Michael Myers is the epitome of The Boogeyman.
He sits on the front row of Hollywood horror film royalty, right there with vintage fiends like Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein. His contemporaries, the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, have their macabre moments, but as Myers’ creator, John Carpenter, remarked, “He’s a force of nature, almost supernatural.” Michael Myers is always the last man standing — make that last monster standing.
Psychiatrist Sam Loomis (as portrayed by Donald Pleasence) gave this description: “I met him (Myers) 15 years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding. Even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six year old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest of eyes. The devil’s eyes.”
Since escaping from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium in the first of the twelve Halloween films, Myers has been on an epic spree. His victim total, including those in the most recent installment, Halloween Kills, currently in theaters and streaming on Peacock, is 170.
Myers is an indestructible machine of mayhem: he cannot be taken down, despite having been shot, stabbed, electrocuted, and burned, among other ingenious methods of attack.
The most enduring fact about Myers: he’s box office gold. The dozen films have grossed more than $700 million.
Question: Why, in the time of COVID, would this bloodthirsty maniac appeal to such a big audience?
Answer: Scientific research has produced lots of reasons, especially valid for the seasons of pandemic.
To provide context, recognize that scary movies have been around since the inception of commercial filmmaking. Officially, The House of the Devil, a three-minute George Melies’ work that featured witches and ghosts, was the first horror film. It premiered in 1896.
Some film scholars argue the true first of the horror genre may have been produced a year earlier. Arrival of the Train, a 50-second short by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, demonstrated how palpably fear could impact an audience.
The Lumière’s film consisted of a stationary camera photographing a mail train as it pulled into a station: the angle of the shot made it appear that the locomotive was coming directly at the audience. Those in the theater at the initial screening fled their seats, some rushing into the streets. Although Arrival had no monster in its cast, the audience certainly reacted in fear.
Since those early days in Paris, horror films have been generally consigned to second rate status, at least by the critics. When a bona fide triumph emerges — The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, The Exorcist — it is said that these particular films “transcend” the terror category.
Only six horror films have been nominated for the Best Picture Award, and just one, The Silence of the Lambs, claimed the Oscar.
No one in Hollywood, however, denies the box office horsepower thrillers possess. It has been estimated five to ten percent of yearly screen releases are horror films. Because they can be made inexpensively, these works are among the most profitable — the ultimate safe, low risk-high reward proposition that producers crave.
As to the source of their allure, author Stephen King, no stranger to sinister suspense, asserted, “The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized.”
Social scientists have readily embraced the study of these matters. It’s a conundrum bound to attract scholarship: why, if man seeks pleasure and avoids pain, would anyone willingly submit to a terrifying experience?
In fact, horror movies can actually make the viewer plug into some joyful biology. Fear of the fight-or-flight variety releases adrenaline and the happy chemicals — endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
“There’s this whole literature on endorphins and dopamine reward systems that get triggered …that feels good,” psychiatrist Steven Schlozman told Boston magazine. “It’s that back and forth that our brains seem to enjoy.”
Especially when the viewer realizes there’s no real risk. Dr. Katherine Brownlowe said that the audience senses danger in watching thrillers, but it is mitigated by the understanding there is no vulnerability. Psychologist Christopher Dwyer called these moments a “controlled fear” experience.
Dr. Schlozman summarized: “Horror…appeals to people because you get to worry about the anxieties of the world in displacement, in a way that’s just not going to happen.”
In terms of the pandemic, recent research suggests spine-tinglers have beneficial properties. A study completed by Coltan Scrivner, John A. Johnson, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and Mathias Clasen indicates fans of these films exhibit resilience in the face of the virus.
“Frightening fictional experiences,” according to the scientists, can produce learning opportunities that come in handy during the COVID period. The audience can gather information about how to cope with novel social situations and new predator conditions.
“Experiencing negative emotions in a safe setting, such as during a horror film, might help individuals hone strategies for dealing with fear and more calmly deal with fear-eliciting situations in the real world,” the authors explained.
Sounds like a couple of hours with Michael Myers or Norman Bates might be a good idea. Scary, but good.