Put on a Brave Face: Trauma, Grief, and the Subtle Masks of Female Slashers | Part 2
Put on a Brave Face: Trauma, Grief, and the Subtle Masks of Female Slashers | Part 1
There are major spoilers for April Fool’s Day (1986), Sleepaway Camp (1983), and Happy Birthday to Me (1981) in this article.
April Fool’s Day, Sleepaway Camp, and Happy Birthday to Me prominently feature childhood flashbacks and twist endings, emphasizing the recurring cycle of trauma that molds identity in inevitable yet surprising ways. Each film uses two of the same highly specific and unusual plot devices to explore each killer’s trauma: a freak accident in a body of water that leaves a parent or authority figure dead or disfigured and a case of mistaken identity involving a heretofore unknown sibling. Both plot elements focus on masking identity. The watery accidents are more symbolic, emphasizing the vast difference between what the viewer sees and what lies below the surface, while the ‘mystery sibling’ trope calls literal identity into question by obfuscating the truth behind each film’s slasher kills.
April Fool’s Day adds a layer of artifice on top of both plot elements. The watery accident that sets an ominous tone for her friends’ weekend getaway is, of course, an elaborate prank set up by Muffy to keep her victims on edge. And while her “evil twin” Buffy is a ruse — as discussed in Part One, “Buffy” is just Muffy minus a hairbrush and the latest Vogue — Muffy does in fact have a surprise twin, Skip (Griffin O’Neal), who poses as Muffy’s estranged cousin in order to sell the charade more effectively. Muffy wears masks on top of masks, an act that ironically exposes her for who she really is: a cruel, damaged, and privileged young woman who grew up not being able to trust the people around her.
As flashbacks show, Muffy’s villain origin story, as it were, is a birthday party where she receives a traumatic prank as a gift. Most interestingly, there are no other children at young Muffy’s party. Instead, she is surrounded by wealthy adults who all laugh at her distress. It’s a heartless environment focused only on possessions and appearances, which explains why Muffy grew up to be so callous and finds enjoyment in convincing her friends that they are being murdered one by one with no hope of escape. She even goes so far as to weaponize her friends’ trauma, leaving specific “clues” in each of their bedrooms to remind them of their most painful or embarrassing memories. Though Muffy is the only slasher in this article without an actual body count, she is the one who finds the most pleasure in twisting the knife.
Ann from Happy Birthday to Me also weaponizes trauma, though her motive — good old-fashioned revenge — is more straightforward and typical for a slasher than Muffy’s high-concept “unethical test run for a bed and breakfast” motive. Ann stalks Ginny and slips into her identity, murdering friends and loved ones while wearing a perfect replica of Ginny’s face. Ginny suffered from a traumatic brain injury in the watery car accident that killed her mother, and Ann takes advantage of Ginny’s subsequent memory loss to convince her that the bloody corpses that keep popping up around her are due to Ginny’s latent homicidal tendencies. It’s an insidious form of gaslighting whereby Ann exploits Ginny’s disability.
The simmering resentment and hatred from their curdled blood relation (Ann is Ginny’s secret half-sister) boil over in a macabre and sinister tableau as Ann recounts her own trauma. Ann’s parents divorced because of the affair her father was having with Ginny’s mother, and Ann reveals the decomposing party guests at Ginny’s birthday party — including her mother’s desiccated corpse — as punishment for Ginny’s existence. Ann sees Ginny’s identity itself as an act that deserves retribution, so she adopts it in order to destroy it and thus destroy her own trauma in the process.
Angela from Sleepaway Camp sees her trauma compounded many times over. She loses her father in the grisliest and most bizarre of all the accidents featured in these films, and then she is forced to live as a different gender, thereby serving as her own “mystery sibling” in order to suit the whims of her Aunt Martha, whose complete lack of familiarity with reality makes the viewer wonder what it was like growing up in her house. Angela is then bullied relentlessly for her trauma response. For the first third of the film, she is completely shut down, never speaking, or showing any emotion, and the other campers torment her for it.
Though Sleepaway Camp’s twist ending is the most notorious of the films discussed here, Angela’s motives are far and away the most sympathetic. Whereas Muffy uses her privilege to torture people for fun and Ann completely ruins the life of the person who had nothing to do with her own misfortune, Angela punishes people who actually deserve what’s coming to them. Her attacks are brutal, but the viewer can’t help but cheer at her kills because the “victims” are even more brutal.
The recurring themes of trauma and family dysfunction in these films go hand in hand with the undercurrent of the unknown. The misdirection in each film highlights just how misunderstood each killer is. Unlike their male slasher counterparts, Muffy, Ann, and Angela don’t have effaced or disfigured visages; their masks are far more subtle. They don’t hide their identities in the same way as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees because these women are already ignored and misunderstood by their friends and loved ones. They keep secrets due to their traumatic childhoods, and those secrets metastasize into cruel acts of deception and bloody killing sprees. A pretty, feminine face allows them to go about their grisly business unsuspected. It also allows them to fully become their true selves at the end of each film: Muffy grins breathlessly as she runs down her business plan with excitement and without remorse; Ann tears off her Ginny mask, viciously laying out her plan for her “dear little sister”; Angela snarls as she stands over the body of a boy who wouldn’t respect her bodily autonomy. Whether villain or antihero, these female slashers drop their masks, both figurative and literal, and revel in the carnage they’ve wrought. 🩸
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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