Doug Sparks: Hellraiser: Paranoid Knowledge and the Rhetorical Structure of the Splatterpunk Film
Articles » July 2000

"I believe that in our unthinkable destiny, ruled by such infamies as bodily pain, every bizarre thing is possible, even the perpetuity of a Hell, but that it is sacrilegious to believe in it." -Borges
In her essay "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," Clover (1987) describes the phenomenon of what she calls the Final Girl. The Final Girl is the female hero found in most films within the "slasher" genre, starting with the seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. According to Dika (1987), her main attributes include sexual restraint, goal-oriented activity, and the willingness to commit violence to assert control. That the monster is only apparently destroyed is part of the code of these films: by merging her value system (since she is highly individualistic this often has to do more with her ability to resist sexual desire than to realize a maternal ethics of nurturing) with the single-mindedness of the monster, the Final Girl effects a reintegration of the monstrous projected Other. This reintegration, keeping in line with the notion that horror films represent an adolescent rite of passage (Payne, 1989; Zillman & Gibson, 1996) and Lacanís (1948/1977) notion that the inherently paranoid structure of consciousness allows for maturation through aggression, points at the therapeutic value of the horror film, both in its seminal state as frightening folk tale (Zillman & Gibson) and in its apparently incoherent contemporary manifestation.

A great deal of critical work on contemporary horror films concentrate on the role of gender both in the films themselves and in audience reactions. Gender plays an important role in both the rhetorical structure of the film and in the audienceís ethical ability to decode generic intertextuality. On the level of the film itself, the assumption has been that slasher films are generally centered around repressed male desire, in the form of the monster, unleashed upon sexually promiscuous teenage girls, to the delight of a mostly male audience. Wood (1996) uses the example of Alfred Hitchcock to demonstrate how this repression is linked to "the anxiety of the heterosexual male confronted by the possibility of an autonomous female sexuality he cannot control or organize" (p. 82). Even Clover (1987) assumes that central to the horror genre is "a psychokiller who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims" (p. 187) and that "The audience for that story is by all accounts largely young and largely male," (p. 192). Content analysis has invalidated these assumptions to a certain degree. Molitor and Sapolsky (1996) convincingly demonstrate that in the early eighties, violence against women in horror films, both in terms of number of violent acts and in the length of onscreen time devoted to portrayal of victimization was evenly distributed between males and females, although females were more often shown in a state of fear. By the late eighties onscreen violence was directed to a disproportionate number of male characters. Molitor and Sapolsky speculate that this is the result of feminist media critiques. The authors also find that themes of sexuality and violence are infrequently linked in contemporary horror films. The authors suggest that it our social conditioning that makes violence against women more prominent in our viewing experience.

Zillman and Weaver (1996) demonstrate that, while adolescent boys use horror films to demonstrate courage or desensitivity to horrific imagery, adolescent girls tend to register a higher level of enjoyment of these films. This is in keeping with Dikaís assertion that the audience for slasher films if 55% female (1987). Despite working from false assumptions, Cloverís framework for investigating gender issues in slasher movies is compelling. Clover suggests that the Final Girl is, in a sense, bisexual. While her restrained desires (for sexuality, knowledge, and power) are culturally gendered as female, her name (often masculine: Joey, Stretch, Terry (p. 204)), her violent and calculated behavior, and even her appearance (dark haired, muscular, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt instead of provocative clothes) genders her as masculine. As a masculine figure, the Final Girl transcends the stereotypical virgin-whore dialectic. In this way, contemporary horror films mirror social discourse on gender roles. If the aggressive assumption of power is inherently patriarchal, then an overthrow of power, even by a biological woman, is merely a reinscription of the patriarchal order. This is in line with a Freudian, and more particularly, a Lacanian reading of the nature of the phallus, the Name/No-of-the-Father, and symbolic order. To speak the name, to inscribe oneself within the symbolic order, involves the Oedipal claiming of the phallus, which in Lacan is not the property of the biological male but of the Name/No of the Father, the Symbolic Law. In Lacanian terms, the hero, male or female, must claim the phallus to initiate the subjective fantasy of the Symbolic Law. It is obvious why feminist scholars would renounce such a vision, since Law itself is gendered, even if Lacan claims that this is done symbolically, rather than biologically (see Lacan, 1958/1977, p.282). Recent work by Zizek (1999) sets Lacanís reading of the Law against "the culture of complaint," in which an ever growing number of marginal or suppressed groups launch ideological critiques of he power structure, while at the same time rejecting practical political action as inherently a part of the existing order they are attempting to circumscribe. For Zizek, the culture of complaint is an instrument of late capitalism, as its prolific attacks on the status quo are concomitant with a reluctance to assume the responsibilities of political power. Thus, claims that power is inherently violent absolve the critic from participating in authentic political action. Zizekís critique is damning when set against most ideological critiques of the horror film (see Sharett, 1993). These critics tend to find the Final Girlís assumption of power as false, not because it doesnít happen in "real life," but because the will to control is inherently patriarchal. Lacan himself notes that there is a general cultural confusion between what he calls aggressivity and displays of brute force. For Lacan, who saw consciousness itself as having a "paranoid" structure (1948/1977), aggressivity against the "corporal dislocation" of the subjective mind was an efficient vehicle for maturation (1948/1977, p. 10). In effect, the subject must perceive a threatening object outside of itself if it is to grow, in the same way that migratory locusts and pigeons achieve a gregarious state or begin sexual maturation respectively, once they perceive an Other - even if this Other is merely a reflection of themselves in a mirror (1949/1977, p.3).

Given the complex and at times incoherent gender roles played out in contemporary horror movies, how can we account for the appeal of the genre among both sexes, given that it has been generally established that male and female responses and ethical positions to them are categorically different (see Zillman & Weaver, 1996). There appear to be three major points of emotional investiture in slasher films and other permutations of the contemporary horror film. There is investiture in the monster during the middle of the film, in the Last Girl at the end of the film and an in spectacle qua spectacle throughout. The horror filmís excesses and plays-against-the-code of previous films is part of the enjoyment of the genre. In fact, the first and third components are structurally almost identical. While the Final Girl is consistently bland and nearly faceless, in the more successful films, the monsters as spectacle are elevated to the status of icons, as empty signifiers. The faces of the Final Girls in Friday the 13th, Halloween, and other genres pictures are interchangeable, while Jason, Freddy Krueger (from the Nightmare on Elm Street series) and the chainsaw wielding maniac in Texas Chainsaw Massacre are immediately identifiable. The female hero is replaced throughout the sequels, while the monster is built upon - his mythos is developed, his techniques for torturing his victims become more elaborate, and his make-up is altered to accentuated his features, rather than to obscure them. In the first film in a sequential series, the monster is often relegated to the shadows. The victim and audienceís ability to see the monster is a source of delight akin to a freak strip show. This obscurity allows the viewer to use her or his own speculative power to conceive of the

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Doug Sparks teaches in the Interdisciplinary Social Science department at the University of South Florida. He received his Master's in English and American Literature from New York University in 1998. He is currently working on his PhD in communications and rhetoric.




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