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The Manic Maniac: Halloween's Halloween
Carpenter and Zombie brought horror to our doorstep.
By Joe Crosby
October 31, 2008
Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN(1978).
© Anchor Bay Home Entertainment
It's Halloween. As much as I'd like to avoid the idea of a requisite Michael Myers Halloween piece, I can't shake the urge to write about John Carpenter's Halloween. It started when I looked up Halloween--the tradition, not the film--on Wikipedia the other day. Making my way down the page, I read about all of the obvious stuff, harvest festival, pagan ritual, etcetera, etcetera. Mostly, though, I wanted to read about horror and gore associated with the holiday. I'm not a particularly sick-minded person (most of the time), but like any normal human being, the onset of autumn and the pulsating of jack-o-lanterns make we want to scare myself. It's a strange bit of masochism I haven't quite figured out, and I wanted to know why (something about the amygdala and endorphins). And as I read, I saw references to 1932's The Mummy (fine, warranted) and the Saw franchise (the first one was OK, but really?). However, there was nary a reference to Carpenter's horror classic Halloween. This is a shame. Not least because it is, undoubtedly, a classic, but because the film, in no small part, has shaped out view of the holiday since it was released.
To be fair, horror films were associated with Halloween long before the film was released. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released on Oct. 1, 1974, bolstering the tradition of October horror debuts. And Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and The Mummy played no small part in the commercialization of the holiday more than seven decades ago. (A commercial enterprise that now often and conveniently capitalizes on the image of that white, hollow mask.)
But consider this: when you're sitting at home in the dark, the pale blue of a television highlighting the room, what might you fear most? An unwieldy and off-kilter flesh-wearing Texan? The resurrected Imhotep? Or a man standing in the frame of an open back door, his visage alternating between silhouette and plain evil with the flicker of each passing headlight.
By 1975, you might've felt some unease if you broke down in the vast and empty swath between San Antonio and El Paso. And you might be a tad puckered if you were crawling around the tomb of a pyramid in Egypt, should you ever make it there. But in those two scenarios, you would be fine as soon as you made it to the safety and comfort of your home. But Halloween ruined that. Because it brought the horror inside of our houses, the same place where we give out candy and hold viewing sessions of Friday the 13th (Halloween was sold out that week), the place where, from there, the fear exists elsewhere.
Michael Myers has a knack for finding unlocked or opened doors. And even in daylight, he's lurking in our backyards, there one instant, gone the next (see: clothesline scene in Halloween). But it isn't even that simple.
First, the most frightening part of 1978's Michael Myers is that he wasn't much for the pageantry of gore. You rarely saw that, as it might have made a caricature of the death. But what you did see was him watching. And you saw him coming. And his expressionless mask made it cold and sinister and heartless.
Second, he was just a kid, a 7-year-old murderer but one guilty conscience removed from the neighborhood bully. After 12 years strapped down in a sanitarium, it's no wonder he's evil. And if evil like that, trapped inside the mind of child, were to ever escape, where would he go? To Haddonfield, the fictional town that is every real-life hometown.
(Jason Voorhees was just a kid too, but he, like Leatherface, is isolated to a specific place--Camp Crystal Lake--not the anywhere suburbs down the road. Not to mention films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were conceived directly because of Michael Myers' success.)
Wikipedia contributors across the planet failed for many reasons, but not to be overlooked is this: Horror at home, as it were, has grown, and so has the desire to recreate horror in October. Halloween decorations have gone from carved pumpkin sand an Oz-like witches to full haunted houses, dummy corpses in the front lawn, strobe lights, no lights, shrieks and yells. The horror now of our own pretend worlds of evil is all the more real to the passerby. Because evil doesn't exist in some far off place anymore, it exists outside of our school, following us on the sidewalk, standing in our backyard and waiting in the hallway outside our bedroom.
Halloween was probably never innocent, but never has it been so horrifying.