Category Archives: Horror Films

Research on slasher films

Across a number of posts I have looked at the editing style of some slasher films (see here for example), and there is a large amount of research freely available on this most disreputable of genres. This research comes in many forms from to studies of narrative structure and representation to economic analyses of the place of the slasher film in the film industry to sociological research on the perception of violent and sexual scenes. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the slasher film is one of the most extensively studied genres in the cinema, and so this week I collect some articles on this topic. I do limit my selections to slasher films proper and I do not include so-called ‘torture porn’ films because while I love slasher movies and their dreadful sequels I can’t stand films like Hostel or Saw.

Christensen K 2011 The final girl versus Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: proposing a stronger model of feminism in slasher horror cinema, Studies in Popular Culture 34 (1): 23-47.

This study will first provide background on the Final Girl, as well as other elements of Clover’s work on gender in slasher horror (namely, the masculine killer, the “Terrible Place,” and the phallic weaponry of the films). Then this study will seek to revise two possible misconceptions about the Final Girl and the slasher genre. The first misconception is that the Final Girl is inherently a feminist figure. The second misconception, which will be challenged in the bulk of this study, is that Laurie Strode, the Final Girl of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), is the superlative model of feminism in the slasher genre; instead, this study will detail why Nancy Thompson, the Final Girl of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, is the stronger model of feminism in classical slasher horror cinema.

Lizardi R 2010 ‘Re-imaging’ hegemony and misogyny in the contemporary slasher film remake, Journal of Popular Television and Film 38 (3): 113-121.

Recently, cinema has been inundated with 1970s/1980s ‘slasher’ horror canon ‘re-imaginings,’ such as Halloween (2007). Comparing remakes to original, the texts allegorically address contemporary concerns and power structures. Cultural implications of slasher remakes include hyperemphasis of the originals’ hegemony and misogyny. Ironically, the remakes contain optimistic endings, pointing to hegemonic, misogynistic futures.

Murphy J 2012 Re-Presenting Fear: The Slasher Remake as Cumulative Hypertext, MA Thesis, University of Otago.

This thesis argues that the slasher remake functions as a cumulative hypertext, incorporating content not only from the original film, but also the many sequels and intertexts that exist between original and remake. In doing so, it expands analyses of the film remake beyond issues of fidelity to the original, and shows that sequels and intertexts are a crucial consideration when analysing remakes of franchise or previously adapted films.

The first chapter surveys the slasher sub-genre’s history and place within genre theory (with specific reference to theories of horror), highlighting the fact that the implication of sequels, cycles and series for genre theory, and subsequently, the remaking of genre films, is an area which has been commonly overlooked. The second chapter looks at the history of remake studies, and uses Robert Stam’s concept of the cumulative hypertext (drawn from Gerard Genette’s work on intertextuality) as a theoretical framework within which to consider how the slasher remake draws content from each slasher franchise’s sequels and intertexts, as well as the original film. The third and fourth chapters analyse three slasher remakes, Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) in terms of how they have retained and adapted content from the original franchise, in order to affirm and explicate their function as cumulative hypertext.

Nolan JM and Ryan GW 2000 Fear and loathing at the Cineplex: gender differences in descriptions and perceptions of slasher films, Sex Roles 42 (1-2): 39-56.

This study investigates gender-specific descriptions and perceptions of slasher films. Sixty American undergraduate and graduate students, 30 males and 30 females, were asked to recount in a written survey the details of the most memorable slasher film they remember watching, and to describe the emotional reactions evoked by that film. A text analysis approach was used to examine and interpret informant responses. Males recall a high percentage of descriptive images associated with what is called “rural terror,” a concept tied to fear of strangers and rural places, while females display greater fear of “family terror,” including the themes of betrayed intimacy and spiritual possession. It is found that females report a higher level and a greater number of fear reactions than males, who report more anger and frustration responses. Gender-specific fears as personalized through slasher film recall are discussed with relation to socialization practices and power-control theory.

Sopolksy BS, Molitor F, and Luque S 2003 Sex and violence in slasher films: re-examining the assumptions, Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly 80 (1): 28-38.

A content analysis of popular 1990s slasher films found such films contain more acts of violence than similar films from the 1980s. Recent slasher films rarely mix scenes of sex and violence. This finding calls into question claims that slasher films portray eroticized violence that may blunt males’ emotional reactions to film violence. Slasher films feature males more often as victims of violence. However, the ratio of female victims is higher in slasher films than in commercially successful action-adventure films of the 1990s. Finally, females are shown in fear for longer periods of time.

