Halloween (1978) is a simple story. It’s about, as Ghostface put it in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) a guy who “has the white mask and stalks the babysitters.” That’s truly the gist of it, and yet this is a film, a concept even, that has lasted for forty years. It is as popular now as it has ever been. Michael Myers is a true cinematic icon. But even in his sheer simplicity, there are individual factors that have gone into making him one of the biggest movie monsters of the latter half of the twentieth century. Everything pulls from somewhere, and even though this character is a blank shape of a human being, there are a staggering amount of individual pieces that went into creating this faceless killer. Inspirations pulled from so many unexpected places that were blended together until the resulting image was a blank, emotionless, ever-staring white mask. After all, when you mix every color together, the end result is white.
To begin, we have to trace the origins of the movie itself, to the idea conceived by Irwin Yablans to do a picture called The Babysitter Murders. Before John Carpenter was even hired to direct the film, Yablans knew that he wanted to do a simple, cheap thriller that could be done quickly and efficiently, but he wanted a concept that would still terrify audiences and make them leap out of their seats. He wanted to give them something they could identify with, to make the terror strike closer to home. At that time, the answer was simple: if you wanted to target American teenagers, you set your sights on babysitters.
Even today, almost every teen in the country has babysat at some point or another. That hook, before the holiday even came into play, was what sold producer Moustapha Akkad to lead him to front the $350,000 needed to make the picture. But stories about babysitters in peril were not new at the time. Far from it, in fact, they were told and retold almost religiously. Halloween, by virtue of simply being a movie about Midwestern teenagers terrified by an unknown assailant, draws much of its inspiration from urban legends. These stories were the first real instances of American mythology, considering the country as a mixture of different heritages from all over the world.
These stories were American folklore, told with the same purpose and intent of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but updated for then-modern listeners. They were meant to shock children into behaving, but like the best fairy tales, the children ignored the moral lesson to focus on the gruesome details, telling the stories around the campfire and adding more and more visceral, gruesome additions each time. Urban legends of this sort truly rose to prominence in the 1950s, when John Carpenter was a young and impressionable boy who would have been truly impacted by them.
Some of those stories make their way into forming the skeleton of what became Halloween. One of the most infamous urban myths in American history, “The Hook,” tells of a young couple making out in their car who find themselves terrified by an unnamed madman who has just escaped from a local mental institution. Stretch that concept to 90 minutes and you have something very closely resembling Halloween. But there’s another urban legend, one that directly influenced the film in an even more obvious way: the story of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.”
The story centers on a young woman harassed by phone calls from a man repeatedly asking her to go upstairs and check the children, only to eventually discover that the calls are coming from inside the house and that the children are dead. None of these elements make it into Halloween in any truly concrete way, but that core concept of the babysitter in peril remains. That alone planted the seeds for the film more than anything else. Those other details of the story would at least be alluded to in the movie. Laurie Strode is harassed on the phone by Michael Myers, but it’s more mysterious and less immediately terrifying because he does not speak, so she is not readily aware of the danger, nor does she even know she’s on the phone with a maniac, even as she’s listening to him strangle her friend to death. Before venturing over to the Wallace house for what kicks off the final chase of the film, Laurie actually does go upstairs and check the children to make sure that they are safe.
But of course, The Babysitter Murders is not the title that the we know and love. Wanting to set the film on Halloween night for that extra spooky flair, Irwin Yablans was stunned to learn that not only had there never actually been a film titled Halloween before, but there hadn’t even been a movie with Halloween in the title in general. The holiday lent itself to horror perfectly, so it was naturally surprising that it had never really been capitalized on before. With that in mind, it’s worth tracing the origins—or at least the development—of Halloween from its roots to the commercialized celebration of all things spooky it had become by the time that Halloween was released.
That’s not an easy task for a holiday that’s been celebrated for thousands of years, even predating Christianity. Those Celtic origins prove important not only to certain aspects of the original, but to the Halloween franchise as a whole. In its pre-Christian form, most of what we know as Halloween originated as Samhain, the Celtic festival of the end of summer, mixed with the festival of the dead, Parentalia. Those formed the basis of our customs and the early Christians even adopted some of those customs, naturally taking the holiday for themselves and renaming it All Hallow’s Evening, eventually resulting in the contraction, Halloween.
While so much has changed over time, the basic customs were all there, thousands of years ago. Pumpkins (though they were turnips originally, evolving into pumpkins over time), Jack O’Lanterns, wearing masks and disguising one’s face as they roam about the village, those are all key components of Halloween that were also part of those early Celtic celebrations.
