Is that a noise outside? It’s probably nothing, so ignore it and go get some alcohol for our underaged drinking party. Nothing will go wrong. That’s right, this week we’re talking about slasher stories, everyone’s favorite genre where breaking from societal values is punished by brutal death. We discuss the origins of certain slashers, how slashers work in roleplaying games, and how to subvert the genre’s toxic tropes.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren: And today we’re continuing our spoooky themed podcast which we started halfway into October because I planned ahead really good on that… [laughter]
It’s Halloween soon so happy Halloween! Let teenagers trick or treat, I guess, is our message for this episode. If you’re someone who thinks teenagers shouldn’t trick or treat, rethink your thoughts on that.
Wes: Just give out candy. Just give people candy.
Oren: Just give people candy. It’s not a bad thing, which is important because we’re talking today about slashers and in slasher stories, if you do a bad thing, you get murdered! [All laugh]
Just so we’re clear, teenagers going trick or treating are not going to get murdered by Jason, at least I hope not.
Chris: But if you don’t give them candy then YOU might get murdered.
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: That’s definitely a thing that could happen
Chris: That’s bad karma.
Oren: Unfortunately horror movies have a tendency of murdering people for things that are not actually bad. Sex is the most common one, especially if you’re a woman, right?
Chris: Yeah I mean, I think slashers, on account of the high death rate, are one of the ones where you really see a character karma kind of come into play more than a lot of other genres. It’s funny because it’s not just about whether a character lives to the end or not — there’s clearly a moral hierarchy in the order of which the characters are killed, right?
Wes: Yeah, and which ones survive too.
Chris: Right, and the first character that dies is supposed to be the most immoral character. The character that dies last or even survives being considered the most moral. Clearly that’s what’s happening. Unfortunately, what has been traditionally considered bad karma and being punished is not what we consider bad karma today.
Oren: It’s because societal values are bad is the reason behind this.
I do appreciate that the original Jason movie just said it straight up, they didn’t pretend like all the other ones where, oh, it’s just a coincidense that the girl who had sex dies first. “Who knows what’s happening”. But that’s what Jason is about, they just tell you that in the first Jason movie.
Chris: Wait, how do they do that? Does Jason speak?
Oren: No, the first Jason movie is not actually about Jason.
Wes: It’s about his mom, right?
Oren: It’s about his mom, because the series is actually called Friday the 13th, which I always forget, but in the first Friday the 13th movie the plot is that some camp counselors go out to have sex instead of watching the kids, and a kid drowns, and that kid’s mom becomes a slasher and murders a bunch of kids later. And specifically hates people who hate sex.
Chris: Is the kid that drowns Jason?
Chris: Oh I thought I remembered something like that.
Oren: Yeah but he doesn’t show up until the second one. And then, it’s kind of weird, the series goes from being just about a human who kills people to an actual supernatural story really suddenly.
Wes: Is there any explanation?
Oren: I don’t think so. They foreshadow it at the end of the first one but I don’t think anyone ever explains that Jason is alive because this is a universe with ghosts.
Wes: Right, and not only is Jason somehow alive, but also he never sleeps.
Oren: Yeah, right, and he’s invincible, and you know, these movies kind of keep going for a while eventually get the unofficial Jasus versus Carrie.
Wes: Or the Freddy versus Jason, right?
Oren: Yeah, that one is official. But okay, to qualify as a slash movie I would typically define it as some kind of inhuman monster — while that’s not always the case, but more often the case now just because it is harder to suspend our disbelief that a regular person who kills people isn’t just stopped. Because, turns out, humans are pretty fragile and even if you’re targeting teenagers, if you target a bunch of them at the same time they can probably band together and take you down. So it helps for the monster to be seen as some kind of supernatural thing.
You have a big cast of characters that is killed off one by one, and sometimes there are survivors but sometimes there isn’t.
Chris: Yeah, I do think what was interesting in the movie Scream, being a very iconic slasher film that at the time had a lot of influence, [the killers] are just people, but there’s two of them. That’s the big subversion in Scream, that you find out that there is more than one killer.
