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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and the legacy of the Final Girl

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Oct 21, 2019

Psycho, The Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween are all watershed moments in horror. Before 1960, creatures from outer space and adaptations of Dracula or Frankenstein delivered on-screen scares. The ‘30s looked to literature and folklore for inspiration; 20 years later, monsters mutated due to fear of atomic annihilation. Horror often holds a mirror up to the anxieties of society, which in 1970s America was dominated by political turbulence and the deep scars of Vietnam. The previous decade ended, not with free love and flower power, but with the Manson murders, political assassinations, and war.

It wasn’t all doom and despair as some progress was made at the start of the 1970s. Women’s liberation and second-wave feminism were having an impact, including the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973. A rise in divorce rates and a woman's right to choose were viewed as an attack on "family values" by some, mirroring arguments threatening reproductive rights in the 21st century. Feminism is considered the hero as it gives women a voice, but for some, it is the villain destroying the status quo.

Credit: New Line Cinema 

Meanwhile, the American Dream had lost its sheen thanks to an unstable political landscape and a corrupt administration. Nixon left office in 1974, which also happened to be the year Leatherface was unleashed upon audiences. Monsters from outer space were no longer the threat; instead, danger lurked in both rural isolation and the comfort of suburbia. The role of women in horror, whether a character such as Carrie White turning her anger outward or Sally Hardesty escaping the clutches of a cannibal family, showed a power dynamic shift. Agency was something these women now possessed. After Sally came Laurie Strode and a whole new era was born.

Grindhouse and exploitation cinema was an extremely popular and cheap form of movie-making in the 1970s, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre took this format and turned it into a massive moneymaker — The New York Times referred to it as, “The Jaws of the midnight runs.”

Credit: New Line Cinema 

It is hard to downplay the impact Hooper’s movie had on this genre and its archetypes, taking a relatively simple premise when a group of teens stumbles upon a house of horrors. Partially inspired by killer Ed Gein — who also influenced Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs — the use of a forgotten all-male rural family as the inflictors of torment plays with the notion of a forgotten America. This is a self-owned business, but they have been left to literally make ends meet (excuse the pun) out of good old fashioned farming. In his essay on American movies from 1974, "Movies and Political Trauma," David Cook refers to "this vision of the American family as monstrosity and the American home as slaughterhouse." The absence of the mother can be viewed in several ways whether the negative impact of a broken home or more likely, what happens when men have all the power.

Sally's friends are picked off one-by-one in quick fashion, but instead of receiving the same quick death fate, her torment is stretched through the night as she is invited to join this family for dinner. Burns commits to the scream-fest (one cast member remarks on the Blu-Ray extras that she "went through hell" while shooting that sequence), which takes up the last third of the movie as she battles for her life. Sally’s fight for survival reaches its climax when she leaps out of a window to escape at dawn, flagging down a truck to whisk her away from this madness. Drenched in blood, her once blonde hair now appears brunette. Her screams melt into hysterical laughter as Leatherface waves his chainsaw at the sky, in what appears to be a dance. This image of the woman who survives would change the face of horror.

Credit: New Line Cinema 

Carol J. Clover coined the phrase “Final Girl” in her seminal 1992 text, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, but there is another description she frequently uses throughout when discussing a different horror archetype. The “victim-hero” is someone who experiences trauma but rises up, her "status in both roles has indeed been enabled by 'women’s liberation,'" notes Clover.

Carrie was released in 1976 — between Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween — telling a different story of a teen girl facing monsters in the form of her mother and the bullies at school. Carrie is not a Final Girl, but rather a victim-hero, as she experiences trauma before inflicting her rage-powered revenge on her tormentors. Jennifer's Body is a more recent example of this trope, and Laurie Strode actually enters this territory in the 2018 reboot-quel of Halloween. She isn't scrambling for whatever weapon is to hand; she has been training for this confrontation. But first, we need to go back to where it all began.

