Lately non-genre publications/sites have been covering genre films, largely because that’s where the clicks lie. You get all the mainstream mags and the generic film blogs covering movies that were once the sole province of Fangoria or Starlog, and sometimes you end up with writers who don’t know a lot about genre doing the coverage. Add to that hot take/problematic culture and you end up with something along the lines of what Little White Lies published recently, “How Halloween stoked our fears and misunderstanding of mental illness” by Frazer Macdonald.
The piece is well-intentioned – it takes to task how horror movies use mental illness as a shortcut to making a villain/killer scary – but it’s applied incorrectly. Very incorrectly. See, Michael Myers isn’t mentally ill. There’s nothing “wrong” with him, nothing to be “fixed” or healed. And that is what makes him scary.
It’s important to note that the crazy guy as villain predates Halloween by… well, if you’ve heard of Sawney Bean or Sweeney Todd you know it predates Halloween by centuries. Mental illness can be scary, not only because, as the piece notes, it allows the villain to be unpredictable/irrational, but also because we are afraid of it within ourselves. We are afraid of our own minds turning against us, and we are afraid that our strong emotions are just one step away from delusion and confusion. This is why the horror villain is almost always actually the horror hero – we often recognize our own darkness within them.
But anyway, Michael Myers isn’t mentally ill. I’m not sure how you watch Halloween and miss this. Yes, he’s in a mental institution, but that’s just because there’s nowhere else to put the young boy who brutally murdered his sister
and her boyfriend. We don’t have facilities for the evil. And that is what Myers is.
See, there’s a reason why his psychiatrist is running around trying to shoot Michael Myers – he is beyond psychiatry. What Loomis sees in Michael is not a mental problem, either neurotic or chemical, but rather actual evil, a darkness that goes beyond healthy and sick. There’s a primordial thing happening inside Michael Myers that isn’t quite human, despite it being within a human form.
But don’t take my words for it, take the words of Loomis himself (a quote which, bizarrely, leads the LWL article):
“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was pure and simply evil.”
What makes Michael Myers scary isn’t that he has a problem in his brain, but rather that he does not. He is this cancerous anomaly that arises in little Haddonfield, a bucolic suburban town. You have to take Myers in the context of his time and understand the 1970s and the world as it was, and what he represented.
John Carpenter is part of the post-WWII wave of ‘movie brat’ filmmakers, artists who came of age in a world saturated with three things: television, nuclear weapons and the knowledge that evil was real, thanks to the Nazis. He’s part of a generation that experienced a massive shift in American culture, as the nation shifted into being a global superpower, leaving behind the more agrarian vision of what the USA was all about. Carpenter was a boy in the 1950s, a decade where America’s myth-making machine was in full swing, but he would have been smart enough to see the rot beneath the Leave it to Beaver surface. Then he was a young man in the 1960s, a decade of incredible upheaval, and he watched America reckon with itself as it dealt with race, class, gender and war. But next was the 1970s, a decade defined by the burnout of the 60s, and over the course of that decade we saw American cities in decline, the Cold War hit stasis, the oil crisis, the ineptness of Gerald Ford and the emasculated presidency of Jimmy Carter. People were fleeing the cities for the suburbs, where they hoped to recapture a 50s purity (read: middle class whiteness).
But the truth was that the problems were not coming from outside the home. The 70s was also a big self help decade because it became clear that the problem started at home. Michael Myers represents the biggest fear of the self help decade – what if the problem can’t be fixed? What if the problem is fundamental, and innate and no amount of est or group therapy or copies of I’m Ok – You’re OK would heal what was broken?
Like another 1970s horror classic, The Exorcist, Halloween tackles the nature of evil. In The Exorcist evil is a cosmic force that cannot be escaped, something irrational and beyond our understanding. It comes even to tony Georgetown, to even the home of the wealthy and famous. In Halloween it’s scarier because it’s not supernatural. It’s like Germans loading Jews onto trains – it’s human, and present and here. It’s in your neighborhood. You can touch it. It can touch you. It can be inside your home.
This is what is fundamentally scary about Halloween – your cute small town with its perfect hedges and its autumnal leaves cannot keep evil out, because evil is not exterior to us. Evil is within us. It lives in our homes. It lives in our hearts. The devil cannot be cast out of Michael Myers because there’s no devil in there, just pure human evil.
To reduce Michael Myers to a crazy person (as Rob Zombie did in his remake) is to utterly misunderstand the character and what makes him work. No therapy or medication will take the edge off Michael Myers because he is simply a Shape of evil, containing the horrors of the 20th century, horrors that were visited upon humans by other mentally healthy humans. Later Halloween films make Michael the center of a Druidic cult, which while fun I think also misses the mark on the character. There’s nothing magical or extranormal about Michael Myers – he’s just really evil.
Now, if you want to argue that John Carpenter advanced harmful narratives of dualism, and that the very ideas of good and evil are reductive and keep us from dealing with the problems of the world, maybe I’ll hear you out (after I tell you to take it up with the Zoroastrians), but to claim that Halloween stigmatizes mental illness is to really ignore the psychiatrist chasing his patient with a gun. Either Loomis is the world’s worst mental health professional or he has been confronted with a truth that shatters his rational worldview: evil exists.