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The Suspenseful Pacing of John Carpenter’s 'Halloween' (1978)

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

The Looming Myers House

Introduction

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho may have invented the modern slasher movie, but John Carpenter’s Halloween defined it. And the rules that it established set the bar for the slasher films that followed.

This movie is played over and over every Halloween season, and it’s a required title in any horror fan’s movie library. Sequels and remakes are still green-lit by Hollywood. Film students study it. It's featured in countless documentaries. You cannot mention the genre without mentioning Halloween.

The obvious answers as to why Halloween holds up are the acting, the music, and its iconic villain, but I think it’s the pacing that really stands out. The story is so simple that it easily could have come across as boring.

Why do we wait almost an hour for the main, nearly bloodless kills to occur? Why does the defining slasher movie not resemble its own genre in so many ways while at the same time writes its rules? Below I discuss the film’s pacing and how it contributes to Halloween's iconic status in film history.

Please note, I will be outlining the entire plot in my analysis. So, warning! Spoilers ahead!

Original Halloween Trailer

Plot Synopsis

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 teenage sister on Halloween at the age of six, 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 Lindsey's empty house across the street. Meanwhile, Michael’s therapist, Dr. Loomis, and Annie’s Father, Sheriff Brackett, are on the hunt for the escaped patient, hoping to catch him before he kills again.

Laurie, Linda, and Annie encounter The Shape while walking home from school.

Part I: The Birth of The Shape

Michael's First Kill

The iconic opening sequence of Halloween involves the murder of Judith Myers, Michael’s teenage sister and first kill. In one long shot, the audience sees Michael's POV as he stalks the outside of his own house before making his way inside and up the stairs to his sister’s bedroom, throwing on a clown mask before he stabs the unsuspecting (and topless) teen with a butcher knife.

This sequence not only sets up Michael's kill tactics, but it serves as a prologue to establish tone, pacing, and backstory. You get the eerie, repetitive, stalking music, the POV perspective from behind Michael’s mask, and the Halloween night atmosphere. It's a very ambitious filming technique for such a low budget movie. But it's so well-executed and effective that it sets the tone for its innovative status in movie history.

Michael's Escape!

This is the last onscreen kill that the audience will see for nearly an hour. The story quickly jumps forward 15 years, and the rest of the movie takes place in the present day (present day being Halloween eve and Halloween night 1978).

Cut to Michael escaping from his mental institution in Smith's Grove, attacking Dr. Loomis and his nurse as they drive up to the hospital in a downpour. Neither is seriously injured in the scuffle, though Michael does take off in the car, heading for his hometown of Haddonfield, IL.

This scene surprisingly fails 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. His character grounds the story without taking it over. What we know and feel about Michael Myers is shown to us through Loomis' years of studying the boy. And in many ways, he's as much of a mystery to Loomis as anyone.

It's clear that Michael is most effective when he stays in the shadows. He is even referred to as "The Shape" in the credits rather than Michael Myers. And it's Loomis' obvious fear and desperation in pursuing his murderous patient that helps to sell this more than an elaborate psychological profile ever could.

Laurie waits for Annie to pick her up to go to their doomed babysitting jobs.

Part 2: Maneuvering the Victims into Position

Laurie Strode

While Loomis begins his pursuit of Myers off screen, enter Laurie Strode, a 17-year-old resident of Haddonfield, Michael's hometown, whose father happens to be a realtor trying to sell the old Myers house. Laurie leaves a key just inside the door at the house before school as a favor to her father, unaware of the fact that Michael is watching her from inside the house. This innocent task leads her to become his next prey.

We are presented with a festive Haddonfield in the full Halloween spirit. There are falling brown leaves, pumpkins, and trick-or-treaters running from house to house.

Tommy Doyle

We meet young Tommy Doyle who is scared by some kids after school. They 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 terrorize the kids, but it’s the teenagers that he wants to kill.

Lynda and Annie

Next, we meet Laurie’s friends, Lynda and Annie, two girls obsessed with their looks and their boyfriends when they aren't 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 in spite of their attitudes.

Lynda is your typical blonde cheerleader, and Annie is your basic sassy big mouth, but they have witty dialogue and a very realistic demeanor, girls your mom would have been friends with in school. 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 are worthy victims.

Stalking Laurie

Laurie has been looking over one shoulder ever since catching a glimpse of The Shape from outside the window of her classroom at school, watching her, clad in his white mask and a jumpsuit stolen from an off-screen victim, a tow truck driver who apparently wears his size clothing.

She sees him again behind some bushes and later between the clotheslines in her yard from her bedroom window. He’s just there, watching. Perfectly still. Not making a sound. Not even holding a weapon.

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 before she offers her a ride to that evening's babysitting jobs which happen to be across the street from each other. Still, you are sure that an attack is coming in that empty house with Michael lurking nearby, even if the sun is still out.

Loomis Catches Up

Instead, Michael waits for Dr. Loomis to catch up to him. We learn from talking 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 simple but addictive piano notes of the score play as we head into late afternoon, the dead leaves slapping to the ground, the pumpkin in Laurie's arms that barely fit around its bright orange rind.

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. Even more impressive is how it feels like Halloween, even though the trees in the background are full of green leaves and the sun has only just begun to set.

Driving to Their Fate

Annie arrives, 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 father, Sheriff Brackett, who is investigating a break-in at the local hardware store where a mask, some knives, and a rope were stolen. Michael seems to pick and choose when to attack and when to just be sneaky.

