John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) introduced one of the most famous images of evil in our pop culture, Michael Meyers, a child murderer who must return as the relentless adult suburb of America. Unfortunately, when the film became a franchise and American imagination seized the knife-wielding masked killer, the meaning of Halloween was completely lost. But the confrontation between evil and clueless teenagers abandoned by adults is timely, so I offer some reflections.
Halloween is a story about the American suburb where teenagers drop out of high school without knowing what to do with their lives – and worse, with no clue about the purposes of life. Our freedom and love for change confuse our children, who see the future as a black wall. Halloween shows the liberation from sex, drugs and parties as a democratic consequence of this ignorance; We also hear of teenagers stealing tombstones and minor thefts. The only student who knows what she wants and works for it is the protagonist (Jaime Lee Curtis), who survives the ordeal.
Meanwhile, we hear from the adults that there is no evil in Haddonfield, a perfect suburban development where precise geometry meets domestic tranquility. When evil entered the body of a boy who murdered his sister fifteen years prior to the events of the film, he was exiled to an asylum. But the supreme power of modern liberalism, therapy using the police force of the state, cannot repair or even contain evil. Bourgeois America will then have to face without institutional protection.
The idea of evil
Carpenter knows that Americans share an unproven fascination with evil – house to house, TV to TV, the same horror films that are played on Halloween. But of course we are spellbound from an evil that is castrated by quotes of fear. Carpenter dramatizes this cultural problem: middle-class adults who don’t believe in nature couldn’t imagine a really bad child. Trusting in the benevolence of the sanitary suburbs, they leave their own children alone to face the evil of the adults.
Horror fans have long joked that sexual promiscuity in slasher films is punishable by death. But Carpenter wanted instead to show that when adults become fanatics of respectability they deny that there is darkness in their children’s hearts. This makes the children irresponsible. You find suburban comfort suffocating, boring and thinking of escaping. They turn to the imagination and give in to their desires instead of learning what to do with their life.
However, it’s not clear why Carpenter should punish teenagers’ ignorance with death. This baffles critics in particular who dislike the intense moralism of horror – anger at seemingly innocent or pointless protagonists and their communities. Why not accuse parents who believe they have conquered evil or at least banished it? Aren’t they all the more deserving when they prove unable to face it or to protect their children? Ordinary life can blindly lead people into hubris and thus into disaster.
In America, however, the young must take responsibility for themselves. Carpenter therefore adopts the attitude of the boys who are exposed to extreme cowardice and recklessness. Stupid, arrogant, overprotective adults failed to prepare children, including our protagonist, for the real world, which includes evil. But Carpenter’s real attack on progressive piety goes beyond social criticism into psychology. He suggests facing evil to grow up. That’s what our heroine does. She learns that she cannot rely on her stoner friends or absent adults. Instead, by becoming a mother and saving the lives of her children, she becomes a strong woman.
Carpenter shows his seriousness about evil by demonstrating how Halloween is a joke in America. We laugh at images of evil and make them sexy. Hollywood-style capitalism blinds people to evil, so Carpenter makes evil real by bringing horror to our homes rather than exotic locations. Old horror films don’t scare people – so Carpenter tries again to remind people: we either learn to live with the knowledge of evil or we keep returning to the insane asylum where we see Dr. Play Jekyll and create Mr. Hyde. More therapy, more monsters.
Masculinity and size
Halloween was an attempt to warn America that if we tried to achieve too much order, too much peaceful prosperity, utopia indeed, we would create new evil. Children would end up irresponsible and defenseless in the face of life’s difficulties as they were never prepared by adversity. They would whine or do fleeting things to protest their helplessness. And some would become murderers. You can see her on the news if you don’t believe Carpenter.
Horror is moralistic storytelling that defies our imperatives to have a happy ending. Instead, those protagonists who face evil, become masculine, protect the innocent and are ready to use violence survive.
Carpenter’s most shocking idea is to teach children about guns. He has Jamie Lee Curtis imitate the killer’s technique of breaking and trampling, and then his knife technique too. She must first overcome her fear and then let her anger guide her – she learns from evil how to defeat it. This strange lesson is particularly undesirable for liberals who want to ban violence from the world, although they may occasionally welcome it. But it is the core of American conservatism that tells us to take care of ourselves, be responsible, deal well with fear, and have more disdain for hysteria than conflict.
Horror is moralistic storytelling that defies our imperatives to have a happy ending or to make liberals happy by sending a message about the evils of prejudice. Instead, those protagonists who face evil, become masculine, protect the innocent and are ready to use violence survive. Carpenter made Halloween an alternative education for young Americans and took their experiences seriously, starting with their confusion and desire to escape the control of adults who appear to be deceived because they too are children.
Other directors also saw the problem of a Hollywood bewitching suburb and reacted with horror. Think Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), another story about teenagers wasting their lives in fantasies, facing evil they cannot understand, and being ignored by adults who are too respectable to take children’s experience seriously. But the culture was centered around cool pictures, franchise money, and joking about killers like Freddy Kruger. Instead of confronting our fears, we have gotten into the habit of laughing at them, because after all, horror, too, is just a picture on a screen that is easy to parody.
Carpenter, Craven, and others like them instead gave us ordinary heroines who would fit into our ordinary lives – smart young women who study hard, grow up, and try to create a future for themselves. This is very decent, if sentimental, but it doesn’t fit the horror and it is no accident that they are not unforgettable – they are too similar to us, they lack size. Evil, at least, is impressive and reminds us of the sacred – if only through crime.