Oren: I’m also a really big fan of Behind The Mask. Which is just a really good deconstruction of the slasher genre. The premise is that this is a world where slashers are real and people try to become them. So this film crew goes to study a dude who’s trying to become a slasher, and he talks about all the things that slashers do, and it’s just really funny. Then it transitions into an actual slasher story.
Chris: Yeah, it’s really good.
Oren: Just very fun, and named a lot of tropes. Like one that I’d known about for a while but I didn’t know it had a name, or at least didn’t for this movie, is “the Ahab”. Which is this character who knows what the slasher is and wants to kill the slasher and never succeeds, and usually dies trying. Their purpose in the story is sort of to make the slasher seem more threatening because, you know, this bad ass dude is all like ‘I’m gonna get that slasher’, and then fails.
Chris: So it’s supposed to be some bitter person who’s like, “Oh that slasher did this horrible thing and now I need revenge, and I’ve been after this person my whole life”, a dynamic where it makes the protagonist feel safe at first, only to then pull that away.
Oren: Yeah, someone …
Wes: It’s interesting that that character also keeps people in danger, right? You’re not helping! Just leave! Everybody should just go away.
Oren: And the slasher, much like the ghosts we were talking about last time with The Haunted House, there’s usually some reason, there’s some kind of, if not moral, some kind of reveal where we see that that character had an emotional connection somewhere. Like in the case of the Michael Myers films it’s revealed that the main character that he chases through five or six movies is his sister. And that series gets pretty weird. The only one that I can think of off the top of my head that doesn’t do that is A Nightmare On Elm Street, because in that one I think it’s just that Freddy feeds on dreams. He just wants to eat you. But there might be such a reveal in there that I’m forgetting.
Chris: Similarly to Candyman. The antagonist, I think he’s a ghost, although somehow he dies at the end, so I’m not sure how that works.
Wes: We talked about last time that ghosts can die. Sometimes that happens!
Chris: That one’s interesting, because the implication is that the protagonist is a reincarnation of his lover. And that’s sort of why — the really interesting thing with that one is that she does die at the end from her injuries. He hasn’t actually killed her directly, but she does kind of die saving a baby from a fire that he dies in. And then at the end she actually becomes the next slashing ghost. Which I think is a fairly unusual trend for a protagonist at the end of a slasher, to become the next monster.
Oren: Yeah that is a little unusual. One thing that is interesting about slasher films is that one of the reasons you don’t see this format in books very often is that there are certain tropes it relies on that would just be very hard to explain in a book, but in a movie you can kind of brush past them. One of my favorites is that the monster is almost always invincible. But they also wait until the protagonists are isolated and can’t get help before they attack. And so, why does that matter if you’re invincible? Why not just mow through all of the cops or whatever that the protagonist gets in front of you? Why would that matter to you?
Or another one is, very often the monster is invincible until he isn’t and he just kind of leaves at the end of the movie. Where did he go? What happened?
Wes: Do you think on some level they don’t have an invincible monster do that, plow through, because the point is to induce terror, right?
Oren: Yeah that’s exactly the point. It’s that’s part of the weird contradiction, that the monster is invincible, but it’s also way scarier if the monster attacks when you are isolated and alone. Even if in terms of actual danger it doesn’t really make sense. Movies also make it easier to gloss over things like how does the monster travel cross country. Because that happens sometimes, right? Where the monster has one area, but then he’ll show up somewhere else and attacks people, and it’s like, was Jason just walking through the woods? Did nobody see him? He’s a pretty noticeable guy, right?
Chris: I think another problem with having them just attack everybody at once is the idea that they usually remain, to some extent, kind of mysterious. They’re supposed to be horrific looking when you see them, but letting an entire group of people look at them seems to dispel some of that mystery.
Oren: And slasher stories are also very like, built on a certain aesthetic that is harder to bring across in written form. Of the three most famous slasher stories, you have Jason who has the hockey mask thing going on, you’ve got Michael Myers who wears a weird William Shatner mask, is actually what that is.
Oren: Yeah, yeah! That’s the original mask.
Wes: I didn’t know that.
