Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Tao of Michael Myers? Or The Hidden "Shapes" of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

I have written about John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) on several occasions. In The Films of John Carpenter (2000); in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and here, on this blog, over the last four-and-a-half years.

And yet despite this fact, I am drawn to revisit the film again and again, across the years, to further detect new and intriguing aspects of the masterpiece. This is a fact which differentiates it from Rob Zombie's 2007 ill-advised remake, and some of the piss-poor, latter-day sequels.

So the question becomes: what is it, precisely, about John Carpenter's Halloween that stands up to --- and actually encourages -- continued, intense scrutiny?

And hell, it isn't just my scrutiny either, it's the scrutiny of other scholars, authors, bloggers, list-makers and admirers the globe around. Over thirty years after the film's release, Halloween's reputation only continues to grow.

But the answer to the question about the Tao of Halloween, The Tao of Michael Myers, is deceptively simple, and it very much concerns my favorite cinematic conceit: visual form echoing narrative content.

Specifically, as percipients of Halloween, we gaze intently at that blank, white, featureless mask of "The Shape," Michael Myers, and then immediately recognize, at least subconsciously, that we are missing some crucial aspect of understanding.

Michael's true motives -- just like his concealing, ivory face-mask -- are not entirely filled in; not fully circumscribed. His personality and purpose seems oddly incomplete, and thus the shadowy, featureless mask fully and trenchantly reflects our inability to conceptualize or understand the thing that he represents. From this lack of understanding grows the seeds of terror. Why does Michael kill? Is he the Boogeyman? What drives him? How does he survive point-blank bullet strikes? As in life, Halloween provides no easily digestible answer to myriad questions about mortality and murder, destiny, choice, and chance.

Yet Halloween does brilliantly provide the attentive viewers some intriguing clues about Michael Myers and the things he signifies. Some of these hints actually seem to conflict with one another; and some are just barely enunciated. But again, this very facet of ambiguity makes the film (and the iconic character himself) resonate more powerfully in our minds. In other words, Halloween lets our imagination fill in the narrative, explanatory gaps, and again, a sense of terror takes hold. We see reflected in that blank, chilling mask all the things we fear -- all the things we don't understand -- about our lives in this mortal coil.

Basically -- to boil it down -- I believe that Halloween provides us at least four important "leads" about Michael Myers true and highly unusual nature (and it is important to remember that all of these clues don't take into account the "Laurie is his sister"-revisionism of the sequels. and the remake). These clues are, in no specific order:

1. Michael Myers is a Physical Representation of Laurie's Id.

This is the Freudian-interpretation of John Carpenter's Halloween. As you may be aware, the Id is a component of Freud's so-called "psychic apparatus" or "structural model for the human psyche." Basically, the Id houses our unconscious, our basic drives, our instincts. It controls our desire for sex and our other appetites too. It is amoral, chaotic and egocentric.

Consider now the buttoned-down, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), both a good student and a responsible babysitter . She clearly symbolizes the rationalist Ego, the part of us that holds the reigns of control over our lives and seeks to "please" the Id in a socially and culturally acceptable fashion. The Ego represents common sense; even consciousness itself. This is the Freudian "borrowed face," the veneer of appropriateness we all put on over our Ids.

Accordingly, underneath the mask, Michael represents Laurie's Id, unfettered and on-the-loose, lashing out at those around her who more "honestly" contend with their drives and libidos (Annie and Linda) than do the Ego. Laurie even seems to "activate" Michael Myers, at least in a sense, by singing aloud a modern magical incantation (a ballad) on the day he stalks her. The lyrics to that ballad go: "I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us," and set up, rather nicely, the thrust of Michael's murderous mission on October 31st. He systematically kills all of Laurie's friends and acquaintances until it is, indeed, just the two of them. They have sex (or hope to have sex), and he destroys them because they express what Laurie cannot.

