1978’s Halloween is in one respect almost a perfect Rorschach blot of a film – like many of the greatest films it derives its place in popular culture by containing just enough Shape to justify a vast array of different interpretations. Critical responses to the film have seen it as a reflection of the ever-increasing violence of post-Vietnam America violating the sanctity of suburbs, the refracted battle between id and ego, and a Freudian inversion where the Final Girl, Laurie Strode, is actually a camouflaged boy.
I’m not here to argue in favor or against any of these particular interpretations (any interpretation that serves the viewer is valid) but simply to add another drop into the sea – that, for me, the psychological underpinning of Halloween is built around the theme of relationships: what happens when relationships break down, when a boyfriend turns bad. Of course, in the course of building this post I fully recognize that I am doing the same thing as everyone else has – interpreting a film through my own lenses. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be fascinated by the implications.
The Shape is the space in understanding between men and women.
There are a number of interesting factoids and quotes about Halloween’s production. (Check out the Horror Film Wiki’s in-depth page for more)
For our purposes, I’m focusing on the writing – the construction of the Shape. Halloween was written in an odd fashion – Debra Hill and John Carpenter didn’t write it together, but actually came up with separate concepts on a very loose theme and then combined them.
Hill: “Once we got the idea to set the film on Halloween night, we set up ideas of Halloween scares like the boyfriend dressed up in a sheet who’s not your boyfriend. (emphasis mine) We actually didn’t write in the same room together. I sort of wrote the babysitter’s story, and John wrote the Sam Loomis character and all that stuff about evil. Once we created Michael Myers as a throughline, we put it all together.”
Carpenter named Laurie Strode after a former girlfriend (one has to wonder what she felt when she heard about the film and its main character.) He’s also famously said, of Laurie, “The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. (emphasis mine) She’s the one that’s killed him. Not because she’s a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy.”
Meanwhile, Hill states that her creation of the “have sex and die” trope was purely accidental – or was it? “I was raised a Catholic schoolgirl and what leaked into the script is my Catholic sensibility. It was totally unintentional.”
So before we’ve even gotten to the film itself, we can see there’s already a powerful psychic brew rumbling in its guts – the murk of connections new and old between lovers, callbacks to previous relationships. Immediately we have, at the very heart of the film, an inherent disconnection – two different angles about what Michael Myers might mean from the point of view of a man and woman who also happened to be dating at the time. This tension can’t be resolved because of the method of production – leaving a gap in clear understanding of the nature of Myers that can never be bridged – leaving a Shape.
Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963. A more innocent time than the grimy, grim 70’s? Hard to say. This choice of setting puts Halloween before the fall of Camelot – JFK would not be assassinated until the next month, November 1963, but the year so far has been dominated by civil rights issues, race rioting, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. “You may think they scare me; you’re probably right.” The world is unsettled and starting to change, but America is still, technically, a ‘virgin’, not yet penetrated by the bullets fired in Dallas. All of this is rumbling in the background of the film’s setting, but the film isn’t concerned with these events inside itself. All that comes back later.
Zoom in on a house. Through the thin veil of the window we see a couple making out. Our first clear shot of anything recognizable and human in the film is a couple – a relationship. The stalker-cam moves around to the side of the house, tracking the couple. There is still a veil in the way – a thin curtain that allows us to see but not fully see. Something stands between us (the viewer) and the couple. The couple appears happy to be together, passionate. The lights go out in the window upstairs. We are now completely blocked from seeing/experiencing the relationship.
I’ve often felt that Michael killing his sister as a child is almost a misdirection in the film – a gotcha that actually diverts from the narrative rather than enhances it. A cheap trick for funhouse horror. However, you have to wonder. Does it all start because Michael is jealous of the man who screws his sister? He picks up the clown mask (clearly a part of his costume originally- something that belonged to him) worn briefly by the boyfriend before he and Michael’s sister go upstairs together to fool around. But it’s not the boyfriend he kills. That would imply a different subtext. No, it’s his sister. Here the viewer has to work overtime to fill in the shape: because he’s jealous? Because he’s insane? Because he’s mindless evil? Because of incest? There are seas of ink about why it’s women who are mutilated and die in horror, not a useful tangent just now. Significantly in any case, when the mask comes off, young Michael is depicted with a very specific expression – blank and confused, slightly incomprehending, lacking self-awareness. The parents arrive home, equally incomprehending, disbelieving. “Michael?” They don’t know what to make of it either. But here, we have the birth of the Shape – in darkness, in the uncrossable space between brother and sister, between father and son, in broken relationship.
