Tag Archives: horror

The Urban Legends of Halloween

The piece originally appeared on iHorror.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the most revered horror films of all time, and in its wake came a surfeit of masked slashers attempting to replicate its success – most of them failing, more often than not.

There are a lot of components to Halloween which makes it such an effective film, from Carpenter’s piercing score to Dean Cundey’s eerie night-time cinematography to the terrifying, emotionless white mask Michael Myers wears – and all of it plays a part in creating a winning final product.

But the thing that makes Halloween such an enduring film – something these lesser copycats failed to realize – was Carpenter’s simple approach to the story. At its core, Halloween is an urban legend – more specifically, several urban legends rolled into one. It’s made up of the same stuff you’d tell around the campfire to spook your friends – a practice I’m sure has been around since campfires existed. In essence, Halloween is composed of the immortal substance that has terrified generations for centuries. Deep-rooted, primal fears that are utterly ingrained in our being. You can’t get much scarier than that.

These are the urban legends that make up Halloween.

The Creepy Old House

“Lonnie Elam said never to go up there. Lonnie Elam said that’s a haunted house. He said real awful stuff happened there once.”

This is what little Tommy Doyle warns his babysitter Laurie Strode as they pass by the dilapidated Myers house, for Myers is The Boogeyman, a tale as old as time. This is also a prime example of the urban legend theme that runs through Halloween, showcasing exactly how such legends are spread: by word of mouth.

So and so told me.

I know someone whose sister knows someone who said…

I heard it from a friend.

Think back to when you were a kid, racing through the neighborhood on your Huffy. Was there a scary house you and your friends avoided? Or maybe you stopped there just long enough in hopes to catch a glimpse of the witch or creepy old man who lived there? Of course. Every subdivision has a spooky house at the end of the block, one that youngsters warn each other to avoid. And how do the other kids know to avoid it? Well, they heard it from a friend…

The Escaped Mental Patient

The Hook” is possibly one of the most famous urban legends and you’ve likely heard one of its many incarnations at some point: young lovers on a secluded road hear a report over their car radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local sanitarium. Soon after, they hear a scratching at the car door. The horny boyfriend, desperate to get some action, tells the girlfriend not to worry – but she insists they leave, and so they do. The rejected boyfriend alleviates his tantrum by putting the pedal to the metal. Later, they find a bloody hook dangling from the handle of the car door.

It’s clear how the escaped mental patient aspect of this legend applies to Halloween, including the unforeseen danger lurking outside the car: who can forget the chest-clenching scene where Michael first breaks out of Smith’s Grove sanitarium and monkeys his way on top of the parked station wagon that’s there to transport him to trial?

But let’s not overlook the sex = death aspect of the hook story. The whole reason the teens in the tale survive is that, ultimately, they didn’t have sex. Purity is a generally agreed upon theme in Halloween – the teens who have sex and do drugs die, the ones who don’t (Laurie) live. I tend to disagree; I believe the real cause of the murders is irresponsibility – but I digress. (Also, the radio announcer alerting of an escaped mental patient, followed immediately by the listener’s death, is a scene directly from 1981’s Halloween II.)

Cars continue to play a big role in both urban legends and Halloween, such as in the case of…

The Killer in the Backseat

As the legend goes, a person (usually a woman) is driving home when a car suddenly pulls up close behind her, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Terrified, the woman races home, all while the mysterious car follows. She gets home, jumps out of her car, and runs to her door. Later, she discovers the car that was tailing her was trying to warn her…about the man with a knife crouching in her backseat.

Halloween‘s poor Annie Brackett isn’t lucky enough to have someone warn her about the killer hiding in her backseat. Instead, she’s allowed only a moment of confusion sitting in the driver’s seat, perplexed by the condensation that has formed on the inside of the car windows…just before Michael Myers springs up behind her with a knife. (It should be noted that the murderous backseat character in these urban legends is almost always an escaped mental patient.)

Cars aren’t the only recurring theme in both Halloween and many urban legends – so are phones.

The Babysitter & the Man Upstairs

Now we get to the nucleus of Halloween‘s urban legend roots: the babysitter in peril. While creepy phone calls had popped up before – most notably in 1974’s Black Christmas – it was Halloween that established a babysitter as the innocent victim on the end of the receiver. It’s so entwined with this particular urban legend that John Carpenter originally titled the screenplay The Babysitter Murders. Alas, the producer didn’t like it, and wanted it changed – but the theme remained the same. (It’s worth noting that director Fred Walton shot a short film, The Sitter, in 1977, which is based directly on “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend – and after seeing the success of Carpenter’s Halloween – decided to turn it into a full length film: When a Stranger Calls.)

The legend here actually isn’t as much a legend as it is a true story with a few embellishments. But the dressed-up version of the story follows a young female babysitter who receives numerous creepy phone calls from a stranger who keeps warning her to “check on the children”. Eventually, she calls the cops and they trace the call, resulting in the memorable line: “Get out! The calls are coming from inside the house!”

