Movies

Looking for Good Samaritans in John Carpenter’s Halloween

Joe George

“The Night He Came Home!” That tagline for the 1978 slasher flick Halloween, which recently got yet another sequel in theaters, gave the movie both a catchy hook and a thesis statement. Whereas classic boogeymen Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster haunted gothic castles, and early ’70s gialli—nasty Italian forerunners to the American slasher—took place in posh European flats, Halloween brought nightmares to middle-class neighborhoods, finding the monstrous in the mundane.

In the movie’s opening scene, the camera takes the point of view of serial killer Michael Myers as he stalks his teenage sister and her boyfriend through their suburban home. Peering through the eyeholes of a clown mask he has donned, we watch as Michael stares at the couple through a window, moves into the kitchen to grab a knife, and ascends the stairs after the boyfriend leaves. We look helplessly as Michael murders his sister and then walks, almost in a daze, out onto the family’s well-manicured front lawn.

When Michael’s parents arrive, they pull the mask from his face, revealing the scene to be an epilogue set 15 years before the rest of the story. Moving out from the attacker’s perspective, we see Michael Myers as a 6-year-old boy, standing in his yard with a bloody knife and a blank look on his face, the killer next door.

Horror movies work by identifying our anxieties and projecting them onto a giant screen. They visualize the phobias we won’t admit, not even to ourselves. In Halloween, director John Carpenter and his co-writer, Debra Hill, explore our mistrust of neighbors, that suspicion that those across the street might mean us harm. Even though many of us deal with nothing worse than barking dogs or perpetually unmowed lawns (if you live near me, at any rate), we still harbor fears about those we don’t know well, even if they live down the block.

The parable of the Good Samaritan somewhat mirrors Halloween, in that it too addresses a fear of others and asks what it means to be a neighbor. Most wouldn’t consider the parable a horror tale, but remember what happens in it: the senseless violence of random thieves robbing, stripping, and beating a Jewish man; the neglect of the fellow Jews who ignore the man; the creeping terror of a Samaritan—a perceived enemy—discovering his helpless body.

Halloween brought nightmares to middle-class neighborhoods, finding the monstrous in the mundane.

Few stories could have been more frightening to Jesus’ original audience. In the first century, Jews lived under Roman occupation, where soldiers abused them with little recourse and bandits preyed on the weak. In addition, many Jews mistreated Samaritans, an ethnic minority in Israel, and thus likely lived with a nagging fear of reprisal. Those listening to Jesus’ parable would have been terrified to hear about a man enduring a calamity, only to be abandoned by his people and left in the hands of a potentially vengeful other. Those who should be the man’s neighbors abandoned him. The security he thought he had was ripped away.

A later scene in Halloween invokes a similar fear. The now-grown Michael has returned to his home town of Haddonfield, Ill., where he hunts another teenage girl: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is babysitting on Halloween night. Encountering Michael in a house, Laurie is injured but manages to flee. She runs out to the street, but finds it eerily empty. Pounding on the door of the house next door, screaming for help, she sees someone look out the window, but then they close the drapes and turn out the lights. The security she thought she would find is ripped away.

There’s something cathartic about seeing such fears played out on screen. It lets us take stock of our anxieties and put them in perspective. With the Good Samaritan story, Jesus reflects, then assuages the audience’s insecurities. When he describes the Samaritan forgoing revenge to care for the injured man, he not only redefines the definition of who is our neighbor, but also provides reassurance that help can come from those we misunderstand.

But Jesus goes even further with his command to follow the Samaritan’s lead. He acknowledges and accepts that we’re afraid, but he doesn’t let us stay huddled in terror in our houses and neighborhoods. He commands us to leave our place of comfort to be a comfort for others.

Whatever terror Halloween conjures with its savage suburb, stories like the Good Samaritan reminds us that our worries cannot define how we live. Michael Myers may manifest a real and relatable fear, but it’s one we must face and put in biblical perspective. Jesus reminds us that we carry not a spirit of fear, but one of the love and care of the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom we can build in our own backyards.

Topics: Movies