After four decades of sequels, imitations, parodies, and remakes, it can be a little surprising to return to the original “Halloween” and find what a unique film it truly is.
The story is of course familiar. Six-year-old Michael Myers suddenly stabs his sister to death on Halloween and is committed to an insane asylum for life. Exactly 15 years later, he escapes and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, where he targets shy teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two friends, Annie and Linda. Meanwhile, his therapist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who alone knows what Myers truly is, tries to hunt him down and stop him.
Watching “Halloween” and knowing what came after is an interesting experience. The film was copied so much that it essentially spawned an entire subgenre of blood-soaked films wherein masked serial killers stalked and murdered promiscuous teenagers in ever more lurid ways.
But “Halloween” is a very different animal from its imitators, or even its own sequels. Its power does not lie in its gore or body count — in fact, it’s almost entirely bloodless — but in its ideas and implications. What became tired and ridiculous tropes — the killer who seemingly can’t be killed, who always wears a mask, who preys on teenagers, etc. — are here carefully considered writing choices with a clear purpose: as clues pointing to the true nature of the thing that was Myers.
Here I am regarding this film as an isolated work, without consideration of any of the sequels, and especially without considering the “revelation” in the second film regarding Myers’ relationship with Strode (John Carpenter claims this development was the result of trying to fight writer’s block with daily six-packs of beer, which I have no trouble believing). “Halloween” was never meant to have a sequel, and it is best enjoyed as such.
To understand this film, it is necessary to understand its monster. The thing in “Halloween” is usually referred to as Michael Myers, the name of the young boy in the opening. However, that’s not how Nick Castle is credited. He’s listed as playing “The Shape.” What is a shape? It is form without matter. A circle has the same nature, whether rendered in wood, ink, smoke, or mathematical notation. Thus, the Shape in “Halloween” is some form or reality that can materialize in many different ways, but always with the same nature.
Taken with Dr. Loomis’s pronouncements of the Shape’s inhuman nature, and especially with his final exchange with Strode — “It was the bogeyman!” she says, and he replies, “As a matter of fact, it was” — the implication is that the Shape is in fact a supernatural manifestation of evil. It isn’t Myers; he is only the material the Shape uses to give itself substance. This is why it always wears a mask, to the point that when Laurie briefly tears it off, the Shape pauses its assault to re-don the mask.
The Shape needs a disguise to give itself substance. It needs a “mask” of some sort. Even Myers himself is the Shape’s mask. This, of course, explains everything; The Shape cannot be killed because it is not a person but a supernatural entity. This is the same reason it has inhuman strength (enough to effortlessly strangle a German Shepherd with its bare hands) and some power over its environment (it seems able to lock and unlock doors from a distance).
It also explains the Shape’s eerily unnatural behavior. Not just its senseless murders, but the way it simply does strange things at times, such as when it appears in front of Linda wearing a ghost costume and then just stands there. Or when, after dispatching another victim, it pauses and thoughtfully tilts its head back and forth, as though studying its handiwork.
Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any point to much of its behavior. For example, why the tableau with Annie’s body and Judith Myers’s gravestone? Or, for that matter, why is it targeting Laurie at all? The Shape, whatever its nature, is operating on a clearly alien mentality to anything we the audience can understand. It isn’t human.
None of this is explicitly spelled out in the film, but the implications are all there, particularly in Loomis’s dialogue. The Shape represents evil itself, or at the least the potential for evil that lurks in every community. This brings us to Haddonfield and its inhabitants. A large part of the power of “Halloween” comes from how persuasively ordinary the setting and characters are.
Haddonfield is the kind of quiet, peaceful little town where just about everyone knows everyone, kids walk to school unsupervised, and teenagers get jobs babysitting their neighbors’ children. Likewise, Strode and her two friends are presented as perfectly normal teenagers, possibly the most convincing such ever to appear in a horror film.
Laurie is more shy and studious than her two friends, but she envies rather than disapproves of their behavior, and they in turn don’t tease her for her reticence and try to help her break out of her shell. Laurie is smart and responsible, with a great relationship with her young charge, Tommy, but not above sharing a joint with Linda on her way to a babysitting job. In other words, she’s a normal person; a good kid, but not idealized.
This is exactly where the horror lies; Laurie’s a perfectly decent, ordinary teenager of the kind you could meet in any school in any town in America. And she ends up the target of an unthinkably evil force, and for no other reason than that she happened to cross his path.
There is a queasily real-world quality to much of the early stages of Laurie’s ordeal. The Shape follows her around town, silently watching her. It doesn’t do anything, but its behavior is clearly not normal. It’s not enough to make Laurie feel threatened, just uneasy. Many people have experienced such a feeling at some point, when they encounter someone who doesn’t quite follow the social script, who steps over the line, but not too far. When you feel in danger, but not enough to be really scared to make you break from routine, just enough to wonder.
Laurie’s understandable response is to try desperately to ignore it, to tell herself that she’s imagining things or overreacting. Haddonfield is a peaceful, friendly little town, and Laurie is a nice, normal kid. These sorts of things don’t happen to people like her.
But of course, that is precisely to whom they do happen. And therein lies the horror. We want very much to think that we live in a safe, nice, civilized world, where we can safely go about our lives and where “that sort of thing” will never happen to us. But however safe and nice and civilized the world around us is, it retains the potential for evil, and hence for “that sort of thing.”
As the chatty cemetery keeper tells Dr. Loomis, “Every town has something like this happen.” Every community has some inexplicable evil in its history, or will at some point. We today are familiar with this. Names like Aurora, Parkland, and Sandy Hook were once unknown except to those who lived there. The nightly news brings us daily accounts of other nightmarish outrages, often flaring up in quiet, peaceful little towns where it seemed nothing terrible could happen.
Yet, like Dr. Loomis’s colleagues and the people of Haddonfield, we still don’t quite understand what we are dealing with. We futilely grasp at sensible solutions: We need more mental health research, we need more and better gun control laws, we need a more rational foreign policy so as not to provoke terrorism, we need economic reform so that people won’t be driven to crime, we need to teach men not to rape, and on and on.
Whether any of these things are actually needed is not the point. The point is that we are deluding ourselves. Nothing we do here on Earth will eliminate evil from our midst. Evil is not a matter of a lack of education or economic desperation or bad laws or cultural norms or mental health. Evil, like love, is a choice; the choice to put the self first.
As was said long ago, it is not what comes into a man that defiles, him, but what comes out of him: greed, lust, pride, irreverence, anger, hatred, and so on. That is why even in the safest, friendliest, most peaceful place on Earth, you can still find evil.
The point of “Halloween” is that there is no point. The Shape doesn’t have any larger agenda or recognizably human motivation, no trauma in its past, no failure of education; it is simply and purely evil. You can’t counsel it, medicate it, heal it, or kill it.
Such is the case with all human evil. You can’t “kill” evil or remove it from society. All you can do is be aware of it, recognize it for what it is, and do your best to keep it at bay.