The Passion of Michael Myers: Slashers, Scapegoats, and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

With Halloween Ends, director David Gordon Green brings to a close his commentary on the legacy of the first slasher, Michael Myers. Green’s canon contains four films: he wrote Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills (2021) and Halloween Ends (2022) as direct sequels to John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978). Ignoring the nine other films in the Halloween corpus allowed Green to offer a compelling meditation on the meaning of Michael Myers—and slasher films more broadly—in a very different milieu from the era in which they originated.

Slasher films emerged in the late 1970s as a surprisingly conservative response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But we live in a post-#MeToo world today; we’re continually grappling with the legacy of patriarchy (a monster that, in true slasher fashion, never seems to die). Green’s first Halloween made it clear that he wanted to interrogate the meaning of the slasher today, and by the culmination of Halloween Ends, he’s arrived a shocking and provocative conclusion: Michael Myers is undeniably a monster. But he’s our monster, and we exorcise him at our own peril.

[Note: There are spoilers below for the full franchise, including Halloween Ends]

 

The Priesthood of Michael Myers

The slasher is a monster that concerns itself with patriarchy. Carol J. Clover’s now-classic essay “Her Body, Himself” illustrates how the slasher and the Final Girl (a term Clover coined) are totemic opposites who become each other through the narrative. The slasher is a sexually arrested male who kills with a phallic weapon of some sort. The Final Girl is virginal—in contrast to her sexually-active friends. Clover observes that, by taking the killer’s weapon, “the Final Girl has not just manned herself; she specifically unmans an oppressor whose masculinity was in question to begin with.”

The Final Girl overcomes the slasher by becoming him—and the target viewer. As Clover writes, “The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of the male competence and sexuality.”

Slasher films give us a monster—the slasher—who has arisen as a result of a breach in patriarchy. He is a malformed man. As such, this monster targets those who “break the rules” of patriarchy—those who indulge in sex, drugs, and rock & roll. He can only be defeated by a girl (not a “woman,” in terms of sexual activity) who transgresses and becomes monstrous herself. The status quo restored at the end of the slasher is that of the imagined idyllic Americana—a particularly White patriarchal vision of a deeply conventional, gendered, suburban life whether it’s Elm Street or Haddonfield.

The slasher has been around long enough that its commentary has evolved and occasionally turned in on itself: From Scream (1996) to The Final Girls (2015), the variations on the meta-slasher seem endless. But none has been quite as meta as Drew Goddard’s 2011 hit The Cabin in the Woods, which frames the slasher in religious terms. Even the generic title is part of the gag when five normal college kids go to the woods and suffer a fate determined by which haunted artifact they choose in the obviously haunted basement.

The whole thing is a literal production run by two middle-aged, middle-management White guys. And the goal? To sacrifice the kids in order to keep the Elder Gods slumbering. In explaining the ritual, one says, “They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work… They have to choose what happens in the cellar. We rig the game as much as we need to, but in the end, they don’t transgress…” and the other finishes, “They can’t be punished.”

Transgression and punishment. The slasher as a ritual to keep something dark asleep. The Cabin in the Woods draws on Clover’s illustration of how slasher films work to uphold the order of our world (the film also notes that this particular kind of horror story is uniquely American). But the film also borrows from French philosopher René Girard to expose how fundamentally these stories reveal the mechanisms by which these films reinforce our collective identity and perspective.

Trying to define religion is something of a lost cause; scholars of religion do better to describe the various functions of religion. For Girard, a primary function of religion is crafting and reinforcing communal identity, helping us to define exactly who “us” is. Girard outlined this identity formation as a process of managing desires—what he identifies as mimesis. Humans, supposes Girard, learn to desire from watching others. But because we learn from others, we want the same things they want. Unchecked, this mimesis erupts into rivalry and conflict.

