Michael Myers, The Shape of Masculinity’s Violence
*NOTE: There will be spoilers for the original 1978 “Halloween.” There will be no attempt to avoid them. This is written with the assumption the reader has seen the film.*
The original “Halloween” is an achievement in independent film making. It spawned three characters who have become part of the pop culture pantheon in Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, and Doctor Loomis and then held the claim to being the most profitable independent film of all time until “The Blair Witch Project” came along in 1999. For 21 years, no independent film was able to draw as wide an audience as “Halloween.” It’s an impressive achievement, made even more so when we take into account that the number of people going to the movies grew until the late 1990's.
John Carpenter wrote and directed the original “Halloween” and took a minimalist approach to building suspense from the opening frames to the final credits. With his partner Debra Hill guiding the creation of Laurie Strode, her friends Annie Brackett and Linda Van Der Klok, Carpenter focused in on ratcheting up the suspense, while creating Dr. Loomis and of course, Michael Myers. I’ve also written a long piece about Laurie Strode, and what I believe should be her place alongside the list of great film heroine’s.
Carpenter creates two distinct characters in Michael Myers and then The Shape, as he’s referred to in all of the direction written into the screenplay. When Michael becomes The Shape, we end up with a near perfect metaphor for the worst of masculinity and the violence which springs from it. There has been a Michael Myers in the past, but he’s gone. What’s left is The Shape.
We’re introduced to Michael Myers when we see through his point of view as he kills his older sister, and then when he meets his parents in front of their house, it’s revealed we’ve been seeing through the eyes of a child. Not a young man, but a six year old boy in a clown costume, holding a large blood covered kitchen knife. It’s shocking. It’s brutal, even in as it’s relatively bloodless, despite the fact that the film is usually mentioned in company with a tradition of gore soaked slashers. This opening scene is presented as one long single point of view shot without interruption. It sets up the film and the beginning of the Michael Myers mythology perfectly.
The rest of the original film concerns itself with Michael escaping from an institution for the criminally insane, where apparently, he hasn’t spoken a word in fifteen years. We jump directly to his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis on the way to pick Michael up to have him transferred. A conversation with the nurse who is driving reveals Loomis is adamant that Michael is never released and he should spend the rest of his life institutionalized. After Loomis repeatedly refers to Myers as “it,” the nurse says, “Don’t you think we should refer to it as him?” Loomis responds, “If you say so,” in a fashion which suggests he’ll go along with her suggestion, but isn’t going to believe it. They pull up to the hospital, patients are everywhere, in the road, on the lawn, in spite of it pouring rain. Long story, short, Michael attacks the car, scaring the nurse into jumping out and allowing Michael to steal car.
Following Michaels escape, Loomis heads to Haddonfield, the town Myers was living in when he killed his older sister, convinced Myers is heading back. He enlists the town’s sheriff, informing him of Michael’s escape. The sheriff is rightfully skeptical, but Loomis is adamant. At one point, they check Michael’s childhood home, to see if he’s gone there, where this exchange occurs:
By the time we get to the scene between Loomis and the sheriff at the Myers house, the audience already knows Michael has been back to his childhood home. We’ve already seen him get his first glimpse of Laurie Strode. As she’s talking with Tommy Doyle, a boy she’s going to be babysitting later that night, she has to stop and drop off a key, because her real agent agent father is trying to sell it. We see Laurie approach the front porch through the window in the front door, and as she turns to leave, a shoulder and head partially appear in the frame. There is the kind of musical “sting” which has become standard in slasher films, followed by the sound of Michael breathing in the mask. It’s an effective moment, both in giving the audience a quick fright, and in laying the groundwork to build the suspense. Michael has indeed come home.
The remainder of the film is Michael stalking Laurie, then killing Laurie’s friends (who Michael has seen Laurie walking home with after school), Loomis giving more speeches about the otherworldly evil that is Michael Myers, and the finale.
In the finale Michael creates a kind of macabre tableau for Laurie to find, including the bodies of her friends and the headstone from his sister’s grave. So begins Michael attempting to kill Laurie and her fighting for her life while protecting the children she’s babysitting. Laurie survives, Michael is shot six times by Dr. Loomis, and falls off a second floor balcony. When Loomis walks over to check on his handiwork, he sees Michael’s body on the lawn below. Calling back to a conversation she’d had with Tommy Doyle earlier, Laurie asks, “It was the bogeyman, wasn’t it?” Loomis looks to her and says, “Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.” When he turns to look at the lawn again, Michael has disappeared. The look on Loomis’ face suggests he expected as much. Then, in an interesting and effectively creepy piece of film making, Carpenter begins showing the different locations Michael has been. At the same time, the sound of Michael breathing through the mask is heard over the brilliant main theme music.
