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Lecture on Halloween : Creepiness Explained

He sits at his desk, intently working when we (Stace and The Angler’s very own treasurer Rena) enter. Books are piled everywhere: on the long shelves left to the desk and on the desk itself. A family photo stands out proudly on one of the upper shelves. An attention-catching poster of Halloween 3 hangs on the white wall above the desk. “Hi! Grab a chair over there”, he says, turning from his computer, with an apple in his right hand. We are at Dr. Evert Jan van Leeuwen’s office. Dr. van Leeuwen is a lecturer at The University of Leiden. He works at the faculty of Humanities at the English Department, specializing in Anglo-American fantastic fiction and 18th and 19th century literature. Evert is going to give a lecture dedicated to the movie Halloween, on the Halloween itself. The reason we are here today, at his office, full of books of all types and genres, is to find out more about this lecture and Dr. van Leeuwen’s peculiar relation to the genre closely associated with Halloween – supernatural fiction, or, more precisely – horror.

“It is well-known that you prefer working with supernatural fiction. Could you tell us why?”
“I do not know why I prefer working with it. I can tell you why I came to work with it. Even as a kid I was interested in the late night movies on the BBC. Especially when I was 12-13 years old, my parents would allow me to stay up late: they went to bed and I got the television for myself. Thus I ended up watching all these horror movies on the BBC. The cheesier, the better, the more low-budget…I just thought: ‘this is the best stuff that you can get!’, and I really enjoyed them.”

I was not much of a reader when I was young, so I spent most of my time watching horror movies and cheesy science-fiction movies, and all kinds of fantasy movies. My parents actually got me a book – Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories, because a lot of these films were supposedly based on the Edgar Allan Poe’s stories (and I then found out they just borrowed the title – and that was about it). But that got me into reading in a way. I love these short stories; they are all very weird and kind of scary. Sometimes they are scary, sometimes – funny, but they all are very mysterious. Even as a student, I kept that interest, although there was no such course on the BA syllabus. When I was a student, you could not really take courses on the supernatural or horror literature. That was the kind of stuff I read if I was not reading for a class. When I finished my studies, I thought: ‘Now I have taken all these courses on all these kinds of major classics, but now I want to do my own research. I want to find out exactly what is going on with all this kind of supernatural and horror stuff’. There was this curiosity to find out: why is it so popular? Why do people keep reading this? Why do I keep reading it? I guess it is a personal question, in a way by reading it and exploring it you also learn about your own curiosities and why you are interested in it. So, that was really it. It was partly an academic and partly a personal interest. I turned my hobby into my job.”

“How often do you watch horror movies?”
“When I get the chance; I have a job, I have two kids, and I play in a band, so I do not really have much spare time left. I just recently watched Gremlins with my two sons. One is almost eight and the other one is four and a half, and they loved it! It’s amazing! I do not really have a lot of movies to watch with them. They have got their children’s videos, but every now and then they want to watch something that is a little bit above their age limit it seems exciting to them. I started showing them Star Wars, they loved it. They do not understand what is going on, of course, there is no Dutch version of Star Wars. They just love looking at the pictures. I kind of overdub, I tell them what is happening in the movie: ‘Now Skywalker is going to fight with his dad, and Obi Wan Kenobi is doing that and that’. I tell all these stories as they watch the pictures. They wanted to watch Gremlins, which is a comedy horror. It is aimed at the young audience anyway, so it is quite harmless. That is how I watch horror movies at the moment. Every now and then, when I manage to do everything I need to do before 10 o’clock at night, I might say ‘I feel like watching a horror’. The last one I watched, Sleepwalkers, is based on a Stephen King story. If I had the chance, I would watch them every day, but I think I watch them every month, maybe. That is just a lack of time.”

“Do you ever get nightmares after watching horrors?”
“If that was true, I would not watch them and make my career out of them. I did have nightmares when I first saw the Michael Jackson’s video Thriller. That scared the hell out of me! I was only nine when that was on. I watched it and did not really understand what was going on. I thought it was just a music video. Of course, it was not, it was a full-blooded horror movie with a bunch of special effects! Just the fact of seeing people transforming into demons or zombie-kind of thing, that just scared me! And I remember having nightmares then. And otherwise, really, I do not have nightmares at all, because I do not find horror scary. I find horror movies fun and they are interesting! The type of movies that I cannot watch and that I really have to turn off are gangster films. For me gangsters are the true evil creatures of the world; they are real, they might be living next door to you. For me that is really scary. I cannot watch The Godfather. They actually made a movie to represent these mafia figures as human beings with feelings... When I saw it I thought ‘they are evil! They murder and they blackmail! How can you portray them in an objective light?’ I do not see why a film maker would even be interested in doing that. But that is me, that is what gives me nightmares.”

