Eat or Be Eaten:
Depictions of Predator/Prey Dynamics in Slasher Films and Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Have you worked as a camp counsellor at a rundown campground? Lived in a sorority house in Montreal? Gone for a drive with friends in an unfamiliar part of Texas?
If you know your horror movies, you might recognize the plots these questions reference. Even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard about the genre known for capitalising on everyday scenarios turned deadly. I’ve seen my fair share of slaughter-fests in all sorts of horror movies, but the worst tend to appear in slasher films, a horror subgenre popularised in the ’70s and ’80s.
Blood, gore, and corpses litter the slasher scene because, unlike psychological thrillers or alien works, the focus is on the relationship between the killer and the unlucky group they’ve targeted. Killers in slasher movies are often compared to predators, and their victims represented as their prey. The relentless pursuit of one by the other is made all the more vivid as the audience watches the struggle for power in real time.
Excessive repetition and overuse of predator-prey dynamics have made it a media trope, shifting focus away from the victim’s experience onto its effect on the audience’s viewing experience. While slasher films frequently depict violence against women on screen in ways that have even inspired offscreen violence, the explicit violence and suffering endured by the prey figure is typically criticised simply for its lack of creativity.
To dissect this transformation and the perversion of the original predator/prey trope over time, I will draw on three prominent slasher movies: Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in comparison with episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Procne and Philomela and Apollo and Daphne. Such examples share a unique relationship with the audience, one that sees influences from each side. This is useful for analysing classical literature because it sets us, as modern readers, on equal grounds with original audiences, as well as readers with classics experience. Both slasher movies and Ovid's stories demand similar responses from their audiences. As contemporary audiences of slasher movies, we find ourselves on equal grounds with Ovid's original audiences, and thus are able to better understand the motives and messages behind these works.
Although the plot and message differ between the mediums and movies, Ovid’s reflection on female suffering provides a solid comparative ground to examine how such topics are dealt with in modern media. For this post, we’ll focus on the similarities in narrative components and content to build out our argument, looking at the classical and contemporary works with a structural approach.
The first episode we’ll look at is hard to get through, as Ovid makes us read about the rape and mutilation of Philomela by Tereus. Procne, furious with the violation of her sister, frees her from captivity, kills her son, and feeds him to Tereus, his father, before fleeing and, along with Tereus, being transformed into birds. Apollo and Daphne’s story is a little different, as it details the gods' run-in with Cupid, who shoots him with an arrow making him fall in love with Daphne. Opposed to his affections, Daphne flees from Apollo before pleading with her father and being turned into a laurel tree, which has since been associated with the god.
Now let’s take a break from antiquity and move into the era of big shoulder pads and even bigger hair: the ’70s and 80s. Leatherface, Pamela Vorhees (the mother of Jason Vorhees), and Billy (no last name given) are just some of the classic slashers of this period, recognizable for their oversized weaponry and interesting outerwear. Their unique outfits and plot twists have cemented them as horror icons, backed by your standard targeting of teenage travellers, camp counsellors, and sorority girls, respectively.
What makes these specific movies relevant to our discussion is how they embody the anonymous form which predators often take on: relentlessly stalking the female lead while their identities and motivations remain mostly hidden. This behaviour is better put into focus if we read it with the character of Ovid's Tereus in mind. Specifically through his intentions and actions toward Philomela as he moves to claim her and ruthlessly violate her. Less of this explicit violence is seen in Apollo and Daphne’s episode. Still, the concept of pursuit is emphasised, with the word “pursuit” appearing multiple times throughout the episode and a large chunk of the story dedicated to their “chase” scene.
Language plays an important role in setting up the predator-prey dynamics in Ovid. Ovid's careful choice of words, in turn, reverberates in the modern films in important ways. His episodes see numerous uses of predator/prey comparisons: for example, as a lamb or deer meets a wolf or lion, committing the characters to these strict narrative roles.
In contrast, slasher movies use visual effects, like the female lead being chased through a forest by the larger, silent killer, to convey that she is in danger. Encompassed in a race that, by nature’s standards, she cannot win, she is the lamb, she is the deer.
One could not demonstrate this better than Ovid. In the episode of Apollo and Daphne, readers are privy to the vivid description of the primal relationship which exists between the two as they engage in a pursuit:
“So does the lamb flee from the wolf; the deer from the lion; so do doves on fluttering wing flee from the eagle; so every creature flees its foes.”
The actual pursuit scene comes after the initial meeting between the abuser and eventual victim, usually positioned in the exposition part of the story. These encounters involve the predator identifying and incorporating the object of desire into his imagination. This process is explicitly described in both of Ovid’s works, where the audience is privy to the fantastical and objectifying way the men leer at and think of their desired women or prey.
Tereus - ever the respectable gentleman - immediately commented on Philomela’s beauty, seeking to:
“…tempt the girl herself, even at the cost of all his kingdom; or else to ravish her and to defend his act by bloody war.”
