It’s no secret that John Carpenter took inspiration for Halloween from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but let’s look at all the ways in which Carpenter pays homage to one of the greatest Horror filmmakers in history in his 1978 movie.
Keeping it in the Family
Both Norman Bates and Michael Myers initially murdered female family members. For Bates, it was his mother, Norma (she wasn’t exactly inspired when choosing a name for her son was she?); for Myers, his older sister, Judith. They both killed the people they loved in a jealous rage. Bates caught his mother in bed with her boyfriend and felt this was a betrayal. He poisoned them both with strychnine. Myers stabbed his sister to death on Halloween night when he was just six years old. She was supposed to be looking after him while their parents were away but was more interested in having intimate moments with boyfriend Danny. A crime punishable by death clearly.
Carrying out these horrific murders had hugely detrimental effects on their psyches. Clearly, both of them had issues prior to their first crimes, but carrying out these murders flicked a switch and kept them frozen in those moments. Yet the two had very different ways of expressing their anguish.
Norman suffered severe emotional abuse as a child at the hands of his mother, who preached to him that sex was sinful and that all women (except herself) were whores. The novel also suggests that their relationship may have been incestuous. After a brief hospitalization for shock, he developed dissociative identity disorder, assuming his mother’s personality to repress his awareness of her death and to escape the guilt of murdering her. He inherited his mother’s house—where he kept her corpse in the fruit cellar—and the family motel in the (fictional) small town of Fairvale, California. ‘Mother’ berated him regularly, controlling his every move from beyond the grave, even threatening to kill a young woman, Marion Crane, who checked into the motel, and who Norman became smitten with.
Myers took a different direction. Being just six at the time of his arrest, he was incarcerated at Smith’s Grove sanitarium. On October 30th, fifteen years after the murder of his sister, Michael escaped by stealing the car belonging to his Psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis and his colleague, Marion Chambers. More on both of them shortly.
Michael headed straight back home to Haddonfield, where he had unfinished business.
The Man Behind the Mask
Michael’s first kill was carried out from behind a clown mask on Halloween. He must continue to wear a tangible mask to exemplify his emotional standstill. Michael never spoke a word after he murdered his sister and seemed to be in a state of catatonia, though Dr. Loomis was not convinced. Michael could not allow anyone to see his face; his expression could give him away, assuming there are emotions going on underneath the mask. He doesn’t want anyone to try and understand him. He never allows Dr. Loomis to learn anything about why he murdered his sister, which leads Loomis to believe that he is just pure evil.
Norman wears a mask of a different sort. He wears a mask of manners and normalcy to hide his maladjustment. He is charming, even likable, which makes the monster underneath even more frightening.
Norman cannot be himself to carry out the murder of Marion and Milton Arbogast, a private detective sent to look for Marion. Instead, he dons the clothes and persona of his mother. Norman’s multiple personalities are: “Norman”, a child dependent on his mother; “Norma”, a possessive mother who kills anyone who threatens the illusion of her existence; and “Norman”, a functional adult who goes through the motions of day-to-day life. “Norma” dominates and belittles “Norman” as much as she had when she was alive, forbidding him to have a life outside of her and flying into violent rages whenever he felt attracted to a woman. “Norma” and “Norman” carry on conversations through Norman talking to himself and to her corpse in his mother’s voice, and Norman dresses in his mother’s clothes whenever “Norma” takes hold completely.
So in a sense, both killers wear masks to hide their true selves as neither want to face up to the fact that they carried out these awful acts. Simultaneously, neither of them really want to stop. Being someone else when they kill free’s them from guilt.
Stylistically, Carpenter borrowed many of Hitchcock’s cinematic technique when creating Halloween.
To build suspense, both directors use continuously changing points of view. Take the scene when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the lead protagonist in the original Halloween film (and several others in the franchise), walks down a Haddonfield street and bumps into Sheriff Brackett, we see both her POV and objective in the same scene. This creates the feeling that someone is watching her, stalking her like prey. With the added effect of hearing breathing behind the mask, it really is quite sinister.
