Photo: Robert Trachtenberg
There’s an inspirational vibe surrounding the scary new Halloween sequel (called, unhelpfully, Halloween), which is especially weird when you consider that John Carpenter’s 1978 original had the nasty working title The Babysitter Murders. But for Jamie Lee Curtis, the star of both films, talking about her character, Laurie Strode, means also addressing #MeToo and PTSD and ways of connecting the horror genre — which, despite its unprecedented box-office ascendance, she knows to be disreputable — with healing.
Take the panel she did at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, in which she revealed that Laurie, 40 years later the lone survivor of a trio of teenage girls, would now be a prepper with an arsenal of weapons, justifiably paranoid that the bogeyman, Michael Myers, would return and aiming to “take back the narrative of her life.” That was the cue for a middle-aged man named Joseph to share his own trauma during an audience Q&A. Thirty-four years ago, he told Curtis, someone had invaded his home and cut the telephone wires, whereupon he had grabbed a bunch of knitting needles — as Laurie does in the 1978 movie — and found the strength to run out of the house. “I’m here today because of the way you portrayed Laurie Strode,” he said, beginning to weep, at which point Curtis descended into the audience (not always a wise move given the, um, volatility of Comic-Con patrons) and folded him in her arms. The crowd went nuts.
The new Halloween, the #MeToo hack-’em-up, is one of many in a line of horror films — past and doubtless future — in which traumatized women take their battle to the bogeymen. And right now Jamie Lee Curtis is there to lead the troops.
I can vouch that Curtis is a ready hugger. On my way to her home in the hills of Santa Monica, I get some bad news on the phone (an ongoing family trauma) and arrive a mess. Curtis has radar for that sort of thing — she’s spectacularly intuitive — and in no time I blurt out the story, just like poor Joseph. She walks over and gives me a warm hug and talks about families she’d known who’d been through something similar. She says she knows it will turn out all right, and then she makes cappuccinos in a nifty machine and we sit down in her light, spacious kitchen with its small waterfall gurgling soothingly out the window and talk about a movie in which men and women get stabbed and strangled and one guy’s head is stomped flat like an overripe pumpkin. And it doesn’t seem like a non sequitur.
We’re meeting the same week that a Supreme Court candidate stands credibly accused of sexual assault by a woman who has, like Laurie, lived with the trauma for nearly 40 years, while Bill Cosby awaits his sentencing for a crime in a spree that began more than four decades ago. (In her victim impact statement, Andrea Constand would write, “Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it. He robbed me of my health and vitality, my open nature, and my trust in myself and others.”) I could go on, but all you need to do is refresh your browser for the latest real-life horror.
Things are so bad that we’re turning for uplift to horror movies, which tell us how not crazy we are to be paranoid in a world of predators, some in high office. Where classic horror films proceeded from the quaint assumption that the universe leans toward stability but that poisons do build up, producing monsters that must be put down, most contemporary horror films, like Get Out, The Purge, and A Quiet Place, see the presence of monsters as the baseline, the worst-case scenario as the rule, not the exception. So it’s all uphill, really.
One line of thinking is that horror movies make things worse, whetting our appetites for carnage, reinforcing our sadistic urges. Others say they help free us from fears we don’t always know we have but deform our lives anyway. Most people think it’s healthy to be allowed to scream in a controlled environment. A good “Boo!” activates our fight-or-flight mechanisms, which is actually preferable to continuous, gnawing, ulcer-generating anxiety.
Documentaries and sincere, realistic social-problem dramas can do a lot of good, but horror offers sharper metaphors for the things that haunt us. How could any movie treatment of Black Lives Matter connect with a mass audience as effectively as Jordan Peele’s Get Out? It said to black people who suspect that all white people are racist, “Hey, you’re right. Not only that, but Obama-voting liberals who’ll praise your sense of rhythm and happily let you date their daughters are actually out to snatch your bodies.” And yet, presented as a horror comedy, a mixture of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Stepford Wives, it’s blissfully entertaining. Black people can watch white people squirm.
And worst-case scenarios can preach something else, which might not be true but helps us all sleep better: Collectively people might be evil, but individually they’re good. Or maybe it’s individually they might be evil, but collectively they’re good. The point is there’s always an encouraging antithesis. The Purge — which says humans will kill humans the second a hate-mongering government says “Go!” — is nonetheless a stirring call for good people to unite and resist. How much worse can a premise be than the one for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which opens after humankind has been wiped out by winged creatures with enormous unfurling ears and rips your heart out when a girl inadvertently causes the death of her youngest sibling? But by the end of the film, the girl has been forgiven, and the family unit — though missing a dad — is strong enough to make a mighty stand.