Other than the setting itself, these things don’t at first glance appear to factor all that much into the original film. They become much more prominent in much more evident ways as the franchise goes along, getting abundantly clearer and clearer, whereas the original is more subtle in its approach. But these elements of the holiday itself do still factor into the original Halloween in a very prominent way. Michael Myers might not talk, might seem at first glance like a basic slasher, stalking teenage girls and slicing them up and moving onto the next, but he is a man of tradition when it comes to Halloween. Or at least, that’s the way he’s depicted in the first film.
In Carpenter’s Halloween, Michael Myers is a classical trickster as much as he is a maniacal murderer. He’s embracing the holiday itself on every conceivable level, he’s just celebrating it in his own very twisted way. When we’re introduced to him in the opening scene of the movie, he’s just returning home from trick-or-treating, saving the ultimate trick for his sister, Judith, slaughtering her in her bedroom while still dressed in his costume, almost separating himself from the act. It’s a trick for Judith, but a treat for young Michael, and this perverse celebration of the holiday comes to define the character throughout the feature.
In the holiday’s earliest incarnations, people believed that the days surrounding their celebration were also the days in which the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead were thinnest, so they initially took to wearing masks to disguise themselves as ghosts and demons in order to trick any that might come through that barrier into believing that they were one of their own. In Halloween, Michael essentially does the opposite. The holiday had become so commercialized by that point, that everyone wore a mask and roamed the street. Here, a devil could essentially disguise themselves as a man disguising themselves as a devil, and roam the streets completely unnoticed. Michael’s blank mask is the perfect disguise, because he’s wearing it on the one day no one will notice. Throughout the film, Michael sets up scares and gags that really serve no purpose other than his own amusement, even leaving a jack-o-lantern in the Wallace bedroom that he must have carved himself and wearing a ghostly sheet to prank Lynda into believing that he’s her boyfriend, Bob.
Haunted attractions were a creation of the twentieth century, something that only continued to build and build in popularity by the time in the 1970s that Halloween was released. There was something about a walk-through attraction designed to do nothing but frighten its attendees that people immediately latched onto. By most accounts, the first of this type of attraction was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House, which opened in 1915. Now simply known as Haunts, more often than not, these houses are an integral part of the modern day celebration of Halloween. And they’re somewhat integral to the film itself, even if not in an immediately obvious way. After all, Michael Myers is much more interested in scaring people in the movie than he appears to be in killing them. Killing is just, ultimately, a means to an end and the punch line to a joke that only he could possibly understand.
Michael spends most of the movie watching people. He’s a voyeur. He’s observing them, letting himself be seen in order to raise their unease and his own amusement, but there is, in some strange way, an end goal. Essentially, he spends the first two thirds of Halloween setting up what could by all accounts by described as a haunted attraction for Laurie to walk through at the end. One of the most underrated and unnerving parts of the film is not only that Michael does this, but that he planned for this. It’s no wonder, either, as he had fifteen years to think about what he’d do when he got out. The only reason he would steal a headstone early in the day is because he would know that he’d have a body to lay in front of it by the end of that night.
In John Carpenter’s Halloween, Michael Myers is a showman. He doesn’t just want to kill people, he wants his handiwork to be observed and that’s why it is so horrifying when Laurie enters that upstairs bedroom to find her best friend Annie sprawled out on the bed with her throat slit, propped up in front of Judith Myers’ grave with a jack-o-lantern flickering beside her. Michael rigs the bodies of all of Laurie’s friends to jump out at her as she makes her way through the Wallace home, it’s his own grotesque version of a walk-through haunted house.
But the unique thing about Michael Myers is how he blends the line between the real and the unreal. In terms of the plot, he’s simply a boy who murdered his sister as a child and grew into adulthood in the care of Smith’s Grove Sanitarium before escaping to pick up where he left off. The supernatural elements are peppered throughout, mostly in the warnings of Doctor Loomis, before taking concrete form at the end of the film. Nonetheless, there are elements of real-world horror that one has to take into account when thinking of Michael Myers, the boy who made headlines for slaughtering his older sister.
After all, this was the element of Halloween that people could probably relate to the most in 1978. At this point in time, true crime was becoming more and more sensationalized. Violence wasn’t being buried anymore, it was being dragged into the light because it sold papers in a way that fluff pieces no longer did. Even the picturesque nuclear family of the 1950s would read in stunned horror about the discovery of the Ed Gein farmhouse. Serial killers were simply becoming a concrete reality that people were learning to live with—or more specifically—learning to live with how fascinated they’d already become with them. After Vietnam, violence had simply become an everyday reality that people had to adjust to. They’d seen unimaginable, gruesome horrors every night on the six o’clock news, sometimes watching the mangled bodies of their lovers, their sons, carried out of the jungle. Sensationalizing it was simply a way of processing it and accepting it as a reality that was not going to go away any time soon.
