By Arturo Sanchez
The slasher sub-genre is riddled with classic male killers terrorizing poor victims on the big screen, but for some odd reason everyone tends to forget about the female killers who don’t get the same reputation for terror created. And yes, if you’re new or are quite new with the slasher genre, there are female killers!
There’s no question about the ratio between male killers and female killers is quite disproportionate, but disregarding their impact is completely wrong. Female slashers date many years making blood splat across the screen, and although not as widely known as old Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, it’s equally as powerful with the reversal of the roles. Two of my favorite female killers Friday the 13th’s iconic Pamela Voorhees, (the original killer in the series) and Scream 2’s Mrs. Loomis, two great examples of the plethora of intricate female killers that changed the rules of horror and gender as a whole. But that still doesn’t change the fact that there are no slasher villains that are joined along the ranks with Michael Myers, or Chucky, or Freddy Krueger. Let me tell you why:
The slasher genre has never shied away from having female killers, it’s just many people seem to ignore them, and that’s a problem in itself. The female slasher character has been around since the very “golden age” of the slasher genre between 1978-1984. During these years’ slasher films thrived the most, creating some of the most iconic killers we know today. When filmmakers flipped the switch, many changed the dynamic in horror having women finally wield that sword or machete (or whatever killers like to use).
Many critics have always been quick to dismiss the slasher genre because of the overall violence on women, but I honestly believe it’s misunderstood. The genre has shown in multiple times film series like Friday the 13th, Scream, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the victim ratio of women to men is very comparable averaging in equal deaths. The imbalance comes from male killers, having an advantage at being killers. Slasher films are formulaic, and this is where it can get repetitive in a good or bad way. Men are often predators in these films for many and intricate backstories, making women victims till one of them is the “final girl.” It’s a cat and mouse game with many phallic symbols involved in the mix, it being a machete or sword, as an act of regaining power. It’s about the dynamic that often audiences are drawn to and mirror’s society.
The slasher genre reminisces (and often criticizes) something about the outside world that many seem to not have a grasp on, and that’s the occurrence of acts of violence against women committed by men. Globally, 1 in 3 women experience some type of gender-based violence in their lifetime, and 35% have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. With this data, it’s no question the conceptualization of these killers and why they are predominantly male is based on men’s predatory behavior in society.
Although this still doesn’t answer the speculation, why the recognition of female slashers goes under the radar or the genre’s usage of them isn’t maximized to their full capacity. Is it the genre’s unknowing fault that left audiences not seeing the mentality that a woman could kill people in these films? Or has the burden fallen on filmmakers for making female slashers not as evil or having simplistic motivations to kill as the men often have. It’s really a mix of both. The slasher genre has built its fanbase on male killers, so unfortunately, they always get more recognition. Motivation in films for male slashers and female slashers is quite interesting in the context of these films. The female slashers tend to optimize on the fact that they have some physiological or mental health problems and are almost usually related to the victim, in horror films, à la Jason Voorhees and Pamela Voorhees. They’re never able to stand on their own without the shadow of other problems clouding their motivations to kill.
Pamela Voorhees, played by Betsy Palmer, is a prime example of a female slasher that often is forgotten because when audiences think of Friday the 13th series, they think of a hockey-wearing mask killer and no one else. In the first film of the series, an assailant is murdering camp counselors after the reopening of summer camp that had closed for twenty years due to the killing of two counselors. The film’s killer is anonymous as the killings ensue until the film’s climax after it’s revealed that the killer is Pamela Voorhees, who gets revenge on anyone that tries to reopen the camp. The motivation behind her reasoning is her unhealthy obsession with her son Jason, who was left to drown as a child at the lake. Pamela was a cook at the summer camp, while Jason was an attendee, who was supposed to be watched by two camp counselors. They were engaging in other matters of course. After the killings of every camp counselor and big revelation, Pamela is decapitated by final girl and camp counselor Alice. Jason, who was in fact not dead, simply wanders around the woods to get revenge for his mother across the film series. Her ghost lives through Jason’s mind until the very end of the series.