Clover and Goddard help us parse that original Halloween film: on the crest of second-wave feminism, empowered by the Pill, Roe v. Wade, and the Free Love movement, American women were grasping for liberation and equality. Gone were the days of June Cleaver and Donna Reed. With full control over their reproduction, women could have what men always had—full autonomy.

American men, however, tended to perceive this as a threat (in keeping with Girard’s mimesis, with women wanting the same rights, status, agency, etc. they were now seen, by some, as rivals). More conservative segments of the population opposed birth control, abortion rights, and sexual liberation as stringently as they had opposed Civil Rights a decade earlier. Into this cultural chaos that had engulfed the suburbs walked the Shape—Carpenter’s original name for Michael Myers. On a night where the boundaries between worlds is already thin, the Shape haunts the borders of gender and sexuality, violently punishing those (particularly young women) who dared to seek the brave new world just over the horizon.

The Shape served as priest and mediator, sacrificing those who transgressed, maintaining the carefully ordered world of the patriarchs and their gods. But even so, such a character cannot be allowed to continue on once order has been restored. There’s no room for in-between in the carefully ordered world of patriarchy. So even the priest had to be struck down by the Final Girl (herself an in-between figure). She can suffer for the rest of us. It is, in fact, her suffering that allows the rest of us to thrive.

 

The Mimesis of Michael Myers

This is the film—and legacy—upon which David Gordon Green built his new trilogy. Does a monster of the patriarchy still have a place in 2018, on the other side of #MeToo? Halloween (2018) answers with a provocative, “Yes,” showing us what’s become of our sacrificial lamb in the last forty years. Once-Final-Girl Laurie Strode has become a Haddonfield boogey(wo)man of her own. She is unmarried, estranged from her daughter and granddaughter, and lives as a doomsday prepper in the woods, having transformed her house into a death trap. Laurie is confident that Michael will return, and of course she turns out to be correct.

Throughout the series, Green focuses on Michael’s mask (which is, ironically, a modified Captain Kirk mask). When Michael is in the mask, he is unstoppable, possibly invincible. He becomes an avatar of white patriarchy, killing not only sexually free women but interracial couples and gender-bending trick-or-treaters.

In Halloween (2018), Laurie and the younger Strode women trap Michael in the basement of Laurie’s house and burn the whole thing down. Coming so close on the heels of an unfathomable onslaught of #MeToo allegations, the metaphor was attractive: Maybe we should just burn down the whole house, with the patriarchy trapped inside. If we can destroy if, bones and all, maybe we can start again, rebuild from scratch.

But as in the movies, the monster is not so easily slain. By the time Halloween Kills was released in 2021, #MeToo had given way to hand-wringing about cancel culture. Brett Kavanaugh sat on the Supreme Court,  Bill Cosby was out of prison, Louis C. K. was back on tour, and Al Franken was musing publicly about running for office again. So it wasn’t exactly a big surprise to see Michael escape from that burning basement, little worse for wear.

Halloween Kills was a less coherent film than Halloween (2018), perhaps because Green was working to prise open the very concept of the slasher. The film’s most memorable sequence involves a hospital where the citizens of Haddonfield become convinced Michael has been taken. They then storm the hospital and kill an innocent man (while trampling many others).

The mob migrates across town, toward Michael’s childhood home. Laurie’s daughter Karen steals Michael’s mask and leads him into a trap, where the mob attacks Michael with guns, bats, wrenches and knives.

In the moment, we cheer for the mob. We have borne witness to Michael’s horrific killing spree, his unstoppable quest to put an end to all those who transgress his regressive moral framework. But this mob is fearsome in its own right. They wage a war that ignores collateral damage and due process. They readily sacrifice the social contract that held them together as soon as they grow afraid.

In Haddonfield, evil does not seem to originate with Michael Myers.

Halloween Ends takes up this same theme explicitly. We open on a babysitter—this time a boy! Corey is a college student who, one year after Michael Myers’ fatal return to Haddonfield, accidentally kills the child he’s babysitting. The story then jumps three years to 2022. Michael hasn’t been seen since he murdered Karen in the final scene of the last movie. Corey was found innocent of manslaughter, but still lives under the thumb of his mother and is a pariah to the rest of the community. Laurie and her granddaughter Allyson are trying to move on—Laurie has moved back into town and is writing a memoir, while Allyson works as a nurse.

