Written in the Stars: Astrology and Fatalism in Proto-Slashers
Slasher films usually follow a familiar formula: a relentless killer stalks a group of people (often, but not always, nubile young women) and murders them one by one. In the most enduring slasher films and franchises, these killers are inexorable forces of destruction, preternatural executioners who kill everyone in their path save the fabled Final Girl. If you aren’t lucky enough to be the chosen one, your doom is all but guaranteed. You are, simply put, fated to die. Two influential films that predate the slasher boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s explore this notion of fate by incorporating astrology into their stories, paving the way for future slashers that accept a series of grisly deaths as a predetermined path and treat their killers as menacing agents of destiny.
After its ominous opening narration and chilling audio of news reports, which dispassionately emphasize how unavoidable the horrific circumstances of the film are, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) opens with dialogue about heavenly bodies and the power they have to predict or control human destiny. Franklin (Paul A. Partain) complains about the heat, underscoring the brutal and omnipresent effects of the sun, as Pam (Teri McMinn) reads from her book of astrology. She discusses the “malefic” influence of the planets at that very point in time. Later, Pam reads the bitterly ironic horoscopes that foreshadow the horrors that Franklin and his sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) will face at the hands of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic family.
Franklin’s fate involves “travel in the country, long-range plans, and upsetting persons” that will “make this a disturbing and unpredictable day.” Franklin is marked for death after he is stabbed by a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) while traveling through the country. The hitchhiker smears a symbol in blood on the van, prompting Sally’s boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) to remark that it’s “the mark of Zorro,” which signifies that the hitchhiker is going to kill Franklin. Though it is the hitchhiker’s brother Leatherface who actually kills Franklin, he does indeed slice him up in a back-and-forth Z movement with his chainsaw, fulfilling Franklin’s horoscope and validating Jerry’s facetious interpretation of the very serious omen scrawled in blood.
Sally’s horoscope, which is ruled by the “evil” Saturn, is similarly fulfilled: “There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is.” As one of the first Final Girls in horror history, Sally survives, but she loses her sanity in the process. She struggles to come to terms with the horrific trauma she experiences; she cannot believe that her captors want to murder her and eat her, but she must accept her fate so that she can face it head-on and survive.
Further underscoring the sinister inevitability of fate, director Tobe Hooper focuses on the heavens and their malefic bodies throughout the film. Low-angle shots repeatedly frame the characters under the baleful gaze of the sun, emphasizing the small movements of humanity in juxtaposition with the steady vastness of the sky. Our actions mean nothing in the grand scheme of things because our destruction has already been foretold. The film’s point of view is voyeuristic and unflinching. Static, wide-angle shots frequently show the characters being observed from afar. Often it feels less like the cannibalistic killers are watching Sally and her friends and more like the stars themselves are watching, staring with evil intent as the predestined events unfold.
This emphasis on fatalism, on the inevitable and inescapable nature of our own demise, has its roots in proto-slashers going as far back as the pre-Code days. The plot of Thirteen Women (1932) focuses on horoscopes, but it approaches astrology from a different vantage point than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ursula (Myrna Loy) sends fake horoscopes to her former school bullies in order to goad them into ruining their own lives, usually by committing suicide or murdering a loved one and being sent to jail or a mental institution. Though Ursula intervenes in fate’s path, employing psychological warfare and the power of suggestion rather than physical violence to circumvent the happier, real horoscopes that her victims were meant to receive, she ultimately proves the inevitability of fate when her death becomes the only real horoscope to come true.
While the film often suggests that it is coercive psychology rather than the will of the stars that destroys the lives of Ursula’s victims, it still brings up interesting questions about fate. Is a self-fulfilling prophecy not still a prophecy? The women who receive the horoscopes predicting doom and misery become ruled by fear, and what is a killer in a slasher film if not weaponized fear? Ursula doesn’t kill with a knife or a chainsaw; her mission of revenge depends on her victims’ belief in astrology, and she uses that belief to fulfill “one chain of destiny.” She methodically crosses victims off her list as they succumb to the fates that they believe are unavoidable. Ursula herself expresses skepticism in the horoscopes, but by fulfilling her own horoscope in the finale, she proves that fate cannot be denied.
This phenomenon of incorporating astrology and fatalism into the subgenre was so well-established by 1982 that the slasher satire The Slumber Party Massacre used it as a morbid joke to predict the deaths of two of its characters. A group of high school girls has the titular slumber party, where Jackie (Andree Honoré) reads the horoscopes for Kim (Debra Deliso) and Diane (Gina Mari). Kim, whose bloody corpse is later seen hanging lazily out of a refrigerator, gets this horoscope: “You’ll get the rest you deserve. Relax and enjoy it.” Diane, who will later discover her boyfriend’s decapitated body in the garage just before she becomes the victim of the driller killer herself, gets this pun-filled horoscope: “Your power with the opposite sex will get you ahead.” Their deaths are foretold by the stars just like the characters in the proto-slashers discussed above, though in this case, the malefic heavenly bodies have a more pronounced sense of humor about things.
Despite the ironic humor in both The Slumber Party Massacre and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, slasher films are terrifying because they depict the fragility of the human body. Our flesh is easily destroyed by knives, drills, machetes, and any other weapon the relentless slashers use to rip apart their victims. What is even more terrifying, however, is the fragility of our place in the universe. If our destruction is assured — whether that destruction means death for the majority of us or a loss of sanity or security for the “lucky” Final Girl — then life itself is inherently a horror story. There is no way to fight our fate, and the use of fatalistic astrology in proto-slashers Thirteen Women and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves that the scariest thing in the world is the certainty that relentless, implacable doom is coming for us all. 🩸
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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