Oren: I don’t think that is what it is in universe, but the prop that they use is a distressed William Shatner mask!
Wes: Oh my god, it’s so scary.
Oren: Right, I know! And then you’ve got Freddy who has his claw fingers and his weird burned face.
Wes: And his fedora.
Oren: Yeah and the fedora, that’s important. And that kind of extremely distinctive look can be challenging to bring across in a written story, which is why I think we mostly see these in films.
Chris: I will say that one of the things about slashers that makes them a little different is that you need more characters, which — I know lots of writers really want more characters than their story allows for. It’s a very common thing we see now. Of course, it being a slasher doesn’t actually change the rule that you shouldn’t have more character than your story actually needs. It doesn’t actually change that. But you do need more characters because we have to have excess people to just kill off. It’s not really what most writers are thinking of when they think of an ensemble cast, but many of the groups of characters that are killed off in the slasher movie do have a sort of ensemble cast dynamic, where you have the person who jokes off and the person who’s wild and the virgin is usually much more conservative and doesn’t want to take risks and that kind of thing.
Oren: Right, and that’s like, a stock character situation, where there are very clear roles for what this character is playing. And slasher stories play into that pretty heavily.
Chris: Yeah, especially because you don’t have time to get to know the characters that well before they’re killed.
Chris: Using a stock character just allows you to be like, this is what they are. Now you’ve gotten to know them. They can die now.
Oren: We’ve been talking a lot about movies, but another medium that slashers actually do fairly well in is actually roleplaying games! Which you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be the case because one of the many truths about roleplaying games is that players will not acccept tropes just because they are tropes, right? If you tell a player ‘you have a magic wishing lamp, NO you can’t wish for more wishes!’ – it’s like, why not? Why can’t I wish for more wishes?
But I have actually found that they are faiiiirly accepting when it comes to slasher story tropes. I’ve just found that roleplaying games work well as a medium for slasher stories and, granted, you can have an issue where a slasher story usually has one or two survivors, but if you have a roleplaying party of five or six people then that can be a bit of an issue, but people just enjoy it. Especially there are some games out there that reward you for playing into the slasher story tropes, where you get the bonus meta currency if you go out alone! Or a fun one is where you play as a Jenga tower. What’s that game? Dread I think. And it’s very tense, where every time you do something you pull a block out of the Jenga tower and when it collapses, someone dies. The only problem with it is –
Chris: It takes way too long for a Jenga tower to collapse.
Oren: Yeah, doing that the first time is super tense. The second and third time it’s like, ‘Hmmm, I kind of wish this would speed up now.’
Chris: Yeah, I feel if somebody made a new version of Jenga that would collapse faster, because I think the idea for that game is that somebody times every time it collapses, so you set it up again. The problem with Jenga is it’s meant to be like one ENTIRE game. It takes too long. It would be more intense if it collapsed more often and sooner.
But I’m curious more as to how you would deal with the character death in a slasher, because players don’t really like dying that much, and also you wouldn’t want them to die before the game is over. I know I have played one horror game with you that was basically like a slasher, and it just came down to people surviving to the end, but then at the end not everyone survived. Is that how you should do it?
Oren: Yeah this is definitely a situation where, and it’s not uncommon for roleplaying games, you have what would in any other medium would be the role of ONE character and that character is suddenly split among three or four or however many players you have. In most slasher stories you would have one survivor character, and in an RPG you have as many survivor characters as you have players. Which is, you know, one of the reasons why this tends to work better with smaller groups.
Another option is players can have multiple characters — I’ve done that.
Chris: Oh okay?
Oren: That tends to result in players not being as invested as in each individual character, but if you’re doing a one-shot slasher story, that’s not as big a problem.
Chris: So do you make two characters and the question is which one will survive?
Oren: Yeah, I think the one I played we had three.
Oren: Each person had three characters and, you know, they died pretty quick. And that can be a bit of a headache for the GM, but that’s one option.
You can also, like Chris was saying, you can save deaths towards the end. You can try to arrange things ahead of time, sort of decide who the survivor is, and then you can get all the other players in on it, and talk to them separately and be like, ‘That’s the survivor so you’re gonna get this cool death’. But you don’t tell the survivor.
