The Suspenseful Pacing of John Carpenter’s 'Halloween' (1978)
The horror movie genre can be tent pooled by a few different subgenres, the slasher film being one of them. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho may have invented the slasher movie, but John Carpenter’s Halloween defined it, and the rules that it established held up in future movies for years. This movie is played over and over again on TV each Halloween season, and it’s a required film in any horror fan’s movie library. Sequels and remakes are still green lit by Hollywood. Books are still written about the topic. The obvious answers to why it holds up are the acting, the music, and the story, but I think it’s the pacing that really stands out. This is a story that you can tell over the face of a lit flashlight in the dark in under 10 minutes. So, what keeps it from being boring and meatless? Why do we wait almost an hour for the main, nearly bloodless kills to take place? Why does the defining slasher movie not resemble its own genre in so many ways while at the same time writing its rules? Below I discuss the film’s pacing and how it contributes to the movie’s success.
Please note, I will be outlining the entire plot in my analysis. So, warning, there are spoilers ahead!
Halloween follows escaped murderous mental patient Michael Myers as he spends his first night of freedom in 15 years stalking and eventually killing a small group of teenagers in his hometown on Halloween night. Having murdered his older sister on Halloween as a six-year-old boy, he now seeks out Laurie Strode, a geeky loaner who spends the holiday babysitting for young Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace while her two friends, Lynda and Annie, and their boyfriends make plans to spend the night in the empty house across the street. Meanwhile, Michael’s therapist, Dr. Loomis, and Annie’s Father, Sherriff Brackett, are on the hunt for the escaped patient, hoping to catch him before he kills again.
After the iconic opening sequence involving the murder of Judith Myers, Michael’s first kill, the rest of the movie takes place on Halloween night in 1978. In one long shot, the audience travels outside of and in the house from the perspective of Michael Myers as he stalks through the house and up to his sister’s bedroom where he stabs the unsuspecting (and topless) girl with a butcher knife. This sequence not only sets up the kill tactics that Michael uses, but it serves as a type of prologue to indicate to the audience how the film will be paced. It sets up the eerie, repetitive, stalking music, the POV perspective from behind Michael’s mask, and the Halloween atmosphere.
This is the last onscreen kill that the audience will see for nearly an hour. The remake of this film focused on the psychology of Michael Myers and the events that led up to and directly followed Judith’s death. The original, however, jumps forward 15 years and glosses over these details through Dr. Loomis’ exposition. It is quick to get to Laurie’s story after a brief scene where Michael escapes in the rain, attacking Dr. Loomis and his nurse as they approach the asylum where he takes off for his hometown of Haddonfield. No one is seriously injured in the scuffle, surprisingly missing the opportunity to add to the body count. Instead, the audience is teased with several jump scares throughout the first and second acts, building up to the actual kills gradually and at that point, unexpectedly.
Loomis’ scenes are short but intense. This is odd considering the insight that he can provide for our killer. The film could have added some real meat to the story, but this is a movie about showing, not telling. It’s about atmosphere and suspense rather than a psychological profile of a killer who can’t be killed. Loomis grounds the story without taking it over. Still, it is saving room for a very long set up that really sets an interesting tone and establishes a solid setting and characterization of Michael’s intended victims but little else. Still, no one complains about this. In fact, fans are on board.
Instead of riding along with Loomis, we spend the first act of the movie on Laurie Strode’s shoulder. Laurie is a 17-year-old girl whose father happens to be a realtor who is working on the sale of the old Myers house. Laurie drops off a key, unaware of the fact that Michael is watching her from inside the house. This innocent task leads her to become his next prey. Unlike the sequels, Michael loves to stalk in this movie. The stalking really slows down the story, but it also helps to build suspense and keep us guessing about when he will actually strike.
We are presented with a festive Haddonfield in the full Halloween spirit. There are falling leaves, pumpkins, and trick-or-treaters running from house to house. Poor Tommy Doyle is scared by some kids who tell him that the boogey man is coming to get him, and he happens to run smack into his future boogeyman while escaping their taunts. We know Michael’s capabilities, but he is unarmed and unfazed by his run in with Tommy. In fact, he generally leaves the kids alone. He might like to make them scream, but it’s the teenagers that he wants to kill. This doesn’t make him any less threatening, though.
Next, we meet Laurie’s friends, Lynda and Annie, two girls obsessed with their looks and their boyfriends when they are not busy putting down Laurie for being too smart and too geeky to go to the upcoming school dance. Their teasing is downright abusive at times, yet they have so much personality and come across as so real that you begin to like them, despite what they think about our film’s heroine. Lynda is your typical blonde cheerleader, and Annie is your basic sassy girl, but they have witty dialogue and a very realistic demeanor. The movie takes its time to listen in on their conversations on the walk home from school, almost as if we, the audience, are stalking them like Michael, trying to get a feel for whether or not they will be worthy victims.
