In honor of its anniversary, we look back on John Carpenter’s seminal horror classic, the iconic and influential “Halloween” (1978).
Spooky season wouldn’t be complete without John Carpenter’s slasher classic, Halloween (1978). This perfectly titled film was originally called The Babysitter Murders. Producer Irwin Yablans had an idea for a movie about a killer who stalks babysitters. Director John Carpenter and then-girlfriend Debra Hill reworked it into the iconic slasher film named after the scariest time of the year.
A festive Halloween atmosphere is effectively combined with an eerie soundtrack. Scenes shot with an effective play of light and shadow keep the viewer on edge. The atmosphere gives an overall feeling of someone behind the shadows waiting to do something to us. Add to that, a dark, twisted, and mysterious backstory.
Carpenter’s Halloween touches on everyone’s worst nightmares.
A quiet Midwestern suburban town becomes the setting for a horrific event. On Halloween night in 1963, 6-year-old Michael Myers returns home from trick or treating and kills his sister, Judith. On October 30, 1978, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, heads back to his hometown, and goes on a killing spree. He wears a nondescript mask and doesn’t chase his victims but walks after them. He’s emotionless and mechanical when he kills and seems unstoppable.
Halloween was my first slasher movie. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it. Maybe it was the writer’s part of my mind combined with a budding interest in true crime that fueled my fascination with Halloween. As I started to explore the stories of real-life serial killers and started writing my own fiction, I wondered about the character of Michael Myers.
The questions that came to mind were: who is Michael Myers and why does he kill? Who were his parents seen briefly in the beginning? Who were the Myers?
Over 40 years later, Michael Myers has become a horror icon.
The film spawned a series of 12 films and one more to be released in 2022.
It wasn’t the first slasher film. Both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas were released four years earlier. These films introduced the now-familiar slasher formula. But Halloween built upon those elements by introducing an actual boogeyman. A masked killer lurks in the shadows in a quiet suburban town and kills vulnerable teens just looking to party on Halloween night.
In a 2018 article for Vulture, “The Story Behind the Original Halloween”, writer Jason Bailey quotes Carpenter:
“It’s an old county-fair haunted-house movie. You say to the audience, ‘You’re going to see something that’s going to scare you. Now get ready. I’m not going to tell you when it’s going to come … but here it comes!’ It’s programmed right in, just laying it on.”
Michael Myers isn’t the only iconic character.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is one of the first final girls. Strode fiercely protects the children she’s babysitting as Myers relentlessly tries to kill them. Who wouldn’t root for a young woman and two young children being stalked by a masked psycho?
Donald Pleasance delivers an unforgettable performance as Dr. Sam Loomis. Loomis is a psychiatrist who seems driven insane by his interaction with Myers. After Myers’ escape, Loomis relentlessly pursues him.
Relatability is what producer Yablans had in mind. Bailey writes:
“He worked out the idea of a madman stalking and killing babysitters; everyone’s either been a babysitter or had a babysitter, he figured, so the story was relatable.”
Yablans contacted John Carpenter to direct, and Carpenter and Hill fleshed Yablans’ idea out into the story of Michael Myers. Carpenter and Hill completed the script within two weeks, and Carpenter wrote the score in three days.
Up until then, horror movies still had mostly supernatural themes, as seen in The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Michael Myers wasn’t a demon. He was a real-life boogeyman — a phantom in the flesh.
The now-beloved horror classic opened to mixed reviews. According to Variety, Halloween was “just another maniac-on-the-loose suspenser.” The New York Daily News described it as “schlock shock.”
However, Village Voice reviewer Tom Allen compared Halloween to horror classics Psycho and Night of the Living Dead. Allen described it as “a movie of almost unrelieved chills and violence, conjuring up that unique mix of subliminal threat and contrapuntal physicality employed by Hitchcock.”
Chicago Sun-Times reviewer and infamous horror hater Roger Ebert described Halloween as “[…] a visceral experience. We aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening. Maybe you don’t like movies that are really scary: Then don’t see this one.”
Without a doubt, Halloween has left its mark on horror history.
