Sequels, especially horror sequels, aren’t supposed to be this good. The exceptions prove the rule. And ever since 1978’s release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the franchise has been struggling to recreate the box office sales, if not the majestic slasher grandeur, of the original.
They’d failed until this year. 2018’s Halloween reboot isn’t just a return to form, achieving escape velocity from the gravitational pull of previous uninspired sequels. It in some way redeems the false steps that followed the original. And while it can’t quite compete with the exuberance and energy of Carpenter’s 1978 release, it is a powerful film in its own right. Unfortunately, what makes it such a haunting movie is the same quality that so many critics seem unable to appreciate: this is a film about the nature of evil, resisting logical analysis and human understanding.
Paul Westerberg sang that only simple prayers work. It’s the same for the plots of successful horror movies, and Halloween is no different. In the original, Michael Myers escapes from an asylum where he’s been institutionalized since killing his sister when he was only six years old. Pursued by his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, Michael drifts through the small all-American town of Haddonfield, Illinois, killing slowly, methodically, and at will. His spree almost resembles a nature documentary more than a contemporary slasher film, with Michael’s very humanity hidden behind a disturbing, white, eyeless mask (actually a William Shatner mask, not that you can easily tell). He’s a simulacrum of a human, death incarnate inhabiting a human face. Michael’s spree reaches its climax on Halloween night, when a final confrontation with teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dr. Loomis leave us with a missing Myers body and an ambiguous ending.
The reboot picks up where the original left off, even explaining away the lesser sequels and their flatfooted attempts at understanding Michael’s brutality in the context of family drama as “something that people made up.” Laurie Strode is a grandmother now, holed up inside of a compound, armed to the teeth, and expecting some sort of final confrontation with Michael. Because Michael has been re-institutionalized for decades, Laurie’s family sees her as half permanently traumatized victim and half drama queen nurturing her wounds.
Certainly no one takes her seriously, especially not the British true crime podcasters who descend upon her fortified home and insult her with disrespectful questions. Those podcasters, who begin the film by attempting to interrogate a Michael who refuses to speak to them (or even face them, because we never fully see Michael’s face), are among the first of his victims after he escapes during a hospital transfer. To not take Laurie Strode seriously is to not take evil seriously, and to misunderstand one is to misunderstand the other.
Reviews have tended to emphasize Laurie Strode’s mental health. One called her “permanently unhinged by paranoia.” But here’s the thing: she’s right. Michael does come back, because in the context of the Halloween mythos, Michael isn’t a person but evil itself. And Laurie is the only one who seems to understand the nature of evil. Jamie Lee Curtis is steely, resolved, and bitter as she delivers the lines: “I always knew he’d come back. In this town, Michael Myers is a myth. He’s the Boogeyman. A ghost story to scare kids. But this Boogeyman is real. An evil like his never stops, it just grows older. Darker. More determined. Forty years ago, he came to my home to kill. He killed my friends, and now he’s back to finish what he started, with me. The one person who’s ready to stop him.”
In many ways, this film is a rebuke to the therapeutic society. Philip Rieff wrote in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, “Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going. Like his predecessor, the man of the market economy, he understands morality as that which is conducive to increased activity. The important thing is to keep going.” Laurie Stroud is fixated on the past, stuck in her home, which her daughter calls a “trap.” She doesn’t seem to exist in the same chronological flow as the rest of her family or town.
But while everyone around her rebukes her for not letting go of the past, Laurie carries with her the painful burden of understanding that the sort of psychological well-being insisted on by her community comes at the cost of engaging in battle against evil. Rieff, again, wrote, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.” No one understands that Laurie’s purpose is more profound than placidly enjoying life. What she wants is a kind of cosmic redemption. How she feels about what happened to her is much less important than actually fighting the evil that caused it.
Another aspect of the therapeutic society explored in the film is the idea that we can treat or cure the root cause of suffering through the act of expression. Language itself becomes a meta-perspective, able to transcend the metaphysical heft of both good and evil. Language has the ability to abstract them and transform them into concepts. What Halloween posits is that evil and good are both more profound than language. They defy articulation: good, perhaps, because it’s the source from which all articulation originates; evil, because, in defying the good, it takes the position of anti-logos. Evil is incoherence.
It’s important again to emphasize that Michael isn’t a human character, but a stand-in for evil. And so everyone who tries to understand Michael dies, from the British podcasters who cynically want to sell his story as clickbait without respecting his true and heinous nature to Dr. Sartain, the “new Loomis.” The case of Sartain is an important one because, having spent years analyzing Michael and formulating theories about his motivations, he falls in love with his own abstractions. One of the best moments of the film, and the scene where the mute power of evil is most powerfully on display, is when Sartain longs for Michael to speak to him, demands it, in fact. “Say something!” he screams at evil. Without missing a beat, evil smashes his head in.
There’s a lot to this film, much that I fear will go over the heads of critics so used to movies portraying the same banal messages and philosophies over and over. As James Pinkerton recently pointed out, the film bucks many of our current progressive cultural conventions. But it isn’t quite didactic. In fact, one of the major themes of the film is the nuanced relationship between victim and victimizer. Ruminating on Laurie Strode’s obsession with Michael, Sartain says that he “would suspect the notion of being a predator or the fear of becoming prey keeps both of them alive,” and wonders about the effect that being a victimizer has on Michael.
Indeed, Laurie is forced to become more like Michael in many ways in order to kill him. But far from being a Jungian take on becoming the monsters that we fight, her violence and focus are seen as tools necessary for combating evil. What else is required to fight evil? Three generations of women, an intergenerational family unit, working together even as society (the police, the neighborhood) disintegrates around them. Laurie Strode’s house, where they have the final confrontation with Michael, has turned out to be a “trap, not a cage.” There’s a powerful psychological subtlety in this depiction of victimhood that might be lost on a viewer who brings too simple a political agenda to the film.
The movie ends with the kindness of an unknown stranger, faceless like Michael, driving the women away, a brief but powerful corollary to the anonymous evil incarnate in Michael with the possibility of good as well. But the women are not relieved. The youngest still clutches a knife in her hand, her eyes wide with fear. This is not an unhappy ending. They’re finally aware, vigilant, and silent. And this gets to the heart of why people misunderstand the film. Like the Strode women themselves, evil leaves us with nothing left to interpret. The only thing to do is remain vigilant—and when the time comes, as it always does, to fight against it.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.