John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the most revered horror films of all time, and in its wake came a surfeit of masked slashers attempting to replicate its success – most of them failing, more often than not.
There are a lot of components to Halloween which make it such an effective film, from Carpenter’s piercing score to Dean Cundey’s eerie night-time cinematography to the terrifying, emotionless white mask Michael Myers wears – and all of it plays a part in creating a winning final product.
But the thing that makes Halloween such an enduring film – something these lesser copycats failed to realize – was Carpenter’s simple approach to the story. At its core, Halloween is an urban legend – more specifically, several urban legends rolled into one. It’s made up of the same stuff you’d tell around the campfire to spook your friends – a practice I’m sure has been around since campfires existed. In essence, Halloween is composed of the immortal substance that has terrified generations for centuries. Deep-rooted, primal fears that are utterly engrained in our being. You can’t get much scarier than that.
These are the urban legends that make up Halloween.
“Lonnie Elam said never to go up there. Lonnie Elam said that’s a
haunted house. He said real awful stuff happened there once.”
This is what little Tommy Doyle warns his babysitter Laurie Strode as they pass by the dilapidated Myers house, for Myers is The Boogeyman, a tale as old as time. This is also a prime example of the urban legend theme that runs through Halloween, showcasing exactly how such legends are spread: by word of mouth.
So and so told me.
I know someone whose sister knows someone who said…
I heard it from a friend.
Think back to when you were a kid, racing through the neighborhood on your Huffy. Was there a scary house you and your friends avoided? Or maybe you stopped there just long enough in hopes to catch a glimpse of the witch or creepy old man who lived there? Of course. Every subdivision has a spooky house at the end of the block, one that youngsters warn each other to avoid. And how do the other kids know to avoid it? Well, they heard it from a friend…
“The Hook” is possibly one of the most famous urban legends and you’ve likely heard one of its many incarnations at some point: young lovers on a secluded road hear a report over their car radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local sanitarium. Soon after, they hear a scratching at the car door. The horny boyfriend, desperate to get some action, tells the girlfriend not to worry – but she insists they leave, and so they do. The rejected boyfriend alleviates his tantrum by putting the pedal to the metal. Later, they find a bloody hook dangling from the handle of the car door.
It’s clear how the escaped mental patient aspect of this legend applies to Halloween, including the unforeseen danger lurking outside the car: who can forget the chest-clenching scene where Michael first breaks out of Smith’s Grove sanitarium and monkeys his way on top of the parked station wagon that’s there to transport him to trial?
But let’s not overlook the sex = death aspect of the hook story. The whole reason the teens in the tale survive is because, ultimately, they didn’t have sex. Purity is a generally agreed upon theme in Halloween – the teens who have sex and do drugs die, the ones who don’t (Laurie) live. I tend to disagree; I believe the real cause of the murders is irresponsibility – but I digress. (Also, the radio announcer alerting of an escaped mental patient, followed immediately by the listener’s death, is a scene directly from 1981’s Halloween II.)
Cars continue to play a big role in both urban legends and Halloween, such as in the case of…
As the legend goes, a person (usually a woman) is driving home when a car suddenly pulls up close behind her, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Terrified, the woman races home, all while the mysterious car follows. She gets home, jumps out of her car, and runs to her door. Later, she discovers the car that was tailing her was trying to warn her…about the man with a knife crouching in her backseat.
Halloween‘s poor Annie Brackett isn’t lucky enough to have someone warn her about the killer hiding in her backseat. Instead, she’s allowed only a moment of confusion sitting in the driver’s seat, perplexed by the condensation that has formed on the inside of the car windows…just before Michael Myers springs up behind her with knife. (It should be noted that the murderous backseat character in these urban legends is almost always an escaped mental patient.)
Cars aren’t the only recurring theme in both Halloween and many urban legends – so are phones.
Now we get to the nucleus of Halloween‘s urban legend roots: the babysitter in peril. While creepy phone calls had popped up before – most notably in 1974’s Black Christmas – it was Halloween that established a babysitter as the innocent victim on the end of the receiver. It’s so entwined with this particular urban legend that John Carpenter originally titled the screenplay The Babysitter Murders. Alas, the producer didn’t like it, and wanted it changed – but the theme remained the same. (It’s worth noting that director Fred Walton shot a short film, The Sitter, in 1977, which is based directly on “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend – and after seeing the success of Carpenter’s Halloween – decided to turn it into a full length film: When a Stranger Calls.)
The legend here actually isn’t as much a legend as it is a true story with a few embellishments. But the dressed-up version of the story follows a young female babysitter who receives numerous creepy phone calls from a stranger who keeps warning her to “check on the children”. Eventually she calls the cops and they trace the call, resulting in the memorable line: “Get out! The calls are coming from inside the house!”
Michael Myers doesn’t actually call and harass Laurie Strode about the kids she’s babysitting – in fact, the relation of this legend to the movie is restricted solely to the “maniac stalking the babysitter” element – but still, there is a lot of phone play in Halloween. At one point, Annie – chewing a mouthful of food – calls Laurie, who mistakes the muffled sounds for an obscene caller. This plays a pivotal part later in the movie, and results in our final urban legend, a crossover of sorts…
Lovable airhead, Lynda Van der Klok, has just finished making love with her boyfriend Bob, who has headed downstairs to grab some beer. He soon appears in the bedroom door frame again, this time fully decked out in a sheet with eye holes. Only, that isn’t Bob playing ghost – it’s Michael Myers. Lynda doesn’t realize this of course, and sits down by the phone to call Laurie to see if she’s heard from Annie. By the time Laurie picks up on the other end, Michael has wrapped the phone cord around Lynda’s neck and is choking her to death. All Laurie hears on her is moaning and gurgling – which she mistakes for Annie pranking her, a callback to earlier in the film.
Laurie ignores the threat, but later discovers Lynda dead. This is related to the urban legend “The Roommate’s Death“, which sees a pair of college roommates alone in their dorm for the holiday weekend. One roommate leaves to grab some snacks, the other stays behind. Soon, the roommate in bed hears scratching and gurgling at the door – a warning she ignores. In the morning, she discovers her friend on the other side of the door, dead – throat slashed by a madman.
Halloween is so successful in terrifying us because it consists of all those tales we’ve been scaring each other with since swapping stories on the schoolyard. Stalkers, haunted houses, and boogeyman in the closet.
You could argue that urban legends and horror films share a similar three-tiered structure: interdiction, violation, and consequences. That is to say, characters who ignore the warnings, then willfully violate the warnings, and ultimately pay the price. But one thing is certain: horror films share the same function as urban legend – they’re intended not only to scare, but also to warn.
Just like little Tommy Doyle tried to warn Laurie that The Boogeyman really existed.