October 30, 1978. Now we’re in for it. America is no longer a virgin. The innocence, whatever we had as a nation, is gone. A man talks to a woman. “You ever done anything like this before?” The man (Pleasance) and the woman (the nurse) don’t communicate. Their conversation is laced with cynical contempt – of each other and their passenger. The Shape is between them, riding along, unseen; even after he appears as a body and escapes, he remains, as Loomis continues to pontificate on “the evil” instead of the wet, scared woman on the ground next to him.
Back in Haddonfield. Leaves are dropping slowly off the trees, dead, on a cracked road. The brown car in the driveway bears superficial resemblances to the limousine Kennedy died in. Laurie emerges and then her dad. Their conversations are mechanical, unloving. He delivers his lines with all the warmth of an automaton. He is already dead. The vast space between them is filled by the POV of the Shape. Compare and contrast to the warmth and natural exchanges between babysitter and babysat, the fond touches, the easy gestures.
“I wish I had you alone, just the two of us,” Laurie sings, as she walks away from the house innocently, having left the key in front of the door. Here we have the first connection between Laurie and Michael, the strange implication of a subtextual romance, a thread that will continue throughout the bulk of the film. People say that Laurie didn’t do anything to attract Michael, but that’s not entirely true – she handled something that (in theory) belonged to him. She crossed the threshold of his home and became partially visible to him. But the curtain is still in the way; there’s still a barrier of understanding; Michael still can’t comprehend relationship.
I also somewhat disagree with the alternative interpretation, that she by singing “summoned” or called him to her in some fashion – that smells dangerously of victim blaming. I think it’s more complicated than either, a result of that inherent gap between male and female.
“Don’t you know what happens on Halloween?”
Conflicts in meaning, the Shape, appear between men and boys in the film as well. The doctor and the administrator can’t understand each other, each blaming the other. The kids at school taunt each other: Halloween is about fun and candy! No, it’s about the Boogeyman, bad things, fear. “You’ve got to believe me, Officer, he’s coming to Haddonfield.” Wrong: the Shape is already there: the Shape is everywhere. Michael stalks Tommy on the other side of the fence; does he sympathize with the teased kid? Does he remember being a child? Is he still one? The veil of understanding is still here, but it’s a harder line, made of metal. We ride in the car BEHIND the Shape, blocked from understanding him by the same metal fence. But from the back seat (the passive observers) we can understand Tommy; he is transparent to us.
Even the three girlfriends, Laurie, Lynda and Annie, are slightly affected by the Shape. But as Annie and Lynda initially mistake the Shape as a boy they know (and call him cute!) Laurie knows somehow instinctively that this is Not a Good Thing. A moment later all three immediately sense that something is off. They struggle with the presence of the Shape, but they don’t know how to interpret it, so they lash out. He is veiled to them by the shadow of the car. But after he drives away, their conversation seems to turn more petty, with Annie the most bitter of the three. She seems to be, oddly, the presence of the Shape in this form. She speaks, and he hears her from an impossible distance. His presence lingers, affecting their tone with each other.
And then he’s magically standing there in the middle of the street. A lot’s been made about Michael Myers and his ability to teleport and be around corners where he shouldn’t be, but in this case at least, the scene has actually established plenty of time for him to park the car and lurk somewhere in wait. That’s not really the point though. Annie goes toward him; she’s the one who yelled at him and was heard as he drove by, continuing her role as replacement-Shape, she actually speaks for him. “Laurie, dear, he wants to talk to you. He wants to take you out tonight.”
“Now you’re seeing men behind bushes.”
He’s in her laundry – where only she can see him, through a window, with sheets flapping in the way. Her heart is on the floor, next to a tennis racket. In the context of a typical romance movie, this would be where the Earnest Hero holds up the boombox to get Her attention. Of course, that’s not the intent here. He vanishes. She slams the window. She doesn’t want to understand.
