HALLOWEEN 2018: The Shape Of Trauma

This contains full spoilers for the 2018 Halloween.

In the original Halloween II there was an elaborate, soap opera-y reason for Michael Myers to come after Laurie Strode yet again – she was his secret sister, and just as he had killed Judith, he wanted to kill Laurie. This kind of explanation was needed to franchise the characters; if you were going to have Laurie and Michael face off again and again you needed to have a reason. As John McClane once wondered, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The answer, for decades, was that Michael Myers cared deeply about Laurie.

What Halloween 2018 asks is… what if he didn’t? What if Michael Myers did not care about Laurie Strode at all, but rather Laurie Strode cared so much about Michael Myers that she couldn’t let him go, couldn’t leave him behind, and as such she ends up in the middle of his 40th anniversary prison break, once again being stalked by The Shape who, in other circumstances, would have been happy to just keep killing strangers.

That central twist is what makes Halloween 2018 erasing the whole series (again) worth it. It’s not a new concept – we have seen driven monster hunters in the past – but it feels new when attached to the slasher/final girl dynamic. Instead of the killer breaking into the final girl’s recovering life in the sequel, here we have the original final girl getting ready to come after the killer. By going this direction David Gordon Green is able to turn his Halloween movie into a truly profound look at the way we carry our traumas with us, and the ways we inflict suffering on ourselves and our families.

Before I get to all the juicy stuff – this is a slasher film that includes a quote about the meaning of suffering from Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, psychotherapist and author of Man’s Search For Meaning – I want to just say that Halloween 2018 is a fucking great slasher movie. Green has come in with bigger thoughts than just upping Michael’s body count, but he really, really ups Michael’s body count – before he even gets to Haddonfield proper Michael has killed more people than he did in the first film total.

Green has a facility for small character moments, and that’s what you need in a good slasher movie. The best slasher films establish the victims in quick vignettes, and while you are happy to watch them die – this is why you bought a ticket, you sick bastard – you also want to feel that wince of regret. A slasher film can and should have victims whose deaths feel quite earned, but when too many of the victims deserve their fates the whole thing turns into a tedious Old Testament trudge. I want to have some kills in a slasher movie come at the end of a cat and mouse sequence where I’m actually rooting for the victim, not hoping the killer cuts this pointlessness short. Green, working from a script he co-wrote with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, makes his doomed teens and townsfolk people having their stories. They have lives that extend beyond the frame, that don’t exist only for them to walk in front of a knife. There’s an indie comedic drama that could be made about these people, like Green dropped a serial killer into the middle of All the Real Girls.

That doesn’t mean he’s spending a lot of time on mumblecore scenes with these characters. Working with McBride means that Green is making these characters funny and fresh; Halloween 2018 is the funniest film in the franchise by a wide, wide margin, and that humor is identifiably the kind of laser-focused observational stuff that McBride and Green (and McBride’s other frequent collaborator, Jody Hill) specialize in. On top of that, this version of Halloween really establishes that Haddonfield is in southern Illinois (I had always pegged Carpenter’s Haddonfield as being one of the suburban towns outside of Chicago, maybe on the way to Indiana), and the two Southern boys bring a sense of place with them to the script.

These funny, lightly sketched characters meet some gruesome ends. As a horror fan for decades, I have followed the travails of slasher films trying to get through the MPAA and I have to say that Halloween 2018 includes the kind of gore that was regularly removed from these movies in the 80s and 90s. I cannot believe how gory this film gets; it’s especially shocking when compared to the relative bloodlessness of Carpenter’s original. But as one of the characters in this film notes – Michael Myers’ 1978 rampage was really no big deal by 2018 standards. A guy with a knife killing a handful of teens doesn’t even register in a world of school shootings, van attacks and suicide bombings at pop shows.

This isn’t meant to be a joke; Michael Myers as envisioned by John Carpenter represents Evil (yes, with an upper case E), and so David Gordon Green has to figure out a way to bring that into the 21st century. Part of that is updating Michael’s brutality to make him more threatening for teenagers who hold active shooter drills once a semester, but part of it is also examining the nature of Evil in a more personal way.

