The scary scenes in movies like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” may have more to do with the culture of divorce than scar-faced Freddy Krueger and his razor-fingered glove, an Illinois media professor says in a new research paper.
Teen slasher films such as “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s after explosive growth in the U.S. divorce rate, said Pat Gill, who teaches media studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The movies speak to the teens’ angst about divorce, which is also like an unstoppable force that destroys teens’ lives, said Ms. Gill, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has been writing on films for 20 years.
In slasher movies, she said in a paper that has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Film and Video, “teens must deal with the extraordinarily resilient monsters on their own with no hope of help from their parents.”
“The screams provoked by the anomalous monsters stalking these adolescents are a cry for help unheeded by adults,” she said.
This theory linking slasher films and broken families is just one interpretation of the genre. A traditional view of slasher films characterizes them as modern morality tales: Teens who engage in forbidden activities, such as premarital sex, drugs, drinking and vandalism, are ruthlessly stalked by maniacs who cannot be stopped. The survivors are the ones who don’t engage in the illicit behaviors. The moral of the story is: Be good or die.
“Horror, as a genre, rises in concert with Enlightenment attitudes toward sexuality . When we stop treating sex and marriage as something sacred and begin to take it lightly, a monster arises in our collective consciousness,” observed Steven D. Greydanus, who runs www.decentfilms.com and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.
Ms. Gill said her theory on the divorce connection is more specific: Slasher movies, which became popular with John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween,” unconsciously reflect changes in the American family that began in the 1970s.
Studies show teen-agers stand to suffer most from changes in the family, she said, because adolescence is when intense biological, physical and cognitive changes occur, as well as the search for personal identity and place in the world.
Parental divorce at this vulnerable time robs teens of a protected place in which to achieve this metamorphosis, said Ms. Gill, a self-described liberal who has also taught college courses on feminist theory.
The catastrophe of divorce can be seen in the characterization of parents, teens, community and monsters in slasher films, she said.
For instance, “parents in these films are generally absent, either physically or emotionally,” involved in selfish pursuits and blind to their children’s warnings about the “evil force” that plans to wreak havoc among their children, said Ms. Gill, who estimates she has viewed about 120 slasher films.
Since the parents don’t set values, explain limits or teach their children, she said, the family home is not a refuge for teens; in fact, “the boundaries of these homes are entirely permeable to the evil that attacks their teen-age inhabitants.”
The surviving teens are the ones who act parental protecting the weak, acting resourcefully, even imperiling themselves to care for others while the teens who are slain are feckless portraits of “wasted youth” who have no way to “recognize or face the demons that threaten them,” said Ms. Gill.
Even the villains “testify to the lost potential of children and the absence of family,” she said. Murderous insane-asylum escapee Michael Myers of “Halloween,” hockey-masked Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th” and scar-faced Freddy Krueger of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are “unattached emotionally” and kill without mercy.
“These are the real boogeymen, and parents aren’t there to dispel them,” said Ms. Gill.
Teen slasher films, she concluded, are American folk tales that both mourn and mock the middle-class dream of family life. They make fun of “happy TV shows like ‘Leave It To Beaver,’ ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘The Donna Reed Show,’” she said, “but there’s certainly, in these films, a hunger a nostalgic yearning for a family. And you can’t satirize a family unless you have a standard” of one.
Fans of slasher movies say it’s easy to overreact to these movies.
“These are pure popcorn movies. No thinking, no intricate plot twists and not a single worry about it taking itself too seriously,” said Steven Lee Davies, 21, who’s been Webmaster of www.horror-asylum.com since Halloween Day 2001.
“What is so appealing about these movies? It just seems when you mix together groups of pretty teen-agers, several original ways of killing someone and top it off with a crazed psycho, then you’re onto a winner,” Mr. Davies said, adding that the 1996 movie “Scream” “single-handedly” revitalized the genre because of its clever jokes about other slasher movies.
Ms. Gill’s analysis intrigued other media watchers.
“She may have touched upon an interesting connection,” said Bob Smithouser, who edits Plugged In, a magazine on youth culture published by Focus on the Family.
Horror movies have always seemed to reflect the worries of the time, said Mr. Smithouser, who has reviewed films for 10 years. Movies like “Frankenstein” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” tapped into the angst of physical transformation in adolescence, he said, while worries about the atomic age and the Cold War factored into horror movies with giant insects and other supernatural monsters.
Still, the divorce connection may be too narrow for these films, which feature a troubling amount of sexualized violence, he said. If slasher films were as related to divorce as Ms. Gill suggests, “kids from intact homes wouldn’t be as attracted to them as children from divorced families. And I have seen an across-the-board interest in horror films,” Mr. Smithouser said.
“Every culture, every generation has a different variety of [horror] films,” said Dr. Michael Brody, chairman of the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“Before September 11, teen concerns were mostly social vanity, looks, popularity,” and these things were reflected in many kinds of teen movies, Dr. Brody said. Since September 11, though, there’s evidence of insecurity and anxiety, and this will likely be reflected in new teen horror movies, he said.
Ms. Gill said she doesn’t know how September 11 terror attacks will affect teens or slasher movies. “Family problems haven’t been reconciled in real life, so I think you’re still going to have these movies,” she said.
But the recent “Jason X” slasher movie has a plot twist in which a few adults, including ones who work for the government, have emerged as heroes, she said. That adults and even the government “might be able to be trusted now that’s a big step,” she said.