Last year for his birthday, I got my boyfriend a subscription to the horror movie streaming service Shudder. Ever since, we often lay in bed, searching through its offerings for something to scare us. One recent night, we chose an early 1980s slasher called The Burning, which we paused during the opening credits to ponder whether we’d continue. Not because the film was too scary, but because of something far worse: There, among the opening credits, was the name Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood mega-producer and convicted rapist is credited with both creating and producing The Burning.
After some discussion, we decided to soldier on, but as I watched The Burning, I couldn’t get Weinstein’s name out of my head.
For those who haven’t seen The Burning (massive spoilers ahead), it initially seems like a typical early 1980s slasher. A group of young campers at Camp Blackfoot play a nasty trick on an unpopular janitor, Cropsey, leaving him badly burnt and in need of emergency room. Years later, Cropsey returns to seek revenge on the camp — which has changed its name to Camp Stonewater — as well as the counselors and campers there. The Burning also features the film debuts of Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and Academy Award winner Holly Hunter.
I’m hesitant to read too much into Weinstein’s psyche from The Burning (though he conceived of the story, he didn’t write the script). But the film deviates from many other slasher films in significant ways that are disturbing (especially given what we now know about Weinstein), and that also reflect our larger rape culture. For instance, the protagonists are people who have violated someone else. The villain is a survivor who doesn’t really get to speak besides screaming in agony. And rather than sluts dying before anyone else, women who deny men sex are the first to be killed.
The Final Girl Is Actually a Couple of Final Boys
Nightmare on Elm Street has Nancy. Halloween has Laurie Strode. Scream has Sidney. With almost every great entry in the slasher genre is a great “final girl,” or the sole survivor of the killer’s murderous spree who usually faces off against him alone. Medievalist and film studies professor Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In it, she argues that while Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger may be the stars of their respective franchises, the audience is often asked to identify with a slender, young, helpless female target. The movie asks the audience to identify with this (usually) white young woman because she is considered the pinnacle of innocence and weakness. Clover also famously asserted that the triumphant moment where a final girl grabs a weapon and defeats the film’s villain is the “brutal deployment of the phallus.” In other words, she uses her knife/phallus to give her tormentor a taste of his own dick medicine.
The Burning, however, presents a very different version of the final girl — namely, the film centers on two men who dance the final tango with Cropsey. One character, Todd, is a camp counselor who takes a young camper, Alfred, under his wing. The catch: Todd only does so after Alfred is caught spying on a female camper when she’s coming out of the shower. In Todd’s mind, Alfred is a good kid who was just a boy being a boy. He is never made to apologize, and his voyeuristic act is portrayed no differently than just another Revenge of the Nerds-esque display of “adorkable misogyny,” which is often depicted as twee or endearing because nerds don’t display outward, virile masculinity and lack sexual prowess. Thus, they should be pitied.
The other final guy, Todd, is a camp counselor who, as is revealed in the film’s final moments, was one of the four young campers who immolated Cropsey and are responsible for his disfigurement.
As such, Todd and Alfred share a common bond: They both did something wrong. Alfred is a voyeur, and Todd accidentally caused someone to almost burn to death. And yet these two men — one an adorkable misogynist, the other a near-killer — are who The Burning asks us to identify with, not a final girl who must escape an unstoppable force, or even Cropsey himself, the undeserving subject of a prank gone horribly wrong and by who every measure of the imagination deserves our compassion.
Speaking of Cropsey…
The Killer Actually Has a Legit Beef???
While you feel bad for the kids in The Burning as they get killed one by one, by the time Todd and Alfred face off against him, you’re (again) reminded that Todd is responsible for burning Cropsey alive. Sure, the average viewer may not condone homicidal revenge as a balm for the situation, but it also seems weird that the movie wants us to see Cropsey as somehow in the wrong, just because Alfred and Todd are the film’s young heroes. Wasn’t he burned alive? Doesn’t Cropsey deserve to be heard?
The Sluts Who Die First Are Killed Because of the Sex They Don’t Have
If the virginal final girl is the hero of the slasher genre, then her opposite — the girl who enjoys sex — must die. Yes, in slasher films, women often play one of two roles: victor or vanquished. This is often called the “death by sex” trope. In fairness, over the last few decades, the genre has become more self-aware of its obsession with sexed-up teens, with later entries in the Friday the 13th franchise, like Freddy vs. Jason and Jason X, parodying just how much Jason Voorhees wants to tear those who copulate from limb from limb. (Then again, it fits with his origin story: He drowned while counselors were too busy fucking to save him.)
The Burning, however, takes this in a weird direction. Very early in the film, Cropsey goes to see a sex worker who recoils from his burnt visage. As revenge for “rejecting” him (though she doesn’t really say anything, she just screams), Cropsey kills her. His second victim — and first among the campers — is Kelly. What’s really upsetting about her death is that she doesn’t die right after having sex. She dies right after telling fellow camper Eddy that she doesn’t want to have sex with him. Eddy goes off on her in every incel-like way. He calls her a tease and shames her for saying no after they went skinny-dipping together, after which she goes off into the woods to collect her clothes. While dressing, Cropsey slashes her throat with a pair of scissors.
What’s remarkable, of course, is that Cropsey’s first two victims aren’t only *not* women who enjoy sex, but rather, women who exercised their right to say no.
Does Any of This Matter?
Many of Weinstein’s crimes occurred when his career was much further along, and he was someone who could make or break a young woman’s career. But despite Weinstein being only a budding producer when The Burning was shot, there was still a sexual assault incident alleged during its production.
Shortly after the New York Times first broke news of Weinstein’s decades-long slew of sexual assaults, one Buffalo woman, Paula Wachowiak, came forward and said that Weinstein exposed himself to her during the filming of The Burning. She worked as an intern and was delivering checks that needed to be signed to Weinstein’s hotel room. When he answered the door, he was wearing a towel, which he soon dropped. He also asked Wachowiak for a massage, to which she replied, “That’s not in my job description.”
In many ways, The Burning asks its viewers to do some of the very things that uphold rape culture. It asks us to believe that men who do bad things may be pure of intention. It asks us to mistrust victims, even when we don’t get to hear their side of the story. And it shows us that women who don’t consent deserve ridicule — or worse.
So for whatever other scares it brings, that’s what makes The Burning truly terrifying.