Interpreting ‘The Shape’ of Halloween (R)

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Originally conceived as The Babysitter Murders, the plot for Halloween is actually about as streamlined as that title might suggest. It features several babysitters, a hulking man with a knife, and some murders. But in the hands of any director other than John Carpenter, we wouldn’t still be talking about Halloween forty years later. It is, in fact, one of the most canonical films in the horror genre, for it invented the slasher genre and set up the rules and iconography one would associate with the horror sub-genre.

Fascinatingly, this was never really John Carpenter’s intent. He’d been contracted to make an exploitation film that could function as a thriller teens would flock to. And at first, when initial reviews came in, that’s all that Halloween looked like, a perfunctory chiller. A good one, of course, considering that Carpenter had uncommon skill at sustaining tension. But soon, critics started to take notice of the ways Carpenter’s film could be interpreted. Suddenly, here was this seemingly simple horror film on the outside that had a wealth of thematic depth hidden in plain sight. But interestingly enough, many film scholars and critics have intuited different things from the text. It’s perhaps what has kept Halloween such an important horror film after all these decades, this ability to read multiple interpretations of what the slasher might actually mean underneath the surface.

At the root of each of these multiple interpretations is Michael Myers himself, or as the film refers to him, The Shape. Since he’s essentially the center of the story altogether, it’s important to understand just what he embodies. Multiple scholars, including John Carpenter himself, have thoughts and theories on this. Breaking it down in a simplistic way, every good horror film is defined by its monster, and The Shape is an excellent one. In an earlier review for a horror film, I posited that a horror film seeks to ask the question, “What is human?” The method in which it answers this question is by showing us, chiefly, what is inhuman. Allow me to expand the definition what a horror film is by saying that, while that’s the chief thematic purpose of the genre, the marker of what’s truly a horror film is the monster. How do you get any more inhuman than a monster, after all? Monsters in horror films are usually embodied, physical presences that symbolize or are built from the taboos of society. This is often the result of the time period, and the best monsters are created when there’s a rupture in society, when a large scale event upends everything a decade stood for. A chief, and important, example is the Manson Murders, which uprooted all that the social movements of the 1960s stood for by turning all of them on their heads in a shocking act of violence that rocked the nation.

It’s important to note that the film itself refers to Michael Myers simply as The Shape. The argument is that if you give somebody a name, that works towards making them even more human. But as Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleasance) argues in the film, “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” It’s an entirely fair assessment because the film opens with a 6 year-old Michael brutally killing his vulnerable, promiscuous sister while dressed as a clown. We as the audience are witness to the act through a voyeuristic camera that frighteningly implicates us too. But it’s when Michael’s mask is taken off by his parents that we’re made witness to the nothingness behind the boy’s stare. In that moment, he is no longer Michael, but The Shape, an embodiment of pure evil itself. This is the form in which he returns to Haddonfield as fifteen years after the opening. Multiple characters refer to The Shape as The Bogeyman, chiefly Tommy Doyle, the little boy that Laurie Strode (Curtis) babysits during the duration of the film. It’s a fear that’s easily tossed off by the adults, but when it’s Laurie facing the edge of the knife, all she can weakly ask Dr. Sam Loomis at the end is whether or not that was truly The Bogeyman.

“As a matter of fact, it was,” he quietly answers.

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Halloween uses The Shape as its way of depicting true evil, something devoid of rhyme, reason, and purpose. There’s absolutely no real reason that The Shape goes after Laurie and her friends. Although the sequels would try to provide a rational answer, it was a misstep, taking away the randomized power of this film. Here, it simply appears that The Shape becomes transfixed by Laurie and begins to stalk her. In the process, her friends impede upon his vantage point and they simply become collateral. The Shape is an effective killing machine because he exhibits no human qualities. He moves in a stiff, purposeful manner. Never once does he speak. He is seemingly impervious (“You can’t kill The Bogeyman!” Tommy yells at one point), taking multiple wounds and bullets and only flinching in the process. Instead, all he does is breathe, deeply and heavily, and even that doesn’t feel human because of how it’s deployed. But is that not ultimately what evil truly is? A force that has no real intention behind its seemingly unstoppable agency? This is the most primal interpretation of Michael Myers.

