Wide Angle

Slashers Are Back, and This Time, They’re Personal

The genre that never stays dead has risen again, and now auteurs like Jordan Peele and Ryan Murphy are getting in on it.

Photo illustration of Ryan Murphy, Michael Myers, the antagonist from Happy Death Day, and images from Us.
Ryan Murphy, Michael Myers, the antagonist from Happy Death Day, and images from Us. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

With a video of a blown-out, scrunchie-clad woman running from a masked, knife-wielding killer—set, for some reason, to a Billie Eilish song—Ryan Murphy announced last week that in its ninth season, American Horror Story will finally take on the slasher genre. The short clip is a clear homage to Friday the 13th, that formidable franchise in which not a single one of 12 movies so far is very good. It will be known as AHS: 1984, marking the year that the slasher “golden age,” which began with Halloween in 1978, came to a close with declining ticket sales and the release of Wes Craven’s hybrid supernatural slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Murphy certainly took his time getting to the slasher movie, horror’s perpetual ugly stepsibling: He first took on haunted houses, mental asylums, witches, clowns, the nuclear holocaust, and Jill Stein voters. But the show’s new season will arrive in what lately seems to be a small, unlikely slasher renaissance. The biggest horror hit so far this year is Us, which—stripped of all its symbolic rabbits and Easter eggs—gleans its thriller elements from suspenseful chases and, well, scissor-wielding (and occasionally masked) maniacs. Happy Death Day and to a lesser extent its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, were commercial successes and got many fond critical notices. And then there is Halloween. Last year brought the crown jewel of the genre back to theaters for a new sequel of sorts with an arthouse director (David Gordon Green, who, admittedly, is also responsible for this) and original star Jamie Lee Curtis to eye-popping box-office results: It made $76 million in its first North American weekend alone, on a reported $10 million budget, on the way to more than $250 million worldwide.

Anyone who knows the history of the genre—it has its nerds and a notably robust following among scholars—can tell you that these gasps of life will almost certainly lead to many more slasher movies, and likely with diminishing artistic returns. Indeed, shortly after Halloween opened big, giddy producers, including LeBron James, began a new push to develop a Friday the 13th reboot, and they surely weren’t alone. Slasher flicks have an ignoble history in this vein: You can trace the genre back to Psycho or Peeping Tom or even further, in various states, but most agree it hit its peak in the late 1970s, when Halloween elevated its exploitation roots and solidified a craze that would include roughly 100 titles in the five or six years that followed.

The formula quickly went drier than the blood on Michael Myers’ knife, with attendance numbers declining and critical derision mounting, though sequels to Halloween and Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street continued through the ’80s and into the ’90s. Craven himself famously revived the genre with Scream, his and Kevin Williamson’s postmodern rewrite that refreshed the stabby conventions by making his characters aware of them. Years of teen-centric sequels, remakes, and underappreciated trash heaps followed until that generation of predictable killers also went dormant.

Among audiences and horror types alike, this cycle is notorious, and slasher has long been considered a genre of cheap scares and cash-ins. As Sidney Prescott memorably summed up the movies’ general M.O., “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” Jason, Michael, and Freddy certainly have their fanboys, but none of them have ever commanded particular respect in franchise form. Yet as that beguilingly rich array of scholarship on slasher flicks attests, these movies carry a rich life underneath the big-breasted girl and her killer.

The great ones are rife with social anxieties, wry wit, and subversive ideas that go a lot deeper than “have sex and die.” Last year’s megahit Halloween made this more explicit than most, carving itself into a struggle between generations of women and a faceless man who’s haunted them for decades (though we can debate how successful it was). Happy Death Day turned its dumb sorority girl archetype into a kind of action-hero badass. Us comes from the new prestige horror master du jour, Jordan Peele, and rolled out as an event movie. Even the new Child’s Play remake, due in June, nabbed Aubrey Plaza for its lead—a more high-wattage and surprising star than such B-movie excavations typically land. If we can’t quite yet declare a new dawn for slasher, the genre does seem to have arrived at a hip, confoundingly respectable moment.

Which brings us back to Ryan Murphy. American Horror Story tends between extremes of clever barbs at horror history, joyless violence, and relentless camp, which is perhaps not the coronation the slasher movie needs right now. So far, the only cast revealed is Emma Roberts (notably of Scream 4) and … Gus Kenworthy. But presumably the show’s usual deep bench of A-listers and no-listers will sign up, and maybe revisiting those ’80s summer-camp slashers in full-throttle, high-camp form will finally let the genre’s old wounds heal. My only hope is that Murphy and his producing partner, Brad Falchuk, see these movies as more than an easy target. If they can locate the pathos of killer clowns, vampiric children, and right-wing cults, surely they can find it within themselves to let their slasher have a little bit of soul.

For now, this curious moment in slasher history feels less like a new golden age than a moment of overdue appreciation for a dusty but durable old form amid a horror resurgence that shows no signs of slowing down. May it be long and bloody. Purists can sneer all they like, but I’ll be in the front row with popcorn, a Ghostface mask, and a glow-in-the-dark knife.