Thursday, October 18, 2018

First Final Girl: Laurie Strode

This week, the blog has featured musings about the power to scare movie audiences, as embodied by Halloween's Michael Myers, or "The Shape."

It has also featured a (briefer) discussion of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) as a manifestation of a curse called the Cassandra Complex: the scenario of knowing the worst is true, but not being able to convince anyone of that fact.

These analyses would not be complete, however, without a close-up look at another historically significant character: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the protagonist of John Carpenter and Debra Hill's Halloween (1978).

Carol J. Clover, the horror scholar who coined and defined the term "final girl" in 1992, wrote of Laurie Strode as the "original" of the form, or the prototype. Historically, this categorization is borne out by the fact that Laurie arrives in film history before such heroes as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979), or Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). A final girl is, broadly, defined as the one (always female) character in a horror movie who survives to battle the villain, and often defeats it. 

Pop culture's on-going love affair with Laurie Strode is partly about the charm and talent of the actor who embodies this final girl: Jamie Lee Curtis. But the admiration runs deeper than that as well.  Jamie Lee Curtis brings the character to life with humanity, and empathy, and has revisited the character at various stages of her life (in Laurie's forties, and in Laurie's sixties, too), in a meaningful way.  But Laurie is more than the efforts of an actor. Laurie is an archetype, a role model, and a person of tremendous individuality.

As is plain from Halloween (1978), Halloween 2 (1981), Halloween: H20 (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), and Halloween (2018), Laurie is alo Michael Myer's equal, or opposite. She is certainly his equal both in terms of etymology and action. 

Etymology is the study of words and their meaning, and perhaps the place to commence any look at Laurie is with a dissection of her name. 

"Laurie" is derived from the name "Laura," and means "from the place of laurel leaves."  Famously, the ancient Greeks used laurel leaves to create wreaths. They would then use those wreaths to crown the victors in athletic contests requiring great skill or endurance .So the name Laurie explicitly involves victory, something that Halloween's Laurie knows something about, having survived several encounters with The Shape.

Meanwhile, "Strode" is the past tense of the word "stride," which might be defined as "crossing an obstacle with one long step."  

Once more, it is not difficult to see the relevance of this name, as it applies to the horror movie character. Laurie Strode has crossed the greatest obstacle imaginable, surviving an attack by Michael Myers.  

The "long step" in that name might even be parsed to suggest a forty year obstacle, as the new movie suggests.  Maybe Laurie wears her crown of laurel leaves not for a spring (one night of terror), but for a marathon, a life of trauma, and PTSD.

A fascinating element of this etymological game is that "strode" is past tense, meaning, perhaps, that Laurie's fate -- a key element in Halloween -- is ordained from the very beginning.  She WILL overcome the challenge of Michael Myers. He may kill her eventually (as he does in the continuity of Halloween: Resurrection) but she somehow still manages to overcome the challenge he poses to her.  After all, winning isn't always about surviving.  Maybe it's about Laurie winning the battle against fear, against trauma.

If assembled, the elements of Laurie Strode's name suggest a competitor, a challenge, and a winner. Thus Laurie Strode, in her very name, was designed to be the equal, or superior, of The Shape.

Why else do audiences identify so closely with Laurie Strode? One key quality of the final girl "type" that Laurie embodies is insight

As Mathias Clasen writes in Why Horror Seduces (Oxford University Press, 2017), the "proximal narrative motivation for her survival is that Laurie Strode is the only character who detects and responds adequately" to her surroundings.  

Consider that Michael Myers is present in Haddonfield throughout much of the original film, and in often lurks in the plain sight, for intervals, of characters from Sheriff Brackett, to Annie and Lynda, and even Dr. Loomis. 

Yet out of all of these characters, only two people detect Michael. One is little Tommy Doyle, who is overcome by fear (as any child would be), and the other is Laurie Strode, who spies Michael several times, and begins to develop a kind of defensive posture because of the invasion he represents. 

Laurie spots Michael in a row of bushes on a suburban street. She sees him (or at least his stolen car), outside her high school English classroom too. And finally, she sees him standing, staring up at her, from a backyard clothes line.

The other characters in the film are locked in their own narrow silos of normality and routine, unable to conceive of a threat to their lives. Sheriff Brackett is dismissive of Loomis's belief that Michael has returned to Haddonfield. And Annie, Bob, and Lynda are so consumed with their own personal dramas that they can't conceive of a wolf in the fold.

But Laurie can detect the truth. She puts the pieces together.  She sees the danger in everyday life that others do not.  "Not only is she vigilant," writes Clasen, "but she is bright and conscientious." 

What makes Laurie able to see where others do not?  Simply stated, Laurie is present and engaged in her life. And if you'll forgive the teacher in me for this next statement, she is clearly a reader. In the scene set in the classroom, Laurie is able to verbalize a literary comparison between two authors, and the individual ways they interpret life in their works.  This ability suggests not only that Laurie is smart, but that she is an effective critical thinker. Laurie is able to understand and interpret different concepts or meanings of the word "fate," specifically.  It's pretty clear that this comparison is not something that would interest Annie or Lynda. They don't contextualize their lives in that way, whereas Laurie pretty clearly does so.

In Halloween: H20 (1998), Laurie repeats this feat, lecturing as, a teacher, to a classroom full of students about the connection between Victor and the Monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  Laurie is then able to understand and contextualize her connection to her own monster, Michael.

The next point to make about Laurie and her popularity/significance is one that is related, perhaps, to her engagement and vigilance. Laurie might be described aptly as the horror movie equivalent of the catcher in the rye. 

She is not merely a survivor of a massacre, but she takes great efforts to rescue two endangered children, Tommy and Lindsey. She must save not just their innocence, but their lives. Loomis possesses good motives. He wants to do good. But as an avatar for a failed aspect of 20th century society (medicine or science, basically), he is ineffective. 

By contrasts, Laurie gets her wards, the children, to safety. 

It's true that Loomis shows up at the last moment to shoot Myers, (which is again, ineffective), but Laurie plays the cat-and-mouse game with Myers long enough, and successfully enough, to protect the children she babysits. Again, one need only contrast Laurie's behavior as a babysitter with Annie's approach to that task.  By comparing the two characters, one can see that it is Laurie who is a full person, not just a shallow or superficial teenager.

Laurie is etymologically and psychologically Michael Myers perfect nemesis. She is the only one who can stop The Shape. But perhaps the real reason so many people have loved this final girl for so long is that they are acutely aware that for Laurie, the battle comes with a cost. Laurie keeps Michael from the children. She survives when he wants to kill her, it is true.  But in her survival, Laurie faces year and decades of trauma. She stands up and fights, but even when the battle is done, it continues for Laurie, if only in her head.

A reluctant warrior, Laurie always fights for us, even though the cost to herself is brutal. In different iterations of the Halloween myth, the audience sees Laurie succumb to alcoholism, and pills to overcome the presence of Michael Myers in her mind. In the new film, the audience registers fully what Laurie gives up -- the love of family -- to protect it from Michael.

Laurie fights, and wins, but she always suffers. That is the fate she, finally, reckons with. It is also the reason so many of us love the character. Michael is a character untroubled by conscience, guilt, remorse, or regret. He is solitary, and alone, and that is fine by him. Laurie is the opposite. She reckons with loss and loneliness, and realizes fully that sadness and trauma are now her fate.

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