P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

The Good, the Bad, and Halloween:
A Sociocultural Analysis of John Carpenter's Slasher

Jody Pennington

In this paper, I examine the representation of the ultimate bad guy, the homicidal Michael Myers (Will Sandin, age 6; Tony Moran and Nick Castle, age 21), in John Carpenter's slasher Halloween (1978).[1] More specifically, I provide a sociocultural analysis of the role of first person point of view and the narrative's motivation for Michael's murderous behavior.[2] Finally, I discuss the role of ignorance on the part of the "good guys" in the narration's distribution of knowledge. Halloween's good guys include Michael's clinical psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), and the main character, a teen-aged babysitter named Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) along with her best friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P. J. Soles).

A sociocultural analysis examines the relationship between the diegetic world of the film and the social and cultural world being represented. A sociocultural analysis draws on history, sociology, psychology, and other social sciences but does not presume film characters behave strictly the same as human beings in everyday life. Working with a neoformalist model of film narrative, this approach recognizes that film characters have narrative motivations. At the same time, drawing on the disciplines noted above, it seeks to understand the social and cultural models of behavior that characters emulate.

The bad guy and point of view
John Carpenter's low-budget success Halloween (1978) begins on Halloween night in the small Illinois town Haddonfield in 1963. From a mobile first-person point of view shot created by cinematographer Dean Cundey's moving Panaglide camera, the petting escapades of Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) and her boyfriend (David Kyle) are seen by lurking eyes peering through a window. After an upstairs bedroom window goes dark, the unknown voyeur moves into the house, a hand seen reaching out and taking a large knife from a kitchen drawer. Pausing as the boyfriend leaves, the voyeur continues upstairs, putting on a Halloween mask, and entering Judith's room. She is seen topless in her underwear brushing her hair, the shot matted to indicate the mask, a perspective enhanced by the sound of breathing, an audio motif that recurs throughout the film. With a pan, the camera shifts the voyeur's gaze to the tell-tale signs of rumpled sheets on Judith's bed then back to Judith. She exclaims, "Michael," her voice providing an additional clue that she knows the voyeur: she does not sound frightened, only annoyed at an invasion of her privacy and minor offense to her modesty before he begins stabbing her with the knife.

We soon learn the voyeur-turned-slasher is Judith's six-year old brother, Michael, who had remained unseen during the opening mobile point of view shot. Revealing Michael's identity would have shattered the suspense since the perspective would no longer have seemed intrusive or dangerous. He could have been simply returning home from trick or treating, which his clown's costume implies.

The opening sequence, which ends with a crane shot lifting away from Michael as his parents discover him in the front yard, establishes a pattern in the film. When Michael stalks, there will either be more-or-less subjective point of view shots either from his perspective or from a series of deep focus shots that foreground Michael, in either the left or right corner of the frame, with Laurie or another potential victim positioned in the background, blithely unaware of being pursued.

Psychopathology and evil
From a neoformalist perspective, a narrative provides clues about a character's behavior. Within the diegetic world, these clues range from ascriptions offered by other characters to inner monologue audible on the soundtrack and connotative image composition that uses depth of field and positioning, lighting, or symbolism to imply a character's cognitive or emotional processes. Halloween's initial explanation for Michael's badness is mental illness, which enables Halloween to exploit a not uncommon belief that the mentally ill are dangerous. [3] The field of psychiatry would diagnose Michael's behavior as the result of psychopathology. The narrative cues this inference by Michael's being institutionalized in Smith's Grove Sanitarium for fifteen years, during which he does not speak, until he escapes the night before Halloween in 1978. It is reinforced by having the good guy, Dr. Loomis, who tries to stop Michael and who is the only character who understands what Michael is likely to do upon returning to his home town, be a psychiatrist.

The opening scene combines different factors to imply young Michael's psychopathology: he stabs Judith, he spies on her, he dons the mask prior to stabbing Judith, he watches his hand thrust the knife, and he stares blankly when his father removes his mask. While the stabbing is necessary to establish the child's violent psychopathology, it is not sufficient. Taken as a whole, these cues provide good reason to believe that what is being represented is the "early onset of extremely aggressive behaviour that is not tempered by any sense of guilt or empathy with the victim," a hallmark of psychopathology. [4] Michael's disregard for his sister's obvious distress marks his behavior as psychopathic as well.

Typical of a low-budget film, though, the precise nature of Michael's mental illness is not a major narrative concern. Rather than offer a developed psychiatric explanation of Michael's mental illness or his behavior, the narrative suggests it is inexplicable. The narrative offers no clues as to the etiology of Michael's mental illness or of his sudden urge to kill his sister. Indeed, it goes even further, though, and suggests that psychopathology, although present, is insufficient to explain Michael's rampage. An alternative, offered by Michael's psychiatrist, is that Michael is not just bad; he is evil.

