Image Source: Djano23 at deviantART via In the Mouth of Dorkness.
In Halloween II (1981), Donald Pleasence's psychiatrist character mumbles about the meaning of Hallowe'en. He says it really refers to the pagan Gaelic festival of Samhain, the start of the darker half of the year. This seasonal shift provides an elemental connection to the other world, to memory, death, and ancestors. The spiritual dimension is also an elaborate folkloric metaphor for access to the darker parts of ourselves. The screenplay combines Christian symbolism with these ideas:
Samhain, it means the loft of the dead. The end of summer. The festival of Satan. ... In order to please the gods, the druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals were burned alive. By observing the way they died the druids believed they could see elements of the future. 2000 years we've come no closer. Samhain is not spirits, it's not goblins, ghosts or witches. It's the unconscious mind. We're all afraid of the darkness inside ourselves.
Horror films are morality plays. The horror stems from some transgression or violation through indulgence of the unspeakable. The story is about a collapse due to that degradation and the effort to correct the problem, to return to safety and security, to survive.
A collection of African horror stories on Wattpad offer typical examples. Swish, Swish! is a warning against laziness, vanity, selfishness, shortcuts around hard work, and hurting others to get ahead. Another, The Witch's Mist, is a grisly injunction against black magic and vampirism (here the literally cannibalistic form, not the soul-sucking variety). Cannibalism, the ultimate horror, is never far away, as the current lifestyle and tribal subculture of human-blood-drinking vampires show.
William Shatner as Captain James Kirk.
William Shatner talks about how a cast of his face was used for the Michael Myers face mask. Video Source: Youtube.
It is fascinating that the film makers in Halloween used a mask of William Shatner's face to make Michael Myers's face mask. One story goes that they simply bought a Star Trek mask from a store and painted it white. But Shatner claims that they used a Captain Kirk death mask that was made on the Star Trek set. Captain Kirk represents the highest impulse in the modern male hero - a push toward the future, to go where no man has gone before, to take the best of ourselves to the stars. It didn't take much to invert that image, encapsulated in Shatner's youthful, handsome features, into the absolute pit of human destruction that is 21-year-old Michael Myers. And that is the brilliant, buried visual message in the Myers mask: it doesn't take much to find the flip side of the coin.
Halloween hints that sometimes we don't have a choice about falling into darkness. In the screenplay, Laurie's teacher talks about fate:
You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Rollins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is a very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with. ... [H]ow does Samuel's view of fate differ from that of Costaine?
LAURIE Costaine wrote that fate was somehow related only to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire and water.
TEACHER (V.O.) That's right, Samuels definitely personified fate.
Michael Myers unmasked in Halloween (1978). The film makers wanted to play against type and picked a different actor for the unmasking, to give Michael a twisted but "angelic" look.
AMC documentary on making of Halloween. Video Source: Youtube.
So, there's a reason we tell these stories every year like clockwork, to remind ourselves where the limits are; why they're there; how easy it is to cross them. As much as the killer in slasher flicks or the ghost in a film like The Changeling (1980) sends a message about where something has gone horribly wrong, the other characters in a horror story are just as important. Each character in the story represents different choices in the face of adversity. Everything they say and do labels them archetypically. This is one reason why The Walking Dead is so wildly popular. Values are in flux, and The Walking Dead offers a cast of characters, each of whom represents a choice about values, and ultimately, survival. The story tells you which ideas are best suited to the times. Cracked.com lists the 25 characters who will get killed in the story because they represent some quality that, on its own, can threaten basic survival. Sometimes, the message is inherently racist, as non-white males are (or were) often killed off in horror movies. The most common victim is the slutty girl, followed by the snarky chick, the clueless angry (often racist) guy, the nerd, the unreasonable skeptic, the hippie, the suit, and the self-established authority figure.
As much as the genre condemns the antagonist and these lesser characters, it also insists on survival, and for that it needs the Girl Who Survives. Feminist theorists have dissected this trope to death. Certainly, there is a big contrast between the annoyingly passive female character in the first Night of the Living Dead film (1968) and the stronger heroines from the 1970s onward. But the choice of a female character to persevere in these stories is less about politicized gender awareness and more about the primal fact that survivability of the human female surpasses that of the male. Scientific American:
With respect to that most essential proof of robustness—the power to stay alive—women are tougher than men from birth through to extreme old age. ... It turns out that the females of most species live longer than the males. This phenomenon suggests that the explanation for the difference within humans might lie deep in our biology.
Could it be that women live longer because they are less disposable than men? This notion, in fact, makes excellent biological sense. In humans, as in most animal species, the state of the female body is very important for the success of reproduction. The fetus needs to grow inside the mother’s womb, and the infant needs to suckle at her breast. So if the female animal’s body is too much weakened by damage, there is a real threat to her chances of making healthy offspring. The man’s reproductive role, on the other hand, is less directly dependent on his continued good health.
The final girl is a trope in thriller and horror films (particularly slasher films) that specifically refers to the last woman or girl alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story. The final girl has been observed in dozens of films, including Halloween and its remake, Friday the 13th and its reboot, A Nightmare on Elm Street and its remake, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its remake, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hellraiser, Alien, The Strangers, The Ring, The Grudge, Terror Train, Event Horizon, 30 Days of Night, The Cabin in the Woods, "Evil Dead", "P2", and Resident Evil. There are also examples of final girls in other genres as well. ... Clover suggests that in these films, the viewer begins by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experiences a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie Strode, one of the original 'final girl' characters in the Halloween franchise. Image Source: Strictly Horror.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
Check out other blogs observing the Countdown to Hallowe'en!