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Unlocking Nigel Kneale’s Mythic Evil in ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’

“You don’t really know much about Halloween. You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy. It was the start of the year in our Keltic lands and we would be waiting in our houses of wattle and clay…Halloween, the festival of Samhain, the last great one took place 3,000 years ago when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” – Dan O’Herlihy as Conal Cochran in Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Wipe away Hollywood’s muddling fingerprints from 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch and you will find the closest American cinema has come to touching the British-centric genre of folk-horror. Panned at the time, the film bears the strange and uncanny trademark of a writer first attached to the project, Nigel Kneale. Known for the influential science fiction Quatermass series, Kneale distanced himself from Halloween III and yet his core ideas at the junction of the ancient-strange and the modern-horror remain the film’s most chilling backbone.

After thirty years, Kneale’s unique and successful body-of-work drew the attention of director John Carpenter and Halloween co-producer Debra Hill. Hiring Kneale meant Halloween III would swing from slasher into, as Variety reported in 1982 a film that, “will have no gore, no knives, no blood, rather aiming for science fiction-paranoia of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’” Interviewed in Starlog, Carpenter doubled down on scary science fiction, “It’s a cross between Halloween and Quatermass, involving witchcraft and technology.” Kneale affirms this basic idea in a 1989 interview with Starlog as his attempt at “debunking sentimental ‘Irishry’ which was used in the story for hi-tech witchcraft.” As Halloween III hit theaters Carpenter and Hill’s early exultations of subtlety were long gone, as was Kneale.

The simmering plot of modern witchcraft was shunted aside and watered down by killer androids in bespoke suits and gore that Kneale notoriously disliked. As Kneale told writer Paul Wells, gory films are, “just like visiting an abattoir…horror is much more basic.” The gory additions were the antithesis of the first draft, as Kneale remarks in Andy Murray’s The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, “My version of Halloween III was much more spooky, it was about magic, not spiking people’s eyeballs and drilling through their heads.” Despite a distaste of blood and guts, Kneale was never averse to the unsettling or strange, perhaps because he spent his formative years on an island of megaliths and mermaids.

Raised on the Isle of Man, Kneale was immersed in a culture of myth, witchcraft, and superstition as real as the bracing wind off the Irish Sea. According to historian Ronald Hutton, through the 17th century the Isle of Man, “developed a reputation…as an especially active centre of witchcraft and sorcery,” an assertion validated by Kneale’s own recollections. Manxians, Kneale explained in Murray’s book, possessed “a deep belief in ghostly things, fairies, and witches of a sort.” Manxian superstition, to he continued, was a way of “showing due respect for the things that were not entirely to be understood, namely the score of wild superstitious creatures who had grown out of the island’s soil.” Throughout his career Kneale consistently wrote in a non-judgmental eerie blend of old and new, turning superstition into science, and science into horror. From the ghost-turned-alien of Quatermass and the Pit to The Stone Tape concept of ancient terror recorded in stone, Kneale possessed a unique ability to intertwine horror and science-fiction without clutter or hokum. Attracted by this quality, Hollywood would come calling only to rebuff his esoteric subtlety in favor of commercial conspicuousness.

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch follows Kneale’s basic plot: investigation of Silver Shamrock Novelties and its founder Conal Cochran, and the revelation that Halloween masks will annihilate the wearer. Knealian touches are spotted by their nuance against the obvious gore of the rest of the script. Comfortable with unnerving intellectual dialogue that oozed superstition and science, Kneale’s echoes can be heard in actor Dan O’Herlihy’s bloody soliloquy on perverted Keltic rites and the reversal of Samhain’s banishment to obscurity.

In Kneale’s Manxian hands Silver Shamrock’s elaborate television marketing campaign is ritualized and turned incantation to convert the consumer into a sacrificial lamb killed by a single burst of supernatural energy. It is a version of historian James Sharpe’s heavily ritualized “skaeb lome” or “curse of annihilation” practiced on the isle. While the rite alone will annihilate, the second layer of Cochran’s plan could be creative perversion of the Manxian witchcraft concept of “tarra”, which according to Sharpe was a “magical transfer of productiveness,” or the loss of one is the gain of another. Ascribing an occult formula to Halloween III meant the killing of children was a magical transfer of productiveness, where the life and vitality of American children would be transmitted through the ether to the gullets of malevolent Keltic forces.

Another Knealian touch evokes Quatermass II’s alien controlled Winnerden Falls in the form of California’s Santa Mira, Silver Shamrock’s company town of eager and protective supporters. Even the melody of the Silver Shamrock television commercial, “London Bridge is Falling Down”, possesses a nod to the ancient horror of child sacrifice to fickle river gods.

Caught as flashes of the profoundly strange, Nigel Kneale’s concepts of ancient horror and folklore brought forward into the age science are Halloween III’s most resonant and fleeting qualities. Kneale delivered a profound and disturbingly authentic view of mythic evil: whether they be apocalyptic cults, the psychic echoes of ancient aliens, or the sadistic greed of corporate shamans.

About Kevin Cooney

An expert in the field of human ecology and graduate of Harvard University, Kevin Cooney is a freelance writer with a devotion to the aesthetic of Katsuhiro Otomo, Simon Stålenhag , and Nigel Kneale. While known for academic non-fiction he has a collection of short fiction straining at the stable door. An independent scholar of the concept of place in science fiction and the field of Folk Horror, he can be found sketching monsters and spaceships, watching British television, old-school anime and 70s films, or reading books that put most people to sleep. He can also be found on Twitter @bostonwookiee.

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