Halloween is a simple story. That’s the first thing its detractors tend to point out, but it’s also the thing that makes it so endearing. It’s meat-and-potatoes horror. It’s a simple premise because it needs to be, not just because it is so scaled-back and elemental, but also because it is so fundamentally archetypal to its core. John Carpenter is clearly a lover of ghost stories. He would make that abundantly clear with The Fog. While the two movies are very different, they share deep similarities. Both are about towns with local legends and both are about the ghosts of the past, so to speak, returning to wreak havoc on the present.
In the case of Halloween, the backstory is much more recent, people talk about it with an almost melancholy fondness, a sort of morbid nostalgia, which is true of almost all small town horrors. They are, for better or worse, the events that put the town on the map. The Fog, however, is set in a seaside fishing community, and that’s where the two features truly split. For Halloween, everything is about picturesque small town Americana, and the film is essentially about driving a knife deep into the heart of idealized Norman Rockwell America and studying the wound to see what bubbles out.
Halloween doesn’t feel like a horror built on mythology, but it is, in its own way. By 1978, horror had all but left the Gothic era behind, with that seminal transition truly occurring in Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Halloween was a film of the post-Leatherface era, where it was accepted that horror could occur in your own backyard. In Halloween this is not only true, but it’s a truth all of the characters are aware of, that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Yes, these are unsuspecting teens, but they’re not travelers completely unaware of what they’re getting into. Every character in Haddonfield, Illinois knows what could happen to them because it has happened before.
The local ghost story isn’t a ghost story. It’s not supernatural, at least not at first. It began as a horrific incident in the town’s past that has evolved into something much more exaggerated over time, becoming a legend, much like Michael Myers himself, who is much more of an overtly supernatural presence at the end of the movie than he is at the beginning. But this is what makes the approach of Halloween so perfect for what it is trying to do. It’s not a movie that, like so many of the classics before it, has a wealth of folkloric history to draw on. Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man drew on a wealth of tradition that—at first glance—Halloween doesn’t have. But what Carpenter’s film does instead, in its pure simplicity, is to weave together a pastiche of archetypal elements of urban folklore.
Given that America is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions, it doesn’t have a lot of its own folklore. There’s really no way to have that in a country that isn’t even three hundred years old. We never really even started to have them until the onset of the urban legend. The term “urban legend” itself wasn’t coined until the late 1960s, but the stories themselves date back decades before that. For the most part, the stories served the same basic purpose as the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. They were parables meant to shock children into behaving, updating the concepts to the dangers awaiting twentieth century teenagers.
Urban legends are fascinating in that so many of them have been told and retold so many times that their origins have become almost completely untraceable. There are so many things that people grew up hearing and simply accepted as fact, whether the story actually has any truth to it or not. In some cases, such as the story of the alligators lurking in New York sewers, the story is clearly far-fetched and impossible, but an entire generation grew up believing that they were probably going to die if they mixed Pop Rocks and soda. These stories were all meant to scare kids out of misbehaving and sometimes they did, but all of them captured the imagination.
Halloween is in some ways the distilled essence of an urban legend sprung forth on the real world. The characters feel lived in and genuine. Even though they’re treated as archetypes, they’re not. Yes, Laurie is bookish and doesn’t have a boyfriend, but it’s not for wont of interest. There’s no condescension on her part toward the action of the other two girls. If anything, there’s a fair amount of envy. It’s the situation itself that is archetypal. It’s the classic story of an escaped lunatic, the story of a babysitter besieged, and while this is the definitive version of these iconic ideas on film, these were concepts and stories that people had been hearing for decades. Halloween simply blended them together.
On John Carpenter’s part, this was intentional. He wanted to take the simple basic premise of a teenage babysitter being besieged by an unknown killer and turn that concept into a feature film. But there are elements of several other iconic urban folk tales in Halloween. First and foremost, the story that might be responsible for the entire slasher genre as a whole, “The Hook.”
This might be the most infamous urban legend of all time. Everyone has heard it and everyone has heard a slightly different version of it. Like all urban legends, its origins are hard to trace, but it’s very likely and largely accepted that the first versions of this story popped up sometime during or after the Lover’s Lane Texarkana murders of the 1940s, which infamously inspired The Town That Dreaded Sundown. No matter what those differences might be, the story always revolves around a couple of teenagers who hear that a madman has escaped from the local mental institution and is now running amok in their community. This is the catalyst for Halloween. Our characters are teenagers living in a small town that—despite its hard setting of Illinois—could be any suburban town in America. Conversely, we have Michael Myers as the very literal escaped madman.
Michael obviously has much more of a backstory than the escaped killer in “The Hook.” We know that as a child he killed his sister in 1963, because we see the event through his eyes and the story of what he did has lingered in the community throughout all the years of his incarceration. Yet he maintains the same otherness as the killer in “The Hook.” We know nothing about why Michael is doing what he’s doing. Despite being a man, he is an entirely otherworldly presence. This was famously intentional on Carpenter’s part, hence why the character is referred to as “the shape” throughout the script. But even though his presence is greatly expanded for the sake of a feature, Michael Myers represents the same archetypal killer as the infamous urban legend presents.
