By Danny Anderson
Let there be no doubt about my position. John Carpenter is a great artist. And critics, many of whom seemingly made careers out of missing this point, have largely come around to acknowledge this fact. If there was any remaining doubt about Carpenter’s artistic achievements, Jordan Peele, the director of three modern classics himself, Get Out, Us, and Nope, closed the case this summer in a twitter response to hyperbolic praise for his latest film. Peele, responding to a claim that he was already the greatest horror director, stated, “I will not tolerate any John Carpenter slander.”
Indeed, the “Master of Horror” has produced an immensely rich body of work that, in hindsight, obviously places him among the great auteurs of American cinema. But perhaps because Carpenter embraced genre filmmaking and modeled his art not on the influences of the film school generation, but on old-Hollywood studio-era filmmakers like Howard Hawkes, his work frequently befuddled critics throughout his career. Narrowly-defined definitions of “great cinema” simply left many influential critics incapable of appreciating Carpenter’s unique artistic achievements. A prime example is Pauline Kael’s laughably elitist and frankly ignorant dismissal of Halloween, a film now universally recognized now as a essential work of cinematic art, as “pitiful, amateurish.”
Carpenter’s rare gift is often what made his work indigestible to critics; put simply, he is a serious artist with popular sensibilities. Although he has a unique, focused artistic vision, with ideas that probe essential questions about life along with a unique, definable style — a savvy viewer can readily define the “Carpenteresque” — the film school dropout is also more drawn to the populace than he is to elite institutions and styles, and he is unapologetic about it (They Live! is practically a manifesto of this attitude). As with many artists with this essential quality, high-minded critics habitually underestimate their work. But, thankfully, the world eventually caught up with John Carpenter.
One of the “questions” that Carpenter’s cinema repeatedly comes back to is that of the nature of evil. And though he explores that existential question largely through the genre of horror, the interested viewer can come away with a full-bodied, complicated set of ideas to ponder. For me, Prince of Darkness holds the key to understanding John Carpenter’s ideas about evil, but we shall do so by first exploring one of Carpenter’s most famous films…Halloween.
The Paradox of Michael Myers
A natural place to begin exploring Carpenter’s interest in evil is 1978’s Halloween. Much has been said about Myers being a kind of manifestation of pure evil (Rob Zombie’s remakes psychologizes the killer, eliminating this from the character. David Gordon Green’s, conversely, doubles down on Myers as an archetype in his recent requel trilogy).
An interesting question that often goes unconsidered, however, is what Halloween suggests about the origin of evil. Myers is a manifestation of evil, not its source.
The film itself suggests a paradoxical answer to this question. The paradox is established by Carpenter’s cinematic allusions, when Tommy and Lindsey are watching TV under the babysitting care of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
One vision of evil’s origins is provided by the inclusion of Howard Hawkes’ Thing From Another World (which Carpenter would remake in a few years with The Thing). The title of this film says it all, the “thing” is literally “from another world.” Simply put, the monster of the film comes from outside humanity and is an invader from beyond.
The other, contrasting, idea is provided by the inclusion of Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi classic based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this film, the monsters emerge not from other worlds, but from the very ids of the protagonists. In other words, they are manifestations of psychological desires and therefore have their origins within human beings.
So which is it? Is Michael Myers possessed by an evil that originates within the dark heart of humanity? Or is he a channel tuned to a signal of evil from beyond?
Cosmic Horror, Music, and the Weird and the Eerie
As we ponder the Myers paradox, I think it’s helpful to first consider Mark Fisher’s 2017 book The Weird and the Eerie. Fisher builds upon, and provides some nuance for, Freud’s concept of “the Uncanny” as a horror-producing effect. For Freud, the Uncanny is essentially a feeling of simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity, which produces a disorienting unease. Fisher zooms into the concept and theorizes the Weird and the Eerie.
The Eerie is characterized by a failure of presence or a failure of absence. In other words, something should be there but isn’t (people and an empty mall, for example), or something shouldn’t be there, but is (that doll standing at the end of a dark hallway). Carpenter makes ample use of the Eerie, particularly with the numerous uneasy scenes of Michael Myers lurking in Halloween. In addition, Myers’ mask is Eerie as an example of a failure of presence. The absence of human features on an otherwise human face make it a producer of eeriness. But Fisher’s ideas about the Weird, are more directly applicable to this discussion Carpenter’s ideas about evil.
