Dr. S. Trimble

Writer | Teacher | Pop Culture Analyst

Tag: horror

Final Girls Grow Up

It’s a good time to think about endings. And endings can be eerie, restless things. So here in the twilight zone between holiday cheer and New Year’s resolutions, I find myself thinking about a figure that’s typically defined by endings, but, in 2018, was more about what comes back: the Final Girl. She’s the last one standing at the end of a slasher film, the one who survives horrific violence and lives to tell her tale. In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween introduced us to an iconic Final Girl: Laurie Strode, a teenage babysitter caught up in Michael Myers’ killing spree. This year, a new film in the Halloween franchise picked up her story forty years later, when Laurie is grown up, greying, and vigilant as hell.

The new Halloween was about the afterlife of violence, about the choices we make to survive unspeakable horror. And when I saw it in theatres in mid October, I found myself thinking about another woman who, just a few weeks before, had publicly testified about a decades-old trauma. In late September of this year, psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford appeared before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to tell us what happened to her in 1982. Just a few months before that, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, too, told us about old scars and their psychic cost. On the verge of 2019, then, I find myself looking back on the year that was through the lens of my favourite genre.

From left: Jamie Lee Curtis as a grownup Laurie Strode; Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee; Hannah Gadsby in Nanette.

What did horror illuminate about 2018? What did a genre that’s always been preoccupied with sexual politics do with #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the Trump Presidency? Horror is having something of a renaissance because of its capacity to expose the violence that underwrites the status quo. On the heels of films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), 2018 saw the release of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which includes That Scene we can’t get out of our… heads. And there was an intriguing (but also, hmmmm) Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In one way or another, all these stories are about the creepy-crawly underbelly of the white nuclear family—about who gets cast out, walled in, or possessed in the name of “normal.”

The new Halloween had something to say about this, too. Its depiction of an aging Final Girl breathed new life into a trope that’s always had serious feminist potential. Because the Final Girl exposes the unsafeness of family and community—their complicity, even, in the monster’s terrorizing of their young. Parents disbelieve. Cops and doctors patronize. Neighbours look the other way. So the Final Girl doesn’t just live with the trauma of what happened. She also lives with the knowledge that her so-called protectors were part of the problem. A slasher film with a hardened survivor at its centre made explicit what was there all along: beyond the film’s final frame, beyond that moment when she’s supposedly, finally, safe, the Final Girl grows up. And in the aftermath of all the carnage, she might just look around and notice that being a “good girl” didn’t protect her—that she survived in spite of those for whom she was busy being good.

Beyond the film’s final frame, beyond that moment when she’s supposedly, finally, safe, the Final Girl grows up.

So Laurie Strode’s greying hair signals more than the passage of time—the forty years since a man-shaped nightmare lunged out of the dark. She isn’t just older but wiser. On Halloween night in 1978, Laurie learned that what Carole Pateman called the “sexual contract” is a raw deal. It’s the contract that structures patriarchal power: white women exchange obedience—to their fathers, then their husbands—in exchange for provision and protection. And the story that goes along with this contract is that “good girls” are rewarded with all the security a family and family home supposedly offer.

But in the horror version of this story, even when the good girl is upholding her end of the bargain, the family is not. She’s stalked, sliced, and tormented while her white knights disappear. In one of the most horrifying scenes in the original Halloween, a teenage Laurie runs through the streets of Haddonfield, screaming for help, and her neighbours close their doors to what they dismiss as a Halloween prank. So she’s alive at the end of the film, yes. But how does she feel about the community that turned its back on her? That night, maybe terror and desperation left little room for rage. But now?

Laurie Strode (Jame Lee Curtis) is on her own against boogeyman Michael Myers.

At the start of Halloween (2018), Laurie Strode’s adult daughter thinks her mother is a paranoid prepper. She stocks weapons, fortifies her house, and prays for vengeance. And when her prayers are answered—when Michael Myers returns—Laurie again finds herself on the streets of Haddonfield on Halloween night. She’s screaming for everyone to GO HOME because she knows what’s coming. Pause there and see her from the angle of the kid in the pirate costume: an old woman is ranting and waving a gun, dead serious on a night that’s all about pretend; something’s wrong… with her. All grown up and certain the danger is real, the Final Girl is a seer.

