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The Horror Psychopath in 2018

In 1978, ‘Halloween’ introduced the trope that would come to haunt horror movies—and, in certain lights, real life—for the next 40 years: the guy who won’t die. Have we come any closer to reckoning with him?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the trailer for 2018’s Halloween, two iconic figures compete for viewers’ attention. The first is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the ex-babysitter heroine of the first two films, who is pictured at target practice, her now-grey mane flowing in the brisk fall wind, clearly indicating how long she’s been at this game. She aims her rifle at the monuments of her preparation, an assortment of bullet-ridden mannequins set up in a yard like anti-scarecrows; they’re not meant to scare anything away but to help her manage her own fear. “Do you know that I pray every night that he would escape?” she asks, in a breathy, slightly wounded, and exasperated voice. “What the hell did you do that for?” the grizzled police officer shoots back. “So I can kill him,” she replies.

The “him” is the second cinematic icon: Michael Myers, the masked serial killer. Strode has used her skill set to survive years of terror and abuse by her nemesis, the deranged Myers, who first started after her 40 years earlier in John Carpenter’s original Halloween. That film’s plot is pretty basic: In its opening scene, 6-year-old Michael Myers kills his teenage sister and babysitter. Afterward, he’s imprisoned in an insane asylum. Fifteen years later, he escapes the night before Halloween. The next day, Myers stalks and kills several girls and one boy, who is collateral damage to Myers’s attempt to kill the boy’s girlfriend. In the film’s final battle, Laurie stabs Myers twice, and Dr. Loomis, his psychiatrist, shoots him several times. Of course, when Loomis checks, Myers’s body is gone, setting up decades of seeming deaths and disappearing acts in the Halloween franchise and beyond.

In the 2018 film, directed by David Gordon Green, Laurie’s a vigilante and a grandmother and Myers is up to the same shit. He’s escaped from the psychiatric hospital again. This is a return to basics, with a crucial and timely update: Myers will be hunting Laurie, but she’s hunting him, too. Their inevitable confrontation will be between two legendary characters and two resistant horror tropes: the “final girl”—or the teenage girl or woman survivor of a horror film—and this other relentlessly alive figure—let’s call him the “guy who won’t die.” Killing him, which Laurie hopes to do, likely won’t be that easy given his track record of being both elusive and durable. The homicidal maniac is a familiar figure in horror: He shows up, stalks female characters, murders with impunity, and usually tricks police departments, private detectives, and his victims’ trusted confidantes into thinking he’s a figment of the victims’ imaginations. He then makes it to the next film and does it all over again. His invincibility is helped along by an infrastructure that disbelieves women. Still we tend to focus on invincibility as a description rather than as a trait. We take the recurring horror psychopath for granted when we see him on-screen; he’s going to come back, so that the films can too.

The trope is recognizable to most anyone who’s seen a horror film since the late ’70s: For one reason or another (or for no reason at all), the killer is after babysitters (Halloween) or camp counselors (Friday the 13th), or a group of teenagers with insomnia (Nightmare on Elm Street). The victims fight back with an impressive array of weapons and DIY traps, but it’s never enough. He keeps rising. Every time you think he’s dead, he’s either playing possum or had actually died but was somehow resurrected. This maniacal dude is in diametric opposition to the final girl’s position: He’s engineered the series of torments he subjects her to, while she’s an unwilling participant; he is seemingly infallible while she’s very evidently mortal; he’s implacable, emotionless, and she wears her feelings on her sleeve (until it’s inevitably ripped off). If the final girl is “abject terror personified,” as film theorist Carol J. Clover wrote, this recurring psychopath is the institutionalization of that terror personified. The only thing the two figures have in common is their survival.

When it debuted in October 1978, Halloween was a paradigm shift in horror cinema. As film critic David Kehr explains, moving from the 1960s into the ’70s, American horror films replaced fantasy flicks and their villains with a “series of highly successful, independently produced films [that] refocused the genre on human monsters and human monstrosities.” In the politically conscious Night of the Living Dead (1968), the antagonists are a countless cadre of unthinking, somnambulant once-human zombies, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) featured a whole family of cannibals. To quote Amy Nicholson in the first episode of The Ringer’s Halloween: Unmasked podcast, “Michael Myers was different. … Myers marched into the suburbs; he marched into the bedrooms of ordinary, anytown girls who hadn’t done anything at all. There was nothing you could do to avoid him, and now no one was safe.” Halloween’s innovation was the single stalker type, a figure that spawned a slew of remakes, sequels, and copycats.

