The Shape of the Unknown: Under the Mask of Michael Myers
On the surface, the story of John Carpenter’s classic film Halloween (1978) seems deceptively simple: eight-year-old Michael Myers brutally kills his teenage sister with a kitchen knife, is locked up in a mental institution, but escapes fifteen years later to go on a murderous rampage on Halloween night. Despite spending most of his life institutionalized, with one of the franchise’s main characters being Michael’s doctor, the audience is given precious little insight into the mind of the killer. In fact, most of the mystique around the first Halloween is just how little we know about the man referred to in the script as “The Shape” and by other characters in the film as “The Boogeyman.” The mystery of Myers, why he kills, as well as his apparent superhuman strength and ability to withstand untold levels of punishment, has captivated audiences ever since.
Doctor Sam Loomis, Michael’s psychiatrist, serves as the audience’s main source of information on The Shape, but Loomis himself doesn’t seem to know much more than the viewers do. In fact, it seems that his obsession with finding out what makes Michael tick has driven Loomis a little insane as well. After fifteen years of study, Loomis’ hypothesis, unscientific as it is, is that Michael is “purely and simply evil.” Loomis doesn’t even see Michael as human, often referring to Michael as “It” several times in the film and straight-up tells another character that Michael “isn’t a man.” At the end of the film, Michael is stabbed, shot six times, and falls off of a second-story balcony but then seemingly just gets up and walks away. Though Loomis is at first surprised by this new development, his facial expression quickly changes to one of validation, as if his suspicions on Myers’ otherworldly nature were finally proven.
Inevitably, there were more Halloween sequels, and bit by bit the fog of mystique around Myers’ lifted. In the second film, it was revealed that Michael was targeting Laurie Strode because she was unknowingly his younger sister. Later films attempted to explain Michael’s superhuman abilities as the result of a curse placed on him by the druid Cult of Thorn that compels him to kill every member of his family on Halloween as part of a ritual sacrifice, though this backstory was quickly ignored by later sequels. Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake gave Michael a more complete backstory, showing that a toxic home life and bullying turned Michael into a monster. In this version, Michael escapes the institution to find Laurie (still his long-lost sister) in order to reconnect, only to turn violent when she rejects him.
The recent Halloween franchise, starting with David Gordon Green’s Halloween in 2018, ignores every previous film but the first one. Michael and Laurie are no longer siblings, and these new films posit that Michael’s goal is to simply get back to his childhood home, and he’ll murder anyone who gets in his way.
Though the first Halloween is considered a classic, the sequels, remakes, and reboots have struggled to carry on the story of Michael Myers because inevitably the question of “why is he doing this?” comes up. John Carpenter admitted that he wasn’t sure how to continue Michael’s story in a second film and only came up with the sister angle after “several six-packs of Budweiser.” Wisely, Carpenter tried to steer the Halloween franchise past Michael Myers with the third film, but after Halloween III: Season of the Witch was released to a poor reception from critics and audiences in 1982 (the film is now considered one of the best of the Halloween sequels), The Shape returned in 1988’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. It seems that audiences couldn’t get enough of Michael Myers, and perhaps, like Loomis himself, most of that allure comes from wanting to know more about this mysterious masked killer. Of course, the more you know about something the less scary it becomes because the fear of the unknown is one of the most primal human urges.
Part of the terror that comes from the first film is that on the surface Michael seems like a motiveless killer, but it’s clear that he’s operating with some sort of internal logic that the audience isn’t privy to. Every killer has their reason why they murder or why they pick their victims, and Myers clearly has his, but he isn’t talking and could pick his next victim for reasons as innocuous as insulting his driving or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Attempts to explain or humanize Michael miss the point that he willingly left his humanity at the door when he was 8 years old and stepped inside his house to kill his sister. The reason that Michael seemingly cannot die may just be that there’s nothing left to kill — he’s just a shell of something that was once a man, hence why he is referred to as “The Shape.” His mask, a blank expressionless visage, is nothing more than a surface-level attempt to blend in with his prey.
Halloween (1978) ends on the lingering question “Was that the Boogeyman?” moments after Loomis shoots Myers, to which the good doctor doesn’t even hesitate to answer in the affirmative. The Boogeyman is a thing, a shadow lurking in the closets or under the beds of children all across the world, but when the light goes on, more often than not, the Boogeyman was just an old coat or pile of clothes. To Loomis, Myers is the Boogeyman because he was never able to shine a light on him and discover what he really is, and to Laurie, Myers was the Boogeyman that struck from the darkness without reason. It’s our imaginations that create the Boogeymen that haunt our nightmares, and this is personified in Michael Myers. Audiences can project their deepest, darkest fears onto the white mask of Michael Myers because, much like the Boogeyman of legend, Myers draws his power from fear.
Ripping the mask off of Michael inevitably leads to disappointment because the answers that lie underneath it are never as scary as the ones viewers have already concocted in their heads. To some Myers may be a child of a broken home, to others he could be a man cursed by a secret cult, a child trapped in a man’s body trying to get home, or just purely and simply evil. The mystery of Myers though is what gives him his allure and is why every Halloween sequel has struggled to follow up on those final moments of the first film where the Boogeyman disappears but is still heard breathing, ever-present in the shadows, waiting… 🩸
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.
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