In the early years of cinema, the horror genre was populated by monsters and mad scientists, and was set in the shadows of gothic castles, tombs, and other innately macabre locals. It wasn’t until the 1970s when films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Black Christmas (1974) began to bring horror into the modern era. Suddenly horror wasn’t looming in Eastern European crypts, but right in your backyard. The protagonists weren’t scientists and explorers, but unsuspecting youths. Horror films began directly targeting the fears of their target audience. This culminated in John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween.
"Death has come to your little town, Sheriff." Creative Commons1
Halloween was certainly not the first film of its kind; the cinematography borrows from Italian cinema and its plot was not remarkably different from other American horror movies like Black Christmas. Yet most mark the film as the father of the modern slasher genre. Why? The universal nature of the story and the mythology behind the film’s iconic killer Michael Myers. John Carpenter’s Halloween exists in a world where sex and drugs equals death, the virgin can stop the killer, and evil never really dies; in essence, the film is a morality tale.
These themes struck a chord with audiences and after its release in 1978, Halloween spawned dozens of cheap, forgettable attempts to cash in on the films success. Films like New Year's Evil, Prom Night, Terror Train and April Fool's Day, were all attempts to do Halloween again. There were, however, a few successful children of Carpenter's work, the most famous being Friday the 13th, directed by Sean S. Cunningham in 1981. Friday the 13th functioned under the same moral code as Halloween but was far more overt, both in its message and its gore. While Michael Myers’ reasons for slaughtering teens remained terrifyingly unanswered, Pamela Voorhees, the killer in Cunningham’s picture, has a clear motive and back story to justify her murderous moral code: drunk teens having sex were responsible for the death of her son.
Cunningham insists that the film is not a morality tale, but instead a fairytale. “As children we get fairytales, and the purpose of fairytales… is to take a child’s fears and put them in the safety of a story.” says Cunningham.1 While the film was originally intended as a sort of stress release for a teenager’s fear of untimely death, Friday the 13th is insistent on presenting Voorhees’s deranged motives for revenge as we watch her slowly off a group of dissolute teenagers. Playing the film as a revenge film against immoral teenagers makes the message difficult to miss and more understandable, or justifiable. However, the film is ultimately less effective than Halloween.
John Carpenter’s film is so terrifying and iconic because of the anonymity of the setting, protagonist, and killer. Halloween takes place in Haddonfield, Illinois, a town that is representative of a thousand just like it. “It’s every town, it’s every place, it could be your town…”.2 The universality of the location creates a fear that is disturbingly close to home. Laurie Strode and Michael’s other victims are also strikingly anonymous. The idea of the babysitter is where the film becomes incredibly identifiable to a young audience. Everyone has had a babysitting job or is friends with a babysitter, which is what makes the basic premise of the movie scary. The entire movie was pitched to its executive producer, Moustapha Akkad, as “the babysitter to be killed by the boogeyman”.2 But what makes Halloween so terrifying is the boogeyman: Michael Myers.
Michael Myers is what makes Halloween work, and what makes Michael Myers work is his simplicity. Unlike Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Michael has no real motive. In Carpenter’s original script he is referred to simply as The Shape, not a man, but a force. The flatness of his character is incredibly effective in stripping the message down to its essentials. Sex equals death. Drugs and alcohol equal death. Immorality of any kind equals death. Any motive would dilute that potency.
And, after the original 1978 masterpiece, the Halloween series has lost it’s potency, primarily due to decision Carpenter made while writing the sequel that he blames on “a late night and too much alcohol”: He made Laurie Strode Michael Myers’s sister.2 Laurie is the object of Michael’s obsession and suddenly the rest of humanity is safe. The original was frightening because of the idea that it could happen to you, there was no reason for Michael choosing these kids and that was scary. Now, there is a motive: to kill the sister. The number of people with estranged psychopathic brothers is a lot smaller than the entire teenage population; the universality of the terror is gone.
The Friday the 13th sequels, on the other hand, retain some of that potency and build upon it with the character of Jason. Jason, a deformed child who saw his mother murdered by one of the young camp counselors at the end of the first film, has vowed revenge on every drinking, drug-doing, sex having, teenager he can find. The child-like simplicity with which Jason views humanity makes him dangerous. Teenagers killed his mother, so they all should pay for it. Suddenly, terror is universal again. The problem with the series is that the terror becomes derivative and laughable over the ten sequels, making them more fun than frightening.
For the past three decades, dozens if not hundreds of killers have stalked the silver screen, tearing a bloody hole into the culture of American youth. While few are as terrifying as the man who, in 1978, changed the face of horror, all of them have come baring the same message: If you do bad things, I will do something worse to you. This is what makes them fairytales, they are fun little stories that remind us to be good. And as long as kids enjoy being bad, they will keep filling the seats.
1. The Friday the 13th Chronicles. Dir. Donald R. Beck. Paramount Pictures, 2004.
2. Halloween: 25 Years of Terror. Dir. Stefan Hutchinson. Paranormal Films, 2006.
1. Photo from Chris (Picasa)
2. Photo from Double Feature Podcast (Flickr)
3. Photo from Darren (Flickr)