The Timeless Horror of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

John Carpenter was never that interested in horror. He wanted to make westerns like the Howard Hawks films he grew up admiring. And while his work spans a number of genres, it was early in his career that a low-budget slasher flick made him the unofficial master of horror. 1978’s Halloween is one of the most successful independent films ever made. And while it’s no western, it certainly shares a respect for the power of silence and location.

In place of a nomadic hero with an ironclad conviction is a nomadic villain driven by a less virtuous purpose, but a resolute one all the same. Instead of a damsel in distress awaiting her protector, there is a damsel in distress who takes control of her own fate. And where many westerns revolve around a small frontier town besieged by an outside threat, Halloween drops that threat into the intimate, neighborly, safe space of mid-western suburbia.

There are many aspects of Halloween that contribute to its relentless tension – the cinematography, the pacing, the music (the music!) – but it’s the movie’s unremarkable setting that works best in depriving us of any reprieve from trepidation. Halloween isn’t just set in a place we’ve been, it’s in the place we live. Michael Myers stands bone-chillingly idle behind the tree where you shared your first kiss, in the garage where you park your car, next to the clothesline that air-dries your linens, and outside the school you send your kids to. In this movie, there is no comfort offered by familiarity. Haddonfield, Illinois is a fictional suburb that looks exactly like the place many of us call home.

Imagine being followed by a strangely unbothered presence on your way to and from school; to see the shape of a man standing in the yard outside your kitchen window – Michael Myers isn’t scary because he is a knife-wielding psychotic mass-murderer; he is scary because before any of that, he haunts the fringes of the frame, patiently dispensing the slow-burning dread of being stalked; of making you realize that even in our quiet middle and upper class communities, we are not safe. For many people, young women especially, they don’t have to imagine this kind of dread. Michael Myers preys on a very real anxiety. It’s not a coincidence that teenage girls are the vast majority of his targets.

What would this kind of evil look like as a character in a horror movie? On The Ringer’s excellent podcast series “Halloween Unmasked,” Carpenter tells the story of a time in college when his psychology class visited a sanitarium. He recalls coming across a male patient who “looked like evil incarnate.” The man had an eerily stolid face, but with eyes that seared with rage. “He looked like he wanted to kill me and eat me,” Carpenter explains. This experience scared the hell out of the future filmmaker. It may be the inspiration behind Michael Myers. After all, Carpenter chose the now iconic mask for how unnervingly languid it was. The lips are still, the eyes are darkened, the cheeks have a glum hopelessness to them, and the color is a pale white (note: they painted the mask white).

Evil rarely has a physically pronounced presence. It’s often able to hide in plain sight in the form of a blank expression. The genius of Halloween is the number of times Michael Myers appears outside the foreground of the frame and slowly fades into it, never making a sound. For the audience, you see a dark figure with a lifeless white face. Suddenly, you begin to believe that figure is somewhere in every frame. He’s there, even when he’s not. That your neighborhood maintains its quiet and normal appearance is what makes it so frightening. Normal is a threat’s best chance. A suburb is the perfect mask for menace.

In 1953, Carpenter’s family relocated to a small southern town inundated by racism. Some of his neighbors appeared as perfectly pleasant people on the surface, but underneath, there was hatred in their hearts. The reality of their bigotry was shielded by the charm and smiling decorum typical to small town lore. It is this simple veneer that makes Halloween’s calming suburb a perfect setting for horror. Unthinkable terror can move about freely in a place whose people find security in the sound of a lawnmower, the smell of a neighbor’s grill, or the sight of kids playing down the street. Halloween reminds us that grotesque evil isn’t reserved for places plagued by misfortune. It just has to put on a mask and it can go anywhere it wants.

The film was released at a time America was grappling with the relatively new hysteria of serial killers. What made and continues to make serial killers so frightening is that they are often a next-door neighbor, a colleague, a civil servant, or even a family member. They are also predominantly white men. They have the appearance of someone easily disregarded by authority, residing in a place where people find comfort in its normalcy. When they’ve been caught, you discovered they kept creepy calendars, reveled in satanic rituals, used codified language to communicate their crimes out loud, exhibited male rage excused as passionate defiance, and lied their way into becoming a Supreme Court Justice.

The main protagonist of Halloween is Laurie Strode, played by a relatively unknown Jamie Lee Curtis. Laurie is the archetypical nerdy teenage virgin. She is often ignored by her peers – the quiet brainiac you can walk all over. In the beginning of the day, she is the girl in school nobody sees for terrible reasons. By the end of the day, she will be the girl in school everybody sees for terrible reasons. Welcome to suburbia, where both victims and assailants are dismissed until it’s too late.

Carpenter’s classic film highlights this as well as any slasher flick ever has or ever will. Frightening threats linger with near sovereignty as they exploit the privileged negligence of an affluent community. People are more aware of these hazards today, but in 1978, the utopian sheen of the American suburb made this kind of horror all the more shocking. Audiences watched in terror as Michael Myers and his muted brand of evil injected a sense of dread into their quiet little town.

In the film’s last moments, after Myers is shot and sent hurdling to certain death, he somehow disappears into the night. The threat remains. He’s still out there, lurking in places we overlook. This is the everlasting terror of John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film that hits way too close to home.

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