When I was six years old, I watched the original Halloween (1978) horror movie inside an office at a cemetery. My father worked there as a salesman. He met with potential clients hoping to sell them burial plots, essentially a hole in the ground where their body filled coffin would go.
Funeral homes handled the funeral service and the casket sales, my father was only peddling the holes in the ground where the coffin would be placed. Sometimes he had appointments, other times he went door to door in his cheap suit, the only one he owned, telling people to prepare for the end of times, their own personal end of time, and to not leave their family in a lurch.
The actual cemetery was large and sprawling, just outside the city limits of Memphis in, as of then, an undeveloped area. We would get to the cemetery via a winding two lane road which often narrowed into a single lane, but it was rare that two cars passed at the same time. The headstones were flat with a few mausoleums and statues interspersed. The statues were Christian, Jesus in the garden, Jesus at the well, Mary holding the baby Jesus.
The office building was tucked into a curve on the furthest east side of the lot. The office was small, but held a boardroom with a wall of windows looking out over the cemetery, keeping watch over the dead. It never occurred to me that it was strange that my father worked in a cemetery.
The boardroom had a television and a camcorder on a rolling rack next to the long table with rolling chairs pushed up against it. It was 1983, and my family did not yet have a VCR.
I don’t remember if I had ever seen a horror movie other than the Disney channel’s animated The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or their short segments of glowing neon skeletons dancing on top of graves. My father had rented the original Halloween starring Jamie Lee Curtis. He hooked the camcorder into the television and turned it on us, my sister and I.
We smiled and waved at the camera delighted to see ourselves for the first time on the screen. I rolled one of the chairs back and took a seat, my sister sat next to me.
She was five years older, already eleven and so much wiser than I ever could be.
Memories of Michael Myers
I don’t remember the experience of seeing Halloween (1978) for the very first time age six, but I remember the movie now, of course, having seen it numerous times. I can quote it word for word.
I do recall that we dimmed the lights. I remember the VHS box with the knife and jack-o-lantern on it. I remember first hearing the score; the way it sounded like a finger steadily pressing down on the same piano chord over and over, speeding up as Michael got closer, and then building into the frenzy of more chords. I know that afterwards my sister and I peered through the window wall out into the graveyard. “Over there,” I’d shout, and she jumped. “No, there,” she’d whisper with an extended finger showing me where to look. We saw Michael Myers, the killer from the film, behind trees in the moonlight, and though there were no ghosts in Halloween (1978), we saw ghosts oozing out of their graves like mist on a moor.
Horror on Summer Afternoons
So, I became a horror movie fanatic. Growing up in the late 80s, basic cable channels showed horror movie marathons on a fairly consistent basis. Julys were extremely hot and humid in my hometown of Memphis – far too hot to play outside unless we were in a pool, and we didn’t have one of our own.
I often lounged on the couch in the living room and watched horror movies on TNT, TBS or USA. On these lazy afternoons, I was introduced to the many genres of horror.
My first zombie film was the pinnacle of all zombie films, George Romero’s black and white Night of the Living Dead (1968). SPOILER ALERT: In this one, none of the main cast survives.
The young woman, Barbra, is eaten by zombies. The young couple explodes from the fire at the gas pump. The married couple gets eaten by their kid. Ben, the Black man (played by Duane Jones), seems to be the only survivor, but is shot by the cops who mistake him as a zombie. It would be hard to miss the embedded political message.
I also saw the remake, Night of the Living Dead (1990) which was directed by Tom Savini who is most known for his work on special effects. The remake has a strong female lead. Gone is the Barbra too afraid to speak. Yet, in the remake, Ben becomes a zombie and the short-hair-liberated Barbra shoots him.
The political message is still there, and while it is much more “feminist” than the original, it is the Black man who becomes a zombie after rescuing a white man, and it is a white woman who puts “it” down. A very telling critique of the patriarchy and of a white woman’s position within it. Of course, as a child I did not deconstruct horror movies. The genre was fun and entertaining, but as I got older, I started to love the original Halloween (1978) more than the other films, and I knew it was because of something deeper, but I wasn’t sure what that was.
