Ethics

Whereas the cosmic/body horror genre dislocates the anthropomorphic perspective and assumes the amoral Lovecraftian universe of non-humans, the slasher is wrapped up in human (or human-like) figures and the violence they mete out on one another. In the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Freddy Kreuger’s backstory reveals he is the child of multiple rapes, as his mother worked at a nurse in an insane asylum. The mentally ill there were subjected to the sort of disciplinary society implements that Foucault (1977) is famous for writing about. Kreuger grows up to be a child murderer and is eventually the victim of vigilante justice. By making Krueger a victim, the story does not absolve him of his crimes but gives him clause to excise vengeance on the children of the parents who burned him alive. Likewise,  Jason Vorhees, antagonist of the Friday the 13th films, is ostensibly a serial killer but may be seeking revenge for his death of his mother, who in turn sought vengeance for the presumed death of her deformed son at the hands of negligent caretakers. Lastly, the actions of Michael Myers of Halloween can also be interpreted as negligence or improper care on behalf of the mental health community (and the parents who left him home with his sister in 1963).  

Each of these backstories leads us to a continuously relevant question: how do we make decisions about the well-being of others? Rather than merely being a jumping off point for comparing perspectives like utilitarianism vs feminist ethics of care, an original slasher philosophy would suggest a fundamental propensity for violence and retribution among humans. This “dog-eat-dog” worldview (literally in the case of The Hills Have Eyes) suggests that there are some who are beyond our care, or whose care is so significant that to forget it will lead to severe and lasting repercussions.

Relationships: Race/Gender/Critical

The classic slasher often takes place in an largely white world, which itself speaks to issues of representation. The stereotype that black or other minority characters will be “the first to die” also raises the issue of minorities as at best throwaway characters, or worse, targets. While racism is a clear critique of the slasher, other dynamics such as the family (absent parents and neglectful relatives) and gender (the bloodied surviving “final girl”) also exist (Gill, 2000). What then can the slasher offer for analyses drawn from feminism or critical theory and ideology? 

For each example of this genre, we have to note the often times ignored privileges of the characters. To broadly generalize, the protagonists are often young people of some means (either independently or through their parents) who have few other worries besides their personal relationships and the brutal psychopath stalking them. These hidden dimensions (gender/race/class) reveal intersectional blind spots that tell us assumptions from the filmmaker and about the audience’s concerns. To the best of my knowledge, no victim of a slasher lives out of their car, or is in fear of deportation. Slashers hunt the affluent. They represent an Other which preys on the self: largely upstanding, cisgendered law-abiding citizens, who may have some dark secret that ties them together (such as in I Know What You Did Last Summer) but who otherwise deserve none of the terror inflicted on them by the antagonist. The slasher then operates as hidden critique of the Self. Not only is anyone capable of terrible violence, but anyone may be a victim of it. The dog-eat-dog world discussed above is no respecter of persons, and no one is spared if they deserve to die in the killer’s eyes. But the selective murder nature of this deservedness plays into social inequalities and power dynamics that are often invisible to the casual viewer. 

Psychoanalytic

There already exists a link between psychoanalysis and cosmic horror (Noys, 2016), which is compatible with the cultural studies ascendants in philosophical/cosmic horror niche (Peak, 2016; Dekkers, 2000; Miler, 1998). But the deranged nature of the killer in slasher films would suggest that psychoanalysis would be able to provide a deeper insight into the operation and motive of an otherwise mindless butcher. I have suggested above that the ethics of the slasher addresses the antagonist, and the power relationships address the protagonists, and here I will suggest that a slasher philosophy suggests both are complicit in each other’s suffering.

The immediate response to this would be an accusation of victim blaming – but I turn to Saw. In the franchise,  The Jigsaw killer never intends to murder anyone – he tests them, and from his perspective those who fail their tests are responsible for their own deaths. Likewise the “final girl” mentioned above is typically more virtuous than others – the teenagers who have sex at the outset of a movie typically are marked for death fairly quickly. Why is this? Is there a purely moralistic calculous that says it is acceptable to slaughter victims if they are socially transgressive? 