Or rather, more impersonal.

One of the things that sets Michael Myers apart from other slashers is the utter blankness of his mask. A bleached William Shatner mask, The Shape looks like nothing else; that mask isn’t sports paraphernalia, it isn’t a recreation of a human face from flaps and parts, it isn’t a pig’s head. It’s nothing. It’s blankness. We look at that mask and we see only what we project on it; it has the pure whiteness of a cinema screen, ready to bounce back any light shone on it.

And so that’s what Green explores in his Halloween. He explores the idea of Michael Myer as something that is utterly unknowable, and the ways characters project their own issues and needs onto him. He has gone 40 years without speaking a word, and this has had the effect of essentially driving those who study him mad; he is the ultimate abyss, and his latest doctor, Dr. Sartain, has gone over the edge from years of peering into him.

The podcasters who come to talk to Michael – perhaps reactivating him? – are also projecting their own ideas onto him. They believe he’s in some kind of metaphysical pas de deux with Laurie Strode. They think he holds the key to something of great meaning, just as Dr. Sartain does. And like Dr. Sartain, they think they can partake of that meaning if they can just get that one extra level of understanding. They want to hear Michael speak because they believe he has something to say, something that might unlock the very nature of Evil for them.

There’s a lot going on in this movie – layers upon layers of theme and meaning – but before I keep chasing this thematic element of Michael Myers as the Rorschach Shape of Trauma and Evil, I want to note that Green uses the podcasters and Dr. Sartain as a way to criticize us, the folks in the audience. We’re looking for a vicarious thrill here, as Sartain is. Or we don’t care about the victims when we consume our pulpy true crime podcasts, the kind these British twerps make. We are also coming to these slasher movies to get a glimpse at the evil in the world, and to test ourselves against it in some small way, and to possibly conquer it or have it opened up for us. We read about serial killers and maniacs in order to exert control over them; their victims are just credentials that we check in order to verify that these slayers are bad enough for us. As you laugh about the stories on My Favorite Murder or Last Podcast on the Left, the victims of these crimes struggle to rebuild their lives.

As a victim, Laurie doesn’t want to hear Michael speak. But maybe if she did she would get the closure she actually needs. The lone survivor of “the babysitter murders” of 1978, Laurie has internalized the idea that what happened that night happened to her. Personally. That it was about her.

Ajahn Sumedho, the senior representative of Thai Forest Buddhism in the West, wrote a book called Don’t Take Your Life Personally. That title represents one of the great truths that can free us from our suffering – the bad things in life happen with us, but not TO us. The sickness, the betrayals, the abuse, the setbacks, the hardships – these things aren’t targeted at us. They happen, and we are sometimes in their path, but they are often like hurricanes. They’re the result of other forces coming together to create this destructive thing, and we are in the path. Even when someone chooses to hurt us, as Michael Myers chose to stalk and try to kill Laurie Strode, it is not necessarily personal.

But Laurie, like many survivors of trauma, has internalized that night as a personal thing. She believes Michael Myers has an interest in her. That, given the chance, he will come for her. And so she spent her life preparing for this moment, getting herself ready for the boogeyman to return for his revenge. In preparing for the moment she has thrown everything else away; miserable and alone she has two failed marriages and a daughter who is on the verge of being estranged. Laurie has a granddaughter who wants to heal the relationship between her mom and grandmother, but doesn’t quite know how.

Laurie has defined her whole life by that one night in 1978. Everything she does, says and feels is a reflection of that night, and the Laurie Strode of 2018 is still living in the echo of that Halloween. She lives in that night, almost literally – why else would she have so many slatted closets in her home unless she was looking to relive that night again and again? By defining herself as a survivor of Michael Myers, Laurie has shaped her daily existence around that narrative. That narrative can’t support a meaningful life in the present, and as such all of her relationships have exploded.

