2018 Film Essays

Monsters and Hockey Masks: Primal Evil in Slasher Films

The ingredients that make up a slasher are always a little difficult to put together. Typically, they all involve nubile teenagers making mischief and paying the highest price for it. There’s a healthy dose of slashing involved. But one convention of the slasher film is more fiercely debated than others: whether or not the killer needs to have some element of humanity about them. The most common line of logic runs that slashers need their killer to be human; if they don’t, then the films are more supernatural, and the slashers are a bit more tethered to reality. But it isn’t that simple. First off, films like A Nightmare on Elm Street deal explicitly with a world beyond our own, and the slasher credentials of that franchise are never really challenged. And Freddy Krueger is just the tip of the iceberg; so many slashers have gone on to launch franchises, and almost all of the sequels for any given film have included the killer that made them iconic: Jason Voorhees is in all but one Friday the 13th movie, just like Michael Myers is in all but one Halloween film. With these characters continually surviving things that would be lethal to a mere mortal, the nature of what humanity means in a slasher is called into question. After a point, these masked men stop becoming men at all, and turn into something else.

The nature of man and monstrosity in slashers can be traced back to the early days of the genre. In John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978), Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis describes the time he spent watching Michael Myers in an insane asylum. He says that there was “nothing left” in Michael, “no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong.” According to Loomis, Michael, even at the age of six, had “the blackest eyes. The devil’s eyes,” and that what lives behind them is “purely and simply evil.” The irony of evil in Halloween being pure, or in any slasher for that matter, is an interesting point. So often, whether they intend to be or not, slashers are morality plays; when characters sin, they pay the price for it. This is commented on throughout more postmodern horror films, from the now iconic explanation of the “rules” of the slasher in Scream, including the simple but accurate “don’t have sex. Or you will die,” to the archetypal ideas of The Cabin in the Woods, where one of the people in the cabin must be considered The Virgin (or at least as close to it as possible).

The pure, simple evil of Michael Myers flows through the DNA of all the murderous movie men that came after him; taking on the role of a divine arbiter of morality, they become something more symbolic, imbued with a power and presence that’s otherworldly. This comes through in the iconography of slashers that take place in the real world (which makes A Nightmare on Elm Street an exception, something that’s understandable since that story and its killer are more divorced from the real world than its contemporaries), and one icon in particular: masks. Jason and Michael both wear masks that have become iconic in the canon of cinematic horror, and this cultural transcendence fits well with two characters who have also become more than human in their respective franchises.

Michael’s mask forces everyone to focus on his “devil’s eyes,” and the evil that lies behind them. Michael isn’t even called Michael in Halloween, instead he’s credited as The Shape. There’s something inhumane about Michael, and the mask forces the viewer to confront it.

This idea is taken even further in the Friday the 13thfranchise. For one thing, Jason is supposed to have been dead all along, yet he’s the killer in every film from Friday the 13th Part 2 on. But this alone isn’t what makes Jason an inhuman monster. It’s the mask. In Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and its sequel Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Jason becomes something of an idea, a metaphysical figure of evil that goes on to haunt those who have suffered at his hand, even after he’s allegedly dead. The climactic moments of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter seem as if they’ll be living up to that name; the young Tommy shaves his head before heading down to confront Jason, repeating “don’t you remember?” During their conflict, Jason is unmasked, and his face is revealed to be anything other than human; deformed and monstrous, any trace of humanity is long gone from him. When his mask comes off, he drops his machete, as if the two of them are linked. Tommy then goes in for the kill, constantly repeating “die, die” even after Jason has been dealt the final blow. Something seems to take root in Tommy during those moments, the evil from Jason leaving and moving on to a different host.

Tommy is haunted by these events, and by Jason, in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. He sees Jason at the foot of his hospital bed, a literal creature going bump in the night. But he meets the phantom’s gaze, and there seems to be a moment of recognition between them. While Jason fades out of the room, he remains deeply rooted inside Tommy, who has a mask exactly like Jason’s hidden away in a drawer. With the mask on, he seems to become Jason, breaking his hospital window, and raising his knife up to the poor unfortunate soul who enters his room.

In their own ways, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger all go beyond the real world, and beyond mortality. While they all have origins as humans — who suffered, or caused suffering — their transformation into killers also turned them into something more than mortals. Freddy became a dream-prowling monster, and the masks of Michael and Jason became symbols of a primal evil; they reveal the eyes of a devil, or play host to a figure who is able to take root in the mind of those who kill him. Their iconography is imbued with an evil that goes beyond the simple act of killing, and these puritanical avengers become something more than mortal monsters.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.