Those with long memories will recall that Wes Craven’s Scream, which came out way back in 1996, was praised for its hip “self-awareness,” coming as it did in a particularly “meta” era of ’90s postmodernism, full of overrated cult fare like Pulp Fiction and Clerks. The film’s edginess consisted in banging on the fourth wall without quite breaking it. In one scene, for instance, a horror-movie fanatic and video-store clerk (remember: 1996) played by Jamie Kennedy tells his fellow teenagers about the “rules” of surviving a slasher film.
One of these “rules,” which is now common knowledge, is that in order to survive one mustn’t practice the carnal arts. Those who do it always get it. What the less eloquent might call “c*ckblocking” is an established horror-movie tradition. In the first Halloween film, Michael Myers ruins one couple’s tryst by stabbing the guy and then assaulting his teenage girlfriend—which might sound like a standard Friday evening at Roman Polanski’s house, but for an audience of 1970s suburban teens it was genuinely frightening. Come to think of it, every horror movie has a boyfriend character, football letter jacket and all, who gets his head caved in while fetching a few beers from the fridge. Each series has its own tropes. The Friday the 13th movies rely on the obligatory sex-in-the-woods scene: two camp counselors set up a tent, and before long Jason shows up with his machete for an especially kinky threesome.
I’m sure the university libraries of the Anglosphere are full of theses on sex and horror movies, but it seems to me pretty self-evident that horror movies are one way for geeks to enjoy vicariously the suffering of the jocks. Alpha males don’t last long in the world of horror; it’s always the betas and the females who are the most likely to escape. Ridiculous though they often are, horror movies at least force us to evaluate our place in the social pecking order. Everybody has asked himself whether he’d survive a horror movie. There’s this desire within each of us to ignore the actual problems of the world and instead think about wholly unlikely and bizarre scenarios—unstoppable axe murderers, the zombie apocalypse—and whether we’d have the skills to survive them.
It depends on who’s chasing you. There are, generally speaking, three kinds of horror-movie killers. The first is of the Scream variety: extremely dangerous but nevertheless human and mortal. If you’re a good boxer, a solid hook will buy you some time to run to that attic before you’re slaughtered. Then there’s the second kind, the even more dangerous and immortal ones like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. No amount of hand-to-hand combat skills would work against them—yes, this goes even for your friend Tony with his dianabol and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The third kind take the qualities of the second and add an extra supernatural dimension. Think Freddy Krueger or Pinhead—they get you in your dreams, or in some kind of alternate reality where they can control the physics and chemistry of your environment.
For most people, horror movies are their first, and often last, lesson in disaster preparedness. I suspect most people’s instincts are the same: find guns and find them quickly. One of the most satisfying scenes in the classic action flick Commando is when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character breaks into an army surplus store and steals an arsenal for his private revenge mission. Who hasn’t thought of doing exactly that if faced with a supernatural stalker or a zombie juggernaut? Find the nearest gun shop, grab the Uzis and RPGs from the owner’s private backroom stash until you’ve got enough to invade Grenada… then search and destroy.
But the gun provides a sense of security that, in a horror movie, is largely unwarranted. What horror villain, especially those of the immortal or supernatural sort, has ever been stopped by a character’s Glock? This is tough for American horror fans to accept. We’re used to basing our physical safety on projectile weapons. (Thesis idea for film studies students: Examine whether the hypothetical horror-movie survival strategies of Western Europeans involve as many guns as those of Americans.) And what of that hackneyed advice to shoot the psycho killer in the face? To be sure, if you’re going to bust a cap in your horror-movie villain, do aim for the face. But don’t be lulled into thinking this will save you, or that you’d even be able to pull it off. It takes extraordinary skill and composure to fire a pistol with any accuracy when adrenaline has palsied your hands. Hitting center mass is hard enough; forget about the face.
I think the shoot-them-in-the-face strategy is born of frustration rather than logic. When you think about it, why would the killer’s face be any more vulnerable than his body? We’re already in supernatural territory here. Still, audiences are tired of seeing characters waste their bullets on the slasher’s chest (where it’s easier for a filmmaker to pretend no real damage was done) without even trying for the head. At the end of the second Halloween film, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode character breaks this trend by shooting Michael Myers not just in the face but…in the eyes! It was a deliciously heterodox moment. Unfortunately, the makers of Halloween 4, one of several films in which Myers “returned,” forgot about it, or chose to ignore it, and depicted him with 20/20 vision.
We could learn more from Ms. Curtis. At the end of Halloween H20, her character chops off the killer’s head with an axe. This, too, was negated in the next film, but pretend for a moment that there’s no such thing as sequels. The aim of the game, for any horror-movie combatant, should always be the removal of extremities. You can nullify immortality with immobility. It all depends on how many laws of physics and biology your slasher can suspend for his own benefit. (Can his limbs regenerate?) If all else fails, you could ask the killer to sleep with you and perhaps, following the predictable logic of the genre, he’d commit suicide.
Check out the previous installments in this year’s Halloween coverage at PJ Lifestyle: