Welcome to Pop Optics! This is a feature in which I will explore some particular life moment that was shaped or influenced by some particular pop culture or even vice versa.
Halloween changed me. It haunts me. It is a very haunting film. It stains you. Marks you. It imprints on you and follows you around, lingering in the background of your mind, when you think you’re alone but you feel like there might be someone, something lurking you. Stalking you from place to place and even in your home you don’t feel quite safe. That’s what it does – it violates your safety.
That is what makes the film so impactful – the killings in the film are not glamorous and feel like they’re rooted in a mundane reality. They’re brutal without requiring excessive violence. There is very little overkill. If anything, it contains the right amount of kill and that was startling to me. The most startling thing to me before I ever even watched it was the stoic silent presence of the masked killer, Michael Myers. The Shape. A plain blue mechanic’s jumpsuit and a pale white mask with seemingly black eyelets. Of course, it was that the eyes of the mask had been stretched out so as make the eyes of the person behind the mask impossible to see thus giving the impression that they had no eyes. An eyeless monster. No humanity. He’s hanging back in the darkness. You don’t see him sneak up on you, you don’t even hear him. He moves smoothly. Stealthy. Honestly, the last man with a pale white face that terrified me as much was Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker in Batman. Of course, what person in their right mind takes a two year old to see this film? Oh right. My parents. Thanks, mom and dad.
I was not quite the horror fan I am now when I was a child. I watched schlocky films that would be played on Svengoolie (a horror film host based in Chicago – BER-WYN! – cracking bad puns and the occasional song while dispensing trivia related to that show’s feature) and I was reading tattered copies of Stephen King books I stole from my sister’s room while also getting into Poe. Horror wasn’t unfamiliar to me but my relationship to it was like one has with a relative they only see at holidays: it was nice catching up with you but stay away from me because you scare the fuck out of me. I guess my enjoyment of horror literature wasn’t ready to be projected into a visual media. Not to say I wasn’t fascinated by it or the feelings it provoked in me.
When I was about eight or nine, I had picked up a book from the library during a school trip. It was a guide to various horror films throughout the years, with the earliest film featured being The Mummy and the most recent being A Nightmare on Elm Street. It wasn’t a thick book – it was flat and square and had a lot of pictures, but it captivated me. I would turn page by page, examining every detail, enthralled by both the images of scenes from the films (the ones from The Exorcist stuck with me) and the matter-of-fact descriptions of the films. They were less reviews and more like primers about what happens to the characters as events unfold. I read through that front and back to the point where I pretty much absorbed everything I needed to know about those films by osmosis. It was if I had already seen them a dozen times. It was this book that made me think “Yeah, I could get into horror.” It was a soft introduction but it was effective. From there I graduated to strolling down the horror sections of video rental stores, eyeing the box art the same way one studies paintings in a gallery searching for meaning and making sense of the emotions that are stirred within them. It was done out of curiosity and arousal: I felt a sense of excitement rooted in taboo. I wasn’t supposed to be in these aisles, I was too young and what was here wasn’t meant for me. I was getting away with something naughty.
At this point in the mid-90s, Halloween was something of a forgotten relic. The slasher sub-genre (yes, I classify it as a sub-genre within horror) at this point had been hacked to death and dismembered in gruesome fashion, splattering the walls with so much blood and guts that not an inch was left uncovered. And then the house that contained the murder was burned down for good measure. And then they built a mini-mall over it, one with a Radioshack, Subway, a White Hen Pantry, a comic shop, sports memorabilia shop where you can also have custom trophies made, and an insurance office. His name was Fred and he wanted to make sure that you and your family were protected from the scourge of phantom stalkers.
I don’t think I finally tackled Halloween until I was ten. I had been rummaging through the boxes of VHS tapes that were stashed in the house, not for any other reason than to de-clutter the house by also cluttering the house – the art of boxing shit up and stacking those boxes in a corner or somewhere downstairs. I came across a copy of Halloween, same as the ones I had seen at the video store. Same box art with kitchen knife being stabbed alongside a jack o’lantern with a sinister face carved into the gourd. I’d stare at it with the same joy a kid would have with their first porno mag. This was my elusive white whale. This was the thing that terrified me. So here I was, holding the box that contained the movie with the man in a white mask of terror and fright and there was no one in the house to stop me from watching this. Not a one. I made it my mission that night to watch it and watch it I did, in the cover of darkness with all sense of safety locked away.
It scared the fuck out me, let me tell you.
Now, this didn’t end the same way as when I was confronted with The Joker some 8 years earlier. I didn’t cry and wet myself. Not that I can recall. No, this was more of a muted response. Why it scared me so much was simple: Beyond the presentation of a faceless killer stalking his victims and dispatching them one by one, what was truly got to me was the setting. You see, I grew up (and still reside) in a Midwestern suburb, one just as sleepy and dull as Haddonfield. Oh, and not to mention the vast stretches of nothingness beyond village limits as well as proximity to psychiatric facilities with their own hyperbolic lore that did nothing to settle the mind just before bedtime. I also had an older sister who liked to torment me. This isn’t alluded to in the film, but when you consider what the likely age gap is between young Michael and his older teenage sister (my sister is 11 years older than me, so when I was six she would have been seventeen, so fair to say that at most there is a 10-11 year gap), the older sibling could assume some sort of dominance over the younger, depending on the power dynamics.
I had scared myself by virtue of where I lived. If I had lived in the city, perhaps the impact would not have been as profound. However, I lived in a unique spot. I was forty miles west from Chicago and still within a heavily populated suburban area. We were by no means desolate. However, drive another ten to twenty minutes west from my town and you are in the outskirts of rural farmlands. People forget just how wide and empty Illinois can be once you escape the sprawling Chicagoland area, which goes as far north as Waukegan, as south as Kankakee and wraps west towards Joliet to Naperville and up to Elgin before closing the loop through Barrington. If any of these towns mean anything to you, congratulations. You probably know who I really am and I would ask please for you to keep my identity secret. I have a lot of enemies. One of them being a psychotic killer who escaped the not that far Institution for the Mentally Disturbed and Driving School.
It wasn’t enough that some nights I kept the light on until I fell asleep, only to shut it off in the middle of the night, or maybe I kept the TV on. Or that I would lock every door in my house when alone and made sure to never venture to spaces where I could easily be trapped. I was giving power to an imaginary character. Michael Myers was dictating my life and how I lived for 31 days out of the year.
There’s a lot to find unsettling about the film and its premise. You have a semi-powerful entity roaming freely while a group of friends go about their lives with no suspicion that one by one they will be slaughtered for no other reason than that this entity merely has an impulse to kill. He’s in the shadows, he’s behind the curtains, behind that door, across the street, he’s in the lawn smelling the freshly washed sheets. Those hollow eyes, the blackest eyes, the Devil’s eyes… it isn’t enough that the mask is stark white, naked and pale of both emotion and expression, but the lack of eyes cement the lack of humanity in this being.
Eventually, I learned to accept being scared in this manner. It was perfectly normal and completely fine. People scare themselves all the time. This just happened to be the most absolutely terrifying thing I had chosen to subject myself to but it didn’t deter me. I wasn’t turned off by horror. Around this age, I was beginning to embrace darker aspects of life (see my previous Pop Optics entry). Much like how Halloween is often seen as the perfected template for the slasher film, it was the template for me to seek out other horror films. It was time to move beyond just watching bad horror films on Svengoolie. I needed to educate myself on the classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all their various entries. I need to expose myself to the dump of Halloween sequels, each worse than the last. I needed to see the decline of the franchise to no longer be afraid of Michael, to take away his power and render him nothing more than bogus bogeyman. I would move on to running through the film adaptations of King novels I had read, then spreading ever more outward, hunting down obscure (to me) titles at Blockbuster. I wanted to make myself immune to horror so that I could enjoy on level other than fright.
While I have built up my fascination with horror, it doesn’t quite explain why I became attracted to a film that terrified me and how it helped to shape my perception and relationship with horror. Aside from the setting, what really struck me was the plausibility of the events as well as the plausibility of encountering characters from the film in real life. For as little time you spend with most of these characters aside from Laurie Strode, you get a sense for who they are. They aren’t malicious (though, Dr. Loomis is arguably the worst psychiatrist free to practice as he pleases) and are just wandering through their lives without fear that anything could ever happen to them. They’re lost in their own worlds and worries that are real, planning in the short term, not concerned with anything. They’re carefree. And they’re going to get killed without warning. And that’s life. You live it, you love it, you die suddenly sometimes. It sucks and sounds brutal but were you ever going to live forever? Would you want to live forever?
What makes Halloween effective is that it keeps things simple. The story is well contained and doesn’t move around beyond the small cast of characters assembled. The motivation for Michael is obscure and unclear. We know that fifteen years ago he killed his sister in a shockingly horrific fashion and now he’s escaped his confinement to make his way home to continue what he started at the tender age of six. Everyone else goes on as if there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an opportunity to create panic when Sheriff Bracket asks Dr. “I’m a loony” Loomis if he should notify the department and alert the town to Michael’s presence but Loomis, inept professional is he, shoots that down. And in how the rest of the film plays out, it was the right call. By preventing any sort of intervention on the part of local law enforcement, Dr. Loomis saves himself his moment to finally dispatch of Michael himself under the guise of “standing his ground,” but he also contains the threat to a vacuum where only handful of officials are privy to the kind of evil that is stalking their town.
That’s the gist, isn’t it? Michael is a personification of the evil that exists in the real world. He’s not a man, not a person, not a real being. He’s not even referred to as such by his own damn doctor – Loomis lovingly refers to him as either “it” or “the evil.” He’s a force of nature, same as the shark was in Jaws and there are plenty of parallels between those two films to fill their own think-piece. My experience with Halloween and response to it wasn’t the same as I would have to Batman or to A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre because those films painted a world of fantasy colored with blood and populated by exaggerated characters. There was nothing real about them, except for the ones that were based on real people so inspirations aside, they didn’t quite exist within a mundane reality. Halloween did and could.
The methodical nature and singular motive for what propelled Michael, The Shape, was a stark and bleak reflection of similar individuals existing within our own society. From Halloween, I was turned on to the world of serial killers. I got my hands on whatever books I could that gave me prolific insight into the minds that were void of humanity and replaced with monstrous evil.
The fandom of serial killers is a touchy subject to… well, touch. It is fraught with sick fascination as much as it is with pure psychological study. The even harrier area of collecting serial killer-related materials (murderabilia it is often referred to) is one that I never felt compelled to approach. There’s grim intrigue and then there’s mere endorsement. There were lives that those killers touched beyond their victims; those victims had families and those families would have to live with little comfort for many more years while a segment of the population was willing to bid on paintings by John Wayne Gacy or drive Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen. To me, I just want to understand what was driving their brains and how it led them to murder. I fancied myself an amateur profiler; I was the kid to go to with knowledge of serial killers, their techniques, their notoriety. Of course, what no one really tells you up front when you’re learning about serial killers is that while they’re likely born with a permanent damage or defect in their soul, they also aren’t so bright. They’re impulsive, they’re egotistical, and they’re temperamental. If anything, Michael Myers is now less and less a true representation of evil men and just a phantom made up to scare children and babysitters alike.
I saw where the lines could blur between enjoyment of horror and fascination with grisly murder, and my appreciation for either was resting somewhere between academic and personal as well. I wanted to know how much capacity the human heart held for compassion and how much it had reserved for evil and I owed it all to The Shape.