It WAS the boogeyman: A look at John Carpenter’s Halloween.

 

Dude, you’re TOTALLY wrong.  ‘Halloween’ (1978) NEVER sets out to prove if ‘the boogyman’ exists or not.  Michael Myers is simply referred to as the ‘boogyman’ a couple of times because he is so demonic and creepy.  The central question of ‘Halloween’ (1978) isn’t, does the boogieman exist, it’s can Laurie Strode Survive the night with this crazed person, relentlessly stalking her. [sic]

                                    – Self-described pre-pro screenwriter. 16 spec scripts written.

You’re confusing plot with theme.”

                                     – Me

Boo-gy Man!

Don’t cry.  We’re here once again to exorcise bad story analysis!

Does the boogeyman exist? 

Ah… the interweb.  A place where people from all walks of life come together to discuss things and, unfortunately, sometimes find themselves tangled up in bad movie analysis.  These bad analyses by people attempting to find success in screenwriting are probably indicative of why their work hasn’t reached the level they aspire to; they’re often more likely to be blinded to structural and thematic issues within their own work more than that of others.  If they can’t get elements of a well known movie correct, it wouldn’t be surprising to find similar issues within their own work (nor to find the same mistakes made in all 16 of their scripts.)

But let’s not digress.  

John Carpenter’s Halloween is a story worth digging into to see what separates it from many of its contemporaries and predecessors.  Though it’s a simple story well told, its theme postulating of whether the boogeyman actually exists is the one narrative factor that elevates the story from low-budget, b-story slasher film to a full-blown classic.  

The Importance of Perspective

Despite the holiday’s supernatural connotation, the story of Halloween itself is set in the natural world. In other words, the laws of “reality” apply which give the film a sense of realism. This, in turn, helps to filter the lens through which each character sees the events.  As a result, and much in the same way the thematic arguments are made in The Shawshank Redemption via the use of setting, events and character perspectives, the notion of the boogeyman balances toward non-existence through the eyes of adults to make the denouement all-the-more powerful and haunting.  After all, the definition of the boogeyman (aka “bogeyman”) is “a monstrous imaginary figure used in threatening children.” 

As the argument for the boogeyman’s existence is made throughout the story, it’s set-up and acknowledged primarily through the eyes of eight-year old Tommy Doyle. Early in the story, Tommy is teased early on into believing “he’s going to get you, he’s going to get you… the boogeyman is coming!”.  When Tommy later sees Michael carrying the body of Annie outside, he makes the association Michael = the boogeyman.  

The audience, however, knowing the boogeyman is just an imaginary figure referenced by adults in order to make children behave, is meant to skew their reading away from Tommy’s perception.  Instead, their interpretation is more likely to be as intended by the author: we’re seeing through the eyes of an eight-year old who’s been influenced by earlier an earlier taunting at school.  

Trick or treat?

Tommy Doyle’s the first person to believe in the boogeyman.

Despite its setting in the ordinary (natural) world, Halloween subtlety introduces elements of the super-natural early on.    One such supernatural element, Michael’s ability to drive a car after years of institutionalization, is explored in film critic Robin Wood’s essay entitled “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”:

The basic premise of the action is that Laurie is the killer’s real quarry throughout (the other girls mere distractions en route), because she is for him the reincarnation of the sister he murdered as a child (he first sees her in relation to a little boy who resembles him as he was then, and becomes fixated on her from that moment). This compulsion to reenact the childhood crimes keeps Michael tied at least to the possibility of psychoanalytical explanation, thereby suggesting that Donald Pleasence may be wrong.  If we accept that, then one tantalizing unresolved detail becomes crucial: the question of how Michael learned to drive a car.  There are only two possible explanations: either he is the Devil, possessed of supernatural powers; or he has not spent the last nine years (as Pleasence would have us believe) sitting staring blackly at a wall meditating further horrors.

This, of course, ultimately is left unresolved – but it does illustrate Dr. Loomis’s perspective and subjective reading of Michael.  His reference to Michael as “it,” instead of “him” and his continual referencing of Michael as the devil or having “the devil’s eyes” demonstrates his personal perspective.  