Laurie’s room contains a very noticeable, central-framed poster of a “James Ensor” painting. Here’s what Wikipedia says about him: “Subjects such as carnivals, masks, puppetry, skeletons, and fantastic allegories are dominant in Ensor’s mature work. Ensor dressed skeletons up in his studio and arranged them in colorful, enigmatic tableaux on the canvas, and used masks as a theatrical aspect in his still lifes. Attracted by masks’ plastic forms, bright colors, and potential for psychological impact, he created a format in which he could paint with complete freedom.” (keep this in mind later, when Laurie goes and finds the tableau Michael left for her in Lindsey’s house.)
The Shape is in the room with her already, reinforced when the phone rings and we only hear crunching, smacking noises on the other end of the line. Ensor watches over her shoulder.
We hear that another murder happened 15 years ago – he got himself a hacksaw, he kissed his wife and children goodbye, and then he proceeded – implying that the “evil” was afoot all across the country. The death of the American Family.
As Laurie smokes her joint (There’s that Catholicism coming in? Bad girls smoke?) the song playing on the radio is Blue Oyster Cult’s seductively nihilistic “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – which is, in fact, a song about two intimate lovers who kill themselves ‘like Romeo and Juliet’. Baby, I’m your man, as Laurie coughs out the bad air and Michael drives right behind them, unseen.
“You blame everything on kids,” Annie says to her dad. The disconnect between father and child here, too. They can’t hear each other correctly. They aren’t really listening. Loomis misses Michael driving by right behind him. The adults can’t see. The Shape stalks freely. He continues to follow Laurie, all day and night. Thou shalt have no other god/man but me.
Annie, it should be noted, is babysitting. The parents leave. It’s exactly the same scenario as in the original killing. History repeats itself.
The Myers home (American family) is crumbling, dark, falling apart, torn apart. Mirrors of The Exorcist (1973) as Loomis goes up the stairs to confront the devil – but the devil isn’t there. He’s been and gone already, and Regan’s in therapy. Now both Michael and Judith Myers becomes the scene’s Shape – the things that aren’t there, evoked but unseen.
Annie is about to die. Unlike Laurie’s nice, brightly light room and her good relationship with Tommy, Annie’s cynicism looms large; her charge sits in a darkened room, watching television, huddled against one corner of the couch while the “family dog” bares his teeth, growls, and barks. And the Shape looms across the street as Annie and Laurie argue on the phone about Annie’s “easy” betrayal of Laurie’s guilty interest in the boy, Ben.
“Spread out everybody, we’re gonna try and figure out the shape of this thing!” says the TV.
“I thought we understood each other,” Annie says to Lindsey. A few minutes later, she’s dead, the Shape having made her the first official body of the film.
Loomis, trying to ‘save’ kids away from the Myers house, acts entirely the same as Michael; hiding behind a bush, throwing his voice, scaring them. When HE came home, indeed?
“You know what Haddonfield is? Families. Children. All in rows lined up and down these streets. You’re telling me they’re lined up for a slaughterhouse.” Comforting mental image, isn’t it? Are we talking about Michael Myers here, or suburbia, the encroaching Sameness, little pink houses for you and me that would become a later feature of the bland conformity, of 80’s white flight?
By the way, I hope you didn’t miss Bob’s “and then we rip Lindsey’s clothes off” line. Lyndsey, by the way, is one of the little kids that Laurie is currently babysitting. They’re both stinking, fall-down drunk. Annie earned her death not by being sexual but by being cynical, by breaking Laurie’s trust – Bob and Lynda earn their deaths by that little child molestation crack and by fucking drunkenly on a couch and bedroom that isn’t theirs in a stranger’s house. They’re not being killed for having sex, they’re being killed because they’re assholes. This is a fine and narrow point of distinction long since lost over the years, replaced by the “trope” that Sex Equals Death after the success of this and other slasher films.
With everyone else out of the way, the film segues to its final movement – the confrontation between Michael and Laurie that happens in the last 15 minutes of the film. (Yes, really, it’s that late.)
The positioning on the stairs is interesting too. To bring up The Exorcist again, the usage of stairwells in film is highly symbolic. To ascend or descend staircase in film often means moving into a different level of consciousness; higher or lower, depending on the direction the character moves. Michael starts at the top of the stairs and throws Laurie down – this is an inversion of what should be happening. Symbolically, after cutting her (not quite penetrating), he’s thrown her down to her base instincts. As he descends they become equals – on the same level of consciousness (the instinctual ground floor). The relationship is established.
