A friend edits a film publication; as such, he wields razor-sharp opinions on all film matters, especially genre flicks – sci-fi, horror, and the like. When we talk movies, I hang the best I can, fielding suggestions for my Netflix queue, while trying to impress with insights of my own. I consider myself fairly well-versed, relatively articulate, and enthusiastic for the silver screen.
Within the past couple years, however, I began noting a strange occurrence, a verbal tic that would strike like clockwork: No matter what film, genre, or era up for debate, invariably, I would steer the conversation over to Halloween. (I resent needing to make this distinction – I will be referencing John Carpenter's 1978 classic – not Rob Zombie's 2007 swing-and-a-miss reboot.)
My friend would scratch his beard and politely chuckle as I'd shoehorn some loosely connected point concerning escaped psycho Michael Myers, meek heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and obsessed Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) into the conversation. He understands abiding passion for film (though he's a bigger fan of Friday the 13th). But until recently I didn't understand just why this particular movie has cast such a spell.
Three decades later, I think I've figured it out. And my fascination stems from an unexpected place.
The Talk of the Playground
Halloween is my Star Wars, a declaration that should need little explanation. Whereas any of my countless Wookie obsessed friends could tell you exactly where and when they first saw that opening crawl of text floating in space, I vividly remember when I first learned of Haddonfield, Illinois, the fictional town terrorized by Michael Myers.
Late October, 1981. Having just turned ten-years-old, I was feeling depressed that my Philadelphia Phillies couldn't reach the World Series as they had the previous year. My father took me to that series, including the clincher, where the Phils won their first championship in team history. It was the greatest moment of my life, due largely to seeing my father so joyous. When reliever Tug McGraw secured victory, my father lifted me up and kissed my cheeks. Thirty-two years later, I still get choked up thinking about it. That was the rarest moment in our relationship.
A year later I would experience a new kind of thrill. For weeks, kids in school were talking about it – NBC was going to air Halloween. This was a big deal. The film had attained legendary status, with kids claiming (or lying) to have snuck into the theater to see it. At a time when video rental was in its infancy, and cable television wasn't as ubiquitous, the nationally-televised Friday Night at the Movies was an event, hyped for days.
My world was set to be rocked – but there was a catch. Despite the unlikeliness of seeing graphic violence or P.J. Soles' breasts, my father wouldn't let me to watch Halloween.
"But I'm ten," I pleaded. "Everybody in school is gonna watch but me."
"I don't care what everyone in school does," he answered, stubbing his cigarette. "It's for grown-ups, not you."
Part of the problem was my younger sister, aged eight, who would protest loudly if I got to do something she couldn't. So, I accepted the ruling, not being the type to make waves. If my father, who at the time I worshipped, forbid it, well, what was I going to do? I could've gone over a friend's house. But no matter how stealth, he would know. My father bore a sort of omnipotence that made lying useless. He could always sense what I'd done, seeing things he couldn't have possibly witnessed. Though he rarely left his chair at the dining room table, he was everywhere.
I might have discreetly watched Halloween on the nine-inch television in my room. The problem: I didn't have a door. I can't count the times I'd be distracted in my room, only to suddenly discover my father standing in the doorway, staring menacingly. I never heard his footsteps. Wordlessly biding his time, he'd wait for me to discover him, and delight in my shriek of terror. Then, depending on his mood, he'd either chuckle or yell at me.
The Night HE Came to NBC
On Friday, October 30th, 1981, my older sister came to visit with the intent of watching Halloween, unaware that I'd been hoping – nay, praying – to do the same. I thought my father might change his mind, however, a half-hour before showtime, my parents shooed my younger sister and I into their bedroom, instructing us to watch anything BUT what they'd be enjoying in the living room. How cruel, I thought, as my sister flipped to the Brady Bunch. I considered wresting the remote control and throwing caution to the wind. But, again, he would know.
With minutes to go, the door cracked open. "Come on," my father said, "you can watch." Turned out my older sister convinced him, bless her.
Halloween was perfect. I could gush endlessly about the off-kilter musical score (behold), or the opening sequence where the camera glides along, tracking six-year-old Michael as he enters the house, selects a knife, travels upstairs, and stabs his sister Judith to death. I fell head over heels for Laurie Strode, setting in motion a lifetime of being attracted to gawky women. And I loved raving Dr. Loomis with his borderline loony monologues on the nature of the killer.
