Slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Halloween have spawned numerous sequels, remakes, video games, imitations, and parodies—and they’ve also unleashed a whole of host of slasher slang. Here are eight of the most definitive in slasher movie history.
We know slasher movies as those that involve a killer, often masked, that murders his victims with some kind of blade (or perhaps a chainsaw). However, in the early-to-mid 1970s (and before the release of Halloween and Friday the 13th), slasher was synonymous with snuff, a disturbing film “genre” that involved the actual killing of a woman.
But whether snuff movies actually exist is questionable. In his 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, author Ed Sanders says that Manson wanted to make a movie called "Easy Snuff" that would involve an actual murder. However, since then, the existence of snuff movies has only been rumor.
When we hear psycho, we probably think of someone like Norman Bates. But when the word first originated in 1914, it was shorthand for all things psychology and psychiatry, including psychopathic behavior. It was in early 1919 that the word came to refer specifically to someone who behaved in deranged way—in other words, like a psychopath. By 1945, the word had also gained its adjectival form.
Many think of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film as the first slasher movie, or at least a very strong influence. Either way, you probably can't hear screeching violins without thinking of Janet Leigh meeting her unfortunate end in the shower.
The Italian giallo movies of the 1960s and '70s also had a big impact on American slashers. A suspense genre in general, giallo translates as "yellow" and is named for the bright yellow covers of popular mystery novels published in Italy beginning in the late 1920s. (The American equivalent of such novels are pulps, named for the cheap pulp paper they were printed on.)
Sometimes called spaghetti slashers (playing off spaghetti western), gialli often feature gratuitous sex and violence. Perhaps one of the more slasher-esque is Blood and Black Lace, in which a masked murderer picks off models, one by scantily-clad one.
4. Lewton Bus
You know the scene: the heroine has entered a darkened room where the killer might lie in wait. Improvised weapon raised, she carefully, quietly creeps in when—SCREECH! YOWL! "OH MY GOD, WHAT—" ... Phew, just a cat.
The Lewton bus is named for filmmaker Val Lewton, who used a hissing yet harmless bus to startle his heroine—and the audience—in his 1942 film, Cat People (although some say it was actually film editor Mark Robson who invented the technique). While the method didn't debut in a slasher movie, the Lewton bus, also called the cat scare, has been used—or overused—in many since.
This same Cat People scene, by the way, also features the Lewton walk, in which the heroine suspects she’s being followed when she hears footsteps behind her that stop when she stops, and speed up when she hurries. This technique was hilariously parodied in Bowfinger.
The splatter film is the slasher’s gorier cousin. While 1970s movies The Wizard of Gore and The Last House on the Left are considered part of this gruesome genre, the term splatter film didn’t originate until about 1980. Because of the graphic and sensationalist nature of the genre, splatter films are also referred to as gorno, a blend of gore and porno, as well as torture porn, especially when referring to movies like Saw, Hostel, and Audition.
Splatter films also share qualities with shocksploitation movies, which explore “taboo” subjects for pure shock value. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a prime example.
6. Video Nasty
In early 1980s Great Britain, a “moral watchdog” called the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association coined the phrase video nasty to describe what they considered particularly offensive horror movies.
Such movies were distributed on videotape and had never been released in theaters. The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association blamed such videos for violent crimes. Now video nasty seems to mean any negative or disturbing video.
7. Final Girl
Final girl refers to the last female survivor in a slasher pic, like Laurie in Halloween, Alice in Friday the 13th, Sidney in Scream, and many others.
The term was coined by American film professor Carol J. Clover in her 1993 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Since the mid-1970s, Clover says, the last survivor in slasher films has been female. She is often virginal, or at least unavailable, following the first “rule” of surviving a horror movie, at least according to Randy in Scream. She’s paranoid yet resourceful, and she puts off the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer may be considered a send-up of the final girl trope. The TV show is full of "final girls" who survive to kill the killers, and who even after being killed (twice!) refuse to die.
8. Scream Queen
A scream queen is an actress who has appeared in a number of horror movies, such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp of, respectively, the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
The term scream queen may have originated with the 1978 book, Scream Queens: Heroines of the Horrors by Calvin Thomas Beck. Beck published a horror film magazine called Castle of Frankenstein from 1962 to 1975, and may have been novelist Robert Bloch's partial inspiration for Norman Bates (the other part being serial killer Ed Gein). Beck apparently had a domineering mother who followed him everywhere, including his college classes. Bloch's novel, of course, became a very famous movie starring one of the original scream queens, Janet Leigh, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis (who appeared on the TV show Scream Queens).
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.