By Danny Anderson
Ted Bundy is once again having a moment.
The current interest in his story can be traced to two new productions: Netflix’s four-part documentary series Conversations with a Killer, and the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile which recently premiered at Sundance and stars Zac Efron. The critical conversation around the Efron movie mainly hovers over the ethics of portraying the monster Bundy as an attractive and charming figure and has instigated a puzzling “hot or not” debate on social media. Conversations with a Killer more or less avoids this moral minefield. It is more interested in the problem of evil than its sexiness.
The series seeks to undermine the legend that Bundy had constructed in his public life, using his own words. Drawing on hundreds of hours of death row interview tapes with Bundy and placing them in conversation with reporters, lawyers, and FBI agents familiar with the case, the documentary largely reduces the mythology of Bundy to a harrowing question mark. The brutal crimes against women that “Ted” committed can not be neatly traced to any discernible source. Not childhood abuse. Not social rejection. And, much to James Dobson’s chagrin, not even pornography. The best answer to “why?” that the film can posit is that he did it because he wanted to, a terrifyingly meaningless conclusion.
The question of “why” is surely what keeps the serial-murderer-industrial-complex in the black, after all. The logical human brain looks for cause and effect to help make sense of the world. When that logic fails, we experience a kind of existential vertigo, unsure of our position in the Watchmaker’s universe. The need to peer into the wiring of Bundy’s brain is therefore a fundamental theological impulse. The enduring appeal of the true crime genre is its connection to theodicy, the theological quest to understand the problem of evil.
Few recent films investigate theodicy as unflinchingly as David Gordon Green’s 2018 reboot of Halloween. The film, a sequel to John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 horror classic, boldly asserts itself as the original’s only true sequel as it ignores all the other films in the franchise. Here, Michael Myers (AKA The Shape) was in fact captured after the events of Carpenter’s original and has spent the last 40 years in hospital for the insane, first under the care of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), then Loomis’s protege Dr. Sartain.
Halloween brings at least three competing approaches to the problem of evil into conflict and it does so by employing the terrible imagery of fascism. First, there is a commercial and scientific fascination with evil, which understands it as a resource of power or wisdom to be exploited, represented by journalists and psychologists. Next, the film gives voice to a moderate Liberal view of the world as essentially good, just in need of competent and caring management. Laurie’s daughter and son-in-law represent this position. Finally, there is Laurie, the survivor of a nightmarish trauma who understands evil to be a metaphysical force that exists beyond logic and human understanding and must simply be destroyed.
The film’s philosophical exploration of evil is embodied in the difference between Michael’s two doctors. Where Loomis always saw Myers as the embodiment of pure, irredeemable evil, beyond logic and reason, Sartain developed a fascination with The Shape and devoted his career to cracking its code. In short, Sartain views Michael Myers as an opportunity to understand the nature of evil and over time develops a deep fascination with him, imagining him as a source of deep wisdom. The reverence Sartain shows the brutal killer is disturbing, all the more so as Michael responds only with silence. Undeterred, Sartain romanticizes the killer (as Bundy aficionados do) and makes it his mission to open him up and learn the lessons trapped inside. Our heroine, Laurie, assures us, however, that there is nothing to be learned from the horror.
Carpenter’s original Halloween pairs Michael Myers against Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) with a dreadful, cruel Fate binding the two together. That binary is central to this film’s narrative as well. The film’s plot and several of its characters, Sartain being one, seek to reunite the two, as if to create a chemical reaction which will illuminate the nature and source of Michael’s evil. Laurie’s resistance to this notion amounts to a rejection of a scientific philosophy of evil.
In addition to Sartain who ultimately drives Myers to Laurie’s house, the film presents two journalists, podcasters Dana and Aaron, who are producing a Serial-like program about the Shape murders, hoping (like Sartain) to understand them. The film opens with them visiting Michael at the hospital. Desperate to “reach” him and greeted with only silence, Aaron dramatically pulls out and holds up the famous William Shatner mask used in the original murders, a grand gesture which proves fruitless.
Undeterred and driven by the ferocious tenacity of exploitation podcasters, the pair bribe their way into a meeting with Laurie at her fortress-like home. Thwarted by the perpetrator, Aaron and Dana attempt to pry meaning from the victim, using well-rehearsed methods of emotional manipulation. As Dana explains their production philosophy, that they look into old murder cases and examine what there is to learn from them, Laurie stops her, stating , “There’s nothing to learn. There are no new insights.” Finally, after a few minutes, Laurie categorically rejects their premise. She scolds them, saying “Michael Myers murdered five people. And he’s a human being we need to understand?” When Aaron requests that she accompany them and visit Michael, she promptly ends the interview, leaving them as empty-handed as Michael did.
Through its dueling nemeses, the film continually frustrates those looking for a definitive “why” to the problem of Evil. Michael Myers is best understood as a natural evil, akin to a hurricane or earthquake or, better still, a leviathan from the Book of Job, which God describes to Job as beyond the most basic understanding of humans: “Who can uncover its outer covering? Who can penetrate to the inside of its armor? Who can open the doors of its mouth? Its teeth all around are fearsome” (Job 41: 13-14, New English Translation). The terror of Michael Myers lies not only in his destructive capacity, but also in how he frustrates our desire for reason. Here, this film is a direct repudiation to Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake, which laboriously constructed an explanatory backstory and rationale for Michael Myers. Dr. Sartain dies at Michael’s hand (or his foot, more precisely) and his last words, a plea for Michael to “say something,” goes unheeded. No one can open the doors of Michael Myers’s mouth.