Welsh A 2009 Sex and violence in the slasher horror film: a content analysis of gender differences in the depiction of violence, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 16 (1):

The slasher horror film has been the subject of frequent criticism based on the assumption that female characters in these films are more likely to be the victims of serious, graphic violence that is juxtaposed with explicit sexual imagery. The purpose of this study was to address limitations inherent in previous analyses of slasher films and examine whether gender differences exist in the nature of violent presentations. A content analysis of several indicators of violent and sexual content was conducted using a random sample of 50 slasher films that were released in North America between 1960 and 2007. Findings suggested that there are several significant gender differences in the nature of violent presentations found in slasher films. In general, female characters were more likely to be victims of less serious and graphic forms of violence, but were also significantly more likely to be victimized in scenes involving a concomitant presentation of sex and violence.

Exploratory data analysis and film form

Following on from my earlier posts on the editing structure of slasher films, this week I have a draft of a paper that combines my early observations (much re-written) along with an analysis of the relationship between editing and the narrative structure of Friday the Thirteenth (1980)

Exploratory data analysis and film form: The editing structure of slasher films

We analyse the dynamic editing structure of four slasher films released between 1978 and 1983 with simple ordinal time series methods. We show the order structure matrix is a useful exploratory data analytical method for revealing the editing structure of motion pictures without requiring a priori assumptions about the objectives of a film. Comparing the order structure matrices of the four films, we find slasher films share a common editing pattern closely comprising multiple editing regimes with change points between editing patterns occur with large changes in mood and localised clusters of shorter and longer takes are associated with specific narrative events. The multiple editing regimes create different types of frightening experiences for the viewer with slower edited passages creating a pervading sense of foreboding and rapid editing linked to the frenzied violence of body horror, while the interaction of these two modes of expression intensifies the emotional experience of watching a slasher film.

The paper can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – The Editing Structure of Slasher Films.

The shot length data for all four films can be accessed as a single Excel file: Nick Redfern – Slasher Films.

Analysing the editing structure of these slasher films is only part of this paper. Another goal was to outline exploratory data analysis as a data-driven approach to understanding film style that avoids a specific problem of existing ways of thinking about film style.

Existing methods of analysing film style make a priori assumptions about the functions of style and then provide examples to support this assertion. This runs the risk of begging the question and circulus in probando, in which the researcher’s original assumption is used as a basis for selecting the pertinent relations of film style which are then used to justify the basis for making assumptions about the functions of film style. We would like to avoid such logically flawed reasoning whilst also minimising the risk that we will miss pertinent relations that did not initially occur to us. By adopting a data-driven approach we can derive the functions of film style by studying the elements themselves without the need to make any such a priori assumptions. Exploratory data analysis (EDA) allows us to do this by forcing us to attend to the data on its own terms.

Although this is a method developed within statistics, EDA can be applied not just to numerical data but to any situation where we need to understand the phenomenon before us. For example, I had not noticed that the number of scenes between hallucinations in Videodrome reduces by constant factor until I sat down and wrote out the narrative structure of the film (see here).

Two very useful references are:

Behrens JT 1997 Principles and practices of exploratory data analysis, Psychological Methods 2 (2): 131-160.

Ellison AM 1993 Exploratory data analysis and graphic display, in SM Scheiner and J Gurevitch (eds.) Design and Analysis of Ecological Experiments. New York: Chapman & Hall: 14-45.

In this paper I discuss some relations between editing and the emotional experience of watching slasher films, and below are listed some interesting references that follow on from last week’s collection of paper on neuroscience and the cinema:

Bradley MM, Codispoti M, Cuthbert BN, and Lang PJ 2001 Emotion and motivation I: defensive and appetitive reactions in picture processing, Emotion 1 (3): 276-298.

Bradley MM, Lang PJ, and Cuthbert BN 1993 Emotion, novelty, and the startle reflex: habituation in humans, Behavioural Neuroscience 107 (6): 970-980.

Lang PJ, Bradley MM, and Cuthbert BN 1998 Emotion, motivation, and anxiety: brain mechanisms and psychophysiology, Biological Psychiatry 44 (12): 1248-1263.

Lang PJ, Davis M, and Öhman A 2000 Fear and anxiety: animal models and human cognitive psychophysiology, Journal of Affective Disorders 61 (3): 137-159.

Willems RM, Clevis K, and Hagoort P 2011 Add a picture for suspense: neural correlates of the interaction between language and visual information in the perception of fear, Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience 6 (4): 404-416.

