Halloween: 30 years of terror

Michael Myers turns 30 this year. All together now: happy birthday to you... No? Stefan Hutchinson remembers his first encounter with Halloween

This year, Michael Myers, the infamous bogeyman from the Halloween series of horror films turns 30. It was in 1978 that writer/director/all-around visionary genius John Carpenter unleashed the character on the world in his seminal horror classic, named after the night in question. October 31st was described by the film’s tagline as ‘The Night HE Came Home’ and it’s a fairly safe bet to say that nobody involved in the production of the film had an idea of the impact that this particular homecoming would make.

If the above paragraph reads to you as clichéd, it’s because it is clichéd. However, a much deserved set of truths reinforce the affection and reverence afforded to Halloween, so the almost fetishist idolisation bestowed upon it by horror nerds everywhere is well deserved. It’s impossible to deny the influence of the film within the horror genre and also with how horror villains have been perceived and created over the years. For better or worse (predominantly the latter), the film reshaped the horror industry. Halloween was the film that accidentally spawned the ‘slasher’ subgenre (inevitably, horror historians will call your attention to Halloweens various predecessors, but let’s be honest – Black Christmas didn’t have anywhere near the financial success or emotional impact upon its audiences during its release), which dominated the small, local video stores of the 80s.

I have fond and distorted memories of being terrified by the covers of some of the famous films in this subgenre; in addition to those that time thankfully forgot. The silhouette of the unknown murderer in Friday The 13th: Part Two; the bizarre white face glaring back at me through the worn plastic of a Body Count case; the kebab-skewered victim of Happy Birthday To Me (and on the long-extinct V2000 format too, if my damaged recollection isn’t lying through nostalgia).

It wasn’t so much these films themselves that burned their way into my psyche, but instead, the possibilities of them. I didn’t need to actually see them; I needed to hear about them through playground whispers from the same children that had heard their parents ‘screaming’ in the bedroom. I needed to read about them in the second-hand copies of Fangoria, which sat on the top shelf alongside the pornography in book exchanges and shitty comic shops. Above all, I needed to imagine them. Beginning with their evocative titles and cover images that suggested so much more, merging with my own fears and culminating in the shadows that haunted the back garden. The night-time noises of the council estate and the ‘strangers’ that dwelled in child safety commercials, outside school gates and in the woods nearby.

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In short, slasher films – or at least my imaginings of them, sure enough became my own private fairytales. Associated, as their crude and effective posters were, with warnings and all things dark, sordid and forbidden, I was drawn to them just as Little Red Riding Hood was drawn unwittingly to the Big Bad Wolf. Everyone needs a bogeyman of their very own…

Prior to this point, my experiences with the horror genre were predominantly happy accidents, either grasped from the brief fragments of late-night television I caught (mainly Hammer films such as The Devil Rides Out, and the Hammer House Of Horror television series), or from subversive places where really they shouldn’t have been (The Dragon’s Domain episode of Space 1999 and, surprisingly enough, an episode of Black Beauty entitled Out Of The Night). In addition I had Doctor Who and the various sci-fi/monster film classics that would be shown every Thursday on BBC 2 (from Forbidden Planet to The Legend of Boggy Creek). These thrills of beasts, aliens and the supernatural were obviously a world away from the bloodthirsty corners of the Betamax shelves (which appropriately were moments away from their own death-knell).

Enter Halloween.

I attended a church school at the time, but October 31st was still celebrated. Only a few years after I moved on, this would not be the case, as the local Reverend decreed the night blasphemy due to its ‘pagan origins’. The previous member of clergy had left both his wife and the church to flee the town with his mistress, so something had to take the fall of redemption. Fortunately, such bullshit had not yet occurred, and I took great pride in wearing my papier-mâché mask, apple-bobbing, singing ‘Halloween’s Coming!’ and throwing plastic bats at girls in an attempt to remind them that I existed. ‘Trick Or Treaters’ were not common however – the nearest we would get would be teenagers scavenging for cigarettes and heroin money.

