In Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film (Clover, 1987) Carol Clover discusses the roles of gender in slasher films and how its conventions are manipulated to appeal to a young male target audience.
Clover begins by identifying slasher films as a form of modern mythology, built on the same principles of repeated themes and archetypes in familiar settings. She initially links their reliance on pre-technological weapons (knifes instead of guns) to this timeless quality. But she quickly moves on to discussing their Freudian phallic connotations and how these inferences relate to a predominately male audience.
Clover suggests that horror fulfills a dual purpose, in which the audience embodies both the attacker and the attacked, alternately switching between the victim’s point of view and the killer’s as he or she voyeuristically stalks their prey. It’s reminiscent of Laura Mulvey’s essay on The Male Gaze in which she writes about how cinema enables the male audience to enact two states of looking, a voyeuristic look at the (young, attractive) female characters and narcissistic look at the male hero.
But Clover notes that slasher films are different from much of conventional cinema in that the hero is often, in fact, a heroine. She identifies a character called the ‘Final Girl’:
The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). She is inevitably female. (Clover, 1987 p201)
It’s tempting to see these heroic women as feminist icons, evidence that female characters don’t always have to be either the helpless victim or a monstrous horror. But Clover disputes this. She instead theorises that these Final Girls are avatars for the teenage male audience. She identifies the Final Girls’ journey from terrorized victims to conquering avengers (often employing the killers’ own phallic weapons in the final fights) and postulates that this archetypal narrative represents the journey all boys must undertake in order to become a man:
The achievement of full adulthood requires the assumption and, apparently, brutal employment of the phallus. The helpless child is gendered feminine; the autonomous adult or subject is gendered masculine; the passage from childhood to adulthood entails a shift from feminine to masculine. It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). (Clover, 1987 p211)
This quote also indicates another of Clover’s theories, that the killer represents many feminine characteristics, despite almost always being male.
The killer’s phallic purpose, as he thrusts his drill or knife into the trembling bodies of young women, is unmistakeable. At the same time, however, his masculinity is severely qualified: he ranges from the virginal or sexually inert to the transvestite or transsexual, is spiritually divided (“the mother half of his mind”) or even equipped with vulva and vagina. (Clover, 1987 p209)
Clover also identifies the killers’ lairs as the ‘Terrible Place’ and she makes note of their womb-like qualities:
Nor can we help noticing the “intrauterine” quality of the Terrible Place, dark and often damp, in which the killer lives or lurks and whence he stages his most terrifying attacks… It is the exceptional film that does not mark as significant the moment that the killer leaps out of the dark recesses of a corridor or cavern at the trespassing victim, usually the Final Girl. (Clover, 1987 p209)
The most interesting idea in Clover’s article is perhaps the idea that sex does not equal gender; a man can be gendered feminine and a woman masculine. In this way these (male) killers could be seen to be a version of the monstrous feminine, because it’s their feminine qualities that lead to their monstrosity.
Correspondingly, the female heroines succeed only when they relinquish their femininity, embracing instead masculine qualities and phallic weaponry:
The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine— not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself. Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will. Not only the conception of the hero in Alien and Aliens but also her name, Ripley, owes a clear debt to slasher tradition. (Clover, 1987 p204)
And Clover goes on to write:
It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). (Clover, 1987 p211)
Clover suggests that these female heroes are not only preferable to the male audience as their onscreen avatar, but in fact they are essential. The torment and terror experienced by the Final Girl represents the teenage male’s fear that his as yet unrealized manhood may never be achieved “that the lack of the phallus, for Lacan the privileged signifier of the symbolic order of culture, is itself simply horrifying, at least in the mind of the male observer” (Clover, 1987 p211).
But the image of a male hero experiencing such horror onscreen is too close to reality for the audience to cope with:
Angry displays of force may belong to the male, but crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belong to the female… gender displacement can provide a kind of identificatory buffer, an emotional remove, that permits the majority audience to explore taboo subjects in the relative safety of vicariousness. (Clover, 1987 p212)
By making the hero a woman, the male audience is given a safe distance from which to embody her.
The suggestion that these female heroes are nothing more than props in an allegory for a male coming of age story is conflicting. If all these strong female characters are really nothing more than safe representations of the teenage male psyche, then women are even more marginalized in cinema than the more blatant sexism in the slasher genre would suggest. But if this isn’t the case, then these Final Girls are being unfairly analysed using conventions stemming from generations of patriarchy, which define many positive character traits as uniquely masculine and negative ones as feminine.
It doesn’t necessarily matter which of these scenarios is true (or if it’s a combination of both). Neither is particularly appealing. Both suggest a society whose values are not as egalitarian as they seem.
Carpenter, J., (1978) Halloween, Compass International Pictures
Clover, C. J., (1987) Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, Representations, Vol. 20, pp. 187-228
Hooper, T., (1974) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Vortex
Mulvey, L. (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, Vol. 16.3, pp. 6-18
Scott, R., (1979) Alien, Brandywine Productions