The editing structure of The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Following on from earlier posts on the editing structure of Halloween (here) and Slumber Party Massacre (here), this week I look at the editing in The House on Sorority Row (1983). The shot length data can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – The House on Sorority Row. The shot length data has been corrected by a factor of 1.0416, and includes the opening credits since these are shown over footage of the characters and locations and are therefore relevant to the narrative.

As before I’m using the order structure matrix to visualise the time series of the data for this film, but to make clearer how the matrix relates to observed data values I’ve included two run charts in Figure 1 showing the shot lengths (bottom) and the ranks of the shot lengths (middle).

Figure 1 Order structure matrix (top), ranks (middle), and shot length data (bottom) for The House on Sorority Row (1983)

With a median shot length of 3.0s and interquartile range of 3.7s The House on Sorority Row is edited more quickly than Halloween (median = 4.2s, IQR = 5.7s) but is similar to Slumber Party Massacre (median = 3.2s, IQR = 4.5s). There is no clear trend in shot lengths across the whole film and there are no clear distinctions between different narrative sections similar to the very abrupt shift we see in the final third of Halloween. Nonetheless, this film follows the general formal pattern set out in the earliest films of this sub-genre, with a number of clusters of longer and shorter takes associated with the same types of narrative events as in the other films. The replication of narrative events, character types, themes, and actions in the slasher film has been extensively analysed, and looking at their editing structure in detail it becomes very clear just how quickly a single style of editing became established in this type of film. There are only a few years between them, but the only major difference between Halloween, Slumber Party Massacre, and The House on Sorority Row is that the latter two films are cut more quickly.

The main feature in Figure 1 is the confrontation between and the girls that begins at shot 302 and runs until shot 440. This sequence is edited very quickly (Σ = 362.2s, median = 2.0s, IQR = 2.1s), but it is clear from Figure 1 that from shot 302 to shot 366 the length of the shots actually get shorter as the scene reaches its peak: the girls force Mrs. Slater into the swimming pool at gun point and the moment of greatest tension – as one of the girls fires a shot into the pool – is the point at which editing is fastest. From shot 367 the sequence slows down using longer shots, and this can be clearly seen in the order structure matrix and the run chart of the ranks. Of course, longer is a relative term, and the ‘slowing down’ of the editing in the second part of this scene means a shift from shots less than 0.5 seconds to shots between 1.5 and 5 seconds (though there are few longer than 10 seconds). (The editing in this sequence is related to the cluster of short shots that can be seen as the white column at shots 89 – 102, and which features Vicki practising with the gun). There is clearly a relationship between the way in which this scene is edited and the way in which the emotional impact of the scene is generated; and, while it is clear from watching the film that it is edited very quickly, it is easier to appreciate how this scene is structured by looking at the time series given the difference between shorter and longer shots may only be a couple of seconds.

The other clusters of shorter takes serve a different function but are also related to moments of intense emotion. The cluster beginning 165 is part of a sequence of photographs of Mrs. Slater’s old sorority classes that begins quite slowly as the camera pans across the photos; but from shot 165 there is a change to rapid editing (accompanied by a change in the music and the use of whip pans) as Mrs. Slater tears up the pictures and burns them. Again, the change in editing style is associated with a change in the mood of the scene. The cluster of short shots from shot 855 to shot 874 is typical of the rapid editing in the latter stages of a slasher film, and is associated with the killing of Vicki and Liz as they dispose of a body. The intensity of the violence is reflected in the intensity of the editing.

This last cluster sits between two sequences edited much more slowly. The dark column in the matrix between shots 797 and shot 854 focuses on Katherine’s attempt to raise help by calling Dr. Beck, and his subsequent arrival and explanation of the night’s events. It also includes the scenes in the graveyard and the attempts to dispose of a body that we know results in disaster. This sequence is heavy on plot since it explains much if the background about Mrs. Slater and her son, Eric (i.e. the killer). The sequence that follows on from the deaths of in the graveyard (shots 875-897) shifts us back to Katherine and Dr. Beck, and is again lacking action while setting up the film’s finale.

