Don’t Cross the White Picket Fence: Suburban Spaces of Terror in “Halloween”

“Doctor, do you know what Haddonfield is? Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets.” — Sheriff Brackett  

 Gothic conventions famously dictate that a shadowy, castle-like structure is the site of the horrors that fictional characters face. In his essay on “demonic imagery,” which details many of the motifs and symbols of Gothic fiction, Northrup Frye includes “the labyrinth or maze, the image of lost direction…” (150). The imposing homes found in so many Gothic works house Frye’s secret passages. In 1764, there was the tunnel of escape beneath the castle in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Over 80 years later, Charlotte Bronte sent Jane Eyre off to Thornfield Hall, a vast, haunted mansion with a secret behind one of its many closed doors. Horror films went on to appropriate the labyrinthine castle; recall Rosemary (Mia Farrow) finally exploring the secret spaces of New York’s storied Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby. Consumers of horror movies and Gothic works are trained to expect something wicked inside any grand, oftentimes isolated home.

In his 1978 slasher flick Halloween, John Carpenter flips this Gothic convention on its head. Parents are largely absent in the film, but one of the first things we learn about protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is that her father works as a realtor. Mr. Strode is trying to sell the Myers house, the site of a horrific crime years earlier, and one can assume he’s having a tough time closing a deal. The Myers home, after all, perfectly fits the image of the haunted house, and Carpenter’s introduction to the home tries to trick the audience into thinking that it will be Halloween’s version of the Gothic castle. As Laurie and her young neighbor Tommy approach the house, Carpenter shoots it from a low angle, then settles briefly on a long shot of Laurie and Tommy paused in front of the house. These shots emphasize the home’s size and dilapidation; in the long shot, we see that it rises a full story higher than the two neighboring homes, but what it has in square footage it lacks in décor. The paint is far from fresh, part of the awning is falling off and a threatening darkness lies behind the windows’ dirty screens. When Carpenter reveals, with a spike of music, that killer Michael Myers lies within, the audience can’t help but imagine that the film’s atrocities will be played out inside the Myers home.

Thanks to Carpenter’s well-crafted setup, it’s shocking when the Myers house doesn’t end up being the site of Michael’s murders. Carpenter takes viewers to expected Gothic spaces over and over—to the Myers home, an insane asylum, a cemetery—but they are red herrings. The horror site is, in fact, a beautiful, tastefully decorated suburban home. In Halloween, Carpenter declines to depict graphic body horror, instead relying on the perversion of typically safe, familiar spaces to terrify the audience. Rather than take the audience into a haunted home on the outskirts of town, a darkened forest or a secluded setting a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carpenter uses props, set design and framing to draw the audience into the safety of suburbia, only to undermine the notion of a nonthreatening, bucolic bliss through the violent acts Michael Myers commits in those spaces.

In Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing, Isabel Pinedo writes: “The postmodern horror genre operates on the principles of disruption, transgression, undecidability and uncertainty” (17). Postmodernist horror films deal in destruction—destruction of boundaries, that is. Pinedo argues that these films challenge modern institutions and authoritarian structures, including narrative structures (thus the open-ended conclusions favored by Halloween and other postmodern horror films, undermining the simplicity of total defeat). Carpenter looks to disrupt the suburban landscape that Laurie and many of his film’s viewers reside in—one must recall that at the time of the film’s release, suburbs were growing faster than cities—making the symbols of middle-class prosperity threatening.

At first, Laurie’s Haddonfield feels like a safe haven. The film begins in the same town, 1963, the night that Myers brutally kills his sister. In this introduction to Haddonfield, the viewers first see a black title card with white lettering that names the setting, holiday and year. The killer’s theme plays in the background, mixing with the sounds of children reciting a rhyme about Halloween. The black screen and creepy theme immediately signal to the viewers that this is not a safe setting, and Carpenter gives viewers similar cues in the next sequence. Before Myers’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, is introduced, two more title cards inform the audience that it’s October 30, 1978 in Smith’s Grove, IL. Though Michael Myers’s theme does not accompany these black title cards, they are introduced with a clap of thunder and the sound of rain, a signal that we’re not out of the woods yet. Indeed, Loomis’s trip to an insane asylum to see Michael ends in violence, which is why it’s a relief when we cut back to Haddonfield and are greeted with a stationary shot of a sunny autumn day. No black title card; no killer’s theme—leaves float toward the sidewalk and birds sing in the background. Carpenter grounds the viewer in this familiar, nonthreatening scene before letting a variation on the killer’s theme slip in, signaling that even in this setting, violence is coming.

