Storytelling is inherently a fantastical process. Whether interpreting true events or coming up with something entirely fictional, imagination is a necessary part of the process of creation, but how far a story strays from reality is something every writer (or indeed creator of any kind) needs to consider when crafting a story.
Today is Halloween, and in this article I’m going to talk about how, when crafting a villain, it can be more effective to stay close to reality by discussing how Michael Myers is such an effective threat in comparison to his fellow horror icons.
On a personal note, I had to walk back my original plan for a massive, research heavy article that would stretch for several thousand words with studies cited and experts consulted in exchange for something a little more accessible. Although, if there’s interest in such a thing let us know in the comments below and who knows what might happen.
The Big Three
Although preceded by several other ventures in the slasher genre, and notably influenced by Billy in Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974), Michael Myers was arguably the first big name in the golden age of horror, first appearing as The Shape in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). After Michael would come Jason Vorhees in Friday the 13th Pt. 2 (Steve Miner, 1981) and Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), forming the triumvirate of the 80s affectionately referred to as the Big Three of Horror. All three have seen similar careers of increasingly strange sequels, multiple contradictory timelines, reboots, remakes, and modern revivals.
Jason Voorhees, who technically appeared in the original Friday the 13th film (as a child or even possible hallucination), started just like Michael – a mute slasher who finds increasingly creative ways to murder anyone who gets in his way (the similarities were intentional since creator Sean Cunningham actively wanted to mimic Halloween’s monetary success) but in 1986 with the release of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the hockey-masked slasher was no longer mortal but an undead, teleporting, and apparently immortal murder machine.
From this point, though the gore grew ever more intense and the storyline ever more convoluted, Jason was no longer as scary as he might have been due to his transition into fantasy. Gone was the real threat that going camping might have horror’s favourite mama’s boy (sorry, Norman Bates) show up to murder you and your friends. Arguably, this is also why one of the few consistent praises amongst the otherwise mediocre reviews of the 2009 reboot of the series was how it brought Jason Voorhees back down to earth as a homicidal survivalist rather than an unkillable monster.
In contrast, A Nightmare of Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger’s terror came directly from his supernatural abilities. Unlike Jason and Michael, Freddy existed purely in the realm of fiction as a vengeful spirit. Everything from his iconic yet fantastical finger-knives to his darkly comic behaviour set him apart from his counterparts as something clearly otherworldly. What scared audiences about Freddy was that he could attack them (or their children) when they were at their most vulnerable – in their sleep. It was the type of threat that parents couldn’t protect their children from, but it was even further divorced from reality than Jason. Freddy was, quite literally, just a bad dream and therefore no genuine threat.
Michael Myers, on the other hand, felt real. Halloween’s low budget gave the film a gritty, reality-affirming feeling that grounded it in the minds of those who saw it. Carpenter had taken the core concepts of a horror movie – dread, fear, and shock – and brought them home to American suburbia. While Jason’s victims were misbehaving teenagers engaged in youthful debauchery, all of whom strayed into what was essentially dangerous territory, and Freddy killed out of revenge, hunting down the children of the townsfolk who’d killed him, The Shape seemed to have no such clearly defined motive – certain themes persisted, certainly, but the character himself was just a void.
As The Shape stalked the streets of Haddonfield in casual blue coveralls (further enforcing his normalcy), killing indiscriminately while maintaining a predator’s focus on Laurie Strode, he spoke to the fears of the American suburbs. The 60s had given the public (particularly in the USA and the UK) concepts like stranger danger, and Myer’s unfathomable motives forced them to question how safe their children really were and how the danger could be walking down their streets at any point.
What We Can Learn
When writing horror, or indeed any work of fiction, writers need to question how effective their antagonist is and what kind of impression they want to make on their audience. There are lessons to be learned from the success stories of the past like Halloween.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with creating a fantastical villain – the success of Freddy Kreuger, Jason Voorhees, and a thousand others can testify to that – but no-one who doesn’t actively believe in such things can be truly scared of them. No-one is scared that someone like Freddy Krueger might be a real threat, or is genuinely concerned that an immortal zombie with a machete like Jason Voorhees is stalking them.
People, on the other hand, can be terrifying to anyone. We all believe in bad people, and there is the real (and sometimes justified) fear that the large figure walking down the street in the middle of the night might be a threat.
Michael is scary because he’s grounded in reality. Barring some of the more bizarre twists involving the Cult of the Thorn (as featured in many of the lesser sequels), he remains a character that is – to all respects and purposes – just a hellishly strong and inhuman mortal man. He could be walking down a street at this exact moment, normal and invisible, blending in this Halloween, and if that’s the kind of fear a writer is trying to appeal to then it’s worth reminding themselves of just how “normal” they want their antagonist to be.
“I want to be scared by something that I really think could happen. I think it’s much more horrifying to be scared by someone standing in the shadows while you’re taking the trash out as opposed to someone who can’t be killed pursuing you.” – Danny McBride