And as Rebecca Solnit has observed, seers are gifted with foresight but doomed not to be believed. Solnit starts with the tale of Cassandra, the princess who prophesied the destruction of Troy. Then she talks about Rachel Carson, Anita Hill… woman after woman whose truth was reframed as delusion. In the streets of Haddonfield, a grownup Laurie endures the disbelief all over again. Back bearing a message about the horrors of masculine violence, she’s written off, to borrow Solnit’s phrasing, as “delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once…” But this time she’s not asking for help. She’s issuing a warning. Because unlike her family and former neighbours, this Laurie Strode sees it all coming.

A grownup Laurie Strode prepares for the next nightmare.

In 2018, Laurie is armed to the teeth and waiting for a boogeyman. She’s a recluse who lives behind gates and double-locked doors. Cameras survey the property. Floodlights on the roof. There’s a shooting range out back and the basement, with its hidden entrance, is part panic room and part bunker. This is the house Laurie’s daughter grew up in. This is where Karen learned to shoot, to fight, to react to threats. But then social services took her away at the age of 12 and Karen started reassessing her weird upbringing. “I know you think this place is my cage,” Laurie says at one point.

Yes, this life has cost the Final Girl dearly. She never regained custody of her kid; she’s twice divorced; she drinks too much and can’t stop talking about That Night. But in the end it comes down to this: Laurie is isolated because she knows that young women, especially, can be sucked into a nightmare in a split second. And nothing—not her daughter’s happy suburban home and not her granddaughter’s sweet new boyfriend—can make her forget this truth. The boogeyman is real, Laurie says. And his threat is magnified by psychiatrists who obsess over his feelings and journalists who make him an icon. So she remakes herself, her kid, and her house in preparation for the next nightmare. And when Laurie has Michael cornered, Karen finally sees something about the house her mother made: it’s not a cage. It’s a trap.

Laurie looks into her basement / bunker / man trap.

This Laurie Strode captures something of the mood of gender politics in 2018. She’s tough, pissed, and yeah, a little off-kilter. And she has something in common with the other women who, this year, told stories of being haunted by the nightmares made by patriarchal culture. In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby ripped open her standup routine to make room for a tale of queer survival. She talked about the time she was beaten by a man who took exception to her gender nonconformity. She shared that she was sexually abused as a child and raped by two men in her early twenties. And then she dared all those fuckers to come at her again. Because, Gadsby says, “there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

This year reminded me that Final Girls grow up. Broken women rebuild.

There was hope in the horror in 2018.

Through a side door: on kid fears

A tiny version of me.

~Starring: a tiny version of me, Father Ferguson, and The Further~

It’s not so much a memory as a story I’ve been told: a two year-old version of me crouches beneath the dining table in our old house. I’m asleep, but screaming. Whether terrified, enraged, or some combination, I’m responding to a dreamworld that’s mushroomed open inside my home, expanding it from the inside. I’ve been racing through that parallel space, darting through openings and weaving among objects that both are and are not the hallways, doorways, and furniture of our tiny house on Queen’s Avenue. As an adult, I have no recollection of that other world or what I was doing there, but my night terrors are now part of my personal mythology: when I was a kid, I used to go somewhere in my sleep and run, shrieking, from (or maybe toward) whatever I found there. This went on until, out of options and in a desperate bid to soothe whatever wild energy I may have been sensing, my parents allowed their minister to bless our house.

There was a kind of exorcism. And, soon after, I stopped screaming. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t about cause and effect.

My project as a scholar has been to seek out suppressed perspectives, ways of seeing that might unsettle what we think we know and help us feel the world’s contingency, its openness to transformation. Appropriately, then, I think this project is deeply rooted in an experience I can’t recall, because once upon a time a smaller version of me used to open her eyes and see something else—something more than a hallway, a tile floor, or a dining table. Until a few years ago, I hadn’t given this much thought, but then my mom and I went to see James Wan’s Insidious (2010), and it gripped me in a way I really didn’t expect. (My mom is my brave but somewhat reluctant horror movie buddy. She watches some scenes with her hands over her eyes, and is usually good for at least one “jump” in her seat that startles me more than the movie does…) I’ve decided to start my series on haunting by telling you about this movie because, when I watched it, I felt it picking up some of the fragments of my kid fears and putting them together. It felt like an invitation to reconstruct that “other” realm that sometimes surfaced in the midst of my family home and made it what Freud called unheimlich—unhomely or uncanny. The furnace had teeth; there was an eye in the curtain (more on that another time)… So in these writings on hauntings I’m coming at my research through a side door. It’s the door that Avery Gordon, in her fantastic book on ghosts and haunting, describes as “the door of the uncanny, the door of the fragment, the door of the shocking parallel.” It leads down a rabbit hole of discarded memories and strange feelings and the other traces of experience that make us tick.

