The horror subgenre, slasher, has been contested by scholars as to whether or not it sensationalizes violence and objectifies the victims’ bodies. Miller argues that much of the criticism of slasher films arises through the way these films appear to normalize misogyny through the killing of female characters – particularly those who challenge patriarchal notions of passive femininity by being sexually active. The Final Girl trope, prevalent in horror films, is argued by some scholars to be an example of how horror is progressive, namely through how she overcomes the (most often male) villain of the film (111-112). However, the Final Girl in slasher films is often virginal, while the women killed are most often sexually active. As such, the binary between innocent virgins and punishable sexual agents reinforces women’s sexual passivity.
The 1974 Canadian slasher film Black Christmas does not have a virginal Final Girl – early into the film, the protagonist (and eventual Final Girl) Jess is revealed to be sexually active, pregnant, and planning to have an abortion. Constantineau argues that Black Christmas undercuts the patriarchal tones of horror films through a “prominent feminist subtext” (60). The film depicts Jess challenging oppressive manifestations of patriarchy (the killer and her boyfriend Peter) while simultaneously depicting men (especially the police force investigating the missing women) to be incompetent, especially regarding the well-being of women. However, the medium itself prevents the viewers from truly identifying with the female characters, their struggles, and their (questionable) triumphs due to the phenomenological distance between the viewer and the fictional space. As such, this produces a two-fold patriarchal perspective – one concerning the film’s failure to have a truly feminist subtext, and one that posits the audience at a distance – that, regardless of the films subversive tactics, sensationalizes violence against women for viewing pleasure.
Horror tropes in Black Christmas: Resistance through subversion?
Black Christmas contains generic slasher tropes: the anonymous stalker-killer, the helpless group of young female victims, and the Final Girl that thwarts the killer. By slightly altering these tropes, the film challenges the overtly patriarchal subtext of most slasher films. The film introduces the killer, Billy, early into the film through a first-person point of view (POV). Throughout the film, Billy remains largely anonymous, but the audience is aware of his presence through the attic door’s movement, but most importantly the obscene phone calls to the sorority sisters (from inside the house) and the way the film shifts from static shots of the scene to violently shaky POV shots. The faceless Billy stalks and kills the sorority sisters throughout the film, except for Jess, the Final Girl figure.
Some believe that significant changes made to the female characters in Black Christmas challenge the traditionally overt patriarchal sense of morality that pervades slashers. The killing of promiscuous women and the lone virgin’s survival connote women’s sexual agency as punishable through death. In Black Christmas, however, the murdered women are not solely promiscuous, nor is the Final Girl virginal. The film includes a variety of women with alternative femininities, and it is implied that they are all sexually active (with the exception of Clare, the first victim). That said, all the sorority sisters (besides Jess) and the housewife, Mrs. MacHenry, are killed by Billy in the film, regardless of whether they partake in, what Clover refers to as, “unauthorized sex” (81). As such, the women are not killed for being immoral through vices like heavy drinking or sexual activity, they are merely killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Scholars like Miller claim that slasher films posit a female perspective, insofar that it represents women’s experiences within a patriarchal society – regardless of how they act, they are oppressed. The Final Girl, however, acts as a symbol of resistance against the overbearing ubiquity of patriarchy (116). The use of POV shots for both Billy (the faceless killer) and Peter (Jess’ boyfriend) confuse the audience about the killer’s identity. As well, similar to Billy, Peter breaks into the sorority house and is presumably against abortion. It is only revealed in the end that Jess wrongfully kills Peter and that Billy remains in the attic. Even though Jess kills Peter instead of Billy, it nonetheless demonstrates a form of female resistance insofar as she eliminates one of the film’s oppressive patriarchal forces.
Subversion ≠ Progression: The Failure of Girl Power
To say that the subversive strategies in Black Christmas make it a feminist film ignores deeply problematic aspects of the film that perpetuate patriarchy, particularly through emphasized violence against women. This is not to say that the victims in slasher films like Black Christmas are solely female, however, as Clover argues, there is asymmetry insofar as women’s deaths are performed in longer, highly sensationalized shots, while male characters are killed swiftly or off-camera (81-82). Out of all the characters killed in Black Christmas, only two of them are male (the police officer sent to survey the sorority house, and Jess’ boyfriend). The majority of the female characters’ deaths (with the exception of Phyl) occur onscreen in particularly disturbing ways – Clare is suffocated with plastic wrap whilst exploring her own closet, Mrs. MacHenry is stabbed with a roped hook that drags her into the attic, Barb is stabbed to death with a glass unicorn figurine. The shots of these characters’ deaths also utilize a perspective switch between POV shots and static shots, which emphasize the women’s faces as they suffer through their respective deaths. The male characters, however, are only killed off-screen – the officer’s throat is slit by an unknown assailant and Peter is killed by a fireplace poker. While the audience sees their dead bodies, they do not see sensationalized death sequences. As well, the deaths of the male characters occur for a reason. Regardless of who kills the officer (Peter or Billy), his death serves a practical purpose. That is, eliminating any kind of threat to satisfying their own self-interests. The ambiguity makes it plausible for either Billy or Peter to be the officer’s murderer. If Billy is the murderer, he can continue the killing of the sorority sisters without the threat of being caught and arrested. If Peter is the murderer, he eliminates any obstacle to confronting Jess about the abortion and the future of their fragmented relationship. As well, while scholars like Miller see the Final Girl as a symbol of resistance, Jess’ future remains ambivalent. She outlasts the other sorority residents, however, killing Peter instead of Billy condemns her to a plausible off-screen death. Since the police believe Peter is the killer, they leave Jess alone in the house, however the final sequences of the film show that Billy is still in the attic. As such, while Jess seems to resist an oppressive patriarchal force by killing Peter, Billy’s survival and the final phone call to the house show that regardless of how smart or physically strong Final Girls like Jess may be, patriarchy manifests itself in ubiquitous ways.
