Posted on March 23, 2015

Empowerment of the Traditional in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

Elizabeth Erwin

Released in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween not only gave Jamie Lee Curtis her definitive Scream Queen role but it also gave audiences one of the best known horror film villains of all time in Michael Meyers. On its face, the story is a simple one. On Halloween night, six-year-old Michael murders his sister and is placed in a psychiatric hospital. On the fifteenth anniversary of his incarceration, he breaks out intent on exacting revenge.

One of the reasons I keep coming back to this film is because of how effectively it uses cultural norms to elevate the horror.

This is especially true with regard to the role domesticity plays within the film. Laurie actually dons an apron while engaging in such traditionally domestic tasks as crafting, making treats for the children and, most importantly, being a responsible caregiver to the children. It was the very absence of this type of domestic responsibility, when Michael’s sister ignored him to have sex with her boyfriend, which first prompts Michael to kill. For teens to be so invested in the maintenance of a domestic social order comes across as abnormal. Conversely, the irresponsibility of the victims reads to the audience as much more accessible (normal) entry point into the narrative. It is interesting that we see Annie in two displays of traditional female acts and yet, neither reads as particularly domestic. Her cooking of the dinner is undermined by her annoyance at having to babysit when she’d rather be with her boyfriend as is her act of doing the laundry which, when she gets stuck in the window, only points to how incapable she is in the role of the domestic. Yet, her most blatantly non-domestic act is when she gives up responsibility for the child in her care so that she can have sex with her boyfriend. If the killer does indeed represent an archaic part of the community as some scholars suggest, then Michael’s and Laurie’s shared domestic values are not just antiquated but abnormal.

I have a harder time accepting the idea that mirroring occurs in this film when dealing with issues of sexuality. Clearly, Michael and Laurie are situated to read as abnormal by virtue of their sexuality, while the victims are intended to be viewed as normal since they embrace their sexuality. While I agree that tends to be true in slasher films, I am not wholly convinced of it in Halloween. I think it is a dangerous track to always read virginity as repressive. Is there power behind her choice or is it a decision based upon fear? The audience isn’t given enough of a backstory with Laurie to really make an informed decision. Rather, the judgement Laurie faces as a result of her virginity comes from her friends who label her “scared” and “a girl scout.” We, the audience, are allowing others to define Laurie’s sexual autonomy without really considering how Laurie feels about it.

Slasher films are brimming with Final Girls who leave no doubt they have a fear of sex: Alice, who speaks in a child-like voice and becomes visibly shy at the mention of sex (Friday the 13th); Kim’s budding sexuality is literally stopped by her brother (Prom Night); Nancy, whose almost asexual boyfriend represents no real risk (Nightmare on Elm Street); and Syd, who explains she is reluctant to have sex because she fears intimacy based upon what happened to her mother (Scream). The one moment which could convey fear of intimacy, Laurie begging Annie to break the date she has made for Laurie, can just as easily be read as Laurie being embarrassed at being made to look like a “loser” by those around her. Instead, I see Laurie being less an example of purity and more an example of someone who is restricting her sexuality for her goals.
As one of the most definitive slasher films in history, it is interesting that the audience for this film historically has been equal parts male and female. The question as to why women watch horror films, particularly slasher films, is interesting to me because so much of the argumentation relies upon females being of one mind, both emotionally and intellectually. As someone who prefers her slasher films to have humor and lots and lots of blood, I disagree with the claim that women hide their eyes to the violence. On one hand, the paranoia is instilled culturally every time a girl is warned to not walk home alone in the dark or to not lead men on by dressing provocatively. In that respect, the paranoia has its origins in paternalism. Yet, paranoia, by its definition, also carries with it “delusions of persecution.” By having the paranoia in the slasher film validated, the view of the female isn’t written off as her simply being a hysterical woman. It is an affirmation that there are societal structures in place designed to persecute females.

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