HALLOWEEN: A Reflection of Holiday Perfection

By Michael Varrati

“I just show up and do what I do. And for me it has to be real — anything I do, I don’t care what it is. On Halloween, I can remember, John Carpenter’s first and only real direction to me was, ‘I want people to believe this is a real person.’ All I care about is trying to make anything real — and then because I’m brave I’ll try anything.”

-Jamie Lee Curtis

It’s the Tuesday before Halloween. Perched on the balcony of my apartment, I’ve got a warm cup of coffee in hand and a less than expertly carved Jack-O-Lantern in the chair to my right. There’s an autumn chill, but I really don’t notice. I’ve been too busy musing over the upcoming holiday.

For horror fans the world over, Halloween is something sacred and celebratory. It’s the time when we’re not the minority, but the ruling class. The order of things may return to the squares on November 1st, but for one night, the freaks and beasts run the show. That such mirth also happens to occur amidst the wonderfully atmospheric scenery of fall is just the icing on the cake.However, being one of the “scary movie” types who celebrate fright 365 days a year, there’s a certain level of responsibility that also occurs during the Halloween season. As many of my fellow horror aficionados will attest, the very people who decry our profession 11 months out of the year, citing it as “weird” or “strange,” tend to come out of the woodwork in October to get a recommendation for something “scary to watch.”

Now, it would be easy to tell every soccer mom or jersey clad meathead to get lost when they are looking for help, but I really think of it as a civic duty to give these people a quality Halloween. Besides, if they liked our stuff all year long, it’d be less appealing.

For one month, however, it’s nice to know that everyone wants to celebrate that which chills us.

The hard part, however, is being succinct for the horror novices who are seeking advice. Naturally, I’d love to give them a laundry list of flicks to watch, but usually when they come to me looking for a recommendation, they want one movie that perfectly encapsulates the Halloween spirit.

Picking one movie for a whole season is not an easy task, but when all is said and done, the choice is pretty clear. It may seem cliché and it may seem expected, but when it comes down to it, there is no other flick that suits October 31st better than John Carpenter’s Halloween.

I don’t really feel like I have to justify this assertion. The 1978 film has been hugely celebrated by genre and non-genre fans alike, and its place in the zeitgeist is firmly fixed. As such, I spent a lot of time musing over what I could contribute to the already well-storied dialogue about the film. Because of its venerated position in cinema history, there’s very little I could possibly say about Halloween that hasn’t been said before.

However, when I wandered across the above quote from the film’s most prestigious star, I realized that the one thing people rarely discuss about Halloween is its sense of realism. Now, I realize that Ms. Curtis was discussing her acting style, and not the content of the film, but in commenting on the sense of truth she sought to bring to the role, it made me understand why Halloween was so damned effective.

In 1978, the slasher film was relatively a non-existent subgenre. There were proto-slashers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which drew reference from European giallos, but nothing quite to the extent of what would come in the next decade. So when John Carpenter unleashed Michael Myers on the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, the masked villain’s silent menace was something shocking and new to audiences.

The film delivered a convincingly realistic portrayal of suburban life: Unrequited crushes, teens looking to get rowdy on Halloween, even the odd babysitting job to make a little extra cash. Were it not for the faceless menace amongst them, the lives lived by the characters in Halloween could be considered remarkably similar to our own. That Carpenter and his production partner, Debra Hill, took the time to craft such a convincing portrait of Americana before letting Myers run rampant is truly the film’s feather in the cap. Whereas most horror flicks don’t allow us time to know the characters before the mayhem begins, we get to spend time with Laurie Strode. We see her swoon over Ben Tramer, and we begin to recognize she’s quite a bit like us.

Furthermore, the original film’s lack of explanation of what motivates Myers to kill adds to the film’s terror. Admittedly, the sequels attempt to define in many divergent ways the root of Michael Myers’ evil, but in 1978, he was just a white-masked villain hiding in the bushes. We didn’t know what made him do what he did, and that’s what made him so horrifying. That a monster of this caliber could just arrive and kill without explanation or discrimination rips the safety blanket off of the audience. If it could happen in Laurie’s neighborhood, couldn’t it happen in ours?

This lurking fear is truly what makes Halloween the perfect film for the holiday. That the movie is actually set on October 31st is just an added bonus. The notion that there is something hiding in the shadows, always out of reach and always one step ahead is terrifying. Beyond this, the knowledge that the bogeyman can walk amongst us in broad daylight as we cavort with our own masks in celebration should be enough to make even the most unshakeable take pause. Michael Myers isn’t scary because it’s Halloween, but rather Halloween is scary because we’ve made it easier for Michael Myers to exist.

Halloween is elegant in its sheer simplicity. The aforementioned sequels tend to muddle an already flawless formula, though that is not to say they didn’t have something to add to the trick-or-treat bag. Halloween II’s continuation of the original’s night of terror is a generally flawless murder romp, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is a beautifully shot ode to the original. Furthermore, Danielle Harris, at a mere 11 years old, is the perfect successor to the franchise. Like Jamie Lee Curtis before her, she shows fragility that we can see as a reflection of ourselves. Even the much maligned Halloween III: Season of the Witch gives a little bit of freshness to the holiday (and who doesn’t get that damned Silver Shamrock jingle stuck in their head), but all these moments still are secondary to the night he came home.

No sequel, no remake, and no reiteration can ever truly compare to what John Carpenter carved up for us in Halloween of 1978. There are plenty of movies set on this most spooky of holidays, and true, many are iconic in their own ways. Michael Dougherty’s 2007 masterpiece Trick ‘r Treat is admittedly a worthy successor to Carpenter’s throne. Yet, like all holidays, Halloween is a little bit about tradition. Indeed, that’s what Trick ‘r Treat’s little villain, Sam, is most ardent about: Maintaining the spirit of Samhain. That’s why Carpenter’s Halloween will always be the first film I recommend when asked what one should watch for the holiday. Perhaps it’s a little dated compared to what has come since, but hell, it’s tradition. Michael Myers is part of our very fabric of fear.

So yes, it may be cliché. It may be expected.

But, it should be.

Halloween comes but once a year, and so too does the bogeyman.

This October 31st, I’ll see you in Haddonfield, and if you’re one of the lucky ones…

…I’ll see you on November 1st.

Happy Halloween.

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