Do you believe in the boogeyman?
This is the pivotal question of the Halloween movie franchise. The tension around naming the movies’ antagonist foregrounds the problem of seeing him: “it” or “him,” “thing” or “human,” “The Shape” or “Michael Myers”? Even if you have never seen the original 1978 movie, you know the plot. On Halloween 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers kills his older sister after she has sex with her boyfriend. Cut to 1978, and Myers, after being locked in an asylum for fifteen years, escapes back into the neighborhood to repeat his crime on teenagers who, like his sister, use the freedom of babysitting to have sex with their boyfriends. Myers’s brutality answers the sexuality of these young women. The story is a morality tale embedded within a coming-of-age story: enjoying themselves as sexual beings without heeding the dangers costs the girls their lives. Only the heroine, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), bookish and virginal, is able to defy Myers, fending him off with a knitting needle and a coat hanger, domestic objects that reinforce her identity as both a good babysitter and a virtuous girl.
The national “stranger danger” campaign—and the Halloween franchise, with its monster who escaped from an asylum—came, not incidentally, on the heels of a deinstitutionalization movement that a decade prior had freed juvenile offenders and mentally ill patients, placing them in community-based care facilities. As public policy, deinstitutionalization began with John F. Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963, which aimed at combating abuse, neglect, and misdiagnoses in asylums, and was sustained by the invention of psychotropic drugs. The massive influx of former asylum patients into established communities, however, without proper infrastructure or public education, stirred up distress and stigmatization. As a commentary on the deinstitutionalization movement, Halloween proposes that mental illness is akin to criminality, and specifically sexual predation.
These fears remain with us to this day.