Death and the Final Girl

Laurie Strode scrambles to a neighbour’s house and bangs on the door. The porch light switches on. Someone peers through the blinds, as if checking for the garbage truck. The blinds shut; darkness falls again over the porch. Her voice falls on its knees: “Can’t you hear me?!” For a second, I swore the bleeding girl had my face.

It was properly Halloween night when I first watched John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween, the horror story of a killer who was incarcerated for his sister’s death, escaped after fifteen years, and was now hunting teenagers on the anniversary of her murder. I should’ve been partying like other first-years, puking boxed wine at a house party, the hemline of my cheap costume riding up to a point that would spook my parents. First semester of university, first time away from home, the freedom I was told I’d cherish made me feel exposed. I learned early how a stretch of road at the wrong hour, or an acquaintance with a car and a smile, could snatch people like me. My mother made it clear: who would listen for a Black girl’s scream?

My mother made it clear: who would listen for a Black girl’s scream?

Watching a teenage girl fight against an anonymous stalker resurrected a fear I’d agonized over since puberty. When Laurie flees back to the house where she’s babysitting, she realizes she’s lost the keys. She screams for the kid to open the door before Michael Myers, The Shape, can reach her. How many times had I felt that cornered? The cars that slowed beside me as I walked home. The men at parties, bars, shops in broad daylight, who trailed behind me yet never spoke a word. That hook-up when he went to answer the front door—I heard another man’s voice and I decided which position I should aim to land in, what bones I could afford to break, in an escape drop twenty feet from the bedroom window.

Each time, I survived, unharmed, my keys shoved stupidly between my fingers, flushed from held breath and humiliation. “Poor Laurie,” her friend Annie taunts in the film’s first act—Laurie had spotted Michael watching from a nearby bush, but he slinks off before the girls investigate. “You scared another one away.”

John Carpenter once quipped, “feminists, children under 17, and wimps will not be admitted to the theatre.” I was all three when I became obsessed with his movie. There was something irresistible in Halloween’s simple intensity; how, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “We aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us.” With Michael, it was fear at first sight. He has no witty catch phrases or tragic backstory. The human in him is as blank as the mask he dons for his killing spree. There is nothing to beg or bargain with. He is just a shape.

Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), on the other hand, is overwhelmingly normal. She doesn’t expertly kick ass or outwit the killer. She cries. She doesn’t collapse into a puddle of tears—she runs, she saves the children she’s babysitting, despite being a child herself, but she also cries. In Laurie, critics saw a tired whining cliché. I saw a teenager who daydreams in class, who babysits for extra cash; a girl whose biggest worry, other than seeing a man at the top of the stairs, is asking a boy to the dance. Laurie is like many women and non-binary people that horror happens to—everyone watching from the outside shouts for them to get over it and pick up the knife already.

Laurie is like many women and non-binary people that horror happens to—everyone watching from the outside shouts for them to get over it and pick up the knife already.

Halloween honoured the fear that I carried every moment, that the looks over-my-shoulder meant something, that my nervousness was right all along—but that, maybe, someone like me could actually live.

What did that art-bro film director Godard say? “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”? For the auteurs of the slasher, a gun is too easy. Anyone with an okay eye can shoot. A blade is where movie magic lingers. What do a knife and old-fashioned romance have in common? It’s all about the chase. 

In 1994, Scream autopsied the slasher film. Randy, the “horror buff” character, explains how to survive a slasher: do not have sex (“sex equals death, okay?”), do not drink or do drugs, and “never, ever, under any circumstances, do you ever say ‘I’ll be right back,’ ’cause you won’t be back.” Before Scream revitalized the genre with campy self-awareness, slashers were doomed for Blockbuster discount bins. Audiences had moved on; Hannibal Lecters appealed more than meatheads waving around kitchen knives in B-flick after B-flick. The genre had always been targeted by critics, even during its golden age a decade earlier. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael brushed off the “dumb scariness” of Halloween’s “pitiful, amateurish script.”

Every slasher demands what scholar Carol J. Clover calls a “Terrible Place,” a domestic space that’s penetrated by a relentless, often sexually repressed, killer. Then there’s the body count, but only nubile flesh will do. Slashers are enraptured by a phone cord around a slender neck, or a girl in daisy-dukes dangling from a meat hook. There’s only one girl who emerges unscathed: the Final Girl. The most iconic genre convention, she’s traditionally plain, bookish, sexually inexperienced—a “perfect” victim. The last to be hunted, we witness the previous hour’s carnage through her eyes, cheering when she gets a few whacks in. Innocence implodes on screen for our entertainment.

Before slashers crept into my life, I had midnight reruns of America’s Most Wanted. I consumed news of kidnappings and murders like they were Looney Toons, set in a faraway land called America. Girls plucked from sidewalks, locked in backyard sheds, crammed into crates under beds—the outrageousness of evil made them feel fictional. 