The commercial for it was shown fairly early, and the clip chosen to promote the airing was that of Tommy Doyle (the young boy of the cast), staring out of his window to see a mysterious silhouette – a shape – stood across the street before saying “The bogeyman is outside!” Needless to say, I was mesmerised in seconds due to identification with both the age of the character (despite me being actually younger, he was still a boy) and the act of staring out of the window and seeing things in the dark (it’s no coincidence that the boy was named after a character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window). Those few seconds captured the very same voyeurism that compelled me to stare nervously at those mysterious and horrific ‘video nasties.’

“You’re not watching that”, came the parental voice – the voice which alas could not be argued with. Fortunately, luck, and my Nanna’s perpetual naiveté (we never used the word ‘Grandma’) were on my side. As my parents went out, I switched the television over, and it began.

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Now, hyperbole is a dangerous thing, and I know that I’m probably swimming in those waters here. So be it. Unlike, for example, Friday The 13th: Part 2, which could never love up to the schoolyard hype (and a particularly visceral and excitable retelling from tubby school thug, Craig Noone), Halloween delivered. It delivered and then went far beyond what any experience of cinema should do.

“That’s the killer,” I informed my Nana proudly as the film began with its famous extended P.O.V. shot. And correct I was. From that moment on, I was mesmerised and terrified in equal measure. The actual fear began as soon as The Shape leapt upon the roof of Sam Loomis’ station wagon, accompanied by the electronic sting of Carpenter’s incredible score; and despite being scared to the point of turning white, I could not look away.

At the root of the film’s brilliance was its simplicity. The story didn’t so much hint at those fairytales that had lodged themselves in my young, impressionable mind, but instead actually was one of them – living and breathing the same nightmarish air. It followed the same archetypal structure as the children’s fairytale – no sudden plot twists or surprises, but instead a terrifying playing-out of the inevitable. As such, it felt familiar and thus closer to home. Halloween didn’t try and outsmart your fears, it attached itself to them, cleanly and perfectly in a way that hasn’t really been done since.

From that point on, I was literally scared of the dark. I was scared of every corner of the room that could be a nesting place for some horrible shadow-creature, for some ethereal nightmare that would pounce upon me as soon as my eyes closed. I transformed from a child desperate to hear the stories in the playground to a child desperate to tell them. Halloween made me a geek of the highest order.

As I grew up, thankfully, so did my appreciation of the film. It didn’t fall away into a childhood memory, or ‘something that was good at the time’ like the rest of its ilk. I grew to appreciate the direction, the understated performances (with the wonderful exception of Donald Pleasence’s ‘Dr. Loomis’), and the beautiful cinematography of Dean Cundey. As you can see, with each year that passed, I found another superlative to add to my gushing descriptions of the film.

Thirty years on, and the film still has the same power that it originally had – none of the sequels, or the remake have come close to touching it. The simple, primal nature of the film is timeless, and one can only feel sadness looking at the wave of films that followed it. While I have a million glowing terms for Halloween, I only have one for most of the imitators – and that word is “dogshit”.

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So, this year, let’s forget about the film’s legacy. Let’s take a moment to go back to the source, to where it all started. Let’s take a journey back to a bygone age, and a bygone style of storytelling; one that wouldn’t really show us anything, but would keep its horror shrouded in darkness and mystery. These stories are immortal, just like Halloween‘s villain, so let us hope then, that soon enough somebody tells us another story just like it. Just as we need heroes, we need monsters, and we haven’t seen so many of late. There’s a whole new generation waiting to be terrified – a generation waiting for THEIR bogeyman to come home…

Stefan Hutchinson is a man uniquely qualified to talk about Halloween – he directed the documentary Halloween: 25 Years of Terror and is currently writing Halloween comics for Devil’s Due Publishing.