Audience Expectations in the ‘Slasher’ Formula
Friday the 13th (parts 1 and 5)
April Fools Day.
Audience Expectations in the ‘Slasher’ Formula
How important is Audience Expectation in relation to Genre? This is a question with many variables. Different genres will attract different audiences, different films will attract different ages, races and cultures and each of these groups bringing attend a film with their own unique expectations. Consequently I will answer this question using the example of only one genre, the Slasher film. The reason I am using this genre is because it’s audience is made up almost entirely of teenagers. It is also one of the best examples of genre purism, meaning that the genre itself has barely changed since it was invented thirty years ago.
What is a ‘Slasher’ Film?
Slasher movies are a sub-genre of horror. Some critics refer to the genre as ‘dead teenager movies’ ‘slice and dice films’ or ‘gross out films’ (Wong, 2006). Films of the genre generally contain high levels of violence, blood and gore and almost always feature a group of teenagers as protagonists. The antagonist is a killer, often wearing a mask, who kills the protagonists one by one throughout the course of the film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), while pre-dating the term, is considered by many to be a slasher movie (Bohusz 2007) as it matches the traditional narrative formula of the genre.
Some of the first films to be defined as slasher movies came ten years later in the mid seventies. The first box office success was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a movie about a baby sitter and her friends who are stalked, and most of them killed, by an escaped killer named Michael Myers. The film cost only three-hundred-thousand dollars to create and made roughly fifty-million dollars. Similar films began to spring up including Friday the 13th (1980), a film with a narrative plot similar to Halloween but added much more gruesome death scenes. Prom Night (1980) was another release that kept a similar narrative structure, but added a ‘whodunit’ aspect to the film. This left the audience to guess the identity of the masked killer. Both films were made on a small budget and were financial successes. This convinced Hollywood studios to continue creating more and the slasher movie was born.
When it comes to audience expectation one must consider who the audience is. The audience of Slasher movies is almost entirely made up of adolescents. There has been much speculation on why many teenagers are drawn to the genre. Critics of the genre argue that it is the frequent violence, nudity and sex that attract a teenage audience. Crane argues that the appeal goes deeper, into basic adolescent psychology. Because violent films are frowned upon by cinema critics and authority figures, the teenagers desire to rebel and view these movies is what drives the audience to watch violent films (1994).
One audience expectation that applies to both the genre of horror and the sub-genre slasher is the expectation that they will be frightened by the film. Unlike other genres like fantasy, romance or adventure, horror is one of the few genres that defines itself as the intended emotional response of the audience. The appeal of a horror film is adrenaline rush or thrill that is associated with being frightened (Bohusz 2007). The Slasher movie builds on this concept. Early slasher flicks like Carpenter’s Halloween or Hitchcock’s Psycho were violent but mostly absent of blood. Later films like Cunningham’s Friday the 13th drew influence from Italian ‘Spaghetti’ Cinema, and not only frightened their audience, but disgusted them with horrific, bloody imagery (Bohusz 2007).
Violence and Gore
Crane believes that “horror films satisfy the audience desire for primal scenes of horrific imagery” (1994). Paul explains this idea further, claiming that the intense graphic violence presented within slasher films break the taboos placed on both cinema and society. The breaking of such a taboo is both appealing and thrilling to the audience (1994). Violence has become an audience expectation in the Slasher Genre as Tom Savini, make up artist on films like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), claims in Bohusz’s documentary:
“There was a time when the old horror films, you didn’t see everything. It was suggested and your mind completed it. … But now, we want to see the heads up, we want to see the blood In fact the kids are disappointed; the audience is disappointed if they don’t see it. ” (2007)
“Horror movies should be terrifying, they should be horrible, they should be disgusting, they should be everything. But when you start watering all that down … it’s like a studio making a porno movie but saying ‘ya gotta cut out all the sex scenes.’” Rob Zombie interview (Bohusz 2007)
Audience expectation is very specific when it comes to the slasher genre. Slasher films rarely stray from Tordov’s structure of narrative (Lacy, 2005). This structure includes a state of equilibrium, where the group of five or six teenagers go about their lives. There is the disruption to the equilibrium, where a killer begins to stalk them. The disruption is then noticed when some of the teenagers are murdered. The attempt to get things back to normal is the remaining characters attempts to survive. Equilibrium is then reinstated when either the ‘killer’ is killed or the final teenager is killed. This is the narrative structure of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Friday the 13th (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Halloween (1976), Prom Night (1980) Scream (1990) and countless others. Wes Craven, writer and director of Halloween summarises the formula as “teenagers being threatened by a guy in a mask or a killer of some sort, usually with a knife that slashes.” (Bohusz, 2007) This narrative formula has not changed for nearly 30 years. Crane theorizes the reason.
