It’s a commonly held idea that modern horror films are little more than moralistic fables for teenagers – fairy tales that preach correct behaviour at the risk of dire consequences when moral transgressions inevitably end in tears. If the genre is about the threat to the innocent it is also about the triumph of innocence over evil, while serving as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. The horror film relies on the potent coupling of sex and death to entice the viewer – the two most primal of themes. Indeed, prior to the relaxation of censorship in the late 1960s (in a large portion of the world), the horror film offered the opportunity to tackle issues of sensuality and desire that would have been denied other genres. In the 1930’s, for example, the fantastical offered a shroud for the dark pleasures offered by the nightly lover Dracula in an era when even married couples had to be seen as chaste. It’s no surprise then that even with the liberalisation of censorship codes some of the old morality clings on. Whatever champions of the genre may say, the majority of horror films are inherently reactionary and deeply conservative, however disreputable they seem. If the primary equation for the horror film equals sex and death, the main message of the conservative horror film is that sex equals death. Good girls, we are told, live to see adulthood. Bad girls do not. In Halloween (1978) the virginal Laurie Strode survives the phallic attentions of Michael Myers’ thrusting blade intact. Her less virtuous friends, and even Michael’s sister, pay for their loose morals with their lives. Similarly the teenage fumblings of Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981) are rewarded with a more rigid penetration as a copulating couple are impaled post coitus. The list goes on, teenagers necking in cars or enjoying a post-coital reefer have a startlingly short life expectancy. The horror film can therefore often be seen as the next step in the instigation of moral messages from the fairy tale: if fairy tales tell small children not to talk to strangers, wander off in the forest alone or tell tales, then the horror film can admonish teenagers by showing the consequences of unruly behaviour, smoking, drinking or having sex. Of course it’s the nature of the commercial concern to show these acts too – vice is nice when it comes to attracting horror’s key demographic of 16-25 year olds.
Naturally every action has an equal and opposite reaction. While Scream (2000) pointed out the rules of the genre in order to make them playfully transparent to the audience, there is a sense in which a successful genre film must contain familiar elements but also subvert them. The amount of subversion is what separates the film from its core audience – too little and the film is staid and formulaic (Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Halloween 5), too much and it alienates the people who enjoy horror films. Thus if there is a basic rule that pre-marital sex = death, then there are inevitably going to be films that transgress that. This is especially true in the post-Scream age where the plot mechanics of the genre have been explicitly spelt out to the audience (while the physical mechanics of creating shock and tension have been left largely undiscussed) so that subversion of basic horror remits can create an additional frisson by wrong-footing the viewer.
Normally it is the virginal character that is under threat (it’s easier to create fear, tension and empathy with a virtuous character) but the promiscuous ones who generally die. While it is true that preying on the innocent is a common fear trigger in the horror film, it is often the fast-witted innocent who restores the status quo, defeats the monster and, in doing so, gains entry into the world of adulthood. Innocence doesn’t protect the protagonist from the monster but promiscuity seems to actively encourage its attention. Virginity at least goes someway to act as a talisman in the teen horror flick. In the black comedy Cherry Falls (2000) the virginal characters are the specific targets for a killer who apparently preys on those who are sexually innocent – carving the word ‘virgin’ into their flesh having first mutilated (but not sexually molested) them. In a bizarre life-saving twist the resourceful high school kids come up with a solution – a ‘pop your cherry’ ball where the potential victims engage in an organised orgy to rid themselves of life-threatening virginity.
A similar premise was also apparent in Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol’s Blood For Dracula (1974) whereupon Joe Dallesandro’s randy servant takes it upon himself to deflower the local virgins to prevent Dracula from snacking on untainted blood. Indeed the link between the restorative power of virgin blood is crucial to many vampire-based films, and these are the only frequent transgressors to the rule. Then again vampire films rarely stray into slasher territory, having a far more ambiguous relationship with their audience beyond the simple victim/perpetrator voyeurism of the monster/slasher film. Where it is more explicitly unusual is in the breaking of expectations – Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1971) finds the age restoring powers of whores’ blood an inadequate substitute for those of wholesome serving wenches, but despite the "Dracula" title there is little that relates to commonly accepted ideas of movie vampirism. In Jean Rollin’s Requiem for a Vampire (1971) the vampires require virgins to propagate their race and prevent extinction, rather than be victims to insatiable bloodlust (another example of the vampire’s moral ambiguity in film). Our heroines start the film chaste but one gives herself up to a local worker and prevents herself becoming a vampire. A lack of virtue has saved her humanity.
The two films under the helm of Eli Roth both counteract the ‘have sex and die’ condition. In Cabin Fever (2002) the ostensibly good girl is the first to suffer but it is in Hostel (2006) that expectations are really reversed. Roth spends a substantial time building up to Hostel‘s ‘torture for cash’ pay-off, in which our protagonists are shown exploiting Europe for a never-ending hedonistic party of sex and drugs. One of the friends eschews the offers of whores, although eager Eastern European pick-ups are fair game as they are willing and he is a free spirit – his ‘goodness’ comes in comparison to those around him making him the focus as the virtuous character. He’s clearly marked as the survivor of the piece in horror film convention – he is relatively in control, doesn’t share the ideals of exploitation that his travel companions do and appears reasonably level-headed. It’s therefore a shock when he becomes a victim, brutally tortured for nothing more than kicks. Perhaps it’s his innocence that is the film’s Darwinian aim – the prostitutes, the innocents corrupted are all victims. Only the rich and strong, those who act on their own power desires, initially survive. It is the hedonistic companion who is foregrounded into the position of escape and (contrived) retribution, even finding the strength to become a hero… albeit briefly. That these twists in convention occur shouldn’t be a surprise having come across the familiar face of cinema’s bad boy Miike Takashi acting as one of the customers for the service – Miike’s oeuvre has its fair share of innocents corrupted against the odds and the ‘bad’ surviving like a blood-drenched Übermensch.
Innocence is no guarantee of protection but promiscuity is a pretty good ticket to a nasty end. The more commercial end of the horror market (those aimed at teens and trimmed to achieve lower ratings) reinforces reactionary conservative ideals of chastity and law-abiding behaviour even as it revels in the very elements it preaches against. While there are those who use the genre to challenge the nature of human sexuality or attitudes to disease and death (David Cronenberg, for example) these are very much peripheral to commercial concerns. What is interesting about a film like Hostel is that despite protestations as to its underground and subversive nature by its film-makers, it is an inherently commercial movie marketed to the genre’s key demographic. This doesn’t reflect so much a shift in the audiences’ willingness to accept more ambiguous character plotting or left-field ideals any more than the 1970s social horror films in the US – they may have been made as subversive films but they were generally not watched as such. No, the audience shift in favour of more morally ambiguous, nihilistic horror is probably more down to general anxiety and uncertainty that is reflected in viewing habits. Post-Iraq 2 has created an environment where the boundaries between good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable are blurred beyond recognition. Horror films reflect those anxieties in appealing to their core audience. Suddenly the morals of the commercial horror film seem as fragile as the morals of real life.