Halloween (1978) is a pillar of the horror genre, the slasher flick that paved the ways for such predecessors as Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In many ways, Halloween is the blueprint for the quintessential slasher flick. Teenage promiscuity, inattentive authority figures, a “blank-slate” of a killer on the loose, bloodshed and gore, an ambiguously ominous ending…. It’s everything you could want in an 80’s slasher flicker. Though not well-received at the time of its release, Halloween has since gained cult status and a pervasive presence in pop culture. In many ways, Michael Myers, our antagonist, is an exploration of what Leatherface (1974) could have been. Attempts to replicate Michael Myers extend across mediums with varying degrees of success. (I.e somehow the Halloween sequels are the worst offenders????) There is something about the looming, stoic “shape” that Michael Myers occupies in the movie and in our imaginations that is profoundly unsettling even decades later. Is it the “pure evil” of him as Dr. Loomis would have us believe? Or, is it something more sinister? Something so normal and ubiquitous that it’s horror is ignored until dragged to the surface?
In Halloween (1978), Michael Myers is a menacing and silent figure, most often appearing in short bursts and in peripheral glimpses when he is on screen. The camera will pan for a length of time before settling on a shirt sleeve, the rest of the body out of frame. We see more of Michael’s perspective of the world than we see of his place within the world. Figuratively and visually, Michael Myers exists on the fringes of society, occupying empty spaces as if he himself is nothing more than a person-shaped vacancy/ blank himself. Though quite a physically imposing and otherwise arresting figure, Michael all but drifts through the everyday lives of his victims, rarely acknowledged. When a glimpse is caught of him by another character, it’s almost immediately dismissed because he shouldn’t be possible within the setting he is seen. He is able to walk across perfectly polished yards, through upper middle-class suburban homes, and even drive slowly by ranting former-psychiatrists without drawing so much as a glance. It is perhaps his most horrifying quality — his ability to blend into his surroundings. It should not be possible. We would notice somebody like that, a threat like him….right?
In many ways, Michael Myers represents what we fear most about dangers and monsters — that they could be anything or anyone and appear at any moment. They could be one of us. Walk among us. Michael’s blank, non-descript, standard Halloween mask also seems to be representative of how anyone of us could be masking who we truly are, masquerading in a person-suit, pretending to be human. (In Michael’a case and in a very literal sense, it of course helps that he commits his crimes predominantly on Halloween night where a Halloween mask wouldn’t be cause for suspicion.) There’s something inherently unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face and so to not be able to ascertain what they want. Nonverbal cues and facial expressions guide the majority of our interactions with others so withholding that form of communication leaves us uncertain. His very character design, though plain in comparison to many future slasher antagonists, is meant to be unsettling because it is so bland and un-notable. It allows this predator to hide.
There’s also another symbolic level to the mask I’d like to touch upon. I think Michael captures a lot of fears specifically related to serial killers, especially fears that we are growing to realize may actually have some founding to them. (This makes sense considering the time frame in which Halloween was released – the late 70’s. The late 70’s – the 80’s were the height of the “murder years” in the US. Dahmer, Gacy, Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas, The Golden State Killer… all of our monsters were active during this time.) Serial killers are not grotesque or deformed monsters though (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes might have had you believe). Often, there is nothing monstrous or very noteworthy about them other than their heinous crimes, which can be “masked” by their otherwise plain appearances. Think H.H. Holmes, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or *sigh* BTK (
fuck that guy). Fairly un-notable. They don’t look like monsters. They look like us. And, that’s horrifying. It’s horrifying that we might not be able to see the monsters coming.
I think Michael’s character embodies our fears about serial killers rather well. His “mask” is made fairly obvious for us but the lack of notice or reaction from the characters around him as he passes through their world seems to encapsulate that idea that serial killers (I.e monsters) could slide right past all our defenses. I mean, that scene in Halloween (1978) of Michael following the kid Laurie babysits from the other side of the fence (from his perspective) and bumping into the kid, placing a steadying hand on the child’s shoulder, is terrifying. This innocuous gesture is made menacing. I find it interesting how in Halloween 2018 (2018
duh) Michael specifically goes after his mask that the true crime “journalists” have in their possession almost as if he needs it before he can blend in again. He’s going out of his way to get it, makes it his first priority after escaping maximum security prison again, so it must be important. Of course, for viewers of the Halloween franchise, it’s his signature. But, in terms of Michael’s character, it would only make sense that he would go after this item if it was necessary for his primary goals: stalking, hunting, killing, causing general paranoia(???) and harm. If it doesn’t serve that mission in some essential way, it serves no purpose to him. I think the degree of sheer terror expressed by the podcasters upon encountering a Michael unmasked, just the sight of him, also supports the idea that his mask is not just of physical significance but carries metaphorical implications. It’s a very real representation of the masks that serial killers assume in order to walk among us. Otherwise, we’d run screaming from them. It’s a barrier not just between us and them but between them and the world.