How about the strain of horror that also affirms religion in times of widespread disgust and loss of faith? In The Conjuring and its spin-offs Annabelle and The Nun, those charlatans Ed and Lorraine Warren are depicted as leading the charge against demons with the help of prayers and icons, showing the church as the instrument of God rather than pedophile priests. It works! The critic Pauline Kael deemed The Exorcist — in which a 12-year-old girl jams a crucifix into her vagina and hisses, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” — as “the biggest recruiting poster for the Catholic church since Going My Way.” Going My Way, if you don’t remember, starred Bing Crosby as an idealistic young priest and Barry Fitzgerald as his crotchety elder. It won a mess of Oscars.
Some big-deal showbiz friends of Jamie Lee Curtis’s mom, Janet Leigh, actually encouraged Jamie to audition for The Exorcist, but Leigh wouldn’t let her. She did see the movie on her 15th birthday. She says, “It freaked me out so badly that my friends ran around after me at school for the rest of my high-school years, going, ‘Dimi, Dimi, why you do this to me, Dimi?’ ” She’s imitating the demon imitating Father Karras’s dead mother, and she leaves the kitchen and comes back with a copy of The Quality of Mercy, the wonderful memoir by Mercedes McCambridge, who did the demon’s voice. She slips it into my suitcase to read on the plane home. “When I got my first car, which was in 1972, a Mercury Capri, little four-cylinder, two-door car, the personalized license plate was DIMI.”
To paraphrase Noël Coward: How potent cheap horror movies can be. Consider the first real “slasher” picture, which rocked the world when Curtis was barely a toddler. Eighteen years before Laurie was dodging the knife of the masked killer who’d just murdered her best friends, Curtis’s mom stepped into a shower onscreen and, in 78 camera setups and 52 cuts, the modern horror film was born. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) invaded our safe space while also reminding us — insult to injury! — that we, the moviegoers, were voyeurs in sinful complicity with the killer. A psychiatrist’s explanation for Norman Bates’s psychopathy was stilted and unhelpful. Norman — and we — were unpurged of our poisons.
John Carpenter (who co-wrote the original Halloween with the late producer Debra Hill, who would become a guardian angel for Curtis) was aware of Curtis’s lineage, though he couldn’t have guessed how effective her mixture of self-protectiveness and vulnerability would turn out to be. Carpenter’s psycho was no schizoid Norman Bates but a mute, hulking automaton who as a little boy had stabbed his teenage sister to death after she’d had sex with another boy (who then beat a hasty retreat, conveying disgust at her promiscuity). Curtis’s character, unlike her mother’s, fights off the bogeyman and saves two children in her care, coolly directing them to run to a neighbor’s house. She was the most charismatic Final Girl, defined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws as “the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril … She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).” It was Clover who made the startling case that modern slasher films, despite their voyeuristic (often misogynistic) trappings, gave women unprecedented agency.
Curtis is an odd agent for the genre. Despite her fascination with The Exorcist — she still likes to blurt, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” — she doesn’t like being scared. She hasn’t heard of Men, Women, and Chainsaws. But she knows that right now “screaming sells,” and feels happy with her seat at the table. “If Halloween was my dish that I brought, I’m very proud of my dish,” she says. “I make a great Halloween.” But she still can’t quite believe that I have flown cross-country to talk about this movie.
“It was always illegitimate,” she says. “And I always felt illegitimate because my first success was in Halloween [and Prom Night and Terror Train and Halloween II] and I’m an untrained actor. I did not go to acting class. I did not go to film school. I did not study with great teachers. The illegitimacy that I felt as a young performer carried for a long time, and it probably has informed my whole life.”
Curtis, left, in the original Halloween (1978). And in the new version (2018), right. From left: Photo: Mary Evans/Compass International Pictures/Falcon International Production/Ronald Grant/Everett CollectionPhoto: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Curtis, left, in the original Halloween (1978). And in the new version (2018), right. From top: Photo: Mary Evans/Compass International Pictures/Falco...