Laurie can’t let go of Michael Myers. She knows what’s up with him, knows that he’s being transferred out of Smith’s Grove. Like so many of us dealing with traumas (of all stripes) the inability to move past the trauma means that Laurie is putting herself in a position to relive it again and again, not just mentally but to actually get into that situation again and again. In Halloween 2018 it’s seen in the most extreme way – by staying in Haddonfield and consistently inserting herself into the events of the night, Laurie ends up with Michael Myers at her home even though he seemingly had no interest in going there – but we all do it all the time. So many of our bad relationships are the result of our reliving the trauma that our parents inflicted on us – we are looking for mom or dad, and we hope that we can redo that relationship in a way that will end up more positive for us.

Meanwhile, Michael Myers in this movie becomes a metaphor for the way that trauma transmits itself through people and across generations. This happens in a couple of ways; the most bizarre one is the controversial theory of epigenetic trauma – that the trauma of your ancestors can be literally passed down in your DNA. But the more accepted and obvious way this works is what has been called ‘concentration camp syndrome,’ which comes from a Canadian study in 1966 that showed the children of Holocaust surviviors were 300% more likely to be referred to a psychiatry clinic. Here the parents, suffering one of the greatest traumas of the 20th century, created maladaptive coping mechanisms for their PTSD. Those coping mechanisms in turn impacted their children.

Laurie is the poster child for maladaptive coping mechanisms, and Karen, her daughter, barely got out of that relationship whole. One of the intriguing things about this mother/daughter dynamic is the ways that Karen bends over backwards to create normalcy in her life, but the conditioning her mother implanted in her is always right there, just a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Karen has buried all of her childhood down there – her own husband is shocked to discover Laurie’s Batcave. “Welcome to my childhood,” she tells him as they descend to the next layer of Laurie’s suffering.

Trauma propagates itself. It’s almost a living entity in this way, a parasite that uses the traumatized as a host; the trauma makes you twist yourself to cope, and in doing so you traumatize other people. Michael is the physical embodiment of this, the pain that Laurie cannot let go of shows up to victimize her granddaughter.

The movie almost makes this super explicit, but steps back from that precipice. When Laurie showed up at Smith’s Grove with a gun I thought for sure she was going to be the reason Michael broke out (and she still possibly kind of is – we never find out what triggered him. Or is Dr. Sartain the cause of the escape? We’ll never know, at least not until the director’s commentary), that she would interfere with the bus and give Michael his opening. That would work on a thematic level, but it would make Laurie TOO involved in her own revictimization, and it would make her responsible for every death in the movie. That’s a very good angle for a dark psychological thriller, but this movie still has to be a Halloween film, so it can’t have the hero being directly responsible for the deaths of like a dozen people.

It’s enough that she’s directly responsible for the emotional states of her family. I really love the scene where granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) stumbles into Laurie’s garden of target dummies; in the moonlight they are a grotesque gathering of horrors, and Allyson screams and screams at their disfigurement. Here we see the granddaughter faced truly with her grandmother’s maladaptive coping mechanisms and processing the extent of the pain, and it terrifies her.

But David Gordon Green and Danny McBride pluck victory from all of this transgenerational pain. When Michael Myers, who again seemingly had no interest in Laurie, shows up at her house he finds himself getting what I think he wanted all along, and so does she. They get to relive that night and perhaps make the outcome different.

Side track to Michael Myers. It’s tempting to give backstory or depth to this character. It’s been done again and again, most catastrophically in the Rob Zombie remake, and it has never worked. Michael Myers needs to remain that blank Shape. That said, in this movie he clearly has some motivation, some drive. What he is doing has meaning to him. It’s like the events of the first film – he went out of his way to put Judith’s tombstone above the bed. This had meaning to him, it’s just not clear what that meaning IS. Here he drops teeth at a victim’s feet, and later he goes out of his way to reenact elements of Halloween 1978, cutting eye holes in a sheet to make a ghost and nailing a boy to a wall in a familiar way.

This works cinematically as a ‘greatest hits’ shoutout, but it works thematically on another level. Like Laurie, Michael may have never gotten past that night, and he is walking around Haddonfield 40 years later redoing it, getting it right this time. It’s his own fucked up serial killer cognitive behavioral therapy. The question of what exactly he wants remains opaque, and it seems as if the desire to reenact the night has nothing to directly do with Laurie or finishing that piece of business. It’s likely he’s actually reenacting the night of Halloween 1963 on BOTH of these Halloweens, but it’s anybody’s guess.

