Slut Shaming and the Serial Killer

There is a time-honoured tradition in horror that youngsters who have sex will be the first to die and the last person standing will be the virginal, pure, teen. Mario Bava’s 1971 film Antefatto is cited as the first to use the “have sex and die” cycle. It seems appropriate that Italy with its Catholic guilt should be the home of slut-shaming and the serial killer.

This idea that sex equals death has a long history in Western culture. The French call the orgasm “le petit mort” or little death. Horror films explore our fears and it is natural that it should reflect our fear of sex as well. Victorian vampires were regarded as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases. The sexually prolific were regarded as unclean, diseased and by extension sex became unclean in the popular imagination.

How is “slut-shaming” in horror a symptom of misogyny? Teenage boys as well as girls are killed for having sex. These arbiters of purity are equally opportunity killers, are they not? In horror and aspects of society, women are the people who are considered to be temptresses or harlots, who twist the minds of boys and men who wish to be pure towards sexual thoughts, just as Eve was blamed for tempting Adam to taste the apple.

Female characters are often portrayed as sexual beings first, people second (if at all). Male characters tend to be the hero or the villain and if their sexuality is discussed it is in terms of the female character; whether it be repulsion, lust or a combination of the two. When both man and woman are killed for having sex, it tends to be the woman’s death which is sensuously, almost lovingly shown, as in Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) when Nikki seduces Heather’s boyfriend in a barn. She begs him to have sex with her then she is punished in classic Horror Movie style, being brutally slaughtered on camera, whereas, the boyfriend’s death takes place off screen.

In Se7en (1995), a prostitute is found dead in a room with LUST written on the door. Also found in the room is a visibly shaken man forced by Doe at gunpoint to wear and use a strap-on dildo with a blade attachment; to rape and kill the woman.

And, here’s the rub. A female victim does not have to partake in the sex act to be killed for her sexuality. She need only make the male killer want to have sex with her and feel guilty for that desire. In horror there is often a close relationship between the killer’s hatred of women and his relationship with his mother. His mother has made him ashamed of who he is and what he desires. To punish his mother he punishes all women.

In Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer(1986), Henry’s first victim was his mother who, when he was a child, used to make him watch her have sex with men. He continues to kill other women after her death, in sexual ways, replaying his frustration and shame while transferring the blame to other women. The Deep Red Horror Handbook describes one such scene. “A woman is seated on a toilet, arms and legs spread and bound, underwear in violent disarray, with a jagged soft-drink bottle crammed halfway down her throat.”

In the more mainstream, Hitchcock’s Psycho(1960), Norman Bates as his assumed identity of mother explains “her” son’s pathological jealousy. He killed her and her lover with strychnine, framing mother for the murder/suicide. Feeling guilty, he stole her body from its coffin and assumed her identity. In both Psycho and Psycho II(1983), mother is critical of the women Bates finds attractive. It is his projection of her disapproval which drives him to kill. 

In Don’t Go in the House(1979), Donald Kohler  who as a child was punished and disciplined by his sadistic mother using severe burning, goes on after his mother’s death to search out women, bringing them home, hanging them in a bespoke steel-plated room and burning them alive with a flame-thrower.

And in Maniac (2012), Frank kills women because he feels his mother was more attentive towards sexual partners than her son.

Sydney, the female hero in Scream(1996), is discussed in a bathroom scene between two cheerleaders. “Maybe she’s a slut, just like her mother.” It is Sydney’s mother’s affair with the father of one of the two serial killers that is used as a reason for the brutal murders. Scream goes on to point out with humour the “have sex and die” cycle when Randy discusses the rules of survival. “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.”

There are many examples of “sluts” (as in sexually active or attractive women) being killed by serial killers in all manner of brutal ways. To list them all would become repetitive, but I will point to Maniac (1980), From Hell (2001), The Toolbox Murder (1978), Mother’s Day (1980), Deranged (1974) and more.

Feminist Horror Theory argues that “during the 1970s and 80s the motivation for the crazed psycho killer was the negative feelings that he associated with a relationship with a woman. This woman was most commonly his mother, sister or a romantic interest that has rejected him. This can be seen in films such as Psycho (1960), who has some serious issues with his mother, or Halloween (1978), in which the killer is incited by his sister’s neglect. Thus the female (the individual and the gender as a whole) is blamed for his rage, as well as becoming the victim of that rage. The female is thus seen as entirely responsible for the creation of the rage and is punished throughout the film for its creation. She is also indirectly responsible for the death of male characters within the film as they are victims of the rage she incited… The film positions women who are sexually active as deserving of punishment. The murder of these women is often shot from the murder’s point of view or the “gaze shot” – thus forcing the audience to participate in the murderer’s voyeurism.”

Why do I think this “slut shaming” horror tradition is a problem? Well, when you blame all women for the actions of one it normalises misogyny and the hatred of women. In punishing all women for the crimes of one they are homogenised and dehumanised. They become objects on which to focus rage and frustration. Horror reflecting life, reflecting horror, while the “have sex and die” and the “make me want you and die” cycles keep turning.

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