John Carpenter’s Halloween and the Problem of Horrendous Evil
Black cats and goblins and broomsticks and ghosts / Covens of witches with all of their hosts / You may think they scare me / You’re probably right / Blood, guts, and goblins / On Halloween night / Trick or treat!
—Opening Children’s Rhyme from John Carpenter’s Halloween
If there’s a lesson to be learned from John Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s that the Boogeyman is real. Over and over again, the movie draws a sharp contrast between the metafictional horrors we glimpse onscreen and the actual reality of the monster stalking its characters.
The best horror films know that trying to explain away the devil’s work is a fool’s errand. Seen in this light, Michael Myers doesn’t demand an explanation; he demands defeat.
To this end, the camera lingers on a lone television set: Its flickering screen becomes a series of incremental tears, ghostly light piercing through their jagged openings. Gradually, the ensuing pattern resolves itself into a title: The Thing (A.K.A. The Thing from Another World)—a movie Carpenter would go on to remake in 1982. Reclining in the earth-toned luxury of her ’70s living room and illuminated by the TV’s spectral glow, little Lindsey Wallace watches wide-eyed as Annie—her babysitter—fusses with popcorn in the kitchen and makes plans for a late night tryst with her boyfriend. A couple houses down the street, Laurie Strode is also babysitting and watching the same horror movie marathon with her young charge, Tommy Doyle. Unlike her outgoing friend, however, Laurie has no plans to go out gallivanting with boys. “Guys think I’m too smart,” she morosely confides to Annie as she shoulders her load of textbooks.
It is October 31. Trees are shedding their leaves, kids are making their costumed rounds, and most of the inhabitants of the other homes on this quaint little street are also watching scary movies from the safety of their couches. Like most of us, they like their horror at arm’s length—it’s a shape-shifting alien in a black and white landscape; it’s a leering jack-o-lantern on a front porch; it’s a cratered witch’s face in the form of a rubber mask. But it should certainly not be any kind of real mayhem unfolding on these emerald green suburban lawns. Nobody wants anything to do with real terror. Laurie will learn this firsthand in her desperate attempts to get help when an unspeakably evil being is in pursuit of her. She hammers on doors and windows to no avail. The curtains are peremptorily drawn, blinds are resolutely closed, and doors remain locked.
Halloween begins with a justly celebrated opening sequence, a spectacular tracking shot that puts you directly in the killer’s shoes: You creep up to a narrow, white two-story house. The porch light is on and the window to one of the upstairs bedrooms is also glowing. A jack-o-lantern flickers on the porch. You creep around the side of the house, peer through a window, and espy to teenagers messing around on the living room couch. The boy holds an abandoned clown mask up to his face and teases the girl. The girl feigns fear. “Let’s go upstairs,” says the boy. Both ascend the stairs eagerly. You retreat from the window to the front of the house. You watch as the bedroom light is extinguished. You now move fast and with purpose. You enter through the back door into the unlit kitchen. You open a drawer and fish out a gleaming knife. You pass through the dining room. The boy is heading back downstairs. He is putting on his shirt, a strange gloating expression on his face. He exits. You make your way up the steps. The clown mask lies on the floor, its preposterous red nose pointing at the ceiling. You grab it, slip it over your face, and your vision goes slit-eyed. The girl sits at the vanity brushing her hair in nothing but her underwear. “Michael!” she screams. You bring the knife down in sweeping arcs upon her body. Fractured glimpses of a screaming face, bloodied chest and torso, and a rising and plummeting knife. Her body crumples to the ground. Your breathing is heavy in your mask. You run down the stairs and out the front door just as a car pulls up. You hear your name for the second time: “Michael?”
At this point, the spell is broken, and we are ejected from the killer’s head.
It is a male voice that addresses the subject and a male hand that removes the clown mask to reveal a blond-haired little boy with a blank stare. We are now treated to an omniscient gaze as the camera floats away from the scene in which we have lately been implicated. The gravity of what has just taken place begins to dawn on us. The little boy in the gleaming clown outfit is still clutching the knife he has used to murder his sister. Though a horrifying climax still awaits us at this point (remember, this only the beginning of the film), there will be no explanation for any of these appalling events: No explanation for why this ordinary little boy in an ordinary suburb in sleepy Haddonfield, Illinois, chose to end his sister’s life; no explanation for the mayhem that will follow 15 years later; no explanation for Michael Myers. And that is just as it should be. In fact, the film’s moral center is found precisely in this judicious omission.
Philosophers have generally settled on the phrase “problem of evil” as a catchall descriptor for a world filled with various kinds of pain and suffering. In North America, this problem is an equal opportunity offender: Theists must deal with the apparent incompatibility posed by the existence of an all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-loving (omnibenevolent) God on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other. Atheists must deal with the apparent incomprehensibility of all moral categories (including evil) in the absence of any objective source of morality. Both believer and non-believer can agree, however, that some forms of evil are more intense than others. A man who misses the nail and accidentally smashes his finger with a hammer is not in as much pain as the mother and father who have lost a child in a car accident. Certain states of affairs, though painful, can readily be explained, addressed, and remedied. The reason for the man’s pain is clear. With a little care, his finger will heal. But the mother and father will never heal. Their pain can be addressed, but not appeased. If pressed, it can yield a certain set of circumstances, maybe even some perspective over the years. But it will never yield anything approaching a satisfactory explanation. Through much toil and struggle, these grieving parents may even come to a place of acceptance, but there is no “solution” to their problem, no full closure, no way of bringing back their child.