No, but internal, unabsolved guilt or a refusal to acknowledge complicity in some terrible act can lead to the self-condemnation of the victim. Take for example Nancy. Her momentary triumph at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street results from her rejection of fear, which Krueger apparently draws his power from. After he dissipates, she “wakes up” and finds herself in an idyllic setting but is attacked by Kruger as the film closes. She does not appear in the following film but is featured in the third film of the franchise where she is definitely murdered by Kruger in a dream. 

The supporting characters of A Nightmare on Elm Street include her absolutely neglectful father who shows a total lack of empathy for her ongoing trauma. This “present-yet-absent father” dynamic, coupled with Nancy’s sexually promiscuous friends, reveals a pubescent loutishness to Freddy’s aggressive posturing with his knife fingers (evoking digital stimulation and penetration in so-called “third base.” This is just one interpretation, but slashers suggest that aggressors and victims are linked together in this co-morbid way, similar to the male/female binary of heteronormative sexuality. 

Conclusion

My goal here is not to set out a definitive set of insights into what slasher philosophy can offer, but to merely illustrate the premise that it is as worthy as other horror genres in cultivating original philosophy and not merely being the object of pop culture analysis. It is my hope that others will pick up on this promise, though it remains to be seen if slashers (who saw their heyday in the late 20th century) have the same sort of place in the cultural imaginary as does cosmic and body horror, which speaks to our broader concerns with whether or not life can continue to persist on this planet. If it can, perhaps we can then remember what it is to be alive, and what dangers we each face from not just the universe, but from each other and the shadows inside ourselves.

References:

Buxton, F., & Owen, B. (1966). Radio’s golden age: the programs and the personalities. Easton Valley Press.

Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween [film].

Cannon, D., Cobbs, B., & Settle, M. (Directors), & Hewitt, J. L., Jr, F. P., Phifer, M., Norwood, B., & Watson, M. (Writers). (n.d.). I Know What You Did Last Summer [film].

Christensen, K. (2011). The Final Girl versus Wes Craven’s” A Nightmare on Elm Street”: Proposing a Stronger Model of Feminism in Slasher Horror Cinema. Studies in Popular Culture34(1), 23-47.

Cunningham, S. S. (Director). (n.d.). Friday the 13th [Film].

Clover, C. (1992). Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton UP

Craven, W. (Director), Craven, W. (Writer), & Shaye, R. (Producer). (1984). A Nightmare on Elm Street [film].

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Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.

Gill, P. (2002). The monstrous years: Teens, slasher films, and the family. Journal of Film and Video, 16-30.

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Miller, W. I. (1998). The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press.

Noys, B. (2016). The horror of the real: Žižek’s modern gothic. International Journal of Žižek Studies, 4(4).

Parikka, J. (2014). The Anthrobscene. University of Minnesota Press.

Peak, D. (2014). The Spectacle of the Void. Schism Press.

Riches, S. (Ed.). (2012). The Philosophy of David Cronenberg. University Press of Kentucky.

Sconce, J. (2000). Haunted media: Electronic presence from telegraphy to television. Duke University Press.

Shapshay, S., Carcosa, G., Mountenay, C., Dienstag, J. F., Elmore, R., Byron, C., … & Thompson, E. (2018). True Detective and Philosophy: A Deeper Kind of Darkness.

South, J. B. (Ed.). (2003). Buffy the Vampire Slayer and philosophy: Fear and trembling in Sunnydale (Vol. 4). Open Court Publishing.

Thacker, E. (2011). In the dust of this planet: Horror of philosophy (Vol. 1). Zero.

Thacker, E. (2015). Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

Trigg, D. (2014). The thing: A phenomenology of horror. John Hunt Publishing.

Wan, J. (Director). (2004) Saw [film]. 

Yuen, W. (Ed.). (2012). The walking dead and philosophy: Zombie apocalypse now (Vol. 68). Open Court Publishing.

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