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Why does it feel like every horror film is about trauma now?

Horror films are said to reflect the state of our collective psyche, so this new trend says a lot

This year, with the release of Halloween Ends, a certain video circulated online once again. The video is a supercut of various interviews with Jamie Lee Curtis saying that the new Halloween films are about “trauma.” The video was posted on YouTube almost exactly one year ago, and coincided with a turn in consensus towards the new Halloween films: the first was generally well received by critics and fans, but the second, 2021’s Halloween Kills, was far less beloved. The latest film, the finale of the trilogy of legasequals, has continued this downward trend. It has been met for the most part with confusion and derision from both fans and general audiences looking for a fun slasher film and instead finding… a badly written romantic coming-of-age film about, you guessed it, trauma. The buzzword of the moment. This past month I’ve seen so many complaints by people wondering why every horror film now seems to be about trauma, often referencing that video of Jamie Lee Curtis. It does seem sometimes like it’s the only theme filmmakers can think of. 

It's not new to make a horror film at least partly about trauma. Aliens spends over half an hour exploring Ripley’s PTSD before throwing her back into the hell pit. Repulsion is about a woman’s trauma from sexual violence destroying her – a subject its director, Roman Polanski, returns to time and time again for obviously uncomfortable reasons.

When I saw the recent horror film Smile, I was pleasantly surprised by its craft, but when it became clear that once again it was about trauma I did find my heart sinking. Smile isn’t a subtle film, it grabs this theme and then swings it about like a sledgehammer: in the film, the main character sees a woman kill herself in a bizarre circumstance and inherits a curse that will, after a short amount of time, make her kill herself, passing the curse onto the next person… The main character is haunted by childhood memories where she saw her mother kill herself. Trauma!

There is, honestly, something enjoyably refreshing about the entirely insensitive way Smile treats its subject matter. It is really no more or less offensive than these recent Halloween films, but whereas those films seem to beg the viewer to take what they have to say seriously, Smile is content to be exploitative and, potentially, regressive in its reproach. The film seems to take place in a parallel world where the past 15 years of serious chat about mental health never happened (the main character is the only person who seems to even understand what mental illness even is). Perhaps this is more honest, though. The times I’ve experienced mental health symptoms in public, it does tend to scare people, even people who think they understand. 

Comparing that more directly to Halloween Ends kind of reveals everything that film gets wrong about trauma. In the previous two films, Laurie was close to an end-of-the-world prepper, living in a self-made fortress. In those films, she wears cargo pants. In the new one, she dresses like a stereotypical grandmother. She’s writing a memoir, which serves as the film’s voiceover. She (tries to) bake pies! It’s a bizarre turn for a couple of reasons. The audience is told that Laurie has healed from her trauma, and I suppose healing, to the film, looks like wearing dresses and aprons and cooking for your grandchild. But why has she healed? At the end of the last film, her daughter was killed and Michael Myers escaped. That doesn’t seem like an environment conducive to healing, if healing in such a neat manner from trauma is even possible. It’s silly for me to get grumpy about this, but hey, if the film invites me to treat it seriously then I’m going to treat it seriously.

Maybe the worst part of the film is a scene where Laurie goes shopping and, in the parking lot, is accosted by two Black women. One of them is in a wheelchair and is unable to speak after being attacked by Michael Myers in the previous film, the other tells Laurie that this is her fault. I suppose this is an attempt to focus on the consequences of violence, to complicate the world of the film. But it’s not Laurie’s fault. We know that. We saw how everything happened and she has been right at every turn. Laurie’s trauma matters in the film in a way that other people’s trauma does not. It’s an uncomfortable sequence for the wrong reasons, brought about through a lack of clarity or understanding of its thematic content, but it ends up underlining the part about all these films about trauma that really makes me uncomfortable: if they even are about trauma, then they are only about the trauma of certain people. 

The recent horror films that have dealt with this subject matter that I have found the most interesting are the ones which don’t let their protagonists be right. Saint Maud and Censor, for example, are both films about the overwhelming trauma of the white women at their centres, and are both films about how that trauma leads them to justify doing horrible things to other people. Midsommar is a controversial film, but it feels like it’s about the same thing; a traumatised young woman is radicalised by a white supremacist cult into committing acts of violence. These films are uncomfortable, too. I do think the scene in the parking lot in Halloween Ends was a clumsy attempt at building this sort of idea, but the film ended up undoing its own theme there. And as much as I like those other films, they are still at their core about the trauma of one type of woman – if horror films are going to keep being directly about trauma, I hope they start to rethink what trauma is, who has it and why. Because as it is, it is a tiresome trend.