Chris: [Laughs] That sounds like a good birthday gift.
Wes: You get to survive!
Chris: For someone who actually likes horror, that sounds like that would be a fun thing to do for someone.
Oren: Yeah, and I’ve done that before and it has worked fairly well. It’s less of an issue if you have like up to three players, you can generally have all three of them survive and just have NPCs die. It’s not a huge problem. More than three and it starts to get weird. I’m also a big fan of one, specifically in The World Of Darkness, there was this weird — the Hunter Game has this thing where as your character commits worse and worse acts, in the course of being a hunter to kill monsters and stuff, your humanity starts to degrade. And eventually your humanity, which is sort of an abstract thing that can represent more or less whatever you want it to represent, if it goes down far enough your character can become a slasher, which is a type of monster. And that was just kind of a neat dynamic! I actually have run a couple games where the bad guy was a slasher version of a previous hunter character.
Oren: And that is kinda fun. You could see that dynamic happening in certain seasons of Supernatural with basically just Hunter the TV show. So you know that’s just how slasher stuff tends to work in roleplaying games.
Chris: I think it might be worth talking more about the karma question, and specifically how to deal with it. Because sometimes what happens in slasher stories is you have some karmic expectations from your audience based on other stories, but you don’t want to follow through because they’re actually problematic.
Besides just women who have sex dying, there’s also the scientists — generally, a lot of times [Mad Scientist Voice] oh, they’re dabbling in things they don’t understand. You know, we don’t really want to punish scientists just for innovating.
Wes: We three don’t!
Chris: Generally the best recipe for this is if you have already have it happening is just to pull off a subversion. And the point of a subversion is to make it show your audience that your deviation from their expectations is intentional as a twist instead of just not fulfilling their expectations.
So for a subversion to work, you want the character to really DO fit the type, and strongly, actually set up that expectation. Then you appear to be following it until the last moment, when you have a sudden sharp reveal that, HAHA, NO! Yeah, that’s not happening, because THIS story is different.
Oren: We’ve talked about this before but whenever we get into the question of a subversion, a difficulty that always pops up is, what do you do for the people who, if they see this and think that you’re playing the trope straight, will just leave. You know, with a movie that’s not as much of a problem as there is with a book, but definitely with books, if I read a book and think it’s doing a toxic trope, very often I just won’t finish it.
And then someone will be like, “But it had a brilliant reveal at the end! It was a subversion!” I’ll be like, well, I never got to it, so eh.
Chris: Generally with subversions I try to put other things in the story that are clearly offering value. It’s harder when it’s problematic, right? If it’s just a subversion of something that is cliché then putting other novel elements in the story will have you covered. But you could do something similar with something that’s problematic, just have other constructive messages. For people who are super aware of this and actually bothered by it, having other messages that are clearly constructive kinda tells them that you share their values and lets them trust you more. That’s how I would say it, but that can be kind of a trouble in a slasher.
Oren: One thing that occurred to me is I was like, well, what if we had the slasher go after people who did things that are actually bad. And I think I would be concerned about that because that would maybe start to make it seem like the slasher is the good guy.
Wes: That’s kind of what I was thinking with, talking about the tropes and who dies and these aspects. On some level, are slasher stories not only appealing to people who want to get scared, maybe grossed out a bit, but is there [also] some kind of weird justice component under all of this? Which is problematic if that’s like what it’s trying to reinforce.
Chris: Stephen King is pretty well known for having stories that are very cathartic. Where we see a character is abused and then come back. Carrie actually is a classic example of this, where Carrie is kind of bullied and abused and in the end she comes out and murders people. And the karmic justice of the situation sort of adds to the audience satisfaction, even though it’s not technically good that she’s going around and murdering everybody.
Wes: I think you’re right and, we definitely see that because of what happens to Carrie prior to her killing all those people. I am thinking more like, if there are those archetypes that get knocked off, like the slut gets killed off and then this happens and then the virgin doesn’t or like maybe escapes, and like — I worried that if people see somebody who they think is getting their just desserts, I feel like that is probably very problematic.