It’s a very simple set up. That it seems cliche now is due to it’s influence, making it a film with an almost never ending list of imitators. It cemented what went on to become the canonical elements of the slasher sub genre, even as it’s a film light on blood and gore.
That the suspense is so well developed is one reason the film became a pop culture touchstone and spawned a million imitators, but the other two reasons it struck such a nerve with the movie going public were Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. As “Halloween” established the basic foundations of the sub genre, Laurie Strode became the standard for the Final Girl trope. Laurie is smart, observant, resourceful, determined and tough.
Michael Myers was catapulted into iconic status. In many ways, the character is ready made for it. The blank, expressionless, featureless white mask. The formless, monochromatic mechanics coveralls. The almost mechanical physicality of Nick Castle’s performance as Michael. The steady, patient, stalking. All of the things in the original John Carpenter film come together to create a character who scared audiences out of their wits, but also captured their imaginations. What is it about this character, who never speaks a word, and only shows the slightest hints of not being a murderous automaton, that strikes so much fear in people? What makes Michael Myers so much more memorable than the thousands of other film villains who are forgotten by pop culture or even film culture more specifically?
I’m pretty sure it comes down to an idea expressed in the screenplay which would have been impossible to express visually on film and would have sounded ridiculous had it been added to the dialogue. It’s the perspective the film takes on the character though, and we can see it in the directorial and narrative choices Carpenter makes. In all of the screenplay, other than the dialog, Carpenter called Michael “The Shape,” as in “Laurie looks out the window to see The Shape staring back at her.” I’m going to be referring to him as The Shape for the duration, because it does capture the unspoken characteristics which made this character strike such a cord in audiences. It gets to something in our subconscious. If we stop thinking of him as Michael Myers and begin thinking of him as The Shape, something about the character begins to become clearer.
John Carpenter has said he was trying create a feeling of evil lurking in the suburbia which people usually thought of as safe. Bringing the terror out of the woods or some gothic mansion and into suburban homes and putting teenagers in danger is a key to what works about the film. He’s talked about the idea that evil is everywhere and that the film was referencing the fact that even when we think we’ve set up some kind of safe utopia, it’s still there, because it’s part of us.
He’s right, and whether or not he meant to he created a nearly perfect metaphor for a more specific danger lurking in suburbia from the time it existed, through to today, he did just that. For a long time, feminist critique held that “Halloween” was a film with a distinctly patriarchal value system. The claim had been that Laurie survived because she was the virginal member of trio of teenage girls. Other versions of the same criticism have held that all slasher films are always interested in portraying teenagers who have sex or drink or do drugs.
None of these really hold up with “Halloween” though, and they seem kind of simplistic where it’s concerned, though it’s a spot on critique for many films, and especially man slasher films. Many of the “Halloween” sequels, with the exception of the 2018 reboot/re-sequel (which takes place as if none of the other sequels exists and is written as a direct sequel to the original), do fit that description too. It doesn’t fit this original film though, when we look more closely.
Debra Hill also said on many occasions before her death that there wasn’t any kind of morality being imposed on Laurie, Annie or Linda. Laurie gets high with Annie on the way to their babysitting jobs. It’s also made clear through conversations with Annie that Laurie isn’t some virginal prude, abstaining out of any sense of moral righteousness. She’s shy, which squares with the fact that her character isn’t one who is taking many risks.
Being averse to risk, also makes her more observant, and in the end, it’s being observant, resourceful, and determined which saves her life. Annie gets stuck trying to climb out of a first floor shed window. Resourcefulness doesn’t seem to be a thing she can be accused of. Linda, well… she’s totally not going to be described as observant. It leads very directly to her demise. The Shape throws on a sheet and her boyfriends glasses, and despite the several inches of difference in height, Linda doesn’t catch that it’s not her boyfriend under the sheet.