Enough on masks though (for now). I’d really like to speak on what I believe the overall character of Michael represents. (A contentious issue, I know. Also, it’s an issue that the Halloween sequels have “muddied” rather than clarified. I really won’t be speaking about those or Satanic cults here — or ever if I can avoid it.) As much as Michael can be representative of our fears around real serial killers, there’s an undeniably supernatural element to Michael, as evidenced by his ability to survive just about every kind of grievous bodily harm and kind of fatality that befalls (ha-ha) him. He’s got that super hero resilience without any scrap of the moral character. Additionally, hiding in plain sight or not, Michael disappears into thin air at an alarmingly high rate. Even if I suspend my disbelief and I am willing to accept that Michael’s disappearing act on-screen is meant to emphasize how easily the monsters among us can be absorbed into our otherwise quotidian lives, Michael’s seeming invisibility is really beyond believing. Unless there is something “other” to this mysterious shape.
I’ve mulled over the idea of Michael Myers for a while now. In large part, I’d say that’s due to my love of true crime and how, barring some extreme abnormalities (noted here), Michael really captures the fear that many serial killers instill in us as well as he represents the blank slate that so many of these killers are when you begin to peel back the layers. There’s just….nothing there. There may be something inside their pasts that explains why they do what they do but nothing excuses who they are and why they exist. Why a psychopath happens. When you get down to the heart of it, some people are just empty side. For whatever reason. I think Michael portrays that and the horror of that well. It’s something I find to be very compelling about his character.
But, all that said, I’ve always felt that there’s more to Michael and what he could represent. I think there is something to be said about the supernatural qualities of Michael. It was while recently watching Ryan Hollinger’s “The Art of Halloween: Making Michael Myers Scary” (2017) in which he discusses Michael as a Reaper-esque character that I began to “see” this other side to the shape of Michael. Beyond our very real fears about serial killers, Michael can be seen as a representation of our fears of not just death but of dying a violent and meaningless death. He is very much this incarnate of violent death. Seeing him as an agent of violent death, as this manifestation of meaningless malice, adds a new dimension to what could be an otherwise 2D character for some viewers. If Michael is this Reaper-like character, it also explains why Michael is able to so easily pass through these neighborhoods undetected—he LIVES there. This kind of fear is one of the underlying reasons that suburbia and it’s sprawl exists. We gathered together in groups to thwart it, keep it from our children, and yet it is implicit in our everyday lives. It is a fear that follows our children, lives in our homes. In this way, Michael is the realization of our worst fears. He bursts our bubble of perceived safety and breaks all of the agreements we made with this primordial fear.
Seeing Michael as more of a Reaper also explains his seeming supernatural invincibility. I mean, how do you kill death? He’s also ruthless and relentless but never overly passionate about his kills (except for Laurie but I guess that’s explained in the franchise?? Personally, I like the idea that Michael chose her because she wasn’t afraid of the old Myers’ house which puts her at odds with him). Michael really acts like he’s an agent for something beyond himself. Is he just “pure evil” as Loomis incessantly suggests or is Michael unmoved for another reason? Similar to how the Joker is perhaps best understood as a manifestation of chaos, Michael may best be understood as a representation of our own fears around dying violently and pointlessly, his looming presence representative of that looming fear.
I don’t like much about Halloween II (1981) but there is a moment towards the end of the film, where Laurie calls out to Michael in the basement of the hospital that I feel speaks volumes. Michael has been relentlessly pursuing Laurie through this–oddly deserted– hospital after a failed attempt to get her earlier in the movie. Now, he is back to finish what he started. Michael ends of cornering Laurie in the hospital’s basement and she, desperately, calls out his name, “Michael” and it’s the only thing thus far that has stopped him in his tracks. Michael pauses and crooks his neck, as if confused by the use of his name in relation to himself. As if it hasn’t occurred to him for a while that he had a name. Now, much could be said about the power of names in traditional lore (specifically in regards to deities, demons, faeries, etc.) but I find it most interesting how this attempt at humanizing Michael only seems to alienate him more. It’s almost as if that name is nothing more than a mask itself, hiding something that is decidedly unsuited for the label of “Michael”. It’s one of the most chilling scenes to me in the franchise. There is so much conveyed in that crook of Michael’s head. So much to question. So much to fear. It’s always emphasized the otherness in Michael to me. Names are supposed to be humanizing. It’s why you don’t name a pig to slaughter. It’s also why so many of our greatest ideas, our gods, our concepts of the universe, etc. are difficult to capture in words — they are beyond us. In Halloween, rather than being a touchstone of self, Michael’s very name has become an obfuscation, something that doesn’t reveal what we might think it should nor capture what it insinuates. I’m ultimately left wondering who is this shape called Michael and what, if anything, fills this character?
Is he a man or a monster?
Anyway, I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel here. Much has been said about the catharsis of horror. How the genre allows us to experience a primordial fear we have long since forgotten in our gated cities on the hills. Michael Myers is often cited as an example of this capability of the genre. He is one of the quintessential figures we imagine when asked to conjure a monster. He embodies many our greatest fears, both real and supernatural. He is the Reaper, the killer, and the shape in our peripheral, always watching, waiting.
I hope you enjoyed that brief glimpse into my thoughts on Michael Myers. More, I hope I did the character justice. When it comes to Michael, I find much of my thinking to be jumbled. He represents so much in such a silent and self-contained character. He really is legion. It’s fascinating to consider his character–at least to me! Let me know if you have any ideas yourself! Love to hear ’em~