When Michael escapes from the sanitarium before Dr. Loomis's eyes, the frustrated doctor exclaims, "The evil is gone from here!" Much of Dr. Loomis's expository dialogue fills in Michael's backstory between the two fateful Halloweens. The doctor's inferences and his attitude (a mixture of fear, anger, and disgust) indicate he has abandoned any pretense to genetic, cognitive, or neurological explanations for his patient's actions. While in the Myers house, Sheriff Bracket (Charles Cyphers) remarks that the jumpy Loomis is "just plain scared," to which the doctor readily admits. He tells the sheriff why by recounting his experiences as Michael's doctor:

I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left, no reason, no conscience, no understanding, in even the most rudimentary sense, of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil.

The momentousness of what Loomis is saying is underscored on the soundtrack by Carpenter's haunting musical theme. A few moments later the men go upstairs and discover a dead dog (off screen) that appears to have been partially eaten. Dr. Loomis assures Bracket, whose daughter Annie will become one of Michael's victims, that this was the macabre work of his patient, who he insists "isn't a man."

The ignorance of the good guys
A staple of the slasher concerns the capacity of other characters to be aware of and recognize the inhuman evilness of the bad guy. Typically though, neither awareness nor recognition is readily forthcoming. The narration of Halloween keeps the good guys, with the exception of Dr. Loomis, ignorant of Michael's existence and, thereby, the threat he poses. For his part, Dr. Loomis remains ignorant of where Michael is. Both forms of ignorance are staples of the genre.

Sometimes the bad guy is recognizably bad, while at other times, the bad guy, being a psychopath, is able to hide behind a "mask of sanity," as in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, Jim Gillespie) or Wolf Creek (2004, Greg McLean). In Halloween, Michael does not hide behind a mask of sanity but rather a white mask, an inverted and spray-painted William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask, that evokes his first murder and makes him look deathly pale and menacing. John Carpenter told an interviewer that the idea of a mask resonated both with the film's title and with his memories of reading Cleckley's classic account of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity.[5] In Halloween, the characters who sight the masked bad guy are simply not sure about what they are seeing (and it being Halloween do not become too alarmed). Laurie is unsure whether she has actually seen anyone at all while the eight-year old boy she baby sits, Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), simply believes he has seen a creature of mythical proportions, the "boogey man" older kids at school taunted him with earlier.

Now she sees him...
Now she doesn't: Fear and ignorance are interwoven in the narrative of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

Usually in the slasher, ignorance of lurking danger diminishes a character's chances for survival. The lack of awareness about one's surroundings is frequently worsened by the characters' being often blinded to danger by sexual desire. The first of the good guys to be killed is Annie, who Michael had watched undress to wash her clothes. Moments later, Michael strangles her from the back seat of her mother's car as she is leaving to get her boyfriend. Shortly thereafter, beer-drinking Lynda and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham), arrive at the Wallace's, go inside, and, finding Annie and the girl she is babysitting, Lindsey (Kyle Richards), gone, and assume no one is there. They start kissing on the living room couch rather than investigate. The camera tracks back to reveal Michael's shoulder and arm: the house is not empty after all. The over-the-shoulder shot, used conventionally in shot/reverse shots to shift perspectives during dialogues, reinforces the notion of Michael's perspective while foregrounding the other characters' lack of awareness of his presence. Oblivious to Michael, they go upstairs and make love. The soundtrack music becomes discordant as Michael's shadow appears on the wall as he again watches.

Afterwards, Bob, still ignorant of Michael's presence, stands in the dark kitchen, calling out for Annie and her boyfriend when the backdoor creaks open. In slashers, characters enter dark houses or rooms at night but rarely bother to turn on the lights (Linda and Bob turn on two lamps). While the genre's use of this convention implies to viewers that the characters are in a menacing environment, it also indicates the lack of threats or danger the characters' associate with their homes and neighborhoods. Thus, characters' ignorance is in part motivated by their living in an environment in which they normally would not worry about psychopaths.

Michael then appears in the door to the Wallace's bedroom covered in a white sheet and wearing Bob's glasses. When the "ghost" remains mute uncomfortably long, Lynda calls Laurie on the telephone. Laurie answers just as Michael begins strangling Lynda with the cord. The murder scene blends the sexuality of the young woman's exposed breasts with the violent act of murder. The scene also cross-cuts between Michael and his victim and Laurie, who thinks it is Annie, playing a prank. Once again, a character's ignorance impedes knowledge of danger.