The Girls of Halloween
Other than Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween (1978), starred Nancy Loomis ( Nancy Kyes), P.J. Soles, and Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist tracking the escaped mental patient named Michael Myers.
Dr. Loomis has some of the best lines in the entire movie, but it is the three girls who steal the show.
SPOILER ALERT: Annie and Lynda are seventeen year old girls who smoke cigarettes and are crazy about their boyfriends, Paul and Bob. We never meet Paul because Annie is killed inside the car that she was going to drive to collect him in. Lynda is killed a few minutes after Bob is killed which was only a few minutes post-coital.
On reflection, it’s actually very sad. Girls who were lively and full of spunk suddenly sliced or strangled by a phone cord. My heart aches every time Annie gets into the car, and every time Lynda answers the phone. I see myself in both Lynda and Annie, but I’ve come to realize that the reason I watch this horror unfold year after year is because of the other girl, the one who lives. Laurie Strode.
Laurie Strode: Halloween’s smart girl
Laurie Strode does well in school, and boys don’t ask her out because they think she is too smart. I didn’t do well in school because I didn’t do the work, though I could do it well, very well.
I once had a math teacher gush about my high scores when I wasn’t “too busy being a basket case.” I was a smart girl. I could excel at any subject, though I didn’t like any of them.
I was like Lynda (P.J. Soles) in her infamous ad libbing scene: “I forget all my books. I forget my chemistry book, and my math book…” as smoke from her cigarette wafts around her head.
‘I always felt so different from the other students’
I forgot (on purpose) to bring my books home with me, too. I always felt so different from the other students, and I wasn’t exactly wild like Lynda, or nerdy like Laurie. I was somewhere in between.
After Annie and Lynda are killed, Michael Myers, the masked man, comes for Laurie. She runs from him. She hides. She stabs him with knitting needles, and with a wire hanger. He slashes her arm, tries to stab her, and attempts to strangle her. Dr. Loomis finds them and shoots Michael, whose body falls over a balcony and onto the grass below with a dull thud. The movie ends with no sign of a body on the grass. Michael is not dead. Laurie survives. Laurie is the final girl.
What is a ‘Final Girl’?
In slasher films, there is usually a ‘final girl’; the one girl who survives and often kills the monster, be it man or supernatural. Film theorist Carol Clover penned this term.
It is commonly believed that the final girl must be virginal, and smart, and doesn’t partake in drugs and alcohol. Clover argues that the final girl must be virginal because, while she is a girl, straight teen boys must be able to identify with her. Therefore, she cannot be penetrated. However, I think the final girl represents something else especially if she becomes untethered from the male gaze. After all, these days tons of girls and women love the slasher genre and it isn’t because we love seeing ourselves brutally murdered.
Laurie defies some of the final girl’s requirements. She was smart. She was a virgin, but not because of purity. Boys were intimidated by her brains: “They think I’m too smart.”
Laurie also liked Ben Tramer, so there was some lustiness in her loins, plus she smoked a joint with Annie.
In the original Friday the 13th (1980), the final girl drank alcohol, played a game of strip Monopoly, and more than likely had slept with the owner of Camp Crystal Lake.
Flash forward to Scream (1996) and Sidney Prescott sleeps with her boyfriend Billy Loomis (his last name a nod to Michael Myer’s psychiatrist or, perhaps, Sam in Psycho (1960)) on the same night she discovers that he and his friend Stu are the killers. Yet Sidney survives.
So, what are the qualities of a final girl? To put it simply, the final girl stays alive. She survives the trauma.
Meeting the Women in Horror
I recently went to a horror convention. It was like a conference for horror movie fans. I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of people. So many people dressed in Hot Topic garb along with trucker-metal-heads emulating Rob Zombie and his wife. There were also people in costumes dressed up as their favorite horror movie character. Actors were there. Robert Englund who played Freddy Krueger. Heather Langenkamp who played Nancy in The Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with Robert.
The writer, producer, director of The Evil Dead (1981), Sam Raimi, his brother, Ted, and the star Bruce Campbell. Actors from Halloween were there too. P.J. Soles who played Lynda. I had actually met her the night before at The Texas Theater’s showing of Rock n Roll High School which she stars as Riff Randall, the number one fan of The Ramones, another obsession of mine. We wore the same Ramones’ shirt and carried big red vintage bags. We hugged and my husband took photos of me and her together.