Part of what’s terrifying about The Shape is the in amorality he represents. He wants to kill Laurie as badly as he does anyone else. In fact, Laurie is the figure which draws him to the others. It’s not a coincidence that Laurie is the first girl The Shape encounters at his home, is then the one for whom he creates a grizzly house of horrors, adorned with the bodies of her friends and his sisters headstone. There is obviously a fixation on Laurie for some reason. Leaving out the hackneyed, shoe horned narrative brought about in 1981’s “Halloween II” making Laurie The Shape’s sister, and sticking with the original film, the fixation comes simply from seeing Laurie walk up on the porch of his childhood home, while he’s inside. If anything, he’s punishing the others for being close to her when he isn’t or punishing her for being close to them by making a show of the fact that he killed them, like some kind of horrific Halloween prank.
Carpenter didn’t know he was doing it, but he did make The Shape a representation of some of the worst aspects of masculinity, which is definitely a danger lurking in what otherwise looks like a safe and quiet suburbia. It is a danger spilling into living rooms and across well manicured lawns, and being visited on teenage girls who are the subjects of random fixation. There is definitely a very real truth in this, and the truth of what it’s representing is also amoral. The men who embody this kind of masculinity, are amoral, because the masculinity they are employing is amoral. This masculinity has no interest in the way it effects the world around it, other than wresting control and is intensely, singularly focused on fulfilling itself. The film, and as a result, the film makers aren’t dedicated to upholding the kind of patriarchal norms the feminist critique has held against it for so long. It’s actually a film which presents the logical ends of those worst parts of masculinity as being an avenue for true evil.
The Shape is the emotionless reality this kind of masculinity expects men to become. Down to the expressionless, emotionless mask, it’s the furthest logical conclusion of the way that masculinity expects men to restrict all emotions other than anger. There is a definite reality to the idea that the restriction of all emotion other than anger is to leave nothing but a guarantee of violence. We live with that reality daily, and it’s understood as fact in psychology, psychiatry and more broadly, in sociology.
There’s a singleminded quality to The Shape, and this too goes along with the social indoctrination of masculinity. When we consider the way we portray success in the men we have historically held up as role models, it’s not at all uncommon for those men to lead lives where they are focused so specifically on their goal, that basically everything else ceases to exist for them. From Bing Crosby being one of America’s biggest stars and being a horrific drunk at home, to the likes of Lee Atwater, developing the modern conservative campaign playbook, and admitting before his death, he basically didn’t care what the greater social or political repercussions were, as long as he won. We portray this version of a successful man as if nothing is going to stop him or prevent him from reaching his goal, and again, a sense of morality is secondary, if not also completely absent. Reaching the goal is, itself the fulfillment of the needs of masculinity, whether or not it has any moral standing. We celebrate the single minded, ultra determined men who will do anything to achieve. This goes beyond the horror genre, certainly. The trope of the man whose willing to bend or break any rule to achieve his goal, and is celebrated for it, is common to almost every genre of storytelling in western civilization. Think of the number of law breaking law enforcement agents we’re presented with as heroes, specifically because they’ll break the law to catch someone who broke the law or the way we present the stories of titans of industry who’ve used deeply immoral or amoral tactics to achieve the success they chase, and are still meant to be “complicated characters” who we’re supposed to respect. We’ll argue the ends justify the means, but we’re very often missing that the means end up shaping the man, and he will then justify any means.
It’s also represented in the way The Shape uses the kinds of traditions and norms of the Halloween holiday to almost gaslight Laurie and his other potential victims. Showing up in the post coitus bedroom of Linda and her boyfriend Bob, covered in a sheet, pretending to be Bob after killing Bob seconds before, staring as she speaks to him, to the point of unnerving her, it all speaks of the kind of prankster quality of the holiday. Standing in the yard next door to Laurie’s house, staring up at her window or standing outside of Laurie’s school, staring through the classroom window. Watching Laurie and Annie walking home from behind the hedges next to Annie’s house. All of it could be written off as a prank, until it’s not. “It’s just a joke.” “You’re just being hysterical.” On any other day of the year, none of this would be acceptable and Laurie, Annie and Linda would have been deeply unnerved. Laurie is more or less told these exact things when she does bring up having seen The Shape. Laurie, in her attempt to protect him, says essentially the same things to Tommy Doyle when he sees The Shape standing across the street, staring at the house they’re in, and then later, carrying Annie’s body into the house.
