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Credit: Paramount Pictures 

From Friday the 13th to Scream, the female killers of slasher movies

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Oct 24, 2019

Jason Voorhees stole his mother's thunder. In the first installment of Friday the 13th, it was Mrs. Voorhees who stalked and killed the teen counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, motivated by vengeance. In the subsequent sequels, Jason and his machete took over, which has made him the scary movie star. It is Jason that audiences most remember, including the doomed Casey Becker in the opening scene of Scream. She was always going to bite the dust, but she seals her boyfriend's fate by getting the killer's identity wrong in the scary movie pop quiz. It is hard to focus with so much at stake, so you can't blame her for her misplaced certainty. Alternatively, Mrs. Voorhees' unassuming knitted sweater is definitely less of a statement piece than a hockey mask.

The role of women in horror throughout cinematic history is often as a victim. The Final Girl gets to live to tell the tale, but not before she has seen her friends slaughtered one-by-one. In Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol J. Clover notes, "Boys die, in short, not because they are boys, but because they make mistakes." Their gender doesn't determine their fate, which is not something that can be said about women in horror. Sure, there are female characters who die because they make mistakes, but predominantly they are the focus of the killers' rage. Clover also remarks that "the death of a male is nearly always swift," whereas "the murders of women, on the other hand, are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at a greater length."

Take poor Casey Becker, who sees her boyfriend's quick gutting on the porch. For the audience, the focus is on his face, not the wound, whereas her final moments are caught in agonizing close up; we see the knife plunged into her cream sweater-covered chest. The Final Girl doesn't die, but her friends suffer because she is the target. Movies including Friday the 13th, Scream 2, Scream 4, and Urban Legend reveal that even if the killer is a woman, this pattern still emerges.

The most famous and popular scary movies — popularity here being defined by how many sequels, reboots, and revivals exist — have a male killer at the heart of the story. This includes Jason, who stole his mother's thunder, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers — the trifecta of slasher killers. This isn't to say there aren't female killers beneath the mask, but the relationship and motivations for their roles are commonly grounded as an emotional response to another mitigating factor. Men are sometimes born evil, as per Doctor Loomis in Halloween, whereas a woman has usually been wronged in some way.

It is impossible to separate Mrs. Voorhees' identity as a killer with that of being a mother; she didn't become a killer until her child drowned. A year after his death, she murdered two counselors, returning every year to sabotage the camp whenever they tried to reopen. Despite probably not even being born when Jason died, her victims in the present-day timeline of Friday the 13th are emblematic of the lack of care those counselors showed toward her son. Revenge is her motivation, but she is also hearing the voice of her son telling her to commit these crimes. In the sequel, Jason takes over from his mother, killing Alice. Just because you're a Final Girl in one movie, it doesn't mean you will survive the sequel.

Credit: Miramax 

In Scream 2, motherhood provides the rationale for Debbie Salt, who isn't the wannabe reporter she presents herself as. At the climax of the film, she's revealed to be Billy Loomis' mother and she's found a temporary replacement for him in her accomplice, Mickey. Mickey dreams of a future in which he can blame movies for making him act in a murderous way, but Debbie's maternal affection doesn't stretch that far. Mickey's survival is not part of her plan, as she wants him to take the blame for this Ghostface revival.

The motherly bond isn't the only one that produces a desire for revenge. In Urban Legend, Brenda Bates uses tales one would normally share around the campfire and at sleepovers as inspiration for her revenge plot. Her fiance David dies in a car accident after Natalie and her friend Michelle had been driving without their headlights on. David flashed his headlights at them to let them know of this "error," so they jokingly pursued him, mirroring a gang initiation, but this caused him to drive off the road.