“The horror genre’s hidebound founding texts prevent films from deviating too far from tradition … The audience is itself psychologically unsuited for drastic changes in the formula horror film.” (1994)
By this Crane means that the classic films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween have created a solid audience expectation of the narrative structure of the slasher genre, and therefore attempts to deviate from the set formula would alienate the genre fans.
Friday the 13th and Halloween Sequels; Breaking the Expectations.
An example emphasizing Crane’s theory is the audience response to Danny Steinman’s Friday the 13th Part 5: a New Beginning (1985). The previous installment of the franchise, Friday the 13th Part 4: the Final Chapter (1984) was supposed to be the final installment in the franchise. The decision to create a new installment excited the many fans of the series. The twist at the end of Steinman’s film, however, revealed that the masked killer was not Jason (the usual killer of the series) at all. Instead it was an ambulance driver from the beginning of the movie and the film was a disappointment among genre fans.
Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1983) experienced similar audience feedback. Rather than using the previous narrative structure of Michael Myers trying to kill Laurie Strode, the film was absent of both characters. Instead it featured a plot about an evil toy manufacturer planning to kill children with cursed Halloween masks. Both films had almost nothing to do with their predecessors (except they are both set on the date in the title) and consequently are often ignored by fans of the series. This demonstrates another audience expectation on the slasher genre; continuity with prequels. It also demonstrates the consequence of straying from certain expectations, where films are ignored and financially unsuccessful due their failure to satisfy the audience’s expectations.
The April Fools Marketing ‘Joke’
Playing on audience expectation can help a studio market a film. Trailers of slasher movies usually summarize the plot; display some of the visual effects (usually the kills in the film) thus effectively displaying the genre as slasher. Marketing a film as a slasher effectively finds an audience for the movie and can guarantee thousands of ticket sales (Ryall 1998). There is, however, a danger of misleading the audience. An example of this was the release of the film April Fools Day (1986). The film was marketed as a slasher film about a group of friends who travel to a holiday resort owned by a friend. However they are killed one by one. On the surface this meets the requirements of the Slasher genre, however upon seeing the film it is revealed that all the kills were merely an elaborate April Fools joke. The director of April Fools Day, Fred Walton, blames the films failure on the distributor; Paramount.
“It [April Fools Day] was never intended to be a serious genre piece. They [Paramount] sold it as a genre piece and the genre fans came out to see it opening weekend. … (Laughs) Those marketing people, they’re the ones that messed this up.” Interview with Fred Walton (Bohusz 2007)
Consequently, genre fans who saw the film felt the ending was a cop out. They were disappointed (and felt cheated) that the film was not a ‘real’ slasher picture and the film was a failure.
In terms of genre, audience expectations are usually compliant with the majority of films within that genre. Slasher movies are an excellent example of genre purism. The foundations of the genre have been in place so long, and the properties of the genre are so specific, that attempts to deviate too far from tradition can result in a films financial failure. Genre is more than a label, it is a marketing technique film makers and distributors use to find an audience for a film. Audience Expectations are not only important to the success of a genre film, but to the genre itself. The positive response to gore in Slasher film has allowed the genre to evolve from the early, non-bloody, films like Psycho and Halloween to violent gory additions like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.
Bohusz, M 2007, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, USA.
Crane, JL 1994, Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Sage Publications, California.
Lacey, N 2005, ‘Film Genre and Narrative’, in Introduction to Film, 1st edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 77-94.
Paul, W 1994, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror & Comedy, Columbia University Press, New York.
Ryall, T 1998, ‘Genre and Hollywood’, in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. PC Gibson & J Hill, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 327-341.
Stadler, J & McWilliam, K 2009, Screen Media: Analysing Film and Television, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales.
Wong, J 2006, Dead Teenager Movie, Canada.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Prom Night (1980)
Friday the 13th (1980)
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1983)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Friday the 13th Part 4: the Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th Part 5: a New Beginning (1985)
April Fools Day (1986)