H20 vs H40: The Portrayal of the Survivor
Blog post by Jessica
Since the introduction of the ‘Final Girl’ concept by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992), Laurie Strode has been upheld as the standard in which final girls come to defeat their oppressors after a harrowing and often traumatic experience. Laurie is the most influential final girl since she is one of the first female characters in the horror genre to endure, gain strength, and fight against her aggressor. As female horror fans, we have a lot of respect and admiration for final girls because this archetype changed the landscape of the horror genre and allowed for a place of female inclusion in what has been dominated by the male perspective.
While the early definition of the final girl has some limitations, such as being a virgin and law abiding, we have seen this archetype develop over the decades to correspond with societal changes towards gender issues. One important change is that we get to see how the final girl survives day to day life after experiencing such trauma. This is an area of interest to me since I am a survivor of a traumatic event and was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in high school as a result of it. PTSD is defined as a mental disorder that can develop after an individual has experienced a traumatic event such as sexual assault, child abuse, traffic collisions, warfare, and any kind of attempt on a person’s life. People who develop PTSD can experience symptoms such as disturbing thoughts, feelings or dreams related to the event(s), mental or physical distress, avoidance of situations that remind them of their trauma and an increase in fight or flight response. These symptoms can last from a month to many years and can result in other forms of depression, anxiety, and mood disorders based upon how survivors manage and treat this disorder.
I find that the horror genre allows an opportunity for representation of survivors who experience PTSD through the archetype of the final girl, especially when we see her return in sequels. This is something I feel that the Halloween franchise presents to the audience in how Laurie Strode handles her trauma and how it impacts her life. However, my argument here is that Halloween H20 (1998) handles this representation much better than the recent Halloween H40 (2018), and ultimately does more justice to the character of Laurie Strode.
In H20, we are introduced to Keri Tate, Laurie’s new identity to protect herself and her family. By faking her own death and taking on a self-imposed witness protection she has created a new life as headmistress of a posh private school to move away from her past despite being haunted by it. Laurie has a son, John, who struggles with his mother’s overprotection and paranoia. She loves John and desires to do right by him while still protecting him. However, at times we see that he needs to take on the caretaker role as Laurie awakens from a nightmare about that Halloween night when she faced off against Michael.
He runs to retrieve her medication from a fully stocked medicine cabinet and later in the film he identifies that his mother is a high functioning alcoholic. This comes from a scene later in the Halloween H20 when Laurie, out for lunch with the guidance counsellor, orders another glass of chardonnay before she even finishes her current one. It is indicated by the unspoken interaction between herself and the waiter (and how quickly she drinks that first one) that she is using alcohol to self medicate. She talks about how she has done it all: ‘counselling, group therapy, AA, self-help books, meditation, retreats” and nothing seems to help her to break free from the past. Laurie lives in fear that Michael will return for her and her son, however thankfully, she continues to make a career for herself, find love with a new partner and evens attempts to release her grasp on her son and allow him some freedom.
With this depiction of Laurie, we see a trauma survivor who uses both a combination of doctor-prescribed medication and alcohol to manage her PTSD. She has made attempts (even unhealthy ones) at breaking free from the trauma of her past despite how hard it is; she has constant nightmares, fear of being stalked and regularly sees images of Michael, especially around Halloween. We see how this has impacted those closest to her as her first husband left her, she doesn’t have many or any close friends and her relationship with her son is strained. PTSD and the sometimes resulting mental illness impacts not only the survivor but everyone around them. For people who care for their loved ones, it can be hard to see them experience relieving these fears. To watch them go into dissociative episodes, scream, cry, and make decisions based entirely out of fear is heartbreaking. They want to continue to provide support, reassurances and show these survivors that they are now safe. However, it can be draining and if people in our support circles don’t practice setting up boundaries and their own self-care then they can be pushed to their emotional limits.
John has lived with his mother’s paranoia and trauma for 17 years. He has followed her rules and has taken care of her during her episodes. But as we can see in Halloween H20, he can’t continue to do this much longer, as he needs to know what life is like outside the shadow of his mother’s horrific ordeal and trust the world can be a safe place. And while that scene of them fighting on the street can be taken as a disobedient son lashing out at his traumatized mother, it can also be seen as a caregiver establishing their boundaries and expressing words that at times survivors need to hear to jolt them out of their past and into the present.
