Trauma lingers. Shattered fragments and distorted snapshots of debilitating events find their way bubbling up to the surface of my mind years after my own dealings with horror. Having survived sexual assault, I’m left trying to reconstruct myself into the person I want to be. But try as I might, I’m always left carrying the cross of my past. Even if it gets lighter, it’s still there.
The greatest fallacy of all slasher sequels is the insistence that a final girl can pick things up where she left off without any visible wounds after she's survived a potential murder. They carry their own crosses too, and to pretend otherwise is offensive. Halloween II (2009) rectifies that problem by only being about the trauma of Laurie Strode and the struggles she has in keeping her head above water in day to day life as the anniversary of the event that forever shook her life approaches.
Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor Compton) is an exposed nerve ready to break at any second. She isn't the good-natured girl you saw in the previous movie. She's been hardened by the unfortunate luck of being attached to a broken, abusive family that she never knew she had. Horror films rarely grapple with the mental state of the survivor, instead focusing on the construction of the killer. The final girls never become icons like Michael Myers, and instead they are relegated to plot points in a larger genre exercise. Halloween (1978) is perhaps the greatest genre exercise of all time, and as great as that film is it doesn’t carry a complicated, dense relationship with its characters. An argument could be made that it would disrupt the lean horror and the portrait of Laurie (originally portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis), and her primal need to survive if detours were made to explain how she functions in day to day life, but then what of the aftermath in Halloween II from 1981? The choice to once again have Laurie fight for survival in much the same way she did in the first film, this time in a hospital, represents the simplicity of the genre. The intentions were always to make Laurie a catalyst for the horror of Myers and not much more. This robs Laurie of her own story, and because it was the figure for the modern slasher it gave filmmakers a template of hollow women who fought back and were empowering only on a superficial level. Slasher films ask audiences to identify with the final girl, but rarely are questions asked of the audience that complicate or strengthen their relationship with the character. Despite the genre signifier of "horror", slasher films frequently flinch at the notion of the word, especially in a psychological sense. You can show as much blood as you want, but to make you care about the blood being shed is an entirely different thought, and that is not possible without a persistent, meaningful relationship with the final girl. In the case of Halloween II, Rob Zombie succeeds when he asks audiences "What does it feel like to be Laurie Strode?"
Laurie Strode can't sleep. We're reacquainted with her in an elaborate nightmare where she experiences the terror of Michael Myers again in a sequence where her reaper purges the hospital of all life until he settles on Laurie and finishes the job he didn't complete in the first movie by slamming an axe into her body. She screams and shakes violently upon awaking realizing that it was only a dream, and she is still alive. This opening sequence is important in presenting Laurie's point of view as the focus, and gives context to her fragile state of mind. She carries herself over to her bathroom mirror and flicks the light on; an intertitle says "Two Years Later" and Laurie stares at herself in the mirror with the exhausted expression of someone who isn’t allowed to forget the past. She tries to give herself a pep talk saying, "he's fucking dead", but because Michael's body was never found Laurie doesn't have the closure to fully believe that statement. And with Halloween approaching, she's spiraling without a safety net to catch her on the way down.
For Laurie, Michael Myers is always a fixture. She can't look into a mirror without being reminded of the attack due to scar tissue on her face, and living with her best friend, Annie (Danielle Harris), riddles her with guilt, because Annie carries some of those same scars having survived the attack too. Laurie takes the blame upon herself and can't seem to cope with the fact that she was somehow responsible for these actions since Myers targeted her.
These opening scenes are beautiful in introspection. They serve to give the audience an understanding of why Laurie struggles and how her own trauma invokes empathetic understanding. In Laurie's mind, Michael Myers doesn't simply vanish if you kill him --because trauma doesn't work that way. Trauma sticks around in fragments, and is something that can be brought to life at any given moment by an image or a sensation and, for Laurie, Halloween is the ultimate trigger. It’s something she cannot avoid.
Zombie's Halloween films are about aftershocks, cause and effect, the root of violence, and the mind-set of the survivor. The effect of violence is never a singular entity in Zombie's creation, but instead works like a virus that infects the surroundings. Haddonfield goes from a sleepy, midwestern town of family values and holiday pumpkins, to a valley of decay. The rustic neighborhoods are overtaken with buildings in disarray and streets that are barren of human activity. Living with the ghost of tragedy shakes the city, and its skeletal hand has touched the mind of the community. It's only been two years since the second Myers tragedy, but his ghost looms for Laurie and others. When Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) takes advantage of their sorrow to sell a book, a grieving father takes a gun to the man and blames him for the death of his daughter. These are open wounds that give the film a context of lingering oppression that hangs over every single scene like a black shroud. Laurie isn't doing much better as her internal battle rages on she begins to lose grip of herself as the anniversary of her attack draws near.
In these scenes of isolation where Laurie drinks away her pain and Adelaide stumbles back into drug usage, a resounding melancholy informs what the camera is doing and how their bodies occupy space within the frame. In Halloween II and The Lords of Salem these situations are broken up by friends who merely try to help bring Laurie and Adelaide back to life, but these violations of space by well meaning friends disrupt their own sense of safety. For Laurie Strode, she has a zero to one hundred rage that she can't control when Annie tries to help her with her "one day at a time" self-help advice, and for Adelaide it is an insistence that she is okay despite all the evidence that proves she isn't.
There's a reprisal in these films in how they foreshadow the doomed that makes them evocative of the mood displayed in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). In Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) succumbs to an almost supernatural descent due to her real life dealings with an incestuous father who has raped her an immeasurable amount of times. Laura Palmer seeps into the cracks of her own mental state and through Lynch's trademark surrealism; her fall is captured through the unexplainable. A girl who should have never had to struggle with these feelings is an unexplainable connotation in the mainstream of cinema, but the reality is that Laura Palmer isn't alone, and this isn't something that just happens in horror films. A chorus of angels follows Laura in her own acceptance of death. It is a beautiful moment because it's over. She no longer has to struggle. There's an idea of the woman martyr that exists in Halloween II, The Lords of Salem and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me which is something that reaches all the way back to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In order to become a martyr you'd have to be sacrificed for a larger idea and those deaths would have to echo as a call to a stoppage of some real world horror. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me accomplishes this task and is a stronger, more impactful film because of it, and while Halloween II and The Lords of Salem are closer to genre constructions of witchcraft and senseless violence they too carry some weight. The convicted witches of Salem and the trauma of violence are ideas with depth behind them, and even if they aren’t as urgent as rape due to the distance of genre construction they still achieve something resembling epiphany through the sincerity in the presentation of their complicated women.
The greatest horror films do not merely scare, but leave untraceable wounds you didn't know existed until weeks after watching. They linger and find their way inside of you until they become a part of your physical makeup. I've always wondered why movies that make me feel the poorest end up being my favorites, and the only answer I can come up with is that I'm a little bit broken due to my past, and there's a peace at the center of movies like Halloween II, where I see something in Laurie Strode that I see in myself. It isn't a graceful picture nor is it one where I'm empowered by her actions, but a reverberating ache that I recognize in her soul and in my own. I didn't survive a potential murder, but I did survive incest, and that trauma is something I drag around behind me every single day of my life. The thing about horror is that it never truly ends. No one ever asks for horror to be brought into their lives, but once it's there it's there to stay.
about the writer
Willow Maclay is a film critic based in St. John's, Newfoundland. She has written for publications such as clèo journal, Bechdel Test Fest, Movie Mezzanine, Village Voice and her own blog Curtsies and Hand Grenades. When she's not writing she's taking care of her dreadfully clumsy cat Calcifer.