What’s a Women In Horror series without Jamie Lee Curtis?
Not just the most famous Final Girl in cinema history but one of the most influential and a main originator of the term, Laurie Strode is, for me, the queen. Future horror heroines would emerge from the building blocks of Laurie’s character and develop in more progressive directions (see Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, and Sidney Prescott), but without Laurie, would they exist? For all of Halloween’s flaws when it comes to portrayals of women in general, she should never be dismissed as just a simplistic Final Girl, or only the trope’s codifier.
The reason Halloween remains successful is because its terror stems from a deliberately simple premise: unexpected violence in a suburban neighborhood. Laurie spends Halloween day going through the motions of her daily life: school, home, friends, work. She feels listless, bored, and unsettled — only for her routine to suffer disruption from a serial killer. That’s something that could happen to any of us, the monotonously predictable grind of existence uprooted just because someone decided, without discernible reason or motive except their own sadism, they wanted to kill us. Specifically, a man with hatred for the female body. Laurie expects a typical night babysitting, not a fight-to-the-death situation, and it happens so fast she isn’t granted more than seconds to plan any sort of proactive, autonomous attack of her own — exactly how it would play out in real life if someone broke into our home. She’s alone, in a house not her own, lacking any parental supervision or assistance. Within this context her reactive, defensive nature is perfectly acceptable, and doesn’t define her as a victim. How many of us wouldn’t cry and scream and panic at the realization we’re being hunted to our deaths?
What’s so amazingly impressive and defining of Laurie’s strengths as heroine rather than helpless victim is how she fights back. Rather than experiencing a forcible stripping of her femininity and assuming masculinity to survive, Laurie attacks Michael Myers with two makeshift items associated with women — a knitting needle and a wire hanger. She fashions effective weapons out of domestic items on the fly, one of which she carries in her purse. When she finally steals Myers’s knife and stabs him, it’s a victory, not a transformative concession to the power of the violent masculine; she rips away the phallic item he used to murder her friends and turns it against him. Any normal man would have died. She even fights off his chokehold and removes his mask, rendering him stunned and vulnerable. This is where I take umbrage with the analytical conclusion that Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) rescues Laurie by shooting Myers. Laurie wasn’t condemned to death and saved by his timely arrival. She had already rescued herself for the third time, and the bullets from Loomis’s gun aren’t any more effective in taking down this nigh-supernatural force of evil than Laurie’s efforts. At every moment in time, she’s her own savior.
Within the small narrative allowance granted, Laurie actually possesses a good deal of agency. A suspicion’s developed in her mind, growing as every hour passes. In her gut she knows something’s wrong next door, and rather than hiding, she investigates. She isn’t wandering haplessly into a dangerous scenario as easy torture porn fodder; she’s looking, cautiously, with awareness, into her friends’ well being. When confronted with danger, her wit is lightning-fast: breaking a potted plant against a house window to raise attention, opening patio doors in an attempt to divert Myers outside while she hides in the closet, tying those closet doors shut from the inside, using her own knitting needle to stab his neck. It’s stunning how inventive she is while also sobbing in understandable terror; breathtaking and empowering to watch her refusal to stop fighting, her escape from an oppressing menace. Her screaming tears and exhausted demeanor never reduce her to weak or mockable, and she isn’t exploited as a sexual object whose pain the straight male audience is encouraged to voyeuristically enjoy. She disrupts expectations.
My favorite image of the entire movie remains her leaning her shaking body against a doorframe, bruised, bloody, and weary. Slowly, counting her breaths back to steady and gathering up the last remaining shards of her frayed strength, she rises back to her feet and drags herself into the hallway. The film may open with Myers’s first murder, but this is Laurie’s story— something the 2007 Rob Zombie remake utterly failed to recognize. Within the context of the plot, Laurie is progressive, brilliant, and every inch a heroine.
I will admit part of my fierce love stems from an obvious bias. I have been and still am shy, introverted, and bookish, and Laurie is the nerd girl’s most famous horror representative. There’s absolutely an obvious good girl/bad girl dichotomy at work (which we’ll get to more later): her friends Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Linda (P. J. Soles) are responsibility-avoidant high schoolers who drink, do drugs, and enjoy sex, while Laurie is a devoted student and uncomfortable around boys. Laurie’s the good girl, her friends the foolish bad ones who get killed for their antics (and, implicitly, their refusal to obey the gender norm of a supervising, selfless, maternal babysitter). As clear a problem as that is, I don’t hold Laurie as a character to fault. I was the student who didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t date, who stayed home and studied and read books, and it wasn’t a judgment on my female friends who liked partaking in those actions — I just wasn’t interested in them. If they wanted to, spectacular; I preferred staying home and eating pizza.
Laurie is, in fact, interested in boys, even making jokes about sex, but as a painfully shy introvert she can’t express her interest. It’s utterly incomprehensible to her that Annie thinks asking boys out is “easy.” I have social anxiety, so many person-to-person interactions are frightening, mystifying, and unconquerable to me. The idea of talking, especially to someone I’m attracted to, is as impossible as scaling a mountain. (Which Laurie’s friends mock, berating her differences rather than accepting, and taking advantage of her kindness.) Those traits make Laurie relatable to me, not a mere cliche. It’s also telling that Laurie says boys “think I’m too smart”; even if she felt comfortable approaching them, they’ve decided she’s too intimidating — a fault of their own, not hers. She may very much be the shy virgin, but it isn’t as clear-cut a delineation as one might assume on the surface (she smokes pot because she wants to, gasp!). And it’s okay for Laurie to be an introverted nerd because of the variety of differently characterized women who have followed in her genre footsteps since 1978. If all heroines followed the trope without subversion, that’s when we’d have a problem.
Of course, Halloween is far from perfect — the film infamously popularized the equation of sex and death in horror. There’s nothing positive and no way to defend it, nor do I wish to. Annie and Linda’s deaths are intrinsically tied to their sexualities, their murders inseparable from enjoying sex outside of wedlock. Michael Myers uses a knife to penetrate their bodies, the same way he took a knife to his sister’s gratuitously naked body for her decision to sleep with her boyfriend rather than take care of Myers. All of the female characters except for Laurie are frequently nude and framed to emphasis that nudity for titillation. Laurie survives precisely because she’s the singular “smart” virgin undistracted by partying. Intentionally or not, as a morality message it advocates the patriarchal desire to control, define, and punish women’s sexualities, and the brutal dispatching of the sexually experienced women who don’t obey the established rules of the male power structure, who threaten the neighborhood’s status quo, is offensive, disgusting, and damaging.
Yet for all of those cliched flaws, no film I’ve seen better captures the feminine experience of being watched. Laurie and her friends are stalked, followed, threatened, constantly subjected to the menacing scrutinization of a hateful, lustful, predatory male gaze who wishes to dismember and destroy, whose violent urges are viciously inflicted upon women’s bodies. The sickening prickle of my skin when I realize a man is looking, evaluating, objectifying; that terrifying fear of being hunted, that my life is in danger just because I’m a woman — I feel it in my bones every time I watch Halloween. Most horrifying of all is the ending, shots of empty rooms with the accompanying sound of Myers’s heavy breathing. Violence against women continues. It doesn’t die.
When Laurie runs to the closest house, banging on the door and begging for help, a male murderer on her heels, the residents didn’t listen. No one believes a screaming woman in fear of her life. So she defeats him herself on her own power, discovering within herself a resourceful survivor. She remains horror’s archetypal Final Girl for a reason, and none can remove her crown.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in some of the genre’s most iconic films.