[Book Review] ‘Life Lessons from Slasher Films’

For those smarty-pants who approach their horror entertainment from an academic perspective, Life Lessons from Slasher Films was released this month by Scarecrow Books, a highbrow publishing line specializing in reference works and college textbooks (and priced accordingly). Rather than attempt to compile an all-inclusive slasher-pedia like the recent Slasher Movie Book, author Jessica Robinson contrasts and compares a handful of staples from the sub-genre: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Black Christmas, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Drawing parallels and spinning theories, Robinson (who has penned a couple of fiction titles under the alias “Pembroke Sinclair”) draws some shrewd connections between the films, even as she occasionally stretches the boundaries of logic. Life Lessons from Slasher Films is a well-conceived think-piece, but I took some umbrage with a few of Robinson’s assertions. Some of you die-hard slasher hounds may feel the same way. The full review follows.

Armed with her bushel of horror touchstones, Robinson divides her 200-page treatise into six chapters, each covering a particular lesson, from “Listen to Your Elders“ to “Teens Never Learn“. Lesson One is particularly relevant. Titled “The Past Will Catch Up With You”, Robinson postulates that the killer in slasher films represents conservative values, “taking it upon himself to discipline” those who don’t agree with his conservative ideals. Regarding Halloween, Robinson writes, “The victims who are punished in the film are teens who participate or about to participate in a sexual act. Michael is the avenger who returns the teens to a time of propriety.” The villains in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, meanwhile, are simply old-timers who refuse to adapt to change. “The Leatherface family is a corrupted version of the nuclear family because industrialization changed societal values,” she writes. “Grandpa is the embodiment of the unrealized past.” Juicy stuff for film theorists. And much of Life Lessons from Slasher Films is similarly thought-provoking, especially early on. (The later chapters, which compare the original films to their remakes, have a tendency to grow repetitive.)

While reading Life Lessons from Slasher Films it’s worth keeping in mind that it represents one person’s opinion regarding the subgenre we all know and love, and as a result, Robinson’s assertions may not always reflect those of horror fans. For instance, although I’ve always felt that the majority of slasher films in the ‘80s wallowed in (good-natured?) misogyny, I can also recognize the abundance of girl deaths as simply an embarrassing aspect of the time period, like Swatches and leg-warmers. If you’re watching a slasher films from the ‘80s, a bunch of bitches are gonna die. That’s just the way it is.

Yet, Robinson cites the recurring triumph of the Final Girl (the last girl standing, who ultimately kills the slasher villain) as a denial of any misogyny. “[Slasher films] do not portray anti-feminist sentiments,” she states, “but instead show just how strong women are and what they have to overcome to function in society.” An interesting viewpoint, but I somewhat disagree, viewing the ultimate victory of the Final Girl as the filmmaker’s apology for all the woman-killing carnage that preceded it, rather than an outright denial. It may be a gray area, but that’s what makes academic approaches to the horror genre so enjoyable for die-hard fans.

4 out of 5 Skulls