Whenever I am asked about starring in Terrifier—the 2017 slasher that earlier this year spawned a hit sequel—it is inevitable that people will bring up my character’s infamous nude death scene, which has been called “one of the most legitimately upsetting sequences in recent horror history” and is largely attributed to the franchise’s initial popularity and success.
Never having been one to engage in petty Twitter discourse, when the platform was recently abuzz evaluating Terrifier and Terrifier 2 on the basis, frequency, and “type” of nudity in each film—spurred by fan criticisms about the lack of female nudity in the sequel—I originally chose not to engage, despite being the primary participant with which that nudity is most closely associated.
However, when the subject was brought up yet again last Saturday during an interview with Kevin Smith and my friends at Smodcastle Cinema, I wanted to take the opportunity to acknowledge the conversation about nudity in horror films and finally speak on my own behalf.
To grasp the roots of this discourse, it helps to understand the role that nudity has historically played on screen, and to acknowledge that nudity has been part of cinema since its inception. In its earliest form, Eadweard Muybridge’s 1880 zoopraxiscope (the predecessor of the movie projector) utilized photography sessions with a variety of subjects, including both male and female nude models. Nudity then became a part of the medium almost immediately afterward, popularized in both independent and major studio pictures.
In 1930, the Motion Picture Association of America established the Motion Picture Production Code (or the Hays Codes) with the intent to “protect the moral standards of films” by imposing restrictions on material that major film studios could show on screen. A highly subjective and early precursor to the MPAA Film Ratings System, this regulation inadvertently provided space for a new marketing technique to increase ticket sales. Theaters already utilizing the “grind policy” (a film-programming strategy in which theaters began their days with screenings at cut-rate ticket prices that would rise over the course of the day) quickly began filling these screening times with films that were regulated by the MPPC using buzz phrases like “viewers beware!” and “watch only if you dare!” They would often claim that these films were “not for the faint of heart” and often made audiences faint or become violently ill. This marketing technique served particularly well in regards to ticket sales for horror films (and is still used today, including within the Terrifier franchise—theaters passed out branded “barf bags” at Terrifier 2 screenings earlier this year).
As horror and grindhouse cinema began to grow in popularity, opportunities to explore subversive topics within these films, particularly in regards to women, also grew. Femininity, trauma, motherhood, capability, survival, and, yes, sexuality became the backbone themes of horror cinema. And in 1978, another subgenre of horror films became popular: The Slasher.
During the filming of 1978’s Halloween, both director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill were heavily involved in the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. Naturally, they chose to have this reflected within the film and its killer, most notably during Lynda’s (portrayed by PJ Soles) iconic scene in which she exposes her breasts and, mistaking Michael Myers for Bob, asks him, “See anything you like?”
The scene was brazen, confident, flirtatious, and rebellious against a patriarchal norm. The audience loved it.
As the genre continued to grow and expand, these films began to explore more socio-political topics. Nudity became ingrained in 1980s horror, later serving as a counter-response to the Reagan era and AIDS epidemic through films such as Friday the 13th (1980), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Return of the Living Dead (1985), and Hellraiser (1987). At a time when sex and cultural identity were being branded as “national terrors,” the genre synonymous with fear eagerly explored this.
By the time I was offered my first opportunity to step into an existing film franchise, the genre was more daring and experimental than ever before. In 2012, I booked the role of Lauren in Troma Entertainment/ STARZ-Anchor Bay’s horror-satire Return to Nuke ’Em High, which centers around a lesbian couple. At the time, same-sex marriage was not federally legal in the United States, nor in much of the world. In the months leading up to filming and frequently throughout production, I spoke extensively with director Lloyd Kaufman and film commissioner Pat Kaufman about the nude scenes within the film and their symbolism. As a production, the team felt this was important not only because I was 19 at the time and it would be my first experience with on-screen nudity, but also because of how crucial it was to protect the authenticity of the queer relationship between the film’s protagonists.
The experience was a uniquely vulnerable one, but the opportunity to work alongside a team of people who valued everyone, regardless of their gender or sexuality, was and still is something that I am exceptionally proud of. When we later premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, we were honored to be named “the first lesbian wedding in France” by Le Figaro just days after the country legally recognized same-sex marriage. Subsequent screenings proved that the narrative was never about nudity—it was about the power, symbolism, and influence of this genre film’s ability to tackle a topic that other types of cinema were still struggling with.
When Damien Leone offered me the role of Dawn in Terrifier, he was confident that the now infamous “hacksaw scene”—in which Art the Clown strips my character, hangs her upside down, and proceeds to slowly cut her in half with a hacksaw—would indeed make history. It was, and continues to be, the most dangerous undertaking that I have ever participated in as an actor, and frankly not one that I would ever encourage anyone to attempt. And yet, the scene’s impact is undeniable.
The reason Dawn’s death in Terrifier holds such gravitas is because it is heavily rooted in reality. Much like Lynda in Halloween, Dawn is a character who openly embraces her sexuality, femininity, and freedom. She is assertive and outspoken, and as a result, the brutality by which she is “punished” for said traits forces her to be horrifically vulnerable, highlighting the very physical essence of what makes her female. The visceral, gut-wrenching, bone-chilling emotions evoked when watching her death scene do not lie in the fact that she is nude; they lie in the mercilessness of stripping someone of their autonomy and personal power and forcing those who care about them to watch.
This is where quality cinema is found—not in box office numbers nor in the opinions of some nudity-seeking Twitter trolls, but in the challenging of our psychological depths and understanding of what it is to be human. And while the decision about what makes a film great is completely subjective, I would encourage viewers to seek out these kinds of metaphors, learn about the meaning behind the stories, and notice the ways they’re executed—all of which have nothing to do with how much skin you see on screen.