Carpenter’s slasher classic served as inspiration for many genre greats to follow, including the also-iconic Friday the 13th series. Modern genre filmmakers like Rob Zombie were heavily influenced by the film. Not only did Zombie do the controversial 2007 remake of Halloween, but he also set House of 1,000 Corpses on Halloween 1977. Though the addition of Myers’ backstory in Zombie’s Halloween polarized horror fans, it did finally provide the answers to my questions about Michael’s motivations.
Halloween not only spawned remakes, but it also gave birth to many sequels and several alternate storylines and timelines. Some Halloween fans love these sequels and embrace the entire complicated Halloween universe, while many others hate how the franchise evolved.
The sequels to the original introduced the idea that Laurie Strode was not just a random victim who tragically found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, she was Michael Myers’ sister who was adopted as a baby by the Strodes after the infamous murder of Michael’s older sister. She’s eventually killed off, leaving behind a daughter, Jamie Lloyd, in Halloween 4-6. However, this storyline was scrapped for Halloween H20, which has Strode alive with a son instead of a daughter.
Zombie’s remake also changed the timeline. Michael Myers was a 10-year-old in 1978. The first part of his movie gives a more fleshed-out backstory. The Myers family is extremely dysfunctional with Michael suffering abuse both at home and from bullies at school.
Finally, Halloween 2018 once again changed the storyline, ignoring every film after the 1978 original. Laurie Strode is no longer related to Michael. Rather, she is just a traumatized survivor dealing with the effects of PTSD following her harrowing ordeal on Halloween night 40 years prior.
Even with so many iterations and variations of the iconic boogeyman, nothing tops Carpenter’s original classic.
Every facet of the movie lends to the inescapable feeling of being trapped in a nightmare that could exist in reality.
A recurring question Carpenter and Hill included between the characters is about the existence of the Boogeyman. At its heart, Halloween is really just a story about a brutal serial killer. And, unfortunately, serial killers are in fact real-life boogeymen. The terror they strike is real, as is the wake of horror they leave behind. Serial killer survivors like Laurie do exist.
The mystery of Michael’s backstory adds an extra dimension to the film (one reason many fans, and Carpenter himself, took issue with Zombie’s interpretation).
A very young child from a good family kills out of the blue on Halloween night, seemingly for no reason at all. It’s the realization of all our nightmares come true where anyone can be a killer — the realization that you never really know where evil could be lurking, even behind the face of pure innocence.
The killer is incarcerated but escapes and goes on a killing spree. Eventually, we discover that the killer appears unstoppable. His ability to keep killing no matter what defies reason and puts a crack in the stable foundation of reality. Still, even with a bit of supernatural added to the mix, the terror is very much real.
Carpenter and Hill’s story hits all the right psychological buttons — from the compelling plot to the play of light and shadow, to the soundtrack and even the nondescript mask (starkly white and featureless, like a mockery of humanity). These elements all combine to create a classic, iconic film that spawned a franchise and helped shape a genre. It may continue to be imitated and emulated, but it will never be duplicated.
Fright Fun Facts About Halloween:
1. Throughout most of the script, Michael Myers is referred to as “The Shape.” According to Screen Rant’s 2020 article, “The Night He Came Home: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About Halloween (1978),” Carpenter didn’t want to put a human face on Michael Myers.
2. John Carpenter based the character, Michael Myers, on a memory from college. Carpenter recalled seeing a young boy while taking a tour of a psychiatric hospital. The boy’s cold stare stuck out in his mind.
3. Two Michael Myers masks were up for consideration: a William Shatner mask that the crew spray-painted white and a clown mask with bright red hair. The clown mask was chosen at first, but everyone thought that the Shatner mask was creepier — an emotionless human face.
4. John Carpenter reportedly cast Jamie Lee Curtis as a nod to director Alfred Hitchcock. Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh was cast in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960). Leigh later made an appearance in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998). Donald Pleasance’s character, Dr. Sam Loomis is named after a character in Psycho.
5. According to Screen Rant, Pleasance wasn’t the first actor who was offered the role. Horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both turned it down. The role was also offered to John Belushi, Lloyd Bridges, Mel Brooks, Yul Brynner, David Carradine, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper, Kris Kristofferson, Walter Matthau, Peter O’Toole, and Lawrence Tierney.