What I appreciate about H20 is not only how this is represented but that it also shows that Laurie is not a hopeless case. She begins to reveal the truth of her identity to a new partner in an attempt to give healing another chance. This is after she changes her mind about letting John go camping in Yosemite after their earlier confrontation that leads her to revisit the decisions she has made thus far. I can relate to this on a deep and personal level. When I experience episodes related to my trauma, it feels like you are never going to be normal again. That there is no hope for me and I am going to drive everyone away because I don’t know how to express how being followed on a street can set off a cascade of alarm bells and feelings of panic. Or when my partner goes out on a date with someone else and my jealous feelings become mixed with my fear of abandonment and I become distressed. I feel like I constantly living in hyper vigilance mode whether it is in regards to travelling to an unfamiliar location, going out somewhere by myself or even looking for threats in my relationships. It can feel overwhelming when you are overcome by those past feelings of fear, anger, and anguish. Yet, when you are able to move past these moments, it can feel like such a relief. You begin to take the steps to healing those past wounds and recover as it feels like you have gained back some control in your life, that you can feel safe and vulnerable. The Laurie of H20 does not let her trauma paralyze her or completely control her life. She is a final girl who shows how trauma can impact their lives and how realistically those who suffer from PTSD attempt to rebuild their lives after the fact.
In Halloween H40, Laurie has spent 40 years isolated from town in a military-like base as a home. She builds a panic room, practices escape and in-home attacks and has trained herself and her only daughter, Karen, in how to use weapons. This leads Karen to be taken away from Laurie on order of the state at the age of 12 and has caused a laboured relationship that impacts Laurie having a relationship with her granddaughter. With the belief that Michael will return for her, she has built her life out of fear and thus isolating herself from her friends and family effectively leaving her with no support system. She has taken to the extreme of the flight or fight mode that impacts people diagnosed with PTSD. Laurie lives in “fight” mode and the people around her see her as unhinged and just as dangerous as Michael himself. This Laurie, while she may look all badass, is the saddest version of herself. In our society, we see this type of individual as crazy, a lost cause, and no matter what we say they will not change their ways.
To me this feels like a slap in the face for survivors who experience PTSD, as it lacks hope that they will ever recover from their trauma. It is a struggle for me everyday to overcome my fears of leaving the safety of my home and trust that I will be okay. This is particularly challenging for me when I plan to meet up with a partner or friend’s later at night in downtown areas of Ottawa, which in my mind I have deemed unsafe. But I do it because I don’t want to be a victim of my past. I want to live my life and not manage my relationships and social interactions from a place of fear. I don't want the people that hurt me to dictate my life any further than they already have. As much as I would like to be a badass like Laurie in this film and have all the knowledge and means to defend myself, I know that the greatest victory I can have is by moving on with my life and heal that pain. In these types of films I want to see my final girls survive and thrive! By showing Laurie placing her life on hold to stockpile weapons and fortify herself against Michael shows that she is not thriving and although Michael hasn’t taken her life physically, he has done so emotionally and mentally. This does not leave us survivors of trauma a positive representation of recovery.
The first time I saw H20 I was in grade eight and watched it at a sleepover with a bunch of my girlfriends. I was far too young to understand the underlying message and just enjoyed the film for the pure fact that my crush Josh Hartnett was in it. It would not be until years later, after my own PTSD and resulting depression diagnosis, that watching the movie now I feel I can relate to the character of Laurie Strode and appreciate the film for more than just nostalgia. Especially after I went and saw Halloween in theatres in 2018, and I left the theatre feeling betrayed by the latest interpretation of Laurie Strode’s story.
In H20, I see a realistic and relatable portrayal of Laurie dealing with trauma and making an attempt of moving away from her past and a life for herself. Whereas, the Laurie Strode of H40 was unrelatable despite the attempts to make her look like a badass taking the matter into her own hands. She is portrayed as unwilling to heal from her traumatic experience and making her life all about survival. This iteration of Laurie Strode becomes what survivors should try to avoid, which is having their lives defined by the trauma they experienced by giving in to the fear that they will experience it all over again. This is why I think that H20 is a much better followup to Laurie’s story in the Halloween franchise because despite how imperfect her life is she had a life and experienced love! And when push comes to shove, she overcame her paralyzing fear and fights Michael in the end to really put a stop to her pain. Laurie shows us that while the day to day challenges of mental health can be consuming, you can come to the other side of them stronger than you were before.