Saturday, October 19, 2013

Loomis, not Michael, is the real bogeyman: An alternate reading of John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978)

October 31, 1978 is the Halloween that Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald  Pleasence) has been anticipating for 15 years.

"Your compassion is overwhelming, doctor."
-Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), sarcastically addressing Dr. Loomis 

"The concept is valid no matter where it originates!"
-A line from John Carpenter's debut film, Dark Star (1974)

The first film in the franchise.
For a moment, I want you to cast your mind back thirty-five years to 1978, when John Carpenter's immensely influential (and still enormously entertaining) slasher film, Halloween, made its debut on American movie screens. Back then, there was no such thing as "the Halloween franchise." The film's seven sequels (1981-2002) had not been made yet, to say nothing of the 2007 remake, which inspired its own 2009 sequel. For those of you keeping score, there are now ten Halloween movies all together. Ten! But back in '78, there was just one. Based on the comments made by the film's co-creators, director/writer John Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill, Halloween was not meant to be the first chapter in an ongoing saga. It was a contractual obligation, not a creative drive, which led to Halloween II (1982) and all that followed.

Naturally, the subsequent films explored and expanded the mythology of the original film's three central characters, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Michael Myers aka The Shape (Nick Castle, among others), and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Thirty-five years ago, however, there was no mythology to explore. The only information we had about these characters -- and the only information the creators ever intended us to have about them -- came from this one movie. I say all of this because I want to present an alternate interpretation of Halloween that willfully ignores everything revealed about Laurie, Michael, and Loomis in the subsequent films and treats the 1978 original as an isolated, standalone story. Still with me? Good. Let us continue.

Young Michael looks terrified, not blank, when we first see him.
While all three of the film's main characters are fascinating, the most compelling (by far) to me is Dr. Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist who emerges as Halloween's main protagonist and is top-billed in the film's iconic opening credits sequence. The film's action unfolds over the course of 15 years. On Halloween night 1963, in the fictional suburban community of Haddonfield, Illinois, a six-year-old boy named Michael Myers inexplicably murders his older sister, Judith, who is just ten days shy of her sixteenth birthday. Michael had just witnessed his sister having sex (or at least preparing to have sex) with her boyfriend, and the young woman is clad only in her underpants when Michael stabs her repeatedly with a kitchen knife.

After this dreadful act, Michael staggers outside his family's home, still holding the knife, and stands on the sidewalk with a stunned expression on his face, as if he has just witnessed something traumatic over which he had no control. His parents discover him in this bizarre state and try to communicate with him, but he is unresponsive. Later films will suggest that Michael's seemingly comatose appearance is merely a ruse to disguise his "evil" nature, but those films had not been made yet in 1978! For all we know, the boy's horrified expression on the night of the murder is genuine. We now jump forward almost exactly 15 years to October 30, 1978. Michael would be 21 years old at this point, which is crucial because this is the age in our society that we generally associate with maturity or the beginning of adulthood.

These 15 years are very important to the story, but all we ever learn about them in Halloween comes from psychiatrist Sam Loomis, who became Michael's doctor back in 1963 when the child was committed to a sanitarium in Smith's Grove, Illinois, 150 miles away from Haddonfield. Carpenter and Hill's original script describes this place as "a cold-looking building surrounded by a fence," a turn of phrase that reminds one of the stately mansion Xanadu in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1940). What exactly went on between Michael and Loomis during those 15 years? Again, the plethora of Halloween sequels and especially the remake attempted to fill in those details, but the original 1978 movie, at least in its theatrical cut, leaves the specifics to our imaginations. Loomis has a few choice words about those years and voices some very definite opinions about the nature of Michael Myers. Because he is the film's hero and the eventual savior of its brainy, virginal heroine, high school-aged babysitter Laurie Strode, we tend to take the doctor at his word.

