How do we reckon with the presence of evil in the world? Halloween (2018), the latest contribution to the Halloween franchise begun by John Carpenter and his collaborators back in 1978, offers us many different responses to Michael Myers and his impact on the world, but it clearly prefers one specific answer to this question.
We can study, assess, and classify evil, its causes, effects, and practitioners, as Dr. Sartain has chosen to do with Myers. We can imprison it and confine it to a sanitarium. We can commodify our interest in it, as the film’s two true crime podcasters do. We can trivialize it and normalize it, as one high schooler does early in the film when he compares the body count of the original events Halloween to the larger scenes of violence of recent years. We can disavow its impact and try to live lives beyond its purview, keep a safe distance from it and all those it has touched, as the Strodes seem to do with Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), the one family member who refuses to ignore its endurance and move past its impact. We can attempt to box it in, draw flimsy lines of protection between it and us, as the sanitarium’s staff does with Myers in the film’s opening scenes, establishing boundaries it has no way of truly policing and enforcing, as the rest of the film and its ultraviolence demonstrates. We can tell ourselves that we are confronting it, as one of the movie’s podcasters attempts to do, holding up the iconic Michael Myers mask, demanding that the evil who wears it accept his courage, his desire to acknowledge and understand the evil in the world. But evil doesn’t play by these rules, offers no explanation that proves satisfying to its victims, no rationale that justifies our intellectual curiosity about its longevity.
I recently read Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Surviving An American Obsession (2018), and I was particularly taken with her dismissal of the serial killer as a misunderstood genius or criminal mastermind, popular interpretations from popular culture. The motivations behind those who commit evil in the world are often crude, depressing in their simplicity, monotonous, devastatingly familiar and mundane. Dr. Sartain, who has devoted his life to studying Michael Myers, feels such a rush when he ambushes someone and kills them, beaming with newfound power, so much so that he takes the mask of Michael Myers and puts it on. The lesson he devotes decades to is quickly learned by audiences and immediately rejected by the filmmakers as obvious, clear as day. There’s no beauty in this revelation, no sense that a killer possesses some unique intelligence or understanding. Yes, anyone can do what Michael Myers has chosen to do with his life.
The podcasters, who fetishize Myers and his mask and buy their way into his traumatic narrative, literally paying Laurie Strode thousands of dollars so she will grant them an audience, seem like a cautionary tale about privilege and consumption. They offer us no real insights on evil, and the film doesn’t grant them credentials or establish their interest as worthwhile. It’s interesting to see them here, given the current popularity of true crime programming, literature, and podcasts in North America. They want to interrogate evil, bring it to light, but they don’t seem interested in confronting where these impulses to interrogate come from, why they feel so compelled to insert themselves and their perspectives into these spaces, the limits of how they describe, uncover, and strive to comprehend these horrific events.
For Laurie Strode and her creators, evil, when it is recognized, when it is allowed to persist, when it reveals itself as easily comprehensible in a world that fails to act on this knowledge, can only be confronted in one way. It must be eradicated. When Strode comes face to face with Myers once again, the showdown isn’t glorified: Myers hides, and Strode is almost immediately overtaken when he strikes. The filmmakers understand what audiences want to see, but they leave hints that suggest alternate, unsatisfying endings. Strode has prepared herself and her daughter for decades, but there are moments that suggest her determination and commitment are not guarantees that she will be successful in destroying Michael Myers.
It was particularly striking to see this movie on the eve of midterm elections in the United States, an occasion that feels more and more like a reckoning for Americans who believe that the problems facing the country can be addressed through the established protocols and formal channels of our government. We are told, repeatedly, by politicians, celebrities, podcasters and social media savants, that we can be saved by the power of voting, that the system works for us, that our problems with evil have a clear solution, that we haven’t already, for years, centuries, normalized and validated various kinds of evil, some of which would be right at home in a horror film. In Halloween, the institutions designed to protect us are dispensed with quickly and without mercy: prisons are not confining, domestic spaces can be easily disrupted, police cars will not protect us. One of my favorite minor characters in the film, Sheriff Barker, laughs at the thought of disrupting daily life when the first victims of Michael Myers are discovered: “You can’t cancel Halloween!” This is a clear echo of Jaws, but it’s particularly striking in a cultural climate where the violence of men against women is often treated as a disruption of the lives of men, an inconvenience.
How do we reckon with the presence of evil in the world? The decision to take action is not easy or taken lightly, and the victories don’t offer tidy resolutions. In a recent interview Jamie Lee Curtis has noted that this wasn’t an easy movie for her to make. There’s a real attempt here to reckon with the legacy of the franchise in this new Halloween. The original film terrified me as a kid: its insistence that the comforts of the home can be violated with no explanation still hurts. The new film reminds us that this threat is still out there
Halloween is also very funny at points: it’s not a somber affair. But it does take its characters, their actions, and the consequences of its scenes of violence pretty seriously. Its high school characters are particularly compelling, and when some of them fall victim to Myers we feel that these lives are cruelly and unfairly cut short.
Overall, it was pretty cathartic to watch a movie in the fall of 2018 where people (and more specifically, women) stepped up and took pretty direct and significant actions when confronted with a serious threat that had little concern for their well-being, a force of evil that wasn’t invested in attempts to comprehend or contextualize it, an agent of violence and death that had revealed its true colors long ago and had no interest in redemption, no time for rational debate, no cares beyond its own.