I enjoyed the film Halloween (2018) far more than I expected to, but one aspect of it continued to bother me after I left the theater: the film’s focus on guns. Many films and TV shows use guns, but they're usually either just props/tools, or they're presented as glorified extensions of the action hero. Something about this presentation felt different than either of those. “It’s kind of NRA propaganda,” I joked to my husband on the drive home, and we talked about how Laurie was a model conservative, using guns to protect her family and fighting back against the faceless government man—referring to the fact that the doctor calls Michael Myers “property of the state.” I’ve read a couple of articles that claim this film as an affirmation of right-wing, pro-gun values. And honestly, sure, the film can be interpreted that way. There are even a few ancillary details that support that reading. But I think the film’s focus on guns is actually doing something much more subtle and interesting. The reason that both the original 1978 Halloween and the 2018 Halloween films are so successful is because they both acutely synthesize the horrors of their historical moment. And the contextual horror relevant to the 2018 Halloween is actually not the political divide. Not directly, anyway.
Let’s go back to the 1978 Halloween for a moment, and consider what was happening in America in the 1970s that made films like Halloween and Friday the 13th resonate so strongly with viewers: serial killers. Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy each killed more than 30 victims between approximately 1972 and 1978. They weren't the first serial killers in America, but they were some of the worst, and they killed mostly teens and young adults. Michael Myers is not a direct analog to either one of these real life killers, but “The Shape” represents not a single real-life serial killer, but the idea of serial killers in general, and the fear that was gripping the country in the 1970s that this type of evil could strike anywhere, at any time.
[TW: rape] But we know that serial killers like Bundy and Gacy did not only kill their victims, they also sexually assaulted them. Bundy, in fact, reportedly claimed that rape was his initial goal, and murder was a convenient way to keep from getting caught; it was only after several victims that murder became the goal. But Halloween’s Michael Myers is not a sexual predator. In fact, he appears to be punishing the promiscuity of teenagers. The fact that the sex in Halloween is consensual has the side effect of shifting blame onto the victim in conventional rape-culture style. And because we need stories to make more sense than real life, it also creates a rationalization for these characters’ death, becoming a warning in the way that fairy tales are warnings: Don’t go into the woods alone, or Baba Yaga will eat you. Don’t walk down by the river, or La Llorona will get you. Don’t screw around with your boyfriend while you’re supposed to be babysitting, or Michael Myers will get you. He’s the Boogeyman, right? It’s certainly an imperfect system, though, since the virginal Laurie Strode still gets attacked. I argue that the common horror film trope of “death by sex,” in which fornicating teenagers are then subsequently killed, is a way for filmmakers to associate sex with murder, thereby depicting a metaphorical rape, rather than a literal one.
Let’s shift back to the 2018 Halloween now. Note that there is actually no sex in this film. We still have a couple of teenagers messing around while they’re supposed to be babysitting, but they never get naked. And while Michael Myers has a higher body count in this film, the victims are far more random, varying in gender and age. Is this just an arbitrary narrative choice, or an attempt to avoid a trope that has become a cliché? Or is it an intentional choice that creates a very different sort of metaphor than the original? (And, yes, I’m aware that several of his victims mirror victims from the other now non-canonical Halloween films. That doesn’t affect my theory.) Serial killers still exist, for sure, but there hasn’t been one that has really gripped the American public imagination for a couple of decades now. But what type of senseless violence do we deal with in the 2010s? What creates that fear of “it could happen anywhere at any time” now? What’s in the news every couple of days?
The guns in Halloween 2018 aren’t just in Laurie Strode’s prepper-style compound. They’re everywhere in the film, in the hands of many different characters. During their walk to school, the kids talk about how “by today’s standards” the fact that Michael Myers killed five people doesn’t really sound that awful. One of our first bodies in this film is a kid who would rather be at dance class than out hunting, who accidentally shoots the doctor who has survived the bus crash. Even Allyson and her boyfriend choosing to dress as (gender-swapped) Bonnie and Clyde evokes the idea of gun violence, as does the bizarre prediction by Allyson’s father that she’ll grow up to “get fat and clean guns.”
In the same way that the 1978 film portrays consensual sex as a way to depict a metaphorical rape, I argue that the 2018 Halloween’s focus on guns creates a similar subconscious association as a way to invoke metaphorical gun violence. By depicting consensual sex in the original, the association between death and sex becomes more palatable. The oblique angle allows viewers to grapple with the real life horrors of what happens to serial killers’ victims without facing it directly. By putting the guns in the hands of heroes and victims, rather than in the hands of the killer, it complicates the issue and prevents the knee-jerk reaction many viewers would certainly have if mass shootings were being portrayed directly. In the same way that “The Shape” represented the threat posed by serial killers in the 1970s, “The Shape” represents the threat posed by mass shooters in the 2010s.
This interpretation also helps to make sense of the useless “podcasters” who show up at the very beginning. These characters serve very little purpose to the actual plot—sure, we get some exposition from them, but it’s nothing that the filmmakers couldn’t have revealed through interactions between other characters. But every time a mass shooting happens, it’s the media that holds up the killers’ faces to us and demands we say something about it. That scene at the very beginning, when the journalist holds up Michael’s mask to him and yells at him to say something is utter abelist nonsense if I try to think about it literally, but as part of this metaphorical interpretation, it fits perfectly.
Consider also the kid who gets “friend-zoned” by Allyson (Laurie’s granddaughter). There were a lot of different ways the filmmakers could have gotten Allyson separated from the pack, so to speak, but they chose to do it by having her walk away from a boy who tried to kiss her against her will. This kid then proceeds to have a several minute long (one-sided) conversation with a lurking Michael Myers, asking if he’s ever wanted a girl he couldn’t have. The lamentations of this character echo the motivations of several recent shooters, who had been rejected by a girl and retaliated by going after her with a gun, also shooting anyone who got in his way. Really, although Michael seems not to care who he kills, ultimately he is going after Laurie, “the one who got away,” and many of his other victims are incidental on his quest to get her.
So what, then, does Halloween 2018 say about gun violence? Is it, as some of the right-wing bloggers have claimed, supporting that belief that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? I’m not sure it’s that simple. Horror may provide warnings, but it doesn’t necessarily offer solutions. The central theme of the film is that one monster has created another monster. It’s also very much about the power the victimizer continues to hold over the victim even many years after the trauma, and the way cycles of trauma repeat themselves over generations. Laurie’s obsession with Michael, the numerous role reversals and homages to the original, and the fact that she’s hunting him as much as he’s hunting her remind me of what sometimes happens with people who start to carry guns: they start looking for, hoping for, the chance to use them. (And studies have shown that violent crime actually increases in states with conceal carry laws, by the way.) Laurie even says at one point that she’s been praying for Michael to escape so that she has the chance to kill him. Though Myers gets shot multiple times, it’s not actually the guns that finish him off. And he can’t truly be killed anyway. “The Shape” may change, but the evil he represents will likely always be with us.