Oren: OH absolutely, that is one of the reasons I don’t really watch a lot of slasher movies anymore, is once I realized what’s what it was doing it was like, oh, well I don’t like that.
That’s where a subversion can be useful or, you can set up a different set of things that generate bad karma that the slasher is going to take advantage of. Because that’s sort of another situation where, in Alien, I mentioned Alien last week, it’s largely a haunted house story but it also shares some things in common with a slasher story.
Now the alien is more of an animal than a conscious creature, but it’s definitely going around murdering people. And there are some innocents who die in that story, but it is notable that the character who survives is the one who was like ‘This is a bad idea, bringing this thing onboard. We shouldn’t do that’ and everyone else is like, nah it’s fine, it’ll be okay. And a lot of the other characters, including the Android who is straight up evil, they actually do things that make us more comfortable with the fact that they die. And it’s not as far as I recall a weird society punishing people for breaking arbitrary taboos.
Chris: Yeah I don’t know. We could have a bigger conversation about the morality of having a sort of satisfying cathartic character death. You know that’s a human being dying in a story and all, but it is very universal and it goes beyond the slasher genre. It’s the villain that falls off a cliff, or it’s the self-disposing villain that tries to hit the hero but their hit rebounds on them and they die.
It’s a very cosmic sense of justice, and I think in a slasher fic a lot of it — even if it is said blatantly, like in Friday the 13th, there is a sense that the world, the cosmos, has a sense of justice right? Not necessarily that the slasher is a good guy who should be killing these people. But certainly there could be a very blurry line there. This is definitely something that goes beyond slashers, and I don’t know that I would be willing to say that having any level of catharsis in a character dying in a slasher is something we should never use. It’s certainly something to think about.
Oren: Yeah, consider flipping the script, and instead of a story where characters die first based on sexual activity or minority status, let’s say that the characters that we have die first are the bullies in the group. I don’t think that that is like, OH NO we are advocating that anyone that is a bully should be murdered. I don’t think we have to take it that literally. I think the reason it becomes a problem is if the movie is reinforcing ideas that something that’s actually fine is bad. That’s why having sex or being non-white are the things that make you a target is a problem, whereas doing something actually bad, like being the sleazy businessman who rips off his customers – we don’t have to worry about unfair persecution of sleazy businessmen. That’s not a social justice problem that our society has, right?
Maybe not yet. We’ll see, maybe in the future.
Chris: Fr shur.
Oren: Does anyone else have anything they want to comment on slashers before we’re done?
Wes: Well I was kind of curious. Have both of you seen Cabin In The Woods?
Wes: I feel like you can’t really have more than one of that type of story, which then makes me wonder. It’s not particularly like a subversion, right? It’s more like — how would you describe what they are doing in that movie? Just explicitly drawing attention to tropes.
Chris: That’s a really good question, it certainly has some commentary, maybe a parody? We usually think of parodies as being really silly, but I feel like a parody is closest. I don’t think it’s so insightful that I would call it a deconstruction. And in the end it doesn’t really — it does subvert some things and the fact that the whole thing is very manufactured. And so I think that part of it is subversive where you have the expectation that when you go to a house that it is haunted, that it has this looong history and everything’s occurring naturally and there’s something mysterious out there. Having a haunted house that is blatantly industrialized where there’s a whole corporation in the background that is pulling the levers, I think that’s very subversive.
Wes: Yeah, okay.
Oren: And it’s a certain commentary there on the way horror movies are made and exploited, and that sort of thing. I would have considered it a deconstruction but as you pointed out maybe it’s not quite clever enough to deserve that.
Chris: I think that deconstruction, in my opinion, needs something more to say than just be making fun of it.
Wes: Yeah I think I agree with that.
Chris: I love Cabin In The Woods. I think it’s a great movie, I really enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it fits that qualification.
Oren: My favourite will always be Behind The Mask, because it focuses a little bit more on the slasher stuff.
Chris: Right, Behind The Mask is definitely deconstruction I would say.
Oren: To those of you at home, if anything piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com, otherwise we will talk to you next week. And always remember: Let teenagers trick or treat!
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