While the Greatest Generation adopted the ideal that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, today we find ourselves fixated on trauma. Invoked in circumstances as varied as the war in Ukraine and flooding in Pakistan to social media’s effect on teenagers, trauma is a perfect enemy: a ubiquitous threat, a social trump card and a pernicious, lingering impact.
It’s no surprise, then, that trauma has become the enemy in horror movies. But rather than prescribing therapy or treating trauma like an identity, the genre offers a more aggressive and stoic solution. From the new run of “Halloween” movies to the surprise hit “Smile,” trauma is presented not as a problem to be talked through but one to be confronted — though catharsis isn’t always guaranteed.
David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” (2018), “Halloween Kills” (2021) and “Halloween Ends” (2022) are all very much about the trauma inflicted by Michael Myers (played alternately by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle) not only on his target, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), but also the town of Haddonfield, Ill., writ large.
Forty years after the events of John Carpenter’s classic, Laurie has adopted what can only be described as a survivalist’s lifestyle. Her home is an armory, and she rarely leaves it. Her daughter believes her to be mentally ill, in need of cognitive behavioral therapy to cure what she diagnoses to be her mother’s agoraphobia. A pair of podcasters believe she will benefit from sitting down and talking to Myers before he is transferred from a psychiatric hospital to a maximum-security prison.
Words are no substitute for action, however, and the true lesson of “Halloween” isn’t that Laurie’s trauma wounded her — it’s that it prepared her. There is less evil in the world than we might think. But it does exist, and when confronted by it, we must be equipped to fight back.
“Halloween Kills” and “Halloween Ends” broaden the scope of Myers’s effect, looking at how his presence sours Haddonfield.
“Every time someone’s afraid, the boogeyman wins,” Laurie tells a police officer. “The more he kills, the more he transcends into something else, impossible to defeat. Fear. People are afraid. That is the true curse of Michael. You can’t defeat it with brute force. … It is the essence of evil, the anger that divides us. It is the terror that grows stronger when we try to hide. … You can’t close your eyes and pretend he isn’t there. Because he is.”
This speech contains two seemingly contradictory ideas. Fear is something that exists to divide us and cannot be defeated. But in this case, the source of that fear is something real and decidedly deadly that cannot be ignored.
The tension in Laurie’s speech echoes a real-world sense that some forms of trauma are more acceptable to linger over than others. We are told to not worry about spikes in violent crime or retail thefts in major cities. Real and vicious debate erupts over whether it would be appropriate to seek police intervention in the case of an apparently mentally ill man who allegedly killed a dog and assaulted its owner in a posh Brooklyn neighborhood. We can’t live in fear — but sometimes there is, literally, more to fear than fear itself.
“Halloween Ends” squares that circle by admitting that trauma causes two kinds of fear: the fear of outsiders who will injure the herd, and a fear that leads to scapegoating friends and family when the danger disappears.
Note that I use “disappears” rather than “is eliminated.” Because the town turns on itself after the events of “Halloween Kills” because Myers vanishes. It isn’t until he is eliminated — and the whole town sees him eliminated, his body sprawled on a car and paraded through town like the Midwestern spin on a Roman triumph, his corpse dumped in an industrial shredder — that fear, and the trauma it causes, can be eliminated.
“Smile” takes horror’s recent obsession with trauma and almost makes sport of it. The film is a bit like “The Ring” but with a spirit that propagates its curse by driving victims mad and inspiring them to commit suicide in front of an unsuspecting person. The death has to be as traumatic as possible, we’re told, to ensure the maximum horror and the spread of the jinx.
Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) falls victim to the curse as the film begins; a hospital psychiatrist, she watches as a clearly disturbed patient kills herself in brutal fashion. And then Rose begins to see people around her smiling in a horrifying way, a twisted rictus that is the least happy grin of all time. No one believes her because no one can see what she sees; it’s enough to drive anyone mad.
But she confronts the evil spirit — literally, in her mind — and attempts to defeat it, only to be swallowed whole. The cycle of trauma, sadly, does not end with Rose.
The cycle of trauma movies didn’t begin with “Halloween” or “Smile” — Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” tackle the theme with chilling skill — and it won’t end with them anymore than it ended with Rose in “Smile.” The subject is just too good, and the cultural role of trauma too strong, for this to be the last word.
Those of us in the real world, though, should take a lesson from Laurie Strode. We should all hope to be freed from trauma rather than defined by it. But it’s on us to take the painful lessons of the past and make use of them.