So You Want To: Write A Slasher Horror Story
You love to watch Slasher Movies, so you've decided to take the audience's Primal Fear of being hunted and twist it into Nightmare Fuel. Specifically, you want to follow the tried and true method that has haunted audiences for generations: a single murderer is picking off his victims one... by... one. Until the bloody end. First, be sure to check out Write A Story for basic advice that holds across all genres.
- A Serial Killer: Though it may come as a shock, slasher stories do generally need someone to do the slashing.
- Murder Victims: The people who get slashed and whose bodies are steadily piling up.
- The Survivor: Usually the protagonist, often female; usually engages the killer in a final climactic struggle. If it's a happy ending, the Survivor will triumph; in a Downer Ending, the killer claims a final scalp. More bittersweet endings will have the Survivor win the day, but be heavily traumatised by their experiences. Traditionally, in contrast to the depraved killer (and many of the victims), the "Final Girl," as this character is known, is often virginal, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, and "innocent". More recently, however, this characterization has been downplayed, if not outright subverted.
- What is your killer's Backstory? Does he even have one? If so, are his reasons understandable or is he just a Serial Killer who kills For the Evulz?
- What is your killer's modus operandi? Try to make it tie into their backstory in some way, even if only thematically. Notwithstanding the name "slasher movies", there are a lot of potential variations on the way to kill the victims. The killer might drown the victims... sometimes in impossible situations like in the middle of a parking lot to stress the "inescapable death" vibe... or in simple yet unique ways. For example, if the killer were to always slash his victims to death, he might cut numbers on them (counting up or down) or cut off appendages to create a doll out of the victims.
- Is your killer human, like Scream's killers, or is he or she something more supernatural, such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or The Shape? In the case of the more famous slasher horror franchises, it is not uncommon for a killer to start off more or less human, but to become supernatural as the series goes on, if only to explain how he or she keeps coming back for the sequels.
- Potential victims: Is the primary cast generally likeable, or are they largely jerks who you cannot wait to see die?
- The amount of survivors: How many main characters will survive it to the end? This can vary from all of them plus the killer ending up dead to just one or two meeting their demise. Note that the survivors don't necessarily have to come out unharmed.
- Lots of slasher horror stories seem to use Death by Sex; the victims are often killed shortly after or even during an act of sexual intercourse, with the survivor at the end often being a virgin (or at the least, someone who avoided 'temptation' throughout the film); the perception is that the characters are being 'punished' for having sex. These days, this is usually seen as being a bit outdated and formulaic, and may also be accused of having Unfortunate Implications, particularly if the victims are women. See below for possible ways to subvert this.
- Related to the above, the Final Girl usually lives because she is a virgin, and seen as pure and innocent enough to live. Maybe you could have an obvious Final Girl set up, only to kill her off while one of her more 'experienced' friends lives.
- Many slasher stories also end with the killer being disposed of in a seemingly-final confrontation with the final survivor, only for the movie to close on a note of The End... Or Is It? with regard to the killer, with the implication that (s)he is Not Quite Dead. Whilst it can be an easy Sequel Hook, it's also been over-used to the point of cliche; audiences often expect the killer to survive the final confrontation and threaten a return.
- When a killer has the theme of Rube Goldberg deathtraps, or generally killing each victim in a unique way, they run the risk of breaking the audience's Willing Suspension of Disbelief if it gets too cartoony or ridiculous. At least, this should be avoided if you want realismnote , though a few films knowingly turn the above Up to Eleven (most notably Saw) and draw audiences by promising creative kill showcases.
- Most slasher stories use the same old character archetypes from past stories: the Alpha Bitch, the Jerk Jock, the Token Minority (who is often one of the first to bite it), The Stoner, and of course, the Final Girl. This makes it very obvious as to who is going to die and who is going to live. Try to make some new character archetypes, or expand off the old ones. Also, try to make at least some of the characters likeable, or you may have your readers rooting for the killer.
