The slasher movie sub-genre could be considered one of the most controversial sub-genres in cinema. With its stark violence, it’s often the subject of discussions around the effect of slasher films on society at large.
These films burrow into our deepest fears and take hold of the wider imagination. They provide some of cinema’s most iconic moments and some of its most terrifying. And they hold a unique place in their ability to scare and shock.
But how do you write a slasher film? What are the key elements of this notable and unique sub-genre? All slasher films share commonalities and often follow a specific set of rules. In this article, we will focus on the slasher sub-genre as a whole and look at the best way into writing this often controversial but gripping genre.
*This article may contain spoilers.
Table of Contents
- What is a Slasher Movie?
- 13 Key Elements of Slasher Movies
- 10 Great Slasher Movie Examples
- In Conclusion
What is a Slasher Movie?
A slasher movie is a horror sub-genre that involves the murdering of a number of people by a psychopathic killer, typically via a knife or bladed tool (such as a scythe).
But a slasher movie specifically can prey on audiences’ most palpable fears. It boils down the horror genre to simple terms – a crazed killer with a crude weapon on the hunt for blood.
In general, horror intends to leave the audience in a state of unease and trepidation. The genre branches into many different categories. For example, the main sub-genres of the horror genre, along with slashers, include:
- Psychological Horror – Phobias and home invasions e.g. The Purge.
- Paranormal Horror – Supernatural possession e.g. The Haunting in Connecticut.
- Comedy Horror – Black comedy and satire e.g. Get Out.
- Monster Horror – Zombies, mythological creatures, vampires and werewolves e.g. Dawn of the Dead.
- Found Footage – Documentary-style e.g. The Blair Witch Project.
- Body Horror – Body Modifications e.g. American Mary.
Horror movies usually fit into hybrid genres. For example, the Saw franchise can be seen as a slasher-mystery. And most slasher films that feature a masked killer often involve the theme of mystery; where neither the characters nor the audience know the killer’s identity and it’s either kept a mystery or is revealed by the finale.
Whilst there are a number of overlaps between the different horror sub-genres, the slasher movie will contain a number of key and specific elements. Let’s look at what those elements are…
13 Key Elements of Slasher Movies
1. A Psychopathic Killer
The villain is strong and feels impossible to defeat. They will get knocked down and get back up like nothing happened, seeming often to be indestructible.
Villains are often serial killers or mass murderers out to exact revenge upon their prey. They stalk their victims and find pleasure in murdering. Villains often wear masks that characterise them, for example, the Ghostface mask in the Scream franchise.
There often doesn’t seem to be much of a rhyme or reason to the killer’s motivations. Often it will just seemingly be a straightforward bloodlust. And sometimes the pure terror they evoke can be enough to make up for slightly two-dimensional or cartoonish characterisation.
However, the more convincing their motivations, the more believable and consequently terrifying their actions.
2. Killer’s Backstory Revealed
Often slasher movies will show how the villain developed into such a monstrous and destructive force. The more realistic this is the more terrifying it’s likely to be.
- For example, the classic opening of Halloween shows how Michael Myers developed his notorious bloodlust at the age of six.
- While other films, such as Friday the 13th, show the villain’s backstory later on in the film. Here it’s revealed that Jason Vorhees was subjected to bullying from campers that ultimately led to his drowning.
- Sometimes the killer may have a connection with the main character. For example, Ghostface and Sidney Prescott have a close connection in Scream that ties them to each other both in the present and past.
The motivation is often revenge. However, the more complex and nuanced a backstory the more intriguing and original it will become. Revenge is always a powerful motivator. But a more original and believable one is likely to make your story stand out from many other films within the genre.
3. Setting & Location
This could be a cabin in the middle of the woods like Camp Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th. Or it could be a stranded desert like in The Hills Have Eyes.
The setting will often be a creepy and eerie location where the characters cannot find help or be rescued. However, this isn’t always the case.
Halloween, for example, is set in a suburban area where help could be found. Although, the town is quiet and no one seems to come to Laurie’s aid when she knocks on neighbours’ doors. And in many ways, this makes the setting purposeful.
This is the key, allowing the setting to act as an element that furthers the horror. Make sure your setting isn’t incidental but purposeful in what it adds to the story and its tone as well as the plot itself.
4. Set A Time
The antagonist‘s killing spree often takes place over one day or night. Most slasher films are set during the night-time because it adds an extra layer of mystery and tension. Although, for example, a good proportion of Halloween is set during the day, Michael Myers only murders during the night.
