On Happy Death Day and endurance

Warning: There are spoilers for this series of films in this article.

Sometimes we associate films with emotions for weird reasons. A movie becomes inextricably connected to the person you were at a specific moment and no matter what happens, no matter the film’s quality, it carries that with you.

In 2017, I suffered a nervous breakdown. This is not something I share lightly but I share it because I doubt it was a secret. It was brought on by anxiety about becoming a father (which has worked out great) and the political climate (as horrible as feared.)

This was something I endured to the point that at one moment, I had to take a trip to get clean. Just 24 hours to myself. And I did purge a lot of those feelings. It was a long and emotional journey and maybe some day I’ll write it up more fully. But I came back probably as broken as I’d ever be.

The day I got back, the trailer and poster for Happy Death Day came out. My mind immediately rejected the premise. The idea of a film where someone died over and over again sounded like the most nihilistic premise possible. And that was what I felt like I was going through. So this movie? It became tied to my breakdown.

But a funny thing happens in breakdowns. You’re not prepared for them to end. They do though. I’d put the first phase of mine ending in September of that year. Took a bit longer to fully heal but I’m stronger now.

When that happens you have to reckon with the symbols. And that’s how I came to watch Happy Death Day and discover that yes, it was the right film to connect with my breakdown. Because it’s, weird as this is, one of the most optimistic films I’ve seen in a long time to the point it’s becoming a comfort movie for me.

To explain why, I have to basically spoil the ending of both the first and second movies: The heroine of the films, Tree (Jessica Rothe), survives both films ultimately. There’s no sucker punch middle finger ending in either case. She goes through unimaginable torment (within a PG-13) and comes out better for it.

That’s a really wild hook for a horror film, the idea that we are stronger for going through hell. It’s why most horror, save for exceptions like The Babadook, is lost on me. I don’t need more reminders things are bad. I avoid torture porn for a reason.

But this series, which fits more in comedy than horror honestly, breaks that. With the first film’s endless loop of slasher kills and the second’s ludicrous suicide loop, the experiences serve more as a character test. Tree starts the first film utterly humorless and terrible. She ends it kinder, funnier, and happier.

And that strikes a chord with me. I’ve been through a lot this last year, especially with Amanda in the hospital. But am I better for it? I think so. I’m more flexible. I’m more willing to grow. I’m more devoted to my family. Is it necessarily true that what doesn’t end us strengthens us? No. But it was for me.

The second film came out not long before I was to take a second trip, this one to symbolically let go of the emotions of the first and to go do some things I really wanted to do. I saw it the night before I left for the trip. On one level it was me just seeing a (very good) film I wanted to see. On another, it was nodding at the past as it passed by me. I made it.