Freddy, Jason, Michael ... when you hear these names, there are very specific images that are conjured up -- gloves with knives, scary masks and teenagers bloodied and dead.
Slasher movies (and the horror genre in general) are full of male killers, so much so that it's easy to forget that, sometimes, women are the ones behind the proverbial mask. #WellActually, there have been a lot of female slashers, aliens and monsters in horror cinema over the years, but they're represented very differently from their male counterparts. Whether it's Pamela Voorhees, Angela Baker (yes, she counts), Sil from Species or Carrie, they all have at least one thing in common -- sympathy.
BEFORE THE ARCHETYPE
The best known classic horror movie villains are all male and tend to fall under the gothic horror subgenre, specifically. Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein's monster each have some amount of sympathy attached to them. Dracula misses his wife, the Phantom is disfigured and alone, and Frankenstein's monster didn't even want to be created at all.
There's something else these villains also share -- they all started as characters in books before being adapted to film, which is an important distinction. Prose, as a medium, is much more likely to get inside the heads of the characters the story portrays, even the villains. Books also take, ya know, time to read, certainly more than the hour and a half to two hours that most horror movies clock in at. So it's not surprising that there's often as much time paid toward understanding our baddies as our goodies.
Other horror films from the '30s through the '50s borrow from this. Villains like the Werewolf (who is cursed more than he is evil) and the Mummy followed similar sympathetic suit.
There still aren't many women horror villains, though. Certainly not well-known ones. In fact, prior to 1980, we didn't see much in the way of female villains in horror at all, sympathetic or not. There weren't a lot of female killers acting on their own, either. Let's talk briefly about two, though, so we can see how things were before the sympathetic female killer archetype took hold.
In 1956, Warner Bros. released The Bad Seed, a film about a serial killer who just so happened to be a seemingly innocent little girl. You might think that, because she is so young and sweet-looking, the audience would and should feel bad for the homicidal preteen Rhoda Penmark -- but we don't. In fact, the writers find a brilliant way to make Rhoda almost entirely unsympathetic. By placing us closest to Rhoda's mother, Christine, The Bad Seed focuses our sympathy on her as she struggles with the reality that her daughter (and birth mother, it turns out) kills entirely without remorse. As for Rhoda, Christine does all the sympathetic heavy lifting for us. Christine feels bad for her daughter, so we don't have to.
In 1973, genre stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie played a husband and wife grieving the loss of their daughter in Don't Look Now. In it Christie's character, Laura, becomes convinced by a pair of old women in Venice that her husband, John, is being watched over by their dead daughter. More importantly, Laura is convinced John's life is in danger. Throughout the film, we see what appears to be a small girl in a red coat running around Venice. That image is meant to evoke innocence, specifically of the Baxter's dead daughter both for the Baxters themselves and for the audience. However, the reality is much more sinister -- the child is actually a dwarf who has been killing people all over Venice. In the end, she kills John entirely without remorse. This killer is given no motivation for her actions and is barely in the movie. As a result, this female killer is, once again, entirely unsympathetic.
In fact, one of the only well-known female villains who has any immediate sympathy is the Countess Marya Zaleska, in 1936's Dracula's Daughter. In her direct sequel to Bela Legosi's Dracula, the Countess is trying to escape the vampire curse that Dracula has imposed upon her. In fact, we see this again and again throughout the vampire subgenre -- a woman falling prey but then ultimately trying to escape a dark male figure's clutches. It's one of the few subgenres where this is the case. Vampires are almost an entire genre unto themselves.
With that in mind, let's skip ahead, and look at the origins of modern horror, where women villains fit in, and the effect their inclusion has on the fellas.
WELCOME TO CAMP CRYSTAL LAKE
Before Jason Voorhees became the killer in the Friday the 13th movies, it was his mother, Pamela, who was the original Crystal Lake slasher. While Jason kills out of a rage-fueled need for revenge, Pamela kills because of a much more complex emotion -- grief. Unlike Jason, Pamela also spends much of the original Friday's third act talking. She talks about Jason, her poor son who died needlessly because the camp counselors were too busy screwing around to notice him drowning.
The strain and grief of losing her son causes Pamela to have a complete psychotic break. What sets grief apart from revenge in the general sense is that it's born from loss, which, in turn, makes the character dealing with that loss sympathetic. Yes, Pamela is a killer, but she's killing because losing her son caused her to also lose her sanity. That strikes a very different chord from the silent, nigh-immortal Jason, whose face we see so rarely that he's hardly even thought of as human, let alone sympathetic.
Jason seems very purposefully defined as without remorse or sympathy. It's not as though the death of a character's parents is hard to turn sympathetic. After all, subtract the killing and give Jason a double life beyond his mask, and you've basically got Batman. The only possible explanation given for Jason's actions (he remains a disturbed child inside that monstrous form) comes not from Jason himself, but from a camper. Jason's silence allows the audience to draw their own conclusions and, while some people do find Jason sympathetic, the text itself leaves him as pure killer and little more.
Pamela Voorhees, however, sets the standard for sympathetic female killers in horror. From here we can see this archetype stretch across multiple subgenres of horror.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF ANGELA BAKER
Is the Sleepaway Camp franchise an example of a female slasher in horror? Is the villain, Angela Baker, really a woman? If those are the thoughts going through your mind right now, that is perfectly understandbale -- but you're asking the wrong questions.