The timeframe of the sequence of events is important, as it plays a crucial role in the pacing and tension of the film at large. Typically slasher films will occur over a short timeframe for this reason. The pace has little chance to let up over the course of a night or one day, for example.
5. Weapon of Choice
The antagonist equips themselves with a weapon of choice that is synonymous with their character. Slasher movies have used a variation of weapons, some of which become iconic.
A distinctive weapon of choice helps in making the character themselves distinctive. It gives a shorthand for the film to use and helps the character feel unique where other elements might be more familiar.
6. Multiple Victims
The majority of victims in slasher movies are teenagers. The situations they place themselves in might include parties, vacations or trips. Slasher films have these big distractions to place the characters in more extreme danger. These scenarios gather characters together, making perfect prey for the killer.
And this is why the main characters are often teenagers. There is shorthand here for group vulnerability. Teenagers are both more likely to be spending time together in a group and more likely to be vulnerable as a result. The killer often exploits (knowingly or unknowingly) the fragile dynamics between the different group members.
There need to be these multiple victims as there has to be an escalating level of threat. Typically there will be a main protagonist. And the killer will get closer and closer to the protagonist with each character they kill off. This is the benefit of multiple victims – it’s a way of continually escalating the stakes.
7. Characters Split Up
When there is this group, it must be split up at a certain point. The group separates, which makes them easy targets for the killer. There is too much strength in numbers after all.
Furthermore, the characters will be killed off one by one, rather than together (even if it’s just two characters together). This allows each character to get their own unique and special kind of death. And this helps the movie’s pacing, giving it clear and memorable beats.
A group facing off against a killer together will probably be too singular to remain interesting for the period of an entire film. Therefore, the group, and consequently the plot, must splinter. This allows the story to veer off in different directions, giving it a variety.
8. Stranded Signals
Communication is often disabled or non-existent in slasher movies. The characters are placed in a trap and they aren’t supposed to receive outside help. Mobile phones and communication do not work or are cut off by the killer.
Where the characters are, they might have a low phone battery or poor to little signal, for example. This cuts off the characters’ communication with the rest of the world so they have to face the villain alone. It adds necessary complications to the action. If the characters could call for help to turn up in an instant, for example, then the film would likely be over.
Isolating the characters with the killer heightens and focuses the tension. It makes the characters vulnerable and bolsters the threat posed by the killer.
9. Jump Scares
Jump scares are all about luring and reeling the audience in. The environment feels safe and unassuming. Until the characters are trapped in a corner and the killer is in the shadows waiting to pounce.
Jump scares vary in their use.
- For example, the jump scare might often be obvious and the characters are set up for it.
- However, nothing happens and it’s a fake jump scare.
- Until then, a few moments later, the killer jumps out and attacks them.
- This tricks and shocks the audience further and can evoke real fear and terror.
The jump scare may be somewhat of a cliche. However, it’s very effective at raising the audience’s heart rate. It’s a literal, physical jolt. And this is the power of horror in general. It makes you feel something you are seeing on screen in your physical body.
A cheap jump scare will likely fall flat. But the right jump scare at the right moment can be a great way to get the audience emotionally invested. It sounds obvious but your jump scare should come when the audience will least expect it. This doesn’t mean it can’t be built up to. But it needs to truly surprise the audience, either in its timing or its nature.
10. Illogical Thinking
Characters don’t think logically when in a state of turmoil and shock. At high tension points, characters slow down and their ways of thinking become drastically illogical.
They make decisions that trap themselves into dead ends. This forces them to battle rather than flee. And they go head to head with the villain. Most victims in these situations do not survive.
This is a key way of heightening the tension. Whilst we’re (mostly) on the victims’ side, their actions should become alien to us. This proves the stress of the circumstances.
The characters are buckling under the pressure of the situation and we genuinely question whether they will make it out or not. It places the upper hand with the antagonist, which is inherently terrifying.
11. The Killer Resurrects
The characters believe they have killed the antagonist once and for all. This is until the villain resurrects for one last scare. This is an important moment in conveying believable pacing and stakes. We have to believe that our protagonist might prevail. However, it’s never going to be that easy.
In simple terms, the protagonist gets one over on the antagonist, only for the antagonist to show what they’re really made of. This further corners our protagonist, making the situation feel hopeless.
12. The Final Girl
The final girl is a character that the movie’s point of view follows. She’s usually the protagonist. And as the meaning suggests she is often the only survivor in most slasher movies. This character is more observational and is often smarter than the rest of the characters.