Curtis, left, in the original Halloween (1978). And in the new version (2018), right. From top: Photo: Mary Evans/Compass International Pictures/Falcon International Production/Ronald Grant/Everett CollectionPhoto: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Although Curtis was the daughter of a gorgeous Hollywood couple — Leigh and Tony Curtis — she always felt like an outsider. Her dad decamped when she was 2 and a half, had more kids, and did a lot of drugs. She barely saw him. She loved her mom but never felt she knew her. She was sent to the elite Connecticut prep school Choate Rosemary Hall and felt desperately inferior. Forty-two years on, she’ll tell you her combined SAT scores to reinforce the idea that she’s not an intellectual. “I married an intellectual,” she says quickly, meaning the brilliant blue-blood Englishman Christopher Guest, her husband of 33 years, whom she spotted in Rolling Stone circa This Is Spinal Tap and told Debra Hill, “I’m going to marry that man.” (I get to hold the actual magazine with the actual photo, which is certainly handsome, but how did she … ? She just did.) And while they’re opposites in every way, she says, they fit. “We are what we call a syzygy.”
But on with the self-deprecation: “I never was pretty. My teeth were gray because my mother took Tetracycline.” When I show her my own gray, ridged Tetracycline teeth, she says, “You don’t smile. I didn’t smile my whole life. I had caps put on when I was 20, but I have gray teeth in Halloween.”
ME: I heard you say in an interview that you had no discernible talent.
JLC: I don’t.
Actually, she does. Not just in horror — she has a gift for physical comedy, which you can see in A Fish Called Wanda, Freaky Friday, and especially James Cameron’s comic thriller True Lies, in which she attempts to cheat on her husband (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) but her body seems to go its own hilarious way. She credits John Ritter, who produced her sitcom Anything But Love, who told her, “You have funny legs” — not funny weird, funny ha ha. She learned the more she splayed them out, the funnier she was.
But she never thought of her legs as the problem. It was her eyes or, more precisely, the circles underneath them. “I always look like I haven’t slept, and that was my whole life,” she says. “When I was making Perfect, we did a scene in a courtroom, and when it came to shooting my coverage, Gordon Willis, the cameraman, looked at me and said, ‘I can’t shoot her today like that,’ and said to me, ‘Stop eating salt,’ and I remember feeling horrible, just horrible.”
A couple of years later she had an eye-lift that turned into its own kind of horror movie, like the ones that say, “Don’t mess with nature.” “I tried to shift the natural course of my life through plastic surgery,” she says, “and when it didn’t work, I felt ashamed and secretive.” She had her first experience with Vicodin for the pain of surgery — her second, which lasted a lot longer, for the shame. She thought, That’s what I get “for not being content with me.” She got sober in 1999 and wrote about her addiction ten years later after the death of Michael Jackson, in an essay for the Huffington Post called “King of Pain.”
“The pain [Jackson] suffered was from his birth, from his being and becoming the commodity that then made him the omnipotent King of the Pop-Goes-The-Weasel-Jacko-in-the-Neverland-Box that destroyed him. Few children, put into the intense focus of their precious youth being marketed for others’ pleasure, come out unscathed and with any sense of mental balance … Many of the young people get the fuck away as fast as their agents and lawyers get them … but the imprint is there; it cannot be undone without a painful process of self-discovery, and as we know … pain needs to be killed … not tolerated and examined.”
In 1995, before she got sober, she began writing children’s books, and while writing one (after sobriety) called I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, she agreed to an interview with More magazine on one condition: “[that] they take a picture of me without my clothes on, with no retouching, nothing, and then take a picture of me during the process and after the process, and write how much money was spent, how many people it took to do it, and how much the clothes cost and [what it cost] to go from standing there in your underwear to that.”
The impact was electric. “I didn’t know it would go viral,” she says, “but I knew there would be women who had looked at pictures of me in Perfect with my leotard, jumping around, and they would appreciate that I was struggling with the fact that I had gained some weight and that I was a kind of … I looked like I looked, which was fine, but I was not this hard-bodied person that they thought I was.”