Loomis is, in essence, the antithesis of The Exorcist‘s Father Karras.  Whereas Karras is a priest who favors psychology for finding answers to a supernatural situation, Loomis is a psychiatrist who comes to a supernatural conclusion regarding Michael’s inexplicable behavior: 

Loomis Batty

Dr. Loomis’s analysis sounds a bit extreme to Sheriff Brackett and the audience.

While Loomis is an authority figure in the film, to the audience his perspective comes across as somewhat unreliable – yet they are dependent on it for the story doesn’t encompass Michael’s years of institutionalization.  Loomis is, after all, a psychiatrist, but his obsessive drive, fear mongering and associating Michael with “evil” and “the Devil” make him appear as equally unhinged and deranged as Michael in some regards.  The events that the audience has been privy to thus far, e.g. Judith Myers’ slaying without motivation, suggest Michael is nothing more than a murderer which, at the very most, puts him squarely in the realm of the “natural” world and not within the context a psychiatrist would discuss.  Such cognitive dissonance is one of the factors that helps build and maintain the story’s suspense.  

The function of the Main Character

As with films like The Shawshank Redemption and Sicario, Halloween’s main character isn’t the story’s protagonist.  Laurie Strode is, however, the character the audience identifies with most and sees the events through.  And like the aforementioned films, her perspective is built around what the film’s authors ultimately want to convey to its audience.  

Laurie, at seventeen years of age, is too old to believe in the boogeyman.  She’s an ordinary girl in a seemingly ordinary world with no inclination whatsoever that “the shape” stalking her is the boogeyman. In fact, she fulfills the role of the story’s skeptic, flat-out disbelieving in its existence: 

Laurie Strode

Laurie’s perspective is in direct conflict with Tommy’s.

By placing the audience in Laurie’s shoes as the main character, we identify with her as we, too, know there is no such thing as the boogeyman.  Well, most of us, at least.  Because the story is based in the natural world, the elements that happen in the plot throughout the story ultimately help to shape the story’s theme towards the supernatural explanation of the boogeyman’s existence.  

When Laurie first sees Michael, for whose persona she is totally unaware of, it’s always from a distance and with fleeting glimpses… and then he’s gone.  For all she knows, the man stalking her is Ben Tramer, the boy she tells Annie she would rather go to the dance with.  Nevertheless, Laurie’s first physical encounter with Michael results in her stabbing him with a crochet needle.  The subsequent encounter results in stabbing him in the eye with a hanger and then in the chest with the knife.  

Because the setting is in the natural world, we expect the natural law of order to exist as a result of each subsequent attack on Michael afflicting more and more damage.  But as Tommy states, “You can’t kill the boogeyman.”  

At the story’s climax, Michael once again attacks Laurie.  This time, Dr. Loomis is there to shoot Michael.  Not once.  Not twice.  SIX times!  As Michael falls from the second story balcony, he’s presumed dead as shown in the objective-view from overhead of his motionless body on the ground.  

Surely an ordinary man in an ordinary world would be dead from this act alone, not to mention from accumulated previous wounds, too.  But being the climax, this is where the story’s theme from the central argument it proposes resonates.  The final dialogue between Dr. Loomis and Laurie shows her perspective has changed as she identifies Michael as “The Boogeyman.”  Dr. Loomis agrees, however, both reference Michael as such in past tense.  

Say it ain't so!

Laurie’s perspective has been changed by the events of the PLOT, resulting in the validation of its central question and its THEME.

The Audience’s Perception and Reception

A change in perspective isn’t always enough to satisfy an audience.  In the case of Halloween, the POV shot from Loomis looking to the barren ground where Michael landed is what validates the author’s position on the subject of the boogeyman’s existence.  Dramatica‘s theory of story refers to this as “Author’s Proof”: 

Technically speaking, the moment of climax in a story is the intersecting point where the nature of the Main Character crosses paths with the nature of the Overall (Objective) story.  The purpose is simply to illustrate that the suspected effect of the climax has or has not truly resulted in a change in course. As such, it functions as the Author’s Proof and is a key component of the denouement.

