Written by guest contributor Brian Roe
Traditions can be both comforting and constricting, either something you routinely do because it brings you peace and enjoyment or a forced task that you must perform because of the bullying of familial or social expectations. Families and friend-groups are full of a variety of traditions, shared acts that are collected and discarded as the years progress. Many of us also have our own, more personal traditions that we develop through our lives, and the viewing of particular films are some of the most deeply rooted.
Almost every year since I was an early teenager I’ve watched John Carpenter’s Halloween on Halloween night and I added to this the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks The Thing From Another World in the late 1990s. Both films are wildly different at first glance and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why these two always seem to be the movies I most want to watch during this haunted night in the dying part of the year.
I don’t want to go all Joseph Campbell hero myth with this but I do think that we aren’t as aware as we should be in modern culture about how stories affect our minds and shape our view of the world. We have so many myths and folk tales that are constantly blasted at us by an overwhelming number of sources that we usually see them merely as entertainment or distraction without realizing the effects that they have on us. Add to this mix the personal stories and urban legends that we pick up from other people and at any given time we are dealing with literally hundreds of stories about life, death, love, hate, sex, whatever. To just intake this stuff and never attempt a deeper understanding of it not only lessens the enjoyment of it but also gives it influence that we sometimes have trouble understanding. Just because a myth is packaged as a movie, comic book, or urban legend doesn’t make it any less of a myth than the stories being told around ancient campfires by people who believed that a more permeable membrane existed between the mundane and the magical.
Halloween creeped up on me. When it was released in 1978 I was a bored, inquisitive kid who was starting to take some of the dares that life was taunting me with. My constant hunger for interesting media was barely satisfied by the random comic books I could pick up from the local drugstore or the occasional mixed bag of comics dropped off by an aunt or family friend who was cleaning out their kid’s bedroom. I never had enough movies, model kits, or toys to satisfy my constant proto-geek desires and I was always obsessively aware of weird or interesting stuff that happened around me so when a number of TV and radio spots showed up for Carpenter’s Halloween I was pulled in hook, line, and sinker.
You see, by this time I was aware that there was a world of movies that adults got to see that I “wasn’t ready for yet”. When we went to the drive-in we got to watch the PG-rated movie that showed first but was usually shoved in the back and told to go to sleep while the scary R-rated second movie played. This brilliant parental policy led to one of the most deliciously terrifying experiences of my life when I was forced to listen to, but not allowed to see, the entirety of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. Although I was finally able to watch Phantasm as a teenager and it is indeed a favorite of mine, nothing was more frightening than hearing it play through hundreds of drive-in car speakers and feverishly imagining every scene in my head. But even when these forbidden stories were denied me I still wanted to experience them. I loved and hated the fear but I really wanted the confrontation of it. Every horror movie or comic book that I confronted, fought, and digested felt like a bit of armor that I had added to the defense of my still skittish psyche. Some of them beat me, Trilogy of Terror and The Other freaked me out past the point of no return, but for the most part I was quickly learning that I liked scary stuff and I would rather know about it than live in fearful ignorance of it.
So yeah, Halloween. I finally got to see it after a failed Halloween party I tried to have at our house with the kids in my enrichment program class. The party sucked and it left me demoralized and feeling poor and unpopular. My brain was perfectly open to receive a movie about a normal suburban neighborhood being quietly and unstoppably stalked by a voiceless and faceless monster. Not that I sympathized or imprinted on Michael Myers but the sense of being emotionless and actually soulless helped to give me some pissy teenaged strength of will. In the way that certain types of music draw in kids who feel cast out or marginalized, horror movies gave me a sense of mental toughness that I drew on for years.
Besides this classic attack on suburban norms, Halloween serves as a classic myth about the confrontation of life against death. The ancient traditions about Halloween being the night when the dead come back to earth echo throughout the movie. Michael Myers has not died but has been sent away to a mental hospital that might as well be the afterlife. The tagline “The Night He Came Home” is full-on fairy tale fuel, on the night that the barriers between the living and the dead are weakest then HE is able to stalk and kill. I’ll cut things short before declaring that Laurie Strode represents a Celtic life-goddess but I actually think she does. Myers is a serial killer because that was the preferred boogyman in The US after the Manson Family, but the story could be told using more ancient archetypes without losing any of its resonance.
