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What slasher movies can teach us about reality TV

What slasher movies can teach us about reality TV
The standard slasher film, with its anonymous victims, tells us something about reality TV. (Photo by Shutterstock)

In this edition of The Confessional, Cary O’Dell argues that disposable characters on reality shows makes reality TV more watchable yet more forgettable.

Oh, not so long ago, in my misspent TV-watching youth, whenever I was in need of something to watch (because actually turning off the TV was, of course, completely out of the question), I found I often defaulted to horror films.

Even when browsing at the local video store (those interesting little businesses that once existed), if I couldn’t find something that truly excited me, I often retreated to the horror section for something dark, a bit intriguing and not too gory.

After watching endless variations of psycho killers storming desolate mountain cabins or intrepid heirs confronting the ghosts of their long-dead ancestors, I realized I had to, finally, confront myself over my frequent default choice of film.

I was never a fan of the redundant and lazy “slasher” genre that was so prevalent in the 1980s.  And though I loved a good ghost story as much as the next guy, it didn’t fully explain why I was always watching so many “bump in the night” big screen and small screen efforts.

Then I came to a realization. Horror was easier. It was easier to get scared than it was to get involved.

Watching a drama too often ran the risk of becoming fully involved with these fictional characters and their plights, of having to think or (god forbid!) feel something. Drama demanded an emotional and intellectual involvement. In contrast, with rare exception, even the best made horror film only required keeping track of who was the blond girl and who was the brunette girl.

I wonder now, if reality shows—competitive reality shows specifically—aren’t quickly taking the place of the horror films of my youth, a new genre to be, too often, mindlessly and easily consumed?

No reason to feel when reality stars are killed off

Certainly many of the same themes and tropes, and even the some of the basic structure, of many horror films has been fully replicated in reality TV archetype.

The one-by-one elimination—be they would-be models, chefs, Bachelorettes, or Survivors—of reality show participants mirrors a classic Agatha Christie set up and the systematic “off-ing” of so many of the characters to be found in even the most garden variety of slasher films.

More importantly, despite the often staggeringly high body count to be found in many horror movies and action films doesn’t undermine our enjoyment of them or our ability to watch as the characters that usually quickly meet their maker are not that well known to us, they don’t matter; they are minor characters without last names or back stories.

Similarly, so many of those participants who fall by the wayside on reality TV, too, often affect us little—we don’t know them, their last name, or their back story either. Therefore, it’s easy for me, as a viewer, to come to these programs mid-season and still fall in and follow along. I can still get the story, and even be “entertained,” and I don’t have to feel a thing!

Hence, on any old pedestrian weekday evening or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, bored and flipping channels, I find it’s far easier to settle into an already-in-progress episode of Master Chef or Top Model than attempt to join a film or primetime drama already in progress.

It doesn’t matter that I have never previously watched an episode from this season of Top Chef or Top Model, and it doesn’t matter that I missed that all-important season-kickoff “casting episode.” Like innumerable horror movies or ghost stories, I know the format, and with so many reality contestants so often cast to type, only their exotic names have changed. In other words, it’s pretty easy to get caught up, no matter where you jump in.

The entertainment value (good enough) is there too. Reality producers know very well by now how to craft their inter-episode cliffhangers and mini-climaxes in order to get us hooked. 

And the drama is built in too—just who will be eliminated and why? For better or worse, even joining a series (a season or “Cycle,” as ANTM likes to call them) mid-stream doesn’t undermine its effectiveness. You can watch it and enjoy it, it doesn’t matter that you missed earlier episodes and probably won’t tune in for that series’s finale later on.

The positive thing about a competitive reality installment, and what makes it good fodder for one-off watching, is that they can be treated as a stand-alone entity: it is self-contained, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end right here is a tidy little hour.

Disposable characters makes reality TV forgettable

The sense of inter-episode resolution that competitive reality offers us these days stands in stark contrast to so much fictional broadcast and cable primetime fare where serialization has so firmly taken over.

Whether it’s Under the Dome or Game of Thrones, joining many dramatic series after its already underway these days can be overwhelming, even impossible. The plot is thick, the relationships complex and so much depends on knowing what happened last week or even months before. Who is who and what has already transpired in this show? Taking all that into account, sometimes, it’s just easier to switch over to Hell’s Kitchen.

The widespread use of a serial narrative in contemporary TV drama might be proving successful in hooking some viewers for the long haul, but, problematically, it might also be driving off other viewers who are dissuaded by the dense soap opera-like intricacy of such novel-esque programs.

But, if competitive reality TV is easy to consume, then that also means it’s also very easy to forget.  Like the horror films and thrillers of my youth, much of what these people do and say and achieve or lose on these series is here today and gone tomorrow. We don’t know half these people and we’ll never see them again, so there’s no need to get too invested or interested in them.

As of this writing, Survivor has featured over 400 castaways.  Meanwhile, there have been over 200 would-be “top models” over on Tyra’s America’s Next Top Model series. Often, on these shows, not only are the “losers” quickly forgotten, so, too, are the winners.

As diverting (and, let’s face it, fun) as so much reality TV can be they are increasingly becoming the TV equivalent of shopping at Wal-Mart or grabbing dinner at McDonald’s. The path of least resistance. In both, there’s no surprise and, hence, no stress.

I suppose that’s all well and good. I mean who doesn’t enjoy a Big Mac or its video counterpart once in a while? But, in the end, is this what we really want TV to be?

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