For our modern collective imagination, fascism and Nazis dominate our thinking about the problem of evil. From when Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to current fears about the alt-Right and resurgent white nationalism across the world, Nazis have become cultural shorthand for ultimate evil. Subsequently, many of our most vociferous political debates spring from questions about the nature of this evil. “Is it OK to punch a Nazi” is fundamentally a question for theodicy.
Since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, such questions have proliferated exponentially, so it should be of no surprise that the 2018 Halloween constructs its own journey into theodicy from images of Nazi horrors.
And the film categorically argues that, yes, it is fine to punch Nazis. In fact, it so forcefully asserts this position, the movie might well serve as an antifa recruiting tool.
But first an attempt at clarification. The point here is not to equate the Shape’s Babysitter Murders with the Holocaust, only to argue that the film imposes fascist and Nazi imagery upon Michael Myers. Given that the Nazis are almost universally understood as an ultimate evil (the question “why were there Nazis?” is a key question for modern theodicy), the imagery of fascism offers the film potent material for its philosophical investigation.
The movie bursts at its seams with visual connections to Nazis, far-right hate groups, and indeed the Holocaust itself. The most obvious reference to such matters is a glimpse into a class about Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The scene is one of several prominent quotations from Carpenter’s original film, referring to and inverting the scene in the original, where young Laurie in a class about the nature of Fate, looks out the window to see the silent, ghastly figure of Michael Myers staring at her from across the street. The juxtaposition of Michael’s blank gaze with the discussion about Fate provided an ominous tone and a philosophical theme for the rest of the film.
In this update, Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson, listens to a lecture about Frankl’s controversial memoir of the concentration camps. Offscreen, her teacher summarizes Frankl, saying “Fate took a different course. I understand how someone who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss.” At this moment, Allyson looks out the window as her grandmother did before her, and sees the broken Laurie whose life has been devastated by the trauma of Michael Myers. Stepping into Michael’s place in the scene, she bears the pain he inflicted. Furthermore, her ashen appearance serves to undermine the optimistic worldview presented in Frankl’s famous, yet controversial work.
The quote the teacher reads out of context is also a partial one. The full sentence reads “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved” (37). With the quotation fully intact, Frankl’s philosophy is clearer. People can find meaning in suffering by fixating on an object of love. This provides a mechanism for hope, and for the film it gives voice to the Liberal position about evil. Laurie’s case presents a stern challenge to Frankl’s existential optimism, however. She has for 40 years fixated only on Michael Myers, awaiting the final confrontation that Fate has in store for her. This constant, disciplined “contemplation” prepared her for the meaningless horror of Michael and allowed her and her family to survive. Interestingly, Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), tries to approach the world with Frankl’s optimism, rejecting her mother’s hardened vision for a hopeful one based on the innate beauty and goodness of the world. In the end, however, the film chooses Laurie’s view of evil over Karen’s (and Frankl’s) psychology of existential hope and Karen returns to her mother’s side for the final stand against Michael.
Laurie is in no uncertain terms a survivor, traumatized and hardened by her experience with the natural evil of Michael Myers. The Frankl reference is just one of several ways that the film uses the absolute horror of the Holocaust in its theodicean exploration. Some references are subtle, others overt. One of the more coded references takes place at the climax of the film’s opening scene. As Aaron, in a vain attempt at reaching Michael’s humanity, holds up his old killing mask, he stands with his right arm raised, evoking the Nazi salute. This shot sets the tone for the fascist motif the film employs throughout.
After Michael’s escape from the prison transfer bus, we see a more chilling image of Nazi horror. Just before Dana is murdered in a bathroom stall, Michael, having just brutally killed two employees of a gas station, drops a handful of human teeth onto the floor at her feet. Some of the most nightmarish images of the Holocaust involve piles of such human remains. Teeth, shoes, hair, etc. The horrifyingly efficient machinery of death that the Nazis perfected left the waste of its human victims on display for history. Michael’s delivery of such cruelty to Dana is his only answer to her consuming curiosity about his motivation. His evil, like that of the Nazis, has no reason.
Later, on Michael’s rampage through town and in another quote from the original film, a teenage boy, Dave, is found pinned to a wall by Michael’s butcher knife. Earlier that evening he had bragged to his girlfriend about his new shoulder tattoo, which we finally see on his dead body. It is simply the date, 10-31-18, and the tattoo he was so enthusiastic about becomes an ironic and tragic document of the day of his death. But more to the point of this analysis, a series of six numbers tattooed on a human arm evokes another key image from the Holocaust, the prisoner tattoos applied to the victims of Auschwitz.
Dr. Sartain’s murder even evokes fascist imagery as Michael crushes his head with a single drop of his heavy, black boots. This method of brutality is often associated with various skinhead or other white supremacist groups and was made famous by Edward Norton’s character in American History X. The continued evocation of fascist and Nazi imagery is pervasive in the move and its use drives home the film’s argument about absolute evil. Laurie is proven right about there being nothing to learn and her life of paranoia turns out to be preparation for an encounter with a horror that transcends logic and Enlightenment values. There is no negotiation with this evil, only the necessity to exterminate it. Laurie finally kills Michael and burns his body (according to Dr. Loomis’s wishes), and the fact that she does so by means of a gas-filled oven is one final reference to the Holocaust. This one, however, turns the tables on the face of fascist horror.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.