I love this take on Michael Myers. He’s not quite a Great White Shark, but he’s close. He’s a forward moving machine of death, but he also has a purpose known only to him. That mystery is what makes him so exciting, and what deranges the people who study him. When taken as a stand-in for Evil we see the parallels – Evil is often cruel and capricious, but also seemingly has a perspective. As much as Evil occurs randomly in the world it also seems to have a terrible point to make, one that we never fully decipher.

(Side side note: Michael Myers is clearly trying to communicate something in his own way. What he is doing has meaning to him. These murders are strange self-expression for this man. Fire up your keyboards and give me your best hot takes on Michael Myers as murderous outsider artist; I want those pieces up on Medium by Wednesday at the latest.)

Anyway, Michael and Laurie find themselves in a reenactment of Halloween 1978. But things are not the same, and Laurie cannot get the upper hand on Michael all alone this time (although there are some nice reversals, with Laurie attacking the closets and Laurie falling out of the window and lying prone before suddenly disappearing). What breaks Laurie out of the cycle of trauma in which she’s trapped is working together with her daughter and granddaughter; it’s only by teaming up that these three generations of women can banish this transgenerational trauma. It’s only fair – it’s not only Laurie’s trauma, it belongs to all of them. They all need to face it together.

That’s why the victory moment is when the three women look down into the fiery basement at the trapped Michael, still and silent, and realize he cannot hurt them anymore. They have neutralized the trauma by re-experiencing it and effectively changing their responses to it. It’s the most badass and extreme form of exposure therapy possible.

What comes next takes on different meanings in different contexts. In the context of Halloween 2018 as a standalone movie made by a very good director who is not restarting a franchise, the disappearance of Michael Myers from the burning basement means that the boogeyman is gone. He’s been vanquished in the most primal way possible – the fear and pain that he represents has been cleansed, and he is literally evaporated. He is not just killed but actually ceases to exist.

A friend complained to me that the ending stinks because Laurie would have stayed in the basement to make sure Michael died, dying along with him. There’s a certain macho excitement to that, but there’s no healing. In the context of Halloween 2018 as a movie about transgenerational trauma healing, Laurie needs to get away because to be destroyed by the trauma only propagates the trauma; Karen and Allyson were not only victimized by Michael Myers, but also by the horrible death of their loved one.

The idea that Laurie alone can deal with Michael is the sort of individualism that has led to a very sick society. It’s the sort of thinking that denigrates therapy or support networks; the idea of the lone hero is something that hurts us. The idea of the self-sacrificing hero as the highest form of heroism REALLY hurts us, because it makes us not deal with our own pain. Laurie can ruin every relationship she has, can hurt other people, because she believes in this individualist myth.

Of course she believes in it because she lived it. Laurie’s trauma comes partially from taking on Michael Myers alone that night, and that has trapped her in this state of insecurity where she thinks she will always be alone when confronting bad situations. And her maladaptive coping mechanisms actually create scenarios wherein this comes true – she IS alone for most of her life.

But when she can connect with her daughter and granddaughter, when they’re all there together, they can cleanse the boogeyman. The basement, with its weapons cache, represents Laurie’s painful psyche, and they cleanse it together with fire. And so the lone hero story becomes a community story, and we see that healing comes not alone but only with others. Laurie Strode was the first final girl, and after this movie she should be the last, because she shows that you defeat the Evil by not being alone, but by being together.

But this isn’t a standalone movie, so of course Michael Myers somehow escaped from that basement. There will be a sequel, and he will return. It’s the unfortunate nature not just of franchises but of Evil and trauma. There’s never going to be a moment when you’re Healed. You don’t say “All done!” and live your life free of all pain. The work is ongoing and endless, and whatever your personal Shape is will resurface again and again, maybe in different forms, maybe in tangential problems, but it’s always there. The key is to learn positive coping mechanisms and positive ways of dealing.

That’s the horror part of the movie. There’s a great drama to be made about Laurie Strode alone, with no Michael Myers at all. It’s a story of a suffering woman who has built up walls in order to protect herself, not realizing those walls are hurting her as well. But this is a horror movie, and so it must present a fear made real – in this case the fear that all our wacky anxieties are actually true.

