The original 1978 poster for the film
On Halloween night, 1963, 6-year-old Michael Myers sneaks into his own house, grabs a knife and mercilessly stabs his older sister to death. Then he’s put into a minimum security mental hospital where he’s treated by Dr. Sam Loomis (i.e., Donald Pleasence). Loomis tries to help the little boy – who’s now a diagnosed catatonic – for 8 years; then he spends another 7 trying to put the kid under maximum security. He tells his colleagues that Michael’s the most dangerous patient he’s ever observed, but they laugh him off. “He’s just a catatonic,” they say, shaking their heads. But Dr. Loomis seems to know something they don’t know, something he can’t really explain. Modern psychiatry just doesn’t have the language to describe what Michael really is, and when Loomis tries, he sounds totally crackers. But he’s proven right 15 years later, when a full-grown Michael suddenly gets a hair up his ass and makes a jailbreak on Halloween Eve.
Somehow, Michael automatically knows how to drive a car (regardless of the fact that he’s spent his entire life in a hospital). He randomly fixates on a babysitter named Laurie Strode (i.e., Jamie Lee Curtis in her very first performance), a boy named Tommy Doyle (i.e., the boy Laurie babysits) and Laurie’s friends. And contrary to all the known laws of physics, he can appear and vanish into thin air right in front of people’s eyes. In other words, there’s something seriously wrong with this guy. He doesn’t behave like a human being; he’s more like some kind of preternatural force that’s just pretending to be a man (in the same way that trick-or-treaters dress up in masks and costumes). Dr. Loomis calls him “the devil,” little kids call him “the Boogeyman,” and by the time we reach the film’s shocking conclusion, we’re unable to debate with either of them on the matter.
I first saw Halloween – as well as its first sequel, Halloween II (1981) – on Saturday, October 29, 1994. (I know it’s a bit ridiculous that I can even remember the date, but this movie made that much of an impression on me.) I was 11 years old at the time, and I guess my parents thought I was old enough to start watching R-rated movies. My Mom noticed the movies were coming on TV that night, and she suggested that I watch them. She baked a batch of brownies and, when the first movie began, took my younger brother and sister upstairs to watch something more child-appropriate. My Dad was working late that night for some reason, and he didn’t come home until the next morning. So it was just me in the living room with a couple of brownies and a glass of milk, watching Halloween all by myself. I didn’t realize it then, but my entire life was about to be changed. I was about to feel the touch of Seth-Typhon long before I even knew He was there. Everything that people take for granted about my personality today – including my religion and my musical tastes – was affected by viewing this particular film on that particular night.
Similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, most of the characters in Halloween are like cattle; they practically offer themselves to the killer. Yet it’s also different from Chainsaw in that it has three protagonists who share a special awareness of the evil in their midst and who are outsiders within their own social spheres. Dr. Loomis, who is the first to recognize Michael Myers for what he really is, is an outcast among his own colleagues. They blatantly ignore his dire warnings about Michael, and they continue to ignore the danger even after he’s escaped. This is best exemplified by Sheriff Brackett, who refuses to believe the people of his town are really “lined up for a slaughterhouse.” There’s even a tendency among the adult characters to blame Loomis for what’s happening, as when Brackett says “Damn you for letting him go!” and another doctor tells him that “If precautions weren’t strong enough, you should have told somebody!” Nobody wants to take responsibility for what’s happening, and since Loomis does, he inevitably becomes a scapegoat.
Laurie Strode is the only teenage character who doesn’t fit in with the others. She’s shy, she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she spends most of her time with little children, and she also seems lonely. What’s more, she actually takes her job as a babysitter seriously. Her friends treat babysitting as an opportunity to drink and have sex with their boyfriends while the parents are away. They even push the kid they’re supposed to be watching on Laurie, who ends up babysitting two kids while the others fool around. (The others no doubt expect to get paid by the parents they’re supposed to be working for, as well.) They even have the gall to make fun of Laurie, teasing her about boys and criticizing her for “babysitting so much.” If Sheriff Brackett’s comments about the local teenage populace are to be believed, Laurie’s friends fit comfortably into the mainstream. Yet they’re also completely ignorant of the danger they’re in, just like the adults. Only Laurie, the awkward outsider, sees Michael from time to time and becomes aware of the evil that’s closing in on her. Only she has what it takes to fight back against that evil.
Jamie Lee Curtis as “Laurie Strode”
Tommy Doyle is also an outsider. He’s pushed around by the other kids at school, who frighten him with claims that “the Boogeyman” is coming to get him. Later that night, Loomis finds Tommy’s bullies challenging each other to enter the Myers House (i.e., the scene of Michael’s original crime in the prologue). This house has become a local legend in the town, and even Sheriff Brackett mentions that “every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted.” Like most of the teenagers and adults, however, Tommy’s bullies don’t believe there’s really any danger. If they had entered the Myers House (and if Michael had actually been in there), they’d have died like the rest of his victims. Tommy, on the other hand, is a believer from the very start. He’s the one who tells Laurie that people shouldn’t go near the Myers House; for him, avoiding the house is a rule that he never questions and always obeys. Unlike his tormentors, Tommy really believes in the Boogeyman.