Much is made of the cruelty that has infected Haddonfield since Michael’s return four years ago. As she writes, Laurie wonders whether the evil is inborn or spreads like an infection. Did Michael bring evil to Haddonfield, or did he only reveal what was already there?

Corey seems to serve as the film’s answer. While it’s true that his alienation from the larger town is the result of a tragic accident, it’s equally clear Corey was an angry guy before the accident—when he couldn’t get out of the room in which he had been locked, he shouted, “I’ll kill you!” at the kid who locked him inside.

His experiences of bullying (at the hands of the “cool” band kids—we’re living in a post-Glee world, folks) and romantic competition from Allyson’s ex bring him directly into contact with Michael Myers, who’s been living in the sewer for the last four years. Michael doesn’t kill Corey; he apparently sees something in Corey’s eyes…something familiar.

And so begins Corey’s personal mimesis. Michael’s mask offers him the promise of dignity and power. His first kill—unintentionally knocking the child he was babysitting down the stairs in a moment of fear and panic—had been by accident. When he kills a homeless man after his first encounter with Michael, his actions are largely driven by fear and self-defense. Then he lures Allyson’s policeman ex-boyfriend into Michael’s lair. In perhaps the most explicitly sexual scene in the entire franchise, Corey falls on his back, pulling the ex-boyfriend down on top of him, between his legs. Michael stands over Corey and plunges his knife into the boyfriend while Corey holds him. If you had missed the phallic nature of Michael’s kills to this point, Corey’s orgasmic experience of the murder should drive the metaphor home.

Corey then sets out to imitate Michael, donning a scarecrow mask and killing the band bullies (René Girard is nodding along here, pointing out that imitation precedes mimesis). Unsurprisingly, Corey finds this act of revenge insufficient and returns to the sewer. His desire to imitate Michael gives way to his mimetic desire to be Michael. He attacks Michael and takes his mask, becoming the Shape.

With that, Corey tries to accomplish what Michael never could—killing the Final Girl. He returns to Laurie’s house, but once again, Laurie gets the better of the Shape. She leaves Corey bleeding on the floor, only for Michael to appear, retrieve his mask from Corey, and kill him.

Corey’s mimesis has failed. The darkness inside him is, in the end, only an imitation of the Shape, the ultimate incarnation of Haddonfield’s evil.

Laurie and Michael face off again. The stage is set for the final battle for Haddonfield.

 

The Passion of Michael Myers

Michael and Laurie’s final battle is as brutal as it is brief. It ends with Laurie literally crucifying Michael, pinning him to her kitchen island, driving knives through his hands before slitting his throat and wrists.

Laurie says, “He’s dead,” but Allyson warns, “Not dead enough.” They take Michael’s body outside and lash him to the top of a police car. The police chief says, “It’s time for Haddonfield to start healing.”

Allyson agrees, declaring, “Let’s show them all.”

What follows is the sort of death parade that might feel at home in ancient Rome, a spectacle that assures the watching populace that the monster has been defeated, that they can all rest easy. The parade ends at a scrapyard (the graveyard of the American Empire), where the citizens work together to feed his body into an industrial shredder, reducing him to pulpy goo.

Michael Myers is dead. The evil at the heart of Haddonfield has finally been vanquished. Hasn’t it?

Toward the end of Halloween Kills, Laurie reflects on the nature of Haddonfield’s evil: “I always thought Michael Myers was flesh and blood just like you and me. But a mortal man could not have survived what he’s lived through. The more he kills, the more he transcends into something else impossible to defeat. Fear—people are afraid. That is the true curse of Michael.”

