Halloween (1978): The Horror of Framing, and Identification

A Frame is a single image of film or video. So framing consists of the composition of a series of shots, or images from the camera’s point of view. Based on where the camera has been placed, we know where we are as the audience, and that can make all the difference in a person’s attitude towards a film.

I have friends who dislike Horror movies. I know! Sacrilege, right? But I get it. I don’t pressure them to watch them, as they aren’t for everyone, but I often wonder what it is about such movies that they dislike. I know, for some of them, its the feelings of anxiety that such films can produce. But I think at least part of that anxiety has to do with the nature of the visual media that is film. The camera is often a stand-in for the audience. We see what the camera sees, and visual media is carefully composed to manipulate our emotions about what we see onscreen. Some people will find it very off putting, not just watching a scene, and being helpless to stop it, but based on how the images are framed, feel as if they are actually participating in the violence. How are a movie’s images and themes presented to the audience, and what effect does that have on them?

I was watching the original 1978  Halloween a few weeks ago, and comparing it to the new sequel that came out last year. I was thinking about why the new sequel is so effective, at being scary, whereas none of the other sequels, outside of Halloween II, were scary for me, at all.

At least part of the reason the new sequel works is it successfully replicates much of the framing of that first film. This framing (of both films) has the effect of making the audience a participant in the action. If you remember the opening scene from the original film, we see the suburban setting as if we were operating the camera, as Michael stabs his sister to death. Afterwards, the camera switches the viewpoint to that of his parents, we pull back when his parents pull off his mask, as he stands on the front lawn. This is an example of the audience as not just onlookers, which is the viewpoint from which most films are told, but as participants in the actions onscreen. We are not meant to simply watch, but see through Michael’s eyes, as we participate in the killing. That we see the murder from Michael’s point of view can make some members of the audience feel complicit in the act.

After this opening, the camera neatly switches between Laurie Strode’s, and Michael’s, point of view. It is Laurie’s decisions that control the plot, but she and her friends are the ones being acted upon by Michael. The movie is framed in a classic Protagonist/antagonist plot, of two evenly matched adversaries, who play cat and mouse throughout the movie. Part of the movie’s tension is who is going to win this fight, and the camera shows this by switching between both their points of view. Switching between different points of view is a way to keep the audience off balance.

First, let’s have a discussion of camera techniques and film vocabulary, since I am operating under the assumption that a lot of my readers have never really given a whole lot of thought to the idea that what a camera is doing, doesn’t just tell the audience how to feel, or think, but often focuses the movie’s primary theme, and sometimes the story itself.

Telling the audience who is of primary importance in the story, and how the audience should feel about what is happening, is done by framing. The director decides where the camera is going to stand, what it’s going to be doing, and what that image looks like through the viewfinder. One of the things that makes horror movies so unsettling is that the viewpoint can switch at any moment. The camera can be anyone at any time. One of the side effects is that the viewer is not given time to become complacent, or to feel comfortable.

Sometimes we see the world through Michael’s eyes, experiencing the emotionlessness of this character. The way the images are framed, through Michael’s eyes, give us a sense of the character’s height and power, as the camera is often placed slightly above, or at head height during a scene. From Michael’s point of view, the camera is always a semi-distant, and unemotional, observer, that moves slowly, and steadily, giving him a sense of relentless implacability. He is framed as the one in power, as a machine which cannot be stopped.

In other scenes, we see what Laurie sees, experiencing her terror, vulnerability, and bravery. The camera, from Laurie’s point of view, trembles in an uncertain manner, peering around corners, and hedges, through doorways, and closets. In many of her scenes, the camera is closer to the ground, or floor, as it points upwards towards a sound or image. We are meant to feel what she feels, as she is framed as small and helpless.

In the newest Halloween, this is masterfully done by James Carpenter, the director of the original film. In the Michael scenes, the camera moves slowly and steadily through busy, or frenetic settings, at head height. Laurie, whose mindset is now very different after the trauma of the first movie, doesn’t get a lot of viewpoint scenes, and when she does she is shown to be equally matched to him, as the camera is at head height for her, too, until the end of the film, when Michael, now in a vulnerable position, is placed below head height, looking upward, towards Laurie and her daughter. The two of them, having turned the tables on him, look down on him from their position of greater power.

