The Contextual Terror of John Carpenter’s Halloween

I’ve never forgotten my sixth-grade English class, thanks to two memorable days in the fall of 1978 when our teacher, Mrs. Jacuzzi, stopped our daily regimen of conjugating verbs and identifying dangling participles to tell us about a new movie she’d seen. This film had so terrified and shocked her that she just couldn’t get it out of her mind.

The movie was John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Mrs. J took most of that day’s class time and half of the next to tell us about this film—a fact that probably wouldn’t have set well with our parents. But it didn’t bother us. We were entranced, hanging on her every word.

Audiences were equally entranced. Carpenter’s film has since gone on to become something of a legend, a standard against which so many films have been compared. Halloween pretty much created the slasher film genre (with a little help from some less-successful forerunners), and it has earned the reputation of being one of the scariest films of its day.

Questioning the Hype

But successive generations of horror fans have balked at Halloween’s reputation, claiming that it just doesn’t deliver the kinds of scares the hype promises.

To be fair, Halloween is pretty tame when compared to the likes of the Scream or Saw films. To have the reputation it has, Halloween doesn’t deliver near the frightening jolts of later films. It is nearly bereft of gore. And it is, thanks to an endless stream of imitators, embarrassingly predictable to up-and-coming horror lovers who have cut their viewing teeth on bolder fare.

But fairness is bilateral, and to be equally fair to Mr. Carpenter’s work, one must put his film in its proper context to really appreciate it. What makes Halloween so terrifying is the same thing that makes it so dated.

In other words, Halloween is scary because it takes place in 1978.

Tapping Into the Collective Fear

The ’70s was an uncertain era. America was at a crossroads. A cultural revolution had swept the country during the late 1960s; Vietnam had disillusioned the American public and left countless veterans emotionally incapable of dealing with life back home; Watergate had soured voters on the political process; and an energy crisis had hit the country, leaving thousands upon thousands panicking at the gas pumps.

Into this uncertainty strode a new kind of criminal: the serial killer. While serial killers have always been around, their numbers seemed to explode during the 1970s, beginning with the Zodiac killings of the late ’60s and soon followed by such notables as the Hillside Stranglers, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. Just a year prior to Halloween hitting the big screen, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz had terrorized the streets of New York, killing indiscriminately. America was uneasy, and Halloween tapped into the uneasiness, playing this newfound fear like a fiddle.

Halloween Redefined the Horror Genre

Halloween also ushered in a change to the genre that had been a long time coming. Over the decade preceding the film’s release, horror was becoming more urban. Before the influence of such films as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, the standard formula had been one of isolation. The unspoken message of the horror film had been simple: if you want to stay safe, stay where there are a lot of people. You had to stray from the beaten path, to go “out there”—to Dracula’s castle, to the Black Lagoon in the exotic far-away, to the Bates Motel—to encounter the monster. Halloween brought the monster to you.

This was no werewolf or vampire stalking hapless victims in the untamed countryside. This wasn’t even some demon making inroads into isolated pockets of society. This was a flesh-and-blood human being, hanging around outside your children’s schools, mingling with trick-or-treaters, following you to your babysitting gig. Here was a real, live spook who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, wreaking havoc in a place that looked a lot like your home town in Main Street America.

And the Rest Is History

Carpenter’s film touched upon a very real fear. Our English teacher certainly felt it. And perhaps there was just enough plausibility in what she saw that she felt the need to issue a warning to her sixth-grade class, most of whose parents still left their front doors unlocked the better part of the night.

This is what makes Halloween such an enduring film—not its timelessness, but rather its timeliness. Contextual as its terror may be, Halloween captures the fear of a generation. It is a museum piece, frozen in time to exhibit for posterity—much as Them! has done for the 1950s—what was making us look suspiciously over our shoulders all those years ago.

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