“Why have you chosen a movie by John Carpenter and Debra Hill as a theme for your Halloween lecture?”
“I chose Halloween, because I thought – if we are going to do a Halloween lecture, let us take a no-brainer. And this is THE Halloween. It is a very famous movie. It is a movie that created the slasher genre. I do not want to talk too much about what will be in my lecture, because otherwise no one will show up, right? But anyway, all these slasher movies that came afterwards are a complete misinterpretation of the whole idea, from my perspective. Halloween, the original movie, had a character that murdered people, but it was not the essential idea. Who this particular character is and why he does what he does – this is what the film really is about. Whereas in other slasher movies there is a crazy man, every 20 minutes a teenager dies and that is it. That does not appeal to me at all. I do not like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, I’m not really interested in those movies.”

Halloween is more than just that. That is why I want to do it, to express my ideas about it. And technically, Halloween is a very smart film. It is in a way a template of how to make a horror movie. John Carpenter, of course, became famous as a horror movie director, not because his films are stylish and polished. Often they are low-budget, they have pretty bad actors. He would never win an Oscar. He is famous for his filming techniques – for making the music, for cutting, editing – he was really good at it. In his films Carpenter almost did everything himself, because he simply had no money. So, that is an interesting aspect of his films as well.”

“You said that Halloween is not just a movie, it is a clever movie. What do you think is the cleverest part of it?”
“There is a lot clever about it (and I will talk about it on my lecture as well), but I want to mention the timing. It’s a way of manipulating the audience’s experience by stretching it out. There is one good example where the main character is crossing the street. Crossing the street, how long does that take? Two, three seconds? But she is crossing the street. And crossing the street... and crossing the street. From all sorts of different angles, she is crossing the street. So, in a way, you are stretching out something that would take only a couple of seconds into a really long shot. For a viewer it does not really make sense – she should have really got across the street by now. John Carpenter does that a lot in Halloween, but also in other movies. Manipulating your experience of time is a cheap way of creating tension. When things take too long for your own intuition, you get the feeling that something is not right. You get exactly the same in the film’s score. It is a 5/4 timing. The music becomes more than just a soundtrack. You are used to a 4/4 pop music – you can easily dance to it. When you hear the music in the Halloween, you think ‘it is not entirely right’. It is not about the tune itself, which is very clever. You can just add a couple of notes, and as long as they sound wrong to the ear, the audience will pay attention. A movie is something that moves, unlike a book, and not just visuals. If you want to do something big, use famous actors and special effects, but it will cost you a lot of money. Instead, you can just sit in the cutting room and stretch things out, or condense them – make them shorter. That will certainly create a weird feeling in the movie.”

“What, in your opinion, is the scariest part of Halloween?”
“I think it is the opening scene. The kind of people that would watch a cheesy horror movie in the late 70’s would simply not expect the movie to start like that. But I will tell more about it during my lecture.”

“How many movies by John Carpenter have you seen?”
“All of them.”

“Which one is your favourite?”
“My favourite one is Prince of Darkness. Which is with Alice Cooper, who is my favourite singer. Of course, that is not because the movie is my favourite one. The reason for the movie being my favourite is because it is the one that freaked me out the most when I first saw it. It has a really cheesy premise that evil is something material; it is not a moral concept, but a part of matter. If you as a person are created from particles that are evil, then you are evil. There is a whole mythological story behind it. A Satan-figure had ruled the globe, but he was trapped and put in a cannister, and buried. There is a secret order of priests who are protecting this canister and have been protecting it for centuries. Of course, there is a prophecy that the canister will open at some point.”

“Are there any particular psychological aspects in Halloween?”
“If we think about Halloween critically, the film represents the very reactionary idea of the teenage mind. Somehow, teenagers who sexually engage should be murdered. Psychologically, it represents the idea of guilt. If you have sex as a teenager, you are in a way guilty and you should be punished. That is the teenage psychology that the film seems to underscore, because the teenage characters have sex, become prey and are murdered. I am not sure that that is what the film is all about. In Friday the 13th that seems to be the only thing. There seems to be nothing else but that: sex and death. That suggests the idea of teenagers being obsessed with sex, but also having a guilt complex about being engaged in it.”

“Is it essential to watch the movie before attending your lecture?”
“No, because I am not going to talk about the story. I am going to talk about the technical aspects of it and of its place in the history of horror. You do not have to see the movie first.”

“What makes the lecture interesting for people who’re not at all into horror?”
“If you do not like horror movies, you can learn something about film! Horror movies are this one particular genre, but I am going to talk about film techniques, so you can learn something about that as well.”

Learning something new about film techniques is sure something you don't want to miss! So, if you are a fan of John Carpenter, interested in the supernatural fiction, or not-at-all into horror movies, but want to find out how 'Halloween' is a clever movie, make sure you attend Dr. Evert Jan van Leeuwen’s lecture organised by Albion on the 31st of October.

by Stace Bernikova