The 1978 classic thinks you’re a psychopath
Michael Myers (Nick Castle), the forceful killer in Halloween, lurks in the background throughout much of the film. His position in the physical space of the screen is parallel to our own. Where he lurks behind Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) unseen, we lurk in front of her, invisible to her eyes yet voyeurs of her suffering. When he’s not behind her, Michael watches Laurie similarly to how we do: he stands static and watches from afar as if affixed to a tripod. He glares at her as he drives by, as if on a dolly shot. The audience recognizes the danger she is in – we understand Michael’s lethality – yet it entertains us. Halloween, better than any film of its kind, understands the ethics of its consumption. It challenges our senses of moral detachment through associating positioning the killer as audience to Laurie’s life.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the progenitor of the slasher sub-genre of horror films. Now almost synonymous with horror in the popular eye, the model laid out here – a young woman and her friends are relentlessly pursued by a physically powerful killer, each of them dispatched with gruesome glee until the “final girl” barely triumphs – has been riffed upon endlessly, with everything from Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to Scream (1996) and Happy Death Day (2017) using Halloween’s bones.
While it was the first of its genre, Halloween is impressively self-aware – or it seems that way. Perhaps it’s not that it’s self aware but that it does horror differently, more compassionately, than all the films in its wake.
Take, for example, Halloween’s opening sequence. It’s shot from six-year-old Michael’s perspective as, one Halloween night, he watches his sister hook up with a guy. Then, he creeps through the house, grabs a butcher knife and kills his still-nude sister. It’s hard to watch, and is plainly horrifying, but not because we, the audience, feel threatened. Instead, we are forced to watch a murder through the murderer’s eyes and we are horrified at ourselves. Our ability to stay impartial is removed and and we are thrust into the world of a violent killer. It implicates us in the rest of the film’s violence through its manipulation of perspective.
Some horror movies allow the audience to retain their impartiality, presenting the horror as objectively as possible. A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, draws much of its terror from the killer’s style and brutality. A great number of horror films rely on the audience’s identification with the victims to make the horror work: we scream when the characters are stabbed because we like them and would prefer if their lives continued.
As previously described, Halloween participates in neither of these horror traditions, but instead elicits horror from the audience’s participation in the onscreen brutality. Because, of course, these kids wouldn’t be having such a bad day if we weren’t here to watch it. This type of reluctant horror – one that relies on our own distaste for violence – is like an argument against its own genre. It makes the audience feel that they themselves are enacting the on-screen murders sheerly through their complicity, drawing attention to the larger fetishization of on-screen violence.
This is especially poignant when the thematic realm of Halloween’s setting are considered: Haddonfield, Illinois, is meant to be emblematic of the classic American town, if such a thing exists. Michael is the violence of the audience, but he is also the cruel misogyny obsessed with owning and manipulating women. These two aspects become one in Haddonfield; he navigates the suburbian town with ease, unnoticed, because it is his home as it is ours. Halloween is telling us that we are Michael: We watch Laurie as she goes about her life, unnoticed. We paid for our ticket. We are there to watch her suffer.
She’ll be okay, though. There’s gotta be a sequel.