Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What Do I Know About Halloween?

Let me preface this by saying I am 100% certain others have noticed far more in the horror genre and had much more important and cogent things to say about it. I just felt like stretching my brain a bit after spending the Halloween season watching horror movies I had never seen before. Looking out across all of the movies I watched for the first time, I think I’m settling in on some thoughts on the “punish the sinner” trope and the “final girl” aspects of the genre, especially as framed by my first time ever viewing of the original Halloween, by John Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Avoiding the Ubiquitous

For the longest time, I had never seen Halloween, where a lot of 80s+ horror seemed to have borrowed their tropes. Having finally watched it, I am kind of curious about the degree to which the “transgressing teens” was intended as a broader theme. I fully realize that creators often don’t realize the themes they infuse into their work, but it also seems that a lot of later movies, like the Friday the 13th series, mimicked the elements of Halloween without brining in all of the context, and it kind of mutated the trope of transgressing teens into what it is today.

I say this because Laurie, in Halloween, smokes pot and actually wants to have sex--she isn’t really being held up as a moral example. Carpenter has said that the reason Laurie survived isn’t because of virtue, but because she wasn’t busy doing other things when she got attacked, which is more circumstance than moral lesson. All of that having been said, since we spend more time with Laurie than with the other characters, she feels more like a “real” character, and the other teenagers are reduced to being defined by their actions in their brief appearances, which makes it easy to see why copying over the circumstances of the movie creates the trope that it does.

Death of the Author, and, er, the Director?

Carpenter’s point seemed to be that teenagers be teenagers, but given that Michael Meyers is targeting teenagers because his sister ditched him to be a teenager, it almost feels like there is a moral judgement involved. In context, however, Halloween continually makes the point that Michael is just  . . . evil. He’s not a virtuous force that is punishing others. He doesn’t talk or give his point of view. He committed a murder as a child, then continues to murder people that fit that template when he is an adult. Michael’s reasoning isn’t even sympathetic. Yes, his sister ditched him to spend time with her boyfriend, but we never get any indication that Michael is harmed because of her inattention. He’s just mad because she didn’t take him trick or treating.

It may also be worth noting that while a lot of critics of the day made a point to seize on the theme of “the movie is a commentary on the decadence of modern teens,” Michael’s sister was killed in 1963. Sure, the movie could be making a commentary about the state of teen morality in the modern era, starting in the 60s--but given that the bulk of the movie is over a decade removed from the original scene, and the theme of decadent teens is never actually mentioned in the movie, it feels more likely that Carpenter and Debra Hill really were just writing from the perspective of “teens be teens.” 

Teen Themes

To some extent, there is almost more of a commentary on the position that teenagers occupy in society. Parents in the original Halloween show up as bookends to the horrors that are happening in the movie. Rather than provide a framework for a moral path, you could view the original Halloween as making a statement that teens are in a place in life where they want to stand on their own, but are still tremendously vulnerable without adult interaction.

Laurie manages to acquit herself very well against Michael Myers all things considered, but it is the intervention of Loomis that finally confirms Laurie’s safety at the end of the film. In some sense, this can be reduced to the standard “damsel in distress” narrative, but Laurie at this point has survived multiple assaults from an increasingly inhuman seeming Meyers. It feels as is the film has really said “nobody could have done better than Laurie without help,” not that Laurie really needed to be saved because anything was lacking in her character.

If the transition of teens to adulthood really is taken as a theme in the movie, it’s also worth noting that Laurie is vulnerable because the parents of the various children aren’t available for help, and the adult that provides aid is an unrelated adult. This is literally the transition that most young people have to make as they enter adulthood and have to forge bonds with more adults that are not part of their family or community.

 The Care and Feeding of Tropes

None of this is to say that the “bad teens being punished” theme can’t be extrapolated from Halloween, just that it appears more prominent with a shallow read of the movie’s events than from viewing elements in context.

Additionally, I think you can make a case that this trope developed in a partially unintentional manner. While there are definitely films to use the “punish the sinner” narrative literally, in many cases it’s actually a non-diegetic theme of the movies. Neither Freddy nor Jason will literally spare someone that hasn’t transgressed the sacred slasher commandments of “thou shalt not get high” or “thou shalt not hook up.” The audience may pick up on the fact that the teens that go off in the woods to spend some quality time together are going to die first, but most slasher villains are no more likely to kill them expressly because they are having sex or doing drugs than they are expressing killing off people of color expressly for being people of color.

Side Note: If you can make the case that the “punishing bad teens” theme developed from a tone deaf emulation of Halloween, it may be worth noting that the trope of people of color dying in horror movies seems to have sprung from Hollywood’s inability to consistently see people of color as viable protagonists. This is also an unfortunate non-diegetic less on that gets passed on that. Growing up in the 80s, I actually heard people defend the morality play aspects of killing off the sexually active teens as a positive way of promoting right behavior, but if that aspect of the story, which often isn’t expressly stated in the movie, was okay to teach, what does that say about using slasher movies to teach moral lessons when it comes to empowering people of color in society?

Later movies, like the Scream franchise and the Cabin in the Woods know exactly what tropes are at play and what they are subverting, but it’s way beyond me to do a deep dive into at what point and in what films the copied elements were copied without conscious thought about overall theme, and at what point the genre tropes were embraced and intentionally played up. It’s obvious from some of the reviews of Halloween that critical analysis of that film included an explicit reading of the movie as a morality play about teenage behavior, so almost immediately someone aware of film criticism would have had access to that commentary. That said, it feels, at least to me, that filmmakers in decades past seemed more likely to disclaim any modern, proximate influence on their films.

Context

After all of this, watching the original Halloween gave me a lot to think about, and I can see the clear influences it had on 80s horror movies (in fact, if you take elements of Halloween and elements of Phantasm, you have a lot of the recurring building blocks of 80s horror movies in those two movies alone). I respect what the film did. I can also see what Halloween did that later movies did not do.

While we often see the “Final Girl” receive a lot of air time, it’s also after the strife in the film has begun. In Laurie’s case, we have tension, as Michael is stalker her and her group of friends, but the killings don’t start up until later in the film, after we’ve seen Laurie’s typical day.

Once the killing starts, it’s the major focus of the film, but because we don’t have a constant stream of killings and bodies, even when characters panic or potentially make bad decisions, it feels more natural, because they haven’t been in an escalating crisis for half the movie, yet still making the same mistakes after hours of strife. Once the characters find out there is a murderer on the loose, it’s new to them, and not a normal thing, and each person reverts back to making an understandable closed set of decisions based on an immediate fight or flight response. Laurie, being the person that survives an initial encounter, begins to make plans and decisions that fit the narrative of what has occurred previously in the movie.

That said, after everything I saw, and everything I can respect in the original Halloween, I have to admit that looking at John Carpenter and horror, The Thing is definitely more my speed. But I’m going to wait to dissect that particular movie for another day.

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