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The Legacy of Halloween (1978)

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

CW: this post discusses the plot details of the Halloween movie series, including many spoilers as well as mentions of murder, institutionalization, substance abuse, and child welfare systems.

How could I start my scary movie blog post series with anything other than Halloween? Halloween, released in 1978, was one of the first mainstream slasher movies and helped make the genre wildly popular. It helped cement some of the most now well known horror tropes, including:

- the final girl: the one innocent girl who watches everyone around her die, only to defeat the villain herself

- the unkillable, ambiguously human villain

- sex = death, which pairs directly with the trope of the final girl. It is very much rooted in a moral purity culture that many of us have experience with

- and of course the always problematic Escaped Mental Patient, who represents society’s stigma toward and fear of mental health difficulties

Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis in her first ever film role, was a teenage babysitter targeted and hunted by Michael Myers, an ‘escaped mental patient’, (I use those words to identify the trope, not because I agree with them) who was locked up at age 6 after stabbing his older sister to death and now walks around menacingly in coveralls and a spooky white mask (actually a Star Trek mask of William Shatner as Captain Kirk, spray painted white).

In 2018, a direct sequel to Halloween (1978) is released, followed quickly by Halloween Kills (2021) and Halloween Ends (2022) (I’m not going into these sequels because I think Halloween (2018) is the perfect ending for the series and I’m not bothering with the next 2). Halloween (2018) ignores the existence of all the other films in the franchise. This sequel is very confusingly just titled Halloween. Like, you could say, I’m a fan of the movie Halloween. And also the sequel, Halloween. Makes sense to me. For clarity’s sake when talking about Halloween (1978) or Halloween (2018), I’ll make sure to include the year. Halloween (2018) is the first Halloween movie in almost a decade, and it takes place exactly 40 years after the events of Halloween (1978). Michael Myers has been institutionalized since the events of the first film, while Laurie Strode has dedicated her life to keeping herself safe and being ready for another attack. Michael escapes while being transported from one institution to another and goes back to where it all began, hunting down Laurie and her family and killing anyone he comes across on his way, just for funsies. I love this movie. We learn that over the last 40 years, Laurie’s been divorced twice and had her daughter taken away by the state. Laurie lives alone in a fortress, barricaded into an intense survivalist compound she’s built for herself, full of weapons, booby traps, and secret rooms. She drinks heavily to cope with the trauma. Laurie’s daughter Karen is now an adult who has a strained relationship with Laurie, although Karen’s teenage daughter Allyson tries to maintain a relationship with her grandmother. Michael gets loose and Laurie, Karen, and Allyson work together to fight for their lives and defeat Michael. In the end, they trap Michael in Laurie’s house and set it ablaze while the three of them escape to safety in the back of a passing pickup truck. In terms of the beats of the plot, this is a fairly standard, somewhat generic Halloween movie. But the way they’ve captured Laurie’s trauma is just - *chef’s kiss*. At the end of Halloween (1978), Laurie is safe, she’s survived, and we can imagine her going on to live a happy, resilient life, putting this incident behind her. Halloween (2018) crushes that hope. It shows us that the events of one night when she was a teenager have shaped the entirety of the rest of her life. She has lived in fear of Michael returning for her and has worked nonstop to keep herself and her family safe, at the expense of everything else in her life.

We learn that Karen was raised by Laurie until adolescence, and that she was taught to fight and to survive. She learned how to shoot and how to be hypervigilant, her mother instilling this fear into her from birth. Laurie’s experience of trauma has changed the way she interacts with the world. She no longer trusts that the world is safe, and she does everything she can to increase her sense of safety and control. Statistically, logically, realistically, whatever we want to call it - Michael has been captured and locked up, and poses absolutely no threat to Laurie anymore. But Laurie can’t trust that she’s actually safe, and her trauma tells her that the only way she can protect herself is to be hypervigilant and constantly on guard, ready for another attack. Her daughter Karen has never been attacked by Michael Myers. Karen has never encountered Michael in any way. But because of the impact Michael has had on Laurie, Karen grows up living in fear of him.