Michael Myers does not bear much in common with real-life serial killers at first glance. He is, after all, a more mythologized and archetypal killer than someone like Charles Starkweather. But there are repeated traits of serial killers that do match up with Michael as he is depicted in the original film. First and foremost, there’s the fact that serial killers very often start by killing a member of their own family. For most of them, it’s a parent, more often than not their mother. For Michael, it’s his older sister, which seems totally different unless one remembers just how young he was when he claimed his first victim. Judith was much older than Michael and probably still a domineering and authoritative figure in his life, maybe even more so than his parents, as that’s the age when parents tend to still be more doting than strict.
Many serial killers have often been driven to recreate their original crime, either by chasing the thrill they felt from claiming their first victim or attempting to physically recreate specific details in order to somehow have that same experience a second time. Ted Bundy, for example, fixated on an ex-girlfriend who had never seemed to care for him as deeply as he had cared for her, so he mostly set his sights on victims who shared some of her specific traits. These things are incredibly noteworthy when thinking about Michael Myers, who takes this obsession to the point of ritual. It’s a ceremonious event for him, especially after the original film gave way to a franchise, to break free, don his mask and begin his spree anew. There’s a reason so many of the movies in this series follow the same formula—because that’s who the character is. He’s a repeater.
It’s especially true in the original, in which there is no motive for why Michael is doing any of the things that he’s doing. Watching the film without the ties of the familial knowledge that would define the series, one can pretty much piece together that Michael kills his sister, then breaks out and selects three girls all around his sister’s age—fixating specifically on the tall girl with the long brown hair who, in those respects, resembles Judith the most.
The most shocking element of Michael’s backstory, though, is the very fact that he was only a child when he took his first life. The idea of another human being slicing their own sister up with a knife is unnerving, but there’s a much more deeply disturbing layer added to that when the murderer is a six-year-old boy. Children who kill are a very real thing, though, and always have been. They were, like all shocking acts of violence, gaining more and more publicity by the 1960s and ‘70s as well. In 1968, a decade before the release of Halloween, a young girl named Mary Bell murdered a four-year-old child the day before her twelfth birthday. She even left a note claiming responsibility for the crime. That last bit in particular matches up pretty directly with Michael’s initial crime, as he makes no attempt to hide it, but simply waits for his parents to find him with the knife in his hand.
The year after Halloween’s release, sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer would commit one of the most infamous mass killings by a minor in American history, shooting up Grover Cleveland Elementary School and offering no motive other than the words “I don’t like Mondays.” As little motivation as Michael Myers himself, and even more terrifying to think about.
But of course, Michael Myers is not just a “realistic” killer. In the film, he’s built up as an otherworldly presence and barely even referred to by his name. In fact, while both his first and last name are spoken several times, he’s never actually referred to by both until the sequel. In the script itself, he’s referred to only as the shape, conveying the idea that while this might have the form of a human being, it isn’t one. Throughout the film, perhaps more than anything else, Michael’s referred to by another name: the boogeyman.
The kids at school harass Tommy Doyle and make him believe that the boogeyman is going to get him that night. When he catches his first glimpse of Michael Myers outside the window, he’s sure that it’s the boogeyman coming to get him, and tries to warn Laurie of the imminent danger, but she tells him that there’s no reason to be afraid. By the end of the night, however, she is the one who’s terrified, looking to Loomis to state with some confidence “It was the boogeyman,” while he reassures her that it was. It’s as good a name as any for the evil he’d been warning people about for the better part of fifteen years.
But what is the boogeyman? The word bogey derives itself from the Middle English bogge, meaning “hobgoblin,” but many other cultures have their own names that sound incredibly similar to what we hear as “boogeyman,” from the German butzemann to the Norse busemann. In most cultures, the boogeyman is a kind of catch-all demon, a monster used by parents to frighten children into good behavior. The method behind the boogeyman stories is the same as the urban legends Halloween borrows so heavily from, and as the film evidences, these stories are then reclaimed by the children themselves to scare one another instead.
There is no specific appearance for the boogeyman in most stories, it simply just is. It is incredibly non-specific, making the blank slate of Michael Myers’ mask the perfect embodiment of this monster. Francisco Goya’s 1797 artwork Que viene el Coco depicts the boogeyman approaching two terrified children who are held tight in the arms of a protective mother. Swap that mother for Laurie Strode, and you essentially have Halloween. We don’t see any of the boogeyman in this description, it’s all left to the imagination. In fact, the creature is disguised under a sheet, something that Michael obviously does himself at one point in the movie. The title of the artwork, Que viene el Coco even translates to “The Boogeyman is Coming,” a line directly stated in the film.
