halloweenCultural dullards love to compare horror to pornography – that is, two forms of media entirely predicated on physical reactions1. The irony is that pornography, even in these days of internet hyper-specialization, has a relatively easy goal to achieve. Horror needs to frighten or disturb, and though there are commercial rewards for this, the very commercialization of modern horror filmmaking makes its goal more and more ephemeral. Meaning: the familiar cannot horrify, because the familiar is comfortable and real horror is not a source of comfort. But no genre of filmmaking (except, perhaps, pornography) has been sequelized as successfully as horror: Twelve Friday The 13ths, ten Halloweens, eight Nightmare On Elm Streets, even, God help us, six Saws. Regardless of the originating films’ merit (and, of all of these, only the first Halloween and the first Nightmare On Elm Street are any good), a dilution of the purpose of horror is inevitable, and the comforting element, the repeated element, is the main attraction. Murderers, child molesters, and perverts become our antiheroes.

In the original Halloween, Michael Myers was NOT an antihero. He was a horrifying, dog-killing murderer, a pervert stalker playing out a weird personal scenario. Watching the movie, I cannot think it possible to sympathize with this mute voyeur without the hindsight of subsequent films. Today you see a Halloween movie in the hopes of seeing Michael Myers do stuff. This was not the original audience’s mindset. It isn’t the sort of movie where we cheer when Michael kills people. Not if we’re watching it right.

Certainly, the film does not sympathize with the murderer; there are no “hero” moments for Michael2. The doctor calls him subhuman, and the unseen corpse of a dog that Michael has eaten in his old house supports this idea. He stares after and stalks young girls, and even kills a dog, for God’s sake.

Writer-director John Carpenter’s sympathy is with the bored suburban kids. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a late bloomer, a bit of a stick in the mud whose friends want her to get out more and have fun. She knows she should, but she lacks the courage to do so. On Halloween day, while running an errand for her dad, she’s spotted by Michael Myers, an escaped mental patient who murdered his sister fifteen years before. For the rest of the day, he follows Laurie and her friends around, and just because they were all together, walking home from school, he selects them for his murder spree.

The oldest slasher-movie critical saw is that the murderer is a hyper-conservative reaction to teenage sexuality and the chaste girl is the only one who survives. It’s a shallow, stupid reading (reinforced, I think, by the multitude of idiotic movies created in Halloween‘s wake, and which are indefensible on the grounds of their sexual politics). The film takes great pains to demonstrate that these kids aren’t perfect. They’re not bad, either. On their way to babysitting jobs, Laurie and Annie smoke a joint and stop by Annie’s dad, Sheriff Leigh Brackett, while he’s investigating a break-in at a hardware store. They don’t want to be caught, but Annie has a breezy, winning banter with her dad. They can’t stand their parents, and they like them too. They have sex, they smoke out, they drink beer, and they take babysitting jobs. They’re kids.

The perversity of the film is not in these kids’ actions, but in Michael. The movie is not a teens-in-peril melodrama (where Michael, the living VD, kills you for slipping one in). It’s the murderer who transcends normality. In the famous opening scene, in a lengthy two-shot (edited to look like one), six-year-old Michael watches his sister have sex, waits for her boyfriend to leave, then murders her while she sits at her vanity. These teens had sex in the 60s, when the evil in Michael first developed, and he killed for it then. It’s the normality of human relations that Michael punishes, not the naughtiness of young people. Sex and death are the same to him.

But Halloween is more interesting and enjoyable than its successors because it lacks the stupid pop-psychological baggage from which the lesser films suffer. It’s a better movie because, first and foremost, it’s a movie. Characters are developed (or revealed) and are something close to human. Much celebrated is Carpenter’s technical achievement, but his success in creating a realistic teen world is under-acknowledged. If there is a message to the film (and there doesn’t have to be one. It’s a good story well-told, and properly suspenseful) it’s not “Behave, kids, or the bogeyman will get you.” The last five or six shots are places Michael Myers has struck, with his breathing on the soundtrack. The threat of death, of disruption of normality, is universal. Even the good, normal kids might get stabbed.

1One of the wonderful things about running your own site is that you don’t have to support statements like this. I know I’ve heard this comparison, and I could spend thirty seconds with Google proving it. But I don’t have to. In fact, I wouldn’t know if this is just the sort of phrase invented by horror apologists to make unnamed critics of their preferred field look stupid, and to give their intended audience (horror fans, which itself is a phrase that needs serious unpacking) an ego boost for having greater reasoning skills than their detractors. And now this is beginning to look like a friggin’ blog post, so I’ll stop here.

2There might be an exception. When bullies beat Tommy up and tell him the bogeyman’s coming to get him, one of them runs off and is stopped and frightened by Michael. We want the little shit to be spooked, but I reject the idea that this one moment turns the audience’s sympathy towards the murderer.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com