Eventually, Brenda goes full unhinged when she reveals her identity to Natalie; her hair is wild and her eye makeup is suddenly more severe (the same thing happens in Scream 2 with the intense eyeliner on Debbie Salt). Rage suddenly manifests itself in beauty disarray, because what other way is the audience going to realize that she is, in fact, "cuckoo bananas?" Male killers in slashers are shrouded in masks and kooky knife gloves, but Debbie and Brenda suddenly have a penchant for excessive smudged eyeliner.

Credit: TriStar Pictures 

Tori Telfer's Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History explores a variety of female serial killers from the last 500 years, instantly disproving the claim that Aileen Wuornos was America's first. In the introduction, Telfer explains how the press and society have a hard time with the notion that a woman might just be a killer, "Typically, women are seen as solely capable of reactive homicide — murder done in self-defense, a burst of passion, an imbalance of hormones, a wave of hysteria — and not instrumental homicide, which can be plotted, calculated, and performed in cold blood." Essentially, this also covers all the reasons why women kill in slasher movies.

In Happy Death Day, Tree's roommate plots her death because she is in love with the guy Tree is hooking up with. A personal history with the killer is a recurring theme for the Final Girl trope, whether a boyfriend (Scream) or a secret relative (Scream 3 and Halloween, depending on which version). If the killer is a woman, this connection with the Final Girl is sometimes one of friendship or she will be an incidental person lurking in the background, like a camp cook or reporter. There is nothing decided at random when a woman is the one wearing the mask. The lady killers of I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 are committing these acts of revenge because they were raped. Even in scary movies that aren't slashers, such as The Roommate, Carrie, or Misery, the reason why they kill is rooted in some form of obsession or public humiliation — ticking the wave of hysteria box.

Credit: FX

American Horror Story: 1984 is using the framework of '80s slashers — including the Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp — and the various character archetypes of this genre. In Episode 4, "True Killers," it is revealed that supposed Camp Redwood massacre survivor Margaret Booth is the real killer. She framed Benjamin Richter, aka Mr. Jingles for this bloodbath. Margaret's reasons include the familiar — she was being bullied — but it is far more calculated and plotted than an act of hysteria or blind passion. It is still early in this season, so she could go full unhinged, particularly with the religious angle, but so far Margaret is a relatively level-headed killer.

Long before American Horror Story, the Scream franchise took a self-aware approach to the slasher canon. These characters know the rules — or they are made aware of them by horror superfan Randy — but this doesn't mean they won't fall afoul of them. Sidney mocks the way the girl always runs up the stairs rather than out of the house before she does this same thing (not once, but twice in the first movie). Each film plays into conventions that horror fans are taught to expect and recognize. Sidney is the definitive modern version of the Final Girl and there typically will be two killers (with Scream 3 being the exception to this rule), but Scream 4 reinvigorated the franchise with a fun twist on the motive for these Ghostface-aided slayings.

Credit: Dimension Films

As Sidney's cousin Jill, Emma Roberts seemed to be a strong candidate for the new Scream Final Girl — she is also currently doing a fantastic job as the Final Girl of AHS: 1984. However, it's eventually revealed that Jill is the mastermind behind this latest murder plot. It isn't romantic jealousy that has propelled Jill to commit these crimes; instead, she is envious of the attention her cousin has received for surviving so many attacks. She plans to be the last one standing, the final Final Girl. But you can't be the killer and the Final Girl, and Jill is ultimately bested by the person she wants to become.

In Lady Killers, Telfer talks about the "collective amnesia" society has when it comes to female violence, which might explain why Mrs. Voorhees is sometimes forgotten as the original killer. Telfer also remarks that "female serial killers are master masqueraders: they walk among us looking for all the world like our wives, mothers, and grandmothers."

It isn't unheard of for women to kill in slashers, but their status as a mother, girlfriend, or a hysterical woman is a common factor as an overall motive, mirroring how real-life killers are discussed throughout history or in the media. The conventions are being tested in Scream 4 and American Horror Story: 1984, but there is yet to be a female character like Freddy, Michael, or Jason. This is still a glass ceiling that requires smashing (or stabbing).

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