Of course, when John Carpenter came on board to write Halloween alongside Debra Hill, as well as direct it, he shaped it into the iconic classic it has gone on to become. Being a filmmaker and a very film-minded person in general, he brought a lot of the cinematic inspiration to Halloween that has defined it more than anything else. The influence ranged from Alfred Hitchcock to Orson Wells. Hitchcock’s influence was the most obvious, as Carpenter named Loomis after the male lead of Psycho (1960), a movie very similar to Halloween in the fact that it centers on people being unsuspectingly terrified by a knife-wielding maniac.
Although Norman Bates is a very different killer from Michael Myers, there are similarities, at least cinematically. In the film’s two murder sequences, the killer is formless. It’s a black, shadowed shape. We see nothing of the person committing the heinous act except for the clear gleam of the knife. That’s what our attention is drawn to. Halloween takes the same basic approach in a different way, hiding the killer’s face behind a mask, even though we as an audience already know who it is while Psycho’s hiding of Bates’ face was meant to hold off the reveal of who the killer actually was.
The opening shot is lifted heavily from Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil (1958), which featured the same kind of long dolly and saw the camera move back up into the air in a very similar fashion to when young Michael is unmasked in Halloween. There are many other cinematic inspirations that helped form Carpenter’s film, with one of the biggest of them being the 1960 French film Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face.) That film centers on a young woman who has been horribly scarred in an accident, while her surgeon husband is determined to find her a face transplant by any means necessary. Because of her disfigured features, the girl wears a blank white mask over her face. We can immediately draw a line from this mask to that worn by Michael Myers in Halloween, and intentionally so. Carpenter cited that film specifically, when explaining what he wanted the mask (a customized William Shatner mask purchased by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace) to convey.
Even though this masked maniac was largely referred to in the script as “the shape,” the name Michael Myers has become synonymous with fear—likely to the chagrin of actor Mike Myers—for forty years and counting. But that name, like everything else, came from somewhere. The name of the bloodthirsty masked maniac was, in actuality, Carpenter’s own special way of paying respect to someone who had helped to launch his career. After his first movie, Dark Star (1974), which was an extension of his student film with Dan O’Bannon, Carpenter directed his first ground-up original feature film Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Still hailed as one of his best, it was a risky, violent picture that many investors and distributors were afraid to take a chance on. Irwin Yablans, who would eventually hire Carpenter to direct Halloween, acquired the film.
In the incredibly strict British film landscape of the time that led to the infamous “Video Nasties” list, distribution for a picture like Assault on Precinct 13 seemed impossible, until a distributor at Miracle Films picked it up for British distribution rights. His name was Michael Myers.
As Halloween went on to become a franchise, many details were added to the origin of the central villain, many new motivations were given even though the original film had depicted him with no clear motivations at all. The Celtic elements only vaguely present in the first feature became much more prominent with each successive entry. It began almost immediately, before the first sequel was even released. The 1979 novelization of Halloween by Curtis Richards (thought to be writer Dennis Etchison and even John Carpenter over time, but actually just a pen name for agent Richard Curtis) actually opens in Celtic Ireland during a celebration of what would become Halloween, and explains that Michael’s evil and apparent supernatural nature are the result of an ancient Druid curse.
Though pronounced incorrectly, Samhain is directly spoken of by Loomis in Halloween II, in which he waxes poetic about the ancient festivals and traditions. Though Michael-less, Halloween III embraces these traditions and Halloween in general to a much higher degree, and eventually, we get to Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) where the wild theory provided in the original novelization becomes canon, at least for that point in the series. There are a few tweaks and twists on the Druid curse, mostly to help tie together previous sequels, but the end result is the same.
For some, Michael Myers will always be a victim of an ancient curse, no matter how many times the films have tried to shy away from that explanation since. But that’s the beauty of the Halloween series, as it enters its fourth decade. There are so many different continuities that the series is something of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. It’s bound to happen with any iconic figure if they last long enough. There will always be different approaches to a character like this, and everyone will always have their favorite. Some people love a romantic Dracula, for example, while others love a crueler, more monstrous Count and there are plenty of films out there to satisfy both parties.
Michael Myers is, essentially, a blank slate. You can project any fear onto that mask, you bring so much of your own experience to the table and he does the rest. This character is simple, but archetypal, like the boogeyman of old. But even a character of such faceless, silent evil as this draws inspiration from so many different places, and offers parallels to so many other things. From Celtic traditions to serial killer pathology to cinematic monsters and the boogeyman himself, there’s so much that went into making Michael Myers the icon he has become. Forty years later, he’s as popular as he’s ever been, because evil is not something that ever goes away. It persists. You can shoot it off a balcony,but it gets back up, always. As young Tommy Doyle states, “You can’t kill the boogeyman.” I think time has only proven that true.