The Weird is an effect produced by an ontological confusion, when something from one world appears in another. H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is not called “weird fiction” for nothing and it is a prime example of Fisher’s Weird. Carpenter’s horror films are also often cosmic horror by nature as well. His remake of The Thing goes back to the source material for Hawkes’s film, the story “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell, and reincorporates the overtly Lovecraftian aspects of the tale. (One cannot read Campbell’s story and not see shades of At the Mountains of Madness). The evil in that film is a corrupting force from beyond the stars and it replaces its human hosts.
Another aspect of Carpenter’s art that is similarly Weird is the soundtracks that the filmmaker often composes himself. From the beginning of his career, Carpenter has composed music for his films and his soundtracks, typified by Halloween’s, have become iconic. The filmmaker has in recent years released a series of albums of original compositions called Lost Themes, which feature his signature synth style. A common feature of his music is an overwhelming pulsating rhythm. The rhythms are so strong in these songs that even the melodies become accompanying beats to the basslines. The overall effect of Carpenter’s style is that of a persistent knocking; something from the other side is knocking, pounding, trying break into our world, like Michael Myers bursting through a thin closet door.
Thematically and formally, Carpenter’s films depict evil as an intruder from outside. An agent of the Weird.
Prince of Darkness and the Corruption of Human Beings
Even while the films suggest that evil is an alien force, human beings still do evil things in Carpenter’s cinematic universe. Michael Myers was born of woman, after all. How do we reconcile the paradox presented by the sci-fi references from Halloween?
The key to this puzzle lies in Prince of Darkness.
Released in 1987 and serving as the second installment in the filmmaker’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” the film represents Carpenter’s most direct statement about the origins of evil.
The plot is almost born from the mind of Lovecraft himself. A group of academics team with priest (Donald Pleasence) after the discovery of a swirling tube of green liquid concealed in the basement of a forgotten urban church. Through the examination of ancient texts, the group discovers that the liquid is the essence of Satan himself. The discovery unravels the metaphysical assumptions of both secular scholar and Christian tradition. Satan, you see, is the son of an ancient evil god, who was cast out of our dimension eons ago. Satan has been left behind, awaiting the moment to escape and summon his dark father back from exile.
The ideas of the film heavily recall Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, applying it to Christian beliefs about original sin and the triune God. (Jesus, it is revealed, was an alien sent to warn humanity about this other alien threat).
From this premise, the film enacts an inversion of the Nativity. A woman in the group is chosen to give birth to Satan’s embodied form and the green liquid is poured into her body, where it gestates. At first, her stomach swells as with an advanced pregnancy, but soon the satanic goo absorbs into her body, deforming her into a ghastly image of the Devil incarnate. She is not Rosemary and there is no Devil child being born from her. She has been replaced by Satan herself.
The sequence is unsettling and remarkable for its implications. Evil, it is clear, is not an abstract idea and it does not live in the sinful hearts of human beings. It is a physical force and it corrupts human beings from the outside. The human being (as in The Thing) is replaced from within by an ingested evil substance.
The mirror is the key. The film’s climax finds the newly born Satan staring into a large mirror, which transforms into a portal. On the other side is the Father, “Old Scratch” as one character refers to him earlier. She reaches into the mirror and a clawed, demonic hand is pulled out, emerging back into our dimension.
The concept of evil’s origins in the film offers a sobering challenge to core Christian beliefs, not the least of which is a denial of Christ’s divinity. Another concept the film rejects is that of Original Sin. Even the film’s priest explicitly comes to the conclusion that Original Sin is a myth. On the other hand, the biblical advice about plucking out offending right eyes oddly fits with the worldview of Prince of Darkness. Even Christian traditions that affirm Original Sin have always made room for the concept of corruption as well. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s film can almost be seen as an idiosyncratic variety of Pelagianism.
Fisher, in his book, makes much of doorways and portals. And the fact that the gateway between worlds in Prince of Darkness is a mirror is worth considering. The source of evil in the film’s storyworld is alien and external, but it lies on the other side of an instrument we use to observe ourselves. The mirror allows us to see ourselves but if we aim our gaze too long into our own reflection, who knows what will reach out to us with its clawed fingers? Returning the references in Halloween, the mirror here is a portal between the “id” and “things from another world.” Like all great artists, John Carpenter has offered us some wisdom to consider.
The ideas about the origin of evil in Prince of Darkness are a handy resolution to the paradox of Halloween, and the film goes a long way to explain the nature of Michael Myers. In John Carpenter’s moral universe, it’s likely that the boy who killed his sister on Halloween night 1963 was not born a monster, nor did suffer a moral failure and weak-mindedly succumb to Original Sin. Somehow, in some way we’ll never know, Michael Myers became a container, a body infected by some nameless, external force, consumed and replaced by an evil beyond our ability to comprehend.
Danny 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.