John Carpenter's 'Halloween': A Portrait of Late-70s Suburbia
John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween is widley regarded as one of the best horror movies of all time. The film’s score, aesthetic, and villain are a part of the iconography of the horror genre. Carpenter’s talent for taking a simple premise and drawing out a satisfyingly horrific execution is nearly unparalleled. However, Halloween is far more than a great horror movie; it’s one of the best examples of a film portraying the experience of a generation.
Halloween operates as a conduit for the feelings of the American teenager in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate and in the midst of the late-70s recession. It’s no doubt that teenagers felt betrayed on several fronts, by their government, their communities, and even their parents. The government and a much older generation weaponized young adults and teenagers in order to fight a war that so many wanted no part in. Carpenter uses these feelings of betrayal and abandonment to turn a once-idyllic landscape of the flourishing American dream – suburbia – into a living hell.
Halfway through the film, the town Sheriff speaks with Loomis, Michael Myers child psychologist, delivering one of the most disturbing and ominous lines of dialogue in the film:
“You want to know what Haddonfield is? Children. Families, all lined up in rows up and down these streets. You’re telling me they’re lined up for a slaughterhouse.”
Loomis replies with simply: “They could be.”
This exchange happens shortly before Myers begins his attack on the teenagers in Haddonfield. The Sheriff perfectly articulates suburbia as a row of sitting ducks. Part of what makes the suburbs so terrifying, particularly how they’re depicted in Halloween, is how empty they are. Carpenter emphasizes the feelings of teenage abandonment by removing all the adults from view.
The only adults the audience sees are Laurie’s dad, Loomis, and the Sheriff. Laurie’s father is on screen for mere seconds, during which he drops his responsibilities onto Laurie’s job. Loomis is portrayed as an imbecile who bears the responsibility for Myer’s escape. Meanwhile the Sheriff, meant to represent law and order, refuses to believe Loomis and take Michael Myers as a serious threat. With the absence of parental figures, Halloween spends the majority of its runtime focused on the teenagers and children of the suburbs, rather than the adults who brought them there.
John Carpenter’s greatest achievement in Halloween is how effectively he turns the suburbs, a space meant to be the American ideal, into a terrifying hellscape. He does this in two ways. First, by lingering. Second, by taking familiar spaces and turning them against us.
Most of the shots in Halloween are long takes. In the first act of the movie, these are typically of streets full of trees, houses, sidewalks, cars, etc. Carpenter lets the camera linger as the audience watches Laurie walks to school. When Myers enters the frame, he lets these long takes increase the tension. The long breaks between cuts allows Carpenter to build suspense and increase the tension, until Carpenter breaks the mold he built by introducing a new element to the shot. Usually, it’s Myer’s silhouette.
In the second and third acts, the film turns to the interiors of the suburbs, occupying the homes of the characters. Carpenter’s camera lingers in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms thereby giving audience the chance to acclimate to them and see them as their own. This way, when Myers finally invades these spaces, the terror hits closer to home. By encouraging the audience to feel at home in these spaces and identify with them, Carpenter is ensuring that the horror of the violence will resonate stronger.
In other words, Carpenter is taking the familiar and making it entirely unfamiliar; turning a bed into a grave, hanging bodies in closets instead of clothes. He turns the normal abnormal. By the end of the film, after the bloodshed, Carpenter takes the audiences back to these spaces. This time, instead of recalling our own homes, we remember the atrocities that Myers committed.
Myers status as a stranger, an everyman, or blank canvas is central to how the film creates fear. In the first act of the film, Myers walked and drives through the community like any other neighbor. Lynda even mistakes him for a fellow classmate. Loomis doesn’t notice when he drives behind him. Carpenter works to make Myers as completely unidentifiable as possible. His mask could be anyone. In this way, Myers is a perfect villain: a mindless killing machine without motive that can take the form of whoever and whatever scares you most.
It’s not difficult to make the connection between Myers and the social and political machinations of the late 70s that works to create a generation of teenagers that lost trust in their country and communities. Myers is an unstoppable, uncontrollable force that inflicts violence on his victims, not unlike the government that led a generation of young Americans to war.
Carpenter uses Laurie as the representation of the ideal American teenager; academically minded, respectful of authority, and of course, virginal. She’s referred to as a Girl Scout several times. Whereas the other teenagers are seen smoking, drinking, and having sex, Laurie is portrayed as (mostly) pure. She does smoke weed in the car with her friend Annie, but Carpenter undercuts this behavior with elements of peer pressure and shows Laurie coughing to indicate this is not a regular activity for her.
Laurie’s characterization makes the violence she experiences at Myer’s hands more horrifying. Carpenter is keen on taking a character that reflects the best of her generation and turning her into the subject of violence. Consequently, she’s also the only one able to hurt Myers. Only once she unmasks him, an act that removes his anonymity, does Loomis shoot Myers.
In Halloween, Carpenter creates a villain intentionally devoid of characterization so that he may become violence incarnated. Myers attacks are intently focused on the teenagers in a community absent of parents and adult figures. The conflation of abject, senseless violence with the absence and betrayal of protection by adults is a poignant statement about the experience of so many during this period of American history.