Well folks, another spooky season has come to an end. It’s already November, and soon people will be cracking out the Christmas decorations and putting up their trees. But not us in PLP. Because we are working through a unit based on the element of human fear. The focus of this unit is horror, and how horror comments and reflects on our society. We are studying the history of horror by watching horror films, and then as a class, we will create our own horror movie from scratch.
To start off this unit, we first began reading a famous text, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This book is known to be one of the first science fiction novels ever, which would eventually lead to horror fiction. Frankenstein is a big deal to say the least, as the horror that the story wrestles with are still relevant to today. But I will get to that later, for now I have another topic to discuss. Our final project will be our class movie, and we have a lot to learn before we even pick up a camera.
We are watching and analyzing a series of horror films in class to break down the strategies and tropes of horror. The first film we watched in class was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). This film is known to be one of the first of many slasher films that would come in the decades following this movie. This film has been haunting people’s dreams for almost half a century, and there are good reasons for that. In this post I will analyze why this movie is important, and what the horror of Halloween really is.
So, what does make Halloween so horrifying? John Carpenter as the director made many crucial decisions that all came together to make a masterpiece, but what are they? First off, the way the camera tells the story. In this film, there are a lot of long, slow shots following the main characters. This is used extremely well, as it builds tension little by little until the climax near the end of the movie. These prolonged shots are used to make us feel uneasy, as we get used to what’s in the frame, and then have lots of time to think about what could jump out at us at any time. The director is playing with our imagination, even though nothing bad is happening to the main characters, we are always on the edge of our seats expecting the worst.
Another example of the camera bringing out the horror is in one of the first scenes. It is shot in the first person, and it’s quite a long shot as well. This shot is filmed in the first person, and we don’t know who’s eyes we are looking through as the viewer. Having no context to this shot and not seeing the face of the character withholds a lot of information from the viewer. This in itself is scary, not knowing the identity of the character, or as the shot goes on, the mental state of the character. We are stuck in what turns out to be Michael Myers body as he walks mysteriously around and in his house. Having the camera see what Michael sees strikes fear into the hearts of the viewers, and forces us to do whatever actions he does. The camera is literally the gateway from the audience to the town of Haddonfield, so using this tool well was essential, and it’s something John Carpenter did extremely well.
The next factor that made Halloween truly terrifying is the character Michael Myers. You would think that’s pretty obvious, but I want to focus on why he is as terrifying as he is. The main reason he horrifies everyone is that he has no motivation. He is just a psychopath on a killing spree, and there’s nothing more frightening than someone who just kills for no reason. In the movie, we only see one scene from Michael’s childhood, and it doesn’t do much to explain why he does what he does. Because in that scene, even though he is only a child, he still resorts to killing meaninglessly. We want to associate Michael’s actions with some sort of trauma because it would help us as the viewers to understand him. But we never get that understanding. Michael is a human that just isn’t human. The director chooses to withhold the Michael’s motivation from us to make this masked murderer even more terrifying than he already is. Add the fact that he is seemingly immortal and impossible to kill, and you have yourself the perfect horror antagonist.
I think my biggest takeaway from studying this movie is that the antagonist of the movie is extremely important. The essence of the character must be well thought out, and portrayed in our own movie perfectly. We can use the camera and different filmmaking techniques to bring out the horror of our antagonist, but the character itself must be terrifying to us as humans. Michael Myers is an amazing example, because we literally don’t know why he kills. His character scares us as much as his actions. Maybe even more. But I learned from this, for our movie we can’t have an antagonist who just looks scary. They need to either have no motive, or a motive that makes no sense at all to a sane person. I also learned a few more camera techniques to really increase the tension and dread in our viewers. Having long, drawn out shots let the audience squirm and begin imagining the worst situations possible when nothing bad is actually happening. I am looking forward to creating our movie, and I’m learning more and more every movie we watch.