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Commentary: ‘Halloween’ Returns to a Changed World for Women

  • Jamie Lee Curtis returns to her iconic role as Laurie Strode in this sequel to “Halloween.” MUST CREDIT: Ryan Green, Universal Pictures



The Washington Post
Monday, October 22, 2018

The name says it all, doesn’t it? Laurie Strode. As in, “Laurie strode purposefully ...” “Laurie strode confidently ...” “Laurie strode grimly, enhaloed by the white-hot fury of a thousand suns.”

I loved Laurie Strode at first sight. Or, more accurately, I knew her: The 17-year-old high school student portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1978 horror classic Halloween chimed with my own contradictory selfhood as an adolescent girl coming of age in a perpetually autumnal Midwest. I was reasonably bright, but not a grind: I floated just outside my high school’s cliques, as at ease with the stoners as with the honor students. I had male friends but wasn’t particularly interested in romance; I wasn’t a goody two-shoes, but affected the wisecracking bonhomie of a tomboy to deflect sexual interest that I still found confusing and scary.

I also wasn’t particularly interested in horror movies. But Laurie Strode got inside my head. Like me, and like so many girls in the audience, she wasn’t a hyper-achieving superstar or impossibly beautiful and popular. Like us, she was just trying to do well in school and get along with everyone. Like us, she earned a few extra bucks as a babysitter, all the while harboring faint inklings that she might be missing out on the fun everyone else was having just outside her range.

So when things went murderously awry in Halloween — when the deranged killer Michael Myers began dispatching teenagers with increasing levels of psychotic creativity — the carnage hit home. Terms such as “empowerment” and “agency” hadn’t cracked the popular vernacular yet, much less “It me.” But Laurie was me, on some cellular level. Or at least an aspirational me, who longed for Laurie’s competence and courage in the face of pure evil.

David Gordon Green’s new 2018 version of Halloween ignores 40 years’ worth of spinoffs, resurrections and false finales, presenting itself with convincing authority as the one true sequel.

During that interval, Laurie has been embraced by critical film theory, with the author Carol J. Clover coining the term “final girl” to describe the archetypal role she and similar female characters play in slasher films. Along with Mari Collingwood in 1972’s Last House on the Left and Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Laurie Strode personified the qualities and character beats of the quintessential final girl at her most admirable and frustrating: She was virginal, whereas her contemporaries were hormonal and sex-crazed (impulses for which they would be duly tortured and punished). She was levelheaded when all around her were giving way to hysteria. She was fiercely protective of those in her care rather than merely out for self-preservation. Most important, she outlived the villain, or at least didn’t allow herself to die at his hand.

In the first Halloween, Laurie was saved in the end by Michael Myers’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis. As the new version gets underway, it’s become abundantly clear that no one will save her but herself. Living alone in a farmhouse-cum-armamentarium just outside her hometown of Haddonfield, Ill., Laurie is isolated, traumatized and quietly rehearsing the unsmiling rituals of barely contained rage. Borderline agoraphobic, she has sporadic contact with her semi-estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer), slightly more with her spirited, intelligent granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

Grayer now, but still supernaturally fit, Laurie has barricaded herself against an inherently unreliable and hostile world, suspicious of visitors and convinced that Michael Myers will soon return. Laurie is many things: brave, shrewd, still supremely self-possessed. But, bitter and lonely in the one-woman surveillance state she calls home, she’s for the most part weary. Weary of her own hyper-vigilance. Weary of being accused of projecting her neuroses and paranoia on everyone else. Weary of being told to get over it.

In other words, Laurie is the perfect avatar for an age awash in final girls, whether they’re publicly opening their most primal psychic wounds in the U.S. Senate, only to be ignored, mocked and denigrated, or enduring the pathological misogyny, atavistic hatred and sexual insecurity that’s inescapable in today’s society. There’s something weirdly, symbolically on-point about a post-#MeToo Halloween being a co-production of Miramax, the company founded by Harvey Weinstein. Whether in a gruesome genre exercise or real life, Laurie can be counted on to outlast Hollywood’s ultimate boogeymen.

The distressing realization, after all these years, is that she still needs to. In 1978, like most teenage girls embarking on a cautiously optimistic adulthood, I strode confidently, with purpose, assuming that the problems besetting women then — inequality, marginalization, male impunity in all its forms and guises — would be solved once everyone realized how simply unproductive they were. Today, I’m more likely to be striding angrily, having witnessed four decades of intransigence and vicious backlash to even the most modest challenges to an unjust status quo. Like Laurie in the new Halloween, I greet each new but familiar sexist assault with a combination of resignation and “We’re still doing this?” disbelief.

Interestingly, though, the moral of Laurie Strode’s story doesn’t reside in the vigilante revenge that propels her. She spends most of Halloween enraged and afraid, emotions that can be expressive, cathartic, even subversive, but don’t represent real power. For that, she needs to break out of the archetype that has defined her for 40 years.

The truth and beauty of Halloween circa 2018 can be found not just with Laurie but also with her daughter and granddaughter, who honor the franchise’s fundamentals while giving them a long-overdue tweak. Alone and unbowed, Laurie might once have been the one who was saved, if only to ensure a profitable sequel. Today, she can save herself most assuredly — and permanently — by way of a collective, multigenerational movement.

I’m old enough to be a grandmother myself now, and it turns out that Laurie Strode still has an uncanny ability to get inside my head. This time she’s telling me that singular survival doesn’t equal structural progress. Personal achievement is no substitute for political change. On her own, the final girl is just a trope. Pluralized, she becomes the resistance. And she has a fighting chance.