I would like to ask that, for a moment, you cast your mind back to the late 1970s – specifically 1970s America. A lot of change was happening. Serial killers such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were terrorizing the country, the Vietnam war had ended, Apple and Microsoft had just gotten their start, Roe v Wade had recently legalized abortion, Richard Nixon had resigned after the Watergate Scandal, and after years of fighting, the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified. If you were a conservative in America, you were probably pretty afraid. If you were pretty much anyone else – a woman, a person of colour, a queer person, or just someone who was fighting for a civil rights movement – things were perhaps starting to get a little better (except for, of course, that whole serial killer thing, which wasn’t good for anyone).
Meanwhile, a lot of cultural events were reflected in pop culture. Apocalypse Now portrayed the horrors of the Vietnam War, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest focused on the institutionalization and mistreatment of mentally ill people, One Day At A Time centred around a divorced mother raising her children, and Black Christmas, a horror movie about several young girls being murdered, has a young, pregnant protagonist who is planning to get an abortion.
In 1978, inspired heavily by Black Christmas, director John Carpenter released a movie called Halloween.
Halloween is a simple movie: a six year old boy murders his sister, is locked up for fifteen years, escapes, and kills four more people. Meanwhile, his doctor, Sam Loomis, tracks him down to attempt to stop him from hurting anyone. For a slasher movie, it’s relatively bloodless; there are only five deaths, only four of which are onscreen, two of which are strangling, and one of which is heavily obscured. There are no fountains of fake blood, or gruesome torture sequences. Even if the creators had wanted to include these things, they didn’t have the budget for it.
Halloween was made for about $300k, provided by producer Moustapha Akkad. This meant many of the actors were not well-known, and that the cast and crew were generally underpaid, and most of the props and costumes were decided by what could be obtained cheaply – most famously, the mask worn by Michael Myers is actually a mask of William Shatner that was altered to look scarier and less human, costing the crew less than five dollars. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, was hired in the lead role of Laurie Strode, giving the film a lot of publicity. Most of the film was not gore and violence, but just shots of various characters walking or driving around, talking, and being teenagers, while the movie’s score played in the background, never quite letting the audience forget that something terrible is about to happen.
The score was composed by John Carpenter. It’s sort of a weird piece – it’s in 10/8 timing (each measure is composed of ten eighth notes, which is fairly unusual), which makes it sound slightly off kilter and very distinctive; it has a very high melody juxtaposed with low synth chords, which sounds unnatural and alarming; and there’s an ominous ticking sound throughout the entire thing that is reminiscent of a clock counting away the seconds.
It’s incredibly effective. In fact, the audio is a large part of why the film works. Aside from the score, which has now become iconic, you can hear the sound of Michael breathing through the mask throughout the film (which is essentially the only sound he makes, since he never speaks). At one point, we hear a character being choked to death over the phone (a scene that would later be referenced in the opening of Wes Craven’s Scream). Once Michael starts attacking Laurie, we hear the scream that gave Jamie Lee Curtis the title of “scream queen”. All of this together is terrifying.
Of course, the audio isn’t the only thing the film utilizes to create a sense of horror. Another strong point in terms of style for Halloween is camerawork. In particular, the scenes from Michael Myers’ perspective – one extended POV shot at the beginning that puts you inside the killer’s head while he stabs his sister to death, and hides the fact that he is a six year old child until after he has murdered her, and several shots throughout the movie that show his perspective as he watches characters from behind hedges or outside windows, all with the sound of breathing in the background.
While the audio and camerawork lend themselves to the terror of Halloween, they are only supporting factors in the thing that truly makes the film scary: the fact that it could be real. When Halloween was released, slasher movies weren’t really a thing the way they are today. There were a few– Psycho is a sort of early template, and the aforementioned Black Christmas – but they wouldn’t be popularized until after Halloween’s release. What was common in horror movies prior to this was the supernatural: demons and possession, or monsters such as vampires and werewolves. It was all fantasy. Halloween shows a terrifying scenario that is very much a reality: a human being, a child, doing great evil. It’s a very naturalistic movie. The setting of Haddonfield, Illinois doesn’t exist – it’s a classic Everytown, America. It could be any town. It could be your town.