If nothing else, it’s important to understand this bit of story structure and how it plays into the film’s climax and theme.  It is the climax itself which determines whether the main character changes or remains steadfast in their beliefs.  The climax is a culmination of the story’s argument to that point and to which the highest degree of pressure is put on the main character to change or remain steadfast.  

If the main character is to remain steadfast in their beliefs, it will most likely resort in their changing someone else around them or the film resulting in tragedy.  Either way, the climax is where theme is found.  The story’s events and their plotting are merely the dramatic exploration of the various perspectives at play that mold and shape theme.  How the two are combined shape an audience’s reception. This is why storytelling has, at least in the hands of those who do it well, the power to influence and change lives.  

In the case of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the audio clip of the ending of an audience’s reaction synced to the film back during a 1979 showing demonstrates how the film’s theme as determined by the climax was ultimately received: 

John Carpenter’s Halloween ultimately delivers a suspenseful and well constructed, if not altogether simple story that has chilled audiences and critics alike for forty years now.  

One final note about audience reception and film analysis

A story (or film) is analyzed, it’s done in its totality taking into account all that it encompasses.  This incorporates a posteriori knowledge of the film’s events, themes, characters, setting, etc., to come to some conclusion about the work.  An audience’s reception and appreciation, however, is linear: the events unfold with the greater meaning to be discovered at the end.  This is an important distinction to note because oftentimes people will prescribe a posteriori knowledge to the story when the audience has, in fact, not experienced the events nor do they have knowledge of specific information. Subsequently, they cannot arrive at the same conclusion at that particular point in time while in the midst of their experiencing the story.  

Such is the case with John Carpenter’s Halloween.  40 years since its release, it’s easy to forget the experience of seeing the film for the very first time.  After myriads of clones, sequels, and reboots, most, if not all of which fail to capture the spirit of the original, Michael Myers has become synonymous with “the boogeyman.”  The first-time experience of watching him become the embodiment of a myth has become akin to letting the cat out of the bag: once it’s done, it’s hard to put it back in.  This, perhaps above all else, is why John Carpenter has said when sitting down to write Halloween 2, there simply was no story to tell.  

 

Written By: James P. Barker

This article was originally posted here.

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A Monster Calls: A Perfect Illustration Of Why We Tell Stories.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“It begins like so many stories with a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man… and a nightmare.”   — The Monster

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This analysis of the film contains spoilers which may differ from the book.

Early into Juan Antonio Bayona’s film adaptation of the Patrick Ness children’s fantasy A Monster Calls, twelve-year-old Conor watches with dismayed confusion as Kong, in the original 1933 black and white classic King Kong, is riddled with bullets, questioning why anyone would try to kill him.  As Kong clings atop the Empire State Building, he falters, ultimately letting go and falling to his inevitable death.  The scene resonates a negative undercurrent within Conor, mirroring his own nightmare where, upon the cemetery grounds opening up, he’s left clinging to his mother’s hand, eventually watching in horror as he’s unable to hold on.

Prior to this moment, the scene begins as Conor’s mother, simply known as “Mum” here on out, wishes to surprise him with his grandfather’s old film projector.  “I wish you could have known him,” she says, adding “even Grandma softened up around him.”  This bit of dialogue succinctly sets up the strenuous relationship between Conor and his grandmother but also illuminates the relationship between Mum and her father whose spirit hovers over the story in more ways than one; although his fate is never addressed, bits and pieces of backstory are threaded throughout, including photos of Liam Neeson who voices the titular character with Conor’s young Mum, suggesting the film’s plotline is one that this family, particularly Mum herself, has had to endure before.

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The Power of The One: Schindler’s List and The Little Girl in Red

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.”  – Mother Teresa

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Sitting horseback atop a hill overlooking the Cracow ghetto, Oscar Schindler watches the Nazis mass-murder Jews when, amongst the massive atrocities, a little girl wearing a red coat catches his attention.  He watches as the little girl first follows other Jews in line, then seemingly walks aimlessly about, passing no less than seven pointblank shootings without so much as a flinch before slipping unnoticed into a building while gunfire continues to echo throughout.  She is but one amongst hundreds in the scene, yet her individuality, her specificity, humanizes the otherwise countless atrocities Schindler witnesses and she ultimately becomes the impetus for his change from German industrial businessman to sympathizer who spent his fortune to save over 1,000 Jews.