More than anything, I was captivated by Michael Myers, the epitome of Evil with a keen sense of style. Freddy Krueger made wisecracks. Michael Myers had nothing to say. Jason Voorhees and Leatherface hustled. Michael Myers never ran but always caught up. Oh, he's going to kill you, alright – on his time. Though I'd never imagined a character so terrifying, there was also a strange familarity in the manner he would sometimes just stand – amid clotheslines or behind a hedge – and just stare. I knew how unsettling that felt.
And that mask – pale, expressionless – I simply couldn't reckon it. Elemental fright personified. I was petrified.
As if the shocks of Halloween weren't enough, every couple of minutes my father would prey upon my rapt attention to the television. Creeping from behind, he'd grab my sides and shout "GOTCHA!" I'd scream, get mad, laugh, and then return to Haddonfield, instantly forgetting that he'd soon strike again.
The final ten minutes were unrelentlingly tense, while the cliff-hanger ending destroyed my young mind. My life changed that night, cementing a lifelong love of horror and spooky music, and I have my father (and older sister) to thank.
But the connection between Halloween and my father goes even deeper.
The Shape Stalks
I'm not one of those mega-fans that loves every appearance of Michael Myers. Honestly, my favorite subsequent chapter of the franchise doesn't even feature Michael Myers (Halloween III: Season of the Witch is batshit crazy awesome.) Time and time again – from broadcast re-airings to VHS to theater revival to Laserdisc to DVD and, finally, to Blu-ray – I return to the original, hoping to recapture the exhilaration of 1981.
Last year, thirty years to the day of the NBC broadcast, I watched Halloween on Blu-ray. The clarity of the print was astounding. Here's a movie I'd seen dozens of times offering up fresh details left and right: the fabric of the late-seventies attire; the legible labels of household items in Annie's kitchen; and, most disconcertingly, the plentiful palm trees of Haddonfield, Illinios. I knew Halloween was shot in California. I've visited the locations, and even wept when approaching the Myers house – now located a block away from its prior lot and used as an office. Just the same, I wish I could un-see those trees.
While my wife wisely decamped in the next room, I downed a bottle of wine, and watched Michael chase Laurie in high definition when, out of the blue, I had a cathartic epiphany. Bursting into tears, I rushed to my wife, unable to speak. Alarmed, she stroked my head, trying to calm me down.
"Jesus Christ! What's wrong?" she asked.
"It's my father," I cried. "That's why I love this movie so much! I see him."
It was always there, but I'd never pieced it together – Michael Myers is my father.
The Haunted House
Okay, that's probably overstating it. But that night I connected a galaxy of dots leading to this bizarre conclusion. For starters, if asked to describe what my father looked like, I always say that he resembled William Shatner from his T.J. Hooker years – wavy brown hair, doughy Irish face. Michael Myers' mask is, in fact, a mass-produced William Shatner mask from 1975, altered and spray-painted white. Somehow, I had never made this connection before.
Furthermore, Dr. Loomis laments the years spent unsuccessfully trying to pry inside his patient's mind. I knew that frustration. My father wasn't catatonic like Michael. But I sensed there was a dark past that blackened his mood. I yearned for him to talk and relieve the perpetual blank stare aimed chiefly at the television. During my teenage years, he grew more and more distant, engaging only to belittle me. I couldn't hold his interest quite like a twelve-pack and rerun of M.A.S.H. He drank and smoked and stared into the middle distance until he died of cancer in 1991.
I would later learn of what haunted him. Knowing the end was near, one night he opened up ... to my younger sister. Sharing a smoke at the dining room table, he shared his innermost secret. When he was six years old, my father, like Michael Myers, witnessed the gruesome death of a family member. From the street corner, he watched as his father strolled out of the corner bar and crossed a busy Philadelphia intersection. Smiling at his son, the man never saw the trolley bearing down on him.
He was killed instantly, broken neck and back. Panicked, my father ran to his side, kneeling in the blood.
I knew my grandfather died in a motor accident. I didn't know that my father saw it happen and felt partially responsible. I would give anything to have discussed this with him. I could've helped, I know it. He wasn't emotionless. He just wore a mask.
Oh, and one last thing: My father's birthday ... October 31st.
Putting on the Mask
This year, I bought two remarkable Michael Myers replicas from Trick or Treat Studios. For the first time in years, I stalked around town in full Halloween regalia. People freaked out when they saw me moving slow and steady up the block. Returning to costume after so much time, I wondered if I wear the mask to get inside the skin of the mythic Boogeyman of my childhood, or if I wear the mask to get inside the mind of an even bigger icon, without whom I wouldn't enjoy the imperfect life I lead. Either way, unlike Michael or my father, I can without fear always take the mask off.