Some movies scare you in the moment. Some startle you. Some disturb with graphic imagery. Truth be told, a good majority of movies that actively set out to do such things and succeed, suffer from diminishing returns in this regard because once we adjust to what they are trying to achieve, attune ourselves accordingly and allow our brains to turn down their sensitivity, they lose their magic touch. We can anticipate when the jump scares are coming and over time graphic violence or gory imagery makes less and less of an impact.
Nevertheless, some movies have a unique staying power in that they can unsettle you time and again because they tap into something more primal. This is of course highly subjective as everyone will have different triggers specific to them and will hence respond to things others walk past without a care in the world. Some folks respond in such a way to the religiously themed horror of The Exorcist, The Omen, or The Conjuring while others will never be able to watch Jaws or Arachnophobia even though both films could be technically shown to a twelve-year-old kid. That’s because some movies don’t deal with scares. They deal with fear in its most primal, visceral form.
I remember vividly the time I watched Child’s Play at a young age and how I ended up having nightmares for weeks and months in addition to developing a paranoid fear of my sister’s dolls. I had a similar reaction to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which I also saw when I was perhaps too young to be watching it without any form of adult supervision. But then again, I was raised free-range as a latch-key kid, which seems unthinkable these days and (perhaps rightfully so) would attract the attention of child protective services. But I am not here to moan about my childhood woes. What I want to quickly home in on is what made these two films so damn effective in chronically disturbing my young self and it has to do with what I refer to as ‘unsettling ambiguity’.
After all, dolls are a classic example of this phenomenon as they are inanimate objects made to resemble living and breathing humans. Their eyes are empty beneath their gloss and their facial expressions – however artistically accomplished – bring the human mind to high alert and trigger its defences, perhaps because our brain is set to go into DEFCON1 whenever it is interacting with objects that look human but aren’t. If you trawl the depths of YouTube, you will find plenty of conspiracist ideas using this phenomenon to prove that at some point humans had a natural predator that preyed on them by impersonating other humans, but that’s beside the point and perhaps inflates the concept of our brains being attuned to send our bodies into a primally defensive mode of operation whenever interacting with something unsettlingly ambiguous. Which is why I believe Child’s Play used to be so effective on me and why it continues to exert its power on many other viewers.
The same goes for A Nightmare on Elm Street which I think is a bit easier to explain as its horror stems from the simple concept of not knowing what is a dream and what isn’t. I think we all have some experiences attesting to this, i.e. when we thought we were awake only to find out we were still dreaming. Not being an expert in neurochemistry or psychology I can only scratch my head and make a lot of noise about what I think the biological driving force underpinning this process truly is, but I can hypothesize that it might have something to do with a similar disconnect developing in our minds that tricks us into interrogating something surreal as an element of reality. This has little to do with the character of Freddy Krueger, a formidable villain in its conceptual design, but rather with the way Wes Craven would play with reality-bending ideas. In fact, the same effect is achieved by Satoshi Kon movies such as Perfect Blue and Paprika which openly prey on the viewers by pulling the rug from under them at every opportunity and continually forcing their brains to question where the reality ends and the dream begins.
However, their visceral firepower notwithstanding, Child’s Play and A Nightmare on Elm Street don’t work on me in the way they used to. Granted, they both managed to remain frighteningly effective for much longer than many other horror movies, but I no longer risk having nightmares for many weeks every time I want to catch up with Chucky or Freddy. But there is one film that to this day remains frighteningly effective in this regard and it’s John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Now, a lot has been said about this movie and by no means do I wish to retread this ground. It was an immensely influential piece of filmmaking for its time and ingenious in the way it capitalized on the trends of the era while remaining somewhat original. It was a bit of a lightning in a bottle in that it took fundamental concepts of giallo that had already permeated into the American cinema (think of De Palma movies from that time and early slashers like Black Christmas) and fused them with the socially-awake movies from preceding years, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. To this end, you can easily find some truly interesting interpretations of the film suggesting that Halloween introduced the horror to the suburbs and brought the idea of a Boogeyman to the porches of detached houses of the American middle class without their need to go out on the road and find horror in the backwoods of rural America. But that’s not why Halloween had such an impact on me, at least not primarily. The reason why John Carpenter’s breakout hit continues to be so effective and viscerally upsetting is because – much like Child’s Play and A Nightmare on Elm Street used to – its horror capitalizes on subtle unsettling ambiguity.