Implications of the medium in horror: Grotesque gratification
Similar to painting and photography, film has traditionally relied on a plane surface, one that posits a distance between the viewer and the subject – Romanyshyn refers to this as linear perspective (34). This distance creates a phenomenological disconnect between the viewer and the fictional space they observe on the screen. Black Christmas attempts to reconcile this distance through POV shots, however the audience remains a mass of detached observers through the absence of an embodied experience. Carrol argues that a necessary condition of film is this “absence … the way in which the cinematic display is discontinuous from the space we inhabit” (58). This absence problematizes the violence against women found in Black Christmas insofar as it is sensationalized for the audience’s gaze. Mulvey argues that cinema produces a voyeuristic relationship through the distance between the viewer and the female character on screen (843), however, the kind of pleasure one gets from viewing Black Christmas lacks the sexual undertones Mulvey writes about. Nonetheless, it is of a voyeuristic nature. The pleasure one gets from sensationalized violence “exist[s] in a world of exaggeration where it is acceptable to enjoy the pleasures of the grotesque” (Gartside 93). This distance the viewer has to the fictional space allows them to watch and enjoy the outlandish deaths for their sensationalism. It is important to remember that the only onscreen deaths are of women. As such, the voyeuristic pleasure one gets witnessing the women’s deaths in Black Christmas remains misogynistic insofar as their deaths, despite how random and unmotivated they are, remain decadent viewing pleasures.
Ethical viewing positions in Black Christmas (a lack thereof)
The pleasure one gets from watching sensationalized violence in film comes from the characters’ inability to look back, as is the case of Black Christmas. Oliver argues that consuming violent representations causes audiences to be “voyeurs of suffering” (121). The lack of interaction between the viewer and the subjects in the film reify their otherness. As such, their suffering is not taken seriously. A medium like performance art, relies on a dialogue between the viewing subject and the performing subject (Oliver 125). Film, due to its phenomenologically detached nature, cannot engage in a dialogue with its audience. The sorority sisters in Black Christmas are murdered within a fictional space, their deaths seen merely as devices to move the plot forward or as treats for the audience to indulge in titillating scenes of outlandish violence. That said, Gartside argues that “fictional representations of violence subtly impact how [viewers] think about actual instances of violence” (82). The fictional status of the sorority residents does not justify audiences indulging in the violent mutilation of women’s bodies. Doing so posits them as a distanced Other, discursively marginalizes women, and reinforces voyeuristic, linear perspectives.
While the film Black Christmas subverts traditional horror tropes, it nevertheless reinforces patriarchal representations of women. The majority of the victims are women, and while the film has a Final Girl, she fails to fully overcome the patriarchal forces that invade her once safe space. The distance the viewer has with the fictional space of Black Christmas prevents them from truly identifying with the suffering of the sisters. As such, their deaths are reduced to a spectacle that ultimately posits women, especially those as victims of violence, as inherently other. Within the realm of horror cinema, the audience member acts as a passive bystander to violence. The film continues to unfold regardless of whether or not they enjoy what they see. This does not necessarily mean that audiences are always completely passive, especially when confronted with violence against women in films like Black Christmas. While film, as a medium, lacks the opportunity for dialogue with its subjects, failing to question why we continue to watch sensationalized violence will continuously reduce bodies outside our own as other.
Black Christmas. Directed and produced by Bob Clark, Warner Bros., October 11 1974.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
Clover, Carol J.. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” The Dead of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 66-113.
Constantineau, Sara. “Black Christmas: the slasher film was made in Canada.” CineAction, vol. 82, no. 82-83, 2010, pp. 58-63. FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals Database.
Gartside, Will. “The Hostel Rhetoric of Torture: A Discourse Analysis of Torture Porn.” Projections, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 81-99. Academic OneFile, DOI: 10.3167/proj.2013.070107.
Miller, Catriona. “You can’t escape: inside and outside the ‘slasher’ movie.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2014. Taylor & Francis Group, DOI: 10.1080/19409052.2014.907820.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 1999, pp. 833-844.
Oliver, Sophie Anne. “Trauma, bodies, and performance art: Towards an embodied ethics of seeing.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, February 2010, pp. 119-129. Taylor & Francis Group, DOI: 10.1080/10304310903362775.
Romanyshyn, Robert. “Chapter Two: The window and the camera.” Technology as Symptom and Dream, Routledge, 1989, pp. 33-64.