No other holiday with the exception of Christmas commands an entire film genre like Halloween. Over the years, All Hallow’s Eve has transcended its religious beginnings as a lamentation of the dearly departed to become a celebration of the demonic and demented. We spend all of October focusing on the scarier movies in our library and here at Stereo Champions we decided to focus on ‘the night he came home’, Halloween itself. From 1978 to 2007 there have been ten films dedicated to Michael Myers and his penchant for kitchen knife murder proving he’s as hard to kill on-screen as well as off. But before we can truly talk about Halloween, we need to look back at the bigger picture. To understand why Halloween is so important, one needs a general idea of the horror film genre as a whole. That being said-this is easier said than done. Before diving into the history of Michael Myers let’s examine the history of scary movies though, we’ll barely be able to cover it all. There are simply too many films and sub-genres to cover.
That’s because the horror genre is as old as filmmaking itself. The earliest horror film was directed by French filmmaker George Méliès. It was titled Le Manoir Du Diable which roughly translated means The Haunted Castle. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can even watch it here.
Most early horrors were gothic in execution and inspiration, and it’s interesting to see how far they’ve come. Take Frankenstein for example. Nowadays he is Franken-Berry, but before Franken-Berry was a cereal, he was a movie monster in a number of Frankenstein films. Before he terrorized the screen he was Mary Shelley’s literary creation back in 1818, a full ninety-two years before the J. Searle Dawley film adaptation in 1910. Books and movies of dread and terror have been around so long that theres a wealth of scary stories to mine. But the earliest horror movies were the next evolutions of gothic literature; think creepy castles and demonic creatures. The movies to capitalize most successfully were the Universal Monsters series from Universal Studios. From the 1920s to the 1950s, their monsters ran the horror scene with endless sequels. (Yes, while we complain about lack of originality and too many sequels today, this has been a tradition for decades.)
Vampires and werewolves and mummies may have run the show back then, but the 1960s and 1970s saw a new focus in horror. One of the most iconic films of all time, Psycho, introduced a much more down to earth villain in Norman Bates who scarier in a very different way. At the same time, there was a fascination with more religiously motivated demons and devils that were popularized by such films as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby. These films were part of the occult horror cycle which had it’s terrors based in more religious imagery. In an era of political and cultural revolution, these movies preyed on those who feared a greater power.
Jumping forward several decades we can observe some modern trends in horror filmmaking. Arguably the most popular current trend is the zombie craze, popularized by George Romero in his Living Dead films. Romero made his films in the 1960s and 70s, but the genre truly came into its own post 9/11 with 28 Days Later…, The Walking Dead, and more. There is also a healthy dose of horror comedy and satire. Shaun of the Dead is a satire of the zombie genre which declared itself a “romzomcom.” Other films in recent years are finding their stories in de-construction of the horror genre. The best example of this would be something like Cabin In The Woods or Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil.
The current horror trends that are most popular aside from zombies are the found footage genre and the torture porn crazy as seen in Paranormal Activity and Saw respectively. These genres can both tie some of their influences and tropes back to the 1970s and 1980s, back to the genre that inspired them: the slasher flick. (Though all horror is inspired by all other horror.)
Which brings us to Halloween, the first slasher film. Today the film might not be as scary, but Halloween is iconic. Every aspect of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece transcends the film itself and catapults it into the cinema history. Whether it’s the look of deranged killer Michael Myers, Carpenter’s score, or any other number of details, the movie has taken its place among other horror classics and Michael Myers holds his own as one of the most iconic screen villains-as well as being the godfather of many imitators. It may not pack the punch today as it did in the 1970s, but there truly is no way to understate how new this was at one point.
Like Norman Bates in Psycho, Halloween offered up something that hadn’t been done. Vampires and werewolves were fantastical but supernatural creatures. Occult horror was much more close to home, but still maintained a distance to viewers, especially those who could shrug off the religious fears those films preyed upon. Sure Regan in The Exorcist was unnerving, but the real monster was the very Christian based Devil possessing her. Halloween introduced audiences to a new human terror. Carpenter knew exactly what he was doing when designing Michael, saying
“To make Michael Myers frightening, I had him walk like a man, not a monster.”
At the outset, Michael Myers was very grounded and realistic (it is important to stress the words at the outset in that sentence). Sure he could take one hell of a beating, but it’s not a stretch to imagine a person surviving what he did (at the outset). Another simple reason the film is so effective is because of its location. Michael Myers didn’t haunt a massive castle or an 18th-century village. He hunted teenagers in a sleepy suburb.
In fact, I’d actually call Halloween Americana Horror as opposed to horror. These movies, and their successors, all feel very small and very local, which, of course, makes them more believable. Everything about that first Halloween night in 1978 is identifiable, almost mundane. That’s what Carpenter did so well. He put a menace in our backyards.
Halloween led to seven more sequels as well as a reboot series. But it’s influence didn’t stop there. Obviously without Michael there wouldn’t be the equally long-running horror slasher series Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. This led to the golden era of slasher films in the 80s with the big three dominating the scene; Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Vorhees who were all very adept at hunting down teenagers. Kids were seemingly being butchered mid-coitus in horror movies left and right, and while the sexual subtext has long been debated, one can’t help but look at the timeline of the real world AIDS epidemic as well.
Eventually horror evolved as it always does and Halloween, Elm Street, and Friday the 13th were left behind though all three still attempted to maintain relevance with reboots in the past ten years. The focus now seems to be on technophobia, found footage, global pandemic, and straightforward torture. While the world may have moved beyond Michael his influence cannot be understated, for better and worse.
First and foremost Halloween birthed a whole new genre of horror in the slasher flick, as well as standardizing some classic horror tropes. While the first Halloween film was moderately gore free (the violence was mostly implied), the subsequent films and the slasher genre came to be known for its biologically inaccurate amounts of blood splashing about the frame. Gore has always been part of horror, but the slasher films took it up a notch. Although film historians will point out the Giallo film movement, spearheaded by horror masters Dario Argento, Mario Bava, among others laid the framework for the American slasher as well as the gore which followed. Giallo films roughly translate to yellow, the color of the pulpy novels that inspired them which typically focused on a killer, who favored a sharp weapon, and who preyed upon beautiful women. Sound familiar?
Translated “Bay of Blood”
Halloween and subsequent slashers also helped popularize and overuse the jump scare. Jump scares in this day and age are often mistaken by lesser filmmakers for actual scares when in reality their liberal usage has become predictable. Jump scares alleviate tension, and without tension we have no fear. By the tenth jump scare you aren’t scared so much as surprised. And the legendary Alfred Hitchcock had an incredible quote about the difference.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspenseful situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case, we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
Hitchcock knew decades ago how to balance terror and audience tension, and while his films have a few jump scares, he was judicious about using them. As Halloween and other horror films went on, the jump scare is becoming a much-reviled tactic, often seen as cheap and easy (it is). Though we’ll come to see just how much John Carpenter Hitchcock’s lesson about tension to heart.
So there you have it: a very brief look at the types of horror movies that existed before Halloween. The takeaway is that Michael Myers was a human killer unlike the supernatural, or human killers on screen who had come before him. But he helped popularize a genre that would influence most horror that has followed since. But it bears repeating, there are so many horror films out there and many I’ve missed. Horror movies are so low budget that they are frequently greenlit without a second thought (how else do you explain 12 Friday the 13th films?). The genre is built upon many layers of inspiration and experimentation.
So for the rest of the month join us as we examine the rise and fall of Michael Meyers over his twenty-nine-year film history. We’ll be going in chronological order. First up, the film that started it all, Halloween.