But is it possible -- just possible, mind you -- that Dr. Sam Loomis is either flat-out lying or greatly oversimplifying the facts? There is a crucial scene in the film in which Loomis describes his relationship with Michael Myers to the very skeptical Sheriff Leigh Bracket (Charles Cyphers) -- a man whose own daughter, Annie, will be among Micahel's victims. Here is what Dr. Loomis says while he and the sheriff are investigating Michael's now-abandoned childhood home:
I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left, no conscience, no reason, no understanding, in even the most rudimentary sense, of life or death or right or wrong. I met this six-year-old boy with a blank, cold emotionless face and the blackest of eyes, the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and another seven trying to keep him locked away when I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil. 
Michael was six when he committed the original murder of his sister. That means Loomis must have gotten to him very soon after the child became a ward of the state. We just saw for ourselves what Michael looked like when he was that age. Does that image match up with Loomis' speech? At all? Personally, what I saw was a terrified, very confused little boy who was appalled at his own actions. I couldn't help but be reminded of a 2002 story on the radio show This American Life called "Black Hole Son," in which a mother recounts the inexplicable and horrifying behavior of her bipolar child, Sam, a young boy who was alternately destructive and remorseful. Here's a quote from Sam's mom:
He could never understand. He'd do something like try to break the cat's leg, something like that. And then, immediately afterwards, he'd be crying and saying, "I don't know why I did that." And he would be just as angry and sad as I was. And he'd say, "I don't understand." And he'd start punching himself and biting himself and putting bruises all over his body. Ugh! Oh, that was a horrible life.
Sam was put on a drug called Zyprexa and got a lot better. Michael, having the bad luck of being a kid in 1963, was thrown into a legal/medical system that apparently gave up on him almost immediately. And then along came Dr. Sam Loomis, the key figure in Michael's life. Horror fans will likely see Loomis as a latter-day equivalent of Van Helsing, with Michael as his Dracula. And he may be just that. But I think he might also be descended from a few other literary characters as well, namely:
  • Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), an increasingly deranged sea captain who pursues a white whale past the point of all reason at the expense of his own safety and that of his crew members. So famous is Ahab's obsession that the term "white whale" has become shorthand for any unobtainable quarry. And notice, please, the pallor of Michael's distinctive mask. Could Michael be Loomis' white whale? The doctor and Captain Ahab certainly exhibit signs of monomania, i.e. a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind.
  • Javert from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862), a fanatical police inspector who devotes decades of his life to the pursuit of a single convicted thief, Jean Valjean. The policeman is guided by his strict devotion to the letter of the law rather than by sound judgment. Note Loomis's Javert-like statement to nurse Marion Chambers on why he is taking Michael in front of a judge: "Because that is the law." Loomis, like Javert, wants his nemesis to be in captivity forever. Marion: "You mean you actually never want him to get out?" Loomis: "Never, never, never!"
Colin Clive as "Henry" Frankenstein.
  • Victor Frankenstein, the tragic protagonist of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), a young man who, out of scientific curiosity, creates an artificial humanoid figure and imbues it with life, then rejects it in utter disgust and watches in horror as it escapes into the world and commits a series of vengeful murders. The bulk of Shelley's novel is devoted to Victor's long, arduous pursuit of the creature. In James Whale's famous 1931 film version of Shelley's novel,  Victor has been renamed Henry Frankenstein, and the creature he creates (like Michael Myers) is mute. In Halloween, when Michael steals Marion's car and escapes from the asylum in the rain, Loomis maniacally yells (to himself as much as anyone): "He's gone! He's gone from here! The evil is gone!" This is very similar to the moment in Whale's film in which Henry famously and repeatedly exclaims "It's alive!" to celebrate the "birth" of his monster, who was brought to life during a thunderstorm. Note the pronoun Henry uses: "it." That's exactly how Loomis refers to Michael, again in conversation with Marion. Loomis: "Don't underestimate it." Marion: "Don't you think we could refer to it as him?" Loomis: "If you say so." Whale's film also adds a "grave-robbing" motif also found in Carpenter's movie.
In my interpretation of Halloween, Dr. Loomis viewed the six-year-old Michael Myers as the personification of evil because that's what he wanted to see in the boy. Thus, Loomis's idea of Michael became a self-fulfilling prophecy: treat him like a killer and he becomes a killer. For fifteen years, Michael was Loomis's own little science experiment, his own Frankenstein monster. I can imagine Loomis telling Michael over and over again that he is "evil" and "the devil himself" and constantly, constantly reminding him of the events in Haddonfield in 1963. The doctor, who describes himself as "sinister," seems to have had exclusive access to the poor kid for years, and since society had written Michael off, this was Loomis' chance to push the boy's psychosis to its outermost limits, guided (like Victor Frankenstein) out of insatiable scientific curiosity.