Michael Myers doesn’t actually call and harass Laurie Strode about the kids she’s babysitting – in fact, the relation of this legend to the movie is restricted solely to the “maniac stalking the babysitter” element – but still, there is a lot of phone play in Halloween. At one point, Annie – chewing a mouthful of food – calls Laurie, who mistakes the muffled sounds for an obscene caller. This plays a pivotal part later in the movie, and results in our final urban legend, a crossover of sorts…

The Roommate’s Death

Lovable airhead, Lynda Van der Klok, has just finished making love with her boyfriend Bob, who has headed downstairs to grab some beer. He soon appears in the bedroom door frame again, this time fully decked out in a sheet with eye holes. Only, that isn’t Bob playing ghost – it’s Michael Myers. Lynda doesn’t realize this of course and sits down by the phone to call Laurie to see if she’s heard from Annie. By the time Laurie picks up on the other end, Michael has wrapped the phone cord around Lynda’s neck and is choking her to death. All Laurie hears on her is moaning and gurgling – which she mistakes for Annie pranking her, a callback to earlier in the film.

Laurie ignores the threat but later discovers Lynda dead. This is related to the urban legend “The Roommate’s Death“, which sees a pair of college roommates alone in their dorm for the holiday weekend. One roommate leaves to grab some snacks, the other stays behind. Soon, the roommate in bed hears scratching and gurgling at the door – a warning she ignores. In the morning, she discovers her friend on the other side of the door, dead – throat slashed by a madman.

Halloween is so successful in terrifying us because it consists of all those tales we’ve been scaring each other with since swapping stories on the schoolyard. Stalkers, haunted houses, and boogeyman in the closet.

You could argue that urban legends and horror films share a similar three-tiered structure: interdiction, violation, and consequences. That is to say, characters who ignore the warnings, then willfully violate the warnings, and ultimately pay the price. But one thing is certain: horror films share the same function as urban legend – they’re intended not only to scare but also to warn.

Just like little Tommy Doyle tried to warn Laurie that The Boogeyman really existed.

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The Cardigan-sploitation of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4!

I recently attended Screamfest’s 30th Anniversary screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 at Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theatre, and to say it was amazing would be an understatement. The whole cast was there, director Renny Harlin and legendary producer Bob Shaye were both there, and a fun Q&A with everyone followed the film. Sitting in the moderately-sized – but PACKED – theatre, watching the film with the stars of the film – well, that’s just a dream come true for any horror fan.

It’s always fun watching a horror film you’ve only ever seen on VHS or DVD up on the big screen. You seem to notice things you never really took note of before. For example, in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, during the classroom scene where Freddy sucks all the air out of Toy Newkirk’s asthmatic little body, I always thought Robert Englund actually peeled the apple (which had been sitting on the desk) using a real bladed-glove. However, seeing it play out 50 feet wide, I was able to see that the apple was actually pre-peeled and simply stuck back together. It was a small thing, but my insides still went “whoa, cool.” Continue reading The Cardigan-sploitation of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4!

“XX” (2017) REVIEW

Since the release and warm reception of both V/H/S and The ABCs of Death in 2012, there have been a proliferation* of anthology-style horror films, more than a few of them sequels to the aforementioned titles. Despite an almost overabundance in those 5 short years, there’s been no real lack of creativity when it comes to theme for these films: the V/H/S series focused on our favorite nostalgic medium, ABCs were alphabetical bursts of horror, and from there Tales of Halloween took place on the spookiest of nights, Southbound dealt with a hellish highway, and Holidays bloodied up some of the most recognizable calendar dates. Continue reading “XX” (2017) REVIEW

STUFF THAT SCARED ME: The Ghost from THREE MEN AND A BABY!

Ghost stories are a rite of passage in every child’s life.

In fact I think the urban legends and myths that are shared among friends, huddled together at sleepovers or on long walks home, are probably just as influential in shaping who we grow up to be as any schoolroom lesson we absorb over the years is. More than just scaring the wits out of us, these stories often equal as cautionary tales and warnings to heed — like D.A.R.E., only effective. Continue reading STUFF THAT SCARED ME: The Ghost from THREE MEN AND A BABY!

13 Days of Sequels: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2

With 13 Days of Sequels I’ll be reviewing horror sequels every weekday for the last two weeks of October. You can view all entries HERE.

Believe it or not, Friday the 13th Part 2, like many a sequel, was borne of financial motivations. That is to say, the version of Friday the 13th Part 2 as we know it.

Originally, producers had intended for the Friday the 13th franchise to continue, but in an anthology-style format where each successive movie follows a different storyline, the only constant being that they all take place on that unlucky day. (If this sounds a lot like John Carpenter’s approach to the Halloween franchise, it’s because, well, it is. You’ll notice a lot of parallels before this is over.)

In fact, the infamous ending of Friday the 13th wherein Jason pops up out of the water wasn’t even in the original script – it was suggested last minute by make-up effects maestro Tom Savini who was working on the picture. He had just seen Carrie and thought Friday could benefit from a similar last minute jolt. Victor Miller, who wrote Friday the 13th, was against the idea – he wanted only to focus on Pamela Voorhees, the mother who would do anything for her child – even kill. According to Miller, “Jason was dead from the very beginning. He was a victim, not a villain.” Continue reading 13 Days of Sequels: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2

13 Days of Sequels: SCREAM 2

With 13 Days of Sequels I’ll be reviewing horror sequels every weekday for the last two weeks of October. You can view all entries HERE.

“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel.”

This is what Scream 2‘s resident horror nerd (and proxy survival-anecdotalist), Randy (Jamie Kennedy), utters when it comes to light that a copycat Ghostface killer is murdering the residents of Woodsboro once again. And with the utterance of this line, the already-meta Scream franchise instantly protects its sequel from any trope or pitfall sequels usually fall victim to. In fact, it’s so smart and savvy of a movie, that it’s almost more fun to watch for the playful, self-referential material than it is the murder mystery at the core of the picture. Continue reading 13 Days of Sequels: SCREAM 2