'It is a film about trauma': How Halloween became a horror movie for the #MeToo era
The film's star, Jamie Lee Curtis, says the feature perfectly reflects our changing attitudes to trauma. This was just what was needed to make the franchise feel relevant in 2018, reports Clarisse Loughrey
What happens to the characters in a horror film once the terror has ended? It’s a meta question, of course, since in one very real sense nothing happens at all. Generally, though, filmgoers leave the cinema assuming a happy ending for those who made it out alive. Now a new sequel to a classic of the genre not only disputes that idea, but offers a timely reminder surviving such an ordeal is never the end of the story.
Halloween, the 2018 sequel, takes place 40 years after Michael Myers’ infamous killing spree in John Carpenter’s 1978 original. There have been a string of sequels and remakes since, but David Gordon Green’s sharp, incisive new installment – with a screenplay co-written by Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride – has discarded them all. This time around, we’ve been saved from the revelation Michael is Laurie’s brother, thankfully.
Instead, Halloween revisits Laurie – played once again by Jamie Lee Curtis – in the present day. What we discover is she has been living under Michael’s murderous shadow ever since. Her two marriages have fallen to pieces and she lost custody of her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who has since distanced herself and her own daughter (Andi Matichak) from her mother.
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For Laurie, the only priority has been to ready herself against what she sees as Michael’s inevitable return. She has, essentially, become imprisoned in her own home, the place transformed into a fortress outfitted with every variety of weapon, hiding place and booby trap imaginable. Michael’s campaign of violence did not end on 31 October 1978, but has raged on within Laurie, as the sole survivor of his spree.
“The film was written before the #MeToo movement,” Curtis tells me. “It was written in January of 2016, and the movement really began in August 2017.” And, yet, she points out, the movie chimes perfectly with the movement’s determination to highlight the deep, lasting effects trauma has on survivors of abuse and violence.
“Women and men, all over the world, are starting to stand up and say: ‘This happened to me, but it does not have to be the definition of me.’ We made a horror movie that’s super scary but at its core is the subject of trauma. But in the world, we are having a conversation that has been silenced for a very long time.”
The history of horror has always been the history of a nation’s fears. It has offered us a map of our changing anxieties, of how they have morphed and shifted over the decades. For 2018’s Halloween to represent trauma in such a way is to acknowledge how our relationship with fear and violence has changed, and that the nature of 1978’s bogeyman doesn’t remain the same today.
When producer Irwin Yablans first sought out Carpenter to write and direct a horror film for his new production company, he envisioned “a picture that had the same impact as The Exorcist“. That 1973 forerunner mined growing public anxiety over occultism, spurred on by the Manson murders of 1969. Halloween, however, instead captured a national obsession with the serial killer, which reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The image of Michael as an unstoppable force, to an almost supernatural degree, cuts deep into the almost self-mythologising characteristics of the serial killers of the seventies; it was a decade stalked by the likes of the Zodiac Killer and the Alphabet Killer, both of whom were never caught. Such serial murderers were known by the strange patterns in their behaviour, or by taunting letters they sent to the media. The serial killer was, in a way, a kind of cultural bogeyman for the period: the faceless, incomprehensible force of evil.
Even more terrifying was the concept of how close to home such evil could be. Halloween is set in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, but it could be anywhere; the name comes from Haddonfield, New Jersey, where co-screenwriter Debra Hill grew up, while most of the street names come from Carpenter’s hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Michael is shown as a direct threat to suburbia – the apple pie and white picket fence landscapes so beloved of the nuclear American family.
Many of the most notorious, and highly publicised, serial killers of the seventies came to embody a similar threat: Ted Bundy was a clean-cut, charming man with a job in the Republican party; John Wayne Gacy would dress as a clown to perform at neighbourhood children’s parties. In fact, Michael nearly wore a clown mask, before his now-iconic look was settled on – a Captain Kirk mask spray-painted a bluish-white. It’s the better choice: a blank, almost featureless visage that reminds us of the unidentified killers among us.
The film may have been largely dismissed by critics at first – The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael said it was “stripped of everything but dumb scariness” – but Halloween clearly struck a chord with audiences. Despite being shot on a miserly budget of $320,000, the film went on to make $40m – equating to around $200m today.
Yet in 2018, the serial killer no longer carries the same threat. While statistics for serial murders peaked in the 1980s, they have been in steady decline ever since. The serial killer has now become a more historicised phenomenon, the subject of an endless stream of podcasts and Netflix documentaries that eagerly pore over the details in an attempt to understand what happened or why it happened – neatly acknowledged in 2018’s Halloween, which features two British journalists hoping to mine information on Michael’s past for a podcast.
Michael’s threat has been neutralised to some degree, which perhaps explains why Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake invested so much energy into trying to explain his backstory, in an attempt to better understand him. And so, the nature of Michael’s evil has also been shifted in the 2018 version; he is a danger both immediate and, in light of our changing understanding of trauma, long-lasting.
In particular, 2018’s Halloween seeks to reflect how research has shown trauma can be transmitted across generations, in genetic inheritance s well as behaviour. As Curtis explains: “Trauma is the residual effect of violence. We know that. We know that through history, we’ve studied history. Because it’s generational. It gets passed on if it’s not worked out. And so this is a movie about generational trauma.” In the film, Karen finds herself unable to forgive her mother for a childhood spent in constant fear, while Allyson struggles to detach herself from the inherited stress of Laurie’s experiences.
The 2018 Halloween, in a sense, marks the ultimate evolution of the “final girl”, a trope the 1978 film established, though its legacy remains conflicted. Curtis wasn’t Carpenter’s initial choice for the role, but he was convinced after learning she was the daughter of Psycho‘s Janet Leigh – Curtis as Laurie, therefore, could be sold as a daughter inheriting her mother’s “scream queen” title. As it was her feature film debut, Curtis was reportedly only paid $8,000 for the part, although it launched her career.
However, despite Hill’s insistence Laurie was envisioned only as “a strong character who was very willful and feared nothing”, the fact it was Laurie – the virgin – who survived, has become central to a debate over whether the film contributes to a narrative in which a woman being sexually active is deemed worthy of punishment.
However you may feel about the “final girl”, 2018’s Halloween not only deconstructs the idea, but questions the very validity of the term, when there’s little finality to be found for Laurie. Trauma does not allow for that kind of victory. And that is a terror we must recognise.
For Curtis, her return to Laurie has finally allowed an important question to be asked: “What happens to these people the next day?” In her eyes, Laurie went back to school on 1 November 1978, the day after Michael’s rampage, “with a bandage on her arm”, but as a different person. The Laurie that was popular, who did well in school, who had a crush on a boy, and had her whole life ahead of her, was now the Laurie people pointed at and whispered about in the hallways.
“That’s what trauma does,” Curtis says. “It takes away your innocence, your life force, and it leaves you with a stain, and a badge, and a mark of trauma. And you have to have help. And we know that. And this is a movie about a woman who didn’t get that kind of help.”
Halloween is on release in UK cinemas