Let's talk about those obvious quibbles, though, before we get to the real meat and potatos. Angela Baker, in case you didn't know, was assigned male at birth and named Peter. Angela's father and sister die leaving her in the care of her mentally-unbalanced aunt who decides that, since she already has a son, Peter will just have to be her new daughter, Angela, instead. Sleepaway Camp's narrative and characters treat Angela as a girl right up until the final moments of the first film when it is revealed that, rather than her male cousin everyone assumes is guilty, she has been the killer all along -- and has external genitalia.
Had the story stopped there, you could have argued that Angela is not really a woman, but a tortured boy who was manipulated into presenting as female; the long-term result of which was homicidal madness. But there are, technically four more films in the Sleepaway Camp oeuvre and in every film Angela remains a woman. Angela at some point, according to her, was admitted to a mental health facility where she was given drugs (read: hormones) and "surgery". This might sound like a ridiculous technicality, but if Angela didn't want to be a woman, she would have gone back to presenting a male once she was freed from her manipulative aunt.
Angela Baker may not be a very good trans female villain, but she still qualifies as one because that is how the franchise itself treats her. So Angela is a woman.
That out of the way, the real question the audience should be asking is as to whether Angela Baker is a villain at all. In the first Sleepway Camp, Angela is consistently the victim of sexual harassment by both men and women at the camp. Angela is portrayed as being afraid of the other campers; afraid of their harassment and, ultimately, afraid of her assigned birth gender being discovered. Angela's primary motivation for killing in the first movie is fear.
Then, in Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3, Angela becomes the main character of the story rather than the campers and counselors. Again, the other characters are portrayed as being cruel, lewd, and otherwise unlikeable, whereas Angela just wants to be liked and have a good time at camp. Even as she continues killing over and over again, she is treated in the story as being more affable than villainous.
But there's something else at work here, too, another way Angela's womanhood makes her different from her male-slasher counterparts. The 1980s heralded a moral backlash to the drug-doing, free love of the 60s and 70s. It was Reagan's "morning in America," a return to the hyper-Christian morality of the 1950s, where premarital sex was a mortal sin and only dirty hippies did drugs. The horror movies of the 1980s responded to the resurgence of the religious right by putting their villains in the role of the ones doling out punishment to any teen who dared do drugs or have sex. If you're a teen smoking a spliff or engaging in a little hanky panky, you can pretty much bet you're gonna find yourself on the wrong end of Jason, Michael, or Freddy's blades.
Angela Baker also kills people who have sex and do drugs, but again, her motivation is completely different. Whereas Jason and Michael can represent the ills of higher moral authority, Angela represents the teenager who can't properly experience her own sexual awakening. Far more than men, women in the 80s were expected to be virtuous, to not allow themselves to be deflowered. Angela Baker's troubles are writ much larger, though. As a trans woman with a penis, living in a hyper-moral culture means she is held hostage in her own body, unable to give in to her own urges to have sexual experiences with men. This becomes abundantly clear at the end of the original Sleepaway Camp, when Angela kills her own boyfriend, after he "cheats" on her with a female rival. Angela's homicidal rage is due in part to her inability to satisfy her boyfriend's and, more importantly, her own sexual needs. Even once she's had gender reassignment surgery, Angela continues to wear very bulky undergarments, which represent her continued inability to feel comfortable or safe about her own sexual needs and gender identity.
Like Pamela Voorhees, Angela Baker is given an empathetic origin to explain her killing spree. Unlike Pamela, though, Angela is granted the opportunity to become the main character in her own story, an at-times even likeable one. Ultimately, Angela may still be a villain since she kills seemingly without remorse, but we're still repeatedly placed in a position to feel bad for her, understand her, and even enjoy her murderous rampage.
HOW FREDDY KRUEGER SUBVERTS THE VOCAL VILLAIN ARCHETYPE
Angela Baker and Freddy Krueger have some things in common. Both talk a lot, both often find humor in killing and both enjoy coming up with new and elaborate ways to murder their victims. But that is where the similarities end. Despite all his talking, Freddy is not designed to be sympathetic. Likeable, sure. But, sympathetic? No way. Right from his origin, Fred Krueger is known as a child killer (and, later, a child molester, too). There's no background to justify Freddy's actions, he's just a bad dude that kills kids.
In fact, Freddy's talkative and humorous nature are used specifically as a means to strengthen Nightmare On Elm Street's most famous last girl, Nancy Thompson. The more Freddy talks and reveals how he delights in killing people, the more Nancy is spurred to take an active role in Freddy's destruction. Unlike most Last Girls, Nancy isn't always simply reacting to Freddy, but thoughtfully coming up with ways to defeat him while he's not even around.
Contrasting with Pamela and Angela, the more Freddy talks, the more evil he is and the more we root for Nancy and the other Elm Street kids to defeat him.
The only other thing that blatantly differentiates Freddy from Angela Baker (other than gender) is that, from the very beginning, he is and remains a supernatural figure.
So what about supernatural female villains? We'll be analyzing them in great detail in part two. Joining me will be filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer, creator of the new supernatural "feminist slasher" movie, Some Kind of Hate. The film is in theaters now and available on VOD, so consider your extra credit assignment to be checking it out.