The shot where Michael punches through the door actually predates Jack Nicholson’s famous “Here’s Johnny!” moment in The Shining (That film would come out a few months later in 1980), but consider the context of both shots – they are identical, a symbolic deflowering and penetration. Leave it to Kubrick to up the ante. Like Halloween, The Shining is a spectacular detonation of the American family and the relationship between men and women. It’d be fun to consider whether Wendy Torrance is actually the ultimate negation of Laurie Strode – and whether both of them are fractures of Carrie White – but that’s another story for another time.
Laurie tries to call for help, but the streets are dead and nobody’s listening. Haddonfield/America is curiously deaf to the violence in its streets – the car with its horn running non-stop and a dead body inside, the Shape carrying a corpse into the house, chasing Laurie nakedly down the street. “Can’t you hear me?” The lights are on, but the shutters close against her. The phones are dead. The Shape has cut the lines between people. Even thought Loomis and the Sheriff are supposedly on the street, they may as well be in another movie entirely (it often feels like it, honestly, another artifact of the odd writing process) as far as Laurie’s concerned.
And speaking of Loomis, he re-enters the endgame of the film in a very, very strange way. He’s wandering down the street in the dark, and seems aimless until the policecar drives up – then he points out that Myers’ car is ‘three blocks up the street the other way’. The car drives away, and he continues to meander at a slow, leisurely pace. What is he doing? Where is the urgency? What is going on here?
Laurie reconnects with her ‘children’ (a single mother symbolically!), then proceeds into the endgame, the famous scene where she hides in the closet. Like a child, confronted with the boogeyman; squeeze yourself into a closet and hope it can’t get you. Light shows through the slats. Michael’s trying to get in. The light shades down, phallic, sharp. Michael’s hand punches through at last, finds the light (the clitoris?) and snaps it on, but flails around. Laurie reaches out her arms – toward him/our POV – then grabs a wire hanger. The wire hanger has a tremendous symbolic history for women – it is commonly our symbol for backalley abortions. She stabs Michael with it (aborting him?) and it causes him to drop his phallic knife along with the wire hangers. Then she stabs him again with the knife, and leans back gasping, panting.
This is metaphoric sex in the unsubtlest way. The children run screaming from the house. Mom and Dad are fighting again. And Idiot Boy (I mean Loomis) suddenly notices from all his aimless meandering around in the dark.
Michael gets up; he’s ready for more, and once again Laurie seems to sense him, but she also seems unable to fight him a second time. We can be like they are. We’ll be able to fly. She manages to pull his mask off, briefly revealing – not the weird scarred disfigured face we probably expect to find under a monster, but a man that could be considered conventionally attractive, if not “handsome”.
Loomis, wandering into the plot from left field, shoots Michael several times. He is thrown down to the ground below, off the balcony; a door which happened to be opened earlier by Laurie, who had possibly been hoping to achieve the same thing. Laurie speaks to Loomis like she already knows him. Loomis can no longer see Michael – is it because he defeated his own “demon” in ‘killing’ him? It’s hard not to want to actually connect Loomis and Michael as being some form of counterpart themselves – though really, it’s more that the disjointed nature of the original writing made Loomis’s character feel more like an intrusion than an integrated part of the movie.
It makes me wonder if there’s actually another interpretation possible here- that Loomis is a form of the Shape too, just like Annie was earlier? Just like earlier in the film, he is oblivious to the obvious trauma of the woman near him, sobbing with her hands covered in blood (he’s a terrible doctor, surely) – and like Michael he seems to just wander around and appear out of nowhere. At the end, the cold, searching look on his face…
At the end, we see all the film’s locations – so placid on the outside but so thoroughly tainted, America, overlaid with the sound of Michael’s breathing.
“The Night HE Came Home” – the bad dad, the drunk dad, the vet tortured by the Vietnam war.
The Shape is everywhere, between us, around us, outside us and inside us, as pervasive as the air we breathe. We can’t defeat it because we are it; every time we don’t listen, every time we fail to connect, every time we talk at cross purposes.
The “evil” in Michael Myers is us and all our broken, dysfunctional relationships.
You might also like:
John Kenneth Muir – The Tao of Michael Myers and the Hidden Shapes of John Carpenter’s Halloween
Lukeford.net: Profile: Debra Hill
Horror Film History: Nightmare Decade: In front of the Children (1970’s)