Horror Lexicon #15: The Organizing Principle

I wrote about this genre convention extensively in my reference book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007; McFarland) but if you seek to create a horror film in the slasher milieu, your first step must be to determine an organizing principle.

The organizing principle is a facet beyond mere setting or location.  It provides a horror film with a series of connected leitmotifs, and therefore a sense of unity.  In other words, the organizing principle is a film’s central idea, transmitted or expressed across creative factors such as setting, motive, and even characterization.

I utilized this example in the book, but it illuminate what I mean when I discuss the organizing principle.  Imagine that a producer seeks to create a knife-kill film titled The Librarian.  The organizing principle is therefore a character of a certain vocation, as the title indicates. That vocation lands that character in a specific place (a public library), and determines exploitable elements in the story: a card-catalog, a drop-off box, a study room, the long, dark aisles filled with books, and so on.  A decapitated head might be discovered in the drop-off box at a climactic moment, the key to the killer’s identity might be discovered in the card catalog, and the last-act chase of the final girl (a grad student) could occur in a labyrinth of book rows.  The crime causing the murders could be a defaced library book, or a book that was returned late.

See how the library provides more than one element of the film’s creative gestalt?  It grants you a lead character (a book-smart college student, let’s say), a villain (a psycho librarian), and a story (a crime in the past causing a murder spree in the present).  It might even provide specific weapons (like a heavy book, for instance, wielded at a crucial juncture).  
So the organizing principle is the very thing the slasher film hangs its (blood-soaked) hooks upon.  It is the key to motivation, setting, slasher and more.  

Let’s consider Terror Train (1980) in terms of the organizing principle.  In this film, the organizing principle is not the train, as one might suspect, but rather magic, or illusion.  Master-magician David Copperfield appears in the film as a red herring (a distraction in terms of determining the identity of the killer), and a magic show occurs on the train at one point.  Finally, the revelation of the killer’s identity depends on illusion-versus-reality. Do you trust your eyes, or are they tricking you?

In virtually every slasher production you can name, the organizing principle determines virtually every ingredient the movie will require to succeed; a whole world of connections upon which to hang the narrative.  This is so important, I submit, because the slasher format is episodic by nature.  The narrative in most of these films consists of a series of stitched-together, almost complete-unto-themselves short films in which a victim is stalked and murdered.  When one victim dies, you rinse and repeat…and move to the next set-piece until, finally, the killer is destroyed.  The organizing principle unifies all these episodes and gives them consistency of setting, location, motivation and victim.
Below is a chart slightly modified from the one I used in Horror Films of the 1980s.  It illustrates the organizing principle’s usefulness in making coherent all the creative elements of a slasher movie.  I added two 1990s examples to the chart to show how, even after the 1980s, the organizing principle was utilized to make the format work.

Movie Title
Organizing Principle
Crime in the Past
Victim Pool
Friday the 13th
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Camp counselors.
He Knows You’re alone
Dress shop, bride’s home, chapel
Bride jilts fiancé.
The wedding party, dress tailor…
Night School
Classrooms, dean’s home
Students, dean of college, professors.
Prom Night
Prom night
High school
Accident caused by classmates as children
Prom goers who as children participated in accident.
The Dorm that Dripped Blood
College campus
College campus (cafeterias, dorms, basement, etc.)
Unpopularity with fellow students
College students
Final Exam
Exam Week
College campus, et.
College students
Friday the 13th Part II
Summer Camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Murder of Mrs. Voorhees
Camp counselors
Graduation Day
Track Team
Track field, high school, locker room, prom
Death of a young track student
Track coach, track team members
Happy Birthday to Me
Birthday parties
College, birthday party
Family break-up on birthday
Birthday party invitees
The Prowler
Jilted Lover
School dance
Dear John Letter
Young lovers at a dance
The Burning
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods, island
An accidental burning
Campers, counselors
Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber party
High school, slumber party location, the house next door
Slumber party attendees
A casting retreat weekend
Losing an important role
Young ingénues; older actress, director
Sleepaway Camp
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Twisted sex role
Camp employees, campers
The Initiation
Sorority house, campus
Witnessing of burning and infidelity
Pledges, sorority girls, frat boys
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Toy store at Christmas, Christmas eve
Santa Claus kills parents
Naughty teens.
Terror at Tenkiller
Summer vacation at a lake
Cabin, lake, local diner
Horror movies
Video store, high school, movie party
Marital infidelity
Movie-loving teenagers
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Fishing community
Fishing boat, fishery, local store, fishing holiday pageant
Teens of the fishing community trying to make good and leave hometown.


2 responses to “Horror Lexicon #15: The Organizing Principle

  1. This is interesting, John, and it's amusing to see them all together in one chart like this! One Millennium devotee to another, I have to ask: Do you suppose there is a single organizing principle that unifies "Thirteen Years Later"? If so, could that organizing principle be, er, slasher films dictated by organizing principles? (How metatextual!)

  2. Hi Brian,It is kind of funny to see the building blocks of the slasher film exposed in a chart such as this, isn't it? You're right about Millennium's "Thirteen Years Later, the organizing principle is slasher film organizing principles. Meta-textual is right! Great comment,best,John

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