She says she’d have felt like a hypocrite telling kids to feel good about the deeds they do rather than how they look while perpetuating a beauty myth. She also thought it would be great marketing. Sometimes, she says, she thinks, I’m a marketing person pretending to be an actor. Ad lines pop into her head that she sends to producers. (For the first Halloween, she thought of “Let Us Prey.”) And she knows that this Halloween has irresistible hooks. It’s directed by David Gordon Green, a darling of indie cinema who’s working as I write this on a TV movie about Emily Dickinson, and is being released under the auspices of Blumhouse and its founder and CEO, Jason Blum, who has carved a fantastically lucrative niche with low-budget sensations like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, and Get Out. This last won Jordan Peele a screenwriting Oscar, which almost never happens with horror films. That Blum took the reins of the Halloween series after Dimension — a division of the Weinstein Company — lost it (it reverted to Miramax) makes this resurrection all the sweeter.
Jamie Lee Curtis.
Photo: Robert Trachtenberg for New York Magazine
I’m on the phone with John Carpenter, getting to share my thoughts about a movie that thrilled me to bits when I saw it at a drive-in in 1979. I ask about an extraordinary moment in which a little boy sneaks behind a sofa to scare a little girl — and happens to glance out the window, where he sees in the distance the masked killer, Michael Myers, carrying the dead body of his babysitter into the house across the street. In one instant, Carpenter has connected a young boy’s sadistic prank on a girl with one of the genre’s most archetypal (and sexually charged) images. I tell him it’s one of the most brilliant moments in modern horror and ask how it came to him. “Wow,” he says, “your praise is wonderful, but … what came to me was I needed a point-of-view shot.” No, he hasn’t read Men, Women, and Chainsaws either.
Carpenter reminds me that Halloween was just supposed to be “a little exploitation movie that was going to go out wide and lure teenagers in to see it.” He didn’t expect it to cause a sensation. Nor did he expect that opening the film with a long shot from Michael’s perspective would open him to charges he was colluding with the killer as well as suggesting that sex before marriage puts you at risk of being butchered.
Actually, Carpenter’s intentions were subtler. He wanted to create a link between Michael and Laurie, the virgin who dreams of meeting the right man. In one scene, she sings a little ditty called “The Two of Us” (words by Carpenter, tune by Curtis) — “I would hold you close to me, so close to me, / Just the two of us” — which Michael, who is behind her, hears. (Curtis: “I always looked at it as this beautiful representation of the innocence of Laurie, this presexual creature, intellectual, repressed, shy but also longing for connection, love, romance, touch. I mean, it’s incredibly romantic. It’s a romantic version of what Michael saw with his [older] sister.”) Later in the film, little kids watch the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest), in which the monster turns out to be a manifestation of the main character’s id. Is that a hint that Michael has sprung from Laurie’s unconscious? “It’s not quite Shakespeare,” Carpenter tells me, “but the two of them are repressed people. He’s a repressed killer, she’s a repressed young lady. They’re both lonely.” Do the math.
Basically, you can project anything you like on Michael. He’s wearing a William Shatner mask from a five-and-dime store, painted white and with the eyes widened. So he’s a whiter shade of Canadian. Motivation, shmotivation: Does a sexually frustrated, woman-hating male — an “incel” in modern parlance — need a reason to kill nubile babysitters? The problem came when network TV aired Halloween in prime time and cut so much that it wouldn’t fill its time slot. In desperation, Carpenter wrote additional scenes, one of which had Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis explaining that Michael is fixated on Laurie because she’s actually his younger sister.
I tell Carpenter, “I think in one stroke you killed much of the original’s mythic power,” and he says, “Thank you. Thank you for telling me that. Thank you so much.” But that’s the beauty of the new movie. After Green was approached by Jason Blum to direct Halloween, he and his co-writer, Danny McBride, pitched the idea of wiping the slate clean. Michael, we’d learn, was captured that Halloween night in 1978. She’s not even Michael’s sister anymore! “They cleansed Halloween of all the layers of crud!” I tell Carpenter, who didn’t care for the sequels either but squirms a bit at the language. But I’m right — as P. J. Soles’s Lynda in Halloween would say — totally.
In the new Halloween, Curtis’s Laurie is a twice-divorced, bespectacled grandmother with a long mane of gray hair. She’s not running from Michael; she’s waiting for him. She knows he’s about to be transferred from one hospital for the criminally insane to another, and she knows in her guts he won’t complete the trip. The state can’t help her. The state took away her only child, deeming her unfit. A cop (Will Patton), who stopped Dr. Loomis from killing Michael 40 years earlier and regrets it, would like to protect her, but he’s ineffectual, as cops in slasher movies always are. The answer? A weaponized matriarchy.
