Put on a Brave Face: Trauma, Grief, and the Subtle Masks of Female Slashers | Part 1
When you think of an ’80s slasher, you probably picture a man with a mask and/or a scarred face. In addition to the big three — Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers — you have Cropsy from The Burning, The Miner from My Bloody Valentine, and the title character from The Prowler, just to name a few. When women kill in slasher films, though, they are often beautiful young women who go about their bloody business mask-free…or with a more subtle kind of mask. Rather than erasing their humanity with a featureless facial covering or emphasizing the “monstrousness” of their extensive burns and scars like their male counterparts, female slashers often opt for the innocence of a young, attractive, and familiar face.
The three films discussed here, April Fool’s Day, Sleepaway Camp, and Happy Birthday to Me, have a large number of commonalities: they explore gender, sexuality, trauma, class, and family dysfunction using strikingly similar plot elements while still telling their own distinctive stories. But one of the most intriguing things these films share in common is a female killer who experiments with identity in ways wholly unique from the more famous men of the genre.
Misdirection is a key component in a whodunit slasher story, and all three films play with identity to service their whodunit plots. In April Fool’s Day, Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) is a wealthy college student who invites her friends to her island home for an April Fool’s weekend in order to play elaborate pranks on them, going so far as to convince them that she has an “unstable and extremely dangerous” twin who is picking off her friends one by one in a bloody killing spree. Muffy dresses as her fictional twin, changing out of her expensive, stylish clothes in favor of frizzy, unkempt hair and frumpy, ill-fitting clothing. She changes her posture, gait, and vocal inflections to sell the illusion; though she has made no changes to her face, she still wears a mask by pretending to have an undefined mental illness and signaling subtle class distinctions in her cheap, unfashionable clothes and unpolished mannerisms.
Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) from Sleepaway Camp knows all about working to present herself in a specific way. The infamous twist ending — which reveals that Angela was born Peter but raised as a girl by her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) because it “simply won’t do” to have another boy in the house — is problematic but often reclaimed by trans viewers. Though of course, no trans person owes anyone an explanation of their gender, Angela does her best to hide the fact that she is not a cis girl. She masks her transness to try and fit in with the other kids at her summer camp and to deflect attention from herself as the slasher who has been dispatching bullies. For the first third of the movie, she does not speak or show any emotion on her face; though she wears nothing to cover her face, she is still wearing a blank mask to obfuscate her identity.
Happy Birthday to Me is the only film of the three to use a literal mask for its killer. Interestingly, that mask is a perfect recreation of the protagonist’s face. Ginny Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) is framed for several murders by her secret half-sister Ann Thomerson (Tracey Bregman) as an act of revenge for Ginny’s mother breaking up the marriage of Ann’s parents. It’s an intriguing way for the film to straddle the line between the typical male slasher — a killer in a mask hellbent on revenge — and the female slasher who uses her natural, unassuming beauty to evade suspicion and appear non-threatening. Characters repeatedly tell Ann-as-Ginny, “Oh, it’s you,” expressing relief just before they are gruesomely murdered. This exact phrase is also used in Sleepaway Camp to emphasize just how little these female slashers are seen as dangerous. Ann and Ginny’s identities are inextricably linked, no matter how much they wish that weren’t true; they are related by blood, so rather than killing anonymously, Ann adopts Ginny’s identity in order to destroy it and thus destroy their familial bonds.
Class plays a large role in each slasher’s act of masking. In Sleepaway Camp, Angela’s “secret” is protected due in large part to Aunt Martha’s resources; as a doctor, she can sign medical paperwork and obviate a troublesome physical that would reveal Angela’s anatomy. In April Fool’s Day, Muffy is incredibly wealthy; the island mansion where she holds her cruel, prank-filled weekend will soon belong to her, but it is only the first stage of her inheritance. She lures her victims with the promise of a luxurious weekend at a posh home, and then she plays-acts as a less privileged person in order to convince her friends that they’re in danger. She even commissions a make-up artist to help sell her deceit, planting highly realistic fake corpses in strategic locations to traumatize her friends as much as possible. One of April Fool’s Day’s most satisfying accomplishments is its scathing indictment of the callous upper class, and Happy Birthday to Me is similarly concerned with class privilege. Ginny and her friends are extremely wealthy, but Ginny’s mother came from the wrong side of the tracks and got paid off by Ginny’s father to keep her daughter’s true parentage a secret. The ability of the wealthy to bury secrets and take advantage of poorer people results in trauma that carries long-lasting repercussions, and all three films concern themselves above all with childhood trauma that results from class issues, grief, and dysfunctional families.
Each film explores that trauma in ways unique to its female killers and their methods of masking. In Part 2 of this essay, we will examine how that trauma arises and how it is weaponized. 🩸
Jessica Scott is a freelance writer with published work at Daily Grindhouse, Film Cred, Nightmarish Conjurings, Ghouls Magazine, Grim, and many other publications. She is a content editor at Film Cred as well as a cosplayer and a podcaster. Follow her on Twitter @WeWhoWalkHere.
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