Undercutting "Slashers": Evaluating Video Violence


This article originally appeared in Issue# 42

Question: Do you know where your children are?

Answer: At home, watching videos.

Saturday night is still movie night, and teenagers still go out in couples and in groups. But increasingly, their first stop is the video store and the final viewing point, the home screen The count isn't in, but with VCRs in nearly half the nation's homes, it's very clear that this new magic box has strikingly altered leisure time priorities for all ages.

According to a recent study, over 55 percent of those questioned preferred using the VCR to the movies and television it helps them watch. And certainly millions of families appreciate the time-shifting and prerecorded cassettes that give them the ability to watch late-night talk shows at noon, exercise classes before breakfast and classic movies any time they wish. The VCR dramatically expands entertainment options.

But the new availability of Hollywood movies on the home screen has moved a perennial parental issue into a new arena. From Platoon, Robocop, James Bond to Fatal Attraction, sexual explicitness — especially in tandem with violence — is the visual currency used to keep the cash registers ringing.

But another trend is even more disturbing. Building on the decades-long popularity of the horror film is a relatively new arrival in the entertainment market — the "slasher" film. The term refers to the sharp instruments — knives, axes, razors, arrows, chainsaws — typically used by the villains in these films to kill their victims. The genre makes its impact by blending the techniques of horror films with the sexual explicitness permitted by current moviemaking practice.

Although originally made for theatrical release, their "B" movie quality and "R" ratings limited the serious critical attention they received and helped make them inaccessible to many teens. But the arrival of the VCR has given them a new outlet. With their under-20 characters and sexually-oriented plots, these R-rated films are aiming for a young audience.

Even the casual viewer would surely note that these slasher films feature similar storylines and characters. But they share more specific characteristics, according to research undertaken recently by the National Council of Churches. Most important is their portrayal of women and sexual material in scenarios in which:

  • Young women are the primary victims of the ever-present violence
  • The violence occurs in a sexual or sexually threatening context
  • Violent scenes are juxtaposed with mild eroticism

Some classics of the genre include Friday the 13th, with its various sequels, Halloween I and II, The Living Dead, The Evil Dead, The Toolbox Murders, I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A typical segment from Friday the 13th, Part III, gives the general idea. In the space of a few minutes we see these images:

  • A girl shot through the eye with an arrow gun.
  • Two teenagers have sex in a hammock.
  • A girl taking a shower.
  • Blood dripping on a magazine a teenage girl is reading in a hammock. As the shock registers, she is killed by a knife stabbing up from below.
  • A teenage boy is garroted — his female friend thinks he's kidding.

Striking Home

Although certainly offensive to many, these films are both popular and profitable. But, to paraphrase an old saying about television, if all media is a learning experience, what are viewers of these films learning?

The answer to this question isn't simple. Slasher films use explicit violence to induce a fear response. They create a tension that carries viewers out of themselves and provides the mechanism for a pleasurable release once the tension breaks. Sometimes the release mechanism is even laughter.

For adolescents, particularly, the degree of realism in each film heavily influences its impact. A situation perceived as being like life — that is, one viewers can imagine being in themselves — is more frightening. For younger children, however, the lines between fantasy and reality are less sharply drawn. They frequently need adult help to distinguish between fantasy and reality and interpret the likelihood of the events they see portrayed. In addition, sexually violent material is a hazard for younger children, who may be introduced to skewed views of relationships they are not yet fully prepared to evaluate.

Although not always recognized, the role of imagination is a crucial determinant of a film's effectiveness. Less sophisticated 'slashers" depend mainly on blood and guts for their shock value. Better-made thrillers — like Psycho or Jaws — precede the violent episodes with psychological twists and foreshadowing. In Jaws, for example. the shark isn't seen until an hour and a half into the movie.

Instead of graphic violence, the tension is heightened by narrative. Using only shots of the actor's face, the camera focuses on the honor he remembers as the survivor of a shark attack during his World War II service. When the shark actually appears, its devastation is much more unnerving. Sequels to Jaws, on the other hand, relied on tricks of the trade, with slim plots carrying the burden of violent and sexually explicit scenes.

A Learning Experience

Strangely enough, with all their reliance on sexual violence, most slasher films present a rather strait-laced morality. Although obviously designed to draw audiences, theft sex scenes lead to death, not fulfillment. Killers punish drug use, sexual activity and character flaws indiscriminately. The few conventionally moral characters, like Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie in Halloween, tend to be the only ones to survive. The moral, if any, might be that sex kills." As sex education tools, they are certainly lacking.

But do slasher films do any harm beyond raised blood pressure and goose bumps? The experts don't entirely agree, but much recent research has implied that sexually violent material influences viewers' attitudes and has more potential for changing their behavior than either sexual content or violence alone.