I watch Halloween each year as a reminder of the inevitability of death and evil and the need to fight back against them not matter how unstoppable or terrible they might seem or how alone we might feel. I watch it to connect in some small way with a Celtic mythology that I hear echoes of in my own soul. And I watch it because its calm, stripped-down menace still works as one of the most solid horror movies of all time.
The Thing From Another World, which appears in Halloween as a creature-feature being watched by Tommy and Laurie, has a totally different feel even though the basic story is pretty similar to Halloween. An inhuman killer arrives in a normally quiet community and wreaks havoc until it is destroyed or driven off. Whereas Michael Myers was stalking a suburban American neighborhood, the extraterrestrial monster of The Thing attacks a secluded Arctic outpost. And although Laurie had to fight Michael primarily on her own, The Thing shows how teamwork and camaraderie can stand up to even the most vile threat.
A group of scientists discover a possible aircraft that has landed near their Arctic base. An Air Force transport plane is dispatched from Anchorage Alaska to help the scientists find and possibly retrieve the plane. Nope, not a plane but a flying saucer. A couple of thermite bombs later and the saucer goes kaplooey but the saucer’s pilot is found by the party. They chop the pilot mostly out of the ice and drag it back to their camp. It thaws out and starts eating blood. The scientists realize that it’s a highly evolved plant-based life-form. The Air Force guys fight back and fry it with arcs of electricity.
Simple story but not really the reason why The Thing is an enjoyable movie. That comes from the interaction and dialogue between the characters as well as their individual relationships and the overall sense of teamwork and bravery that comes from the Air Force crew. Although a few of the scientists are drawn as broad caricatures, for the most part the characters come across as pretty realistic people who have reasons for their behavior. Even a romantic subplot between Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) doesn’t slow the movie down since it’s kept fun and frisky and most importantly real.
The Thing is a fine example of what I call Siege Movies. Night of The Living Dead, Zulu, Assault on Precinct Thirteen are all examples of this. A group of people are somehow cut off from the rest of society and have to deal with the constant threat of an inhuman outside force. In many ways The Thing is the forefather of the modern zombie movie. But whereas modern movies focus on the social fracturing and backstabbing inherent in these situations, The Thing shows us a different, and much more appealing, view of things, that of people actually coming together and taking action to fight back against a shared threat.
The characters of The Thing are obviously still living with the recent memories of World War 2. The Air Force crew work together in a way that only people who have been through a lot together can and even the group of scientists actually feel like a formidable team with every member doing their part well. This “can do” attitude is a pleasant surprise. There’s no moping, no whining, no selfishness. The situation is bad and only working together can solve anything. And even some bad behavior by a few of the scientists is not due to their own villainy but their belief in a higher ideal. In a current society where reality TV is full of back-stabbing, duplicitous, immature assholes, this vision of hard-working teammates is both refreshing and inspiring. Quit telling me that in a crisis humanity reverts back to self-centered barbarism. The characters in The Thing show otherwise and I’ll believe that much more readily than any bullshit soap opera like The Walking Dead.
We use myth and stories to determine the direction of our societies. If we tell ourselves that we can be better than we will be. But if we continually tell ourselves that only our most base and vile traits will come out at the drop of a hat then we are predetermined to manifest those traits. And yeah, I do consider a black and white horror movie from 1951 to be a part of our collective societal myths. So there.
There is so much layered dialog in The Thing that I’m still picking up little phrases during conversations that add to each speaker’s character. These little throw away lines define the characters as much as their normal speeches and give a sense of subtlety that makes them feel very real. And although The Thing is often seen as one of the first of the 1950s “aliens as Communists” movies, there is a depth of writing and acting that most of the following films can never match. There is a constant but fun ribbing of Captain Hendry that creates some of the film’s best moments and picking out all of the small jokes and threats that go back and forth between Hendry and his crew is a blast.
So I watch The Thing every year to remind me of the importance of teamwork and mutual respect. I watch it to see a group of people overcome a terrifying and seemingly unstoppable evil. And I watch it as a social model of the kind of person I want to be and to see the kind of people I want around me.
But mostly I watch both of these movies because I truly enjoy them simply as movies. Although I try to break them down in an attempt at greater understanding they still hold up as good stories that are well told and interesting. I still care about the characters and their struggles. And I enjoy my own personal tradition of watching them every year on the night that the barriers between life and death are permeable and weak, Halloween.
May yours be dark, frightening, and wonderful.