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.
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?
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.
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.
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.