For obvious ethical reasons, studies of sexually violent material measure adult reactions, not those of teenagers. They also typically center on laboratory-evaluated reactions to concentrated doses of specially selected material. Although researchers are cautious about evaluating such data, they have been struck by the effects of viewing sexual violence on the young men they study. In fact, after analyzing post-viewing attitudinal studies media researchers Edward Donnerstein, Daniel Linz and Steven Penrod concluded that violent pornography could increase aggression against women. In fact, as they explained in their recent study The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications, "The highest level of aggression toward a female was displayed by men who were both angered and shown a sexually violent film." Both men and women were desensitized by the violence shown — but only men were made more aggressive.

Although studies have focused on both R and X-rated material, violence seems to be a key factor in encouraging aggressive attitudes. R-rated films that are not, legally, pornography (that is, they include only simulated sex and avoid representation of genitalia and explicit sexual behavior) may still encourage aggression by connecting sex with violence.

 "Kids between 10 and 19 watched three times more moview on videotape in 1985 than in 1984, and saw 20 percent fewer movies in theaters."
- Jack Matthews, Los Angeles Times

Play It Again

If one viewing can cause desensitization. one has to speculate on the effect on even well-adjusted youngsters who may watch these films over and over again in a group setting. It may be cool for youngsters — especially boys — to prove their maturity by assuming insensitivity. But the VCR has made it easier to make the experience repetitive.

A number of studies have confirmed that VCR use among adolescents is essentially a peer group phenomenon. According to a study of Swedish 13 and 14-year-olds, VCR viewing occurs overwhelmingly in the company of friends, usually in a group of three to four persons. Only six percent reported that they frequently watched videos by themselves.

This social viewing pattern means that even many teenagers who do not have VCRs in their own homes have access to material shown on them. A Michigan study found that youngsters with VCRs in their homes had indeed viewed more R rated films than those without them. But their VCR-less cohorts had also seen an average of one or two R-rated films. Evidently they watched R-rated cassettes on their friends' machines.

It seems clear that VCRs do help to expose even young teenagers to R-rated movies. But, as the researchers noted, "Despite greater access to sexually explicit and violent content over VCRs and cable, increased parental effort to mediate exposure are not reported, at least by the youngsters themselves."

Certainly children may rebel against their parents' values. And adolescence, particularly, is a time of testing and experimentation. For many questing young people, R-rated films, violent or otherwise, are so much grist for the mill.

 "The VCR has become the best excuse in the world to keep the party going. As long as the videos last, the party never ends."
- Law student, City University of New York

Concerned parents need to be aware of how much influence they can have on their children, as in a mother-son dialogue overheard recently in a video store. After rejecting a number of her son's violent choices, the mother agreed to several, but only if her son watched them while she was there. This kind of monitoring means that even if he sees the forbidden films at a friend's house this young man will understand what his mother disapproves of — and why.

From the other side of the counter, a Los Angeles-area video store manager describes how influential parents' feedback has been in shaping his store's policies. He said clerks are trained to scrutinize youngsters' choices and check IDs if necessary. Significantly, these procedures were set up as a response to parental feedback by store managers reacting to the demand, "What's my kid doing with this?" Managers who know parents are concerned have more incentive to act responsibly, he added.

Getting Help

Parents need to be aware that video store versions of R-rated films often have added material that was originally cut to make a film acceptable for theatrical release. But even if ratings can be taken at face value, the rating system is confusing and often inadequate. And few parents are qualified as film critics or cinema instructors.

But there are places they can go for help. Schools, churches and youth groups may be able to help find trained instructors who can teach the principles of film-making and help youngsters unmask the exploitation that motivates many violent films.

In family settings, the following strategies may help: Ask teens what they've seen recently and how they felt about it. If they show special enthusiasm for one or two films, rent them and sit down and watch with them.

  • Share your feelings about what is depicted in a non-judgmental manner, explaining what makes you fearful, angry, upset, turned-on, turned-off, confused, amused or sad. Ask them to share their similar feelings.
  • Talk about the sexual myths being depicted, such as films that show women enjoying rape and story lines that punish sexuality with violence.
  • Discuss the degree of fantasy or realism in each film and how this orientation affects what the teen viewer is feeling. Joint viewing sessions with neighbors and friends may be helpful in discussing sensitive issues like sexuality and sexual behavior.
  • Do encourage your local video store to prominently display ratings, establish rental policies that honor ratings age restrictions and place adult films in special sections out of the reach of underage youngsters.

But don't forget to work on the positive as well as the negative. In this case, at least, the good may drive out the bad. Make sure that young people are exposed to high quality films, including positive portrayals of sex and its fundamental connection with life, love and commitment.

As the Rev. Marie Fortune, the author of a well-known study of sexual violence, puts it: "If the only sexually explicit materials available are violent and abusive, people will learn from them that sexuality is degrading, exploitative and nonconsensual. We need more sexually explicit, factual materials which portray caring, affectionate, erotic, mutually consenting relationships among people."

We can't realistically expect to eliminate slasher movies without violating First Amendment principles. But we can work with our young people and the institutions that serve them to mitigate their harmful effects. And we may even become closer to our teenagers in the process.


Material for this article was based on research undertaken as a special project by David Pomeroy of the Communications Commission of the National Council of Churches.

Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.