My new novel, The Final Girl Support Group, comes out on July 13 and it made me think long and hard about murder books. Since we started telling stories, a disproportionate number of them seem to be about killing each other, a trend which got refined to its essence in slasher movies and serial killer books. Murder Books 101 is a place where we can talk about the tics, tropes, and habits of humanity’s favorite literary genre.
A slasher movie is a motion picture in which a group of people are murdered one by one until the last one left, known as the final girl, defeats or escapes the killer. Unless you’re in The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), where the killer stuffs the final girl into an incinerator at the end and the camera lingers on the plume of human smoke rising into the night sky. Slasher movies started in 1974 with the release of Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—although you could follow their lineage all the way back to 1932’s 13 Women, in which Myrna Loy uses astrology to murder the sorority sisters who publicly exposed her biracial background. Halloween (1978) established the essential slasher template, but it was the release of Friday the 13th (1980) that kicked the genre into overdrive.
After F13, slashers multiplied in a kaleidoscopic array of killers and their slaygrounds, and suddenly going anywhere or doing anything became totally impractical, in terms of potential murder. If you went on vacation, you’d die (Welcome to Spring Break aka Nightmare Beach); if you stayed home, you’d die (Don’t Go in the House); if you went to the supermarket, you’d die (Intruder); if you went to camp, you’d die (Sleepaway Camp); if you went to high school, you’d die (Student Bodies); if you went to boarding school, you’d die (Halloween: H20); if you moved off the grid, you’d die (American Gothic)… essentially anything you did made you a potential victim.
So how do we survive this world of carnage? By following a few simple rules.
Rule #1 — Don’t make friends.
Everyone needs a friend, but if you don’t want to be murdered it’s best not to have them. Friends get you to do things like sneak into a mall after hours where you’ll probably be murdered by the security robots (Chopping Mall), or sneak into a carnival after hours where you’ll probably be murdered by the owner’s deformed monster son (The Funhouse), or go camping where you’ll definitely be murdered by any number of people, (Rituals, The Final Terror, The Prey, Just Before Dawn). Friends will invite you for trips on their yacht (Humungous), to visit a time share on the ski slopes (Iced), or to a costume ball (Masque of the Red Death). Sounds fun? You’ll die.
Friends like to play pranks on each other, which inevitably go wrong. Maybe they put a corpse in your bed and trick you into making out with it, or maybe they mischievously push you out a window to your death, or lure you into a bathroom for sex, give you a laced joint, then accidentally douse you with acid leaving you disfigured. Sure, it’s all a good laugh, but now you’re going to have to return years later and murder every single one of them (Terror Train, Prom Night, Slaughter High).
Friends: either they’ll kill you, or you’ll kill them. It’s better to go without.
Rule #2 — Don’t go to summer camp.
Duh, we know this.
No, for real. Even though only three Friday the 13th movies actually take place at a summer camp, those places are still super dangerous.
Summer camp is for babies. I go to cheerleader camp. That’s totally different.
Nope, that’s worse. See: Cheerleader Camp. You can’t even work at a summer camp or you’ll get pranked by the kids and wind up killing everyone (The Burning), or you’ll go to counselor training and get killed by a deformed monster son (Moonstalker).
Rule #3 — Drop out of school.
By sixth grade we can read and write, do long division, and play the recorder. What else do you need? If you’re smart, you’ll drop out then and there. Because if you want to do trig, or AP American History, or talk about the symbolism in The Great Gatsby, you’re going to wind up dead. Whether it’s straightforward public school like Central High (Massacre at Central High) or Crawford Academy, Montreal’s elite academic institution (Happy Birthday To Me), if you go to high school you will die. Boarding school is not a loophole (To All a Good Night).
If you manage to make it through high school alive and then choose to go to college, you deserve what’s coming to you. Whether you’re attending night school (Night School), a rural midwestern college (Pandemonium), or a big city college (Pieces), it doesn’t matter. You will die. If you think participating in Greek life will offer you safety in numbers I laugh at your logic (13 Women, Sisters of Death, Hell Night, House on Sorority Row, Sorority House Massacre, Rush Week, Sorority House Massacre 2, Happy Hell Night).
If by some miracle you actually do graduate from college, do not attend your class reunion unless you want to get impaled and blowtorched by a guy dressed as a magician (Class Reunion Massacre).
Do not even get me started on medical school.
Rule #4 — Avoid sports.
Football causes concussions, long distance running makes your nipples bleed, javelins are obviously lethal (Fatal Games), but even footballs can impale you (Prom Night 3), pole vaulting pits are full of spikes (Graduation Day), bowling pins can stab (Gutterballs), weight machines will crush you (Death Spa), and even trophies are deadly (Fatal Games, again). Not even cheerleaders are safe, especially if they have a mascot in the squad (Girls Nite Out, Cheerleader Camp).
Rule #5 — Avoid monkeys.
Kind of a curve ball, I know, but monkeys are really dangerous. If you are paralyzed from the neck down and they offer you a helper monkey, I would strongly advise you watch Monkey Shines first so you know what to do when it falls in love with you and murders absolutely everyone in your life. And remember what I said about medical school? That’s where you’ll run into a hamadryas baboon like Shakma who will stalk every every single person in your class and rip their heads off.
But here’s the thing about surviving a slasher—ultimately, you can’t. Death will always find you in the end. You can run, you can bang on doors for help, you can hide in attics, you can seek safety with your friends, but it’s coming. It’s slow, but it’s unstoppable, and no matter how far or how fast you go, when you turn around it’s right there on your heels, waiting. Whether it’s an illness or an accident, a sequel, or a power drill, death is coming for you and there’s nothing any of us can do about it… We think of slashers as comforting Eighties nostalgia, but even Ingmar Bergman never confronted the raw, unvarnished facts of mortality like this…
We’ll be exploring more death and mayhem in next Thursday’s column, as we dig into the genre’s deep-seated issues with gender. See you then.
Grady Hendrix is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, along with a bunch of other books and movies. His new novel is The Final Girl Support Group (out July 13) and you can find more dumb facts about him over at gradyhendrix.com.