One of the most memorable and influential moments of Halloween comes after the opening title sequence in the form of an expertly crafted, four-minute Panaglide shot through a quiet house that ends with the death of Judith Myers. It’s a brilliant way to start a film as this opening shot causes the audience to sit at the edge of their seat and wonder what on earth will happen next. We are left in the dark and are forced to follow our mysterious killer through each action. We aren’t given the relief that comes with a cut—we are forced to watch.
The opening shot isn’t one take as some previously thought and it features 2 or 3 cuts, but it’s still a feat. This one scene took the crew two days to shoot.
In Psycho the Pannaglide shot is used again, but for a different effect. After Marion is murdered in the infamous shower scene, the camera pans around her motel room, focusing then on the Bates’ home, with Norman rushing to the Motel. This creates the illusion that it was ‘Mother’ that killed Marion, and Norman was innocent.
Of course, aesthetically the murders of these two innocent women are very similar. Both are at their most vulnerable; naked and taking care of their appearance. Marion washes her hair in the shower. Judith brushes her hair at her dressing table. Neither were in any way expecting to be attacked so had no form of defense.
Halloween also replicates cinematic elements from the shower scene—the camera inviting the viewer to look at the victim from the killer’s point of view; the knife rising and stabbing to create an impression of extreme violence, yet without showing actual contact between the blade and flesh. In Psycho the cuts are so fast that many viewers believed they spotted Janet Leigh’s nipples (they didn’t, though Hitchcock did use Marti Renfro as a nude body double for Leigh in some shots). They also thought they saw multiple frames of the knife piercing her flesh when, in fact, it’s shown touching her skin just once, and no blood is shown in that frame. Similarly, in Halloween, we see blood, but after Judith has been stabbed repeatedly, and she lays dying on her bedroom floor. In Psycho, Marion slides down the tiled wall of the shower, and only then do we see blood being washed down the plughole.
The shower murder is one of the most studied montages of film editing ever made. It contains at least 70 edits in just 45 seconds. Some viewers were convinced that they saw red blood in the bath, the film having a kind of ‘Mandela effect’ as it was always black and white throughout. As I always believe with horror movies; it is what you don’t see that is the most terrifying. Your imagination tricks you into thinking you saw so much more.
Halloween (2018) even went so far as to include a shower scene. The scene features the podcaster featured at the beginning of the film, as she is taking a shower. That’s when we see the infamous Michael Myers mask approach, eyeing his next victim. Of course, it’s all a joke. It’s her partner dressed up (Michael is NOT going to be happy about that!). I mean, what woman doesn’t want her man to wear a decrepit William Shatner mask in the shower for a steamy session?
Halloween is considered the pioneer of Slasher films, and yet there is very little blood and gore. Violence is minimal, but the mental connection viewers make between image and reality make both Halloween and Psycho seem more graphic than they are. This is a Hitchcockian method; the voyeuristic camera angles and slow lingering scenes build tension and atmosphere. The selected imagery and the sounds coerce the audience into believing they have vivid memories of what played out on screen when, in reality, it’s all in their mind.
Sounds Like Something Bad is Going to Happen
Talking of sounds, the music in Halloween has become one of the most iconic elements from the film and helped morph it into the classic it has become. John Carpenter, who also composed the score, has said that when he first showed the film to investors they didn’t think anything of it and felt it wasn’t scary. He then re-edited the film with the score he had made and showed it again, but this time the investors thought it was the most terrifying film ever made.
The theme song from Halloween is one of the great achievements of atmospheric music: simple, dissonant, and instantly recognisable, played on an electronic keyboard by John Carpenter himself. In writing these minimalist pieces for analog synths, Carpenter created a propulsive, dreamlike sense of dread. The music transformed Halloween from low-budget slasher flick to one of the most significant American horror films of all time.