In the myriad of stalking sequences leading up to Myers’s first 1978 kill, Carpenter subverts images of middle-class comforts. One notable scare comes when Laurie catches a glimpse of the masked Myers standing amongst sheets of laundry blowing in the wind. We flash to the image in a brief point-of-view show, then cut to Laurie’s reaction shot and back to the laundry lines, where Myers no longer stands. The quick cuts allow Laurie, and the audience by extension, to question the reality of the scene, but the shot sequence also gives the everyday image of a laundry line an unmistakably threatening air, proving Pinedo’s point that in postmodernist horror, violence can break out at any time and shatter our illusions of normalcy (19).

Carpenter continues to shatter that illusion in the Murray house, where all of Laurie’s friends are murdered. The lit front porch, usually a welcoming sight, is perverted by Myers’s shadowy presence. In many shots of the interior of the Murray house, one could play “Name that brand!”: spot the Instant Quaker Oats box that sits in the background of the Murray kitchen, Myers lurking behind it, or the bright Tide laundry detergent box conspicuously placed in many frames when Laurie’s friend Lindsey gets stuck (and nearly accosted) in the laundry room. Sure, these details could be product placements or objects that lend the film verisimilitude, but they clearly associate the harmless brands that you might find in any middle-class household with horror, further creating—and subsequently breaking down—what Laura J. Miller terms “the suburban ideal.”

In her essay “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal,” Miller writes: “The suburban ideal encompasses a view about the morally and physically healthful influences of rural living…Connected to this is a strong desire to escape the ‘dangerous’ classes and races that are almost unavoidable in city living” (397). And later: “The suburban ideal was always and explicitly about guarding against the encroachment of nonfamily members” (Miller 398). Within that framework, Myers can be read as a symbol of that threatening, outside world encroaching on the suburban middle class, an assertion that’s supported by the language Dr. Loomis uses to describe him; at various points he calls Myers “it,” refers to him as “the evil” and says, in response to the sheriff’s assertion that “a man” wouldn’t kill a dog, “This isn’t a man.” This language dehumanizes Myers, setting him up as the Other who has infiltrated the safe suburban spaces of Haddonfield.

One distinctly suburban space Myers invades is the automobile, which Miller credits with helping to isolate rather than pull together suburban families. “…[the car] virtually did away with the sidewalk and street as sites where people would spontaneously congregate. Children may continue to play on suburban streets, but teenagers and adults no longer find much interest there…In cars, people do not meet by chance,” she writes (410). Carpenter counters, almost satirizes, that notion, having Myers finally do away with Lindsey in her snazzy, red-outfitted car, the symbol of her suburban comforts—and isolation. The death is not gory; Carpenter does more violence to the image of suburbia than to Lindsey’s body.

Myers’ final murders further pervert the suburban space. When he dispatches of one character’s boyfriend, Bob, in the Murray kitchen, Carpenter lingers on a wide two shot of Myers surveying his work. Bob, who has been daggered to the wall, hangs beside the Murray’s kitchen equipment—an apron hangs opposite him, a vase reading “flour” sits next to him holding kitchen appliances. Again, the familiar is juxtaposed with the horrific. The truth of Halloween’s suburbia is revealed during the film’s climax, when Laurie battles Myers (again in the Murray home). As Laurie tries to escape the house, a low-angle shot shows Myers traveling down the staircase toward her. The scene is largely dark but for Myers’s white mask and the shadows of the stairs’ railing framing either side of him. The vertical columns of the railing show the house for what it has become: a prison.

Halloween ultimately explores the isolation and anxiety of living in suburban America, and typifies the postmodernist horror film. Carpenter’s use of lighting, framing and set design, among other stylistic elements, help to break down the stereotypes viewers have of suburban environments, leaving the audience with the impression that horror needn’t be in a musty castle or a creaky old house—it might just live next door.

Frye, Northrup. “Theory of Archetypal Meaning (2): Demonic Energy. Anatomy of Criticism. N.p., n.d.  147-150.

 Halloween. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Jamie Lee Curtis. Compass International Pictures, 1978. Film. 

Miller, Laura J. “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal.” Sociological Forum 10.3 (1995): pp. 393-418. JSTOR.

Pinedo, Isabel. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

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