‘Escape Room,’ ‘Halloween,’ and the Immortality of Trauma

Hollywood franchising doesn’t leave room for healing.

Being an individual possessed of an AMC A-List subscription, last weekend I saw the film Escape Room. It’s the sort of film that Moviepass and its ilk are made for. I’d never make time for this kind of cheapo January horror schlock if I didn’t have 3 tickets a week burning a hole in my digital pocket. And maybe that’s my mistake, because Escape Room is quite close to being a good movie! It’s in the Cube or Exam mold, a low-budget thriller about a small group of people with distinct personalities who must solve deadly puzzles to escape from a mysterious game. It has one or two fun sequences, some predictably goofy twists, a few laughs, a few jump scares…all in all, there are worse ways to waste a midwinter evening.

What struck me about Escape Room about halfway through was this realization: “Oh, they want this to be about something!” After several contextless flashbacks which indicate that the escape room’s creators know more about the participants’ pasts than they should, it’s revealed that each player is the sole survivor of some kind of traumatic accident. The testy veteran lost her whole squad in an explosion. The surly burnout killed all his friends while drunk driving. The nervy college student was the only one to walk away from a plane crash. And so on and so forth. All of them carry the pain and guilt of being the ones who lived.

This isn’t uncharted territory for horror films. The genre has concerned characters with unresolved trauma for as long as it’s been around. Just a couple months before Escape Room we got David Gordon Green’s sequel/reboot of Halloween. That film followed its own lone survivor, Jaime Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, the final girl of the original film. Decades later she’s locked herself away in a trap-laden compound, waiting for the inevitable day when Michael Myers will return to hunt her down. This one event has consumed her personality. Her trauma motivates her every step. The film was widely praised for this characterization. Finally, people said, a horror film takes seriously the emotional consequences of wanton violence on its victims.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. And neither does Escape Room. (And here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil both of these films.)

I was cautiously excited when Escape Room started peeling back its narrative. I thought they were really going to go for it, really dig into how trauma and guilt affect these characters and lead them towards some form of catharsis. Maybe the escape room was one big therapeutic exercise, designed to help them resolve their issues and alleviate their anguish. That’s how I would have written it, anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The escape room is actually a private reality show for the rich and famous, who get their kicks watching the proles kill each other and themselves in impossible puzzle boxes. Why are all the participants sole survivors? Turns out the gag of the event was to see who would be the ultimate sole survivor, the luckiest of the lucky. This is, obviously, a rather callous twist, but not an irredeemable one. There’s still room at this point for the remaining protagonists to defy the system and gain some closure on their personal issues.

The problem is that this is a Hollywood production in 2019. So there has to be a sequel.

After the two living heroes get out of the room, there’s a coda that shows the nervy college student approaching the surly burnout with evidence of the conspiracy. The two resolve to hunt down those responsible and make them pay for putting them through the ordeal. The film ends with a shadowy, faceless figure on a monitor tracking their movements and evilly hissing, “Let’s play again.”

No ending. No catharsis. No healing. Not even the vaguest of gestures towards that possibility. These characters are imprisoned in the film industry machine. Their trauma will be exploited until it is no longer profitable. They are not allowed to get better. They are not allowed to move on.

We see the same structure in last year’s Halloween. At that film’s end, Laurie, her daughter, and her granddaughter trap Michael in her basement and set it on fire. The three of them escape, their interpersonal drama washed away by this cleansing act of vengeance. But uh oh! We cut back inside the burning basement, and Michael is gone! He slithers away to stab another day. Laurie can never heal. Laurie can only survive. There will be a sequel, and they’ll both return and clash again, and again, and again, until the studio decides Laurie doesn’t play as well for audiences anymore and they kill her off for good. Michael, meanwhile, can never die. The enactor of trauma gets to live on forever. He never stops being marketable.

As frustrating as this can be for a viewer, there’s some truth in that. Trauma isn’t something that gets neatly tied up in a three-act structure. Healing is possible, but that violence doesn’t ever fully leave you. “Moving on” implies that you leave it behind. What it really means is making the choice to not let it hold you back. It’s still a passenger in your mind. It just doesn’t have to steer the ship.

But whatever expression of that truism there is in Escape Room and Halloween is merely the accidental result of a cynical exploitation of pain and suffering. These films have nothing to say about trauma except that it exists, and it sucks, and it can be sold to some audiences by its relatability. They have no conception of how it affects people beyond instilling a desire for revenge. They have no empathy for their characters, nor for the real people meant to find solace in their depiction. Hollywood turned victims into a demographic, selling them back their own pain and anguish. And if they want to keep selling, there can never even be the possibility of things getting better.

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