October: It starts with bags of discount candy and ends with a rotten pumpkin. In between? Crunchy leaves, homemade ghosts and Michael Myers.
I wasn’t born in 1978, but I knew about John Carpenter’s Halloween long before I ever saw it. At countless sleepovers, older siblings of neighborhood friends would whisper about Michael Myers in passing, leaving us kids to freak out alone in dark dens and shadowy bedrooms. “His mask, dude,” one shaggy-haired brother warned me. “It’ll haunt you forever.”
He wasn’t wrong. And I wasn’t alone.
Today the film celebrates its 35th anniversary, and the soulless gaze of Michael Myers continues to send shivers down the spines of fans both new and old. Yet its terror resonates far beyond a retooled William Shatner mask, strangling, instead, the neck of something fundamentally greater.
The story begins on Halloween 1963, when a 6-year-old Michael Myers murders his older sister with a butcher knife upstairs in their own home. Fifteen years later, he escapes from a mental hospital, evades his knowledgeable psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) and returns to his (fictional) hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. It’s there he begins stalking a teenage babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends.
Produced on a budget of $325,000, Halloween was a juggernaut at the box office in the fall of 1978, grossing $47 million Stateside and $70 million worldwide. (Ahem, today that would come out to $169 million and $251 million, respectively.) At the time, it was Hollywood’s most successful independent film — and its acclaim sparked a slaughter of slasher films, from Friday the 13th to A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Of course, later Carpenter-less sequels succumbed to the messy gore and eye-rolling stereotypes of the lucrative genre, but the original remains a separate entity. There’s a sophistication to its story, style and direction, recalling the implicit politics of George A. Romero’s brilliant 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. It was a shakedown of the American Dream.
“Doctor, do you know what Haddonfield is? Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets. You’re telling me they’re lined up for a slaughterhouse,” a smug Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) berates Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis halfway through the film. To the audience’s great frustration, he writes off the doctor’s warnings as “fancy talk,” refusing to believe that anyone could thwart his small-town American life.
But hasn’t that always been America’s thing? Even amid our post-9/11 society, in which school shootings, bombings and ghastly murders terrorize our headlines on a weekly basis, there’s still that balmy negligence that, well, nothing will really happen to us. We gasp. We move on. Rinse and repeat. Live the #AmericanDream.
What’s startling about Halloween is how it’s so relatable. Growing up in America, everyone’s encountered a babysitter, gone trick-or-treating, or moped around the same sprawling neighborhoods that Michael Myers stalks onscreen. Carpenter recognized this, recently telling Crave Online that “every teenage girl in America could relate to babysitting. So I was just thinking of the cast and writing the script of the movie based on that much. Out of that came Halloween.”
He continued, adding, “At its core it’s: the force of evil is man. This guy Michael Myers is human. He’s only part supernatural. And there’s really not much of an explanation as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. So it’s just black evil coming to a small town. A bunch of pain. That’s what it’s really about: horror.”
That’s why as the film progresses, the focus grows less on the babysitters and more on their surroundings, which Carpenter teases with blue specks of moonlight, the occasional grin of a nearby jack-o’-lantern and the monotonous breathing by an unseen Myers. Even the film’s dubious conclusion was designed to leave you thinking, Ohmygod, he’s standing right behind me.
It’s rare that a film of any genre triumphs over time, especially in horror. Yet three and a half decades later, Halloween continues to scare us into believing that true evil — or in this case, the boogeyman — is just outside our window, the shadow by the oak tree, or the sound in the other room. Like the holiday its name shares, the film’s become an American pastime, an institution to fear. And how can we not relate to that?