The Final Girls Club is a column posting every 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics. It might not be Monday today, but we are posting this as a Halloween special!
Trauma’s a killer you can’t ever outrun. On your best days, and in your happiest moments, it lurks like rats behind wainscotting. It wants you to falter, to trip up, to fail for just one second so it can consume you all over again. Trauma is relentless in its pursuit of your stability, and it thrives on your failure. Much like a masked murderer from the golden age of slasher cinema, it is always stalking the shadows, ready to pounce when you’re least expecting it.
That parallel isn’t lost on horror filmmakers. Iconic killers like Jason, Freddy, and Michael have all been used as direct metaphors for trauma in their respective franchises. But while those series’ tend to grapple with a more generalised idea of PTSD, the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy trades in the shared, collective pain of existing as a woman under patriarchy.
In no other entry is that intent clearer than Deborah Brock’s 1987 Slumber Party Massacre II.
Starring Crystal Bernard as protagonist Courtney Bates, Slumber Party Massacre II is set a few years after the events of the first film. Courtney is still haunted by nightmares of the Driller Killer, a sadistic murderer who left twelve dead and Courtney’s sister institutionalised. She struggles with intimacy in the wake of her tragedy and is obsessed with death – she’s seen staring at dead animals early in the movie. She hopes that a weekend away with friends (and her crush) will help her to overcome her palpable grief.
Because this is a slasher movie, that goes about as well as you would expect. Soon, the vacationing teens are attacked by the vengeful spirit of the Driller Killer — personified as a seductive, leather-jacket-wearing, guitar-wielding rocker. He’s quite the entertaining character, and a far cry from the mostly silent sociopath of the first film. The Driller Killer dances, sings, and plays guitar as he forces himself onto his victims and kills them in a myriad of increasingly absurd ways.
Or does he? See, unlike the first and third films, Slumber Party Massacre II has no pretenses of being grounded in reality. The killer bends and breaks the rules of physics, and events that could only be described as supernatural happen in almost every scene. While it would be easy to chalk that up to Brock’s clear reverence for the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, I’m not so sure this is a simple case of copycat syndrome.
Instead, I posit that most of Slumber Party Massacre II doesn’t actually happen. Each supernatural occurrence, dogged pursuit, and vicious murder are visceral personifications of Courtney’s trauma. In the first movie, Courtney is fascinated by partying with older kids and thirsting over older men – in the second, both are things she feels untold amounts of shame over. This is a young woman who, in the early throes of puberty, was attacked by a murderous sexual predator and bore witness to the vicious murders of several girls. It makes sense that her trauma would manifest itself as shame, and that shame would play tricks on her damaged psyche.
There’s evidence for this laced throughout the lean 75-minute picture. Courtney refuses to eat because she sees food as rotten and infested with maggots, and she sees her friend’s pimples as an oozing, grotesque mutation. At no point in this movie is Courtney truly safe – and quite often, the threat makes no logistical sense, especially in the context of the franchise.
These moments, in my mind, are consistent with trauma. Victims of abuse and sexual assault often fall victim to debilitating self-image issues, which can manifest themselves in different forms of body dysmorphia. Speaking from my own experience, sexual assault makes you feel actively repulsed by the human body – especially your own. That repulsion can manifest in noticing little imperfections on everyone, or starving yourself because the idea of eating disgusts you. Surviving a violent assault is a special kind of hell in how it makes you see yourself and the world at large.
It’s that kind of hell, then, that Courtney is stuck in. As she watches her friends cut loose, her mind can only show her the worst possible outcomes. She can’t eat because food repulses her. She can’t party because a killer could slaughter her friends. She can’t get intimate with the guy she likes because he could kill her. There’s no safety from her trauma – it invades her mind and lays waste to everything around her.
That’s embodied in the film’s final shot, which audiences tend to interpret as literal. The Driller Killer, after killing Courtney’s friends, is set ablaze and burned alive. Courtney then wakes up next to Matt, leading us to believe that they hooked up, and that the movie has all been an elaborate nightmare. At first, anyway. Soon, Matt rolls over in bed and reveals that he’s morphed into the Driller Killer. Courtney wakes up again, this time screaming and strapped to a bed in an institution. A giant drill then protrudes through the floor, and the screen cuts to black.
If interpreted literally, this scene is incoherent nonsense. But based on the subtext found throughout the rest of this movie, I’m confident that Brock is showing us an interpretive depiction of Courtney’s mental state. Even if she were to end up in an institution like her sister, she would never be free from her trauma. Her mind is under constant attack, and there is no truly safe place for her.
While this might seem bleak, I’d argue it is anything but. In this interpretation, Courtney is still safe, and surrounded by people that care about her. She’s surrounded herself with supportive people and slept with somebody that she’s learning to trust. Some backsliding is going to happen – she is going to lapse into depressive episodes, and she is going to have to work through her myriad psychoses. But she is safe, and she will recover.
This is why Courtney is, to me, a hopeful character. Despite her mind terrorising her throughout the course of Slumber Party Massacre II, she’s ultimately making decisions that will be good for her in the long run. We’re catching her in the early days of her recovery, and if she continues on this path, she’ll likely learn to cope with her trauma a little better over time.
Because while trauma’s a killer you can’t ever truly outrun, you can learn to live with it. When it celebrates your failures, you work to fail less. When it destabilises you, you find stable people to lean on. And when it emerges from the shadows, to colour your perception, to taint your world, to drive you to the brink, you look it straight in its eye and recognise it for what it is: a wound. Not a killer, but a wound – a scar that somebody else etched into you.
It’s a scar that hurts, yes – a scar that you’ll never be able to unsee. But still a scar, nevertheless.
A scar that will never define you.
A scar that will heal.
by Bella Blondeau
Bella Lara Blondeau is Senior Features Editor at TheGamer. She’s also the hostess of Rocketto Punchi Podcast (available on iTunes and Spotify,) and has published two books: Emancipations and Leaving Northwood (both available digitally.) You can find her on Twitter at @vhsvvitch, and support her fiction on Gumroad.
Categories: Feminist Criticism, The Final Girls Club
An absolutely incredibly piece. Perfectly sums up all of the film’s themes and subtext in a coherent, easy to understand manner. Great job!
Fact Check: Courtney Bates NEVER hallucinated that food was rotten and maggot infested. This statement is completely false and unfounded. She ate breakfast with her mother, and finished most of her dinner the same day. She was eating cookies the first night at Sheila’s. She ate sandwiches with Matt the night of the finale. Not once did she visualize spoiled, maggot infested food.