After all, what is Halloween about? Boiled down to essentials, it’s a film about an escaped mental patient going on a rampage in his hometown, likely driven by misogynistic rage. He is a man who hates women and after imprinting on a group of teenage girls, he feels compelled to re-enact the act of violence he perpetrated on his older sister when he was a young boy. That’s all there is to it. Or is it?
There are many reasons why Halloween works so well in the moment and some of them have to do with Carpenter opting to assume the point of view of the killer, shooting through his mask, having us listen to his steady breathing or see him lurk in the background in many places, the pinnacle of which is the now iconic scene where Laurie sits distraught thinking she killed him only for us to witness him sit up in complete silence and turn his head towards the camera. Interestingly, this fleeting moment of cinematic brilliance works to underscore what I think is responsible for the film’s unsung effectiveness, as it undercuts the fundamental notion that Michael Myers is a human. He was just stabbed in the eye and then in the chest! He should be dead!
But this isn’t where the story ends and in fact it only serves to vindicate what Dr Loomis has been telling everyone throughout the movie. He never refers to Michael as a human being but as a monster and something frighteningly inhuman. Before we see Michael sit up having been stabbed twice by Laurie, our brains are perfectly OK with the idea of dismissing Loomis because the evidence points to Michael being a human. After all, we saw him as a boy. Up until now, he has been cared for in a psychiatric hospital, probably by many nurses and doctors who would have likely objected to the idea of caring for a literal monster.
And this is where the genius of the film truly resides as – purposefully or not – John Carpenter continually plays with how the character of Michael Myers should be perceived. We are led to believe he is a human. We see him interact with the environment. We hear him breathe. He drives a car! But then along comes Loomis to tell us horror stories about how there’s nothingness behind his eyes and that beneath his mask there’s only darkness. Naturally, our brains are geared to dismiss what we hear when presented with conflicting evidence we can witness ourselves, so we file Loomis under ‘deranged’ and interrogate the character of Michael Myers as a human bent on killing women. Simples.
But then, this flesh-and-blood human rises from the dead, which is where the unsettling ambiguity behind the horror of Halloween comes into its own, because it undermines the way our brains have compartmentalized the universe of the film. It turns out that Loomis was right after all and that beneath that iconic lifeless mask lurks not a human but a bona fide Boogeyman, fear incarnate that descended upon the leafy suburbs of Haddonfield, Illinois. Our brains only get a few precious moments to contemplate this sudden polar reversal of the film’s fundamental make-up before Michael pounces once more and Laurie must fight him off. And just when we might start getting comfortable with seeing Michael Myers as a supernatural villain capable of lifting grown men with his one hand before pinning them with his knife to the wall, the mask comes off. The lifeless visage is peeled away and we see that Michael is indeed a human! What gives? He’s just a deranged man!
What is more, he is a deranged man who gets shot in the chest multiple times by Loomis only seconds after he hides his face beneath the mask once more. He bleeds. He stumbles backwards and falls out the window, thus bringing Laurie’s ordeal to an end. Or does it? Again, for a brief few moments our brains have to adjust to the shifting landscape of what’s real and what isn’t by incorporating this new piece of information and it – again, purposefully or otherwise – works only to send our minds into a tailspin and question reality as a whole… that is until we find out that Michael’s supposed dead body is gone a few seconds before the movie ends with a selection of static shots of deserted streets of Haddonfield, leaving us with this fundamental question unresolved. We never know if Michael Myers is a human. In fact, he might be both human and inhuman at the same time, which is a concept I find unsettlingly ambiguous.
This constant flip-flopping between having us conceptualize Michael Myers as a human and a supernatural villain is what makes Halloween so enduringly effective as an iconic work of horror. It’s not the jump scares, Jamie Lee Curtis’ acting, the kills or the visual conceptualization of Michael Myers as a masked villain that give Halloween its persistent staying power. It’s the fact that, perhaps completely accidentally or as a work of unparalleled screenwriting ingenuity, Michael Myers transcends the concept of a slasher villain that many other filmmakers have since failed to replicate. Michael Myers is both the Boogeyman haunting the sleepy suburbs and a human that bleeds. He is fear incarnate in that it forces our brains to assume that unpredictably inhuman danger may come from something we might be tricked into thinking is rational, predictable and explainable. He is both a concept and its personification. It tricks our internal defences, flies under our radars undetected, disguised as something we can rationalize and unleashes its true destructive power by having us question the fundamental make-up of reality. He is one of us, but isn’t.