- Related to the above, Developing Doomed Characters is a common problem with this genre; you have to establish some connection with the characters before you have your serial killer start butchering them, and a bit of teasing and tension is always good to get your audience in the mood — however, if you wait too long to start the action, or if you make your characters too hard-to-like or cliched / formulaic, then the audience is going to spend this time not caught up in the character dramas and interplays between these characters but instead anxiously (and, depending on just how insufferable they are, possibly eagerly) awaiting the arrival of the killer and start of the killing spree. You don't want to bore or frustrate your audience.
- Most slasher movies tend to have one killer who is doing all the hunting - what if there's more than one? An original and a copycat, or two working in tandem? What if the protagonist is the killer? One new variant is to tell the story from the killer's point of view, showing their Start of Darkness and making them at least a slightly sympathetic figure. Usually, the "protagonist" slot switches to the final girl before the killer is killed.
- Subvert Not Quite Dead and The End... Or Is It? - when the killer comes back to life, the survivors are waiting for them, and take the opportunity to finish them off for good.
- Does the Final Girl have to be a virginal and innocent young teenager girl? Perhaps she could be one of the more 'experienced' or 'naughty' girls instead. Or perhaps the survivor could be a guy. Or there could be more than one survivor...
- Is there really a serial killer? It might just be a normal (albeit murderous) person running a bloody Scooby-Doo Hoax to kill enemies without getting incriminated, or to distract from another evil plan. This can be double subverted by revealing there really is a monster/killer acting independently of the hoaxers.
- Most slasher killers are antagonists, with the Final Girl being the protagonist. But some slashers, such as Savaged, have the killer as the protagonist instead, hunting down each of the people who wronged him or her in Roaring Rampage of Revenge fashion. Since most slasher killers are in no way sympathetic at all (they murder people in horrific fashions, after all), sympathy often has to be derived from having the victims do something horrible to the killer.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Retribution (or rather, in plenty of cases, Disproportionate Retribution) tends to form the backdrop of these stories; in many of these stories, the victims are being hunted and killed as revenge for some perceived wrong, either directly against the killer (or someone related to the killer). In others, the killer is presented as being The Scourge of God (or Satan in some cases), on a quest to avenge more oblique wrongs committed not so much against the killer as much as against society or God in general. This is usually more pronounced in later entries in a series, mainly because the killer's already gone through everyone who he reasonably has a grievance against in earlier installments.
- The killer might represent a facet of modern society Gone Horribly Wrong. Usually it works to use one of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, a spurned teen outcast, target of Teens Are Cruel, could grow into a hateful monster, killing his tormentors and/or even their children (Wrath). An ugly woman might see the most beautiful parts of everyone she meets... and then kill them to cut off those parts for her collection (Envy). The killer might be obsessively in love with one of his 'targets' and has decided to get rid of the competition (Lust). A person of authority might be shamed, and take out their issues on those they think did the wronging (Pride). And so on. And if they're dead? Well, then they have all of eternity to let these hungers fester.
- The killers in these movies are usually distinguished by a particular appearance and manner of dress that makes them easily identifiable - think Jason Voorhees' hockey mask, Freddy Krueger's hideous scars, fedora and green-and-red striped pullover, and such. They also generally have a particular method of killing people that acts as their Calling Card (usually involving knives and other stabby-slashy weapons — hence the name of the genre); again, Freddy's razor-clawed glove and Jason's machete are good examples of this.
- The killers in these movies are frequently depicted as being determinators who, if they're not quite Made of Iron, might as well be — even if they aren't explicitly supernatural, they're usually curiously resilient, able to withstand a large amount of punishment and keep going. Later installments of a series in particular tend to stress the supernatural manner of the killer. Whereas earlier installments may have depicted the killer as being just a very insane guy going around killing people, later appearances usually tend to see the killer gradually developed into an explicitly supernatural creation, to the point where they're practically the right hand of Satan himself. This is usually something of a necessity in order to explain how a returning killer manages to perform so many Not Quite Dead moments and still retain some level of plausibility.
- As mentioned above, the Final Girl is usually presented as an innocent; often a high school-age teenage girl.