This is such a great depiction of intergenerational trauma - Laurie’s traumatic experience dictates the way she raises Karen, which leads to Karen growing up with a distorted sense of her own safety in the world. Laurie’s intentions in raising Karen are loving and caring. She’s raising Karen to be safe, which is the most important thing in the world to her. She’s trying to make sure that Karen will never experience the trauma that she did - but in doing so, she’s imparting a whole new trauma on Karen, who spends her childhood believing that the world is unsafe.

After Karen is taken away by the state, Laurie never regains custody of her, and I’m not getting too into my feelings about the state apprehending kids in this post, but spending her adolescence and teenage years in foster care is inevitably traumatizing. Even if Karen had a fantastic experience in foster care, being ripped away from the only family she’s ever known is violent and painful. Growing up in foster care, Karen would learn that her mother is crazy, that her mother’s worldview is skewed (and therefore, her own is also skewed). Karen would spend her teenage years trying to come to terms with the world outside the limited scope of her mom’s trauma. And because Laurie’s trauma was so powerful, she could not ease up in her hypervigilance, even to get her daughter back. Karen grew up watching her mother constantly in survival mode despite Karen never seeing any evidence of danger, so Karen came to understand that her mother was just unwell. She distanced herself from her mother as she got older because this fear was the only thing in Laurie’s life. We can see the intergenerational impacts of this even further, in the way Allyson interacts with her mother and grandmother. The strain in Karen and Laurie’s relationship has made it difficult for Allyson to have a relationship with Laurie and she resorts to meeting with Laurie in secret, frustrated and not really understanding why Karen is so reluctant to involve Laurie in their lives. Karen tries to explain how her childhood impacted her, but that’s not a trauma that Allyson has lived through, so she can’t really understand her mom’s perspective and it undermines her ability to trust Karen.

So! 40 years after Halloween (1978), Michael comes back, and we see that all of Laurie’s preparation in the last 4 decades has been worth it. That Laurie’s fears were justified, and that all the work she’s done does protect her and her family. Vindication! Go Laurie! Except… she still spent the last 40 years in isolation, living in terror, pushing people away from her and hurting the people she loves. Even if Karen now sees that her mother’s efforts weren’t crazy, that Michael really did come back for her - that doesn’t undo the last 40 years of harm. Halloween (2018) doesn’t show us a misunderstood Laurie Strode, a woman who diligently protects herself and her family only to be villainized by an unjust society that doesn’t understand the legitimate danger Laurie’s facing. Halloween (2018) shows us a person whose need to protect herself has taken over her entire life, sabotaging all the important relationships in her life in an active and ongoing way. The audience is well aware that Michael Myers is a real scary dude, and that if Michael does come after Laurie again, she’ll be in real big danger. We also see that her fear of this happening is so all-consuming that she literally can’t focus on anything else in her life. And like, the thing with trauma is that it doesn’t have to look like this. I think about what Laurie’s life might have looked like if she’d gotten into some trauma therapy. If she could process the horrors of Halloween night in 1978, and come to truly believe that mostly, she is safe from almost-supernatural serial killers. If she could understand on a gut level that yes, Michael might come back, and that she can take steps to protect herself if he does. If the crap that happened to Laurie could influence her decisions now, but not control her; if she could maintain the important relationships with people in her life, teach them to protect themselves, and also experience joy and freedom with them.

Ultimately, I think there’s an important element of horror in the knowledge of how the original trauma skewed the course of Laurie’s life. This movie destroys all the hopes we might have had for Laurie at the end of Halloween (1978), and kind of plays with the idea of the Final Girl - Laurie survived, triumphant! And then spent the rest of her life living in fear, until she got to be the Final Girl again 40 years later. Halloween (2018) makes us look at what happens after surviving.

This series is delightful, terrible chaos. A million different continuities, some very weird turns, many terrible money-grubbing sequels, and somehow this pair of identically-named movies that capture trauma and intergenerational trauma in a beautiful, realistic, painful way. Happy Halloween, pals.

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