The next day, at the horror con, she remembered us. This time she wore a t-shirt with her likeness on it, her when she was young, and Lynda’s catchphrase “totally” at the top. I realized even more deeply that Lynda and Annie were like me at that age, just girls. Maybe more popular than I had been, but still just girls who liked music and movies, and boys, but also had intimate friendships with each other.
I also met Nancy Loomis who played Annie. I told Nancy about a walk with my husband a few weeks earlier. How a car had sped past way too fast, and that I yelled in my best Annie sounding voice, “Hey, jerk! Speed kills,” which is what she yelled at Michael Myers as he drove past her, Lynda, and Laurie, the last time they would all be together and alive. She laughed and said, “Oh no, you didn’t!” I also told her about my wedding and how we had a VHS of Halloween (1978) displayed on a mantel amongst photos of me and my husband.
Women Fans of Horror
At the conference, during a break for lunch, my husband and I sat in a crowded hotel restaurant and shared a table with another couple whom we’d just met. They were fans of Rob Zombie, and looked like they could star in one of his films. The man had long hair and wore a baseball cap with a wide brim, and had a tattoo sleeve, and a grizzly beard. The woman wore a busty top and had tattoos too, a sexy-woman-trucker look. They were from South Texas. We talked horror movies. The sun filtered in through large windows and the heat from the packed in crowd overtook the power of the A/C. They too loved the original Halloween movie.
The woman, Ruby, suddenly told me about her mother, the constant vodka bottle, the back hand sting on Ruby’s lips, and the men who would hurt her mother.
I had only known Ruby since we stood in line and had decided to lunch together when the host said he had a table for four, and due to the number of people waiting, he had to seat four at this table. Yet, here, with a slight sweat down her brow, her husband and my husband talking about other films by John Carpenter, Ruby told me her trauma. I nodded. This was when I began to understand my love of horror, especially the slasher genre, and especially Halloween (1978).
The slasher genre: reactionary and right wing?
The slasher genre is accused of being reactionary and right wing—sometimes Michael is said to be a queer figure, the one the hateful right wing radio talk show hosts and preachers describe as death (though homophobia is the real monster), and sometimes Michael is a symbol for sin and a reminder that sin kills.
Sitting next to Ruby, I thought of the opening of Halloween (1978), with the camera being the eyes of the young Michael Myers, a POV shot through the eyes of the killer, which was first done in the original slasher film Peeping Tom (1960). Young Michael kills his older sister with a kitchen knife.
Of course, she had just had thirty second sex with her boyfriend who had now left the house. After the kill, Michael runs outside. Then suddenly, the gaze is no longer his. He and the camera have detached. The camera pulls away so the audience can see Michael standing, holding the bloody knife, between his parents. This detachment of the gaze was it. Once the movie is no longer filtered through the male gaze, the lens of the patriarchy, much like when the camera separates from Michael, for me (and for Ruby, and, perhaps for other women), Michael and the final girl can be seen as something more than a fundamentalist warning.
The Shape of Trauma
Jamie Lee Curtis, being the one actor who went on to commercial success, was not at the convention, but both the original and the most recent Michael Myers were there. They did not call themselves ‘Michael’, they referred to themselves as The Shape.
The Shape then becomes transmutable and the audience’s own personal fears, my own personal fears, can be used to put a name on it.
In both the original movie and Halloween (2018), as Michael Myers, The Shape, is an escaped psychopath and is of no familial relation to anyone in the film. The 2018 film story line is a continuation of the original, it pretends no sequels exist between the two films, and has a grown up Laurie suffering from PTSD.
She is a gun-hoarding, target-shooting grandma who lives in seclusion behind gates, high-powered lights, and with a hidden room where all her weapons are stashed. Her PTSD has also affected her daughter and granddaughter. They too are traumatized in their own ways by the trauma Laurie survived as a teen. They also signify the belated Lynda and Annie, the two friends she lost as a teen, but now, herself, her daughter, and granddaughter will be the triumvirate that faces The Shape together. It is a trauma survivor’s fantasy.