She has a particular set of skills, which ultimately help her survive throughout the movie. Her heart is set on more important things than other characters’ interests. For example, other characters may be interested in partying, while the final girl notices the strange occurrences that others do not.
In the climax of slasher films, the final girl goes head-to-head with the antagonist. Classic examples of final girls include Halloween’s Laurie Strode, Scream’s Sidney Prescott and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson.
It’s a trope that may or may not work for your particular script and one that you may choose to subvert or play with. However, it’s worth thinking about what characteristics the final girl demonstrates that are important for your protagonist in general, whoever they are or whatever their background. For example, the sense that they have something different from the other characters that makes us relate to them is crucial.
13. A Killer Ending
Most great and memorable slasher films leave the ending on a cliffhanger. This makes the audience reeling for more from the killer.
For example, in Wrong Turn, the two remaining survivors believe they have killed the family of cannibals, only for the police to find out the villains are very much alive. This hints they will continue their killing spree in the next instalment.
If the antagonist survives in the ending, it often leads to sequels and franchises. For example, the infamous character resurrections in franchises, such as Michael Myers in Halloween and Jason Vorhees in Friday the 13th.
So it’s always worth suggesting your killer is one that can’t truly be defeated. Not only does it set up the potential for sequels, but it leaves the audience with one last chill.
10 Great Slasher Movie Examples
In this section, we’ll analyse 10 great slasher movie examples according to the criteria of the 13 key elements of slasher movies section seen above. The list is in chronological order.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Movie Summary: A group on a road trip falls prey to a cannibalistic family in a deserted house.
The Slasher Movie Elements in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an indie-slasher hybrid genre movie. Psychopathic killer, Leatherface, is the main antagonist. But the other antagonists include his family members, such as Nubbins Sawyer, who poses as a Hitchhiker, luring the unsuspecting group to the family house.
As the title reveals, the movie is set in Texas, specifically the rural city of Round Rock.
- This makes it a great setting as the roads are deserted and a stranded house in the middle of an eerie country lane traps the characters.
- The movie spans over a day and a half, condensing the action into a tense period.
- The infamous ending scene suggests the main character escaping off into the sunrise.
- Leatherface’s weapon of choice is also revealed in the movie title – the classic chainsaw, while he also dons a black suit and blood-spattered apron.
- Four of the group of five are murdered in this slasher film. Characters are split up during their death scenes and are often deemed missing by the remaining characters.
- No form of communication with the outside world is located until the last scenes of the movie.
- There are multiple jump scares throughout, a particularly popular scare being Kirk’s death, which is Leatherface’s first appearance.
- The final girl, meanwhile, ends up being Marilyn Burns. She eventually escapes but is extremely tormented by the ending.
- The classic ending scene sees Marilyn literally witness Leatherface fade into the distance.
2. Halloween (1978)
Movie Summary: After escaping from a psychiatric hospital, a killer stalks a suburban neighbourhood and haunts a babysitter at night.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Halloween:
John Carpenter’s Halloween is a slasher-mystery hybrid.
- The psychopathic serial killer Michael Myers, also known as ‘The Shape’, torments the small urban town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
- Michael hunts with a kitchen knife, suited in his iconic navy blue all-in-one boiler suit.
- The powerful opening sees six-year-old Myers murder his sister on Halloween night with the camera cleverly positioned behind the mask, in the eyes of the killer.
- Over a single Halloween night, Michael murders five victims all to get closer to Laurie Strode. ‘The Shape’ cuts the phone line, causing Laurie to scream for help. But in the quiet town, no one is of help.
- Multiple jump scares include the iconic wardrobe scene at the climax.
- Myers resurrects after multiple stabs from Laurie. But Final Girl Laurie Strode is helped by Myers’ doctor, Dr. Sam Loomis, to escape his torment.
- Michael is shot five times before he falls over the balcony. When Laurie and Loomis check, Michael is gone, leaving the slasher film on a cliffhanger and setting it up for a sequel.
3. Friday the 13th (1980)
Movie Summary: Young campers are terrorized by a machete-wielding killer with a connection to a tragedy that occurred at the camp site years earlier.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Friday the 13th:
Along with Black Christmas and Halloween, this classic slasher is often referred to as one of the movies which began the slasher movie sub-genre.
- Pamela Vorhees is the psychopathic killer, who terrorises the newest campers as a revenge ploy for the previous campers’ bullying and supposed drowning of her son, Jason Vorhees.
- Friday the 13th arguably has one of the most iconic slasher film settings in the eerie Camp Crystal Lake – cabins surrounded by woods.
- A total of nine victims are taken and it takes place over one and a half days.
