The Literary Case for Slasher Films and the Horrors of Reality TV
Samantha Allen on the Trauma of Elimination, from Black Christmas to Love Island
When the low-budget Canadian horror film Black Christmas was released in 1974, Gene Siskel hated it. “The picture has only one kind of cheap thrill,” he wrote. “Its women repeatedly walk slowly into certain death, and the director plays out the suspense for more than it’s worth.” Today, the film is regarded as a horror masterpiece—a prototypical slasher that spawned a thousand imitators, predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years. It is also, I think, quite sophisticated, despite the critical drubbing that it and other slashers received in their heyday. The film deals forthrightly with abortion, for example—only a year after Roe v. Wade was decided—in ways that put many serious 21st-century dramas to shame.
“Do you remember when we first met?” Jess (Olivia Hussey) asks her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) after he angrily disapproves of her decision to terminate her pregnancy. “You told me about your wanting to be a concert pianist, how it was your greatest dream, and I told you about some of the things that I wanted to do? I still want to do those things.”
If that’s not the kind of dialogue you’d expect to find in a slasher, you’re not alone. Born into second-wave feminism and coming of age during a cascading set of Reagan-era moral panics, the genre was branded sexist and salacious—and even today, it hasn’t fully shaken that stigma. And yet there they are there, right at the slasher’s origin: Things To Say. About gender. About womanhood. About asymmetrical relationships. Even the relentless rhythm of repeated murder in these films serves a purpose, making literal the drumbeat of the endless dance between death and youth.
Which is why slashers have become something of a literary inspiration for me of late, prompting an unexpected pivot from writing memoir to penning a horror comedy novel. What might look from the outside like basic narrative architecture—a killer murders a bunch of people, leaving one “final girl” alive—has always held the potential to tell nuanced stories, not despite its intrinsic violence but because of it. The mistake contemporaneous critics made was viewing slasher movies as mere titillation—or “kill-for-kicks,” as Variety labeled Black Christmas—when in fact, all that blood and screaming was accomplishing something greater, confronting head-on the terror and tragedy of life interrupted.All that blood and screaming was accomplishing something greater.
“I still want to do those things,” Jess says, but the Jess who survives Black Christmas will almost certainly be too traumatized to start building her future, if she even lives beyond the ominous closing credits sequence. Indeed, if the 1980s gave us the action hero—a character who overcomes impossible obstacles, surviving explosions and seven-story falls onto alleyway dumpsters only to emerge victorious and unscathed—it also gave us a more realistic and therefore more relatable protagonist: someone who is forever changed by what they’ve endured. Trauma isn’t toothless. It leaves marks. Slashers just tend to put those wounds onscreen.
In the early 2000s, after the censors at the Motion Picture Association had spent decades laying siege to the slasher with the threat of “X” and “NC-17” ratings, I would argue that their underlying spirit was transmuted into another mega popular but equally maligned format: competitive reality television. Young co-eds getting picked off as the minutes tick by until there’s only one remaining? That simultaneously describes the plot of Slumber Party Massacre and any given season of The Bachelor, and the appeal of watching both, I would argue, is fundamentally the same: we like stories about survival, about sex, and about the interpersonal drama between desperate people facing elimination, whether that comes in the form of a knife to the chest or a chauffeured car to the airport.
Not coincidentally, both the slasher and reality television seem to be enjoying something of a literary moment, in the form of books like Andrew Palmer’s The Bachelor, Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group, and Stephanie Perkins’ fantastic There’s Someone Inside Your House, the title of which reads like a reference to a trope Black Christmas originated with the now-legendary line “Jess, the caller is in the house.” My debut novel, Patricia Wants to Cuddle, is an attempt to combine these twin cultural obsessions and point out their core similarities.
In a fractured cultural moment riddled with anxieties about the future, it should be no surprise that authors are turning to the slasher movie—and to its more mainstream cousin, the elimination-style reality show—to find our muses. We need to make sense of this nightmare somehow. Why not paint it in blood and pixels?
That’s why when people ask me what I’ve been drawing from these days for my writing, I tell them, without a shred of irony, “Jason Takes Manhattan and Love Island.” I don’t really care if it makes me seem gauche and un-literary, because the slasher, a genre as old as Psycho, is a perfectly justifiable font of inspiration with decades’ worth of box office returns and PhD dissertations to prove it. (Likewise, reality TV, despite first seeming like a fad, will almost certainly be around so long as there’s still, well, reality to document.) Gene Siskel would probably hate what I’ve been working on recently, but that’s okay. One person’s “cheap thrill” is another person’s treasure.