In this 3-part series, Michael Crosby looks at how horror films of the 1970’s exploited the American cultural divide between rural, suburban and city neighbors.
This is an especially enjoyable installment to write because it touches on so many subjects near and dear to my heart.
Of them all, Halloween, despite its dark origins, is quintessentially an American holiday. Originating as the Druidic festival of Samhain, it represents the harvest, a time of year where the land is preparing for the dead of winter. The barrier between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and the dead may return to haunt the living, playing jokes, wearing costumes, and generally enjoying scaring the living bejesus out of us.
Prime-time for the Boogeyman.
John Carpenter’s seminal film Halloween (1978) capitalized on previous genre tropes while introducing many of its own. Until The Blair Witch Project (1999), Halloween was the most successful independently made film of all-time, grossing upwards of $50 million on a shoestring budget of $320,000. One of the last horror films to be promoted regionally without the benefit of a national marketing campaign and major studio release, it succeeded strictly by word of mouth, low-budget radio TV ads, and critic reviews. Initial reviews were negative, until famed Chicago-Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave it a glowing endorsement, allowing others to reevaluate the film’s standing.
And reevaluate it they did.
Halloween remains, to this very day, a high point of not only the horror genre but filmmaking itself. The combination of title, credits, actors, music, cinematography, themes, atmosphere, ingenuity and sheer talent combined for a perfect storm that resonated well beyond theater screens in 1978 to include 40 years of filmmaking. Few films have achieved this. Some would argue, none.
I grew up in the New England equivalent of Haddonfield, Illinois. Winchester, Massachusetts was quite literally the picture-perfect small town. I saw Halloween at a drive-in when I was only 6 years old (ironically, the same age Myers was when he killed his sister). I was an “oops” baby, meaning my mother was 39 when I was conceived, and I already had an older brother and sister in their teens when I was born. This resulted in a lot of shenanigans, including the aforementioned screening. My teenage sister was busy making out with her boyfriend in the front seat while I sat in the back, absolutely mesmerized.
What fascinated me so much was the combination of the film’s music, atmosphere, and cinematography coupled with the location. Haddonfield was the All-American Suburb, and I could relate to that. I grew up in a bedroom town that was inhabited by many of Boston’s movers and shakers. Not only doctors, lawyers, and professionals, I grew up down the street from the Bruins’ Cam Neely, played garage basketball with friends at Celtics’ star Danny Ainge’s house. It was magic.
But not nearly as magic or as terrifying as Halloween.
The magic of the film is predicated on a multitude of notions. It’s the ultimate meeting of the classic horror film, containing classic monster archetypes like the thing that would not die, the zombie, vampire, and so on, with what I call Modern Horror, the boy next door, the innocence, the reality of films like Psycho (1960), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Last House On The Left (1972). The film truly marked a watershed moment in the history of genre cinema and stands today as an ultimate example of what truly scares us.
Halloween takes place, not in a foreign country or castle setting, but in the suburbs, a place so familiar to us that it may as well be our own backyard. Michael Myers kills, is locked up, escapes, and kills again in our own heartland, in the places we have taken granted for being safe. The tropes that Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill explore here are hauntingly familiar, simple, exquisite, and remain relevant to this very day.
At its core, Halloween is a suburban legend, a tale that any child growing up in a small town will recognize. There is a Bad Thing that happens (Michael killing his sister). It happens on a Bad Night (Halloween). It happens in a Bad Place (the Myers house). Ultimately, the scenario is replayed for the next generation (Laurie, etc.) to much greater, and more gruesome, effect. Despite the warnings of a modern-day Van Helsing (Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis), we have apparently learned nothing about the nature of pure evil. Michael IS, what he IS, and nothing will stop that.
While basically a morality play (Michael’s Big Bad Wolf against Curtis’ Red Riding Hood), the film distinguishes itself from its brethren by exploiting the innocence of suburbia. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. The cities were scary to us suburbanites. The cities were where the crime was, where the bad stuff happened. In my Boston suburb, we were terrified of the Combat Zone, the area near Downtown Crossing and Washington Street where the majority of drugs, prostitution and porno theaters existed. Not our small town. Not US.
It’s become a familiar trope to point out that it’s really the cities that are alienating, that only in the cities can you be surrounded by thousands of people yet really be all alone. Halloween shattered that stereotype. It presented The Shape as an evil force that was out to destroy everyone, particularly the neophytes in Haddonfield who had no idea of how to combat him, much less acknowledge his evil or the doom it spelled for them.
The key to this is the scene near the end of the film. Laurie has briefly escaped The Shape, and is screaming and begging for someone, anyone to help her. She knocks on a door crying, only to be met with indifference and ignorance. They see her, know she’s there, but the porch lights go dark and she is left alone.
We don’t really want to know. We don’t really want to see.
Laurie’s struggle is her own. And much like that of Sally’s in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we the audience can’t help.
You’re all alone.
About the Author
Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020. We miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.