Before Halloween (1978), the Horror genre was still mostly associated with Gothic literature. Classic horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein (both in 1931) focused on monsters with a myriad of social connotations. Then in the late 70’s, Halloween came out and took the genre in the complete opposite direction with the “slasher” sub-genre. Now the bad guy wasn’t a heavily made-up monster, but a faceless shape. Rather than having romantic social and sexual themes, Halloween streamlined horror into a simple formula: a bunch of teens who are destined to die. This became the standard plot for horror (to the point of becoming cliche) but Halloween accompanied this with a fatalistic viewpoint which most other slashers didn’t.
A little background: Fifteen years before the start of the film, precocious Michael Myers decides to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve by carving a pumpkin for his sister. Except take out the pumpkin and replace it with the sister. Having been locked away in a mental institution, Michael stages an escape ten years later to attack teens in his hometown…for some reason. Watch the trailer here.
From the very beginning, the film invokes a heavy sense of foreboding. The title screen shows us a rather innocuous pumpkin that slowly encroaches upon the viewer as it gets larger in the frame. Add to this Carpenter’s piano score, which maintains a constant rhythm, but is overlayed with increasingly higher notes. This gives a sense of approaching danger.
To be fair, this isn’t something unique to the film by today’s standards; it’s a given in any horror film that most characters are marked for death. The thing is, that’s only true BECAUSE most of these films ripped of Halloween in the first place. Beforehand, film standards dictated that few people could actually die in a horror film. This film was practically a bloodbath to audiences. The film continues it’s sense of impending doom by overlaying much of the scenes with the same theme as the title sequence. The film is careful about not giving the viewer to many breaks from the tension.
This foreboding is coupled with an antagonist who’s basically Death itself. While the protagonist Laurie Strode is in class, her teacher gives a lecture on fate as described in a novel they’re reading. She mentions that in the novel “fate caught up with several lives here“. As Laurie looks out and (unknowingly) sees Michael Myers for the first time, her teacher asks her what distinguishes one character’s idea of fate from the other’s. While Laurie states that one character feels as if fate only relates to religion, the other feels that fate “was like a natural element like earth, air, fire and water“. The scene connects Michael Myers not only with the fate of the teens, it also connects him with fate’s arbitrariness. He has no connection to them, but it was still their destiny to die at his hands.
Michael’s role as an agent of destiny is pointed to by his ephemeral ability to “pop” in and out of a scene. This aspect of the characher is similar to many “portents of death” and psycho-pomps (beings that guide souls to the underworld) in world folklore. British lore specifically mentions black dogs that often appear to those who are close to death. Rather than just being regular dogs, they are transient beings who appear and disappear. Laurie’s flashes of Michael’s visage parallels these creatures. Michael’s former doctor Sam Loomis sums up the inhuman nature of Michael quite succinctly to Haddonfield’s sheriff: “I watched him in a room for 15 years staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night. Inhumanly patient. […] Death has come to your little town, Sheriff“.
The build up of Michael’s inevitable murders pays off in a surprisingly understated manner. The third act has the least amount of the film’s musical theme. Carpenter replaces it with complete silence. In addition, the editing makes sure to communicate the effortless nature of Michael. As we saw earlier, Michael has a never explained ability to “blink” in and out of scenes when necessary. This of course becomes a stock device in slasher films. The most egregious use is in the Friday the 13th series, where sometimes Jason moves from one location to another in the same shot. Even non-horror films such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy utilized this basic editing technique to communicate how inhuman Batman can appear. Whereas in most films this is just a trite device, Halloween uses it to give us the feeling that Michael’s arrival is an inevitability.
The Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) (which was adapted into the American film The Grudge in 2003) does something similar with its portrayal of ghosts. In one scene, a woman keeps passing by a ghostly boy as she’s going to her apartment, who doesn’t seem to be actively following her, but keeps appearing nonetheless.
She hears and sees other evidence of the ghost as she gets home. Despite the presence of ghosts, her death isn’t until she’s actually in what should be the safest place for most people: underneath the covers of her bed.
The method in which she appears to die is more like a “passage into death” than a murder as she is pulled under the covers and just disappears. What makes this scene so frightening is that her death was completely inescapable. It was fated.
Likewise, Michael doesn’t have to put in effort to murder most of his victims, they come to him naturally. The first girl to die, Lynda, is shown walking around her home, where we see Michael in the window watching her.
At one point she gets stuck in a window.
This would be a good set up in most slasher films, which makes it notable that she doesn’t die here. Michael isn’t planning this, and he’s not reacting to the situation at hand. That level of humanity would violate the threat Loomis sets up throughout the film. Instead she dies when she reaches her car, which Michael was hiding in the whole time.
This idea of him breaking into her car so easily and knowing she’d get inside in the middle of the night is unrealistic, but in keeping with the nature of Michael. He waits and his prey comes to him.
It’s obvious to anyone who’s ever seen the film (or at least anyone that knows who Jamie Lee Curtis is) that the protagonist Laurie Strode is the only teen to survive the events of the film. Rather than violating the idea of Michael as a “portent of doom”, it’s possible that it was alluded to in the first act. As Laurie walks down the street in her first scene, we see Michael watching her in the foreground as she sings a song. The only part of the song we hear is “I wish i had you all alone/just the two of us“.
One could guess that this was a nod to the outcome of the film: Laurie would be the last one to survive. Most film theorists would probably say it’s due to her virginal nature or her uber-whiteness. Those theories definitely hold a lot of weight if you’re looking for that, but personally, I always felt that Halloween had a more simple narrative. In this film, Death isn’t about morality or reason. Here it’s incomprehensible, which makes it’s inevitability all the more frightening.
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