Last week, we briefly touched on murder ballads: the beautiful folk song tradition that celebrates murder, darkness, and the dire consequences of bloody actions. Even if you’re not familiar with the term or the genre as defined by the nerds and weirdos who study music, you’ve heard these songs. “Long Black Veil” (hell, 90% of Johnny Cash’s catalog), “Frankie and Johnny,” “Pretty Polly,” “Down in the Willow Garden,” the list is vast and the subject matter pretty uniform.
In both subject matter and (if you’ll pardon the pun) execution, murder ballads have a lot in common with slasher films. In either, the first act is spent establishing a sense of dread, desire, and violence swirling around the victim, who is inevitably a young, desirable woman. In act two, the violence is visited upon her, taking away whatever limited characterization or individuality she may have – that which makes her a her – and rendering her an object of the plot, a corpse, a puzzle/mystery – she becomes, in a sense, an it. In act three, we see the consequences of this terrible violence visited upon the murderer. We now see the aftermath and comeuppance presented from the perspective of the murderer upon whom revenge is visited (of course, in the case of a slasher movie, we are also treated to a confrontation between the killer and a “final girl” – this, and the number of victims are primary differences between the murder ballad and the slasher film). The killer (if human) may regret what he has done or feel that some devil made him do it, but this regret is always anchored in his suffering, not that of his dehumanized, fetishized victim.
My use of gendered pronouns above is deliberate. In virtually every example that comes to us from posterity, murder ballads present a story of male lust, aggression, and violence and female victimhood. If the victim in a murder ballad has any sort of characterization attached to her, it invariably concerns her beauty and physical desirability, further rendering her a ghost-in-waiting, a phantom nonentity defined only by the actions of brutes and monsters. Slasher films and murder ballads both treat their victims as collateral to the story, “people” only inasmuch as their choices and actions drive the plot: “Don’t go in that room, you fool!”/ “Don’t go into the woods with Red Jack you fool!”
Likewise, the more morbid slasher films and murder ballads go one step further than this and emphasize the beauty and desirability of the corpse left behind by the victim, in a sense carrying the male gaze over the river Styx and into the kingdom of the dead – an impressive achievement in both lust and greed. And if the “beautiful corpse” aspect of murder balladry and slasher flicks doesn’t nail home what amounts to my biggest problem with both, I’m not sure what does.
The problem with slasher films and murder ballads, in this sense, is that they are tremendously misogynistic. A postmodern reframe may salvage both (time will tell), but in each case the form of the thing itself is the problem. Murder ballads, in particular, are powered by a twin engine system. One engine is comprised of male lust and violence and the other of female beauty and victimhood. Without one or the other, the ballad doesn’t go anywhere – and that’s a problem. A format that relies on specifically-gendered female suffering to prosper is, to put it bluntly, a bad format.
There is hope, tough. Murder ballads as a genre might be salvaged by a re-examination of their fundamental assumptions and narratives and a deliberate subversion of those assumptions. The good news is that this is already in progress, and the even better news is that the music that has come out of these experiments is really damned good. For examples of this new take on an old form, check out the Bridge City Sinners’ “Virgin Sacrifice” (in fact, check out anything they’ve done because they are ridiculously good) or Cousin Boneless’ “Devil’s Will.” There’s plenty of blood and madness in these new versions of the murder ballad, but it tends to be less explicitly gendered and more literary and sinister.
I love murder ballads and I love slasher films. Appreciating both forms as a mature human being, however, requires acknowledging their shortcomings, one of which – -the single biggest one of which, I would argue – is misogyny. The good news is that the art we love will always be with us from the past, but a new generation of artists are building upon this foundation in a way that is more rich, varied, and inclusive. That hasn’t defanged (and won’t defang) these art forms; it has instead made them richer and better.