Michael Myers in ‘Halloween’
Warner Bros.

What we got after Halloween is 40 years of maniacal dudes who won’t take “no,” or blows to the head, or machetes, or chainsaws, or bullets, for an answer. Late capitalism being what it is, the single-use monster of old Hollywood was replaced by a series of indestructible male psychopath attackers who could not only avoid apparent death in scene after scene, but from film to film, thanks to Halloween’s example. With Halloween, Carpenter and company not only struck IP gold, they extended their cultural influence well outside of the decade that inspired the film.

And they were also, as all horror classics do, channeling the culture outside of the film itself. “Why has this figure proved so durable?” asks Brian Baker in his book Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres 1945-2000. “The excess of desire that turns to violence surely reveals further cultural anxieties about masculinity, and it is certainly no coincidence that the crucial period for the ‘slasher’ subgenre was directly after the Vietnam War.” If Night of the Living Dead borrowed the cinematography of Vietnam War news reports, as Kehr observes, then Halloween and the films that followed it exploited the crisis of masculinity and the anxiety that synced with the reintegration of Vietnam vets back into American society. This tension played out in the genre in a few major themes for the next 40 years: the repetition of childhood sexual trauma as basis for the maniac’s behavior; the entitlement of the psychopath; the link between violent toys and the impressionable young boys who make up their main demographic; the use of the copycat trope, where young men aped the killer’s style; and the uptick of “nice guy” killers.

The new Halloween’s entrance into the zeitgeist is just as poignant and culturally situated as the original. It’s difficult to consider the guy who won’t die trope without thinking about the ways in which the idea lives outside of the horror film’s confines. The trope of a seemingly untouchable, almost exclusively male figure who gets off on repeated abuse, particularly of women, evoked cultural realities decades before our society was willing to openly discuss them. Now we see that crisis of masculinity play out in the behavior of similar actors within our cultural and political moment. Until recently, these men’s escapes from accountability paralleled the elusiveness of the horror film’s recurring psychopaths, their repeated violations and unchecked abuses of power not unlike the sequels you find starring the genre’s villains. In 2018, we have a new Halloween sequel just as our culture is acknowledging another crisis of masculinity. On-screen and off, the guy who won’t die has returned, just as the #MeToo reckoning, incel phenomenon, predictive link between domestic violence and mass shootings, and “you will not replace us” white nationalists are at the center of our national discourse. All this, plus Michael Myers on the comeback trail, suggest the “guy who won’t die” is more alive than ever.

Horror films’ gender and sexual politics are well established: Sex is bad, virgins are good, the slasher’s knife is a phallic symbol, and psychopathic killers are sexually repressed and have mommy issues. Those themes are ingrained in the genre. As Clover describes in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: “The cinematic gaze, we are told, is male, and [...] so it ‘knows,’ in horror, how to track a woman ascending a staircase in a scary house and how to study her face from an angle above as she hears the killer’s footfall.” Men usually play the attackers, and women are usually their victims. In Halloween, these dynamics are especially easy to pick up on. Myers mostly kills girls and acts as both a voyeur and a stalker. The girls’ death sequences are long and drawn out. This sets up an interesting dynamic: If Myers’s perspective is also the same as the camera, then the viewer’s default identification is with him, too. His gaze becomes our gaze. That makes for a titillating shot; it also makes viewers complicit in the cinematic violence. The slasher subgenre, and horror films in general, fetishize a certain kind of male form, beset with certain character quirks: one who is relentless in both his durability and his feelings of ownership and obsession over the women he stalks. While there have been attempts to recast Myers as a queer figure, I don’t think that analysis holds up. He’s resolutely a beneficiary of patriarchy, of entitlement. That’s why he refuses to stay away.