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 it gives Annie a realistic exchange with her dad, two characters who will play active parts in Michael's Halloween night massacre but on opposite ends of the spectrum.

After they drive off, the girls revert back to their teenage world. Laurie confesses to Annie that 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 their ultimate fates.

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 with murderous energy.

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 started so that we can see how this all plays out.

While we're not sure how heroic she can be, it is clear that Laurie is our heroine now. She has earned our sympathy with her awful friends and our respect with her maternal ways towards Tommy. She is worthy to take on The Shape, but the ball is in Michael’s court now, and he still has plenty of stalking to do.

Lindsey and Tommy watch horror movies on TV.

Laurie recoils from the aftermath of her numerous attacks.

Part 3: Attack!

Annie's Bad Night

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 calm the barking dog and wash her clothes after she spills popcorn butter all over them.

The scene could have been played for laughs. Instead, it shifts from Annie's annoyed perspective with Michael's curious one. He quietly comes to her rescue before he comes for her throat. He takes care of Lester, the barking dog, by strangling him to death and then watches Annie traipse out to the laundry room in the backyard to throw her clothes in the wash.

Wearing only Mr. Wallace's dress shirt and a 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 across the street. Michael even has the added advantage of Annie getting stuck in the window as he locks the door from the outside.

Instead, Paul inadvertently intervenes, calling to tell Annie that he is able to sneak out of his house if she 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 while she goes to get Paul. Whether or not Annie saves Lindsey’s life with her selfishness, we'll never know, but it gets Lindsey out of the way so that Michael can take out his intended target without worrying about what he would have done to the little girl in the house as well.

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 by his large hands around her throat, followed by it being slit by one of Michael’s hardware store knives.

The most chilling moment in Annie’s death is when Tommy sees Michael carrying her across the yard from his living room window. Tommy freaks out, but Laurie doesn’t see it.

Instead, she dismisses it as his imagination after listening to him worry about the boogeyman all night, and she tries to distract the kids with pumpkin carving and horror movies on TV. Meanwhile, Michael is focused on his next two victims.

Lynda and Bob

Enter Lynda and Bob who show up to Lindsey’s house at Annie’s invitation, not realizing that she is dead inside. 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, and it kicks the pacing into high gear.

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 motiveless 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.

Laurie Investigates; Loomis Closes In

Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has found the car that Michael had stolen parked nearby. 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's not up for any pranks. You can feel her uneasiness in her voice that assures her that 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, dimly lit by a festive jack-o-lantern. Michael actually took the time to position his victim in this creepy scene like an interior decorator showing off his creativity.

There has to be a point to all of this theatricality, but it's never explained, making it more interesting to ponder rather than just passing it off as a generic scary image in a scary movie. It's cheesy, but somehow, it works.

In her shock, Laurie stumbles backward and shakes loose the body of Bob, which falls upside down and swings lifeless from inside the closet. She knocks open a cabinet and finds Lynda dead inside.

Laurie's Escape!

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. The suspense is released, but the tension remains as 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. He has satisfied this urge three times that night, and he’s eyeing his fourth, wanting to study the victim as they die. It’s as if he can see the life escaping from them after they draw out their last breath.

We're now sprinting to the finish line. Actually, Laurie is limping from the injuries sustained in her fall, but she's not mortally wounded. So, she has a chance.

The joke of the franchise is that Michael can walk faster than most victims can run. So, he gives Laurie a head start across the street as she limps back to the Doyle house faster than she left it uninjured.

Now, we are in Laurie’s POV, running with her across the street and looking over her shoulder again and again to see how close The Shape 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, but being injured and out of options, her only choice is to get inside the Doyle house.

Laurie 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.

Final Showdown

In the movie’s climax, Laurie must face The Shape 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 followed by his own knife.

Her attempts at self-defense are hesitant yet brave, the perfect reaction for a teenage girl who has been caught off guard by the events of the night. Everything that her friends teased her about, her Girl Scout ways and her intelligence, gave her the focus and tools to not only survive but keep her charges alive as well.

Definitely thinking him dead this time, Laurie sends the kids for help while she takes time to catch her breath and nurse her wounds. The silence is broken once more as Michael rises and attacks, trying his choking method this time. Laurie throws off his mask in the scuffle, making him stop long enough to put it back on. It's a dark and confusing image that gives us a peek at who is underneath without losing his superhuman status.

"I Shot Him Six Times!"

Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has incidentally walked by and observed Tommy and Lindsey running for help. He enters the Doyle house and climbs the stairs just in time to empty every bullet from his gun at his patient, hitting him six times before Michael falls off of the Doyle’s balcony to the yard below.

The thud of his landing 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. The tension returns in a rush like a wave and carries the audience through the different rooms of the house. You can hear Michael breathing through his precious white mask, but you can't see him.

Like a good ghost story, it ends on a cliffhanger with the victims traumatized and the villain still out there. You’re left with 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.

Linda is strangled to death by The Shape.

Michael falls off the balcony after being shot six times by Dr. Loomis.

Conclusion

Movies are not paced like this nowadays. Even when they are, they come off as boring and drawn out. It takes a special kind of film making to execute this pace. It has nothing to do with cushioning a simple story with long establishing shots or distracting with jump scares and scary music. 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 slasher film in its genre and a triumphant accomplishment in film history.

What is your favorite scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Build your horror movie collection with this classic.