Have you ever watched a horror film, and wanted to warn one of the characters about the killer? Since the dawn of film, audiences have quivered in fear as killers have stalked their victims... But what makes us emotionally invested in the story, and why do we root for the victim’s safety? According to Jamie Lee Curtis, director John Carpenter cracked the code.
During a spotlight panel at New York Comic Con 2022, Curtis recalled filming the first Halloween movie in 1978. Curtis, who was 19 during the film’s production, shared an interesting piece of acting device director John Carpenter gave her. “All John (Carpenter) said was I want her (Laurie) to be vulnerable. Now, when I was 19, first of all I couldn’t spell vulnerable because I barely got out of high school. I thought that meant weak for some reason. I’m not a thesaurus, but I thought vulnerable meant weak,” Curtis shared.
It wasn’t until the film’s release that Curtis realized why Carpenter had given her that direction. “We made the movie and then I went into a theater in Hollywood. It was a packed house around Halloween, and I stood in the back,” Curtis recalled. If you’re familiar with the film, there is a scene where Curtis’ character Laurie Strode enters a house to check on her friend Lynda. As this scene played in the theater, the audience reaction was explosive.
“It’s the first use of Steadicam I’ve ever seen. Steadicam was a brand new tool, and Ray Stella, who was the cameraman, was doing the POV of Laurie from across the street. We were cutting from Laurie to the house, it was that long walk. And in a pin silent theater, a woman in the middle stood up and went ‘(screaming) DON’T GO IN THERE, THERE’S A KILLER IN THE HOUSE!’ It was like the moment they were released to now go ‘No, don’t go!’ The whole theater started doing the audience participation we now know as the horror movie experience.”
As she took in the audience reaction, Curtis began to realize what Carpenter had been talking about. “It was in that second that I went, oh that’s what he meant. He wanted her to be vulnerable so that you cared about her, and you didn’t want her to get hurt. And you guys haven’t wanted me to get hurt for 44 years.”
Carpenter is right, vulnerability is the key. It’s what makes us worry about Laurie Strode, and why we always root for her against Michael Myers. The Halloween film franchise is a cornerstone of the horror genre, and it never would have come together without that vulnerability. After all, a killer isn’t scary unless we fear for his victims.