Book Review – Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle by Vera Dika

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games of terror vera dikaVera Dika‘s 1990 book talks a lot about the slasher genre, but what it makes most mention of is what Dika calls the “stalker cycle.” This is defined by films that include an initial death which unleashes the stalker’s evil, who then goes on to kill a group of individuals, the “in-group” (teens), who fail to see him until our heroine is able to see and harm the stalker. Dika states that the films that most use this set of rules or guidelines include the mother of all stalkers, Halloween, plus Friday the 13th parts 1 and 2, Happy Birthday to Me, Graduation Day, Prom Night, and a few others.

Dika devotes a good portion of her book towards describing the stalker film. It’s interesting, especially considering she has come up with a bunch of similarities between films, but then again it feels a bit redundant. Throughout the book, Dika devotes whole pages and/or chapters to films that follow this same design, and she goes on to outline each part of the movie and list how they relate to the stalker formula. After about the third movie, Dika repeats herself over and over. It obviously gets the point across – the most successful stalker films followed the formula rigidly – but it doesn’t make for very fun or enlightening reading.

In fact, I had a hard time following exactly what Dika was trying to prove through her research. Was it that stalker films are similar to each other? That seems pretty self-explanatory. Is it that the stalker film is full of Freudian references and psychosocial conflicts? This is a pretty widely-known fact. Or does she just wish to throw all of this information out there without a overarching point? This seems to be mostly the case, because even her conclusion fails to get across any significant finding. Instead, it presents even more cases of the stalker film and relates them to their predecessors, including Psycho and The Eyes of Laura Mars.

I guess the problem I have with Dika’s book is not the fact that I disagree with a lot of her feminist critique (especially on a point about Halloween which states that Laurie is shown to be feminine by the lack of phallic symbolism, including keys, because if you look closely she does have them in the scene where she leaves to go to her friend’s house… whew!), or because Dika repeats herself endlessly for 4 chapters, but because her book just doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything new for the genre. It creates a new distinction between other films in the slasher genre, but other than that, most of Dika’s points aren’t so much new material as they are rehashings on other research.

Yet I could be being a little harsh here. This was written in 1990, so Dika’s research could have been a bit newer and fresher than it feels now. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that I don’t feel a lot of substantial information presented here. Rather, Dika just continually points out the rules of the stalker film and the conflicts they present. It’s fun to read about the films, but other than that I didn’t glean much real knowledge from the piece. I would recommend this for Dika’s interpretations of films, though, because they’re interesting and a arguable. For the most part, however, the things Dika does find here feel a bit outdated now. Definitely don’t pay $300 for the book on Amazon, whatever you do.

It creates a new distinction between other films in the slasher genre, but other than that, most of Dika’s points aren’t so much new material as they are rehashings on other research.
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  • Just happened to look this book up tonight shortly after starting THE PROWLER (in progress, and I haven’t seen it before–breaking for a bit of morning cable news). I checked this book out at a USC library circa ’91 and had never seen a copy since. I didn’t even know what the dust jacket looked like (just remember a slim black hardcover). Disappointed that it’s not in print and (much as I recall enjoying it and am capable of fetishizing books generally) am stunned that it’s selling for so much. Incorporated elements (with citation as appropriate) in a Symbolic Anthropology paper that year on ritual forms and the stalker cycle. Enjoyed your review!

  • Neglected to add that the book was published in 1990, not 1980 as you mention twice. Not nitpicking–that’s rather key to the “cycle.”

  • Make that “ritual form and the stalker film.” It’s a little late, yet I’m still bothered by my own confusion…