The other guys made in the Myers mold keep coming back, too. In Friday the 13th (1980), which was made explicitly to capitalize off of the success of Halloween, the murderer is a woman. Although that film’s killer turns out to be Jason Voorhees’s mother Pamela, in all but one of the series’ following 11 sequels Jason is the slasher. The Nightmare on Elm Street series, which began in 1984, follows the ghoulish Freddy Krueger’s attempts, across nine films, to fuck with teenagers while they dream. In its three films, the Candyman series, based on a short story by Clive Barker, features the mythical figure torturing women who come across his path. They even made a doll who won’t die—for seven films! In its initial installments, the campy Child’s Play series played deftly with genre and gender tropes: A serial killer transfers his soul into the body of an aptly named “Good Guy” doll and tries to possess the soul of a sweet little boy, Andy Barclay, the hero of the first three movies. (It’s notable that, once the bodies start to pile up, the manufacturer of the Good Guy doll keeps closing and reopening, adding another layer to the film’s awareness of its villain’s ongoing rejuvenation.) Given the guy who won’t die trope, little Andy delivers the most ironic line when he tries to kill Chucky, his “friend to the end”: “This is the end, friend!”

But of course it wasn’t; the trope kept multiplying on itself in other films, too. The When a Stranger Calls series, starring Carol Kane as a babysitter who’s tortured by a maniac, features different stalkers; Kane appears in the original and the sequel, first as a victim, then as a mentor to the next woman who’s targeted by a copycat killer, a psychopathic ventriloquist and performance artist who paints himself to blend into walls. (The second entry, a TV movie, is notable for its Lifetime-esque showcase of the real institutions that marked women’s safety nets of that era: feminist call centers, women’s-only self-defense classes.) The multiple villains add another layer of commentary: As long as there is a system in place, cops who don’t believe her, and enough entitled assholes out in the world, a new character can be targeted by a psychopath who uses the same methods that either killed or traumatized women before her.

Neve Campbell in ‘Scream’
Dimenion Films

Scream, beginning in 1996, is the story of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a teenager coping with the death of her mother when a killing rampage begins in her town. Scream paid homage to the iconic phone call scenes of the first two When a Stranger Calls films by presenting an extended opening sequence where the viewers, like the victim, learn that the call is coming from inside the house. (This gag is unintentionally insightful as a metaphor for the kind of self-doubt and paranoia that infects stalked characters; the call’s coming from inside the house and also their brains.) Scream also featured the consummate “nice guy” killer, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), Sidney’s boyfriend. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) featured an indefatigable villain who gets hit by a car and who’s joined by his son in the next film, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). The only post-millennium franchise in this vein worth mentioning is Saw, featuring Jigsaw, the evil mastermind ultimately revealed to be a dying man stricken with cancer, who has chosen to terrorize people who he decides have not lived their lives properly. Again, that sense of one man’s entitlement over other people’s bodies finds a literal expression in horror. There have been eight entries in the Saw series, and although Jigsaw died in the third installment, he continues to play a role in the series, through flashbacks and the ideological impression he’s left for his followers. Given all this, Jigsaw’s not quite dead.

But how could he be? The guy who won’t die seems indestructible. Most often his continued reanimation defies logic. His death-defying Whac-A-Mole pop-ups are mostly meant to keep the jump scares going and lay the groundwork for his eventual reappearance in the series’ next sequel. But his indestructibility also, necessarily, serves as punishment. As Seth Grahame-Smith explains in the genre manual How to Survive a Horror Movie, “Horror movie characters aren’t killed by machete-wielding monsters or reincarnated psychopaths—they’re killed by ignorance. Ignorance of the mortal danger they’re in. Of the butcher lurking in every shadow. Of the new rules. Ignorance of the fact that they’re in a horror movie.” Frailty becomes a justification for his ongoing rage.

Fittingly, given how fatal ignorance can be in this medium, the final girl often survives because of her smarts, and—aside from deus ex machina plot machinations and the fact that he needs to survive to keep the story going—it’s not always easy to tell how the guy who won’t die persists. But much of his survival has to do with the fact that he has the upper hand—his victims are on his territory, and they’re playing the game he designed. If the final girl provides “a cathartic end to the gore and gloom,” as Erik Piepenburg’s writes in The New York Times, the guy who won’t die represents the opposite of catharsis. He is an open wound that never heals, a menace who survives from generation to generation, terrorizing a new breed of women and young people who have to learn the rules all over again.