Now, of course, some readers may rightly remind me that Michael cannot possibly be a product of Laurie's Id, since Michael was alive and killing before she was even born (back in 1963). That's right...but.. do we know for certain that Laurie's mission of murder isn't the the very thing imprinted upon that mentally-deranged mind behind the blank-white mask?

Horror scholar and professor Vera Dika wrote that "Carpenter openly represents Michael as Laurie's "id." This reading is supported by the inclusion of footage from Forbidden Planet (1956)...The earlier film had portrayed a situation in which the unconscious desires, or the id, of the main character became manifest and threatened to destroy him and his world. Similarly, Laurie is almost destroyed by the strength of her repressed unconscious impulses. Her battle with Michael is a substitute for the sexual act." (Vera Dika, Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, page 51).

John Carpenter himself lends some credence to this Freudian interpretation of Halloween by noting that Laurie, "The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife...Not because she's a virgin but because all that repressed sexual energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy...she doesn't have a boyfriend, and she finds someone -- him." (Danny Peary, Cult Movies. Delacorte Press, 1981, page 126).

This theory won't exactly find popularity with feminists or "Final Girl" proponents, since it positions Laurie as the repressed "creator" of the monster in Halloween, not a Girl-Powered heroine. Her suppressed sexual appetite and longing is the drive that brings Michael to life and even selects his victims. In this way, the noble Laurie somehow becomes responsible for Michael; or at the very least, connected to him in a very intimate, very personal way.

2. Michael Myers is Just a Developmentally Arrested Child Playing Halloween Tricks.

There's a such a thing as "psychological neoteny," the retention by adults of what are generally considered juvenile traits. In Halloween, Michael Myers seems "arrested" in an early point of childhood, acting out instances of so-called play but, because of his delayed maturity, failing to understand the true consequences of his actions.

A hallmark of childhood is the total and immersive interface with a world of make-believe play. In theory, make-believe play should teach a child to self-regulate and even learn self-discipline; a quality known as "executive function." But in Michael's specific case, nothing positive results from the fact that his mind is "frozen," essentially, in childhood. It's as though he's an overgrown kid, playing an elaborate trick-or-treat game without any acknowledgment of the harm that very game is causing to others outside himself.

It is impossible to deny the "game"-like aspects of Myers' behavior in the original Halloween. He sets a "stage" or "show "for Laurie in Lindsey's house a prank involving the corpses of her friends and a stolen grave marking/head-stone. Also, at least to some extent, it seems that Michael strongly identifies with young Tommy Doyle...since he follows the boy home from school too. Halloween II and later films seem to forget that Michael actually stalked two people on October 31st, 1978: Laurie and Tommy. I suggest that this is because Michael is essentially delayed at Tommy's age and somehow sees Doyle as a contemporary; or surrogate; someone his own age.

Michael evidences some interesting physical reactions after he kills the teenagers on Halloween night that also, if interpreted in a certain way, bolster this theory. He just stares and looks at them, tilting his head to one side. You must wonder if this is because the dead are -- counter to his expectations -- not getting up and continuing to play. Michael has killed them, but doesn't really understand the finality of death. He is thus quizzical and curious over the corpses, wondering why the teens don't want to play anymore. We can also judge that Michael is developmentally arrested at/or around 1963, the time when he committed his first murder (an action that no doubt also slowed down his formal education, another characteristic of many with delayed maturity.)

3. Michael Myers is the Physical Embodiment of Fate

Early in Halloween, there is a fascinating if brief scene set in a high school English class. Laurie is in attendance, listening only sporadically as an off-screen teacher drones on endlessly about the concept of fate in literature.

The unseen instructor then asks Laurie about her reading assignment, and Laurie answers by making a distinction between two authors, Samuels and Costaine. She notes that "Costaine wrote that fate was only somehow related to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element; like Earth, Air, Fire and Water." The teacher further notes that Lauriie is correct, that Samuels definitely "personified" fate. "It [fate[ stands" where a "man passes away."

