On Halloween night, 1963, 6-year-old Michael Myers sneaks into his own house, grabs a knife, and stabs his older sister to death. Then he’s put into a minimum security mental hospital, where he’s treated by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Loomis tries to help the little boy—who’s now a diagnosed catatonic—for eight years; then he spends another seven trying to put the kid in maximum security. He tells his colleagues that Michael’s the most dangerous patient he’s ever observed, but they laugh him off. “He’s just a catatonic,” they say, shaking their heads. But Loomis knows something they don’t know, something he can’t really explain. Modern psychiatry just doesn’t have the language to describe what Michael really is, and when Loomis tries, he sounds totally crackers. But he’s proven right 15 years later, when a full-grown Michael suddenly gets a hair up his ass and makes a jailbreak on Halloween Eve.
Somehow, Michael knows how to drive a car (regardless of the fact that he’s spent his entire life in a hospital). He randomly fixates on a babysitter named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. And contrary to all the known laws of physics, he can appear and vanish right in front of people’s eyes. There’s something seriously wrong with this guy; he behaves less like someone who’s mentally ill, and more like a preternatural force that’s just wearing the shape of a man, like some otherworldly trick-or-treater. Dr. Loomis calls him “the devil,” little kids call him “the Boogeyman,” and by the time we reach the film’s shocking conclusion, we’re unable to debate with either of them on the matter.
This was the first movie ever made with the word Halloween in its title, and it was also the first to capture a significant part of what this holiday is really about. Most people think of Halloween as being “just for kids,” but it actually originates from a blend of Celtic folk religion and Roman Catholicism. It’s the first of three holy days—All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2)—which are collectively known as Hallowtide. Even before the Catholic Church reached Great Britain and Ireland, these three dates were already an ancient festival called Samhain (“SOW-wynn”) in Gaelic and Nos Galan Gaeaf (“knows GAIL-uhn GUY-ov”) in Welsh. It marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter, which was an extremely frightening time for the Celts. They didn’t have electricity, so chances were good that many of them would die of starvation, disease, or freezing temperatures before the following summer. For this reason, the first night of winter weighed heavily upon their minds, and they dreamed up all kinds of frightening tales about November Eve. People thought the barriers between this world and the next were temporarily lifted, allowing the dead and other paranormal beings to roam free. This wasn’t so bad when it came to ghosts, who were viewed as beloved ancestors to be welcomed. Demons and malevolent faeries were the real concern, and people dressed in frightening animal skins, carved protective charms from turnips, and left out offerings of food to keep such things away. It’s from these ancient traditions that wearing costumes, carving jack o’lanterns, and trick-or-treating are all descended.
The most iconic symbol for Halloween, of course, is the jack o’lantern, which was given a curious origin story after the Christianization of Ireland. This is the story of Stingy Jack, an Irishman who made a deal with the devil, but who later tricked Lucifer out of their bargain. Jack got to keep his soul despite the pact, but when he died, St. Peter wouldn’t let him past the Pearly Gates, and Lucifer wouldn’t let him into hell. Jack’s been trapped here on Earth ever since, but the devil took pity on him at the last minute and gave him a magic lantern to light his way through the darkness. When the Irish came to America, they discovered pumpkins and started using them for jack o’lanterns instead of turnips. By carving and lighting a jack o’lantern on Halloween, you’re invoking Stingy Jack into your home, asking him to protect it from any demons that might be prowling around your neighborhood on Halloween night.
Celtic lore also tells of “changelings,” which are faery offspring that are secretly exchanged for human children. The faery parents abduct the children and leave the changelings for the human parents to raise. These changelings often look human, but in time they exhibit strange paranormal abilities and superhuman strength. While the true reason for Michael Myers’ nature and behavior is never revealed in the movie Halloween, his background is quite similar to the changeling motif; he’s clearly a supernatural being, but his parents are clearly human, and they don’t appear to have known what they were raising. It’s no accident that Michael spends most of his life in a hospital, either. Just like the demons of Celtic folk religion, he can only intrude upon the normal, everyday world on Halloween night. At the same time, people have decided that Halloween is just entertainment, and that there’s no such thing as “evil.” This attitude has nullified the things about Halloween that used to keep them safe. The evil is still out there, and all the costumes and jack o’lanterns and trick-or-treating in the world won’t stop it now.