I can’t put my finger on one moment from my life and say, “This is The Shape.” Like most people who survive in this world, I have too much trauma to contain within this short space.
In my late teens and most of my twenties, I tried to escape the pain of living through drugs and alcohol. So then, are heroin and crack The Shape? It was inside the crackhouses where the most violent trauma happened. It was there I was raped and kidnapped, kept against my will for over twenty four hours. Perhaps, my rapists are The Shape?
During my addiction, my sister worried constantly. If her phone rang too early in the morning, her heart would race, worried it would be about my lifeless body being found somewhere. My sister was afraid that I would die like Lynda and Annie, and like Laurie, she wouldn’t be able to save me.
She could only do her best to survive it all.
Over the years, friends from my past, some I met in recovery, my own father, and a younger relative, have either overdosed or died due to drugs and alcohol, leaving behind children, grieving parents, siblings, and friends. I survived, yet, to this day, I have panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and I teeter on agoraphobia at times. Yet, I am also highly functioning.
The Showdown in Halloween (2018)
In Halloween (2018), it is obvious that the writers understand PTSD, and see Laurie as a survivor.
Laurie Strode admits to dreaming about encountering Michael Myers. When asked why, she responds, “So I can kill him.”
I dream about killing the man who kidnapped me.
In my daily life, I am nonviolent, and oppose the death penalty. Yet, I imagine encountering him on the street and as he lunges toward me—I suddenly do some sort of jump kick and crack his jaw.
When I pump gas, I often worry he is going to sneak up on me, even though I now live in another state, and I envision dousing him with gasoline and then setting him on fire.
This is common in survivors of a violent attack, sexual or not. Trauma survivors often fantasize about killing their attackers. It is a way to feel safe and allay the constant anxiety. It is a way to feel like the power that was taken has been returned. It’s also a fantasy that not only will you not be harmed again, but that you cannot be harmed again, that you are invulnerable.
SPOILER ALERT: Laurie fantasizes about this too, and she gets to control the showdown at the end of the movie in 2018. When I first watched it inside the theater, I cried cathartic tears. I wanted to clap and cheer Laurie on, “Get him!” Laurie, along with her daughter and granddaughter, are the final girls. They together fight the Shape, overcome generational trauma, and burn that motherfucker alive. But of course, The Shape will come back, two sequels are already set, because no one ever fully heals from trauma.
Halloween Kills, Believe Women
Recently, my sister and I watched Halloween (1978) again. We live miles apart. She is in New York making movies, and I am in Texas working on a PhD. Every time we talk, we know we are lucky. We know that we get to be the final girls together in the family haunted by addiction, disease, and early deaths.
As we watched the movie, we texted each other our thoughts about the teen girls, the dialogue, the long shots with Michael Myers in the shadows.
When I first got sober in 2005, my addiction was like the fast-paced music right before Michael attacks, and I was constantly trying to stay ahead of it and the flashbacks.
Now, at sixteen years clean and sober, the piano pacing is very slow and faint, barely audible, my fears much smaller.
Due to the real life horrors of the coronavirus, the next movie in the franchise, Halloween Kills (2021), was postponed a year and is due to be released in October 2021. The trailer recently dropped and as I watched, my skin prickled and tears gathered.
The three women are back and ready to fight, but this time, everyone in town decides to stand with them too. A symbolic believing of women. Even Jamie Lee Curtis hashtagged it #MeToo.
Close to the actual day of Halloween, I will watch both the original Halloween and the 2018 film, and, on October 15th, take in Halloween Kills (2021) in the theater while remembering being six years old.
I’ll remember my father who is now gone and buried. All of my friends and loved ones I lost to overdoses. All the ghosts my sister and I thought we saw coming out of the headstones. All The Shapes that tried to kill me, but couldn’t.
I’ll keep in mind how I continue to stay ahead of the music, sometimes falling down from twisted ankles but always getting back up, always moving forward into the future.
Now, I think of Ruby too. Of all women. Of all survivors. The Laurie Strodes. Final girls in our own lives.
Editor & Artwork/Banner (Film Forums): Richard Williams