Schindlers-list-girl-in-red

In the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking, Randy Olson touches upon two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof’s article “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World” and its examination of the power of specifics when it comes to storytelling:


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Going deep inside the underbelly of Sicario.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we will do. But in the end, you will understand.” – Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro in Sicario.

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The opening sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Sicario serves as a precursor of things to come as idealistic, by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) finds herself in something entirely different than expected when storming a compound supposedly holding hostages.  After a brief shootout, Kate and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) find bodies – 42 to be exact – hidden inside the complex’s walls, but it’s an explosion that claims the lives of fellow agents which sets her down a path as a volunteer with the peculiar Department of Defense contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the even more mysterious former prosecutor from Columbia, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), in their quest to “dramatically overreact,” shake the trees and create chaos in an effort to get the man at the top.  Little does Kate realize the trip down that particular rabbit hole will be equally unexpected… and cost her dearly when the approach ultimately presents the moral dilemma of whether the means justify the end.

One of the things immediately apparent with Sicario is its exemplary structure whereas the main character is separated from the typical protagonist function.  As discussed in a previous article, the main character serves as the perspective the audience sees the story through whereas the protagonist drives the plot – a concept many still seem in the dark about. Here the audience identifies strongly with Kate because we know just as much as she does when she does, as the truth is slowly revealed. We are in her shoes and experience the story vicariously through her vantage point as part of the story’s design.

 


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A Look Inside the storytelling of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.

 

“Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored.  They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place.”  – Judith Wright

Inside Out - Emotion Poster Collaboration

The stars of 11-year old Riley’s inner journey.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead! 

Leave it to the storytelling gurus behind Pixar Animation Studio to come up with a relatively simple, high concept story dealing with a complex subject, yet wrapped in a context that is both easily understood in its universalness while appealing to the young and old alike. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, but the folks at Pixar know perhaps better than any other studio the power of a thematically rich narrative.

Theme, after all, is often thought of as “the heart” of a story, what it’s really about.  The heart therefore represents that inner journey whereas the plot (events) are typically external to the character, but Inside Out twists this notion and makes the inner (emotional) journey part of the plot while emotions themselves are characters who learn and influence one another, resulting in change that ultimately reveals a universal truth.  As Lisa Cron wrote in her book Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:

“Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies.  The universal is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all.”


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The Babadook: when allegory meets expressionism in a therapeutic horror classic.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“I’ll wager with you.  I’ll make a bet.  The more you deny, the stronger I get.  You start to change when I get in, The Babadook growing right under your skin.  Oh come!  Come see what’s underneath!”  – Mister Babadook

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Warning: the following analysis includes spoilers!  

Early in writer/director Jennifer Kent’s Australian creeper The Babadook, widowed mother Amelia crawls onto the floor with her six year old son Samuel to check underneath his bed,  ensuring there are no monsters there before he turns in for the night.  The scene, repeated throughout the movie, has its roots in the seemingly every day life of a parent calming their child’s fears but also acts as one of the film’s many metaphors to dramatize the concept of “what lies beneath”.  Grounded in German expressionism, the film, like many great horror movies do, works on a psychological level as an allegory to convey the concept of suppression and repression, showing us the ill-effects – including cognitive dissonance – of what happens when emotions, particularly grief, have not been dealt with.

Before delving into the film further, let’s take a closer look at expressionism and allegory so we can understand how they fit into the bigger picture here.  Expressionism is at its bare essence taking the internal and making it external.  Expressionists seek to express meaning and emotional experiences – often radically to reflect mood and tone – rather than physical reality.  An allegory is used to convey complex ideas in ways that are more readily understood by an audience.  Its difference from a mere symbol is that an allegory, at least in story, is a narrative whose whole – much like a theme – has a meaning the author wishes to convey.  The use of these two together may explain why some viewers confessed to not understanding the movie (or its ending) – though to some extent, it’s a movie that’s aimed squarely at the real fears of an older audience – at least those old enough to have children of their own and suffered loss (for that’s what many of those who do will find relatable.)

