Most horror fans know the slasher rules. Don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex…be a good girl. Follow the rules of propriety and you’ll be safe. The slasher rules — established by countless films in the 1970s and 1980s and entered into pop culture parlance by Scream in 1996 — bear an uncanny resemblance to the rules for women prescribed by rape culture. When a woman says that she was sexually assaulted, too often people inundate her with victim-blaming questions about her own behaviour: “What were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Were you flirting or leading him on? You must have been asking for it.” No gender is safe from sexual assault, of course. However, victims are almost always referred to using she/her pronouns because rape culture seeks to enforce the gender binary and use it to oppress people who present as female. If a character follows the rules in a movie, she lives. If a woman follows the rules in real life, rape apologists argue, she avoids becoming a victim.
The 1979 supernatural slasher film Tourist Trap puts the lie to this formula that implies that women can escape the dangers of rape culture by following misogynistic and repressive rules. The film’s Final Girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones) embodies ideals of modesty and demure politeness almost to the point of parody, but she doesn’t survive unscathed. The threat of sexual assault looms constantly over the characters, but as the film proves, sexual violence is never about what the victim said or did or wore; it’s always about the abuser’s appetite for power and destruction. Through Molly’s ordeal, Tourist Trap shows that no woman is safe in a world where men see female bodies as theirs for the taking.
Tourist Trap initially seems to follow the standard slasher formula. A group of young people on a road trip happen upon a creepy wax museum and disappear one by one until only a single woman remains. However, the plot adds a bizarre and terrifying supernatural element that underscores the killer’s desire to control and dismantle women. Slausen (Chuck Connors), the museum proprietor who has telekinetic powers and (surprise!) turns out to be the killer, owns a nearby house that is filled with mannequins. The vast majority of them are nude female bodies, and the film reveals that Slausen has been transforming his victims into these mannequins, tearing away their identities and using their bodies for his own pleasure. Disembodied heads and appendages are strewn about the property, showing that Slausen doesn’t see these women as people; they are merely collections of body parts to him.
There’s a strong emphasis on female appearance throughout the movie, and Tourist Trap immediately establishes a stark visual distinction between Molly and her friends Eileen (Robin Sherwood) and Becky (Tanya Roberts). Eileen and Becky are both brunettes with loose, flowing hair and revealing clothing: Eileen wears a bathing suit, Becky wears a halter top, and both women wear short denim shorts. Eileen even has red heart-shaped sunglasses, a wry nod to Lolita and its exploration of the victim-blaming that abusers and society participate in when they think a woman or a girl is too seductive for her own good. Molly, on the other hand, is coded as innocent and virginal: she wears a white dress that covers most of her body and has her blonde hair in girlish pigtails. The viewer knows immediately, both as a horror consumer and as a member of a patriarchal society, which women are “good” and which are “bad.” Just as quickly as the film establishes the women’s morality in the eyes of society, however, it lets the viewer know that none of it matters because they are all in danger.
Slausen first appears when the women are skinny dipping in the pond behind his museum. He approaches the nude, vulnerable women with a smug grin and a shotgun in his hands. Immediately there is a clear power difference that hints at sexual violence, and the looming threat of rape becomes even more obvious in later scenes. Slausen has a basement where he keeps his victims alive for a time before killing them and turning them into mannequins. When he leans over to kiss Tina (Dawn Jeffory-Nelson), a victim who has been held captive for a while, she says, “No, please, not again!” The desperation and sorrow in her voice and her panicked physical repulsion let the viewer know that Slausen has raped Tina before. He kills her soon after this perceived rejection, punishing her for trying to assert her own bodily autonomy. Later, when Molly is the only one left and Slausen has control of her as well, he tells her how important it is for her to comply with his demands: “I can do anything I want with you.” He wants her to know how powerless she is, and he wants to be thanked for not brutalising her even though he has the ability to do so. This is rape culture at its most insidious: a woman is expected to do what a man wants of her and be grateful that her sexual assault is not as physically violent as it could have been.