Halloween has spawned many sequels, a remake, and even a sequel to the remake. But the only follow-up to the film that ever did anything truly inventive is Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which follows a completely different story. It all starts with a crazy guy who’s being chased by men in business suits. The guy stops at a gas station in the middle of the night, holding a Halloween mask and gibbering about how “They’re gonna kill us all.” After collapsing on the floor, he’s taken to a hospital, where he’s treated by a divorced alcoholic physician named Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins). Then the poor guy gets his skull ripped apart by one of the mysterious suits (who uses his bare hands in the process), and the suit goes out into the parking lot, rinses himself off with some gasoline, and lights a cigarette. Needless to say, this all sets Dr. Challis on edge, and since the cops won’t bother investigating the matter, Dan and Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the murder victim’s daughter, go off to conduct an investigation of their own.
Dan and Ellie’s investigation leads them to a sleepy little California town called Santa Mira, the home of Silver Shamrock Novelties, which manufactures the kind of Halloween masks Ellie’s dad was holding at the start of the film. These masks are bigger than Jesus all over the country; little kids are wearing them all over the place, and Silver Shamrock commercials are playing non-stop on every TV set. Dan and Ellie decide to stay in Santa Mira and scope out the Silver Shamrock factory, where they eventually meet the company’s owner, a jovial old Irishman named Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy). Cochran’s a world-famous practical joker, and it turns out he’s about to play the biggest practical joke ever on the entire North American continent. I’m not going to tell you what the joke is, but I’ll give you a hint: it involves robots, Stonehenge, and possibly an interdimensional act of war. All of which means this Halloween’s shaping up to be the last one anyone’s going to celebrate for the next millennium or two.
At heart, Season of the Witch really tells the same story as its 1978 predecessor. It’s about an evil supernatural force that celebrating Halloween is normally supposed to keep us safe from; but since Halloween is more secular today than sacred, the things that protected us are now powerless, and the evil force can have its way. Just like Michael Myers, Conal Cochran looks but isn’t human; it’s never explained just where he comes from, or why he does what he does; it looks like he can die, but something tells us he can’t. But unlike Myers, Cochran doesn’t come after you with a mask and a butcher knife. He’s more of a genocidal maniac than a personal stalker, and corporate business and the gullibility of American consumers are his magician’s tools. To achieve his malefical goals, Cochran not only works around the apotropaic trappings of the Hallowtide season; he actively perverts those trappings into weaponized forms, with none being so deadly as his cheap and mass-marketed Halloween masks. Once again, all the costumes and jack o’lanterns and trick-or-treating in the world won’t keep us safe from the evil now.
I did mention that these movies only capture part of what Hallowtide is really about. I celebrate all three days of the festival religiously each year, myself. Halloween was always my favorite holiday growing up, more important than Christmas even, and it’s the first thing I ever became religious about. I enjoy handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on October 31st, but once the boils and ghouls have all gone home, I begin my all-night vigil for the dead. I light some candles for our ancestor shrine in the kitchen, and I say some words to my grandparents and my mother-in-law. I keep the candles burning all night long, not going to bed until 5:30 in the morning or so. Then I repeat this process the following two nights. Spooky things do tend to happen during these vigils, like voices or footsteps that come from nowhere (especially around 3:00 am). But nothing scary or sinister ever happens, perhaps due to our ancestors’ protection, and perhaps because we always welcome Stingy Jack into our home. Call it “superstition” if you like, but we take this stuff pretty seriously. I think it’s important to keep the true spirit of Halloween alive as much as we can, and despite being fictional, Michael Myers and Conal Cochran are both excellent reminders as to why.