“When David and I sat down, I said to him, ‘What do you think happened to Laurie, November 1, 1978?,’ ” Curtis says. “I think she went to school the next day. I think she was told, ‘Baby, you’re okay, you have a cut on your arm, [here’s] a bandage. And she went from being Laurie Strode, dreaming, idealized human being with her future in front of her — she would’ve gone to Brown, maybe majored in philosophy, gotten her doctorate — to a freak, which is what trauma and shame attaches to. When she walked down the hall of that school, all that happened were people going, ‘Oh my God, there’s Laurie Strode!’ ”
The shoot — in Charleston, South Carolina — was emotional. “From the moment I showed up on that set, I started to cry,” she says. The first person she saw was Malek Akkad, the son of Moustapha Akkad, who produced the original and came up against a true horror. Moustapha was killed on November 11, 2005, along with his 34-year-old daughter, when a bomb exploded in the lobby of a hotel in Amman, Jordan. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
“Every single scene I did, I had to hold back crying, every single scene. I was sitting on it all day, every day, alone, away from my family, away from my life, in Charleston, driving around. I didn’t know where the fuck I was, I was isolated like Laurie. I was a bit of a freak.”
The final day she shot made it worth the pain. She tells the story often: “The last scene was Laurie alone in her truck, watching Michael leave the prison, and it’s written in the script [like] a little haiku: There’s a gun, there’s alcohol, and basically she relives 40 years of trauma in that moment. It’s not really spelled out, and I kept saying to David, ‘What are we going for?’
“It was an emotional day anyway. We were saying good-bye to each other. When they said, ‘Jamie, we’re ready for you,’ I walked onto the set with my head down, and I looked up, and the entire crew was standing there, and they were all wearing name tags, and the name tags said, ‘We are Laurie Strode.’
“This entire crew was telling me that they knew what I had to go do but that I was not alone. So my last moment in Charleston was that gift from that crew, saying, ‘We are with you, Jamie, we love you, we love Laurie Strode, and we’re sorry that she just had such a shitty life.’ ”
The crew’s action inspired her to think about what she’d say to Laurie if Laurie were real and she were just meeting her — something like what she’d said to me when I first met her: “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to be okay … because we’re here, and we’re going to take care of you.”
Does Jamie Lee Curtis believe in the bogeyman?
“No. No. No, I do not. I believe that there are some very damaged people, some very scary people, but I am much more frightened by people who lie, who obfuscate, who shape-shift, who make you think they’re one thing when they’re another.”
She fears the collapse of language, because in the absence of trust, chaos comes: “Then it feels like you are on one of those wobbly things where you can’t actually, like, ground into anything, and grounding into things is what I crave. I crave it in relationships. I crave it in my work.”
The subject comes back to horror films, their “illegitimacy,” and how quickly they’re dismissed. “It breaks your heart,” she says. “The irony is that in those movies I am smart, intellectual, brave, romantic, and chaste. But in order to become ‘legitimate,’ I’m a Playboy centerfold who’s murdered by her husband [in the 1981 TV movie Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story], or I’m topless in a big studio comedy [1983’s Trading Places, in which she plays a prostitute].” She’s paraphrasing a horror nerd’s line from one of the Scream movies, which proves the genre can be much more sophisticated in its satire than, say, Trading Places.
Now Curtis has found her equilibrium. Before this Halloween, she went back to horror —albeit campy horror — in the TV series Scream Queens, in which she affectionately goofed on her mother’s shower scene. A year ago, she signed on as an executive producer and helped promote the documentary Hondros, which chronicled the life and tragic death of the war photographer Chris Hondros. Now that her two children are living on their own (her daughter recently became engaged), she and Guest love to embark on eccentric odysseys, like the one for their anniversary in which they and six friends retraced the steps of Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River. Then there’s golf. Guest works hard and deliberately on his golf game, she says, whereas she picks up a club every few weeks and whacks the ball straight down the fairway — which is how, she says, she tackles her roles: No rehearsal, just come prepared and take your best shot.
Her motor runs fast, and right now it’s full-speed ahead for Halloween and against anything that crushes self-esteem — internal or external, sexist, lookist, or fascist. That’s what Jamie Lee Curtis has learned from horror films: that fighting demons isn’t just about saving oneself; it’s also a magnificent design for living.
*A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!