Posted on October 7, 2016

Trick-or-Treating in Halloween (1978)

Dawn

In Murray Leeder’s provocative short book Halloween, published in 2014 as part of the Devil’s Advocates series, he points out that for “a film called Halloween, there is remarkably little trick or treating depicted in it” (57). Leeder mentions two moments relatively early in the film in which Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) does see trick-or-treaters—as she is walking to her house after school and then after she has left her house to wait for Annie (Nancy Kyes) on a street corner. As Leeder points out, the first instance, in which Laurie stands poised to go into her house, evokes a kind of nostalgia for childhood (57). Laurie says, wistfully, “Well, kiddo, I thought you outgrew superstition,” looking at the costumed children, who are laughing, clearly identifiable as children and walking with an unmasked adult.

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The second instance is slightly more tense; to quote Leeder, “the anxious cutting introduces an element of menace that is echoed in the uneasy look on Laurie’s face, since she is now becoming more attentive to Michael’s presence in Haddonfield” (57).

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The trick-or-treaters in this second scene are further away from Laurie—across the street—and there is no sound of children laughing; in fact, an eerie wind dominates the scene, along with Carpenter’s equally eerie score. At least one of the adults is wearing a white mask, more sinister than the face of the human in the first scene and foreshadowing Michael Myers with his own white mask. It also seems important that Laurie is no longer in close proximity to the safety of her house, about to turn into it; instead, she is sitting at an intersection, about to head to where Michael will be waiting.

These are the only trick-or-treating scenes Leeder mentions, but there are two more later in the film, and they form a much darker repetition of these earlier scenes and highlight what I think is the main function of trick-or-treaters in the film: trick-or-treaters increasingly both mark thresholds and signal their crossing, specifically the crossing from light to darkness, human to nonhuman, life to death.[i]

The third instance of trick-or-treating comes when Michael, having followed Annie and Laurie to the Doyle and Wallace houses, gets out of his car and walks over to watch the house Annie has just entered. As Michael walks in the darkness to stand in the shadow of a tree, we hear children chanting “Trick or treat, trick or treat, give me something good to eat”—and they flit by, across the road from Michael, by the Wallace house, running quickly out of the frame—black, indistinct figures, with a flash of a barely visible skeleton on a black costume.

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It’s clear these trick-or-treaters are children, their chanting very distinct. The group is different from those of the first two scenes, though, having no discernible adult and moving more quickly; their voices may be clear (and clearly human), but visually they seem much less clearly human, and you can’t tell that the chanting voices are theirs: the sounds seem detached from the bodies.

After the trick-or-treaters pass, Michael stays motionless staring at the Wallace house: he’s waiting, perhaps not quite ready to cross over to the other side, to a realm the trick-or-treaters serve to mark through their own liminal status—costumed, dissolving visually from human into nonhuman shape, running along the road that always seems to serve as a fraught boundary in Halloween.

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About six minute later, we see trick-or-treaters for the fourth and last time. Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) looks out the window of his house just as trick-or-treaters run by—even darker, faster, and more indiscernible than before. Indeed, as they emerge from the left of the frame, they are purely dark shapes, becoming only just distinguishable as human as they move out of the frame to the right. As these shapes pass in front of him, Tommy sees another “Shape,” Michael Myers, standing by the Wallace house. Michael has crossed over and will begin his grim work of murder (Annie, Bob, Lynda).

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Laurie will also, herself, soon cross the same street / boundary and find all her friends dead, though she will somehow manage to cross back (to light, life, humanity) and successfully fight off Michael in Tommy Doyle’s house.

These four brief scenes of trick-or-treating, then, not only become increasingly more sinister, but the children become less visible as children and more visible only as black shapes, in increasingly faster motion. They progress from a realm of relative safety, right by Laurie’s house, to the site of most danger, flitting right by the Wallace house where Michael is about to enter and kill Annie. The trick-or-treaters are always, in each instance, moving along a road which suggests their function not only to mark borders but increasingly to mark the transgressing of borders—as Michael first looks across the road and then crosses it, signaling his own movement to death.

John Carpenter thus brilliantly weaves this main ritual of Halloween into his film, using the doubleness and liminality of trick-or-treating, the darker, more “inhuman” aspects that costumes both convey and conceal, to usher characters and viewers into the nonhuman, inexplicable malevolence that Michael Myers, the “Shape,” represents.


[i] Leeder definitely gets at this point too, about the threshold nature of trick-or-treating, arguing that the costumes children adopt on Halloween allow for the release of pent up violence in children, thus mediating childhood innocence and childhood aggression—allowing the release of darker urges that must be otherwise repressed. There is, after all, always the implied threat of the “trick” if the “treat” is not forthcoming (59–61, 65-66).

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