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Horror films reinforce our fear instincts: Q&A with John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s classic suspense film Halloween from 1978 launched the slasher subgenre into the mainstream. The low-budget horror picture introduced iconic Michael Myers as an almost otherworldly force of evil, stalking and killing babysitters in otherwise peaceful Haddonfield. It featured a bare-bones plot, a simple, haunting musical score composed by Carpenter himself, some truly nerve-wracking editing and cinematography, and it spawned a deluge of sequels, prequels, rip-offs, and homages. There’d be no Scream films without Halloween, no Friday the 13th franchise, no “rules for surviving a horror film.” Cinema—suspense and horror cinema in particular—would be a lot poorer without Mr. Carpenter’s massive influence.

Halloween is now hailed as a masterpiece of horror, consistently showing up on “Best Horror Films” lists, but it has also sparked controversy over alleged misogyny and sadism. In this film, some critics argued, young women are punished for having premarital sex—all but the chaste “Final Girl.” Michael Myers, they claimed, was an agent of conservative morality, and viewers indulged misogynistic, sadistic pleasures by identifying with him. But that approach is misguided. Myers is an agent of pure, anti-social evil, and the characters who are killed are the ones who fail to be vigilant. The film does not invite us to identify with Myers—it invites us to identify with his victims. The pleasure of watching Halloween is the peculiar pleasure of vicarious immersion into a world torn apart by horror.

I spoke to Mr. Carpenter as research for my book, and the rest of this blog post is a transcription of that conversation.

Mathias Clasen: How do you feel about what critics have said about Halloween? Especially the Final Girl stuff, the sexually conservative ideological structure that is supposed to be in your work?

John Carpenter: This all comes from one guy, a Canadian reviewer, Robin Wood. He was running a film festival around the time, I think it was American Nightmares. It was his idea that Halloween was revenge of the repressed. That’s what he called it. I don’t agree with that. At all.

MC: Yeah, I don’t see it either. The way I see it, the character who is not busy having sex is being aware of her surroundings, and that’s why she survives.

JC: Exactly right, that’s exactly it.

MC: So, picking up on that, do you see Halloween as an upbeat or a downbeat film?

John Carpenter (2010). Photo by Nathan Hartley Maas. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

JC: Upbeat or downbeat film, wow. You know, that’s a really tough one to say, I don’t know if I see it as either. It’s just a little scary tale to be told around a campfire like so many movies are. And that’s about all it is, it’s not that much more than that.

MC: On the one hand it seems to say “you’re not safe,” you know, “anywhere you go a creepy guy in a mask could be there waiting for you,” but on the other hand [it says] “if you’re aware, you’ll go through the night.”

JC: That’s right, you’ll live through the night, which is always an important message. Well, I think more than just a creepy guy with a mask, I think Halloween says “evil does exist”. And if you’re aware, you can survive. Let’s put it that way.

MC: So what do you think about evil? I mean social psychologists, for example, don’t believe there is such a thing.

JC: Sure there is. Of course there is. The lack of empathy. That’s simple. It really exists, there is a lack of empathy. Some human beings don’t have it at all. At all.

MC: Including Mike Myers.

JC: Well, he’s not really human.

MC: [Some critics] talked about the use of optical point of view in slasher films, and how that supposedly leads to identification, and [they focused on] the famous first shot in Halloween where we see things through the eyes of young Mike Myers. My take on it is that you’re saving the big surprise of who the culprit is.

JC: That’s exactly right, it’s a way of disguising who the killer is.

MC: So no invitation to empathize with…

JC: No, God no. The whole movie is about surviving horror, it’s not about identifying with horror. No. It’s “watch out!”

MC: What do you think about the function of horror, why do people seek out this stuff?

JC: Well, catharsis, I guess, is one of the ancient explanations. It’s a way of coping, a way for all of us to cope with the darkness. And it has become a thrill ride type of thing, so it’s all of those. It’s a ritual, a societal ritual. “Let’s go to a horror movie.” Especially if you have a girl with you, you can cuddle, which is always fun.

MC: That’s true, the so-called “snuggle theory,” that you slip the arm around the girl screaming for dear life and show her that you can master it.

JC: That’s right, that’s part of it.

MC: When was the last time you were really, truly afraid in a movie theater?

JC: Well, I don’t go to the movie theaters anymore because of cell phones and such, but we’re all afraid of the same things. So I’m afraid of the exact same thing as you are. There’s no difference. And human beings are all afraid of the same things, that’s one of the reasons that the genre is so profound, so universal, so worldwide. You know, there are different ideas of humor. People laugh at different things in different cultures. But you see this giant monster walking around and we all respond the same way: “Holy shit! Get me out of here!”

MC: Yeah, I agree with that, that’s one of the key claims in my book—that people tend to be afraid of the same things no matter where they come from. It’s usually the dark, and heights, and spiders, and snakes, and…

JC: Yeah, you got it all, there’s a list, you know, loss of identity, disfigurement, loss of a loved one, I mean, it goes on and on.

MC: So those are some of the same evolved, hardwired buttons that horror pushes?

JC: Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s hardwired. All of this is part of our survival techniques developed over years of evolution. And it’s just our way of surviving this thing called life. We need to survive it, so we developed techniques.

MC: And you think horror films, horror literature can help us refine or calibrate those techniques?

JC: Yeah, take a dip in horror and I think it, you know, if nothing else, it reinforces what you already know. It reinforces what your instincts are.

The interview was kindly transcribed by Charlotte Biermann Bentsen.

Featured image credit: Photo of graveyard. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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