The earlier clusters of longer takes slow down the pace of the film in order to create a pervasive sense of foreboding that de-accentuates the violence of the killings and which seek to put the viewer on edge. Shots 480-540 focus on the girls at the party and their anxiety that the body of Mrs. Slater might be discovered. This is framed as a series of long takes as Katherine meets Peter and resists his attempts to make her enjoy the party; and is notable for an elaborate tracking shot as the girls exchange glances across the dance floor. This cluster also includes the scene in which makes the rookie mistake of going down to a darkened cellar by herself to check the fuse box, and again uses a slow editing pattern to build tension before she is finally dispatched. Similarly, shots 655-692 follow Katherine as she tries to find the girls who have gone missing from the party and explores the attic room of the Mrs. Slater’s murderous son. These scenes are again important for establishing plot points and Katherine finds important symbolic objects (e.g. the jack-in-the-box), but their main purpose is to build up a state of nervous apprehension in the viewer. Interestingly, this is achieved by using slow panning shots from Katherine’s point-of-view whereas such shots in slasher films are typically used to represent the killer’s stalking of his victims. This sequence also includes the other members of the sorority trying to dispose of Mrs. Slater’s body only to run into a policeman. These sequences and the various narrative threads they present serve to create an emotionally tense atmosphere for the viewer but unlike the aggressive tensity of the rapidly cut sections this mood is one of foreboding.

This use of two different editing patterns to create two different moods for the viewer is characteristic of the slasher film and can also be seen in the time series of Halloween and Slumber Party Massacre. We tend to speak of the style of a film in singular terms as though it definitely has one – and only one – mode of expression; but since the slasher film uses different editing patterns to create different effects it would make more sense to talk of the styles of these films. This can also be seen in the time series of RKO musicals (see here, here, and here).

The ‘final girl’ sequence begins at shot 985 (Σ = 434.4s, median = 2.7s, IQR = 2.1s). Here The House on Sorority Row does show some (minor) differences to Halloween and Slumber Party Massacre. In this film we have a progressive increase in the cutting rate, and the shift to shorter shots is particularly marked in the run chart of the shot ranks. The first part of this sequence is edited relatively slowly as Katherine makes her way through the sorority house to the attic, and this can be seen in the dark column at this point in the matrix in Figure 1. This is different to the other films in which this corresponding sequence begins when the killer attacks the final girl (as can clearly be seen at shot 437 in the matrix for Halloween). In The House on Sorority Row the final girl goes looking for the killer. Once the struggle between Katherine and the killer begins (shot 1063) we see the same rapid editing observed in the Halloween and Slumber Party Massacre, but we do not see the same fast-slow-fast pattern noted in the other films as the struggle between the killer and the final girl is temporarily suspended. This is due to the postponement of the killer’s return once we think he has been killed. The last shot of the film is a close-up of the eye as we discover Katherine has not defeated him and assume their struggle to the death will continue. The House on Sorority Row presents the same final girl sequence as the other slasher films I have looked at but cuts the narrative (and therefore the editing pattern) off before it reaches its ‘natural’ conclusion.

Like Halloween, The House on Sorority Row was remade in 2009 and a future post will look at the similarities and the differences between the original version of these films and their later reinvention.

Editing in Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

A few weeks ago I posted the order structure matrix of Halloween (1978), which can be accessed here. The overall editing structure of this film showed that the last portion when Michael attacks Laurie – the final girl – was edited in a different fashion to the rest of the film. There was also some evidence of clustering of shorter shots when michael is stabbing people to death and of longer takes when adult male characters are on screen.

To see of these features are common across the genre of slasher films, this week we have the editing structure of Slumber Party Massacre (1982), directed by Amy Ryan. The data include the opening credits as these are presented over narratively important scenes, but the closing credits are not included. The data can be accessed as an Excel file here: Redfern – Slumber Party. The order structure matrix is presented below.

Figure 1 The order structure matrix of Slumber Party Massacre

We can immediately see from Figure 1 that a similar pattern to Halloween is evident, with the ‘final girl’ sequence that begins at shot 706, when the killer – Russ Thorn – chases the girls outside and they battle to the death next to the swimming pool. The black column that can be seen just after shot 750 occurs when the supposedly dead Thorn rises from the pool to attack for the last time. This moment comprises only a few shots, but they are much longer than those in the action that surrounds them (4-10 seconds),

Generally, the editing is slower in the first half of the film and becomes quicker as the killing spree becomes more intense, but we can see some clusters of short shots in the early part of the film. At shot 165, we have a ‘false killing:’ Thorn is using a drill to murder his victims, so when we see a drill coming through a door towards the head of the basketball coach we assume that she is the next in line, but it turns out that it is just someone installing a peephole in the door (below).

Although there have been a couple of early murders in the film, the killing really begins in earnest from shot 392, when the head of Brenda’s boyfriend comes off, and it is from this point that we start to white spaces in the matrix indicating that these shots tend to be shorter than those that precede them. The virtuoso piece of filmmaking in Slumber Party Massacre is the cross-cutting between the murder of one of the boys at the party and Valerie watching a slasher movie on television. This sequence lasts only ~104 seconds but comprises 42 shots (from shot 462), and is edited much more quickly than the scenes that precede and follow it. It is typical of this film that fast editing is associated with scenes of intense violence.

