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Halloween (1978):: Death and the Maiden

October 19th, 2012 by unkle lancifer · 12 Comments

The first time I saw Michael Myers’s face (mask, really), I turned (sprinted, really) away. It was during a review for HALLOWEEN on SISKEL & EBERT and it was just a clip but I had to leave the room and shake his visage from my mind by jumping up and down. His image is now so familiar (especially this time of year) that it takes some effort for me to recall just how alien and menacing it was upon first view. I had no knowledge of whom or what he was within the story, no idea of how iconic his likeness would become and certainly no inkling of his countenance’s debt to Captain Kirk. I saw a white face with hollow black eyes and it almost appeared as if it were floating in the darkest of space. He was a levitating skull and skulls don’t have to speak to say loud and clear, “Poison, death, run.” Some primal million years old memory stored in my DNA awoke and manipulated my legs as if they were connected to marionette strings. (My cat feels the same way about the vacuum cleaner). Some movies are bigger than movies; some movies unknowingly chant ancient spells. I never wanted to see that face again so I began to seek it out.

To best understand HALLOWEEN (both the film and the holiday) it helps to be a certain age, somewhere between bright summery childhood and cold mature winter, somewhere on the cusp of adulthood lazily observing the world transform with a crisp mix of excitement and apprehension. It helps to be a teenager in autumn. It helps to be knee-deep in change. Here comes Laurie Strode! She’s carrying a wall of books in front of herself like a shield. She’s different than her friends, more cautious, structured and on guard and those who reductively sum up her identity by her level of sexual experience, are evaluating a universe based on one dying star. Here we have one of horror’s most beloved and identified with protagonists. She is a hero and earns the right to be called one. This status does not fall into her lap because she abstains from sex throughout the course of the film. HALLOWEEN is often cited for forging the spurious template that demands only virgins survive a slasher film and that all those who dabble in sex and drugs must die, a condescension that ignores not only Laurie’s internal journey but also the fact that she gets stoned before showing up at her babysitting gig.

Of more pertinence than Laurie’s presumed “purity” is the way in which she interacts with others and the things that she says about herself. We get the gist that she is considered a “good girl” but it appears she achieves that recognition by fulfilling the wants of others while her own desires are shelved. When she bumps into young Tommy Doyle her reply to his every request is a quick, “Sure, sure, sure” but she has no real answers when he bombards her with, “Why, why, why?” She runs errands for her father; she picks up the slack for her friends, and when she jokes about being a “girl scout” it may have less to do with her moral standing than it does the accommodating, nearly subservient position she holds. More pressing than her love life is Laurie’s subtle struggle with her own acquiescence. HALLOWEEN is a classic that is highly regarded by people of various ages but it’s notable how the film tends to strike a firmer, more formative and enthusiastic impact with audiences members roughly Laurie’s age, young adults naturally beginning to wonder if they are mapping out their futures for themselves or based on the expectations of those (parents, friends) around them.

What is the cost of subverting yourself in order to facilitate everybody else’s goals and agendas? Laurie sees, intuits death. While giving a prompted answer regarding fate in class, death appears; while being goaded and chided by her pals on the sidewalk, death appears; while staring out the window at the drooping result of domestic chores, a full clothesline, there stands death again. The paychecks for not rocking the boat become fewer as the taxes for bottling her true self pile up. Laurie admits she’s interested in a guy named Ben Tramer but as soon as proactive pal Annie clears the path towards him, she recoils and coyly cowards. C’mon Laurie! Really? You know what? If you keep neutralizing and diluting yourself, the invisibility you are conjuring is going to manifest. Do you know what that will be like? It will be like running down the street as shades are drawn and porch lights extinguish screaming “Can’t you hear me?!!!”

HALLOWEEN is frequently made to fess up its debt to BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) but the blank-faced yet somehow accusatory dark figure, the central challenge haunting its heroine to fully take form and the overall poetic, uncanny atmosphere favor even more so CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Feel free to toast the late BOB CLARK for the P.O.V. shots and the holiday setting but when it comes to the death-and-the-maiden motif, we’re dealing with a theme so firmly rooted that you wouldn’t be off base high-fiving EDVARD MUNCH and EMILY DICKINSON either.

Laurie is locked in place but her tango with mortality will bestow traction, this dance with death is not new. It’s Halloween night and we’re celebrating the end of summer (Halloween is linked to the Celtic “Samhain” which is derived from “Sumuin” which literally means “Summer’s end”). It’s a night when it’s said that the supernatural world and our world overlap and ghosts from the past return (home). It’s a night that honors the dead but more importantly here, in turn, celebrates the bounty that is change and renewal.