Four years after Sally Hardesty escaped from that rural farmhouse, a monster came to suburbia. If Texas Chain Saw Massacre changed the face of horror in the 1970s, John Carpenter’s Halloween would shape the slasher genre in a way that has continually been mimicked, repeated, and subverted since it caused a stir in 1978. This was another case of a movie made for minimal money ($320,000) that went onto make a fortune ($47 million upon release), essentially opening the gates to sequels and imitators including the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.

Sally possesses incredible resilience in her lengthy ordeal, but Laurie goes a step further, arming herself with whatever can be used as a weapon, whether a knitting needle or kitchen knife. As with Sally, she ultimately needs the help of a man — for Sally, it is the pick-up truck driver, while Dr. Loomis saves Laurie. Nevertheless, both teens fight their way out of certain death, shaping the slasher genre for decades to come. Characters like Grace in Ready or Not and even Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson in the 2018 Halloween don't have to adhere to the same rules to survive.

Credit: Universal Studios

If Final Girls and horror movies of the 1970s were a reaction to the turbulent political landscape and the women’s liberation movement, how do the latest versions of these characters reflect contemporary anxieties over 40 years later? In terms of politics, it is hard to ignore similarities between the current administration and Richard Nixon’s. Sure, reboots and revivals are always a popular avenue for studios wanting to cash in on an easily recognizable IP, and other decades have featured Laurie and Sally too. Nevertheless, there is also a noticeable shift toward a '70s aesthetic in original material. Ari Aster's Midsommar and Hereditary owe a great debt to films such as The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now.

When Jamie Lee Curtis returned as Laurie Strode, there was a common discussion thread both at San Diego Comic-Con and throughout the press tour. Curtis herself spoke of this character suffering from PTSD, saying, “I believe Laurie Strode went back to high school two days later with a bandage on her arm, and that’s about it. I don’t think people talked about it, and so for me, the exploration of trauma was integral to, not only the writing but for then, the performance.”

Over the last two years, anything relating to trauma has been viewed through a #MeToo and Time’s Up lens, no matter how tenuous. However, dealing with a painful past and the reckoning that has occurred since October 2017, it is understandable why Curtis (and audiences) recognize the parallels. “Seeing what generational trauma looks like, all of a sudden on Oct. 10, 2017, that first article came out in the New Yorker. All of a sudden, women started talking about stories of violence perpetrated against them, sexual violence perpetrated against them, oppression perpetrated against them by powerful men in powerful positions who stole their innocence,” she told Variety last year.

In dealing with the aftermath of this random attack, Halloween is letting Laurie take control of her narrative. At the start of the movie she is isolated, but by the end there are three generations of Strode women saying “no more.” She is no longer the solitary Final Girl, no longer needs a man to come to save her from her tormentor. It is symbolic that Laurie Strode has become the face of horror once again, but this time she is prepared — and she will return for a sequel. "NEVER SAY DIE" is an appropriate Instagram comment for both this character and her attacker.

Recently, a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre was announced following the Halloween trend. Of course, there was the 2003 remake that landed just before the torture porn cycle and after the meta-Scream years, but this new version will be discounting every movie that came after 1974. Details are light, but this particular cycle of reboots plays into the current political landscape and discourse of the era. There is also comfort in the familiar, even if this isn't a heartwarming story. The reason why these movies thrive in a time of turmoil is they provide an escape from the everyday horrors featured on the evening news or our Twitter feeds. Scary movies give audiences a respite from reality. Leatherface and Michael Myers aren't meant to be supernatural, but they are more mythic than human each time they return.

Sally Hardesty and Laurie Strode changed the face of horror in the 1970s with ferocity and a will to live outwitting their attacker. The trope has evolved since then, but in revisiting the original Final Girls it further reveals how scary movies continue to reflect social anxieties. When Jamie Lee Curtis was filming the 2018 Halloween, she spoke of a moment during filming that was "incredibly emotional," saying, "When I approached the truck to do my alone acting work in an empty truck, with 100 people surrounding her, the entire crew wore name tags that said 'We are Laurie Strode.' What they were saying to me, what they said in that moment, was that the trauma that happened to Laurie Strode, they were all part of it."

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