Girard warns that a mimetic society is always on the verge of imploding. When we all want the same thing, to be somehow formed in the same image, conflict is inevitable. So Haddonfield has always wanted to be an idyllic American suburb, safe for all its citizens. But we know that vision, that supposed past, was never reality—suburbs were built on the concept of white flight, oppressive and insular by design. Even then, as we’ve seen again and again, they often function less as havens than as pools of stagnation and isolation, driving a pandemic of abuse and loneliness. As Laurie observed, “It is the essence of evil. The anger that divides us. It is the terror that grows stronger when we try to hide.”

When a society builds with rotten bones, one solution is to burn it all down and start over—this is the provocative almost-ending we got in Halloween (2018). But that is difficult and unlikely. Such dismantling of systemic injustices asks far more than most of us are willing to give.

So, according to Girard, we tend toward another, simpler process: Scapegoating. He takes the term from Leviticus 16, which outlines a ritual for the removal of sin from the sacred community. In the ritual, the priest employs two goats. One is sacrificed to YHWH, the god of Israel. The priest then transfers the collected sins of the community to the second goat, which is then led into the wilderness and given to ‘Azazel’ (no one is sure exactly who or what Azazel is. The Hebrew could indicate anything from a cliff over which the goat was thrown to a demonic opponent of YHWH who functioned as a sort of devil figure in ancient Hebrew mythology).

Through the ritual, the scapegoat becomes something like a truck loaded with toxic waste. It exists now only to be driven out from the community so that those who remain behind can be pure.

Girard observes that mimetic communities turn to scapegoats to avert violence. By identifying a single individual within the community as the source of the community’s tension and pain, the whole community (less that person) can unify around a common cause: the exorcism of that individual. So the citizens of Haddonfield, by scapegoating Michael Myers, can assign their collective evil to one person and, by destroying him, liberate themselves.

This isn’t a conscious ritual, so the community needs the scapegoat to be monstrous. They should be someone who is perceived to transgress boundaries. So in Haddonfield, it matters that Michael is a socially arrested, long-incarcerated, voiceless killer. He transgresses masculine norms such that when he strikes out at the enemies of patriarchy—such as the aforementioned interracial couples, gender-bending teens, and Final Girls—the larger community has plausible deniability.

Michael Myers is not like Haddonfield. He is something Other. Something Evil.

…But Green is unconvinced. He makes Michael a victim of mob violence and of crucifixion—both of which are ambiguous resolutions at best, actions which expose the essential lie that by ridding themselves of Michael Myers, the people of Haddonfield are blameless, purged of corruption. Girard famously saw Jesus’ crucifixion as the ultimate repudiation of scapegoating, proof that execution of the one for the good of the many is a placebo. In both Halloween Kills’ mob and Halloween Ends’ salvage junkyard, there’s no sense of victory or vindication. Instead, we feel a weary resignation.

Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends revealed the citizens of Haddonfield to be just as happy to transgress established laws and customs as Michael is, if it means maintaining their own identity and security. They’re happy to put on a show if it’s to convince themselves that they’ve exorcised the boogeyman. Haddonfield, after all, must be maintained, no matter how evil Haddonfield is.

No wonder Michael always comes back. No wonder he’s indestructible. No wonder Halloween Ends ends with a shot of Michael’s mask lying on Laurie’s coffee table. Killing Michael hasn’t saved Haddonfield. Because Michael was never the real problem. Michael may be dead, but the Shape still haunts the systems and structures of Haddonfield. It’s only a matter of time until we see it again.

JR Forasteros cut his teeth on Goosebumps books and Sword of Shannara. These days, he’s a pastor, author of Empathy for the Devil and scifi/fantasy junkie in Dallas, TX. Once he makes it through his to-read list, he plans to die historic on the Fury Road. Find him on Twitter or Instagram, or on the Fascinating Podcast where he is a co-host.

citation

Back to the top of the page

2 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Comments must first be approved and published by the moderators before they appear on the site. If your comment does not eventually appear please review our Moderation Policy carefully before posting again.

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.