Who else stands where a man passes away? Michael, of course, a character who survives stabbings and shootings and keeps on coming like a freight train. He is Fate "Personified" (as Samuels dictated) and you can't kill something like Earth, Air, Fire or Water, can you?

This revelation of Michael as Agent of Fate opens up the whole "Boogeyman" Argument; that perhaps there is actually a fifth natural element, Earth, Air, Fire, Water...And Evil. And that Michael as a representative of this natural force is thus unstoppable; in kiddie slang, The Boogeyman.

The film's discussion of fate contextualizes Michael not as a supernatural avenger, but as a heightened, natural one. He is not magical, but rather a force as natural (and as essential?) as Air or Water. So there is an order to the universe, it's not just what we had in mind...

4. Michael Myers is an Indictment of Contemporary, Rational Society: The Undiagnosable Amok in The Scientific World

Finally, I believe Halloween suggests (or at least implies...) that Michael Myers represents some kind of modern-day "dragon" in a society that no longer recognizes dragons as real monsters.

As I wrote in The Films of John Carpenter, Halloween willfully "deconstructs" our technological, contemporary world so that (as viewers experiencing the film) we actually appear have more in common with ancient proto-humans huddling in caves than with our rational, 21st century brethren. In particularly, nothing in Halloween works the way it is supposed to work by our "rationalist," "daylight" brand of thinking.

To wit: Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is a total and complete failure as a psychologist, unable not only to heal Michael Myers, but to understand what drives him. Loomis's role in Halloween is not that of a doctor, nor of a psychiatrist, but explicitly that of St. George: hunting down and slaying the dragon. But specifically, Michael Myers suffers from no diagnosable or treatable psychological disorder. He is "purely and simply Evil." If you look in the DSM-IV, you won't find "Evil" listed as a malady.

It is utterly unacceptable that rational, middle-class teenagers in Haddonfield should die at the knife of Michael Myers on the eve of the 21st century. That's just not supposed to happen in modern-day America. For one thing, there is the blanket of parental protection and love, which should shield children, right? Yet in Halloween, the parents (and most adults for that matter...) are mostly an afterthought. We see Laurie's father only briefly, never see the school teacher, and never get to meet the parents of Lynda, Annie, or even Tommy Doyle. Adults do not represent a positive, let alone helpful force in this horror vision.

Well, okay, if parents can't help save the children (representing our tomorrows...), then there's modern medicine and cutting-edge science, which should not only diagnose Michael, but keep him behind bars. Right? Not surprisingly, it fails too. The "system" fails, and Michael escapes.

All right, what about another imortant societal construct then: the law? Well, kindly Sheriff Brackett can't even protect his own daughter, let alone capture a mad-dog killer! Not a single cop on patrol even notices Michael's car parked on the street!

In other words, all of our carefully-constructed traditional bureaucracies and cherished codes of justice, belief and conduct ultimately offer Annie, Lynda and Bob zero protection. These kids are on their own. They are prey.

In fact, these teens have it much worse than our cave-men ancestors in pre-history. At least the cave-men knew to be afraid, knew to fear the forces in the dark that they could not comprehend. The characters in Halloween are thoroughly unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes Michael Myers, and that's why they are such easy pickings. The movie thus indicts modern society rather fully: it is woefully unprepared to combat what may be a "natural force," Evil Itself.

J.P. Telotte wrote that "What Carpenter seems intent on demonstrating is how consistently our perceptions and our understandings of the world around us fall short...We are conditioned by our experience and culture to see dismiss from our image contents those visions for which we might not be able to account..."(American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film: "Through a Pumpkin's Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror." University of Illinois Press, 1987, page 122).

Now, I am not suggesting that any one of these four interpretations is absolutely the "right one" to come to a perfect understanding of Carpenter's film, only that Halloween retains such power because the truth of Michael Myers seems to dwell in all these interpretations.