The characters in the movie feel real as well. Debra Hill, Carpenter’s wife at the time, co-wrote the movie, and she and Carpenter wanted to make sure that the teenagers acted and talked and dressed like real teenagers. The women weren’t meant to be meek and void of personality and essentially there to be viewed, as women were often portrayed in movies – they were given agency, desires, and in the case of Laurie Strode, enough resourcefulness and willingness to fight to fend off a killer using a knitting needle, a coat hanger, and his own weapon. The movie has sometimes been interpreted as misogynistic for killing off all the female characters who are shown drinking and having sex, while allowing the more conservative, booksmart, virginal Laurie to live and defeat the villain. However, this was apparently not an intentional commentary, and John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Jamie Lee Curtis have all mentioned that the characters are meant to be realistic teenagers, not a portrayal of what teenagers (or women) should or shouldn’t be. (Not to mention, Laurie is shown swearing, smoking pot, helping her friends to shirk their babysitting duties in favour of using the empty houses they now have access to for their own enjoyment, and it’s mentioned that she has a crush but has trouble getting a boyfriend – she’s not exactly trying to be angelic, she’s just a little dorky). The idea of teenagers being killed for drinking or having sex would be portrayed more explicitly in Friday the Thirteenth, a copycat slasher film released in 1980, and the idea of an innocent final girl surviving would be echoed in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, and deconstructed in his later movie Scream.
Another thing that made Halloween scary is the utter lack of explanation for Michael’s actions. He doesn’t seem to have a specific motivation – in fact, he doesn’t seem especially motivated at all. He walks slowly, he shows no emotion, he kills people at random. At one point, upon finding a dog that Michael has killed, Loomis says simply, “he got hungry”. Seemingly, then, Michael is just acting on his whims. He isn’t killing people out of a need for revenge or to make a point, he just sees people and decides to kill them. Brad Miska’s article The Boogeyman, Fear, and Responsibility – A Close Analysis of ‘Halloween’ (1978) suggests that Michael is killing characters who “(throw) off their responsibilities in a way that reminds him of his first victim” – but he identifies his victims, stalking Laurie and her friends, long before he sees them shirking their babysitting duties, suggesting that he didn’t have a reason to kill these teenagers specifically. This reflected the serial killers of the era, who would kill people seemingly at random, often horrifically.
A running theme throughout Halloween is characters asking for help and being ignored. Sam Loomis desperately tries to convince anyone who will listen that Michael is armed, dangerous, and heading for Haddonfield to kill more people, but is constantly told he’s overreacting. Laurie tells her friends that a man in a mask is stalking her, and they laugh it off. Tommy Doyle, the boy Laurie babysits, sees Michael and tells Laurie that “the boogeyman” is watching him, only for her to dismiss it as childish fear. When Michael is chasing Laurie, she screams for help and bangs on a neighbour’s door, and the neighbour is seen looking out the window and consciously deciding to ignore her. These are all examples of a very real human behaviour: the tendency to ignore bad things, to sweep them under the rug and look in the other direction rather than getting involved. Not only could the events of Halloween happen to you, but nobody is going to help you, or even believe you, if they do.
Halloween also harkens back to themes present in some of the earliest horror stories that we still enjoy today. For instance, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
Like Halloween, Frankenstein has a villain who is quasi human, isolated from society, feared and rejected, and, eventually, a merciless killer with little to no empathy for his victims. Both stories make you wonder what it means to be human – and whether or not being human automatically means you have humanity. Both stories allow you to see from the perspective of the antagonist as well as the protagonist, although Halloween does this to create horror, and Frankenstein does it to raise questions of morality. In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein abandons his creation and refuses to comply with his demands for a partner once he realizes the creature is capable of doing evil; in Halloween, Sam Loomis attempts to treat Michael for seven years, and then gives up, and focuses on keeping him contained instead. Both Loomis and Frankenstein dehumanize their respective charges, referring to them as “the creature”, or “it”, or “the demon”. Although the creature eventually learns to speak French, he has no formal education, and for the first part of his life he doesn’t know how to communicate at all, much like Michael, who has been silent, locked up, and heavily drugged since the age of six.
Of course, there are some pretty significant differences between the two stories as well. Frankenstein gives an immense amount of focus to why the creature does what he does; he speaks eloquently and attempts to reason with people, and although his actions are terrible, you sympathize with his situation and his feelings. Michael Myers is given no such motivation, and thus, no such empathy – his demeanour is cold, he is silent, and he wears a mask that makes him look more like a blank slate than a person. While much of the horror of Halloween comes from how real the events feel, Frankenstein is a work of science fiction, and although it may feel plausible to the reader, it’s not nearly as grounded in reality as Halloween. Halloween is also much more recent, so the fears – the people around you not being who they seem, injustices being swept under the rug to keep up the appearance of happiness and wholesomeness, bad things happening for no reason – are still pretty relevant today.
Halloween has its flaws, and it isn’t as scary, as novel, or as effective for a modern audience as it would have been when it was released, but it is altogether a good movie with an iconic legacy, and arguably the best slasher movie to date. That being said, it is a few days into November now, so we’ll give Halloween a rest (after all, the Black Christmas season is rapidly approaching).