As we all get ready for Halloween Night Becci Sayce takes a closer look at the use of space in John Carpenter’s classic slasher…
One reason we consume horror is to experience a visceral reaction. The exposure to terrifying acts – or even the anticipation of them – causes us to react both negatively, through fear, and positively, through excitement.
Horror films use a range of techniques to achieve this, through the downright obvious with lashings of gore and the tried-and-tested jump scare, to more subtle techniques such as proxemic patterns.
The term proxemic patterns refers to the distribution and relationship of characters within their onscreen space. This can be determined by the distance between characters within a scene, as well as their distance from the camera.
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall distinguished the four major proxemic patterns – the intimate, the personal, the social, and the public distance.
The intimate refers to close touch, usually skin contact to within 18 inches apart, and is traditionally used to represent an intimacy and love between characters.
The personal is a greater distance than this, usually an arms length away from each other, and is reserved for friends rather than family and lovers.
Even further apart, the social tends to be used to show characters who know each other casually, and in which public displays of affection would not be appropriate.
At the furthest end of the scale, the public distance is formal and sees the characters detached on screen to display strangers, or those that feel coldly towards each other.
These patterns not only work to distinguish the characters’ relationships onscreen, they are used to help form ours with them too. The general principal of proxemic patterns is that, from the audience’s perspective, the greater distance between the camera and the character, the more neutral we feel towards them, and vice versa: the closer we feel the more invested we are in their narrative.
Horror turns proxemic patterns on their head, often blurring the lines of intimacy and violation between victims and their antagonists. When characters are seen close within a scene, what should be a comforting display of affection shared between lovers is often a fight to the death that has audiences on the edge of their seat, and breaks conventions common in all other genres of cinema.
A true master of using proxemic patterns and aesthetic distance to create terror in their work is John Carpenter, who fosters a sense of dread through the simple positioning and framing of actors on screen.
In Halloween (1978) the film is shot in Panavision widescreen (2.39:1), giving way to plenty of wide and long shots more commonly seen in blockbuster action flicks or epic sci-fi sagas. So whilst horror films typically opt for claustrophobic settings and a tighter lensing in the standard (1.85:1) aspect, Halloween often derives its terror from its deliberate use of negative space. In capturing the maximum amount of visuals within a scene, it overwhelms the senses and creates a palpable fear of the unknown.
The opening scene of the film does the opposite of this, using intimate proxemic patterns to blur the lines of character’s relationships and danger. It is a POV from the perspective of an as-yet unknown other, where they first see a young couple intimate on the sofa positioned in a long shot as the other watches through a window of their home.
While this creates a distance between the characters, it soon becomes apparent that the masked assailant has a relationship with the young woman as he enters her bedroom. They become closer, not only physically as he walks towards her and we see her naked and vulnerable in close-up, but she addresses him by name before he launches an attack on her.
This scene uses the intimate proxemic pattern for dual meaning – to both represent the closeness of the two characters, who we later learn are Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) and her younger brother Michael (Will Sandin), but also to induce terror as he murders her in an intimate fashion, by stabbing her.
From shooting the whole scene from the killer’s perspective, it also creates an intimate proxemic pattern with the audience as we are one with the killer, and automatically have a closeness to him as we stand alongside as Michael commits this atrocity. It’s a technique seen elsewhere in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which we are aligned with a killer as he torments his victims using his own camera with their terrified faces seen in chilling, too-close-for-comfort detail. It forces an intimate relationship between the villain and the audience, not allowing us to distance ourselves from the wrongs of their actions and instead making us complicit in the same evil.
This opening scene ends with the killer revealed to be a young child as he is unmasked by his parents, and the camera pans away. Cinematographer Dean Cundey takes advantage of the wide aspect ratio to introduce Michael’s killing fields, endless rows of suburban houses, striking fear into the hearts of audiences as this means only one thing – hundreds of families live in a location like this, having settled down to a quiet family life, unprepared for the danger lurking in the shadows.
From then on, as Michael Myers stalks the streets of Haddonfield, Carpenter uses these vast locations to create terror by simply hinting at the presence of evil on screen through near-encounters, shadows and silhouettes. This technique forces audiences to look at every detail in the frame, searching for horror that we desperately don’t want to find… but when we do, it fills us with dread.
In one scene we see final girl Laurie Strode, played expertly by Jamie Lee Curtis, walking to school over the shoulder of Michael watching her every move. Though she is seen in long shot and only a slither of Michael is in the foreground, it still elicits the fear of an attack without having to have them positioned closely or engaged in a chase.
Through Laurie’s POV we often see Michael in long-shot from across the street – or the iconic moment of him in her garden obscured by hanging sheets – and despite the distance between them these scenes are truly terrifying. Part of the brilliance of these scenes is Carpenter not shrinking the space in which they take place, rather making sure the audience is hyper aware there is impending danger. You don’t know when it will strike, but it is omnipresent.
This masterful use of widescreen filming, juxtaposing long shots with sudden close ups and an almost unnatural distance between characters culminates in the final scenes of the film as Laurie faces Michael in a tense showdown. The frame isolates Laurie as she fights for her life in the dark Wallace house, further heightening the sense that danger could strike at any moment within this seemingly normal family home.
When Dr Loomis arrives there is a switch and more close-ups begin to focus on the terror Laurie and the doctor are experiencing. Michael is seen strangling Laurie in long-shot, juxtaposing an intimate and invasive way of killing someone with a detached way of viewing the act.
After Loomis shoots Michael and he falls from the home’s balcony, he is seen in one final high angle long shot that isolates him in the environment that he has been terrorising, before we cut away and his body has disappeared. This once again uses an expansive frame to evoke a sense of fright in the audience one last time, alluding to the fact that the evil within this world may not truly be gone.
In addition to this, throughout the film Carpenter also creates an intimate proxemic pattern through his use of references to other horror films to ground Halloween in a reality the audience is familiar with. From the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis, whose mother Janet Leigh was famously in Psycho (1960), to having a character named Loomis (also from the world of Psycho) and showing clips of Howard Hawks’ The Thing (1951), Carpenter creates a world that is not too far removed from our own as we recognise – and have probably consumed – the media seen within. Through this somewhat minimalistic approach – not relying on graphic gore and instead championing simple framing techniques to evoke terror – Carpenter created a work of art that led to its iconic status.
The sense of dread created throughout the film by utilising widescreen filming and vast scenes to evoke anticipation within the audience ensures there is always a sense that something is coming, and you’re helplessly waiting around for it rather than being forced into an enclosed space where horror often takes place. The villain lurks in the background rather than being thrust to the forefront, adding just a touch of danger to everyday scenes of suburban life. This purposeful simplicity solidifies Halloween importance, making Carpenter’s masterwork a timeless classic in the history of horror.
© Becci Sayce
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