Sometimes making a movie is the best way to critique other ones. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), about slasher movies and political corruption, is one of the most incisive reviews of the slasher genre, its indomitable attacker, and the guy who won’t die outside of film. In Blow Out, a noir film about making films, John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound man for a production company that makes B-movies. When the film starts, Jack’s trying to place a scream in Co-Ed Frenzy, a low-budget slasher film. He ends up getting caught in a political quagmire when a presidential candidate dies in a car accident with a prostitute while he’s nearby recording sound. He rescues and then befriends the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), who was in the car with the politician, but despite his best efforts to shield and protect her from harm, she dies wearing a wire for him. At the end of the film, still looking for the perfect scream, he uses the one Sally uttered before she died, which is captured on the wire. The last shot of the film is Jack covering his ears as he watches a new version of the film and listens to the overdubbed scream, the blue light emitting from the movie theater washing over him. The most brilliant and insidious thing about that movie is that despite Jack’s misgivings about Sally’s death and the trauma associated with it, he uses her scream anyway. He’s part of the system, and no matter how much he cared for his fallen friend, he chooses to keep making money and retaining his place within it. Despite his proximity to much of the same danger Sally faced, Jack survives, as do the slasher-film psychopaths he helps to foster into the world through his production work, and the political corruption the film critiques. He survives because of the system, which doesn’t explicitly target him. He survives because he knows the old and new rules. He survives because he knows he’s in a horror movie, to echo Grahame-Smith’s calculation.

Horror movies often anticipate our cultural acknowledgement of certain social issues, and in this case, Halloween and the psychopath were able to articulate some of our most common problems long before we had the language ourselves, or while we were developing it. The slasher film’s insistence on men who make rules and traumatize women, and who are still able to continue along in that way, has a brutal corollary in the real world. Men in power, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein to Les Moonves to Mario Batali and beyond, have consistently exerted their will over women who they think “don’t know the rules” or are ignorant of the fact that they’re in “a guy’s place,” or that they’re in a horror movie. What we as a society have finally begun to acknowledge is that they do know, and always have.

In an interview, John Carpenter explained that his task with the original Halloween was to make an “exploitation horror film,” and part of what makes Laurie Strode’s vigilantism in the 2018 version exciting is that it appears to play up the exploitative qualities of the original film as well as other ’70s movies across genres: the Blaxploitation revenge flicks, the Charles Bronson Death Wish–style swaggering vengeance. The textual elements of gender and violence were already there: the fear and craftiness of final girls and their ilk; the entitlement of the genre’s psychopathic male figures; the gaslighting done by male authority figures; the unfair playing field; the institutional nature of the villain’s terror, which is demonstrated in his continued survival. It will be interesting to see if this year’s Halloween will also exploit the tensions that have ramped up in the #MeToo moment, but which have been pronounced in the culture since at least October 2014, when the Cosby scandal first broke nationwide. In January 2018, Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan wrote that “female rage is the essential fuel of #MeToo. Unchecked it is the potent force that will destroy it.” She could have been talking about Carrie White, whom Carol J. Clover called a “female victim-hero,” an archetype who uses feminism and the rage Flanagan mentions to enact revenge on her tormentors. Jamie Lee Curtis draws different inspiration from #MeToo in her portrayal of Laurie, who moves from a quintessential “victim” to a hero in this new Halloween. On Halloween: Unmasked, Curtis talked about her most famous character’s importance in our moment, saying “Laurie Strode could be a #MeToo voice for people who have had violence perpetrated on them. … Laurie Strode’s violence is fake, it’s not real, but in a movie to see a character come around 40 years later and say, ‘No more, #MeToo,’ is powerful.” The patriarchy keeps showing up, like Michael Myers, and the countless copycat characters who have come in his wake. In Halloween, and in Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and in elevators outside the hearings, women aren’t letting these recurring villains thrive without a fight, just as the final girls don’t. But therein lies the biggest difference between the genre and real life: In horror films, there’s only one girl left standing.

Niela Orr is an interviews editor at The Believer and a contributing editor of The Organist podcast. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Baffler, BuzzFeed, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.