Apollo, too, clearly thinks of himself as one with Daphne from their very first encounter:
“Phoebus loves Daphne at sight, and longs to wed her; and what he longs for, that he hopes; and his own gifts of prophecy deceive him.”
While this may appear as a simple fantasy or the hopeless ramblings of a man in love, we quickly see how this infatuation turns dangerous. He pleads for her to stop running while telling her that, regardless of her attempt, she’ll never outrun him, comparing himself to a hound pursuing a hare.
How predators think of their victims is given less relevance in the slasher films; however, their thoughts/predator's thoughts can be inferred through the ferocity by which they continue to target the female lead and shift their primary focus solely onto her.
Prey animals, like small birds, deer, and sheep, are often the focal point for explicit violence, manipulation, and violation. Their assumed frail, demure behaviour makes them easy targets for humans and animals alike. The features that identify them as vulnerable have been adopted partly because of patriarchal standards deeming the feminine soft, weak, and non-threatening. That’s why the recurrence of predator/prey dynamics in media, especially to represent physical and sexual violence against women, is unsurprising.
Take this line from the Episode of Procne and Philomela, for example:
“She trembled like a frightened lamb, which, torn and cast aside by a grey wolf, cannot yet believe that it is safe; and like a dove which, with its own blood all smeared over its plumage, still palpitates with fright, still fears those greedy claws that have pierced it.”
This quote is an excellent demonstration of how women’s fear, violence, and the trauma that comes with it are routinely compared to the actions and physiology of lesser, prey-like animals.
Comparisons like these appear in slasher films frequently. In Black Christmas, the killer calls his soon-to-be victims “pigs” in what, I’ll warn you, is an incredibly sexually explicit manner, illustrating how he views the women of the house. References to victims as prey are not always figurative, as we see clearly with the slaughtered pig shown in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is the comparison to such animals, ones that are depicted as controllable and physically weak, that places women in the same social sphere, representing them as animalistic and primal. The forceful application of that label on their victim, as seen above with Tereus deeming Philomela a defeated and fearful animal, allows the predator to reinforce their power over their prey from a physical and psychological perspective.
Violence, destabilised morality, and the perversion of the natural order are prevalent in horror movies, used to invoke otherwise uncomfortable or “ugly” feelings in audiences. Whether that’s fear, disgust, or anger, such films capitalise on the audience’s immersion through explicit and anticipatory scenes.
Written works have the same goal, but the lack of visual support means that the dialogue, descriptions, and characters must be all the more complex. This is where features like language come in, as the use of direct, abrasive, and otherwise emotional words can produce those same “ugly” feelings. How the author engages with the audience is important here, as it is one of the ways that we can easily compare the mediums outside of just the parallel dynamics or plots.
Case in point, the use of pursuit as a thematic device. A common invoker of such feelings, the pursuit of the prey figure creates a strong sense of anticipation in audiences, whether they are readers of Ovid or consumers of slasher films. In similar ways, Ovidian gods and tyrants and slasher movie killers pursue their prey out of a desire in a way that's seeking both psychological and physical gratification and control.
Tereus and Apollo do not try to hide their desire for possession of the women they pursue: they want to own them body and soul. The killers in slasher movies don’t share this monologuing, but the blood they spill throughout the story achieves the same goal. Viewers see the lengths the predators go to capture or kill their prey. Still, the detailed motivations given by Ovid allow us to identify the deep gratification-based impulses that fuel his predators, while slasher movies' killers do little more than just stand there and look scary. Nevertheless, by comparing the intricate motivations present in Ovid’s works, we gain further insight into the psyche of these killers.
Horror is a genre dedicated to the arousal of bodily sensations, reliant on the targeted manipulation of viewers' emotions and increased engagement. The “tropification” of predator/prey dynamics shows how audiences' shift in focus towards shock-factor elements, like gore and sexual violence, influences filmmakers' creative decisions. Review sites and articles are a very public display of this, used to openly convey feelings like disappointment or boredom that completely gloss over anything other than its brutal and bloody potential. This shift means that the detail and explanations found in older sources have metaphorically left the building, leaving room for superficial imagery to redefine the genre.
This new, shock-factor-based consumerism has fundamentally changed how viewers digest and understand serious topics. In doing so, it affects the intention of the depiction, modifying or eliminating the broader meaning. Modern media and audience communities tend to exist in a vacuum, so conversations rarely touch on concepts or ideas relevant outside that shared space. Examining these circumstances helps us to recognize how contemporary audiences create, depict, and consume taboo issues in media, as well as how this relationship has changed or been modified since Ovid’s time.
It’s necessary for us, as content creators and consumers, to understand how the work’s intended audience influences the representation of the predator characters' actions and relationships. Ovid wrote for an enclosed circle of elite men with preexisting knowledge of the myths he used and thus didn’t need to explain their backgrounds and experiences. Slasher movies, while rarely interested in detailed backstories, include basic information about the upbringings of their killers to provide viewers with background knowledge.
