The Shape and the Thing

Generally it’s supposed that Alfred Hitchcock modernized the horror movie, taking films once located in dark castles and European villages into the suburbs and backcountry of America, creating a horror movie that was more concerned with pathology and carnage then the classic tenets of gothicism. Hitchcock’s singular impact can be argued as a film like Michael Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom, coming out the same year as Psycho, also broke the mould and introduced horror films into the modern vernacular. While doing away with the Hammer style of traditional gothic backgrounds and introducing a more urbane setting brought horror movies into the modern world and interjected a deeper focus on pathology, it was the new horror of the 1970’s where visceral violence took center stage. Arguably John Carpenter is the godfather of modern horror and his two most famous movies Halloween and The Thing offer similar but distinct ideas about the concept of evil.

The killer in each film is seemingly amorphous. Michael Myers is a faceless mental patient stalking the suburbs. The movie begins with the camera taking on the viewpoint of the young Michael Myers. This introduction isn’t simply imitating the atmospheric camera work from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, but places Myers in the context of the audience. Assuming Myer’s viewpoint is a clear message that the mundane little boy who turns out to be the killer is part of our culture. Perhaps even scarier is his transformation from a child who looks like us or our children to a killer whose face is obscured in anonymity.

Carpenter doesn’t identify the killer in the credits as Michael Myers but the Shape and this gives a clear indication of the character as an archetype. The killer loosely resembles humanity, but underneath is a darkness that is perhaps not human or at the very least is the self society chooses to hide. The concept is reminiscent of monologue in Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho where Patrick Bateman says  “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.” Carpenter portrays Myers then not as a human at all, the Shape is the abstract version of Bateman’s inner child, a tortured structure without context or meaning. Myer’s ‘thereness’ is only as the faceless killer and what the viewer experiences when seeing him is merely a reflector of their own ideas of fear. Speaking about Myer’s unmasking late in the movie, Carpenter noted that while the revelation was just the face of actor Nick Castle, audiences had very different interpretations of what they saw. Some thought the unmasked Michael Myers was hideous, a deformed devilish killer, while others thought he looked almost angelic, a choirboy with a butcher knife. Carpenter asserted the differing interpretation between audiences described how individual, terror can be.

The audience members who expect evil to wear horns and pitchforks saw a devil, those who believed evil was disguised in the seemingly non-descript boy next door saw just that. Carpenter aptly named Myers the Shape because he is just a mere suggestion, a notion of what evil is and what it punishes. Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Perhaps Carpenter’s idea is that Myers is both the abyss and us. We are one and the same and when we look at The Shape, the viewer is also seeing the darkness within them. Whether demonic or mundane, Halloween tells us we are kin to the darkness, that it is always there with us taking human shape.

Carpenter’s other masterpiece The Thing offers an interesting juxtaposition to Michael Myers. Here, a group of men at a research facility in Antarctica must face off with a shape shifting alien. The alien entity can take the form of anything living. Where Myers became the Shape, the alien is the Thing. The difference can seem like parsing words, but there are clear distinctions. The Shape keeps to a rough outline of expectation, it is something, in this case pure evil or the abyss that is contoured to fit a man. The viewer feels terror because the Shape offers a resemblance not just to those around them, but themselves as well. The viewer sees Myers’ mask as a face without contour, but a face nonetheless. The alien in the Thing is an entity not only without definition, but one that subsumes every aspect of what it touches. The alien then is not simply evil placed into the form of a man, but encompasses everything living. While Myers looks like us and maybe is a part of us, the Thing holds everything that we are within itself, hiding in plain sight from the viewer who cannot identify what is human and what is alien.

The Thing and The Shape are unsettling for different reasons. Myers is the avatar of our worst selves, an entity abstracted from humanity, resembling humanity without actually being it. The Thing offers us a world that is infected with evil. The bodily significance of an alien that can infect any living creature situates the world as a corruptible place. Myers is a faceless human-like figure that stalks the suburban landscape, perhaps the viewer catches a glimmer of themselves in his obsession with carnage and destruction. The alien however offers a world that is infected, like the snowy environs of Antarctica the moral landscape of the movie is a bleak space in which everyone and everything is corruptible. Macready (Kurt Russell) tells Blair (Wilford Brimley) “Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days.” Perhaps this is Carpenter describing not a decline, but a moral order that predates humanity. The Thing then is not just us, but our environment, the very biology that keeps us alive. The alien is a shape shifter which holds significance when we parallel this with Myers, who is simply the Shape. Perhaps the scariest aspect of The Thing is that we identify with the alien on a biological level. By the end of the movie, the viewer parallels the alien’s mentality, wondering how will the characters survive. We identify with the alien because we have the urge to survive, to adapt in order to avoid death.

Interestingly enough, while these movies are considered John Carpenter’s masterpieces, they received very different reactions. Halloween was a huge success that made Carpenter’s career and kickstarted the slasher film explosion of the eighties. The Thing on the other hand was a flop. Panned by critics and audiences, the movie wasn’t just unpopular but was reviled. Now considered Carpenter’s best film, the anger with which it was dismissed is perhaps an example of the political climate in which Ronald Reagan took the White House, promising America a new day. This populist conservatism with its call back to nineteen-fifties Eisenhower ideals, along with the subject matter of a blood borne disease passed through biological interaction echoing the AIDS epidemic might go a little ways to describing why the film was dismissed so readily. However, the subject matter of the two films can’t be ignored. Halloween tells us there is archetypal evil that stalks the innocent and kills without consequence or thought, while The Thing describes a moral wasteland in which humans will do and become anything to survive. The Shape may be our own inner-darkness the audience is given license to project the idea outward, while the Thing tells the viewer that evil is out there and depending on what you’re willing to do, might be you.      

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