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The Final Girl Is All Grown Up

What the new 'Halloween' says about the horror of white womanhood

Ryan Green / Universal Studios

Halloween is a porous time for the American household. Children you’ve never met come all the way up to your door and expect you to open it. You might go to a costume party yourself, slipping into other houses, other masked identities. It’s a rare moment of liberation, and for that very reason Halloween frays the walls of our world. Where the lights in the window ordinarily convey warmth and security, shadows creep in.

A new sequel to Halloween (1978) has just come out, with its original star Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode, only 40 years older. The original movie is often held up as the first true slasher film. Although older films like Peeping Tom and Psycho laid the groundwork for the slasher, its golden age was between 1978 and 1984, which saw the release of classics like Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

A true slasher film pits a violent maniac, usually male and blade-wielding and unstoppable, against a group of teens who succumb one by one, according to a kind of moral sequence. The slasher may be motivated by a slight or trauma incurred years earlier, springing up to wreak his revenge on a significant anniversary. Halloween is the paradigmatic version of this story, because it takes place so symbolically in the home. Michael Myers, a masked brute, targets babysitters and their friends. No adults can help them, and the family home is no defense against his insidious invasions. Halloween chases a plot up and down the stairs of a house, in and out of closets. It transforms the American home into a chamber of bloody violence.

Some critics have pointed to the rising divorce rate in the 1970s as the catalyst for the slasher film’s rise, reading them as tributes to disenfranchised adolescents’ terror as they come of age without the nuclear family as a protective shield. In a new world of family instability, the horrors of the adult sphere—strangers, stalkers, encroaching death—invade the home. They turn the ordinary travails of every teen—to make a little money babysitting, to have a little fun with your boyfriend—into a battle for survival.

Halloween is also famous for its use of the final girl trope. The term is Carol J. Clover’s, from her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The final girl is the last survivor, usually an innocent, white young woman, while all her sluttier or otherwise less virginal friends have already been annihilated. It’s a classic damsel-in-distress role, but inflected by all sorts of gender tension. Is Laurie Strode of Halloween a girl empowered by her own prude boundaries, which gives her the strength to make it out alive? Or is she just a repository of sexist fantasy, the only human being with sufficient “purity” to deserve rescue at the end? A man does usually turn up to save the final girl, after all.

Clover’s theory has gained wide application. She herself applied it to Ripley of Alien, because of her “smartness, gravity ... and sexual reluctance,” and others have found final girls in Sarah Connor of Terminator and Sidney Prescott of Scream. But Clover developed the concept very specifically for the classic slasher flick, of which Halloween is the canonical exemplar.

The new sequel, also called Halloween, is a ferocious re-engagement with the final girl concept. We begin with a pair of podcasters who are looking for interviews with the incarcerated Myers and with Strode herself. They find Strode a traumatized grandmother, locked in a fortress of a house and in possession of a poor relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer). Unable to cope with a world still containing a living Michael Myers, Laurie forced Karen to shoot a gun at age 8, to practice facing down a killer who haunted her dreams. Ironically, Laurie ended up perpetuating the trauma of the first Halloween inside her own household.

Her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is not so hostile. She has grown up with Karen, who has taught her that the world is actually a safe and loving place. How wrong she is! Inevitably, Michael Myers escapes during a prison transfer. He makes a beeline for the local town, where Halloween is in full swing. It’s 40 years to the day since he first terrorized Laurie. Allyson, along with a gang of other teens, are busy dancing the night away. She loses her phone (actually her boyfriend, dressed as Bonnie to her Clyde, throws it in a trifle) and doesn’t hear the terrible news: Myers is back.

His first victims, hilariously enough, are the podcasters, whom he corners in a dirty toilet and pulverizes with glee. But it’s only with the babysitter that the old Myers really comes out. Sure enough, a little kid complains of shadows in the closet. There’s nothing there, his babysitter reassures him. Suddenly, something is very much there.

Laurie and Karen retreat to the mother’s bastion, while Allyson runs alone through the town. (Allyson’s dad gets killed off instantly, of course.) Once down in Laurie’s basement, we realize that this woman is essentially a doomsday prepper. The cellar is filled with preserved food and weapons. Is this a traumatized victim, or has Laurie morphed into something else—a hateful, isolated old white lady?

The final girl is not what she once was. Though feminist film critics of earlier decades have made much of her plight—and her inversion in tough cookies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer—we live in a different world, now. White women who are loudly afraid of people coming into their homes—mistrustful of the other, homesteading deep down into their notion of American identity—are not sympathetic characters. Would Laurie Strode have voted for Trump? It’s a fascinating character twist. In the 2018 Halloween, the pure white damsel has become a tough gunslinger, but one who feels a little repellent, a little too much like a survivalist in waiting for armageddon. She’s just itching for somebody to step on her lawn.

As Michael stalks through Laurie Strode’s house, she ends up chasing him. Is he in this closet, that looks so like the one she cowered in decades earlier? He eludes her for long, long minutes as she strides with shotgun and torch in a hunt for her own peace of mind. As Laurie passes through each of the upstairs rooms, she seals them off with special portcullis devices. It’s as if she’s compartmentalizing off parts of her own brain.

Allyson makes it to the house, and joins Karen in the basement. Confronted by memories of her own awful childhood, Karen quakes with fear. Here, in a beautiful old house in the Midwest, three generations of women are trapped in a violent manifestation of their shared trauma. Male violence, the movie seems to say, has this horribly inhuman way of never dying.

The last stroke of genius is the movie’s unsatisfying ending. The three women have turned the basement into a trap for Myers, but there’s no way of knowing quite what’s happened to the monster. We do know that Allyson will be scarred forever by her experience; that Karen’s worst girlhood nightmares have come true; that Laurie will never be free of the pain enacted upon her by her would-be killer. Violence doesn’t just come in the night and then leave us, Halloween argues. It gets right down in the basement of your soul, and stays forever.

By stripping Laurie of her purity, the “final girl” of Halloween has been shorn of all her pretenses. White women have become controversial figures in American society—the people we all expected to stand up to a sexual predator in 2016, but who instead came out in droves to vote him into office. Some commentators have condemned these women for their lack of a social conscience. In The New York Times, a number of white women described their vote for Trump as an assertion of their autonomy. “You get through the bad and you focus on the good,” one said. “Basically these were our choices, and I felt he was the better choice, and I had to overlook the negatives and focus on the positives.”

In Laurie Strode, this kind of white woman has found her perfect horror avatar. Laurie refuses to be told what to do, and is full of hatred for the outside world. She cares for nobody but her own offspring, whom she is willing to harm psychologically in order to “save” them. We know that trauma is the reason for her behavior, but Halloween never lapses into a simplistic revenge fantasy against men writ large. Instead, it’s a brutal rumination on intergenerational pain, and the ways that male cruelty can make good women bad. The final girl has become a final woman, and there’s something very nasty in her cellar.