- The final girl, Alice Hardy, wakes up in hospital after a nightmare dream of Jason jumping out of the lake and taking Alice underwater with him.
- The characters often split up throughout the film. Furthermore, the majority of characters are slain by the machete and other deaths are more creative, such as Bill and Jack’s death by arrows.
- Multiple jump scares and stranded signals means characters are on their own.
- The slasher movie features a big killer reveal where Pamela explains her reasoning for killing and returns to murder Alice near the lake.
- The killer ending occurs when Jason haunts Alice following his mother’s death.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Movie Summary: Teenagers fall victim to a mind-grabbing villain who haunts their dreams, causing their nightmares to become reality.
The Slasher Movie Elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street:
This indie-slasher has elements of psychological horror with a supernatural villain in psychopathic killer, Freddy Kruger.
- Freddy torments the children of those who bullied him when he was younger and murders four people in a residential area of Ohio.
- His gloved hands with razors as fingers gives a new spin on the concept of a characteristically-driven weapon of choice.
- Characters are alone in their nightmares and are unable to find help when trapped in their dreams.
- The killer resurrection and jump scare come together during the iconic ending scene, where all is presumably safe until the final girl, Nancy Thompson’s mother, is taken by Freddy.
- Her death was foreshadowed earlier in the film as she dies in Nancy’s nightmare.
- Freddy survives leading to a sequel and a huge franchise.
5. Child’s Play (1988)
Movie Summary: A new must-have Christmas toy comes to life and attempts to destroy his owner’s life.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Child’s Play:
“I’ll be your friend to the end.” Child’s Play is a psychological-slasher with its lead psychopathic killer coming in the form of doll Chucky.
- Chucky receives a developed backstory. Criminal, Charles Lee Ray, is on the run from the police when he is shot and his soul restored into a department-store doll. His character lives on there as Chucky.
- Child’s Play is set in a residential area in Chicago.
- It sees four murders, each where the characters are alone.
- Chucky’s weapon of choice is a knife. Moreover, he has the charm to trap characters. Furthermore, because he’s a doll he is around every corner, which means multiple jump scares.
- The killer resurrects when Chucky’s beheaded and burnt body is reanimated and comes back to haunt the characters.
- Child’s Play does not feature a final girl but Andy Barclay is the main survivor and Chucky’s owner.
- The killer ending occurs when Chucky resurrects but is eventually killed. However, Andy looks back and there is a hint that Chucky will return in the end shot.
6. Candyman (1993)
Movie Summary: An urban legend is released into an area of Chicago after saying the name, Candyman, five times in the mirror.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Candyman:
Candyman is a supernatural-slasher is based around an urban legend.
- The psychopathic killer, Daniel Robitaille, better known as Candyman, has a developed backstory. He was murdered by townsfolk in the 19th century, which is seen through flashbacks.
- It’s set largely in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, which gives the film a unique and distinct resonance.
- Candyman’s weapon of choice is a prosthetic hook and an ability to control a group of bees.
- He takes six victims, and the slasher movie contains multiple jump scares.
- In addition, throughout the film, Candyman resurrects and proves the urban legend to be real.
- Although, he dies again in a fire, which final girl Helen Lyle manages to escape. But due to severe burns, she dies at the very end. This is a new twist in the concept of a final girl. However, Helen dies heroically and saves Anthony, a child whose mother died earlier in the movie.
- Although Candyman does not resurrect in the ending, Helen Lyle takes the form of Candyman and resurrects to take her husband, Trevor’s life after he says her name five times in the mirror.
- This proves the urban legend can be reignited and also sets Candyman up for a sequel. Although, Candyman himself returns not in the form of Helen.
- Instead, a reboot of the Candyman (2021) franchise sees the point of view of an older Anthony, now a photographer, who investigates the urban legend, unaware of his connections with the original Candyman.
7. Scream (1996)
Movie Summary: An unknown killer dressed as the grim reaper kills students off one by one, with everyone a suspect.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Scream:
- Ghostface is the psychopathic masked killer armed with a knife, targeting a group of teenagers in Woodsboro.
- The killer’s backstory is well developed and has a particular connection to the main protagonist, Sidney Prescott.
- Jump scares and false tension leads to a big reveal and unmasking of Ghostface in the third act.
- Characters split up and attempt to fight Ghostface alone.
- Similarly to Candyman, Sidney dresses as the grim reaper and resurrects Ghostface.
- Sidney is the ultimate final girl and turns the table on the killers in a triumphant ending.
