Leopold and Loeb did nothing wrong
Self-aware slasher movies are nothing new—Wes Craven defined the modern sensibility of the subgenre with New Nightmare and later with Scream, and the broad trend goes back at least as far as 1981’s Student Bodies. 2009’s Cabin in the Woods drew attention by explicitly turning its meta critique toward the viewer, but an earlier—and in many ways more nuanced—take on the relationship between horror and fandom is 2006’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Expanding on ideas from the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, Behind the Mask also looks beyond the basically dead slasher genre into the world of true crime fandom–moving the conversation about viewer responsibility when consuming violent media forward into current trends.
Cannibal Holocaust is mostly remembered—quite fairly—for the storm of controversy that came in its wake. The film includes actual footage of animal cruelty, and was so nihilistically nasty that the director was required to show up in court and prove that he hadn’t actually murdered his actors.
But whether or not they balance out the murdered animals and completely falsified portrayal of tribal cultures—certainly not—Cannibal Holocaust did have ideas. Namely, it used its sadistic, murdered filmmakers, and the television screening board that reviews their footage, to question the ethics of sensationalist documentaries and the direct relationship between observation and cruel complacency.
Leslie Vernon’s Filmmakers
These themes have direct bearing on Behind the Mask, which focuses on a trio of filmmakers working on their senior thesis. They exist in a world where Jason, Freddy, and Michael were all real-life serial killers surrounded by exaggerated myths, and director Taylor has decided to focus her film on “up and coming” killer Leslie Vernon.
Leslie is ecstatic to share his process—think murdery Chris Traeger—and let the camera tag along as he sets up his killing spree, but when the crew arrives at the designated location they find the reality of the situation sinking in—and when they’re no longer in his corner, Leslie is all too happy to add them to the body count.
While the primary discussion in the story centers around the tropes of slasher films—the slow but always-closing-in walk, the punishment of sexual activity, the “survivor girl”—in bizarrely pointed ignorance of Carol J. Clover’s “final girl”—its themes resonate with a fandom that was a far greater force by 2006 and which continues today.
For Love of Serial Killers
True Crime is by no means a new genre, with popular roots going back centuries. But the genre has exploded in popularity in the late-20th and 21st century, with its nonfiction nature allowing countless books, tv series, and podcasts to revisit the same information with only minor new additions each time.
Like horror, true crime offers the allure of being able to face the reality of inevitable death from a comfortable distance. And like horror fans, most true crime fans are well-adjusted individuals who enjoy having an outlet for these feelings through their bloody hobby. But the “based on true events” element of true crime also means the inevitable extremes of fandom go to uncomfortable places.
Head over to Tumblr and you’ll find blogs rhapsodizing about how Leopold and Loeb Did Nothing Wrong. Films like My Friend Dahmer meditate on the tragic backstories of a real-life murderer and confine the 17 men he raped, murdered, and cannibalized to a piece of ending text. Fandoms of all stripes become obsessed with their favorite villains, but in true crime, they aren’t fictional characters—they’re real monsters.
If Cannibal Holocaust was reacting to the exposé-style documentaries of the mid-20th century that proposed to have lurid details about “savage natives,” only to reveal the alleged savagery caught on tape was in response to the unspeakable cruelty of the white filmmakers, Behind the Mask positions a similar dynamic with serial killer chasers.
What we know to be supernatural killers in film are merely legendary but flesh-and-blood killers in the universe of the film. Its workout montages and casually faux-intimate interviews make a charming figure out of Leslie, with director Taylor being pulled into ruminations about his methods.
The crew even visits Leslie’s mentor, who’s revealed to have married one of his surviving victims—a fact those involved play off as her being somehow special and chosen because she survived the attempted murder. While the film’s gender politics are its most poorly developed element, it nonetheless nods toward the idea of how alarming “I can fix him/he’s really misunderstood and tragic” narratives are when grafted onto serial killer stories.
Because it is, all of it, a setup. Leslie’s chumminess and slips into apparent vulnerability are all tools meant to draw his audience in. The discussion of tradition and the gelling of death into familiar story beats distances the brutality of what’s being discussed, and once the filmmakers find themselves confronted with the actual victims-to-be they can no longer stand by and watch.
But when they become obstacles to Leslie’s plans, any attempt to appeal to that camaraderie is met with a blank, unfeeling stare. They were never any closer to the truth, and they were never friends. They were a means for Leslie to become a legend, in the same way that he was lured by the mythologizing of other murders. It’s a cycle that real-world organizations like Don’t Name Them are created to disrupt. Leslie is killed in a standard third act climax, but it’s the refusal to spread his story that would end him for good.
To the Future
Modern conversations about the true crime genre now find themselves grappling with this issue. Popular podcasts like My Favorite Murder work to focus on and consistently name the murder victims in these stories—consistently centering their humanity in a way that killer-centric narratives do not—while Last Podcast on the Left recounts serial killer histories with a deliberate focus on anti-mythologizing. Like the horror genre itself, nuanced conversations are happening even if the public at large isn’t tuning into them.
But with a genre as large as True Crime, there are still plenty of subpar cash grabs that fall squarely into the kind of mindset that Behind the Mask critiques. Reality-based media constantly blurs the line between dramatic license and ethical violation, as recent lawsuits over Making a Murderer have shown. And so, ten years after its release, Behind the Mask still has a lot to tell us about our fascination with these stories. In the guise of a fun mockumentary horror film, it tells a tale of what can happen when our dark obsessions and voyeuristic desires get the better of us.