These three protagonists – the crazy old man, the bashful teenager and the bullied prepubescent – are the only ones who realize what’s happening before it’s too late. Laurie’s the slowest of the three to accept the truth (and she suffers the most for this), but she also becomes the most resourceful when she’s forced to defend herself and the children. She is, in fact, the first female horror film protagonist who doesn’t just scream, faint, or wait for a man to come and save her. I’m a sucker for characters who are alienated and who end up saving the day because they’re alienated. This sort of thing happens in such other great films as Alien (1979) and The Hitcher (1986), and it always reminds me of Seth-Typhon, who was alienated from the other Gods and later became Their only defense against
Apophis. Laurie, Loomis and Tommy are like three human stand-ins for Seth who are all that stand between their world and the evil that threatens it. Myers, in turn, is the best personification of Apophis I have ever seen in any film.
There’s also a spiritual subtext in Halloween that’s often overlooked. For one thing, it’s the first film ever made that not only takes place on the holiday for which it is named, but which is actually about that holiday. Halloween originated as an ancient Celtic festival named Samhain (which is pronounced “SOW-wynn” in Gaelic). It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and it was a time when the barrier between this world and the spirit world was temporarily lifted. The ghosts of ancestors were free to roam the Earth and visit their living relatives, and the Celts held feasts at which these friendly spirits were welcomed. (It was like celebrating Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve at the same time, but with ghosts.) But deceased relatives weren’t the only ones who were allowed to roam free at Samhain; demons and malevolent faeries were also free, and people dressed in frightening animal skins, carved protective charms from turnips and made offerings of food to keep these entities away. It’s from these ancient traditions that wearing costumes, carving jack-o’lanterns and trick-or-treating are all descended.
During the Christianization of medieval Europe, Samhain was renamed “All Hallows’ Evening” by the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually shortened the name down to “Halloween.” Many of the old Celtic traditions were given new Christian explanations; costumes and jack-o’lanterns were now used to ward off the fallen angels of biblical mythology, and offerings to the faeries became “soul cakes” that were collected for the dead in Purgatory. Halloween was eventually brought to North America by Catholic missionaries and Irish immigrants, and it was combined in Mexico with Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), a Native American festival to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl. In the United States, however, it became increasingly secularized during the 20th century, and nowadays it’s usually considered to be “just for kids.” For most people, dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating and carving pumpkins is no longer about honoring the dead or warding off evil; it’s simply about eating candy, playing tricks and having fun.
The ancient Celts also believed in “changelings,” which are faery offspring that are secretly exchanged for human children, who are then kidnapped and raised by the faery parents. The human parents, in turn, are left with these creatures that often look human, but which exhibit strange paranormal abilities and superhuman strength. While the true reason for Michael Myers’ nature and behavior is never revealed, his background is quite similar to the changeling motif; he’s very clearly a supernatural being, he was raised in a normal human family, and his parents appear to have had no idea what they were raising. It’s no accident that Michael spends most of his life in a hospital, either. Just like the malevolent faeries of Celtic folk religion, he can only intrude upon the normal, everyday world on Halloween night. At the same time, the secularization of Halloween has rendered Michael’s society complacent. The people have decided that the holiday is just entertainment and that there’s no such thing as “evil.” This attitude, however, has only nullified the things about Halloween that used to keep them safe. The evil is still out there, and all the costumes and jack-o’lanterns and trick-or-treating won’t stop it now.
The Boogeyman is real, and he’s going to GET you
Halloween is often cited as the first true “slasher” film, but I think this is selling the movie rather short. It certainly provided the basic blueprint for all slashers; movies like Friday the 13th, for example, are essentially the inferior “off-brand” versions of this film. Yet there’s almost no trace of blood in Halloween whatsoever, and the few scenes of onscreen violence that do occur are pretty tame even by 1970s standards. Furthermore, I’ve always felt that this movie is more than just a tale about a masked man with a knife. Halloween is more like a ghost story that’s been given 20th century suburban American window dressings. Even John Carpenter has said that in making the film, he was trying to make “an old haunted house movie.” It’s an old campfire tale, the kind that resembles a joke with a suspenseful set-up and a punchline that leaves you wondering what’s lurking out there in the dark. For this reason, it’s best appreciated as a stand-alone film in which the question of “What happens next?” is never definitively answered.
Several sequels to Halloween have been made, and it has also been remade (or “re-imagined”) fairly recently. While a few of these later films have their own merits (and I will be discussing Halloween III and Halloween 4 in particular), none of them can beat the original. In my opinion, the first Halloween is the most beautifully crafted horror film that has ever been made. As strange as this may sound, watching it always makes me feel happy, and it’s good medicine for when I have the blues. I can’t tell you why this is; I can only say it’s my absolute favorite film, that I watch it at least two or three times a year, and that I wouldn’t be who I am without it.