This kind of gaslighting is one of the most destructive pieces of the worst of masculinity. The Shape is stalking Laurie through the entire film. He develops his fixation on Laurie after seeing her once, in the middle of a basic errand. Then he takes away the people he’s seen her having some kind of intimacy with, isolating her, so he can finally present her with the horror of what he’s done and have her all to himself. Hiding under the guise of the prankster aspects of Halloween is what gets her that close to him. After all, it’s the phone call she gets from Linda while The Shape strangles her with a phone cord which finally gets Laurie to come to him. If Laurie hadn’t thought it could possibly be a prank, despite her own instincts tell her things were off all day, she wouldn’t have crossed the street. If she’d have thought the call was the sound of someone dying, she’d have called the police. Instead, it’s Halloween, so the chances of it being a prank are exponentially higher than any other night of the year and Laurie feels she has to go check. It’s all a non-verbal form of gaslighting.
Beyond these, it’s the unknowable aspects of The Shape which make him most frightening. We don’t know why he’s doing any of this. We don’t know what is happening behind the mask. If any of our questions could be answered, we’d have something we could pin this on, an explanation. If we could see him smile as he commits these acts of violence, we could say it’s a deep sadism. If we could see him grimace in pain and/or revulsion, we could say it was some kind of psychopathy driving him. The pieces and the clues are there. None of them are directly spelled out though. The Shape never rips off the mask and goes into a monologue to explain it. We treat the violence of masculinity in real life in much the same way. Despite all of the evidence we have, we refuse to acknowledge there is an aspect to the way the socialization of masculinity works which guarantees shocking violence, even when we do have men who explicitly outline the connections. As a result, this violence seems unknowable, and none of our other explanations are complete or satisfactory. Under the surface, behind the mask, it’s the lessons of masculinity driving men who themselves don’t fully understand this is the case. Like The Shape, they’re acting on a subconscious set of directives which feel imperative and urgent, like instincts, and they have no idea why. Because the rest of us will accept incomplete excuses or half formed explanations, they don’t even make it to “why” most of the time.
Through the years, there’s been a lot written and said about this idea that the mask and the coveralls help to create a perception of there being a void behind them or beneath them. It’s definitely true, and part of what makes The Shape such a frightening character. That’s only half the story though. A void suggests an emptiness which can never be filled. The featureless mask and the coverall’s are also representative of being anything or anyone, while being a void at the same time, and this is the truly horrifying thing about The Shape’s appearance.
There is no template, no particular visual cues which delineate a man willing to perpetrate the violence of masculinity’s worst aspects on others and one who isn’t. It can be Bill Cosby. It can be Matt Lauer. It can be Bill O’Reilly. It can be Ted Bundy. It can be Lonnie David Franklin Jr. It can be the black sheep uncle or the trusted priest. From the most expensive hotels in the country to the highest poverty neighborhoods, and certainly the suburbs in between, they are there. This is something we’re coming to face as women continue to insist, “Yes, all men.” As has become part of the conversation and understanding, there’s no way to just look at someone and tell they have some kind of catastrophically dangerous masculinity driving some sense of themselves.
This is the other side of the coin from The Shape being a void. It’s not just a void, it’s also a stand in. From a distance, the mask itself could be any man. In the same way there’s only a very vague understanding of why he’s stalking Laurie, it’s so often the same with the kind of violence hiding in homes and small towns. There’s only the most vague sense of why it happens. Everyone knows Chris drinks too much, and sometimes, that ends up with him beating his wife. Well, Kevin is a teetotaler, and he beats his wife and his kids too. John is depressed because he’s unemployed, so he has a short fuse. Ed has a short fuse because he’s very successful and his job is extremely demanding and high pressure. The Shape just happened to be Michael Myers, but it could just as easily have ended up being any number of men in a small town or big city.
The men who commit these acts of violence (and many others) will always give a reason. Collectively, they’ll give a few million reasons. Those reasons are satisfying though. They always leave some feeling of never being quite the full story. It’s the classic example of “See what you made me do…” They don’t hold up under scrutiny, and more often than not, we may not be able to put a finger directly on it, but we know, if for no other reason than it is men who commit an exponentially higher rate of violence, masculinity is part of what’s creating it. The featureless aspect of the mask partially represents that it’s still clearly a masculine face, and even though we have fought so hard to deny it, we know that violence could be lurking in any random man we see. It’s as much that The Shape is hiding behind the faces of men in every town and city as it is that it could be any face behind that mask.
