The History of Slasher Movies

A "Cut" Above the Rest

Freddy vs Jason
Two slasher icons: Elm Street's Freddy and Friday's Jason. © New Line

Slashers are among the most prevalent types of horror movies and they're a particular favorite of modern horror fans. The definition of a slasher film varies depending on who you ask, but in general, it contains several specific traits that feed into the subgenre's formula.

The Killer

Every slasher has a killer. He's usually male, and his identity is often concealed either by a mask or by creative lighting and camerawork. Even if his identity is known, as in the case of Halloween's Michael Myers, he still tends to mask his face. This, combined with the fact that he's usually mute and seemingly unstoppable, heightens his ominous, threatening nature. His back story often includes a childhood trauma (atomic wedgies and the like) that turned him into the homicidal maniac he is today, thus creating a level of sympathy in the viewer. After all, the real star of a slasher is the killer, not the hero. Throughout a franchise like Friday the 13th, heroes come and go, but the killer is constant: the iconic antihero valued for speaking softly and carrying a big machete.

The Victims

What's a killer without victims? In slashers, the victims tend to be young, attractive and often nude. They're typically high school- or college-aged adolescents who engage in vice-ridden activities: sex, alcohol, drugs, crime, football. Rarely does the killer pick these kids explicitly because of their misdeeds, but there is an unwritten moral code in these films that punishes bad behavior. As nihilistic as they might seem, slasher fans like to know that the people who die somehow "deserve" it.

The Heroine

Although slashers are often criticized for being misogynistic, they're one of the few film genres that primarily feature strong, independent female leads. The heroine is almost always a peer of the victims, but unlike her cohorts, she's virtuous. She doesn't go along with all of the sexual hijinks and drug usage, and if she doesn't outright stop her pals from bullying the geeky outcast who may someday grow into a homicidal killing machine, she at least feels really bad about it. The heroine is also known as the "final girl" because by the end of the movie, all of her friends are dead, and she's left alone to deal with the killer.

The Violence

One thing that separates slashers from thrillers and murder mysteries is the level of violence. Slashers shift the focus of the film from such trivialities as "plot" and "character development" and instead concentrate on the killing. Storylines are basically constructed around giving the killer reason and opportunity to do what he does best: murder and mayhem. The deaths are violent and graphic, and the more originality shown in the methods and tools used, the better.


John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) is often considered to be the first "true" slasher in terms of tying all of these components together—at least the first to gain mainstream exposure—thus setting the standard by which all other films are judged. However, earlier works laid the groundwork, including a pair from 1960: Peeping Tom and Psycho. A lesser-known film, 1963's Violent Midnight, foreshadowed, in the long run, the mystery killers in slasher movies and in the short run, it predated the development of an Italian slasher forerunner later in the '60s.

Around the middle of the decade, Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava began to focus their crime stories on the perverse beauty of bloody deaths, developing a style known as Giallo. Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) in particular forecasted the slasher movement to come, as did the Canadian entry Black Christmas in 1974. Others, like 1976's Giallo-like Alice, Sweet Alice and the little-seen American cheapie Wicked, Wicked (1973), incorporated elements that would later become associated with slashers (e.g., a masked serial killer).

It took an American film in Halloween, though, to put all of the pieces together and show that the slasher could be a powerhouse moneymaker in the US. Made on a shoestring budget, Halloween became the most profitable independent picture to date. Its success led to Friday the 13th in 1980, which then opened the door for hundreds of imitators during the 1980s, with 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street containing one of the few original concepts in its supernatural, dream-fed villain, Freddy Krueger.

By the start of the '90s, the slasher concept had worn thin, with fewer and fewer films succeeding at the box office. But in 1996, Wes Craven's Scream, an often tongue-in-cheek affair that toyed with the conventions of slashers, became the biggest hit the genre had ever seen. The slasher was reborn in a modern whodunit mold, generating similar fare like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Valentine, as well as, ironically enough, resurrecting the Halloween franchise.

In the early 21st century, the slasher has continued to search the past for its inspiration, as remakes of Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Halloween, The House on Sorority Row, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street have hit the big screen, while the latter two franchises both saw their biggest payday when they combined forces for 2003's Freddy vs. Jason.

As the century has progressed, the now well-established slasher conventions have become popular fodder for parody, from outright spoofs like the Scary Movie franchise to more traditional horror-comedies like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and The Final Girls that have turned slasher cliches into humor. 2014's Stage Fright even turned the sub-genre into a lighthearted musical. The 21st-century downturn in original, straightforward slasher movies is bound to be temporary, however, as cinematic trends—particularly within the horror genre—tend to be cyclical in nature.

Notable Slashers

  • Peeping Tom (1960)
  • Psycho (1960)
  • Violent Midnight (1963)
  • Blood and Black Lace (1964)
  • Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
  • Black Christmas (1974)
  • Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
  • Halloween (1978)
  • When a Stranger Calls (1979)
  • Friday the 13th (1980)
  • Prom Night (1980)
  • Terror Train (1980)
  • My Bloody Valentine (1981)
  • The Burning (1981)
  • Hell Night (1981)
  • The Prowler (1981)
  • The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
  • Visiting Hours (1982)
  • The House on Sorority Row (1983)
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
  • April Fool's Day (1986)
  • Stagefright (1987)
  • Child's Play (1988)
  • Maniac Cop (1988)
  • Dr. Giggles (1992)
  • Leprechaun (1993)
  • Scream (1996)
  • I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
  • Urban Legend (1998)
  • Scary Movie (2000)
  • Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
  • Haute Tension (2003)
  • Cry Wolf (2005)
  • House of Wax (2005)
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
  • Cold Prey (2006)
  • When a Stranger Calls (2006)
  • Halloween (2007)
  • Hatchet (2007)
  • Prom Night (2008)
  • Friday the 13th (2009)
  • My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)
  • Sorority Row (2009)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
  • Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011)
  • The Final Girls (2015)

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