The term “slasher film”, like most categories, is kind of arbitrary. While everyone can agree that the Friday the 13th movies are slasher films, and that films like The Exorcist are not slashers, there are a lot of films that horror fans continue to debate. Was Psycho (1960) a slasher film? How about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Black Christmas (1974)?
The best analysis I have ever seen on the topic is an essay called “The Stalker Film, 1978-81”, by Vera Dika, that appeared in a book called American Horrors, edited by Gregory A. Waller. Although Dika used the term “stalker film”, she was clearly talking about a sub-genre of horror that many people would label slashers. Pumpkin Person will use the term “pure slashers” since Dika was describing a very specific type of movie.
According to Dika, this sub-genre typically has a narrative structure that is divided into a past and present event, with the following outline, which I’ve paraphrased:
Some young people do something “wrong”.
The slasher sees a wrongdoing, injury or death.
The slasher suffers a loss.
The slasher kills guilty young people.
Something commemorates the past action.
The slasher’s violent impulse resurfaces.
A seer warns the young people.
The young people ignore the warning.
The slasher stalks the young people.
The slasher kills the young people.
The heroine discovers the killings.
The heroine fights the slasher.
The heroine defeats the slasher.
The heroine is alive but the threat isn’t over.
According to Dika, the golden age for this sub-genre was 1978-1981. She quite cleverly correlates this with the American political climate of the time. For these were the final years of the unpopular Carter administration, the president who is credited with never firing a bullet, never dropping a bomb. But many Americans at the time felt humiliated by Carter’s non-violent foreign policy and the outcome of the Vietnam war, and a decade after the 1960s, there was a backlash against the peace and love pot smoking hippie movement. The mood was rife for films about pot smoking love making non-violent teenagers getting slaughtered as brutally as possible, while a conservative virgin heroine uses violence to triumph against the enemy. Dika’s theory nicely explains why slashers were so prolific and popular for such a brief period in American history, with only the most fleeting of revivals.