Film

Why John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is Still Scary

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In Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake, the gorehound director made two fatal errors. One was to delve into the backstory of Michael Myers more than the original Halloween did, explaining his origins beyond the night where he murdered his sister (instead showing us extended nonsense about his broken home and stripper mother) and ruining the mystery of the character in the same uninteresting way that Hannibal Rising did with the delicious cannibal Dr. Lecter. (To be fair to Zombie, the rest of the Halloween franchise exploited Myers’s origins, peaking in Halloween 6 when it broke the needle on the derp-ometer with Paul Rudd running around trying to stop a cult with magic stones or something.) The other and in my opinion bigger sin was to transform Myers into a hulking Frankenstein creature, eight feet tall and as thick as a horse, unstoppable because he’s a movie monster and not a man.

I don’t mean to pick on Zombie. He at least had his own vision for the franchise instead of rehashing the exact same tropes for a more modern audience, and he could have done something pointless like Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake (and Zombie could’ve cast Vince Vaughan as Michael Myers). But the problem with Zombie’s film is that it wouldn’t have worked even as its own horror film completely unaffiliated with John Carpenter’s Halloween, because Zombie’s vision of horror is that of blunt stupidity: Big scary thing go smash when no expect it. Not only that, but Zombie asks the audience to feel a sliver of empathy for a murderous, near non-human colossus. Rooting for the killer can be fun if the film’s complete trash like the set-in-outer space Jason X, but it’s never scary. The tension is completely deflated at the first (un)intentional laugh.

Times are different, of course. When Carpenter’s original Halloween hit theaters in late 1978, tropes such as the virgin heroine and quick-to-die high school sexy-timers didn’t exist—the film invented them inadvertently. And so, unlike Rob Zombie’s remake, the characters didn’t exist solely to be murdered, and neither did the audience have a worldview that saw characters as props to be sliced and diced. The Halloween sequels and the innumerable slasher flicks it spawned over the following two decades (the Friday the 13th franchise being an especially egregious example) capitalized on the simplistic formula of a mute, masked murderer with a knife or blunt object impaling his way through hordes of half-clothed teens. But Carpenter’s original vision wasn’t so cynical. The characters that inhabit the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois—Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends are real if somewhat stereotypical teenagers, but they’re not props. Part of what’s so terrifying about watching them die is that they’re so young.

But what makes the film is the Michael Myers character. Unlike other horror movie icons, the first film gives us very little in the way of backstory. In Friday the 13th, Mrs. Voorhees explains how her son, Jason, drowned in the lake while two camp counselors were having sex. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Kreuger is a child murderer who is burned alive by the town’s vengeful parents. With Michael Myers, he inexplicably kills his sister, and we are fast-forwarded to fifteen years later, where Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) explains that Myers is not a person—he is simply evil. He’s frightening because like his pale, featureless, apparitional face, he is, like a ghost, without form—a shape, as he appears in the credits. His occasional materializing and vanishing in a single blink is unsettling because for one moment we have a line on him, and then he’s gone. Carpenter echoes the visual of Myers staring at a distance several times throughout the film. Not only is the visual creepy unto itself (a faceless, unresponsive man looking at us), it creates a delightful meta-dread that comes full-circle: We watch Laurie watch Michael, who’s watching her (and incidentally staring at us since we see him from Strode’s POV), and it becomes very clear that we are watching him, too, and so the sensation of being the voyeur and the voyeured (not a real word, but whatever) at once self-perpetuates the wonderful tension of being on the lookout for a nefarious watcher we can’t always see. The film even begins from Michael’s point of view.

The echoing visuals also help build tension. The beginning of the film is littered with little moments like these—Michael is outside the school staring in at Laurie, then he’s not. He’s standing beside a hedge, then he’s not. He’s standing among the laundry hung up to dry, then he’s not. All these small, replicated moments help introduce the more dominant visual for the second half of the film, the house across the street. Carpenter shows multiple shots of the house over the course of the night, and the poor, young Tommy is witness to most of it—Michael standing in front of the house, the house bare, Michael carrying Annie’s body, the house bare, the lights of the house going out. The visual climaxes with the film itself in the long shots of Laurie fleeing the house while Michael pursues her on foot.

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But most frightening of all, Halloween exploits at the periphery a false sense of security within white suburbia. The fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois is supposed to be a sleepy suburb, but is punctuated by violent murders fifteen years apart, the first of which (Michael killing his older sister at the film’s outset) is hardly recognized by its residents. This is especially evident in Dr. Loomis having to plead with the sheriff to take the situation seriously—that a violent killer, the same one from decades past, has returned to wreak unknown havoc upon the town. It takes Loomis time to convince the sheriff of the reality of the neighborhood’s history. Even more, the Myers house is abandoned, and the children of the neighborhood tell each other urban legends of hauntings and boogeymen within the remnants of the fabled home, the reality of the night in 1958 long forgotten. When he comes to Haddonfield, his murders go unanswered as he slips away silently into the dark. When Michael crosses the street at the end of the film, after seeing the house so many times, it feels as though he is coming for you.

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He is the perfect metaphor for the home invader: a bit stronger than you, a bit taller than you, unstoppable not because he’s a titanic he-man, but because your blows against him are like the punches you inflict in your dreams—forceless and impotent. As Laurie discovers, her best chance is to run away, as even when stabbed and shot Myers is only momentarily incapacitated before being inexplicably rejuvenated. Dr. Loomis witnesses as much at the end of the film when Myers falls from the second story after Loomis put several bullet in him. There Myers is, sprawled on the lawn, motionless. But look a second time and he is gone he, only his breathing echoing through the night.

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2 thoughts on “Why John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is Still Scary

  1. I really enjoyed your take on this. I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be, but you do a nice job of linking some of the things I considered weaker (Myers’ ubiquity at the beginning) to a great payoff at the end (only we the audience and Tommy fully appreciate the threat the “boogeyman” poses). Maybe I need to watch it again . . .

    • Hi Josh. Thanks for stopping by. I had a conversation with a friend not too long ago who’s similarly a fan of Halloween, and we both wondered what someone who has never seen it might think of it today. I definitely understand some of your criticisms (Loomis not seeing the car is one that really is just ridiculous), though I’m able to brush many off, and that may be just because I’ve seen the film so many times that the line between my appreciating its craft and its entertainment value is blurred beyond distinction.

      But I think your final point kind of nails it. Carpenter was first, but others have done it better—as you would expect. I mean, I love Robert Johnson. But there are a lot of other blues boys out there who do it better.

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