Insidious is the story of a kid who goes to sleep one night and doesn’t wake up. Dalton Insidious_DaltonLambert, we find out, is a skilled traveler of the astral plane, an ability he’s inherited from his dad. His consciousness journeys into other realms when he sleeps, and this time he’s wandered too far, becoming lost in a place that paranormal investigator Elise Reiner calls “The Further.” While he’s gone, the tortured souls of the dead vie for possession of his unconscious body, using it as a conduit through which to fleetingly access the world of the living and ultimately looking to steal it for keeps. And while these lesser entities terrorize the Lambert family in “this” world, a particularly malevolent figure that Elise describes as a “parasite” keeps Dalton trapped in its corner of The Further.

Insidious_ParasiteRealizing that Dalton can’t make his own way home, Elise sends his father, Josh, to retrieve him. The family secret, you see, is that Josh used to travel as Dalton does; as a child, he’d experienced what his mother had understood to be night terrors, until, alerted by the presence of a shadowy figure haunting her son in a series of family photographs—coming nearer and clearer with each image—she’d enlisted Elise’s help. “Night terrors” were the this-worldly manifestation of his repeated wanderings into The Further. They stopped when Elise repressed his memory both of where he went and how he got there.

I liked this film from the beginning. I began to feel invested in the story early on when Dalton’s mom, Renai, ventures into the attic of the Lamberts’ new house and sees an old wood stove inexplicably roar to life, its decorative metal-work animated by the flickering orange and looking, all told, unnervingly face-like. When I was a kid the furnace in our basement did something like that. Frightened by an Ontario Hydro commercial—one way scarier than this one, though it’s creepy in its own right—my mind rewrote the big metal box in the utility room as a grinning, fire-breathing monster. In fact, when I first recalled the stove scene in Insidious so I could write about it, I “remembered” it as Dalton’s scene, not Renai’s, and pictured the front grate on the stove snapping open and closed like gnashing teeth. My own cloudy memory-images—flames licking fangs, me nervously dashing past the threshold of the beast’s lair—mutated my recollection of what’s actually a pretty low-key scene; feelings and associations rewrote what I saw. So when Insidious went from hungry stoves to night terrors, I was all in. And then it took us into the Further… 

Insidious visually renders its parallel dimension as an amorphous, edgeless darkness in which recognizable landmarks—the Lamberts’ old house, in this case—appear like faded photographs of themselves, their thresholds roiling with mist, their outlines uncertain. In the Lambert house we encounter what seem to be shades of its former inhabitants, including a white family arranged in a mid-century living room tableau: mom at the ironing board, dad reading the paper on the sofa and, next to him, daughter number one staring straight ahead. As Josh moves on from the room, we hear the sound of a shotgun cocking and firing. He goes back to find daughter number two wearing a why-so-serious grin and standing, holding the gun, in front of the sofa on which all three family members are now slumped.

Why so serious?

In my research and teaching, I’m beginning to explore the socio-political pasts that haunt the houses of horror fiction, and this, certainly, can be read as a gesture in that direction: the twisted underbelly of the American nuclear family; a monstrous daughter violently intervening in a space shaped by patriarchal power… But here I’m interested as much in space as time because, like many haunted houses, this version of the Lamberts’ home is bigger on the inside than it should be: through an ominous red door in the attic, the interior of the house bleeds into a nightmare dimension complete with a “workshop” in which Dalton’s demon sharpens its claws while an old gramophone warbles Tiny Tim’s creepily off-kilter “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” The Further stretches the house from the inside, and Dalton’s been busily exploring—and mapping in his drawings—an unseen extension animated by horror, fear, rage, sorrow, and other “bad” feelings.

I have no idea where I was during my night terrors, but thinking about the film’s visual rendering of The Further led me to a realization about them: I “know” that this world is ghosted by alternative iterations of itself, that it sometimes gives way to other layers of experience and perspective into which we can be emotionally pulled. I’m not saying that I was busily projecting myself onto the astral plane as a kid (but I’m not saying I wasn’t, because that’s a pretty cool story). I’m just saying that once upon a time I physically navigated and emotionally responded to a place that was different—though not unconnected—from this one. I opened my eyes and saw something else, and it was terrifying or enraging or exhilarating or maybe all three. I’ve been wondering if my history of reading and watching horror stories has kept some element of that experience alive; if the combination has helped me become attuned to the other stories—other ways of seeing the world—that become discernible if we attend to shadows and ghostly presences and things that go bump in the night.

Next up! “Idle hands”: some thoughts on severed, possessed and revolutionary hands in horror stories…

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