John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

How a simple “slasher movie” deplores the patriarchy and evokes Celtic folklore.

 

Merry Samhain! Happy Hallowtide! To mark this blessed holiday occasion, the next several episodes of this series will feature my analyses of the Halloween horror film franchise, with a particular focus on my five favorite installments thereof.

If I had to rank my top 5 Halloween movies as things currently stand here in 2020, the countdown (from fifth to first favorite) would run as follows:

I find it difficult to discuss these films in a countdown, and would prefer to discuss them chronologically instead. But unlike most other popular movie franchises, the Halloween series does not follow a single coherent timeline. It instead includes several alternate continuities, and even a completely different cinematic universe in the case of Halloween III (which diverges thematically from all the other films). That being said, I think it would make the most sense if I discussed my favorite entries from the “A-plot” storyline of the series (the Michael Myers saga) first, then concluded with an analysis of the “B-plot” story. So the first four episodes in this little mini-series will feature my four favorite Myers films in their chronological order of release; then I will end by discussing Halloween III.

It’s Halloween night, 1963, in the sleepy little town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Dressed as a clown, a six-year old boy named Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister, Judith, to death—and for no apparent reason at all. He neither moves nor speaks afterwards, and he is admitted to a state mental hospital, where he is treated by Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). After a while, Loomis claims Myers is the single most dangerous patient he has ever observed, and he does everything he can to have the boy transferred to a maximum security prison—despite the fact that Michael just sits there motionless, never reacting to any external stimuli. The doctor’s colleagues think Loomis has gone crackers, but he seems to understand something about Michael that modern psychiatry just isn’t equipped to explain. Much to everyone’s horror, Loomis is proven 100% correct about his patient 15 years later, when a full-grown Myers gets a hair up his ass and makes a jailbreak on Halloween Eve. The authorities continue to gaslight Dr. Loomis and ignore what’s happening, thinking they will probably find Michael just sitting in a park somewhere in his hospital clothes. But Loomis knows his patient is really up to something terrible, so he follows his only lead: the possibility that Myers might return to the scene of his childhood crime, the old Myers House back in Haddonfield.

Here is where we meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a meek and lonely teenager who happens to live in Haddonfield. She’s good-natured and smart as a whip; but her closest “friends,” Annie and Lynda (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles), constantly treat her like shit, making fun of her good grades and her shyness around dudes. Yet Laurie does, in fact, attract a “man” when she passes by the Myers House on her way to school that Halloween morning in 1978. For a mysterious Shape inside the abandoned property notices her and fixates on her, following her wherever she goes from that point on. Laurie keeps catching glimpses of the Shape as she sits in class, walks home from school, and goes to babysit her pre-adolescent friend Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) for the evening. But the Shape keeps appearing and vanishing like a phantom, and Laurie doesn’t really believe what she sees as first, thinking it’s probably just some holiday prankster, or perhaps her eyes playing tricks. Tommy refers to the Shape as “the Boogeyman” whenever he sees it lurking outside the windows, and Dr. Loomis insists this thing is really the devil himself. By the time Laurie is forced to defend herself and Loomis arrives to shoot the Shape six times in the chest at close range, the viewer is unable to dispute with Tommy or Loomis on either of these theories. There really is no “Michael Myers” at all, or at least not in any human sense; there is only the deathless Shape, which has now dropped all pretense at being a mortal man.

This story might not seem to have anything to do with magic or the occult, but there is a curious parallel to Celtic mythology and folklore that is seldom noticed. Celtic lore tells of changelings, or faery children who are swapped for human babies (without the human parents’ knowledge or consent). A changeling will look and behave just like a human baby at first, but eventually it starts exhibiting weird superhuman powers, and misfortune follows it wherever it goes. It seems to me that Michael Myers fits this motif perfectly; his parents appear to have had no idea of what they were really raising, and much like the evil spirits in Celtic folk religion, he only roams free during the festival of Samhain. Additionally, the apotropaic Halloween traditions that once kept us safe from entities like the Shape—wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, trick-or-treating, etc.—have been completely secularized, rendering them powerless. The evil can stalk and slash as much as it wants to now, since the people of Haddonfield aren’t even willing to acknowledge its existence in the first place.

The fact that Myers wears a pale white mask and stalks defenseless young women is also significant. Myers is the ultimate Angry White Male, and he is just as difficult to kill as the horrific patriarchy in which we all live. The authorities’ insistence on minimizing his evil is paralleled by how our society continues to trivialize issues like systemic misogyny and toxic masculinity today. I think most people would agree with me that even when these evils are exposed in broad daylight for all to see, the common reaction is to ignore the problem and pretend nothing bad is really happening. Here in 2020, the entire United States is still responding to evil men the same way Haddonfield responded to the Shape in 1978: by ignoring them and letting them do whatever the fuck they want.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is amazing and beautiful on many different levels. It is, in fact, my all-time favorite film. It might be a “slasher” film (and the template for many slashers to come, at that), but it feels much more like an old-fashioned ghost story to me. The point is not to build a body count or gross out the audience with gore, but to build relentless suspense, to make us yell at the characters in the movie, and to leave us all wondering, “What happens next?” when the credits roll. The fact that this film was made on a nonexistent budget by mostly unknown talent (many of whom worked multiple jobs on set for free, including Curtis) only enhances the impression it leaves on the viewer. The most expensive part of the entire production was probably just hiring Donald Pleasence to play Dr. Loomis for a few key scenes, and even he (being the fantastic professional that he was) admired all the heart that was put into the project. This was also Jamie Lee Curtis’ first big break, and she truly shines as Laurie Strode, the timid girl who never goes looking for trouble, but who turns out to be much tougher and cooler than she or her peers think she is. And lest I forget, the eerie electronic music by director John Carpenter is truly a work of art unto itself. The soundtrack is my #1 favorite album to listen to, which I suppose is probably obvious to anyone who’s heard my music.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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