When Stephanie Perkins sat down to write her first horror novel, There’s Someone Inside Your House, she looked somewhere very specific for inspiration: slasher movies. “I loved those movies as a teenager, and they had a huge influence on me,” she says. “There actually aren’t a ton of slashers in novel form, and I learned while trying to write one that there’s a pretty good reason for that: it’s a really visual and auditory medium.”
The book tells the story of a killer in a small Nebraska town who loves a gruesome murder and centers on high school student Makani, who recently moved from Hawaii for a fresh start after a tragic incident. The book has since been turned into a slasher movie itself, which debuted this month on Netflix. There’s Someone Inside Your House is part of a resurgence for the subgenre — earlier this year, Netflix turned a Fear Street trilogy into a summer movie event, and classic franchises like Scream and Halloween are making a comeback — and it’s a great example of how slashers are being updated for modern audiences.
First, the big question: just what is it that makes slashers in particular so enduring? The genre is best exemplified by iconic characters like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, who came into existence in the late ’70s and early ’80s and expanded to classics like Candyman and Child’s Play. For Perkins, what makes slashers work so well, and what has made them popular for so long, is that they’re the most approachable form of horror.
“There’s this catharsis and a space to explore dark ideas,” she explains. “One of the things that I personally get out of the slasher genre is that it typically comes with a good sense of humor, and there’s often a romantic element to it as well. Even if it’s your baseline ‘teen couple having sex.’ Those elements — the humor and the romance — they tend to provide a pretty good balance and make it a good entry point for people who maybe don’t consume a lot of horror. I really feel like slashers are horror-light, and they tend to have a broader audience because of that.”
Henry Gayden, the screenwriter for the film adaptation of There’s Someone Inside Your House, adds that “[t]he other component that makes them endure is the age range of the characters in them. Usually — not always — they’re teenagers. And I think that’s for a reason. The ones that really endure are usually somewhat coming of age stories.”
The trick to making a new one, he says, is finding a hook to set it apart from the many, many blood-soaked slashers from the last few decades. (As part of preparing to adapt the novel, Gayden says he watched 153 different slasher movies for research, from genre-defining titles to more obscure and forgotten fare.) In the case of There’s Someone Inside Your House, there are a few things the movie tries to do differently. One is pulled directly from the source material.
“What really made me want to write a slasher movie was the way Stephanie wrote the book,” he says. “Most slasher movies, with the exception of the big ones — Halloween, Scream — don’t really have memorable characters, don’t really care about emotional investment. What her book brought was that background into a genre that doesn’t usually have feelings.”
This, in turn, connected to the most fun part of the genre: the kills. Gayden was able to not only come up with inventive and gruesome ways for characters to die but also find ways for those deaths to connect to the hidden secrets that caused them to be targeted in the first place. (In an unsettling twist, the movie’s killer wears a 3D printed mask of the impending victim.)
“I wrote the first two set-pieces first because I wanted to figure out the tone and make them scary and funny if I could,” Gayden says of the process for coming up with kills. “I wanted to have something emotional in those two, which is why I brought this idea of not only are you killed by someone, but you’re going to be killed by someone who knows the one thing about you that you don’t want anyone else to know. And when you die, they’re going to tell the world about it. Not only that, they’re wearing your face.”
For the original novel, Perkins had a slightly different mandate for the deaths. “What’s the grossest way that I can do this? That’s what I was genuinely interested in,” she says. “For me, that was the most fun part. It’s like a cartoon level of violence; it’s not something we typically see in the real world. So as someone who watches lots and lots of horror, I really do get — as terrible as it might sound — really excited to see cool deaths.”
One of the great things about horror is how the core element — the scares — often stands the test of time. The classics persist because they still have the ability to frighten, even if they’re lacking in modern special effects. The slasher movie canon is filled with movies that are almost timeless in a strange, blood-soaked way. And Perkins has a theory for why that is.
“We’ve always been afraid of the same things,” she says. “And those are never going to go away. You’ll see things change in the genre, in terms of victimology or how we’re discussing the characters, but if you can scare someone 40 years ago, you can scare them with that same material now.”