Ultimately, Halloween preserves the Shape's mystery and thus lets you decide about the important things like meaning. Many of the sequels and indeed the Rob Zombie 2007 remake fail so egregiously to live up to the original Carpenter film because they work diligently towards an opposite (and inferior) end; because they seek to diagram in details the answers about Michael for the audience's consumption and peace of mind. Yet peace of mind -- closure itself -- runs counter to what good horror ought to be, at least by my personal barometer. Who wants to leave a horror movie content that you understand everything you saw; that it all fits into a neat little box? As I've said before, I want my slumber troubled; I wantmy mind bothered by the things only the genre can show me and tell me. If I desire peace of mind or resolution from ambiguity, I'll watch network television.

As a direct result of all the well-meaning but psychologically facile explanations of the sequels and the remake, the magic of Michael Myers is somehow bled away. When we understand Michael is simply hunting his biological sister down, he becomes nothing but a garden variety wacko with a tough hide. When he is infused with supernatural powers and becomes a genetically-engineered Druid observing Samhain, he's just another easily explainable Devil, only one with an alternate religious belief system.

And finally, the magic of Michael Myers is totally squandered when we bear witness to the peculiarities of his abusive childhood; when we come to understand that he was raised in a violent, redneck household and is merely carrying on in the family tradition. Thus the later movies, and especially the re-imaginations nullify The Shape's Power; the Shape's Tao. They turn it to ashes.

When considering "The Shape," I submit that it is better to ponder and speculate about Evil's True Nature than to know it all. Oscar Wilde once wrote that the greatest mystery in life is actually "one's self," and Halloween remains such an indelible viewing experience because -- in addition to technical expertise and canny imagery -- it leaves more than abundant psychic space for our imaginations to ponder it.


  1. Another brilliant posting.

    I was intrigued by the id theory as well as Michael playing tricks (something I've always felt was that MM was developmentally delayed) - that said, your earlier theory (the id) sort of fits in with another thing I've always believed; that Laurie "called Michael" back home with that damn song as she's walking down the street.

  2. Pax Romano,

    Thank you for the comment and Happy Halloween!

    I like the Id theory and feel that it "works" in interpreting Halloween; and I've also found myself increasingly drawn to the Michael Myers as developmentally delayed, overhrown child reading.

    But the great thing is that these (and other ideas I didn't enumerate...) can exist side-by-side in Halloween!


  3. Killer (ha!) article on probably my favorite flick of all time. The ambiguity, the unknowable, natural force made flesh, almost some twisted Jungian archetype, is what makes the film so compelling.

    In network teevee's defense, it did give us Buffy. ;-)

  4. Hey Randal!

    I probably shouldn't have been snarky about network TV -- you're right about Buffy (and there's also Millennium, The X-Files, etc.).

    But Halloween continues to stoke the imagination, even 31 years later. Wonder how the Zombie version will be viewed after 31 years?

  5. Wow. Just ... Wow. You said more here than I ever could have.

    And you hit a lot I would have liked to have been able to say.

    Great post. Nothing more I can say.

  6. Thank you Wings, I appreciate the kind word!


  7. This is a wonderful article, although I'm a late comer to your site. I really appreciate the intellectual approach to such a classic and complex movie. Every time that I watch, I'm for one, scared, but also engrossed.

    I think the theory of Michael Myers as an agent of, or fate itself, is very astute. I hadn't considered the classroom scene before, but I really appreciate you fleshing that out. Obviously, it's a scary scene with Michael Myers staring into the classroom from a distance, but the exchange that you tied with that fear is another example of how John Carpenter added so much depth to the story. Even if you don't explicitly notice it, the viewer gets the sense of that depth and it makes the movie even more chilling.

    Thank you again!

  8. Fantastic article.

    To your thoughts about how them explaining Michael in the later films, I think the game Alan Wake sums up the issue perfectly:

    “Stephen King once wrote, 'Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.' In a horror story, the victim keeps asking why - but there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end.”