We live in a world that reflects this. It’s an anxious world, and every day we wake up to find out some other worst case scenario has come to pass. Since 2016 this world has been stumbling down a bizarre and often nightmarish path; we’re in a place where doomsday preppers don’t look so crazy anymore. That’s the horror that Halloween makes flesh – what if all your worst fears were real? What if all the things that kept you up at night came true? That’s the boogeyman – our most unfounded anxieties made flesh.

All of that said, I really do want to see a sequel to this movie, if only because I want to see what’s next for Judy Greer’s Karen. Greer gets THE moment of the movie, the big cheering moment, and it comes when she makes peace with her own past. She picks up that rifle into which she carved her initials so many years ago and finally, finally uses it. She has the opportunity to recast the years of her own difficult and traumatic childhood into something useful and meaningful – what does that do for her going forward? I’m really curious about what the relationship between these women will be like in the years ahead.

And of course I want more Judy Greer. Greer is an actress who has turned up in a lot of movies in minor roles, but David Gordon Green thankfully gives her something to do here, even if you spend a lot of the movie thinking “Jesus, someone is wasting Judy Greer AGAIN?!” Her scenes with Jamie Lee Curtis are great, and I like that Greer isn’t intimidated by the actress. They go toe to toe.

Curtis is phenomenal. I think she’s doing something more nuanced than the Linda Hamilton/T2 thing here, even though I’ve seen a lot of people respond to the character only on that level. Curtis is playing a truly damaged protagonist, the kind of driven obsessive we’ve seen many men play, but too few women. Sarah Connor is a different angle on all of this; she’s absolutely right about the future, but no one believes her. You can look at that character as representing the way strong, decisive women are penalized by society – Sarah Connor is locked up but she’s not crazy.

Laurie is more complicated. If she had picked up and moved to California she would never have seen Michael Myers again (Maybe. My big complaint about the movie is that it never makes Dr. Sartain’s role in all of this completely clear. If he broke Michael out and intended to bring him to Laurie in the first place, he really bungled it. Did he just end up taking advantage of the chaos caused by Michael’s escape? My interpretation, at the moment, was that he wanted to see Michael in the wild, and not necessarily to be involved. But once he saw Laurie he got the bright idea to take all of this shit to the next level and bring the predator and the prey together). Her obsessiveness creates the circumstances for what happens that night.

But most interesting is that Curtis is willing to play Laurie as more than a victim. She is willing to explore the ways that hurt people hurt people; Laurie’s interactions with Karen are dismissive and domineering. She is not sympathetic in those moments. Laurie’s a bad mom in the way the worst moms are – she’s trying to be a good mom and just totally fucking it up. Making Laurie Strode a good character isn’t about turning her into Ellen Ripley, it’s about finding the complex shades of grey within her psyche and giving them all space to play out, the good and the ugly.

To say that Halloween 2018 is the best Halloween since 1978 is clearing the lowest of all possible bars, so maybe better praise is to say that Halloween 2018 is a totally worthy successor to Halloween. It’s a movie that has its own interests and concerns but comes at them with a lot of respect to the original. It homages John Carpenter’s masterpiece, but makes the homages part of the psychological terrain it is exploring. It takes the drive-in movie aspect of Halloween – a low budget film made first to entertain – and retains it while adding a lot of thoughtful, intriguing and chewy thematic stuff on top.

But most of all Halloween 2018 is a movie that rescues the slasher film. It’s well-written, gorgeously shot, excellently acted… and is still 100% a slasher movie. It’s not an art film with slasher aspects, it’s not ironic or post-modern. It’s just a slasher movie, but one that is made with impeccable craft and skill. It proves that this oft-derided little subgenre, when taken seriously but also with love for its idiosyncrasies, can make for a real movie. I mean, we all knew that from John Carpenter’s original, but it took decades for the critical establishment to even begin to come to terms with that. David Gordon Green has shown up and made the truest possible follow-up – a fun, scary slasher movie that we’ll be able to spend the next 40 years dissecting.

 

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