Laurie's ignorance is demolished when she discovers her friends' corpses. She escapes Michael and seeks sanctuary in the Doyles' house together with Tommy and Lindsey. She staves off Michael's attacks, stabbing him with a knitting needle. She appears to have triumphed, but her ignorance of his (apparent) invincibility leads her to leave the knife near Michael, prolonging her agony. She hides, the only means available to the victim to reverse the genre's knowledge differential about a character's location. Discovered, Laurie jabs Michael with a coat hanger, causing him to drop his knife. She stabs Michael with the knife, discarding it near him. He attacks her again, but Dr. Loomis arrives just in time and shoots him. Michael falls from the second story but vanishes, and the film ends with a montage of the spaces Michael haunted.

This analysis of Halloween indicates how a sociocultural perspective on the representation of bad guys and good guys unites both filmic and sociocultural aspects of representation, providing an alternative to psychodynamic interpretations of film narrative, as suggested by Stephen Prince. [6] Working with an analysis inspired by neoformalist work, a sociocultural approach presumes that film characters behave as they do primarily for filmic reasons governed by the narrative and style of the film. Characters are shaped by aesthetic concerns and through aesthetic means. A theory of narrative based on cognitive psychology-as suggested by David Bordwell in Making Meaning-posits that inferences that members of an audience make about character behavior are shaped not only by the expectations associated with the film's genre but also by schemata that audience members have about how human beings might behave in various contexts. [7]

It is unnecessary to posit the existence of a "collective nightmare," as Robin Wood has done, [8] to explain the knowledge of threats that members of a slasher film's audience share. Instead, the perception of a "bad guy" such as Michael as being evil can be explicated in terms of socially and culturally shared conceptions of psychopathology and murder that allow audience members to recognize their representation in Halloween as manifestations of evil. Instead of speculations about repressed desires and fears, this analysis suggests how an examination of sociocultural conceptions of mental illness (both onscreen and off) might inform the attitudes of filmmakers and audience members. As discussed above, Halloween employs filmic elements such as mise-en-scène, editing, cinematography, and sound as well as narration and the conventions of the slasher genre to cue the viewer to recognize the threat posed by the bad guy even as the good guys remain ignorant of that threat. The vicarious fears engendered by the threat of violence or the acts of violence felt by some audience members, a quality of the genre delineated by Carol J. Clover, [9] do not entail that the represented threat be experienced as a "collective nightmare" in any Freudian sense. A better understanding of the recognizable evil in Halloween bridges an investigation of bad behavior in a given society and culture with an analysis of the filmic elements that represent evil in Carpenter's low-budget classic.

1 Two actors played Michael at 21. Castle, credited as "The Shape," played Michael when masked, and Moran credited as Michael age 23, played Michael near the end of the film, when Laurie rips the mask off as he chokes her. Michael manages to put the mask on again before Dr. Loomis shoots him.

2 Critics often interpret the slasher as representing social anxiety in the United States over changes in sexual behavior brought on by a sexual revolution. The association is not hard to make given the way in which the sexuality of Michael's victims is framed. John Carpenter told at least one interviewer, though, that he disagreed with the critics who saw Laurie's sexual purity as the virtue that saved her (Todd McCarthy, "Trick or Treat," Film Comment 16, no. 1 (1980).).

3 Jo C. Phelan and Bruce G. Link, "Fear of People with Mental Illnesses: The Role of Personal and Impersonal Contact and Exposure to Threat or Harm," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 45, no. 1 (2004).

4 RJR Blair, "A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath," Cognition 57, no. 1 (1995). 2.

5 Quoted in Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002), 54.

6 Stephen Prince, "Dread, Taboo, and the Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film," in The Horror Film, ed. Stephen Prince (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

7 (David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Harvard Film Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

8 Robin Wood, "Return of the Repressed," Film Comment 14, no. 4 (1978). 26.

9 Clover has examined this and other aspects of the slasher genre succinctly in Carol J. Clover, "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," Representations, no. 20 (1987). and extensively in Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

Works cited

Blair, RJR. "A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath." Cognition 57, no. 1 (1995): 1-29.

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Harvard Film Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Cleckley, Hervey M. The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. St. Louis, MO: The C. V. Mosby Company, 1941.

Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." Representations, no. 20 (1987): 187-228.

---. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

McCarthy, Todd. "Trick or Treat." Film Comment 16, no. 1 (1980): 23-24.

Phelan, Jo C. , and Bruce G. Link. "Fear of People with Mental Illnesses: The Role of Personal and Impersonal Contact and Exposure to Threat or Harm." Journal of Health and Social Behavior 45, no. 1 (2004): 68-80.

Prince, Stephen. "Dread, Taboo, and the Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film." In The Horror Film, edited by Stephen Prince, 118-30. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002.

Wood, Robin. "Return of the Repressed." Film Comment 14, no. 4 (1978): 25-32.

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