No discussion of framing would be complete without mention of the film in which it was made especially famous, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, where we watch the death of the primary character, Marion Crane, from the point of view of her killer, in the infamous “shower scene”. Hitchcock is rightfully lauded for this particular camera technique, as it had never been done in that way before, and it rightfully shocked audiences. I think at least part of that shock is that Hitchcock makes the audience feel complicit in Marion Crane’s murder, as we see it from the point of view of her killer, Norman Bates, but that’s not what makes Psycho groundbreaking. It is the switch from Marion’s point of view, to the killer’s, that sets it apart. Marion goes from Subject, to Object, from the person who commits the acts that determine the plot, at the beginning of the film, and the person with whom we identify, to the person who is acted upon. At the beginning of the film Marion is the Subject, from whose viewpoint we see the world, but when she is killed, she becomes the Object, and we become her killer. For some people, this was simply too much.

What Hitchcock did in this scene is switch Framing. Based on the framing, the audience is meant to think, or feel, a certain way about, or towards, a character. You’re meant to be uncomfortable during the shower scene, and Michael’s murder of his sister, as your eyes are forced to see your victim, and you cannot look elsewhere. In Hitchcock’s scene the camera is initially placed inside the shower with Marion, as she looks outward and sees a shadow. We do not see Marion, in those instances, (she is “out of frame”), because we are seeing things from her point of view. Then the camera is turned, and placed outside the shower, facing Marion. We don’t see her killer now, because we are now in the killers viewpoint. This makes this scene much more intimate than if it was “framed” another way. For example, if the camera had been placed to see both subjects, at the same time, “framing” both of them within the image, in such an enclosed space, it would have to be further away from them, placing us, the audience, at an emotional remove, and the scene would feel less immediate.

By placing the camera as the point of view of either character, and switching back and forth between them, we become a part of the scene. We become the characters, rather than an omnipotent third party, who are just watching a murder, as would happen if the camera were placed at a distance. The moment becomes not just more intimate, but more visceral, than if the camera was placed elsewhere.

Most movies are framed in such a way as to make the audience a third but invisible onlooker, which is sometimes called the “god perspective”, or the “omnipresent watcher”, Or sometimes, in the feminist perspective, The Male Gaze, where we can see everything that’s occurring within the scene, as if we were standing right there. If the camera is close to the scene, such as when two people are having a conversation and both are seen within the frame, we feel like a third invisible observer, in the scene with them. If the camera is even further away than we may feel like we are not part of the scene at all. We might feel like we are spying on the two subjects from afar. If the camera is placed within the scene, switching from the view of one character to another, than we become those characters. Framing indicates the level of intimacy, and the best directors tell us how to feel about the characters, based not just on what they say, but how they are seen within the frame.

For example, an extreme closeup of a woman, with the camera panning, (when a camera moves up and down, or from side to side), along her body, places us in the scene with her, as we look at her body. Sometimes the scene is meant to be sexually evocative, as the character is often aware that we are there, and appears to respond to our presence in the scene with her. But if the camera is across the room, while focusing on her body and legs, we are no longer in the scene with her, but spying on her from a distance. The character doesn’t know we are there, isn’t posing provocatively for our gaze, and acts as if she is alone, which makes us voyeurs, to what appears to be a private moment, such as the scene when Marion Crane first gets into the shower. We have not asked permission, she is unaware of the camera, and has not given us her consent to look in on her. She is as unaware of our presence, as she is the killer’s.

For another example, in the movie, The Seven Year Itch, there’s the iconic scene of Marilyn Monroe standing over a sewer grate, with her skirts floating in the air. There are two people in the scene, and the camera is far enough away to frame both of them within the image, except when her skirts fly up. Notice how the camera is just close enough for her to “know” that we are standing right there, but the camera only focuses on her face, when she is speaking to her date, and only shows her carefully posed legs, when she isn’t speaking, as if we were being distracted from their conversation.

That we are not seeing this moment from either of their points of view, but at a distance, is what makes the scene funny. We are both present, and not present, standing on the street, in plain view of both these characters, who do not react to our presence, but they know we are right there, because we are standing directly in front of them, just a few feet away, witnessing an event, that they are performing for us. The camera is just far enough away, that we don’t feel like participants, but like someone who was just passing by, who has decided to stop and stare at their flirtatious show. We are voyeurs, and the scene is meant to be both sexually enticing, and humorous.