That violence isn’t just reserved for women either. He kills a mechanic in the beginning of the film, so that he can take the man’s coveralls. He kills Bob, Linda’s boyfriend because Bob is there or because he has a place for Bob in the grizzly tableau he’s going to make for Laurie to discover. Again, sure, there may be reasons for The Shape to employ this violence, but even those reasons are all about opening the opportunity for future violence.
“Halloween” distills it all into one entity, The Shape. In “Halloween,” the fictional town Haddonfield we’re introduced to doesn’t have men who beat or rape their wives or abuse their children or are given to acts of violence in defense of their masculinity when challenged by other men in the bars, living rooms, garages, and bedrooms. Haddonfield has The Shape, as if this violence is inescapable. It suggests that even if we could somehow strip the violent men out of our lives, cities and towns, we still have this specter of masculinity to fear, because The Shape would just take their place.
This is even alluded to when Loomis goes to the graveyard and finds the gravestone for Judith Myers, Michael’s sister, has been stolen. As they’re walking to the grave site, the cemetery caretaker tells a story about Charlie Bowes, who some years earlier, killed his entire family with an axe. Like Michael killing Judith, no one knows why Charlie Bowes killed his wife and two daughters. The caretaker is telling this story, specifically in relation to not being able to understand where this shocking violence came from.
This also applies to Loomis insistence that Michael Myers is the personification of evil. In many ways, it’s very much the way we treat the violence of masculinity. In the same way the men who commit violence come up with a million reasons for it, as a culture and society, we’ve doggedly refused to really examine why there is such a connection between masculinity and violence. Depending on our own backgrounds, we’ll always find another excuse in the perpetrators background. If we’re from the kind of background that affords us life in suburbia, we find reason for this violence in poverty (which violence is surely tied to, but we’ll ignore the intersection of masculinity and poverty). We might also find an explanation which says too much wealth and privilege leads to a lack of empathy (without also recognizing the interplay between wealth and masculinity, as well, much less the consistent message given to boys where strength and emotions are concerned). Only recently has masculinity’s direct involvement in these issues started being given a hearing outside of niche academic circles or in the fields related to domestic violence.
The other piece of supporting evidence is that Michael commits his first act of violence at age 6, which is when the identification with gender starts to become most solid in boys. Nothing in the film suggests there was anything unusual or abnormal about Michael prior to Halloween night, 1978. It’s that night, when he kills his sister that he becomes The Shape, and coincidentally, the same age boys tend to start being more aware of the expectations of gender and masculinity. Micheal no longer exists after that night, which is why he goes directly to acquire a mask before going about his grizzly business.
Small towns across the country, and the idyllic looking homes that line their streets are often hiding terrible violence, and the overwhelming majority of it does come at the hands of men. It was a kind of truth which was beginning to make it’s way to the surface and the start of confronting it began in the 1970’s. Feminism as a cultural force had taken hold in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. With John Carpenter and Debra Hill having grown up in this same small town America, it’s impossible for them to not know the kinds of secrets hiding in homes within their communities. It may not have been the kind of knowledge that was ubiquitous, but it was there. Every town has them. “Oh, that family has problems. I feel so bad for those kids.” We, as a culture, were still willing to keep participating in keeping it secret. When Carpenter decided to write a story about the danger hiding in those small towns, he may not have known he was writing a near perfect avatar for the real life danger that exists in them, but he did.
Maybe this is part of how The Shape is created though too. It was during the years we were still much more likely to keep the secrets of this hidden violence of masculinity, and we may have been talking very directly about the inequalities between the genders in many ways, but we certainly weren’t talking about the specific relationship of many of the parts of masculine socialization which invites it in many ways, and guarantees it in others. The Shape ends up being an instructive metaphor for the relationship between masculinity and violence. Less than the film is directly interested in imposing a patriarchal value system on women, the result is actually a pretty damning exhumation of violence surrounding masculinity and how poorly we’ve even examined it, much less attempted to do anything about it.
The Shape is terrifying because the idea of him is lurking in our subconscious minds long before we ever see the film. “Halloween” just puts this idea on screen, and gives us a narrative reflecting our own questions about it. That is why it still has relevance and why it still has the capacity to creep audiences out 40 years later.