Unpacking the Powerful Ties Between Drugs and Slasher Flicks in the 1980s
Conservatism of the 1980s crept into horror movies, giving us a new film genre that attempted to wean viewers away from all things taboo, lest the boogeyman find you.
Published on October 31, 2017

Horror films often serve as a cultural seismogram; they tells us our ills when we can't fully speak them aloud ourselves. Often, the reoccurrence of certain themes can be a brutal reminder of how much hasn't changed. The forces at play in in 1931's Frankenstein and 2017's Get Out are entirely different, but the perversion of the human body at the expense of another has remained devastatingly relevant in the 88 years between. What do we do with that?

Still, here we are, and in the intervening years, much has and hasn't changed in regards to the body politic, and what's a scary movie without a body? The slasher film has many grandparents; its fidelity hotly contested. Was it Psycho? Was it Halloween? Do the films of the '80s owe anything to those of the '60s? Do the postmodern works of the '90s owe anything to anyone? More than any other time, the 1980s proved to be a high point in quantity (if often a low point in quality) with slasher films, an era that embraced the "more is better" credo by upping the ante in every aspect, from nudity to gore.

If the cinema of the 1970s was a rejection of the status quo, best embodied in the rise of independent film and the dismantling of the studio system, then much of the culture wars of the 1980s were born out of the fissures of the decade and a half that predated it. The attempt to course correct all the perversions of the domestic order were put into hyper-drive. Films like Top Gun and Rambo turned patriotism and military might into a crucial American virtue, upending much of the previous decade's anti-war telegraphing. Wall Street and nighttime soap operas Dynasty and Dallas made good on the decade's attempt to again acclimate the public to the importance of wealth.

It's no wonder then that horror films of the 1980s featured teens who carried over some a healthy dose of the hippie ethos, namely a laissez faire attitude towards sex and drugs, the two most prominent fissures in the generation gap. Our first image in Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) is two stoned camp counselors sneaking away into a storage barn to have sex before a faceless assailant enters and murders them. In 1985's Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, the character of Jesse is repeatedly undermined by his parents when he describes nightmare visions of a killer with knives for fingers. His repeatedly pleas for help are met with concern over potential drug use. The mere suspicion labels him an unreliable narrator, all but signing his death certificate.

In many ways, the evolution of drugs in this particular movie genre was gradual, going from generational signifier to outright trope. Watching a long-haired teen light up a joint in a horror film was tantamount to watching him sign off on his own death, which was precisely the point. These kids would die in suburban houses, summer camps, in one another's' bedrooms, and the films weren't just designed to scare you, they were designed to wean you away from the taboo, lest the boogeyman find you.

Thinking of slasher films exclusively as propaganda films might be a bit too limited a view. After all, these films were just as interested in titillating viewers as scaring them straight. Sex wasn't an element; it was sort of the whole deal. But the moral compass that guided the films were very much of their moment, quietly embracing a new demand for decency. In this way, slasher films manage to capture the schizophrenia of the "Just Say No" decade, in the way that they both came to embody societal ills, while also presenting sterile morality that inadvertently punished those same victims. More of everything was the name of the game, and a demand for cheap budgets and high box office made the slasher film a quintessential 1980s product: not just a good idea, but rather good business, too.

Film theorist Carol J. Clover infamously coined the "final girl" trope in her analysis of the slasher genre's tradition, focusing her attention on the ways in which the single virginal girl who avoids the lure of sex and drugs are often, without question, the only ones spared. John Carpenter's Halloween features the quintessential good girl, Laurie Strode, a wholesome babysitter who survives a night of killings largely by staying out of the wrong places at the wrong times: bedrooms with boys who spark up joints before bedding babysitters.

That slasher films tended to focus on female victims was often framed as a slight against good taste. Feminist critiques would, in a rare occasion, meet conservative criticism, framing the obligatory use of blood and flesh as morally dubious at best and sadistically fetishizing at worst. Yet the female body is of course the source of all of the genre's concern. In a sense, women are presented often as the carnal invention of the male mind; their goodness serves as a sacrificial lamb for the culture at large.

"Goodness" is uniquely fundamental to the slasher films of the 1980s. While many of the most famous films would begin with relatively simple set-ups, the killers at their center — your Jasons, your Freddys — would gradually become largely, if not entirely, supernatural embodiments of evil. Paired with the inherent goodness of the kids at the films' center, any and all dalliances with the illicit would create a potent visual metaphor of evil taking hold and doing you in. The only thing that saves Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th and Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street is a steadfast commitment to saying no to all the basic taboos of youth: drugs, sex, and overall rebellion.

In many ways, the leftover totems of the 1970s and the narrative tropes of the '80s slasher film met in the middle by sheer force of accident. The arrival of a decade's worth of moral panic — motiveless serial killers, evangelical concern over satanic worship, statistical increases in crime in cities and child abuse in the suburbs — made the largely faceless killers of the genre apt metaphors. In the Reagan era, paranoia was paramount and danger more insidious. The culture was filled with almost abstract threats that we couldn't quite place.

"There is something inherently wrong with the human personality," director Stanley Kubrick said in 1980 after finishing post-production on The Shining. "There's an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly." Kubrick was talking about the psyche of his lead character, but in many ways that "dark side" is the very thing that the PSAs of the 1980s harp on as well. The woo of drugs is undeniable; the impulse to say yes to them is the real monster. Freddy Krueger can go from killing you in your sleep to becoming a plush toy, but he's not the only threat that goes bump in the night.

Follow Rod Bastanmehr on Twitter

Rod Bastanmehr
Rod Bastanmehr is an arts and culture writer and one-half of the GOOD FRIENDS podcast. His work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, and the LA Review of Books.
Share this article with your friends!