Halloween Cinematic Eye Contact

That almost personal confrontation is especially evident in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Drawing heavily upon the conventions of the genre, Carpenter created what seems to be, despite its dark, threatening surface, one of the most lucid of horror films, a tale whose most telling effects derive not so much from our forced encounter with its disturbing images or from our mindfulness of those mythic fears associated with Halloween night, but precisely from the ways in which we are asked to see them. From its opening shot, a slow track-in to a hollow, gleaming jack-o’-lantern’s eye, Halloween, according to film theorist J.P. Telotte, “clearly announces that its primary concern will be with the way in which we see ourselves and others, and the consequences which often attend our usual manner of perception.” Appropriately, eyes become a central focus of the film, starting from that blazing eye of the jack-o’-lantern in the opening credits and culminating in Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) attempt to put out the eye of the monster as he tries to kill her.

That opening close-up introduces the subjective murder sequence taken from Michael’s point of view, thus thematically linking the two scenes and warning of the type of vision which we then see demonstrated. It is a burning, destructive view: seeing not fellow human beings but rather objects of curiosity, looking not into a mirror of common humanity but at a total enigma, and seeking not to participate in the mutual human drama but to parody and devastate its concerns. After Michael has killed his sister and been discovered by his parents, we are finally divorced from his perspective, yanked away to a reverse angle view of his staring, uncomprehending eyes. The complete lack of comprehension on his face—that which Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) later describes as a “blind, pale, emotionless face”—suggests a mode of vision quite alien to us, as is emphasized by the sudden shift to an extreme long shot. The camera’s rapid acceleration away from the action accentuates the sense of revulsion that now takes over, as if the viewers had just realized what they had been, if not party to, at least an interested witness to. A sense of guilt, however slight, has been imparted and will linger throughout the film. Dr. Loomis makes repeated references to the boy’s “evil” eyes, “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes,” and stating his belief that what lurked “behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.” Apparently, we are to understand that vision involves a kind of morality, a right manner of seeing entailing right action, a wrong manner bringing chaos.

The emphasis on eyes and seeing is not an isolated image pattern in Halloween, however, since Carpenter has paired it with a destructive manner of presenting and perceiving the events which transpire in Haddonfield. Having jolted his audience into such a disconcerting awareness about the ways in which we see and the consequences of an irresponsible vision, Carpenter seldom repeats the subjective tracking shot of the opening, though every time the camera moves with that same slow, deliberate, exploratory motion, we are conditioned to expect the worst.

In place of that subjective movement, he resorts to several almost equally disconcerting camera techniques designed to underscore the lesson contained in the opening murder scene. One such recurring device is a slow track-back of the camera to suddenly discover another character whose presence we had not expected, often revealing Michael watching someone while remaining unseen. Such technique forces us to acknowledge two complementary planes of action and to remain aware of the limitations of any perspective which prevents us from seeing such a depth of field. It also functions as a visual warning, a correlative to Dr. Loomis’s injunctions to the police, affirming a need to remain ready for the unexpected to suddenly intrude into this seemingly peaceful little community.

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