Tricks and Treats: Re-Viewing Sexuality in HALLOWEEN
30 October 2011
Many people, since its release in 1978, have considered the role sex plays in Halloween. There is a clear correlation between the people who die and sexual activity. For example, Michael’s (Nick Castle, credited as “The Shape”) sister, Judy (Sandy Johnson), has sex with her boyfriend, and then gets killed. Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) friends, Lynda (P. J. Soles), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Bob (John Michael Graham), all either engage in sexual activity in front of the audience, or discuss their sexual activity in front of the audience, and then all die. Conversely, Laurie is a virgin, and she survives. Generally speaking, common readings of the film find it obvious that sexual promiscuity equates to death and abstinence is the key to survival, thus prescribing and promoting socially accepted behavior (a.k.a. waiting until marriage for sex) in late-1970’s society.
However, it maybe it is not that simple. Sexuality is undoubtedly a crux in Halloween, but perhaps the film is saying less about the dangers of casual sex, and more about the dangers of repressed sexuality. True, those who engage in casual sex die, but let’s look at the person who is doing the killing. Michael Myers, according to what we know about him from the film, is sexually repressed. It is clear from the film’s opening sequence that sexual repression, and the violent actions it erupts as, is, in part, responsible for Michael’s violent crimes.
At the start of the film, six-year old Michael Myers murders his teenage sister, Judy, with a butcher knife. It is Halloween night, and Michael, who is dressed up as a clown, stalks his sister and her boyfriend. When the young couple “goes upstairs,” Michael follows. After a short time, Judy’s boyfriend leaves the house and Michael walks toward Judy’s room. Along the way, he finds the clown mask that goes with his costume on the floor, and he puts it on. As he enters Judy’s room, she sits topless in front of her vanity, brushing her hair. Without reason, Michael violently attacks his sister from behind, stabbing her several times, though her bare skin, until she falls dead to the floor. Michael walks out of the house and meets his parents, who have just arrived home, at the sidewalk in front of their family home. Michael’s father removes the clown mask from Michael’s face, revealing a stunned, paralyzed Michael, frozen stiff with the bloody knife still clutched in his hand.
It is plausible, stemming from this opening sequence, Michael, an undoubtedly disturbed little boy, is obsessed with his sister. This theory is supported later in the film when Michael digs up his sister’s headstone. He is devoted to his sister, yet it is fairly obvious, from the brief moments we see her, these feeling were not reciprocated by Judy. Witnessing her sexual encounter with her boyfriend, likely, confused Michael, and, in his own troubled way, made him jealous. Witnessing his sister’s sexual encounters forced Michael to repress some of his own unconscious sexual desire. Michael grabbed a butcher knife, an incredibly phallic symbol, and turned violent, exploding as a result of his repressed feelings.
When Michael returns to Haddonfield, 15 years later, after breaking free from a mental asylum, he goes directly home, to the house he once shared with his sister. After hearing a noise at the door, Michael looks out and sees Laurie Strode dropping off a key on the front step of the Myers’ home. With her is the little boy she babysits for, Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews). When Michael sees Laurie, she, inexplicably, becomes his target. However, is it inexplicable? It is significant that Tommy is present when Laurie drops off the key in front of the Myers’ house. Michael does not only see Laurie; he sees Tommy as well. In seeing the two, Michael sees himself and his sister, Judy. Now and severely disturbed man, Michael retraces the trauma of his past, motivated by the violent eruptions stemming from his repressed sexuality, with new victims.
In stalking Laurie and Tommy, Michael encounters Laurie’s friends, and is often reminded of the night he murdered his sister. Take, for example, Lynda and Bob. Michael encounters Lynda and Bob “fooling around” in a bedroom. Witnessing this young couple having sex on Halloween night 1978 brings Michael back to Halloween night 1963. Completely unable to cope, Michael’s sexual repression, once again, take the form of rage and he murders Lynda and Bob. In addition, it is highly significant how he murders the couple. Bob dies when a butcher knife pierces his body, pinning him to a wall. Symbolically, this is appropriate. Michael’s repression erupts and he kills Bob, a teenage boy who is not at all sexually repressed, with the only phallic object Michael can use. Moreover, Michael will not kill Lynda with the knife; he only uses the knife on his sister. He strangles Lynda, an intimate, yet non-penetrating method of execution. Similarly, Michael does not kill Annie with the butcher knife; he strangles her also.
In the final showdown between Laurie and Michael, the butcher knife and other phallic symbols play significant roles, but, ultimately, Michael tries to strangle Laurie, as he does all women except for Judy. Since he first laid eyes on Laurie, when she dropped off the key at the Myers’ home, Michael connects Laurie to his sister, Judy. Thus, when he first strikes at Laurie, it is with the knife and it is from behind. He initially stabs from behind when she sees Annie’s body and cuts her arm, and later Michael stabs at her from behind a couch; yet, neither attempt penetrates Laurie.
Yet, in a climactic, but necessary, turn of events, Laurie grabs her own phallic symbol and penetrates Michael’s neck with a knitting needle. This is symbolic for a few reasons. First, aside from his sister, Michael kills women by constraining their necks. Therefore, Laurie’s strike back at Michael’s neck is both a literal and figurative success. Secondly, and more importantly, Laurie emerges as the only fitting opponent for Michael because, unlike her friends, Laurie is sexually repressed herself. Clearly, she is not as disturbed as Michael, but her own sexual repression does allow her to be violent, thus allows her to fight back.
Later, in an upstairs bedroom closet—yes, they are in the closet—a trapped Laurie once again must fight off Michael, who, as always, continues to clutch his butcher knife. Laurie finds yet another phallic symbol, a reconfigured wire hanger, to stab Michael with. Once again, Michael is penetrated, which forces him to drop his knife, which, of course, Laurie grabs. Laurie then stabs Michael with his own knife, allowing her to free herself from the closet.
As Laurie tries to exit the bedroom, Michael, in hast, abandons the knife, which is now on the floor, and attempts to strangle her. Unlike Judy, Laurie fights back; therefore, to Michael, the connection between Laurie and Judy breaks, thus he attempts to strangle Laurie and not stab her. Of course, this still will not work. Michael cannot kill Laurie. Michael is the way he is, in large part, because of the violent way his sexual repression expresses itself. However, Laurie is sexually repressed to, and can be just as violent; neither one can ever kill the other. In the end, Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shoots Michael repeatedly, yet his body is not found. Michael survives, and so does Laurie.
Sexuality is the most significant theme in Halloween; the film revolves around repressed and expressed sexuality. While Annie, Lynda, and Bob’s sexuality is obvious, and perhaps makes a statement about the dangers in the causal and carefree way teenagers treat sex, Laurie and Michael’s repressed sexuality is the true danger in film explores.