Michael Myers was more than just the first of many slashers, he was the quintessential boogieman that has yet to be duplicated. In Michael Myers we find a nexus point of fear that strikes deep into our primal selves. This is why the original Halloween (1978) remains unique and why it has joined an elite selection of very few horror films in the National Film Registry. Even more financially successful slasher franchises like Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) never captured what John Carpenter got from his human monster. And it is likely that no one ever will again.
How did John Carpenter do it? What were the origins of his conception of Michael Myers? How did he manage to capture the essence of evil in a single character? Unlike Wes Craven’s development of Freddy Krueger, there was no linear progression or clearly defined elements inside John Carpenter’s mind; none that has been revealed at least. Michael Myers formed naturally and, quite stunningly, without anyone involved in making the film really taking notice of his significance.
Devising Fertile Ground for a Boogeyman
Irwin Yablans was the Executive Producer of Halloween. He approached John Carpenter in early 1978 with an idea for a horror movie that had two elements: Babysitters and action that took place over the course of a single night. To Yablans’ knowledge, no one had ever made a horror movie about babysitters. Once more, because everybody had a babysitter growing up, it would hit at a more basic level and be associated with the innocence of youth. Yablans also erroneously believed that no one had done a one-night film before (presumably, he never saw Night of the Living Dead). But he liked the idea for budgetary reasons too, figuring it could probably be shot relatively cheaply, wrapping up filming in just three to four weeks.
The approach of using a single night would have a unique appeal for a filmmaker looking to set himself apart. John Carpenter was just that filmmaker. He immediately saw the film’s potential if the single night were to occur on Halloween, a holiday which also, surprisingly, had not attracted much attention from filmmakers. Calling the film ‘Halloween’ also left open the possibility for including a host of creative elements that would otherwise be precluded by Yablans’ original idea for a title: The Babysitter Murders. This is an important point to linger on, because it seems that right from the beginning, Carpenter wanted to do more than just a murder film, or an updated Psycho (1960).*
The Lack of Evidence
John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the script for Halloween in three weeks. But because Michael Myers had no lines, only his actions were described. There were quite a few shots that were supposed to be from his perspective and scenes in which the audience is supposed to see him, but the others do not. The kill scenes were also described in surprisingly graphic detail. But as anyone who reads the script will notice, the actions (and lines) that made it onto the final cut do not match what was written. The deviations are small, but noticeable, especially when considering the impact on the audience.
Carpenter improvised many of the scene particulars while directing the film, to include the camera angles. Once more, Carpenter never storyboarded Halloween before or during filming; he had it all in his mind. And unlike fellow horror filmmaker Wes Craven, he didn’t often speak about the process he went through when forming an idea. He revealed pieces of his thinking in interviews after the fact, but mostly just nuggets about circumstances and setting. For example, he emphasized in a post-Halloween interview that he wanted the town in the movie to be relatable to as many people as possible. “It could be any place in the Midwest… There’s always a house down the lane where somebody was killed or somebody went crazy in.”
Yet, when it came to the proverbial elephant in the room that made the film iconic, Carpenter was surprisingly silent. Instead when questioned about Michael Myers he would sluff it off with, “my idea was to do an old haunted house movie.” Which just leads to further questions, but tells us nothing about the genesis of the killer. So, we are only left with clues as to how Michael Myers came to be and not many at that.
John Carpenter’s Mind
In the absence of any direct quotes from John Carpenter about the process he went through to conjure the idea of Michael Myers and all the nuances of his character it’s worth examining the relevant influences on Carpenter himself:
- The horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) had a profound impact on the young filmmaker. Carpenter saw the film in Times Square in the mid-1970s, where he and others were mesmerized. “It was as if someone had stolen a camera and just started killing people.” Carpenter confessed. “That’s how real it felt.” At the time, Carpenter had only directed one feature film, Dark Star (1974), which did poorly in the States, but was a hit in the UK.
- Carpenter was also influenced by the Dario Argento murder mystery, Deep Red (1975), in which the kill scenes were shot closely and drawn out for effect.
- Finally and most significantly, Carpenter admired and sought to emulate the old greats like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Close friend and Halloween Film Editor Tommy Lee Wallace described Carpenter’s view of them as “highly disciplined master craftsmen, no-bullshit artists and unpretentious men who might scoff at any label smacking of art. John modeled himself after that.” While more pretentious types wanted to experiment, Carpenter wanted to master the medium.
Although not conclusive, these tidbits suggest that Carpenter was intimately familiar with on-screen killers and probably wanted to construct one that was just as memorable as Norman Bates or Leatherface.
On the Set ‘The Shape’ Comes Alive
Although everyone involved had received the script in advance, there was still a great deal of anticipation surrounding the nature of the killer, since he famously did not have any lines, or even a name. In the script, Michael Myers was referred to simply as ‘The Shape’. With a reference that ambiguous and prescribed actions that would only be followed loosely, Michael Myers could only be expressed in direction and execution.
Carpenter made clear that The Shape’s kills had to appear random. Yet, in the film audiences don’t so much understand the randomness as feel it. Actions make Michael Myers who he is. The more random, the more scary, because the more difficult they are for our minds to categorize. If we see a pattern, we can start to answer ‘why?’. But without that pattern, there is no ‘why’ and not knowing why makes it difficult to convince ourselves why that can’t happen to us.
Just as important was the framing of The Shape’s actions. That Michael Myers seems to stalk and kill without reason makes it more difficult to dismiss the fear this invokes, but the kills are also intimate – strangulations and stabbings – enabling us to feel them deeply. When paired with close-in shots juxtaposed to wider angles, a uniquely terrifying cinematic experience is born.
Not just in the script, but also on the set Michael Myers was referred to as ‘The Shape’. The mask used to hide the face of The Shape was actually a William Shatner mask, picked up at a local drug store by a production assistant. But it was modified to make it appear more non-descript and less distinct. In addition to the mask, The Shape wore a dark blue mechanic’s jumpsuit. The Shape became, as the name suggests, simply that. It was a blank canvass devoid of any character from which anything could manifest. So only actions, seemingly random actions, lived in it. It could become the act of killing itself, devoid of any flair or motivation like the more human Norman Bates. So we react to it without sympathy, hatred, or anger. We can only feel its malevolent actions that are at times almost superhuman. Thus there is nothing left for us to experience but fear and at times, terror.
Michael Myers’ motivation is not only irrelevant, but it would detract from the fear that comes from The Shape. As Tommy Lee Wallace put it, Carpenter wanted The Shape to exist without reason. He wanted it to be “unstoppable and almost unkillable.” But the intimateness of the killings grounded The Shape in the real world.
Much like the rest of The Shape’s actions during the course of shooting, the final scene of Halloween, where it gets up and walks away was done almost as an afterthought. Wallace summed up the intention behind the ending: “Okay, this was a story. But now its in your face, its on your street, it’s everywhere.” Just like the boogieman.
The Origins of Michael Myers
Michael Myers isn’t so much a character as a force that each of us recognizes with crystal clarity when we witness it, because it immediately inspires fear. As Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) put it in the film, he is “purely and simply evil”. And evil has no origins. It just is. Carpenter’s contribution then was to paint a portrait basic enough that the darkness could be seen unadorned. Perhaps he wasn’t being elusive when he said he just wanted to do a haunted house flick… He just left out that Michael Myers was the haunted house: The perfect vessel through which evil could flow.
*All claims that Carpenter based his killer on a true-to-life serial killer are bogus. In many cases the purported ‘true killer’ (e.g. Stanley Stiers) never even existed.
Reel Terror (2012) by David Konow