He already fits the bill for having escaped the mental institution and returned to terrorize his home town. Those are the only things we really know about both Myers and the killer in “The Hook.” Other than that, both are entirely mysterious because, for the purposes of the story, we don’t need to know anything about their motivations in order to be frightened. As seminal as both stories are, the ultimate goal of both of them is to shock and unnerve. They work because we don’t know why this is happening. It just is. These men are there to represent a threat. In “The Hook” the threat could be entirely suited to the teller as that story is still completely malleable. Usually, it’s about the dangers of premarital sex or staying out all night, ultimately, not doing what you’re told. Those elements could be construed from Halloween, but it encompasses a greater number of characters, with our heroine being the responsible and level-headed Laurie. Michael Myers distills the classic urban legend down to the real reason why it works, the thing about the story that actually terrifies teens: the fear of death.
Death is generally the furthest thing from a teenager’s mind. It’s not something that really feels like a concrete reality, which is why teens so often speak about everything in life and death terms. Halloween is about being young and having Death standing literally right over your shoulder, about confronting mortality head on as an unshakable truth for the very first time.
“The Hook” is not the only classic urban legend that Halloween borrows from, though. Of the tales that revolve around mysterious killers, another of the most well known is the story of “The Man in the Back Seat.” In this story, a young woman is driving by herself and sees another car driving very closely behind her, flashing its high beams every few minutes. Eventually she pulls into a station and the driver of the other car catches up with her, where it is revealed that there was someone hiding in her back seat with a knife and every time they turned on the high beams, the stalker would slink back down. This is an interesting urban legend because it’s so different from the others of its type. In this story, the thing that seems like a threat at first glance is actually trying to help. The killer is still completely mysterious, we have no idea who they are or why they’re in the car.
So it makes sense that Halloween only borrows the end of “The Man in the Back Seat.” And even then, not really. In the urban legend, like “The Hook” as well, nothing actually happens. It’s all about what could happen and Halloween takes the threats from each of these stories and turns them into grisly on-screen reality. In Halloween, Annie enacts the would-be ending of this story by returning to her car after misplacing her keys. When trying to start it up, she notices that the windows have all been fogged up and only has a moment to try and figure out what has happened before Michael Myers, who has been hiding in her back seat, springs up and slits her throat.
He evokes everything that is scary about that urban legend and all of the iconic elements are in place. Even if she never makes it to the road, even if there are no high beams, Michael is still a man hiding in her back seat with a knife. Just like the would-be killer of that myth, there’s no concrete reason as to why he is targeting Annie. He’s just there, hiding in her backseat, waiting for the precise moment she realizes that something is out of the ordinary to strike.
But there’s one iconic urban legend that Halloween draws from the most: the story of the babysitter and the man upstairs. In this legend, a teenage girl is babysitting for a couple of local children when she begins to hear harassing phone calls asking her if she has checked the children. Eventually, it is revealed that the killer is calling from inside the house and that the children have been murdered. This is one of the most fascinating urban legends because there’s no moral lesson, just cold stone dread which is why it makes sense for Halloween to borrow from it the most. This is about a teenager who is responsible and who is harassed and tormented by this killer, and even if she had checked the children, she would have died as well. It’s an aggressively simple story, but one in which there’s really no winning.
Other movies of the era borrow from this myth quite heavily. Black Christmas takes two of the most crucial elements, the harassing phone calls and the reveal that the killer is inside the house. The story would be more faithfully, directly adapted in the opening scene of When a Stranger Calls, just a year after the release of Halloween. But Carpenter’s film wears the inspiration from this simplistically chilling urban folktale on its sleeve. Before it was even called Halloween, the working title was The Babysitter Murders. That inspiration had always been there from day one, because the story offered the perfect set up.
For many American teenagers, babysitting offers the first taste of responsibility. It’s the first paying job of many, many kids. It’s the first time that someone else’s parents are putting their trust in a young teen and counting on them to not only behave themselves, but to care for their kids, at least for a few hours. For some teens it’s just a way to make a little money, but for some it offers the thrill of being treated like an adult, at least for a night, for the very first time. There’s an element of dread that easily comes along with that, as a teen finds themselves thinking of the worst possible thing that could happen. This urban folktale exists to exploit that fear, and Halloween only expands on it.
In this film, the harassing phone calls are certainly far less of a focus than they are in Black Christmas, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Early on in the movie, Laurie Strode receives a muffled phone call that terrifies her, but it turns out to simply be Annie’s muffled chewing sounds on the other end. This is disturbingly inverted later on, when Lynda is killed while on the phone with Laurie, who isn’t even aware that she’s listening to her friend’s dying gasps. In this scene, the urban legend is somewhat flipped. Lynda called Laurie, so when their conversation gets cut short, it’s really Michael on the other end listening in. This scene on the phone is even the first time that Michael is fully revealed in the light in the entire film. Even if the elements of harassing phone calls don’t factor too heavily into Halloween, both the movie and the urban legend are driven by the very same concept of a babysitter alone and in danger.
Laurie goes upstairs to check the children in a shot that clearly harkens back to the story before unknowingly heading across the street to discover the dead bodies of all of her friends. This is what Carpenter does with Halloween. It’s not about borrowing any specific elements directly. It’s not about reformatting or re-adapting any of these individual stories, but about honoring this tradition of American myth and adding to it. Referential as it can be, Halloween ultimately factors as an urban folktale unto itself. Like all of the classics, it is streamlined and elemental, told simplistically so that it could be retold in any small town in America and kids would believe that it happened right there in their own backyard.
That is, after all, exactly what the end of Halloween is meant to evoke: this feeling that the boogeyman is not only alive and well, but that he could be hiding anywhere and just as his actions came about without rhyme or reason. He could choose to strike again at any time. Without motive. Without warning. Just like every great urban legend, it has no concrete end, so that the horror can continue to linger in the imagination long after the credits begin to roll.