Part II: Kill the Back Story

Does back story ruin a good slasher flick?

Halloween did not give the horror genre its first masked maniac or killer’s point of view shot, but no movie in history did more to popularize these conventions. Teenagers were always taking a risk by having sex in a scary movie, but after Michael Myers terrorized his first baby-sitter, it became almost a death sentence. Halloween might be the most ripped-off movie in history. Yet somehow its most important lesson has been forgotten.

The wisest sentence ever written about horror is the first line in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 literary history of the genre, Supernatural Horror in Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If our greatest fear is of the unknown, then too much explanation is usually the enemy of truly frightening horror. What distinguished Halloween from its imitators is that its relentless killer is impossible to explain. Michael Myers has no psychology or motivation and barely any back story. The scariest thing about him is the suggestion that his mask isn’t hiding anything. Rather, that’s all there is.

Director Sean Cunningham decided to work off the blueprint of Halloween when he made Friday the 13th, but his masked killer had serious mommy issues. Slasher movies have long been ruined by monologues explaining a killer’s secret grievance or a psychological trauma that motivated the mayhem.   Even Halloween’s own sequels invented various explanations for Michael— Halloween II reveals that he’s chasing Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode because she’s his sister!

Three-dimensional characters and complex psychological portraits are important in dramas, and they can be wonderful in horror, but not if they get in the way of the serious work of making your hands tremble and face turn pale. That’s why it’s time to kill the back story—or at least cut it down to size.

The need to explain the unexplainable is powerful. In his perceptive book Columbine, Dave Cullen reveals how quickly a vacuum of information about the school massacre in Colorado was filled with lies and distortions that were in some ways more comforting than the truth. A bullied kid forming a Trench Coat Mafia to fight back against the popular kids is much easier to process than a psychopath.

Ascribing motivations when it comes to real-life tragedies or awful personal episodes is understandable. It helps us to resolve our anxieties, bring order to chaos, and simply to get by. But aren’t horror movies aiming for the opposite? Not always. Many directors see scary stories as a roller coaster ride: They’re designed to terrify you briefly but end safely. The shark dies at the end of Jaws and Bram Stoker’s Dracula finishes with a marriage and a new child. Then there are the directors who genuinely want to scare you, but because they care more about character and story, chills get sacrificed. Very few artists are truly, single-mindedly committed to ferocious scares, and very few of those also possess the creativity, clout, and conviction to execute their vision. They are the ones, however, who make the most memorable, scariest horror movies.

Movies with an unexplained killer, I would argue, are more unsettling than torture porn or the zombie apocalypse. Prominent examples such as Targets, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,and Funny Games show us the faces of maniacs but refuse to allow us any easy psychological explanations. Henry gives us a slice of life of a very businesslike man at work. It just so happens, what he does is kill people. Without any emotion or pleasure. While most serial killer movies have a second narrative featuring a cop or detective or doctor tracking down the criminal and trying to get inside his head, Henry dispenses with this convention, sticking to the killer and his horrible, motiveless spree.

Then there are the movies that keep the killer hidden, or nearly so. Bob Clark’s sorority slasher Black Christmas showed us only the eyeball of the maniac through a door of the attic. When the masked assailants in The Strangers are asked by a victim why they terrorized him, the response is chillingly simple: “Because you were home.”

You could argue that Steven Spielberg’s early stalker movies, Dueland Jaws,belong in this genre since the murderous aggression of the truck driver and the shark is not explored at all. (The closest we get is Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper *  describing the big fish as “a perfect engine, an eating machine.”) But as spare as these movies are, they come with thematic baggage—they both center on ineffectual, frustrated men allegorically proving their manhood—that dilutes the incomprehensibleness of the killing.

Unexplained-killer movies are rooted in the simple idea that evil exists without being a product of its environment, politics, or personal choice. There’s little or no message here. This may be a harsh, simplistic perspective, but it sure is scary. John Carpenter didn’t make Michael Myers one-dimensional because it was a cheap film that was put together quickly. He had long been interested in hollowed-out characters that were more like archetypes than real people. He intended to create a killer stripped of all particularities and place him at the center of this very normal suburban world. In the script, the killer is called the Shape. In the movie, Donald Pleasence, playing a doctor tracking him down, describes him only as the Bogeyman.

“The more you know about a killer the less interesting he is,” Carpenter told me in an interview over Skype in June. Ever since his days at USC Film School, he has been thinking about how to make genre movies that didn’t rely on character development. His script for The Eyes of Laura Mars gave his heroine the power to see from the perspective of a killer, which made the killer invisible for most of the movie. The gang members in Assault on Precinct 13 and the aliens in They Live have about as much psychological complexity as zombies.

Later, my conversation with Carpenter shifted to a lighter subject: his dog. I had heard he was named Bogey and asked the director if the name was a reference to Halloween. Carpenter shook his head. “It’s Boogie,” he said with deep-voiced seriousness, “as in ‘Let’s boogie the night away.’ ” My first thought was that surely the master of horror was joking. But he was so deadpan, I couldn’t be sure. Days after our conversation, I found myself still thinking about Carpenter’s dog. Not knowing makes you want to know more.

Correction, July 6, 2011: The article originally misattributed the line to Robert Shaw’s Quint. (Return to the corrected sentence.)