- The cult classic turned into a franchise, based on an unknown killer haunting Sidney Prescott.
8. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Movie Summary: Teenagers regret the covering up of an accident the previous summer when a revenge-fuelled trawlerman hunts them down.
The Slasher Movie Elements in I Know What You Did Last Summer:
- I Know What You Did Last Summer, set in California is a cult classic where the killer, named The Fisherman, dresses in a fisherman’s outfit with a fisherman’s hook.
- The killer’s history is briefly mentioned, and each character’s death is very memorable.
- There is a concrete backstory and explanation for the killer’s motivations – the accident that occurred the previous summer.
- Final girl Julie James kills The Fisherman along with help from Ray Bronson.
- However, in the final scene, the handwritten message “I Still Know What You Did” is plastered across glass, revealing that the killer is still out there.
- And it sets the slasher film up for a sequel, which is knowingly called, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.
9. Wrong Turn (2003)
Movie Summary: In a deserted wood, a family of cannibals await a group stuck in the middle of the forest.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Wrong Turn:
- This slasher-thriller is similar to The Hills Have Eyes (1977) but set in the woods rather than the desert.
- A family of cannibals are the villains, known as Three Finger, Saw-Tooth and One Eye.
- Each killer has a different weapon of choice. Three Finger is known for his bow and arrow, Saw Tooth carries a saw and One Eye has an axe. But throughout the franchise weapons tend to intersperse.
- Wrong Turn has a higher death toll than most other movies in the slasher sub-genre with nine victims.
- It’s set over a day, going into the next. The volume of death and short time frame raises the tension and stakes significantly.
- The villains are eventually killed in a fire by the final girl, Jessie Burlingame, and the main protagonist, Chris Flynn.
- Multiple jump scares are seen throughout, particularly, at the post-credit scene when Three Finger appears alive and murders an officer, eventually resurrecting into sequels.
10. Happy Death Day (2017)
Movie Summary: A collegian wakes up every day to the same day, her birthday, which also happens to be her death day, as she faces the masked killer in a repetitive cycle.
The Slasher Movie Elements in Happy Death Day:
Happy Death Day is a dark comedy-slasher, which adds a new spin on the slasher movie sub-genre.
- The movie has the same slasher film elements added but within a time-disturbed timeline. This is similar to time-loop movies such as Groundhog Day.
- Tree Gelbman is the final girl and has to unmask her killer before it’s too late.
- Each time Tree wakes up she has to tell her friends the same story and multiple jump scares wake her up out of her dreams.
- The killer resurrects several times throughout the movie.
- When unmasked, the Bayfield Babyface Killer is seen as multiple suspects in the different time dimensions.
- And Tree finds herself stuck in the same time loop again but with a different killer this time in the sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (2019).
Every slasher film follows a pattern and certain elements typically feature within the slasher structure. It’s quite a formulaic genre in this regard, needing specific beats to make the specific elements work.
Location demonstrates this best. The slasher film would not work as well if the characters weren’t isolated with the killer and stranded. That being said, there are many ways to play with the formula of a slasher film. The key parts of it are to make the tension and violence feel palpable. And streamlining the elements into key parts often helps in this regard.
This is where using the above 13 elements as a guide comes in handy. It’s a shorthand for making sure your story is doing the utmost it can to keep the horror high. Slasher movies might seem like they just need a ruthless killer with a sharp weapon. However, it’s clear that there are important beats that make the horror powerful and resonant.
Following these beats will allow the horror to creep out from the page and into the minds and bodies of readers and audiences. This is the key to a great slasher film – creating the sense of tangible terror.
A slasher movie is a horror sub-genre that involves the murdering of a number of people by a psychopathic killer, typically via a knife or bladed tool.
The 13 elements typically included in slasher movies include:
1. A psychopathic killer.
2. A well-developed killer’s backstory.
3. An eerie setting that coincides with the killer’s story and motives.
4. A specific and tense timeframe.
5. The killer’s weapon of choice being distinctive and notable.
6. Multiple victims that fall into the villain’s grasp.
7. Characters splitting up and their deaths being creative and memorable.
8. The characters becoming isolated from each other and the wider world.
9. Multiple jump scares, which place both the characters and audience on edge.
10. Poor decision making from the characters as a result of the pressure on them.
11. The killer resurrecting.
12. A last showdown with the final girl, a popular character trope.
13. A killer ending, where the character(s) leave victorious until the killer is shown to still be alive. Sequels and franchises are often built and developed from the killer’s survival and lust for more blood.
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This article was written by Hannah Taylor and edited by IS Staff.
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