Slausen acknowledges Molly as the Final Girl, telling her that she’s “special” and “not like the others,” but he also tells her that she’ll have to suffer the same fate as every other woman who has fallen into his trap. Molly has tried to follow the rules that dictate how to be a “good girl” and yet they have done nothing to save her. Slausen continues to shift blame onto his victims, claiming “I couldn’t control myself” when he confesses to murdering his wife for “whoring” behind his back. When Slausen is disguised, wearing a mannequin-like mask to hide his face, he mutters to himself continually about the “pretty girls” who surround him. It’s not his fault that he rapes and murders women, Slausen argues; it’s their fault for being so pretty in the first place and for refusing to live by his rules. Rape culture is abject dehumanisation: social dynamics are always framed in such a way that victims are responsible for abusers’ actions by virtue of existing as objects of temptation.
Slausen’s telekinesis is a vital aspect of the film. From a plot standpoint, it allows Tourist Trap to explore the Uncanny Valley in a highly disturbing way. Slausen can make the mannequins move and even speak when he wants them to, so the eerily soulless female bodies frequently sigh and moan in an unnerving chorus as they witness his violence against the living women. From a thematic perspective, it’s important that the victims are so unfairly outmatched. No matter which way Molly turns to escape, Slausen can block her with nothing more than a thought. Her situation is hopeless because Slausen has all the power. He is a living embodiment of rape culture, because at its core this hideous system of oppression is all about power: who determines the rules, who controls the societal narrative, and — as seen by his justification of his wife’s murder — who is allowed to define justice.
This hidden telekinetic power also reinforces something that Molly has to learn: men you thought you could trust can be the most dangerous of all. Slausen’s power is such that you never actually see him using it; objects around him move seemingly of their own accord, so Slausen can brag about his power or feign innocence depending on the situation. Up until the end of the film, he’s always masked when he’s committing acts of violence, so the characters don’t know it’s him until it’s too late. Even though rape culture permeates our daily lives, it still lives in the shadows, hiding behind masks and shifting blame to make sure victims like Molly and her friends remain powerless.
Slausen’s true disguise is when he presents himself without a mask over his face. He pretends to be a chivalrous and well-meaning older gentleman who just cares about keeping the women safe. Though Eileen and Becky are suspicious of him and his folksy paternalism, Molly trusts him completely and even pities him as a lonely widower. She continues to show deference to him even after she sees him for what he is: when he assaults her, she tries to fight him off and tell him no but she still calls him “Mr. Slausen.” It’s only when Slausen lets the mask drop completely, laughing derisively about the deaths of her friends, that Molly realises that no one else is coming to save her and gets angry enough to take matters into her own hands. In the chilling finale, Molly murders Slausen with an axe and escapes with her friends’ bodies.
Molly is not the perfect Final Girl because she doesn’t live in a perfect world. She can come across as ineffectual and naïve in the film, with her insistence on abiding by Slausen’s rules and her frequent inability to do anything other than scream for help. But Molly is only operating within the confines of a society that has told her that this is how nice girls are supposed to act. She’s following the script that rape culture provided her in the hopes that it will protect her. When that illusion is shattered and Molly sees it for the damaging lie that it is, she becomes a different person. She literally reclaims her friends’ bodies from their abuser, putting their mannequins in a car and speeding away in deranged triumph. The crazed look in her eyes as she escapes shows that Molly has been changed forever by her ordeal. She knows now that there are no “good girls” and “bad girls”; there are only women who suffer under societal norms designed to keep them subservient to men. Molly sees the masks for what they are and recognises the lies that she has been taught. No person is safe when sexual violence is normalised and women are burdened with the task of preventing their own rapes. In learning to fight that normalisation, Molly reclaims her power and her friends’ bodies from a system designed to destroy them.
by Jessica Scott
Jessica Scott (she/her) is an Arkansas-based writer and lover of all things horror. She enjoys dogs, fiber crafts, comic books, roller derby, and haunted house fiction. You can find her at WeWhoWalkHere.blog or stalking the dollar store for Halloween decor.