Laurie has had her head turned over one shoulder ever since catching a glimpse of “The Shape,” as Michael is credited, from outside the window of her classroom at school. There he is watching her in his white mask and jumpsuit. She sees him again behind some bushes and later between the clothesline from her bedroom window. He’s just there, watching. Still. Not making a sound. Not holding a knife or making any threats. We hang out in Laurie’s room for a scene, and tense up when she receives a phone call with only breathing at the other end. The breathing turns out to be Annie playing around. Still, you are sure that an attack is coming in that empty house with Michael lurking nearby.
Instead, Michael waits for Dr. Loomis to catch up to him. We learn from his research with a groundskeeper at the local cemetery that Judith Myers’ headstone has been stolen, confirming for Loomis that Michael has returned to Haddonfield. He sets out for the Myers house, hoping to run into his patient there. A curiosity builds on top of the tension. Does Michael have a plan, or is he just making this all up as he goes along?
Laurie waits on the corner for Annie in her iconic blue jeans and blouse in preparation of her babysitting job that night. The familiar piano notes play as we head into late afternoon, the dead leaves slapping to the ground and the pumpkin in her arms that barely fit around its bright orange skin. There is no dialogue, character development, or plot advancement, just Laurie taking in the atmosphere and the events of the day, from the girls teasing her to the masked man who seems to be everywhere she was that day.
Annie picks her up, and they drive over to their babysitting jobs, passing a joint back and forth while they do, just 70’s kids being 70’s kids. They are almost busted by Annie’s dad who is investigating a robbery at the local hardware store where a mask, some knives, and a rope were stolen. The intoxicated girls try to play it cool as they pull up to Mr. Brackett and he tells them what happened. It’s obvious to the audience that Michael was behind the break-in without this exposition, but this scene serves as the last chance to avoid their fate. Instead, Annie has a sassy exchange with her dad, unfazed by his cop status before driving on. Laurie tells her how she’s interested in a boy at school, and Annie uses this information to her advantage later, blackmailing Laurie into watching Lindsey for her while she picks up her boyfriend Paul to bring him back to the Wallace house. These simple teenage conversations that we have been listening in on start to serve a purpose in maneuvering each character into position for Michael’s night of slaughter.
The sun is setting as the girls walk up to their respective houses for their babysitting jobs that night. Michael isn’t far behind, and the dimming light seems to charge him up. The horror fan audience is almost desperate for him to kill, emulating the burning desire that drives killers to commit their heinous acts. We’re itching for Michael to get going so that we can watch Laurie take him on. It is clear that she is our heroine by now. She has earned our sympathy with her awful friends and our respect with her maternal involvement with the kids. She is worthy to take on The Shape, but the ball is in Michael’s court now.
In an unbearably suspenseful sequence, the movie’s focus shifts to Annie and her babysitting mishaps. She and her charge do not get along. Lindsey is a couch potato, staring at the TV screen instead of helping Annie with the barking dog and the clothes she has to wash from spilling popcorn butter all over them. The scene would be played as comical in any other movie. Instead, we are focused on Annie’s annoyance at her situation. Luckily, Michael is there to come to her rescue before he comes for her throat. He takes care of Lester, the barking dog and then watches Annie traipse out to the laundry room in the backyard to throw her clothes in the wash. Wearing a man’s dress shirt and blanket that she found in a closet, we are sure that Annie is going to get it in the laundry room, away from innocent Lindsey and out of Laurie’s sight from across the street. He even has the added advantage of Annie getting stuck in the window as he locks the door from the outside.
Instead, her boyfriend Paul comes to the rescue, calling to tell her that he is able to sneak out of his house if Annie picks him up. Lindsey delivers the phone to her and helps her out of the laundry room, scaring Michael away. He wants nothing to do with Lindsey, and he doesn’t want an audience when he kills Annie. So, she is safe for now. Lindsey is safe too when Annie convinces her to go over to the Doyle house so that Laurie can watch her. Whether or not she saves Lindsey’s life with her selfishness is unknown, but it gets Lindsey out of the way so that Michael can take out his intended target.
An obvious hiding place for Michael would be in the back seat of Annie’s car as she gets into grab her boyfriend, but the obvious has come and gone so many times through the course of the movie, that now, you’re not expecting him to be there. But he is. The only problem is, his jump scare doesn’t time right with the otherwise perfect music cues, so the scare is not as effective. Still, you can’t believe that this is it for the tough, loud-mouthed Annie whose voice is silenced forever with a strangle followed by a throat slit by one of Michael’s hardware store knives. The most chilling segment of Annie’s death is when Tommy sees Michael carrying her across the yard from his living room window. The image causes Tommy to freak out, but Laurie doesn’t see it. Instead, she dismisses it as his imagination after hearing him worry about the bogeyman all day, and she tries to distract the kids with pumpkin carving and horror movies on TV. That will get them out of the Halloween spirit for sure. Still, there’s not much for Laurie to do, yet. There are still two more victims for Michael to stalk first.