“Why won’t anybody help me?!” Poor Laurie, always happy to lend a hand but when she needs one herself she’s own her own. She’s found her voice but nobody is listening. There is a panicky “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element afoot as Laurie discovers how easily she is overlooked and forgotten. She reenters (thanks to a half asleep Tommy) the Doyle house and things markedly change. It’s unfair to say Laurie transforms, rather, she finally allows herself access to what was available to her all along. She stands her ground. We’re about to find out her commitment and responsibility towards others is a vulnerability easily flipped on its head to become a source of power. With two children counting on her, Laurie drops the wavering and amasses control. It’s a struggle, as well it should be, but this “day of reckoning” has been brewing for some time. For the audience, the battle is as cathartic as it is suspenseful. We’re watching someone not assessed too grandly by her peers carve some turf in the world and refuse to roll over. We’re witnessing a rite of passage. Laurie is accepting the challenge to move ahead toward autonomous adulthood. Who would understand that something so benign and mundane seeming as a knitting needle could be a devastating game-changer? Laurie.

Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A man wouldn’t do that.
Dr. Sam Loomis: This isn’t a man.

Is there really such a mystery to the “The Shape”? The very first thing we learn in HALLOWEEN is who he is. He’s that mouth-breathing scamp who severed his sister from her rightful adulthood in the very first scene of the film. He’s frozen in time. He has no voice. You can paint him in as many dark shadows as you want but he’s still the poster child for arrested development. (He even hangs out in the wreckage of his boyhood home.) I’m not saying he’s not scary (nothing is scarier than a dullard with a sharp knife and nothing to lose), I’m just saying we tend to deny that we’ve all seen behind this mask. Haddonfield residents may have molded him into “The Boogey Man” but even as such, he’s chained to the fears of childhood and that is where he belongs. He is something to be outgrown (“Well, kiddo, I thought you outgrew superstition”). Laurie is purposely moving away from Michael a.k.a. “The Shape” (a voiceless shadow linked to the past) and toward Loomis (an outspoken eccentric who follows his own compass forward). Although the Myers monster was consciously conceived to be a “blank slate” that audiences could project an infinite amount of fears upon, for Laurie, being a “blank slate” could be, in and of itself, the ultimate fear and the ultimate death. The creature she is battling is the void she might become.

So yeah, I see a coming-of-age film lurking in the shadows of HALLOWEEN. Instead of “The Shape” conservatively punishing the characters for premarital sex and alcohol consumption, I see him raging against the common rites of passage that lead toward adulthood that he has denied himself. Laurie does not live due to the magical power of prudence, on the contrary; she survives because she loosens the grip on her own reigns. I’ve heard it said that HALLOWEEN is a throwback because Laurie must wait for Loomis to save her, a comment that makes me want to partake in a killing spree of my own. It’s an insult to Laurie’s cavalry, the universality of the tale and the fact that this movie, by my estimation is the greatest cinematic collaboration between a man and a woman…ever. We’re talking JOHN CARPENTER and DEBRA HILL (CARPENTER readily identifies the film as “a 50/50 collaboration”.) If you understand HILL provided Laurie’s essence and CARPENTER Loomis’, it’s only fitting that in the end, they team up not to destroy, (You can’t kill the boogeyman!) but to push the destructive darkness back into the night. Loomis has been struggling to be taken seriously too why should Strode have all the (redemptive) fun?

HALLOWEEN hardly needs any endorsement by me. Its artistry is well observed and the long-standing devotion its characters have garnered in fans says everything you need to know. Still, as the years pass, I have become more in tune with just how succinctly the movie captures the spirit of the holiday itself (regardless of the conspiratorial green trees that wave from the horizon). Maybe phantoms don’t actually cross over into our world on All Hallows’ Eve, but I for one can always count on being visited by the ghost of my youth. Halloween and autumn stand responsible for many a child’s earliest awareness of the fleeting stages of life and who didn’t feel the wasp sting the first time they heard, “You’re getting too big for trick ‘r treating!”? (Oh, if only I knew then that adulthood would also mean no one ever telling you again what costume to wear, how late to stay up watching horror movies, what candy to throw away or what demons to dread.) Getting older may include leaving certain things behind but I’ll never let go of Laurie, Loomis and Tommy all trying to make their fears heard, Bob and Lynda both trying to get laid, sarcastic Annie trying to get that butter stain out of her shirt, and her poor good natured pop just trying to keep things in order. And I’ll never lose sight of “The Shape.” He’s not as enigmatic as he once was but maybe that’s because he’s moving closer. That empty, vacant face still scares me, and everyone, no matter their age, is entitled to one good scare.

Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · Halloween · Holidays · My own personal Jesus

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Caffeinated JoeNo Gravatar // Oct 19, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Great post on this classic!

    I watch it every year and am always struck by it. In my 40s now, and I still am left with an eerie feeling. Just something magically primal about this movie, about Michael and about Laurie and Loomis dealing with him.

    Never gets old for me.

  • 2 JergyNo Gravatar // Oct 19, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Bravo! Wonderful post Unk. Problem with a movie of this stature is you believe everything there is to say about this movie has already been said. This is a great way to a proven wrong.

    The whole “virgin survives” morality tale applied to this (and many other horror films) never sat right with me. I just never believed in that was the message being put forth from these writers, especially Hill and Carpenter.

    It think this means double feature tonight!

  • 3 Pax RomanoNo Gravatar // Oct 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm


    Thank you so much for this brilliant post. Thank you for so succinctly putting into words what this movie is actually all about.

    I am not kidding when I say, this is probably the finest, most intelligent exploration of the real meaning to Carpenter’s masterpiece that I have ever read.

    I bow at your feet.

  • 4 carolNo Gravatar // Oct 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Wow – this is so great. Really awesome job at putting a lot of stuff together that I never would have in a million years. I always love to see the way you think about movies.

    Halloween has pretty much always been my fav horror movie – since I was a teenager – but I honestly can’t remember the first or 5th or even 10th time I saw it. It just feels like it’s always been there.

    Oh, and this line “I never wanted to see that face again so I began to seek it out.” is brilliant. It’s pretty much been the story of my life since I was a kid and had my first run ins with creepy old lady faces.

  • 5 micksterNo Gravatar // Oct 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    As I lifetime Laurie, I love this post! Unkle L, you are awesome beyond compare! Keep up the good work!

  • 6 Wednesday's ChildNo Gravatar // Oct 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    This article is stunning. Bravo! I’ve always dismissed Halloween because I saw it for the first time later in life, and it didn’t scare me like it should because I’d already seen it ripped off so many times. But I happened to watch it last night (actually, it was the Rifftrax version, but you’re still watching the movie) and I tried very hard to see it as if for the first time. I noticed the same thing you did about Laurie not being so pristine because she smoked pot on the way to the babysitting job. She must have smoked regularly in order to function the way she did, so that’s a surprising thing about her character! Also, I was struck by the amazing job Carpenter did lighting the dark interior scenes with “moonlight.” How many low budget 70s movies have we seen where the lighting is inadequate or laughable?

  • 7 gsmileNo Gravatar // Oct 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Long time kinderlurker here, but I absolutely had to register to praise this incredible essay that brings to a boil all of the themes of “Halloween” that has threatened to bubble to the surface of my subconsciousness for years. Unk, your writing has always been incredibly insightful and frequently displays dark corners in new lights. My partner and I have had many a great night reading this website to each other in bed off of our mobiles, letting the ideas and mysteries sink even deeper as we nod off to slumber. I’ll be making an effort to comment more often, as I really enjoy the community here as well. Cheers to you all!

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Thank you all so much for these comments! They are greatly appreciated. This post was an uphill climb but if I reached you guys then it was well worth it! HALLOWEEN was just on again last night and by God, I watched it again. I don’t think I’ll ever have my fill of that movie. There’s just so much there!

  • 9 Binrow The HereticNo Gravatar // Oct 26, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Wow. Another great, thoughtful, and well-written post.

    This is why I love this site!

  • 10 Matt SunshineNo Gravatar // Oct 27, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Lance, I second what “Binrow The Heretic” said. After all the great work you do on this site, I wonder if you should try writing a script. Sure your posts are well written, but lots of people can write well, it’s another thing to reach people and keep them coming back over and over.

    Epic post.

  • 11 kirbyreedloveshorrorNo Gravatar // Nov 19, 2012 at 4:01 am

    This is the best thing I’ve ever read that has been written about Halloween. No other film makes me feel what this film does with such profundity. Your words achieves a very similar effect. Each passing year I fall more in love with Laurie and her loneliness tears at me more fiercely. The older I get the more it all resonates with me. There is such an exquisite undercurrent of resigned melancholy in Halloween, it opens up such a beautiful, aching, welcoming sadness inside of me. Certainly this is heightened even more by knowing that in the sequel the Laurie I love so much will be so gracelessly diluted. You dignified a beloved but often misinterpreted character and made clear what I’ve been struggling to understand about myself and about this film. Amazing, amazing, amazing. I wish this was a book you’d written about the film so that I could just keep reading.

  • 12 kirbyreedloveshorrorNo Gravatar // Nov 19, 2012 at 4:03 am

    Oops, that should be “achieve” not “achieves.”

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