Why Michael Myers Scares Us
No film did more to codify the slasher genre then 1978’s Halloween. There, I said it. And what’s more Halloween became a horror landmark and gave director John Carpenter pride of place among horror directors. But a monster story is only as good as it’s monster and oh boy, does Halloween have a memorable monster. Namely Michael Myers, the silent, white-masked killer who murders random innocents with ruthless efficiency. Of course, that doesn’t exactly set him apart from any of the other slashers that followed him, so what does? Well, in contrast to his successors Michael Myers a bit of an enigma.
Michael Myers, alias the Shape, is mostly unique among his fellow slashers in that he has no discernable motive for his actions. Leatherface, who’s more hicksploitation than slasher, brings home the bacon for his family. Jason has unresolved issues with adolescent sexuality. And finally, Jigsaw is possibly history’s least effective life coach. Ol’ Mike? He just kills things.
That’s it. His motive is pure tautology as far as anyone can tell. Which makes everything else he does all the more perplexing. Most killers of Michael’s type, rampage killers, are pretty disorganized. Not Mike!
Oh, no. The Shape is careful, systematic, and above all efficient. For example, he kills family pets before he starts in on the family, making sure that they have no warning. Furthermore, even before he starts in on the local quad squad, Mike has thoroughly stalked everybody. Both to make sure he strikes when his victims are at their most vulnerable, and to play mind games. In fact, by the time he goes in for the kill, he’s played enough mind games to fill a season of General Hospital. One of his favorites is letting his victims-to-be get a glimpse at him, but never sticking around long enough for them to get a good look. Basically, it’s gaslighting. He makes his victims doubt their own senses, which makes them more vulnerable.
What’s Going Through His Head?
All of this careful plotting just underscores the pointlessness of Myer’s crimes. In fact, it is not clear if the Shape himself sees any point in his actions or even enjoys them. Take the movie’s opening scene for example. We’re treated to long POV shot from Michael’s point of view, after he catches his sister with her boyfriend, he brutally stabs her to death. After that, he just wonders out into the street where he encounters his parents. When we finally see his face, he just looks shell-shocked rather than triumphant.
This isn’t an isolated incident either. Possibly the most haunting moment in the entire film occurs just after Michael murders a teenage boy. And by murder, I mean stabs a teenage boy through the gut so viciously the knife transfixes his corpse to the wall, like a butterfly to corkboard. Do we see even the slightest hint of a smile stretching the rubber of his William Shatner mask? No, instead all we see Michael Myers do is stand there staring at this macabre new wall-hanging, tilting his head side-to-side like a dog trying to figure out where the ball you just threw went. There’s no way to know, but he looks almost confused. Then again, maybe there’s something completely inhuman going through his mind. Once again, we don’t know.
Empty by Design
This was almost certainly intentional on Carpenter’s part. In fact, while coaching actor Nick Castle about his performance as Myers, Carpenter discouraged Castle from building any kind of backstory for his character. It was his intention to make Michael Myers completely unrelatable. Not so much a human killer, but an embodiment of malevolent violence.
And that unrelatability, and more broadly that unknowability, is what makes him so terrifying. From Poe to King, storytellers in horror have exploited the fear of the unknown. And the psyche of Michael Myers is one of the quintessential unknowns in horror cinema. He cannot be bargained with, reasoned with, or even communicated with. All he wants to do is kill.
And we don’t know why.