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.
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.
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