Contrast that scene, with the opening scene, from the 1976 version of Carrie. The camera is in the shower with Carrie, in extreme closeup. As close as the Marion Crane scene in Psycho. This is a very intimate moment, that we are intruding on, but not participating in. Carrie is supposed to be alone, as she does not react to the camera, and is unaware of its presence. But the scene isn’t without emotion, as shots of her legs, torso, and body, are interspersed with shots of her face, and her tranquil expression. What we are doing is intruding into Carries private moment. She is one of the last girls still in the shower, because it is the only place she can find respite from her constantly bullying classmates. She is enjoying this quiet solitude, before she must re-enter the world. Here, we are voyeurs of a different sort, as we are meant to identify with Carrie in this scene. If we were not meant to identify with her, she would be objectified, by not having close up shots of her face.

Framing can mean the difference between objectification, and identification. We are not meant to identify with Marilyn’s character. We are interested as an onlooker, to a show she is giving. We don’t really care about her facial expressions, which is why those are shot at more of a distance. In Carrie, we are meant to identify with her, and not her classmates, who are shot from a distance, and framed as a faceless mob of nubile, seductive water nymphs, in slow motion, and half dressed. In a sense, this is how Carries sees them, as happy, frolicking, young women, whose faces all blend together, and that’s something that will be shown explicitly, minutes later, during the tampon throwing scene, and during the Prom scene, when Carrie thinks they are all laughing at her. Focusing the camera on Carrie’s solemn facial expression, is a contrast to her classmates. We are shown her feelings, and her personhood. We are meant to be sympathetic to her, not her classmates. Some people might find it very difficult to watch a film where one is made to identify with the victim of bullying.

 Let’s use another movie, to contrast against Halloween, as an example of framing. We’ll use the 2011, It Follows. Both films basically have the same plot, two women are being relentlessly pursued by silent creatures that want to kill them. Both movies frame the characters in such a way that denotes they are the protagonists, both films revolve around killing that involves sexual activity, and both involve the survival, at the end of the movie, of a Final Girl.

In It Follows, Jay is being pursued by a monster that can take the form of someone she knows, after she is infected by a virus that allows her to see it. In Halloween, we go where Michael goes, and see what he sees. We are the monster. In It Follows, we never see the world from the monsters viewpoint, except at the opening of the film. For the rest of the movie, we are almost always looking towards the monster, and seeing the world through either Jay’s eyes, or as third observer. We don’t get to walk in the monsters footsteps. We are not the monster, and hence, the monster is the less important part of this film. Unlike Halloween, in It Follows, we are voyeurs, who watch Jay during some of her most private moments, or we see the monster from Jay’s viewpoint. Jay is the movie’s focus, and everything revolves around her. This is not like Halloween, where you have two separate, but evenly matched, adversaries. The monster has no identity of its own, and can have no point of view. Any identity we see, is given to it by Jay, and everything we see of it, is from Jay’s mind.

Michael (who is often the audience stand-in) often watches Laurie and her friends from a distance. The camera’s distance from Michael’s victims creates a feeling of emotional detachment in the audience. We don’t get closeups of their faces because Michael isn’t interested in them as people, only as objects he can act upon. We are not meant to identify with Laurie’s friends. However, as a third observer, we do get lots of closeups of Laurie’s face. We are meant to feel what she feels, because the closer the camera is to the character, the more intimate the moment.

Since these movies are framed from the point of view of the killers, or as if the viewers were ineffectual observers, or participants in the scenes, you are meant to feel the tension of either the victim, or excitement of the killer. I’ve never felt the latter, but apparently there are those who watch horror movies who get a thrill from just that. I’ve also heard people who don’t like horror movies, accuse those who do, of getting just such a thrill, and I came to the conclusion that at least some of them were deeply uncomfortable with how horror movies are framed.

Perhaps for those who perceive themselves as “good” people, who would never harm anyone, horror movies might be especially stressful, in this regard. Seeing horror scenes from the killer’s relentless point of view is distressing, just as much as being a stand in for the helpless and vulnerable victim, or being an invisible voyeur to violent acts.