I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

What Makes a Man Start Fires: 1980s American Culture and The Burning

by Caryn Coleman
Oct. 23, 2011
Through the lens of a campfire horror tale, Tony Maylam’s slasher classic The Burning (1981) begins with a prank gone wrong and ends with a series of revengeful murders. Gleaning from a culturally volatile period in America history, The Burning visually manifests displaced youth in the most gratuitous manner. It perpetuates, capitalizes, and exploits the fear that the unknown can happen to any one.

American slasher filmmakers are so inspired by giallo cinema that it is quite difficult not to discuss the subgenre in terms of the derivative. However, to avoid this strain of conversation and without arguing that slashers contain the political/societal context found in other American horror movies from the same period (Bob Clark’s Deathdream, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes), they are born of a particular moment that is distinctly American. This cultural moment coincides with the influence of American punk rock of the early 1980s, music expressing political angst but with much more substantive teeth than this filmic model that seemed to exist solely for special effects and profit gains.

Reaganomics killing me
Reaganomics killing me
Reaganomics killing me
Reaganomics killing YOU!
-Reaganomics by DRI

But this may be getting too heavy – slasher movies are fun to watch, right? Without providing substantive content they do provide an inexplicable gory joyride. While Maylam’s The Burning is an enjoyable film of low expectations, it was released the same year of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration (1981) and the subsequent spark of cultural alienation, distrust, and unease felt by and towards the younger generation. As bands like DRI, Dead Kennedys, and Reagan Youth screamed with political urgency about generational issues, films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Prom Night literally showed the destruction of youth. In her essay Sweet, Bloody Vengeance: Class, Social Stigma, and Servitude in the Slasher Genre Sorcha Ni Fhlainn explains, “the slasher, whose history and reason for killing is usually configured as revenge for a social wrong committed against him or his family, is revealed to be the victim of Reaganomics; he is usually depicted as sidelined due to issues of social class and Reagan’s abandonment of necessary social policies”.1

Thus, the slasher turns the metaphor of “wasted youth” into a graphic visual representation in an exploitation of a cultural moment. In these terms we can think of the genre in relation to the famous Theatre of the Grand Guignol in Paris (1897-1962). The influential, long-standing, and extremely popular Theatre of the Grand Guignol specialized in the macabre by showing realistic graphic scenes of torture and execution in entertaining theatrical productions. In his essay The Friday the 13th Films Ian Conrich says of the slasher film tradition, “On this are built the moments of grand guignol – interventions that allow for the graphic executions and the showing of the special effects”.2 It is also the transformation of our everyday reality into an inescapable nightmare. Gleaning from the Grand Guignol tradition, The Burning, thanks to special-effects guru Tom Savini, truly delivers on excitable gore placed within the realm of the typical. In fact, so disturbingly gruesome was the “raft scene” (where five normal kids are slaughtered within seconds) that it had the distinct honor of being on the British Board of Film Classification’s “video nasty” list.

Culturally significant in its own right, The Burning was the first production by Bob and Harvey Weinstein (Miramax) and the debut for actors Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter. Unfortunately, it lacks the passion often found in young horror filmmakers. It’s also not entirely original; compared to Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), co-writer Bob Weinstein insists his script was completed before Friday the 13th was released. Still the similarities are there: the monster’s head, the camp setting, the stabbings, the canoes, the sex, and the ambiguous ending. The regenerative cycle of horror is made even more obvious in that Friday the 13th (particularly Part II) explicitly lifts from its precursor, Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971).

However, for all its faults, The Burning does get a couple of things right. For instance, it uses the Jaws-technique of not revealing the monster until the very end so that when his rather melted-shaped head is available for a good long look we’re not already bored with him nor are we picking apart the special effects. It also contains a good dose of humor, incorporating elements of the raunchy kind of comedy prevalent during the time. By establishing marginal character development (who would think this would be a good thing), a substantial portion of the film is actually more comedic than horrific; depicting the kids at camp teasing each other, playing sports, and trying to get laid. The Burning also cleverly picks itself apart at the end by hinting that it’s all simply been a visual, and fictional, representation of another campfire story. While not the most sophisticated open ending in cinematic history its implementation of an urban legend narrative provides a small dose of sophistication.

The Burning is enjoyable in its laughter and tears but ultimately it is simply a teenage killing romp without the conscientious undertones of societal awareness. If there is a lesson to be learned here it’s that burning someone either accidentally (such as our dear Crospy) or on purpose (ala Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street) is never really a smart idea. It will generally always some to bite, tear, and stab you in the ass.


2 Ian Conrich, “The Friday the 13th Films and the Cultural Function of a Modern Grand Guignol”, in Ian Conrich, ed, Horror Zone (First edition). London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2010, p. 173.

Caryn Coleman is an independent curator and writer living in Brooklyn whose curatorial practice explores the intersection of film and visual art with an obsessive focus on horror cinema’s influence on contemporary artists. This is the basis for her online writing project The Girl Who Knew Too Much and upcoming exhibition programming Contagious Allegories: horror cinema and contemporary art at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles (2013) and The Art of Fear artist film screening at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. She is currently the Curator for the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts ‘Art & Law’ Residency program and previously owned the gallery sixspace in Los Angeles (2002-2008) and Chicago (1998-2000). She has written for LUX, Rue Morgue, The Modernist, Art Review online, Beautiful Decay, L.A. Weekly, and art.blogging.la. Coleman received her MFA in Curating with distinction from Goldsmiths College in London.