- Many slasher movies tend to be set around a 'themed' or notable calendar holiday (for example Christmas, New Year's and, of course, Halloween and Friday the 13th). This obviously enables the movie to present a subverted or darkened twist on 'safe' holiday trappings — for example, a slasher killer might decide to dress up as Santa Claus if committing their crimes during the Christmas season. This is such a common motif, however, that it lends itself easily to a potential for subversion — a movie in which the killer decides to strike on days which have no particular calendar significance (except, maybe, for the killer and victims).
- Most Slasher Movies tend to revolve around the Ten Little Murder Victims plot — a cast of characters gradually being whittled down until there's only one (or a small group, at least) left.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Most slasher movies are set at night, or at least in dark places where there's lots of shadows convenient for lurking around in. Night tends to make even places which are comfortable and familiar during the day unsettling and creepy, which is perfect for suspense.
- There are two common and popular alternatives for slasher movie settings; either an isolated, creepy out-of-the-way place (often some kind of shack or collection of shacks; see the summer camp setting of Friday the 13th, or the out-of-the-way hovel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) surrounded by forests and scrub land, or an urban location that the audience would be expected to be familiar with presented in a creepy, sinister fashion (suburbia in Halloween; the high school prom in Prom Night (1980)). The former generally allows you to stress the isolation of the characters — if anyone is coming to the rescue, it's going to be a while before they get there, meaning the characters have to survive as long as possible before help arrives. It also generally allows you to present as the bad guys (or at least antagonists) the kind of grotesque, in-bred, physically repellent and psychotic hillbillies and hicks that this genre seems to adore. The latter allows you to spook the audience out by presenting something that they'd recognise and be comfortable with as a horrifying place of terrors. Of course, the latter is usually less isolated, presenting something of a pitfall in that the audience may question why the characters don't just call the police and let them handle it; this is usually resolved (not entirely satisfactorily at times) by making the police useless and incompetent blunderers who are usually way outmatched by one killer and thus end up as blade fodder. Or there is simply no way left to call them.
- For the killer, knives and other stabby things. The more elaborate forms of death you devise will require yet more elaborate contraptions to pull them off.
- The victims usually wear the trendiest things for teens at the time, which serves to make them relatable... and sadly, to date the movies a decade after filming.
- The killer should have two modes of dress: Stealth and On the Job. Stealth is their civilian clothes, which should reflect their personality. True serial killers will dress as inconspicuously as possible, often being a little too neat and clean. If they're deranged, out of style and unkempt clothes are the norm. When on the job, they can either for a stealth look (all black, with a menacing mask), or for over-the-top psycho killer gear. This should reflect their theme and origins, and whether they sneak kill victims or overwhelm through terror and brute force.
- Usually slasher movies require the actors to be acting like "normal" teenagers for a while, then on various paths of skeptical, fearful, or disbelief.
- If the cast are supposed to be teenagers, they will usually be played by much older actors, and pretty.
- Make sure you have a couple of Token Minority characters, but try not to have too many, as then your audience might begin to wonder how you feel about them.
- For the role of the killer, first figure out what type of figure you are going for. If it's somebody who stalks victims from the shadows and then kills them silently, then it's okay to cast a smaller person in the role. If, however, the killer is an unrelenting Implacable Man, or is otherwise implied to have a lot of physical strength (i.e. moving and hiding bodies so that the Final Girl can conveniently stumble upon them in the last ten minutes), then you should cast a big guy who looks like he could pull these things off.
- The more elaborate the death, the more preparation will be required on the part of the actors playing both killer and victim to do it right. As noted above, if your killer is of the "brute force" type, then it's recommended that the person playing said killer is capable of pulling off very physical stunts.
Extra CreditA discussion of the differences between Slasher Horror and Survival Horror can be found here. "Slasher Horror vs. Survival Horror." from The United Federation of Charles. How to achieve immersion in a horror novel is also analyzed here. "Immersion and Horror." from The United Federation of Charles.