But here, the story becomes complex. Part of Loomis knows that Michael, this monster he has created, must be kept locked up. But another part subconsciously yearns to "sic" Michael on the world. It's easy to see that Dr. Loomis has a blanket contempt for humanity in the way he interacts with virtually everyone else in the film. He's short-tempered, condescending, haughty, and cold -- hardly the type to be a self-sacrificing humanitarian concerned with protecting society. He feels the need to keep Michael under wraps, but only out of neurotic guilt at his own role in creating the monster, not out of concern for others. Most of the things Loomis says about Michael are really about himself. As we see repeatedly in Halloween, Michael will kill just about anyone with whom he comes into contact within moments.Yet Loomis obviously survived many years of being in close quarters with Michael, as he explains to Brackett:
I watched him, for 15 years. Sitting in a room, staring at the wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient. Waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, sheriff.
Michael Myers at 21: still a little boy playing dress up.
Where did this "silent alarm" come from exactly? Who might have set it off? Think back to Michael's escape from the sanitarium. It goes off without a hitch, like it's been pre-planned well in advance down to the second. Obviously, Michael had an "inside man" assisting him. Everything Loomis does during this scene, i.e. having Marion drive right up to the gate, getting out of the car himself, etc., helps Michael get away. Could it be that Loomis -- or at least the "crazy" side of Loomis -- was Michael's accomplice in all this? Loomis himself hints at it in his scene with fellow psychologist Dr. Wynn (Robert Phalen). When Wynn tells Loomis that Michael "can't even drive a car," Loomis retorts: "He was doing very well last night! Maybe somebody around here gave him lessons!" Take away Loomis's angry tone of voice, and that last line becomes a boast from a proud father about his son.

There are several scenes and lines that establish that Michael is essentially a child in an adult's body. Loomis obliquely hints at it a couple of times in his dialogue. He tells Wynn, for instance, that "two road blocks and an all points bulletin wouldn't stop a five year old." And discussing Michael with Brackett, Loomis pointedly says: "He's not a man." And he's right. Michael is not a man. He's still a little boy. That's why, once he escapes, he returns to his childhood routine of putting on a mask and stabbing teenage girls. Michael, appropriately, is the one who breaks into the hardware store in Haddonfield to steal supplies. Brackett, unaware of the gravity of this situation, says that the robbers were "probably kids." Michael is also the one who vandalizes his sister Judith's grave. And whom does the caretaker at the cemetery blame for this? "Damn kids!" Brackett and the caretaker don't know how right they are. 

The childish "men" of Carpenter's Dark Star.
When, late in the film, we see the face of the "grown-up" Michael, it is surprisingly innocent and childlike. And just as he did in 1963, Michael is registering utter horror at what's happening. He doesn't comprehend what he's doing. He's spent fifteen years in an institution but he's not fifteen years more mature. He hasn't aged the way people on the outside do. Fascinatingly, John Carpenter had already made a movie in which geographical isolation keeps people from maturing normally: his 1974 debut feature, Dark Star, about a group of astronauts who have been on a mission in deep space for decades and have gone quite mad, though they can still concentrate on tasks and work effectively. At one point in that film, the mission commander, Doolittle, tells one of his crew members, Talby: "We've been in space twenty years now, and we've only aged three years physically." As we can see from their often-childish behavior during the film, the men on this ship have also failed to age emotionally and mentally. The film's theme song, "Benson, Arizona" (co-written by Carpenter) sets up the plot of Dark Star but is also applicable to Halloween. Change the name to "Haddonfield, Illinois" and transplant the locale to Southwest to the Midwest, and the song could practically be sung from Michael's point-of-view to his late sister, Judith. Here's the first verse, with especially relevant lyrics in bold print:

A million suns shine down, but I see only one.
When I think I'm over you, I found I've just begun.
The years move faster than the days. There's no warmth in the light.
How I miss those desert skies, your cool touch in the night.

In the chorus, the singer tells us of Benson:

My body flies the galaxies. My heart longs to be there.

This is analogous to Michael's desire to return to Haddonfield, i.e. the womb. And then there's the second verse, which again could almost be sung by Michael to Judith, with emphasis on Michael's arrested development (he stopped "aging" normally at six) and his longing for his hometown:

Now the years pull us apart. I'm young and now you're old.
But you're still in my heart, and the memories won't grow cold.
I dream of times and spaces I left far behind
Where we spent our last few days. Benson's on my mind.

In reviewing Dark Star in his book Cult Movies 2 (Delta Books, 1983), critic Danny Peary says:
It is appropriate that we are introduced to characters who have already become dehumanized through years of isolation [and] claustrophobia... The gist of the film is the "pre-story" or just how the men got in their "weirded-out" states.
That, to me, is the essence of what happens in Halloween as well. The bulk of the story takes place offscreen. We see exactly two days of this 15-year saga. Dr. Loomis tries to downplay what happened in the intervening decade and a half. He would have us believe that Michael was already an incurable psychotic at the age of six. It just took him fifteen years to escape and do what he was destined to do. Naturally, in the one scene from the movie which takes place in a classroom, Laurie Strode's teacher lectures her students about fate and destiny. But this is all subterfuge. Michael Myers wasn't necessarily "destined" to become a serial killer from the age of six; Loomis saw an opportunity with this vulnerable kid and took it.

