Scariest Scene in Halloween

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: John Carpenter employs Hitchcock-levels of suspense to maximize dread in Halloween.)

“You know, it’s Halloween. I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare, huh?” Sheriff Brackett asks Laurie Strode mere seconds after startling her on her walk home from school. It’s meant as a playful line of dialogue, but it happens to succinctly sum up how a lot of us feel about the holiday. We’re all searching for that one good scare every Halloween. With John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween, the ambitious director wasn’t content to deliver just one good scare. He delivered many. 

The truth is that this 1978 slasher classic offers up numerous iconic scenes the elicit chills. Anyone of them makes for strong candidates in a column that celebrates the scariest scenes in horror. Yet, it’s the film’s first major death that packs the biggest punch. It’s a scene that wears its Alfred Hitchcock influence on its sleeves and coils the tension tighter until it explodes in violence. 

The Setup

As a child, Michael Myers brutally stabs his older sister to death on Halloween night in 1963. Fifteen years later, he escapes his mental institution and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield to resume his Halloween slaughter. This time, he’s targeted a teenage girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her friends Annie Brackett (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles) by proxy. The only one who knows what Michael Myers is capable of is his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who teams up with Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) to stop him. 

The Story So Far

After escaping Smith’s Grove sanitarium and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Michael Myers has spent all of Halloween day silently stalking Laurie Strode. She notices him across the street from her classroom, from behind a hedgerow, and her neighbor’s yard, but her friends dismiss her concerns. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis is multiple steps behind, working with Sheriff Brackett to find Michael Myers’ whereabouts in Haddonfield.

On Halloween night, the bookish Laurie Strode is babysitting young Tommy Doyle while Annie is across the street handling babysitting duties for Lindsey Wallace. Annie is so preoccupied devising plans with Lynda to get their boyfriends over for a night of fun that she doesn’t notice the danger until it’s far too late.

The Scene

Carpenter drew clear inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, when crafting this horror classic. The inspiration is at its most overt in character naming. Dr. Sam Loomis, for example, was an homage to the Sam Loomis from Psycho. Or even in the casting of Janet Leigh’s daughter. Less overt is how Carpenter drew from Hitchock’s famous “bomb theory” for the film’s pivotal slaying of Annie Brackett. 

When breaking down the difference between suspense and surprise, Hitchcock used two scenarios involving a bomb as an analogy. In the first, Hitchcock describes an innocuous conversation among people in a public place when a bomb explodes from under the table. It causes a jolt of surprise, but nothing more as the viewer had no hint that anything out of the ordinary was to happen. In the second scenario, the viewer is made aware of the bomb under the table right away but the characters in the scene are left in the dark. The viewer begins anticipating the explosion, growing more anxious as the clock ticks away. The suspense mounts and they long to warn the characters of the inevitable. It creates a more active viewing experience.

Carpenter applies the bomb theory to the nail-biting demise of Annie Brackett. In Halloween, Michael Myers is the bomb. His victim, Annie, carries about her evening none the wiser of its presence.

Carpenter makes only the viewer privy to his silent killer’s stalking habits and whereabouts. For this formative scene, Michael Myers is first glimpsed lurking near the Wallace household after dark. Inside, Annie is making popcorn in the kitchen. She complains about the dog barking before spilling butter all over her clothes. She removes them, puts on a button-down shirt, and heads out to the separate laundry room in the backyard. 

She doesn’t heed the dog’s sudden silence as a warning. She doesn’t see Michael Myers face in the windows, watching her. We do. We know he’s there. Even when he’s not immediately noticeable, Michael Myers is almost always hiding in the background. The viewer is made well aware that Annie is in imminent danger, and the longer she goes without discovering his presence, the more you want to warn her. It’s an effective means of creating palpable dread.

The “bomb” finally explodes when Annie is planning to leave the house to pick up her boyfriend. She enters the garage and is dismayed to discover the car door is locked and the keys were left in the house. She heads back in, retrieves the keys, checks herself in the mirror, then whistles and dances her way back to the car. This time, the car door is unlocked. Annie doesn’t even register what that means, but we do. She’s distracted while our attention is laser focused. It’s only when she sits in the driver’s seat and finds the windows fogged up that she gives pause. It’s far too late, though. Michael Myers pops up from the backseat and brutally strangles her before slitting her throat. The long stretch of coiling tension is alleviated by a shocking burst of violence.

From the slow build-up to her vicious demise, Annie’s murder marked a major turning point. Michael Myers pivots from passive voyeuristic stalker to an active killer just starting his rampage. It’s fitting then, that Carpenter makes the viewer an active participant in the terror. He demonstrates a profound understanding of suspense and wields it like a knife, horrifying the audience by making them complicit in the death of a major character.

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