John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween has etched itself a spot in the modern American cinematic psyche. The controversial independent film paved the way for the slasher—a horror film archetype wherein a series of people are killed by a psychopath usually wielding knife, axe, etc.—earned itself a place in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and had a profound effect on pop culture. With its many sequels, countless parodies, reboots, and even a novelization, Halloween has cemented itself in the American cultural consciousness as the slasher film.
The basic jist of the tale is thus: Michael Myers, a troubled youth who, prior to the movie’s action, murdered his older sister, escapes from the mental hospital he has been held in for fifteen years. During the next day, Halloween, teenager Laurie is stalked by Myers, though is unable to understand what exactly is happening to her. Her concerns are dismissed by her friends however, and that evening she finds herself babysitting first a young boy named Tommy and then additionally a girl named Lindsey. As the evening progresses, Laurie’s friends are murdered, one by one, as Myers closes in on his target. Finally, a confrontation between Myers and Laurie takes place and, after a tense and drawn out game of cat and mouse, Myers is evidently killed by Dr. Loomis, Myers’ psychiatrist who has been tracking him throughout the film. The end of the film reveals that Myers is not indeed dead, as his body is gone.
All said and done, Halloween is a rather simple film, and because of its relatively low budget and small-time cast, relied heavily on the direction of Carpenter to make it a success. And Carpenter did indeed make it a success. Why, though? What is it about Halloween that drew America in? Were we so desperate for an atmospherically-driven horror movie that Halloween practically had to fill that niche? Yes, in fact. And not only that, but the concepts that lie behind Halloween helped to reflect the current cultural climate of America.
The 1970s were a very important time in American history, the time of free love, exploration, music, and generally reconnecting with what Hunter S. Thompson would come to epitomize as “the crest of a high and beautiful wave.” The idea of the time was freedom and idealism. By the end of the 70s though, a new era had come into blossom. A time of Post-Vietnam tension, Cold War terror, and within a few years, the kind of 1980s nihilistically-driven materialism that would bring about such classics as American Psycho.
One of the things necessary for psychic survival in this new epoch was a type of ability to completely let go, not just of past precedent (as the free-thinkers of the 60s and 70s had done), but of everything, including ethical and moral limitations, old superstitions, and ideas of what the world should look like.
Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece shines a bright spotlight on just this ability to forget. One of the major plot points of the film lies in Myers’ obsession with the past, and with returning home. The first thing he does upon his escape is to steal from the local cemetery his murdered sister’s tombstone, which he carries with him on his rampage. Furthermore, his whole killing spree is sharply focused on one target. Real killing sprees that have happened in recent history show that if the goal of the spree is carnage, a killing pattern based on location is more efficient than one centered on particular targets, but Myers insists on making Laurie his target (though for reasons unknown). This sentimentality, this obsession with his sister and with Laurie, in combination with Carpenter’s directing techniques, show Myers to be a highly concentrated evil.
Carpenter used, to great effect, several first person shots of Myers—showing his murders and actions from his point of view. He also chose for Myers to wear his (now synonymous) blank white mask. Both of these directorial choices come into play when one examines Myers as sentimental to a fault. The white mask portrays him as a blank slate, and gives the viewer nothing to relate to except his actions (though we have already seen some of his past, and so should be exploring the character as much more developed than we do). Myers is depersonalized so much that he becomes merely a vessel for his obsession with the past. When the viewer is forced into his body in the film, they are hit with a sudden juxtaposition of experiencing apparently meaningless violence and being the cause behind such. Through this clash of feelings, Carpenter creates a tension in the audience that alienates them from any sympathies they may hold for the killer, even knowing his past.
Laurie, however, provides a counterargument to Myers’ obsession. She is driven by survival, and by an instinct to preserve herself. Despite her horror and clear concern for her friends, she is forced into a situation where survival necessitates that she focuses on the living, and on what she deems as important in the moment. She is allowed no rest or respite, no mourning the dead, and no sympathy for her murdered friends. Indeed, she is forced to display more care for the children she babysits, children she knows much less than her friends, than those friends themselves.
The cultural climate of the late 70s was one of remorse and longing for a past that had cultivated one of America’s most well-known eras, and Carpenter’s film plays unceremoniously with that longing. His film turns that longing against itself, forcing the viewer to reject Myers’ sentimentality and obsessive drive and accept Laurie’s self-driven flight from the monster chasing her. In so doing, we come to see ourselves as victims of this nameless horror from the past and so to do we flee from it, in such a way that the 1980s became a time now strongly associated with American decadence and self-driven decision making which would ultimately lead to horrors of its own.