I contend that Michael does not have free will and cannot control his actions. He has been put up to this by Loomis. I said earlier that Loomis had a subconscious desire to "sic" Michael on the world because of his seething, barely-contained hatred of humanity. In a way, then, Michael is like a highly-trained attack dog that would never harm its master, i.e. Loomis. One of Michael's victims, Annie, struggles at one point with an actual four-legged canine belonging to her employers and prophetically tells Laurie over the phone: "I'm about to be ripped apart by the family dog." Again, like her father and the caretaker, she's accurately descibing Michael Myers without realizing it. Another way of looking at Michael is simply as an empty vessel for Loomis's misanthropy in general and misogyny in particular. He's a blank slate, a tabula rasa. That goes a long way towards explaining the alternate name by which is character is known: The Shape. A shape is just the form or outline of an object, and that's all Michael is, too. Without Loomis, Michael is nothing but a two-dimensional outline of a monster. The doctor is the one "coloring in" that shape.

Happiness is a warm gun.
So this brings us to October 31, 1978: the apotheosis, the culmination of all that has come before. This is the night Michael Myers has been "training" for since he was in kindergarten. For Dr. Sam Loomis, it's the climax -- possibly in the sexual sense of that word -- to some sick desire that's been building up in his brain since 1963. His masterpiece, Michael Myers, has "escaped" (or been sprung) from captivity and is doing just what Loomis always wanted him to, though the respectable doctor could never admit as much. Sam is so proud of his surrogate "son" that he goes around bragging about Michael to anyone within earshot (Marion, Wynn, Brackett, and finally Laurie), and he gets grouchy whenever people aren't sufficiently impressed with his surrogate offspring.

As one might expect, there's also part of him that feels guilty for having created and unleashed Michael, which is why it's very important that he, Loomis, be the one to catch and destroy the monster. Midway through the movie, Brackett wants to alert the radio and TV stations in the area about Michael; Loomis doesn't like that idea one bit. Like Bill Cosby once said in his 1983 stand-up film, Bill Cosby: Himself, "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!" So Loomis lets Michael get away with a sufficient amount of slaughter and mayhem and then charges in like a hero at the exact right moment to save Laurie Strode at the end of the movie. This evening has gone splendidly for the doctor!

In the finale, Loomis has a gun and shoots Michael. The discharging of a firearm is a time-honored symbol for ejaculation, and that's what this act is for Loomis. After 15 years, he finally reaches the moment of orgasm. Michael, inconveniently, doesn't actually die from this, but it doesn't matter to Loomis by that point. He's spent. His exchange of dialogue with Laurie amounts to post-coital "pillow talk." The anger and frustration have left him at this point, and he can finally experience a little relief.
LAURIE: Was that the bogeyman?
LOOMIS: As a matter of fact... it was.
The bogeyman: a common cultural myth.
The script's "bogeyman" motif is actually introduced by the character of Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), the little boy Laurie is babysitting on the fateful Halloween night of 1978. Tommy's schoolmates had been teasing him about the bogeyman earlier in the movie, genuinely frightening him. Children Tommy's age don't necessarily know what's real and what isn't because they get a lot of mixed messages from adults and from peers. As far as he's concerned, there really might be a bogeyman! During the course of the movie, the boy repeatedly brings up his concerns to Laurie, who assures him: (1) the bogeyman isn't real, and (2) even if he is, I'll protect you. She definitely makes good on the second part, but by the end of the film Laurie, who "thought [she] outgrew superstitions," is no longer sure the bogeyman is just a myth.

This dreaded character, known by many names in many countries, is traditionally used by adults to threaten children so that they will behave. Perhaps, in his own twisted way, that is what Dr. Samuel Loomis thinks he is doing in Halloween. Kids eventually learn that the bogeyman is an empty threat, so the myth no longer works on them. Halloween, similarly, has degenerated into mere entertainment: an occasion to play dumb pranks, eat too much candy, and watch horror movies on television. (All these activities are either seen or referenced in the film.) What Dr. Loomis accomplishes, at least as far as Haddonfield is concerned, is to make All Hallow's Eve a night of fear, violence, bloodshed, death, and despair, the way it was "meant" to be. Michael Myers is merely the instrument through which he accomplishes this. That makes the good doctor a scarier bogeyman than Michael could ever be.

P.S. - I hear dark rumblings that the Halloween franchise is going to be re-rebooted soon. If it ever is, the producers might want to pay for the rights to this famous pop song, which could apply either to Michael or to Loomis. The next time you hear this song on the radio, I want you to think about Donald Pleasence singing this on October 31. Could you do that for me?