Exploring the killer’s story sets the audience on par with Ovid’s elites and readers with a classics background. Viewers are given important information about why the predator thinks or acts as he does. On the one hand, it’s good that we, as the audience, are given the necessary details to watch from an informed perspective. On the other hand, it means that the dynamics present surpass the simplicity of a trope, complicating our understanding of and reaction towards predator/prey dynamic.
Visual storytelling is just as impactful as its written counterpart: using specific yet subtle imagery fills in gaps made by the lack of internal dialogue. Without explicit descriptions or narrative, filmmakers use implicit elements on screen to let the underlying messages “speak” for themselves. This is especially true for movies, as their three-act structure anchors the central narrative and allows for a clean wrap-up of events at the end.
It’s clear that all five stories, except Apollo and Daphne’s, where there is no victim retaliation, parallel each other in depicting the encounters between victim and abuser. The stories all include the initial traumatic event, the retaliation against the abuser, the relentless pursuit of the female lead, and the unresolved ending. These narrative features cement them as explorations of predator/prey dynamics within violent or fear-inducing situations.
Ovid’s work is starkly different in focus and intention of that exploration. While the female lead’s experiences, emotions, and motivations are carefully discussed in the story, the man takes on little more than a predatory role. As a consequence, the victim is given autonomy without glossing over the physical and psychological ramifications of her assault and mutilation.
The same cannot be said for slasher movies, as they tend to accentuate the violence committed by the killer. Excessive physical imagery, like squirting blood or open wounds, removes focus from how such actions affect their victims. Take Leatherfaces' encounter with the female lead’s brother Franklin, for example, where he is sliced into by the killer while she’s trying to escape. Accompanied by multiple angled shots, the scene is filled with a screaming victim, a revving chainsaw, and spurting blood that coats the killer's apron.
Even near the end, where the female victim retaliates through physical harm or psychological torture, she is not given any reflective period. Her violence takes centre stage. The death of Mrs. Vorhees in Friday the 13th is a great example of this centring effect, as her decapitation scene is not only slowed down and replayed but also includes a very clear scene of her ripped skin, spurting blood, and slashed spine. We see this role shift with Procne and Philomela as well, as the female victim becomes the predator, pursuing her abuser as prey out of revenge. Note that this shift is only temporary in the classic and contemporary interpretations, as the unresolved ending puts the abuser back into the predator position. Thus, the pursuit continues with the victim as their prey once again.
Although it follows a slightly different narrative structure, Daphne’s episode does include scenes of continued pursuit. Even in her transformation, Apollo adopts the laurel tree and its leaves as his motif, a clear representation of the victims' inability to escape male domination. This episode is an example of the complexity required in media creation, as the use of explicit narration combined with subtle imagery crafts a clear connection between female suffering and power dynamics.
Procne and Philomelas’ ending is important because it mirrors the slasher films we’re looking at, demonstrating the connection between predator/prey dynamics and shifts in power roles. For example, Black Christmas ends with the phone ringing and laughter coming from the attic, implying that the killer was misidentified and that the perpetrator is still in the house. Recentering the abuser in the story is significant because it portrays the victim’s power as temporary. Their attempts were ultimately futile as they failed to truly eliminate the threat.
Ovid’s work highlights the consequences of immoral or otherwise unnecessarily violent actions, most often against women. This we can see through the focus not only on the victim’s perspective but also their successful retaliation against their abuser. This is not the case for slasher films, as the overt reliance on gore, jumpscares, and shock factor elements emphasises the killer's brutality, not the victim's experience.
Looking back and forth at the use of predator/prey dynamics in Ovid and slasher movies helps us see some recurring structural elements from antiquity to today. Moreover, weighing the different media of films vs written poetry, we get insight about why or how "ugly" emotions, social ideals, and threatening situations are depicted and the deeper meanings they offer audiences. We also get a better sense of how the consumers' response can impact the creation of and interaction with modern visual media: reading slasher movies with Ovid makes us realise how the excess use of predator/prey dynamics in slasher films has oversaturated the market, leading to a shift in focus toward how much attention it can get in an environment filled with similar concepts.
In an attempt to set their work apart, creators have spotlighted the bloody, the spooky, and the uncomfortable with no true substance in sight. As a result, modern filmmakers and audiences have equally contributed to the watering-down of the dynamics, with all their nuances and complexities that we capture reading OVid, and cementing it as an “impoverished” literary or narrative trope.
About the Author
Hello! My name is Maddie Jantzi and I'm a third year UofT student doing a double major in Anthropology for science and History of Religions. I was lucky enough to join this project along with my fellow scholars and had tons of fun exploring my interest in classical literature as well as learning more about research opportunities in academia. I’m super proud of all the work we did on our articles and am even more excited for everyone to read them!