Evil personified: 42 years of John Carpenter’s horror classic ‘Halloween’
“In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum.” – John Carpenter
Although John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic had been largely dismissed by critics at the time of its release, Halloween has dominated the slasher genre with its omnipresent influence since then and often serves as the guide for contemporary horror films, also inspiring other classics like Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream. With the twelfth edition in the Halloween franchise set to come out next year, it is exigent that we revaluate the significance of the original film that started it all.
Right from the beginning, Carpenter unsettles us with a POV shot from the perspective of an individual who is stalking a teenage couple. We see through the eyes of a potential killer as he grabs a knife from the kitchen, waits for the boyfriend to leave and then puts on a mask. The iconic visual narrative is paired with a brilliant atmospheric theme track written by Carpenter himself, creating an undeniable sense of foreboding and impending violence. The killer finds the girl upstairs and stabs her mercilessly as she screams, “Michael!” He walks out of the house nonchalantly as the girl’s parents drive up to the house. They take off his mask, revealing a six-year-old child in a clown costume and armed with a bloodstained knife. It takes that one stunning image for Carpenter to tell us about his cinematic universe that breeds violence.
Written in approximately ten days and shot in twenty, Halloween follows Michael Myers as he follows other people: an interesting meta-commentary on voyeurism. 15 years after he killed his sister, Michael escapes from an asylum when his doctor Sam Loomis (the name is a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) comes to visit him. He makes it back to his blissful suburban hometown Haddonfield just before Halloween night and prepares to terrorise new victims by breaking into a hardware store and stealing masks and other supplies. Co-writer Debra Hill explained how the film incorporates the Gaelic festival of Samhain in order to explore this idea of an invincible evil: “We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived. And when John came up with this fable of a town with a dark secret of someone who once lived there, and now that evil has come back, that’s what made Halloween work.”
This time around, Michael focuses his obsessive frenzy on a student Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her group of teenage friends. When her father asks Laurie to drop off the keys to the abandoned Myers residence, she catches Michael’s eye who has taken refuge in his old home. However, she only notices him when she looks out of the window during literature class. As the teacher indulges in some serious foreshadowing by saying “fate caught up with several lives here,” Laurie sees Michael on the street. Donned in that famous mask, he stares right into her soul and disappears. The mask becomes a symbol of Michael’s loss of human identity. Throughout the film, he is mostly referred to as “the bogeyman”. Carpenter subverts the seriousness of Michael’s psychosis with the irreverence of high school culture. Michael drives past Laurie and her friends in his typical creepy manner, prompting one of the girls to blurt out “I think he’s cute”.
Laurie keeps seeing him everywhere she goes, behind a bush and in her backyard. Carpenter efficiently employs these repetitive images of Michael to create a recurring signifier of death. Like many of its successors, Halloween is a horror film that is self-aware about its own genre. From Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960), Carpenter fills his work with allusions to other filmmakers and even makes a reference to Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) which didn’t even exist at that point. Apart from its questions about the conventions of the genre, Halloween also attempts to deconstruct small town mythopoeia as well as the ethics of human evil. It is easy to relegate evil to the realm of the supernatural so as to avoid any kind of moral responsibility but how does one make sense of an individual who has been killing since he was six? His terrified doctor Sam Loomis tells the local Sheriff:
“I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”
In what is one of the most gripping and terrifying sequences, Michael stalks and hunts down Laurie’s friends one by one. He starts with Annie, strangling her in her car and carrying her into the house where she was babysitting. Lynda and her boyfriend Bob also enter the house to fool around, only for Bob to be crucified with a knife. Michael spares nobody, choking Lynda with the telephone wire while she attempting to call Laurie. Although Laurie is babysitting right across the street, all she can do is watch from the window as the lights go on and off in the house. Tommy, the kid who she was looking after, keeps spotting “the bogeyman’ but Laurie dismisses these childish myths. However, she finally decides to investigate and goes into the murder mansion. Carpenter uses crude tracking shots to highlight the volatility of the atmosphere as well as the destabilisation of the cinematic medium. Laurie discovers Annie’s body decorated with Judith’s (Michael’s sister) tombstone as well as the corpses of Bob and Lynda. A fast-paced visual narrative and an impeccable sound design make the viewer feel as if they are in that cramped room, bearing witness to Michael emerging from the darkness.
The final scene is probably one of the more memorable ones of the genre and for good reason. Carpenter introduces us to a special kind of evil, an agent of violence that cannot be terminated by violence and does not dissipate simply because the ending demands a resolution. As Michael chases Laurie, she manages to stab him as well as poke him in the eye but he always comes back to life. “You can’t kill the bogeyman,” Tommy insists and he is absolutely right. Loomis tracks Michael to the house and shoots him multiple times but he survives and runs away. Michael is no longer a man, he has transcended our biological limitations and has become a myth himself. Except for one fleeting moment. A split second where Laurie manages to partially pull his mask off, uncovering his deformed face. That is the human in him.
Heavy breathing can be heard as Carpenter flashes pictures of the suburban house that have been ravaged by Michael’s violent legacy. Lives have been destroyed and houses have been torn apart but the bogeyman exists outside the domain of law and human morality. He is evil personified.