My Master’s thesis was titled “Forms of Discrimination in Slasher Horror Films: A Content Analysis.” Finished a year before the film Scream was released, it was an attempt to eliminate subjectivity in the analysis of these movies. Previous research had looked at the films as the unit of analysis, whereas I used the character. It was fun research. I got to train four undergraduate Psych majors in the coding scheme and then set them off to watch ten more classics of the genre.
The film’s writers got it mostly right. The tropes are easy to spot if you actually look, but there’s something more subtle going on at the level of the writing. Slasher horror is a genre. As such, it follows the rules of the genre or it is not of the genre. If Disney rereleased Aladdin and claimed it was a slasher film, we would all, rightly, say nuh-uh.
There are rules for what goes on. Rules for the victims and rules for the killer. It’s the latter I’m focusing on in this piece. Some of these rules apply to bad guys outside of the genre.
- The bad guy is mystically powerful. In the successful franchises. Freddy, Jason, and Michael, are unkillable and unstoppable, at least in the long term. Yes, Jason’s mom went down but only after throwing a body through a window and doing some things that would make a ninja proud. Sure he was having sex at the time, but have you ever tried to sneak up on Kevin Bacon? Not that easy, I can tell you.
- They have no depth as characters. That is not to say they don’t have interesting back stories, but there is nothing going on with them when they aren’t attacking their victims. Which brings up the question, where do they go between attacks? Is there some comfortable, beige waiting room between worlds where they hang out reading old issues of Time magazine until they are called to do their duty? I’m not the first to point this out, but the more powerfully evil a character is, the less the reader or watcher can see them engaging in normal human behavior. Can you imagine Voldemort stopping a torture session for a sandwich or a potty break?
- They are forces of nature. In essence, the slasher has a purpose and only that purpose. Generally it’s revenge. Jason and Freddie are revenge personified. They are the American version of the Greek Eryines. Break the rules and you pay for it. In a slasher film, however, you only need to be in the general category of rulebreakers to be targeted. It is only when the slasher goes after someone outside the designated victim pool that they themselves are vulnerable.
The reason I bring this up is not to talk specifically about slasher films but rather about writing good bad guys. One of the reasons classic slasher films are generally under the 90 minute mark is the combination of the rules above. If they get too much screen time it means they aren’t doing the job in the near omnipotent way we expect. Who wants to see Jason try to catch up with a screaming camp counselor? What if he was only slightly faster, so we had to endure a five minute chase through the woods?
Power and purpose are important for a good antagonist. The bad guy has to be more powerful than the good guy, at the beginning at least, or else your protagonist has nowhere they need to go. Intense purpose is also helpful in order for your antagonist to justify some truly extreme behaviors. But what about depth of personality? As a fan of the genre, I have to say that personality is what determines longevity. We know Jason, Freddie, and Chucky, because of the personalities the filmmakers were able to develop over the sequels. Jason is an especially interesting example, because he never speaks. His personality was developed in the ultimate show don’t tell. He almost never dispatches his victims in the same way twice. Now that’s commitment to your craft. With an average body count per film of 12.2 you have to give the man credit. That’s almost three times Freddie’s average.
To sum it up, the slasher film genre gives poor examples of antagonists for the written page. Power and purpose are important, but don’t skimp on the personality.