Enter Lynda and Bob who show up to Lindsey’s house at Annie’s invitation, not realizing that she is dead inside the house. The two fool around and break all of the classic slasher movie rules as they invent them at the same time. Michael decides to get rid of Bob first, pinning him to the wall with his butcher knife while Bob attempts to fetch some beers from the kitchen. His death is quicker than Annie’s, but the pacing really kicks off from here. Michael wastes no time or creativity as he proceeds to change from one Shape to another, throwing on an old sheet and Bob’s glasses to disguise himself long enough to choke Lynda with a phone cord as she calls Laurie on the phone. Now we see all of the different beats that the long set up has hit in order to provide the perfect landscape for Michael to begin his blood bath.
Laurie is quick to dismiss the choking sounds on the phone as another hoax, but it’s a hoax that feels a little too real, real enough to leave her babysitting charges and investigate further. After Lynda’s death, all of these strings are pulled together to get Laurie over to the house where her victimized friends are revealed and she comes face-to-face with The Shape. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has found the car that Michael was driving in the neighborhood. He walks the neighborhood, waiting to catch his scent while clutching his loaded revolver, putting him in the right place at the right time.
Laurie’s journey across the street is slow and steady as she locks up one dark house and enters another. It’s late enough that the trick-or-treaters are all inside. The adults haven’t returned home from their Halloween parties, and the neighbors who stayed home aren’t expecting anymore ringing doorbells tonight, besides practical jokers looking to ding-dong-ditch. She enters the house, making it clear to everyone inside that she isn’t joking, and you can feel the uneasiness in her voice that tells her something’s wrong .
It takes an eternity for Laurie to enter the bedroom that Lynda and Bob had occupied only to find Annie’s dead body resting in front of Judith Myers’ stolen headstone on the bed, lit by a jack-o-lantern. Michael actually took the time to position his victim in this creepy scene, as if trying to make Laurie proud. Instead, she is horrified. She stumbles backward and shakes loose Bob who falls upside down and swings, lifeless from the closet. She knocks open a cabinet and finds Lynda dead inside. Suddenly, the film is off and running as The Shape appears out of the darkness, mask-first, and strikes at Laurie, his knife tearing at her shirt and causing her to fall off the banister and down the stairs.
Stunned and injured, the audience is in full horror movie mode now. All of that tension is finally released into all-out terror now that you know what Michael is capable of, even though you still don’t understand why he is doing it. He is done stalking. It’s time to kill and then observe. It’s as if he can see the life escaping the body after they draw their last breath. He has satisfied this urge three times that night, and he’s eyeing his fourth. In every one of his stories, Michael can walk faster than most victims can run. So, he gives Laurie a head start across the street as she limps to the Doyle house faster than she left it in full health. Now, we are in Laurie’s POV, running with her across the street and looking over her shoulder again and again to see how far behind Michael is. There is time to get help without having to put the kids in danger. The neighbors are no help, shooing her away as she bangs on nearby doors. After all, she isn’t stupid. She tries to look for the obvious solution first. Instead, she relies on waking up Tommy and begs him to come downstairs to open the locked door, having lost the keys in her fall. The sleepy-eyed boy does so in the nick of time, just as Michael reaches Laurie on the porch.
In the movie’s climax, the pacing speeds up and slows down as Laurie must face him again and again, making the audience realize that Michael can’t be killed easily, if at all. She takes him out in the living room, then in a closet, then in the bedroom, stabbing him with a knitting needle and hiding. Then, stabbing him with a hanger and his own knife. Then, sending the kids for help long enough for her to breathe and nurse her sprained ankle from the fall down the stairs. Then, fighting him off one more time before Dr. Loomis hears the kids shrieking for help and coming to her rescue, he empties every bullet into his patient’s body before Michael falls off of the Doyle’s balcony to the yard below. The thud on the ground lets all of the tension out of the room for good, or so you think. Then, as Loomis glances back at the body in the yard, he sees that Michael is gone, unable to be killed for whatever reason. The tension returns in a rush like a wave and carries the audience through the different rooms of the house, hunting for the killer like a Where’s Waldo book before taking them to the credits. You’re left with the uneasiness yet thrill of a roller coaster that was mainly uphill for most of the ride but built up so much tension that the series of hills at the end were well worth it.
Movies are not paced like this nowadays. Even when they are, they come off as boring and over-inflated. It takes a special kind of filmmaking to execute this pace. It has nothing to do with cushioning a simple story with unnecessary elements or creating larger-than-life characters. It has to do with tone and setting and collecting information that will form a tight-fitting lid around the story as it culminates to its relentless climax. Halloween is special in the way that it pulls this off, and that is what has earned its spot as a tent pole horror film and a classic story in film history.
What is your favorite scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween? Leave your answers in the comments below!