The fact that she was the original killer, but people forget is very telling. Pamela was a staple that kicked off the series and gave introduction to the famed killer that everybody loved. So, how do people not know she was actually the original killer and why don’t people think she’s as powerful? It’s put through retrospect that as a mother she will do anything she can to protect her son, but audiences never really see her as a killer. It’s come to me that Pamala is used as a vehicle to introduce people to Jason, because society believes that a woman isn’t capable or is it because we simply do not have what it takes. Evolutionary psychologist Marissa Harrison, who was a part of conducting a study of female serial killers, told Emily Antheses of The New Yorker, “I think society is in denial that women are capable of such hideousness.” This rings very true, especially in the role that slasher films portray women usually until the film’s climax where they get their chance to finally get that power back. Society is often scared to admit that women can be deadly and equally terrifying as men. So, when a female slasher comes along, it’s not taken as seriously by audiences because authenticity for them is suspended.
Horror enthusiasts would justify that Pamela Voorhees was in the right as a mother for protecting her son, but would the same thing be said about Jason’s killings? The motherly aspect of motivation for Pamela Voorhees is more of a way to highlight society’s standards that women are seen more of a motherly, maternal figure, and not killers, and this is wrong. Tori Telfer, writer of Lady Killers and writer for Crime Reads says, “female serial killers are master masqueraders: they walk among us looking for all the world like our wives, mothers, and grandmothers.” Pamela’s presence confirms this as her costume reveals a knitted-blue sweater compared to her menacing son’s famous hockey mask later acquired in future films. It should be terrifying that this mother did this all for her son, but audiences downplay her menace. Her motivation as a killer being a mother never gets her the respect towards her evilness.
Mrs. Loomis played by Laurie Metcalf is another mother-revenge, stricken slasher killer in Scream 2. Along with Pamela Voorhees, her maternal instincts and revenge remain at its core for her motivation in the sequel of the ‘90s slasher hit Scream. Scream 2 sees leading girl Sidney Prescott in college. After murders resembling the names of the victims in the first film and Sidney’s college friends all begin to die, there’s no question that it’s connected to Sidney’s past. The film’s climax then reveals that the killer , not just wanting to blame him for the murders. She wanted stone cold revenge for her son’s death.
Revenge and maternal instincts are often connected to female slashers as a motivation for many like Mrs. Voorhees and Mrs. Loomis. Like in society, the femininity of women is more focused on than any natural crime. The media sensationalizes a woman’s role as a mother or caregiver along with revenge than the crime committed at hand. Mrs. Loomis is a prime example of this. The narrative focuses on her following her son’s footsteps to say how coexist with the idea that she’s “gone off the deep end” going for revenge after Sidney killed her son. Sarah Niblock, Chief Executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapists told Digital Spy in an article about female killers in the media, “Female serial killers as depicted are driven by raw emotions that they somehow cannot control. There is something wrong with them, something that has pushed them over the edge.” It’s never seen that these female villains to be portrayed in a way that their evilness is behind their actions. Countless films confirm this. Popular horror examples include Carrie, Audition, Scream 4 and Jennifer’s Body. A lot of these films bask women’s motivations in the wrong direction or make them look like they’ve lost it, reinforcing audiences to not take female slashers as seriously. Mrs. Loomis’ connection to Sidney is often highlighted in the direction many female slasher take, it’s calculated. Male slashers like Jason or Freddy who bask in the randomness in their kills. Female slashers aren’t warranted the same opportunity.
Ximena Larkin, writer for Bitch Media, in an article about lady killers in pop culture says it best, “It might sound perverse, but seeing women as killers helps us collectively see them as human, capable of being both the executed and the executioner.” I admittedly agree, why doesn’t society praise women’s power in their viciousness. This similarity is how one could compare to female slasher films. Female slasher films are a great representation of society’s ability to downplay a woman’s power, usually only seeing them when they’re victims turned heroes, but never get enough love when they’re the villains. Motivations for slasher films and women slasher are completely different yet match society’s thoughts of male killers and serial killers in real life.