Clusters of long takes are also evident at various points in the film. Notably, there is a solid black column at shot 72 which begins a sequence featuring the main female characters in the shower after a basketball game (which is the cluster of short shots from shot 46 to shot 70). A similar concentration of longer shots can be seen at from shot 267, which is the sequence where the girls get undressed at the beginning of the slumber party. Nudity is thus edited more slowly than other scenes in the film.

Although the killing at the party is well under way by this point, we can see that things are edited more slowly in shots 503 to 565. This sequence lasts for just 10 minutes and focusses on Valerie and her worries that something strange is happening next door, the girls at the party trying to make themselves safe, and Thorn hiding the bodies of those who have so far been unfortunate. We have numerous shots of Valerie searching the grounds and the house, trying to find out what is happening; while the girls inside the house are preparing for Thorn’s next attack. These scenes include many tracking shots that tend not to be evident at other more ‘stabby’ points in the film (pun intended). Like the example mentioned above, when Thorn rises slowly from the swimming pool, this slow sequence is associated with the creation of a sense of dread prior to the big finale. This can be interpreted as evidence that two different types of horror are present in such films: the ‘body horror’ of the violence and the creeping dread of what might be in the darkness, and that these are associated with two different editing regimes. It will of course require a larger sample of films to establish this, but the order structure matrix appears to be quite capable of picking out these different types of sequences.

Overall, the editing structure of Slumber Party Massacre is comprised of clusters of shorter shots associated with the violence of the penetrative killings and longer shots used for nudity and to create atmosphere, and is generally similar to Halloween.

The editing structure of Halloween (1978)

A few weeks ago I used the order structure matrix to describe the time series of shot lengths in Top Hat (see here). The matrix is a simple way of visualising the evolution of a film’s editing, and is based on whether a shot is greater than or less than the shots that precede it. The matrix is constructed by assigning a value of 1 when a shot (xs) is greater than or equal to a shot at xt, and a value of 0 when xs < xt. By representing 1s as black and 0s as white, we can plot this information and read off the editing structure of a film from left to right as dark columns represent groups longer takes and light columns clusters of short shots.

The order structure matrix for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) can be seen in Figure 1, and the data can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – Halloween (1978). The data set does not include the opening or closing credits, but does include narratively relevant titles that establish time, place, and date.

Figure 1 The order structure matrix of Halloween (1978)

From the order structure matrix we can see that in the first part of the film there are numerous clusters of shorter takes. The opening of the film is generally quite slow until Michael Myers attacks the nurse int he car as he escapes, and this accounts for the first of these clusters at shot 35. The clusters of short takes are associated with the stabbing deaths in the film. For example, the white band covering shots 345-355 is the murder of the boyfriend in the kitchen. The strangling deaths tend to be much slower. However, not all the white columns are associated with scenes of violence. Many such clusters are the social interactions between Laurie, Annie, and Lynda as the walk home from school (shots 93-116) or when they talk on the phone (e.g. shots 220- 233).

The scenes featuring the adult male characters are edited differently. The sequences  in which Loomis searches for Michael are generally cut more slowly: the scene in which Loomis arrives at the Myers house and the window is broken by Michael in an effort to scare him off covers shots 202-208 and lasts for ~208 seconds. The interactions between Loomis and the Sheriff of Haddonfield are also cut slowly. The qualifier ‘adult’ is significant here, as the scenes featuring Tommy Doyle being bullied are cut quickly: the sequence of shot reverse shots of him being bullied at school begins at shot 74. This sequence is followed by Loomis searching for Michael which accounts for the dark column in shots 88 to 92. Taken with the sequence of the three girls walking home, in this early part of the film we have an alternating sequence of fast and slow cut scenes that switch from prey to predator.

The major feature that can be seen in Figure 1 is the abrupt change in editing that occurs at shot 437 when Michael Myers attacks Laurie. From this point on the editing is consistently quicker as Laurie escapes from the house and then is attacked by Michael in the closet. Within this extended violent sequence there are some longer shots, and as before these are associated with Loomis searching for Michael, though when he shoots Michael this is edited quickly. The film ends with a sequence much slower as Michael appears to be defeated and then has disappeared (shot 590-606). It will be interesting to see whether Halloween II (1981) being with a similar style as the narrative picks up from the point at which the original film ends.

It will also be interesting to discover if this type of editing pattern is consistent across the slasher film genre, with the sequences featuring the ‘final girl’ and the killer edited much more quickly.