In a trilogy of posts, the School of English blog (with the help of the School’s own Gothic Reading Group) considers the literary significance and implications of the year’s most mysterious seasonal occasion.
On behalf of the Gothic Reading Group PhD researcher Kathleen Hudson investigates how the fabric of Halloween as an occassion is entwined within John Carpenter’s 1978 movie.
John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film Halloween has the distinction of being the movie for, well, Halloween. Set on the night itself, the film tracks the progress of serial killer Michael Myers as he works his way through a middle-class American neighborhood. In spite of the fairly simple premise, at the film’s core there is one very key element: to quote producer Debra Hill, “the idea was that you couldn’t kill evil […] 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.”
It’s the idea which is the core issue in movies like Halloween and in the celebration of Halloween as a yearly recurring holiday. This fear that bad things are always there in the shadows, and that Halloween is merely one of the few days when we choose to acknowledge it, is present throughout horror-terror-Gothic-grotesque-uncanny readings of many works in popular culture. It is the idea of a destructive presence that is so incorporated into our surroundings that we never fully escape it that perhaps inspires us to devote an evening to bringing that evil to the surface.
In this respect Carpenter’s Halloween is also explores meta-horror, particularly as experienced by normal people (read ‘non-serial killers’) on Halloween. For Halloween you may dress up in a costume or watch scary movies for a vicarious thrill. Carpenter plays on the stereotypical activities of the holiday to engage with a specific meta-text, effectively redefining the normal experiences of the Halloween celebrant to reveal ambiguity about our perceptions of identity.
He does this in two very important and interconnected ways – through the ‘kill-cam’ camera perspective and through the use of masks. The film begins with an indicator of the holiday (the glowing carved pumpkin) and moves quickly into a shot from the killer’s perspective, in this case the murderous child Michael Myers. The audience is initially uncertain about the character whose perspective it is, though we hear a preview of Michael’s trademark heavy breathing. We see, through Michael’s view, a pair of teenagers kissing in the living room before going upstairs. Michael enters the house, finds the clown mask, and pulls mask over his eyes/our camera-lens view. The audience’s vision is partially obscured by the limits of the mask but we still vicariously see the very horrific outcome of Michael’s progression – a young woman is brutally murdered by Michael/the watching audience. It is only when the mask is removed again that the camera returns to a third person viewpoint and the killer is revealed to be a bewildered looking child dressed in a brightly colored clown costume.
In some ways the kill-cam shot is not very different from a normal horror movie experience – the first person perspective may bring us closer to the killer, but the third person view still relies on voyeuristic compliance on the audience’s part. The initial goal of the film is to not only align you with the serial killer but also connect this suspension of moral identity with our willing acceptance of Halloween traditions such as watching films and wearing masks. Michael the child eventually becomes a figure in black wearing a modified William Shatner mask. The mask’s blankness, its grim unchanging face on which no definitive emotion can be shown, becomes a space on which the audience can project their fears. In the beginning of the film the audience was invited to take part in the act of killing and the unspoken implications of Halloween when they donned the clown mask and explored the ‘kill-cam’ viewpoint. Now, as the adult serial killer is realized, the audience is faced with the true nature of that evil they previously engaged with, and it is turned back upon them as it becomes the blank slate for their deepest fears and most personal projections.
The audience cannot put on the ‘mask’ like they could when experiencing childhood, and are forced to deal with the idea that their former compliance has transformed into a dangerous manifestation of evil. Even more shocking, when the mask is finally knocked off Michael’s face, we see that the angelic child has transformed into a more grotesque form. The evil which the audience and character’s engage with earlier clearly has the power to change over time, and to fester into something more visually indicative of corruption beneath the blank exterior.
So really Carpenter’s Halloween is pretty aptly named. The audience is invited to don masks and celebrate fear, not only of external monsters, the stereotypical maniac slasher, but also the fear that we ourselves are the monsters. Masks become a means of engaging with our own alternative identities and Halloween (and Halloween) and indeed horror tropes as a rule allow us to consider the possibility that we, too, can transform into monsters and don both physical and metaphorical masks and temporarily accept alternative concepts of morality.
The ending of Halloween brings this meta-exploration home. The film ends with a series of shots of empty rooms in the suburban house and the exteriors of various neighborhood houses, with an overlapping sound of heavy breathing. The audience both looks for and is the killer – our eyes search out Myers in the empty spaces of the house while the sound of breathing hints that we may again be seeing the world through the killer’s eyes. Michael vanishes, but we know he is out there, somewhere, perhaps already partially internalized within the outwardly normal space of now haunted home.
These innocuous houses have been transformed through violence (their unmarked exteriors serving as masks hiding the death inside) into spaces of evil, much as innocuous people transform into false selves during Halloween as an examination of the ‘other.’ Meta-selves in Carpenter’s Halloween are indeed explorations of an evil that not only cannot be killed, but cannot be removed from personal identity, and will return again and again…probably on Halloween…to get us.
Kathleen continues her celebration of cinema horror over on the Gothic Reading Group blog, where you can find specifically Gothic readings of some lesser known films.