With the book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, the philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams has fastened on a technical designation for, among other things, the evil of a child perishing in a car accident, or a young boy senselessly shedding his sister’s blood: “[W]hat makes horrendous evils so pernicious is their life-ruining potential, their power prima facie to degrade the individual by devouring the possibility of positive personal meaning in one swift gulp.”
Horrendous evils are those evils that preclude meaning, relief, and resolution. Indeed, horrendous evils by their very nature challenge the notion that life is worth living. In their darker moments, the grieving mother and father may wish that their late child had never been born. For that matter, they may wish that they themselves had never been born. This cataclysmic event threatens to undermine so much of what had formerly seemed joyous and meaningful in their lives. Horrendous evil is irreducible evil, evil so distinct in its intensity, it cannot be explained away.
Michael Myers fits squarely into this category.
Carpenter creates his monster by de-humanizing him, and he employs a number of ingenious strategies to accomplish this task. Though the name Michael Myers is now a staple of pop culture trivia, the two times the character is addressed in the film’s opening scene are the only times his name is spoken out loud; Carpenter’s script simply refers to the character as “the Shape.” Like any skilled horror craftsman, Carpenter grants us only fleeting glimpses of the Shape, alternately cutting it up into discreet body parts—a shoulder here, a slender torso in a mechanic’s coverall there—or allowing it to remain an eerie figure in the distance. Daydreaming in her English class, Laurie glances out the window and sees a blank-faced phantom staring at her. She sees it again as she makes her way home, a stark invader in this tree-lined Eden. There it stands again amid the clothesline’s billowing bed sheets when she looks out her bedroom window. Carpenter keeps the Shape out of focus, granting it an uncanny quality in this sharply realized environment. When little Tommy Doyle breaks away from the television and looks through the window to the house up the street, he is confronted by a dark figure too still to be human, too definite to be a shadow. Later, he will see this same Shape carrying what appears to be a limp body. In a brilliant maneuver, Carpenter allows the TV’s drone of science fiction noise to swell and become a kind meta-fictional soundtrack for an unfolding nightmare that is all too real.
But the movie’s most famous metafictional touch is a fairly well-known accident: constrained by a low budget, the director and his crew found themselves obliged to use a mask that is actually a replication of William Shatner’s face. But in the film, we watch in horror as this mask, stretched into an amorphous humanoid visage, becomes a chilling blank slate that effectively purges its owner of any discernible human markers. Shrinking against the wall in terror after seeing what this Shape has done to her friends, we see what Laurie in her vexation cannot see: Floating into view in the black space of the room she has just fled is a disembodied face, looming in stark chiaroscuro.
What you hear is just as unnerving as what you see. Carpenter scored the film himself, and the Halloween theme song is every bit as unforgettable as the sonic assault of Psycho or Mike Odefield’s “Tubular Bells,” used to such stunning effect in The Exorcist. But one of the most unsettling features of the movie’s sound is the Shape’s breathing. When characters are being watched, we hear the sound of heavy breathing as in a compressed space, the sound we would make if we were wearing a mask. Carpenter keeps putting us in his villain’s head.
Toward the end of the film, Tommy will tell Laurie something that most children know very well: “You can’t kill the Boogeyman!” At the film’s conclusion, Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis, will confirm this fact by shooting the figure repeatedly only to find that it has quietly crept back into the night when he returns to survey the damage. In a masterful stroke, Carpenter flashes a montage of the Shape’s domestic attack zones. These stairways, living rooms, and front porches are no longer safe places. They are now latent with menace, subject to invasion at any moment. “Evil has come to your little town, Sheriff.” Dr. Loomis’s words echo in our ears as Carpenter retraces his monster’s steps. Evil is real. The Boogeyman is real. And we can’t kill him.
The best horror films know that trying to explain away the devil’s work is a fool’s errand. Seen in this light, Michael Myers doesn’t demand an explanation; he demands defeat. Films like Halloween up the ante by presenting us with a vision of supernatural evil. Here is the one transcendent note in this pitch-black symphony: The existence of supernatural evil confirms the existence of supernatural good. William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, has remarked that if the devil—the ultimate Boogeyman—is real, God is real.
“Horror forces us to look outside the totality of creation for deliverance and to look to God’s paradigm defeat of evil as defined in the cross.”
—Philip Tallon, The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy
In Halloween, Tommy Doyle is right; we can’t kill the Boogeyman. But, as Tallon reminds us, we can look to the cross and thank our Lord that we don’t have to.
Image: Horror Warehouse