WIHM – Jamie Lee Curtis' Accidental Career in Horror

When most people think of the term “Scream Queen”, they think of Jamie Lee Curtis. When horror fans think of low budget 1980s horror movies with charm, they think of Jamie Lee Curtis. When Jamie Lee Curtis thinks of horror movies, she cringes. “I know it might seem a stupid thing to say, because in many ways I’ve made my living from being scared. But in real life, I don’t like to be frightened. I find nothing charming about it and I’d hate to watch a horror movie.”

In 1960, Janet Leigh was stabbed to death in Hitchcock’s infamous Psycho shower scene; 18 years later, her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, would enter the movie world as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween. Having been chased around the room as a teenager by her friends quoting “Dimi, why you do this to me?” [The Exorcist], to stating there is not enough money in the world you could pay her to watch a horror movie, it is ironic that Curtis’ career was jump started by the genre she hates the most. Whilst she will still never watch the genre, she does appreciate the fans, stating that “Even if I don’t understand the thrill of a horror movie, I do understand that they have a legitimate audience who love them. They’re passionate about them, and I love them for that!

Curtis’ portrayal of the innocent babysitter Laurie Strode in 1978 struck a chord with audiences all over the world, and helped the film gain its cult status. As the franchise continued to grow (now boasting 11 films under the Halloween name—not all boast-worthy), so has Laurie’s character. Whilst in the newest instalment, she is understandably riddled with PTSD and paranoia after her run-ins with masked boogeyman Michael Myers, Laurie has grown to represent a survivor, who’s gumption and quick-thinking has saved her innumerable times. Whilst the Halloween franchise has presented Laurie in various inconsistent lights over its 40 year run, the first and last movies strongly represent how innocence does not necessarily have to coincide with weakness, proven in that she survived despite the nightmarish life she led. Curtis has since spoken about her role as Laurie, occasionally with a tear in her eye, about how Laurie’s original innocence is what captured audiences and made them care and root for her to begin with.

The doors to the horror genre were open and beckoning for Curtis to come through, and in 1980 her trilogy of cult slashers secured her the title of Scream Queen. Even though critics may not have favoured all of the films released during this period, Curtis left an unforgettable mark on the genre. The year of 1980 saw her become various relatable characters such as Kim in Prom Night, Alana Maxwell in Terror Train, and Elizabeth Folley in The Fog. Curtis threw herself into her roles, capturing the hearts of horror fans through empathic and convincing performances. Although arguably some of these films may belong to the So-Bad-It’s-Good category, Curtis’ always held the audience’s attention and embodied a true survivor.

John Carpenter’s The Fog found Curtis playing a bespoke role as Elizabeth Folley in the fictional seaside town of Antonio Bay, California. Carpenter wrote the role for Curtis as he had felt guilty that her role in Halloween hadn’t found her more work. Joining her mother Janet Leigh on the screen, Curtis plays a rich hitch-hiker in a town being ravaged by vengeful, bloodthirsty ghosts. A very different, more contemporary character to Laurie Strode, Elizabeth had less of a pure innocence to her, confidently knocking back beers and sleeping with Tom Atkins’ fisherman character. This could have been a move on John Carpenter’s behalf to immediately try and prevent Curtis as getting type-cast as the virginal babysitter, and to fight the stereotypical trope of killing off any women who dare have sex with men (such as the unfortunate endings of Laurie’s sexually active friends in Halloween).

Prom Night is the first movie to see Curtis face a tangible killer with a debatably justified, if not sympathetic, motive. Whilst the movie may not have aged particularly well, it was the first that proved Curtis had grown a name for herself within the horror genre, as director Paul Lynch admitted the movie was only funded because Curtis signed on to join the cast in the lead role. It was also one of the earlier movies to revel in the “you knew the killer all along!” twist, leaving Curtis’ final girl Kim Hammond even more emotionally battered than had she simply seen all her friends murdered on their prom night.

Curtis’ fourth offering into the horror world was in the less well received Terror Train, which, whilst it introduced some interesting new ideas to her run such as magic and illusion, was quite a basic slasher. However, already queen of the genre, her performance as Alana is still possibly the best part about the prank-gone-wrong movie.

Curtis continued her reign as queen in 1981 as she returned to her iconic role in Halloween II, the same year as her starring in Richard Franklin’s Road Games. Over the years, Curtis managed to escape the horror genre with movies such as A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies, although it has creeped back to her on occasion (not always without resentment). Calling Virus one of the worst movies she’s ever done, and admitting that one of the only reasons she signed onto the most recent instalment of Halloween was because the plot pretended that all of the movies after the first two in the franchise never happened, Curtis’ personal lack of enjoyment for the genre does not mean she can’t appreciate the hardships the genre helps some people overcome. “You could see the horror movie as a metaphor for facing any problem you’ve had, be it an alcohol or drug problem, an abusive relationship, an unfaithful relationship…there are a myriad of things. That’s why people cheer in horror movies when the woman grabs the axe to kill the killer. We need to face our fears and confront them head-on. To the death, if you will.”

The role of the final girl in the horror genre is still used in slashers today, with there being one victorious survivor who we are all rooting for, managing to escape from the brink of death by using their wit, endurance and survival skills to be the only one who lived to tell the tale. Other classic final girls, such as Scream‘s Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Alien‘s Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) have also helped shape the term, which was coined first in Carol Clover’s book ‘Men Women and Chainsaws’. As the genre evolves, so do the definitions of the final girl and women in horror, but echoing through this evolution we will always be able to hear the screams of Jamie Lee Curtis.

 

by Catherine Lindley-Neilson

Catherine Lindley-Neilson is a Music Journalism student currently residing in Brighton, who spends a majority of her time playing with her band Gaffa Tape Sandy, making sci-fi prints for Pink Neck Collective and watching 90s movies. Her favourite films include The Thing, Hereditary, The Silence of the Lambs, and basically anything involving Ralph Fiennes. You can find her on Instagram here.

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