At a recent screening of the film, a celebration of its 40th anniversary and an advertisement for the upcoming “true” sequel of the same name, John Carpenter was in attendance with Nick Castle, who portrayed The Shape in this film. Although it was Carpenter, along with co-writer Debra Hill, who wrote the sequel that tried to explain that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers were, in fact, related and that explains why he went after her, he admitted at the event that he always saw the connection between the two as a shared attribute: repression. Laurie herself would become the golden standard for the “final girl,” a titled given to the survivor of a horror film, usually a teenage girl, who would eventually stop running and turn to face the killer head on – and often win.

Here, Laurie is characterized as incredibly repressed, particularly sexually. While her two friends, Annie and Lynda, are planning to try and score with their boyfriends over Halloween night, Laurie is too shy to even call up the boy she’s interested in. Whereas Annie and Lynda are products of their age, Laurie is a bit more motherly, taking care of Tommy and eventually Lindsey (whom Annie was supposed to be looking after). When The Shape invades the Doyle house, Laurie has to save not only herself, but the two children she’s supposed to be looking after. Even the way she dresses reflects this kind of suppression. But The Shape is also suppressed, somebody trapped in between humanity and childhood, since he lost both when he was only six years-old. There’s an eerie childishness to the way The Shape fumbles to retrieve his mask when it’s fallen off his face towards the end. Laurie, despite her intentions to be more mature than she appears, is just as vulnerable and childlike in many ways. Carpenter commented that Michael could almost be seen as Laurie’s Jungian shadow, and that’s why the two are so strangely kindred.

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Horror scholar John Kenneth Muir would agree with parts of that interpretation. In his article describing the taoism of Halloween, he supposes four ways that taoism might provides clues to Michael Myer’s true nature. The first is that The Shape is a physical manifestation Laurie Strode’s id. That would track with the logic that The Shape is a Jungian shadow of sorts. But the other three things that Muir suggests offer different readings of The Shape, and therefore the story, altogether.

One of the proposed interpretations is that Michael Myers is developmentally arrested and is simply playing Halloween tricks. As discussed, Michael lost his humanity when he took his sister’s life back in the beginning of the story. It’s highly plausible that even after the film shifts forward fifteen years later, that whatever in Michael that is still human is also still childlike. The third proposition Muir makes is that Michael is the physical embodiment of fate, another theory the film itself supports. Early in the story, while Laurie is in school, she answers a question about the nature of fate, both religiously and elementally.

Lastly, John Kenneth Muir believes a taoistic interpretation of Michael Myers is that he’s an indictment of a contemporary, rational society, some undiagnosable running amok in a scientific world. It explains the presence of Dr. Sam Loomis, a psychiatrist who makes the very unscientific claim that Michael Myers is pure evil. But then again, what could explain him scientifically? This also leans into how most critics have chosen to see the film, as something that discusses morality at length. The reason Laurie Strode survives is because she’s a virgin. Her friends are killed for their promiscuity or because they engage in pre-marital sex. Michael becomes a moral judge of some kind, something seemingly horrific in a world defined through science or rational explanation. Carpenter himself dispelled these theories of morality, believing that the film’s intention was not to comment on the state of teenage morals, but to present an unstoppable force that goes after a group least likely to be able to defend themselves thanks to the generation before them. Still, the morality angle checks out, as it tends to in most slashers.

All things considered, even with much of the thematic implication removed, Halloween is still a classic horror film that continues to delight, thrill, and shock even to this day. On a technical level, it’s brought to life with uncanny skill, filled with perfect widescreen cinematography that challenges the viewer to stay constantly aware of the surroundings and backed by a pulsating, unnerving, and wholly memorable score by John Carpenter. Perhaps some of it is a little hokey, particularly the teenage dialogue, but it only adds to the charm of the film, and never deteriorates the Hitchcockian way that Carpenter shoots the menace and violence of The Shape. And for modern viewers, if it feels like you’ve seen these characters and tropes before, well, it’s because they originated here. An entire sub-genre owes Halloween immensely, and all these decades later, it’s still one of the best and brightest of the bunch. We have Michael Myers to thank for that.

William Connor Devlin

William Connor Devlin received his Bachelor's degree in Screenwriting at BIOLA University. He is currently attending Loyola Marymount University in pursuit of a Master's degree in Writing for the Screen. In addition, he works in creative development for a production company. In his (admittedly limited) free time, he enjoys watching and studying films, reading works of fiction and non-fiction, and sketching designs. He is especially fond of the works of Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, and John Carpenter.

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