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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part II.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”  – Wes Craven 

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Norman has a little bit of his mother in him.

Part one of this article can be found here.

As far back as 1908’s first known film adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (no longer in existence) and 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, horror movies have found the psychological explorations of “identity” to be effective proving grounds for stories that unsettle the mind.  It is, after all, the major component of the self; whether attributed to a character in a story in terms of perspective, ideologies, beliefs and experiences, or the individual watching the film whose own experiences, perspectives and beliefs may be preyed upon by the storyteller manipulating their greatest fears.

The marriage of the two (character and observer) through the main character’s perspective can enhance the emotional impact by placing viewers in the shoe’s of another – something that many will attest to be one of the important virtues of storytelling: to safely experience predicaments of others without being directly exposed to them?  Why?  As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Sentence 

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it— a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.


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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part I.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“Horror stories give us a way of exhausting our emotions around social issues, like a woman’s right to an abortion, which I always thought was the core of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ or the backlash against feminism which I always thought was the core to ‘Stepford Wives.’ ” – Chuck Palahniuk

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As the Sawyers would later say, “The saw is family.”

Here’s a list of ten of the most influential and critically acclaimed horror films released since 1960.  Take a look and see if there are any noticeable commonalities.

Psycho (1960)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Carrie (1976)

The Omen (1976)

Halloween (1978)

The Shining (1980)

Scream (1996)

There are many more that can be added to the list, some of which may contain one of the elements about to be discussed (films like The Thing (1982), Poltergeist (1982), The Fly (1986) along with films that may have been spawned by these such as the Friday the 13th series, not to mention the numerous sequels and many other, arguably lesser films of the genre), but for the sake of talking points we’ll keep the discussion to this list.


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Keeping your audience in suspense: cognitive dissonance, narrative blurring and the horror film.

 

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

The Innocents-23

Is that really a ghost on the shore in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, or is it merely all in Miss Giddens’ head?

There’s something about settling down in the dark of night to watch a well done creeper-feature, the kind that builds its atmosphere in layers like thick fog that keeps one guessing as to what’s really going on.  As discussed here, much of a film’s success is dependent on the main character’s perspective on events unfolding with regards to how an audience is to interpret them.  As such – and particularly in horror – the main character’s perspective is increasingly important when fostering suspense, an element that drives uncertainty, anxiety and indecision in a prolonged sense of “what happens next?”.  But for that perspective to be effective and create the kind of suspense in the audience that will keep them on the edge of their seats, two approaches are most useful: creating cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring.

Merriam Webster defines cognitive dissonance as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”  Furthermore:

[it’s] mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The concept was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–89) in the late 1950s. He and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. Cognitive dissonance is nonetheless considered an explanation for attitude change.


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Analyzing the farce and its reliance on character perspective

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.

 

“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations”

 -Chuck Jones

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Some may argue whether Tootsie is a farce vs a situational comedy. Sydney Pollack himself stated they downplayed the exaggeration found with some farcical elements, but at its heart – a farce is a farce is a farce – and Tootsie has many of the elements in play, particularly coincidences and choreography.

Farce is one of the most difficult, challenging forms of writing.  Perhaps more than any other genre, it relies on the writer’s complete understanding of many of the things discussed here in previous posts, from the author’s Machiavellianism to its inherent use of dramatic irony, to its most essential ingredient, perspective, all used to great effect.  It is, however, also one of the more misunderstood forms of writing from the reader’s perspective.  With an emphasis by some readers on traditional story structure, there’s a tendency to completely miss a farce’s raison d’être centering not on the goal of the story itself, but the rising complications stemming from it.  Coupled with other inherent elements not always en vogue (a large cast, typically longer set-up and deliberate use of coincidences among others), the farce can seem almost counterculturist in some story analyst’s eyes – but lacking in structure it is not.

one rings and he’s pleaded with to not answer it.  “You know, when you were playing Cyrano and you stuck a saber underneath my armpit through the couch, I didn’t say anything.  When you were hopping around, ranting about your hump, saying that this was a bell tower, I didn’t say anything.  But I don’t see any reason why I should just sit here, pretending I’m not home just because you’re not that kind of girl.  That’s weird.”

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