And can you even imagine Psycho without the music? Bernard Hermann’s famous score for the film makes the screeching violins sound like stabs as the murderer attacks the helpless Marion. And again, when the killer is revealed, in the first moments of this scene, the music reflects Arbogast’s curious intentions. Once he enters the house, the music builds with the suspense. As he climbs the stairs, the music gets louder and louder until Norman approaches as ‘Mother’ and begins stabbing him. Much like the shower scene, violins screech and Hitchcock plays uncomfortable music to complement the terrifying scene.
Leigh & Lee-Curtis
One of the most obvious references between Psycho and Halloween is that the leading lady in Psycho is played by Janet Leigh, who just so happens to be the mother of Jamie Lee-Curtis, the lead protagonist in Halloween. It was Curtis’ first acting role and it is rumoured that Carpenter’s casting of Jamie Lee Curtis was in part due to her mother’s scream queen status.
Carpenter would go on to cast Janet Leigh alongside her daughter in his 1980 horror film The Fog. Then in 1998 Leigh was cast as Norma (yep that’s right!) Watson, in Halloween: H20. Just to make this even more convoluted, Norma Watson was a character in the original film adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. PJ Soles played the role. Soles was asked to play the part of Norma in H20 but never gave a definitive yes or no answer. So, Leigh was offered the part instead, playing the role of Laurie Strode’s secretary.
Laurie has a conversation with her secretary, Norma Watson, and these two minutes contain so many little inside jokes. Norma tells Laurie, “It’s Halloween, I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare,” which is a callback to a piece of dialogue from the original Halloween. Then Norma walks towards her car, which is the exact car her character drove in Psycho right down to having the same license plate. As Norma is walking over, a few notes form the soundtrack of Psycho start playing in the background, specifically the theme that plays when Marion is driving in the beginning.
Another fascinating homage to Psycho in Halloween is the name of Michael’s Psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis. Sam Loomis was also the name of Marion Crane’s lover with whom she was having an affair and the reason why she even ended up at the Bates Motel in the first place.
The pair wanted to run away together, but they needed money. They hatched a plan that led Marion, with $40,000 not belonging to her, on her travels. It was only after her sister, Lila, visits Sam wondering where Marion was that they discover the truth. Sam is the guy who catches Norman in psycho-killer mode and turns him over to the authorities, thus ending his kill spree. Unfortunately, all this happens after his love Marion gets sliced and diced in the shower.
Now there’s a fun fan theory that the name given to Michael’s Psychiatrist (and hunter) isn’t just a nod to Psycho, but that he is the Sam Loomis. There has never been any sort of confirmation about this from Carpenter, so it’s pretty much not true, but I like the idea anyway.
I mean it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider that he might respond to Marion’s murder and the other horrors at Bates Motel by dedicating himself to making sure such things never happen again. And what’s the best way to combat psychosis? Why as a psychiatrist, and a child psychiatrist at that. So Loomis gets his degree, and he moves away from Arizona to start fresh in Illinois. There, one of his clients is a disturbed little boy who murdered his sister, a little boy named …Michael Myers.
In Myers Loomis sees a chance to prevent the kind of killer he saw in Norman Bates, and so throws himself into the boy’s treatment, working for more than two decades to try and rehabilitate him. It’s a tough road that causes Loomis to put on a few pounds and lose most of his hair, and in the end, it doesn’t work. I mean it really doesn’t work, and Myers breaks free of the state hospital to start an epic kill spree of his own.
Loomis’ response to Myers’ escape is pretty extreme. He goes after Myers himself, and not to capture him but to kill him. This is not the response of a rational man, especially not a man who’s profession is based on rationality. It is, however, the response of a man who has seen first-hand the effects of a psycho on the loose and who would do anything — even irrational things — to stop him from doing to others what Norman Bates did to Marion and his other victims. For five films — five films — Loomis pursues Myers. That’s not professional dedication, that’s obsession. That’s guilt. That’s PTSD.
Of course, there are many holes in this theory, but it is an interesting one to ponder nevertheless.
So, Halloween has been Psycho-Analysed. Did I miss any nods or homages? Let me know in the comments or on social media.