- While prior films (such as Psycho and the works of Dario Argento) laid the groundwork for the genre, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is often credited as being the first "real" slasher flick. While it holds up surprisingly well, nearly all of the actual violence is implied or offscreen, which may disappoint modern audiences. Its sequels all amped up the gore factor, although some would argue that this came at the expense of quality. Its 2003 remake is often held up as one of the few horror remakes that managed to live up to the original.
- The original Halloween (1978) is frequently regarded as one of the two Trope Codifiers for most modern slasher movies. Be warned when watching it; not only is it less gory and visceral than most slasher movies which have followed it, including its own sequels (like TCM, it relies more on suspense than gore — the killer doesn't even kill very many people throughout), the fact that most of the tropes it popularised were later shamelessly ripped off may result in Seinfeld Is Unfunny syndrome. Its killer, Michael Myers, is the first of the "Big Three" slasher killers. Was remade by Rob Zombie in 2007, with a sequel (also made by Zombie) following two years later; his vision of the film falls very squarely into Love It or Hate It territory.
- Friday the 13th is the other Trope Codifier for the genre, spawning a long list of sequels of varying quality. The first, fourth and sixth movies are often held up as series highlights, Jason X is usually viewed as So Bad, It's Good, and the eighth and ninth movies are usually treated as a Dork Age for the franchise. Introduced the second of the "Big Three" slasher icons: Jason Voorhees. Was rebooted in 2009.
- The Terminator shows the sheer versatility of this basic genre structure. Take away the convoluted Stable Time Loop, evil robots from After the End nuclear war, and you have yourself a very chilling twist on the (literally) Made of Iron Implacable Man Serial Killer, methodically picking off his young female victims one by one off a phonebook. Notable as the only major Slasher Film where the murderer primarily uses firearms.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) put a supernatural twist on the genre. The killer is a former child predator named Freddy Krueger (the last of the "Big Three" slashers) who was murdered by local parents in an act of vigilante justice, and now stalks his teenage victims through their dreams as revenge against their parents. The original and Wes Craven's New Nightmare are usually regarded as the scariest in the series, with most of the other movies moving further into horror-comedy territory by turning Freddy into a more Faux Affably Evil character. That is, with the exception of the second movie, Freddy's Revenge, which is known primarily for having off-the-charts levels of gay subtext that would make Sam and Dean Winchester blush. The original was remade in 2010, to the disappointment of many.
- Scream (1996), made by Nightmare director Wes Craven, takes the Genre Savvy approach to slasher horror, with plenty of Lampshade Hanging, and turns several of the more common tropes on their heads, as well as featuring two killers rather than just one. It is actually quite genuinely scary at times, particularly in the opening scene. Its success wound up reviving the slasher genre after years of being viewed as trite and cliche, as well as starting a Post Modernist wave in horror. For tropers, the sheer quantity of horror tropes that get lampshaded, subverted and otherwise played with is by itself reason to see this film. It has had three sequels.
The Epic Fails
- As a genre, slasher movie are heavily susceptible to falling on the wrong end of Sturgeon's Law. They are a popular choice of film for aspiring student or indie filmmakers, thanks to the fact that a cheap-'n'-dirty slasher flick can easily be made on practically no budget — all you need is fake blood and gore (which can easily be made with common household and cooking materials), cast and crew (recruit from your friends and family), and an assortment of killing implements (hello, Walmart). Unfortunately, in the cluttered world of the slasher genre, it takes a lot to stand out, and most of these amateur efforts wind up paling in comparison.
- Black Christmas (1974), released in the same year as TCM, is also considered a Trope Maker for the genre, although time has caused it to become more obscure than its cousin. The fact that it was made and released around the same time as TCM, independently of that film, means that it too has a reasonable claim to being the "first slasher flick." (Most horror fans just split the difference and give both movies credit.) It jump-started the tradition of holiday-themed horror films, and remains very effective as a straight-up scarefest. Clearly, enough people remembered it for it to be remade in 2006.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer is probably the most famous film to come from the post-Scream wave of slasher flicks. While a decent enough movie, it is perhaps most famous for having Jennifer Love Hewitt running around in a tight tank top for the last third of the film, and for killing Buffy. It had two sequels, the second of which went Direct-to-Video.