A good place to start to learn about the genre is Adam Rockoff's excellent book, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. Rockoff gives an overview of the slasher's heyday, and also provides plot synopses, stills, and background info on most of the films of the period. I'll use his book as a jumping-off point.
While inevitably there will be movies that straddle genres- heck, there's even rare movies that define a new genre- films defined as "slashers" tend to play by a certain set of rules and contain specific elements. Let's start with the most obvious: THE KILLER. As Rockoff puts it, the killer is
usually an ordinary person who has suffered some terrible-and sometimes not so terrible- trauma.The trauma can be inflicted upon the killer or a family member, it matters not. Conveniently, these events tend to occur on a date easily remembered: see April Fool's Day, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, Mother's Day...the list goes on. On the anniversary of this special day, the killer sets out to avenge him/herself or the family member done wrong by killing those responsible (as poor Kenny did to the ones who made him twirl around in Terror Train), symbolic representations of the guilty (Friday the 13th), or relatives of the perpetrators (A Nightmare on Elm Street). So you see, the killer isn't usually just some random psycho- he's a psycho with a vendetta. The biggest exception to this rule is of course Halloween, which strived very hard (and succeeded) in emphasizing that Michael Myers is ephemeral, almost supernatural. There's no explaining him- he's the boogeyman. The events that cause someone to become a killer are often shown in a prologue so we know the killer's motivations. To my mind, vengeance killing is alot less frightening than the "pure evil" of a boogeyman, but that's another essay entirely. Jason Voorhees has taken on some supernatural elements since his beginnings- indestructibility and re-generation, for example- but this stems from the success of his first film and thoughts of "franchise" more than anything else.
But what about gender? Aren't the killers always men who want to cut up pretty young women? Nope- not always. There are plenty of slashers with a female killer, such as Night School, Friday the 13th, Happy Birthday to Me, and Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3. Most often, the killer's gender is kept ambiguous- at times, such as in Friday the 13th, tricks are employed to point to a male killer: Mrs. Voorhees drove a truck, wore boots and flannel. Had she driven that truck to Lilith Fair, we might not have been so surprised when she turned out to be a she. But as it was, even when we finally saw her, we thought she was there to help! Shock, surprise! Sleepaway Camp Part 1 is another story altogether, however, when the she turns out to be a he...ah, good old Angela.
Now that we have a decent idea of just who's stalking in these movies and why, we can dig into other elements that make a slasher a slasher and not a Lifetime Movie. I'll continue on with the lesson in the next post. In the meantime, keep your eyes on your own paper, or else!