Then, a girl in my hometown went missing. She was about my age; seven, eight. There was a broadcast where her community gathered on the anniversary of her disappearance, releasing balloons into the sky in hopes she might see one. They were yellow, I think. I’m ashamed I can’t recall the girl’s name or what colour her mother thought her balloons should be, but I do remember she was taken at night through her window. For weeks, duvet pulled up to my nose, I watched my bedroom window until morning. Something inside me felt like it knew too much. 

I spent my early years on the Internet poring over articles, cementing gruesome details from cold cases in my mind. I needed to understand the wrong step, the tripped wire. Each time I learned there wasn’t one, I stayed up all night, listening for the slightest creak. Once, while making her bed, I found a knife under my mother’s pillow. Soon after, under my own sheets, I would clench a pair of Dollarama safety scissors in my fist. I wanted to be the Final Girl.

It wasn’t chance I should’ve been cowering from, but statistics. True crime hates statistics. There’s little sensational in institutionalized expendability. Milk carton maidens faded as I grew into my Black woman’s body. I began learning of girls found alongside highways, women’s remains in crawlspaces, a child floating in the Red River, with no one to take the blame. All of them with skin brown like mine. Somewhere, someone like me is being beaten in the streets, assaulted by someone they love, slain in their own home. The Terrible Place is the entire world, waiting outside my window. If I close my eyes, I can feel its hot breath on the back of my neck. 

The Terrible Place is the entire world, waiting outside my window. If I close my eyes, I can feel its hot breath on the back of my neck. 

Laurie and Michael finally face off less than fifteen minutes before the film’s conclusion. Laurie pokes her head into the house, calling for her friends to quit the joke. She ascends the stairs. In the bedroom, her friend Annie is laid across the mattress. A jack-o’-lantern lights the gash across her throat. Laurie’s whimpers become a gasp; she stumbles into the closet door. Then the corpse of her friend Lynda’s boyfriend, Bob, slumps down, strung from the closet ceiling. Laurie lets out her first scream of the film. An armoire swings open, revealing Lynda, eyes glazed, staring upward like a martyred saint toward heaven. 

There’s an art motif called Death and the Maiden, which emerged from the Danse Macabre, a medieval allegory illustrating that death doesn’t discriminate. Death may not have a preference for who perishes, but artists certainly do. The famous still of Laurie cowering as a glaringly white mask emerges behind her recalls women in art half a millennium before—cherubic faces contorted, hair yanked back by a skeleton’s grasp, always naked. When Michael first touches Laurie, his knife rips the sleeve of her blouse, exposing a shoulder. 

Box offices flooded for bloodbaths during the 1980s, despite moral panic about their vulgarity, but the violence of midnight movie screenings also hangs in the hallowed halls of museums. Paintings of Ophelia, the Lady of Shallot, and countless saints, their flesh youthful and enticing even in death, are as influential as any slasher. Edgar Allen Poe infamously wrote that, “the death … of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” Dead women have mass appeal.

One moment he had been an extra in our lives, the next a monster.

One moment he had been an extra in our lives, the next a monster. It’s too cliché even for the movies. The Bad Thing didn’t happen to me. But I was hurt by what someone said after it happened to a mutual friend: “When you’re friends with men, you have to realize that they will do fucked-up things.” The syllables dug into my chest again and again.

Yes, the world isn’t split between bad (dude with pointy thing) and good (girl running from pointy thing). This binary perpetuates carceral logics that harm rather than heal. No one is actually the bogeyman. But survivors are very real. In the Halloween franchise’s 2018 release, Laurie is forty years older, but the bedroom she escaped in 1978 is still written on her face. Her home is a labyrinth of iron-barred windows and makeshift traps, with a bunker in the basement. She practices her shot on dummies in the backyard, rehearsing for Michael’s uncertain return. The night he is transferred to a facility far from Laurie’s town, she drives out to watch. She downs a bottle and weeps. Those who are told to get over it, to pick up the knife already, never learn to put it down. 

When I name Halloween as my personal nightmare, I’m often teased that “it’s not even scary.” Sure, but my fears don’t live in a movie theatre.Halloween didn’t invent a new terror; it illustrated what I already thought lurked at the end of the street, breathed inside the closet, waited behind my eyelids.

I used to fear that anyone could become like Laurie. Instead, for most of us, our suffering won’t make it past the cutting room floor. No one cheers for our survival. There’s no threshold that we can cross into safety. It’s just a lifetime of running­­—seeing the stranger behind us, that one who never tires. We run until caught, or until our bodies give out from fighting. Our entire lives shoved into percentages of the disappeared, murdered, ignored. We’re told there’s nothing under the bed, but the Shape is there the second we wake up. We aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us.