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

A Frame is a single image of film or video. “Framing” consists of the composition of the subjects (people ,objects) within that image. Based on where the camera and the subjects have been placed,  we know where we are, as the audience, and that can make all the difference in a person views 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, because I understand that such movies aren’t for everyone, but I often wonder what it is about such movies that they dislike, especially when they are unable to articulate this for me. I know for some of them, its the feelings of tension and anxiety that such films produce. But I also think at least part of that anxiety has to do with the nature of the visual media itself. 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. 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. 

I was watching the original 1978  Halloween, 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 and remakes, outside of  were scary for me, at all.

At least part of the reason the new sequel works is it successfully replicates the framing of the first film in ways that the others do not. This framing 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, the audience, 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 (relatively) evenly matched adversaries, who play cat and mouse throughout the movie. Part of the movie’s tension is who is going to survive, and the camera shows this by switching between both their points of view. Switching between these two 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 themes, and character dynamics.

It is the  composition of the characters, within the Frame, which tells the audience who is of primary importance in the story, and how the audience should feel about what is happening to them.The Director, and Cinematographer are the ones who decide where the camera is going to stand, what it’s going to be doing, and what that image looks like through the viewfinder (the colors, lighting, and depth of field). One of the things that makes horror movies so unsettling is that camera viewpoints 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, give us a sense of Michael’s height and power, as the camera is often placed slightly above, or at head height during his scenes. When in Michael’s point of view, the camera is always a distant, and unemotional, observer, that moves slowly, and steadily, giving him a sense of relentless implacability. He is framed as a powerful machine, a thing  which cannot be stopped. This is the same camera effect that was used in James Cameron’s The Terminator, to convey that same sense of relentlessness, whenever we see the world through the Terminator’s eyes.

In other scenes, we see the events through Laurie Strode’s eyes, experiencing her terror, vulnerability, and bravery. The camera, from Laurie’s point of view, is handheld, and so it trembles in an uncertain manner, peering slowly around corners, and hedges, through doorways, and closets. In many of her scenes, the camera is below the eye-line, as it angles up towards a sound or image. She is framed as small, timid, and helpless in comparison to Michael.

In the newest Halloween, this is masterfully done by James Carpenter, the director of the original film. In  Michael’s scenes, the camera moves slowly and steadily, contrasted against 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, but when she does she is shown, unlike in the first film, as to be equally matched with 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  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, earlier in the film, to a sudden shift to the killer’s, that sets it apart. Marion goes from being the Subject, to being an 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 now being acted upon. At the beginning of the film, Marion is the Subject, from whose viewpoint we see the world, but while she is killed, she becomes the Object, and WE become her killer. For some people, the sudden shift from one protagonist to another, 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, and we, as the audience, had become comfortable with the idea of Marion Crane as the primary character. You’re meant to be as uncomfortable during the shower scene, as with Michael’s murder of his sister, as your eyes are forced to see your victim, and you cannot look away.

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 placed further away from them, which would have had the effect of 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 in an unexpected way. We become each character, rather than an omnipotent third party, who are just watching a murder, as would have happened if the camera were placed at a distance. The moment becomes not just more intimate, but more visceral, than if the camera, or characters, had been 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”. If the camera is close to the scene, such as when two people are having a conversation, and both of them are seen within the frame, (a medium shot) we feel like a third invisible observer, in the scene with them. If the camera is even further away (a wide shot) than we may feel like we are not part of that 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, (the medium closeup, the over the shoulder shot), than we become each character. Where the characters are placed in the scene is an  indication of the level of intimacy between them, and  between them and us.

For example, an extreme closeup of a woman, with the camera panning, (when the 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. (This is what feminists are referring to when talking about “The Male Gaze”.) Sometimes the scene is meant to be sexually evocative, as the character is may act aware that we are there, and appears to be responding to our presence in the scene with her. But if the camera is across the room, while focusing on her body and legs, then we are no longer in the scene with her, but spying on her from a distance. The character doesn’t know we are there, and acts as if she is alone, which makes us voyeurs, in what appears to be a private moment, such as the scene when Marion Crane first gets into the shower. She is unaware of the camera, and she has not given consent to look at  her, and so, she is as unaware of our presence, as she is of the killer’s.

Contrast that scene, with the opening scene, from the 1976 version of Carrie. The camera is in the shower with Carrie, in extreme closeup. Closer than the Marion Crane scene in Psycho. This is framed as a deeply 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 extreme closeups of her face, with its tranquil expression. She is separated from the other girls in the room, and we are intruding on Carrie’s 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  bullying classmates. She is enjoying this quiet solitude, before she must re-enter a painful 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 extreme close ups of her face, a perspective that emphasizes her emotions, and  humanizes her.

Framing can mean the difference between objectification, and identification for an audience.  In Carrie, we are meant to identify with her. It is her classmates, who appear at  a distance, framed as a raucous  mob of water nymphs, scantily clad, and in slow motion,  who are being objectified. In a sense, that 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. She does not differentiate them. They are all the same face to her, and the audience. Focusing the camera on Carrie’s solemn facial expression, during her shower scene, is in contrast to her classmates. We are shown her feelings, and her personhood. We are meant to be sympathetic to her, not her classmates, and for some people it may be difficult to watch a film where one is made to identify with the victim of bullying.

Let’s use another example of framing, in a different film. The 2011, It Follows. Halloween and It Follows, have the same basic plot, where young women are relentlessly stalked by silent creatures that want to kill them. Both movies frame the characters in such a way that we kow 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 mostly don’t see the world from the monster’s 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 impersonal observer. We don’t spend the movie walking in the monster’s footsteps, so we are not meant to identify with It, and hence, the monster is the less important character. Unlike Halloween, in It Follows, Jay is constantly being watched by the other characters in the film, and also the audience, as we observe Jay during some of her most private moments, or we see the monster (always at a distance) 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, matching, adversaries. The monster has no identity of its own, and is given 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, while closeups indicate intimacy. We don’t get closeups of their faces, because Michael isn’t interested in them as people, only as objects, upon which he acts. 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 a camera is to a character’s face, the more intimate the moment, and some audience members might have trouble with that level of both intimacy, and tension.

Such movies, which are framed from the point of view of the killers, as if the viewers were either ineffectual observers, or participants in the scenes, means the audience is meant to feel the tension and anxiety of the victim, or the excitement, or detachment, of the killer. I’ve never felt the latter, but there are those who watch such movies who find the physical power of such characters, thrilling. I’ve also heard people who don’t like horror movies, accuse those who do, of getting just such a thrill, and that was how I came to the conclusion that some of them were being affected by how  horror movies use framing.That they are uncomfortable with feeling so close.

Perhaps, especially 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.

NOTE: This post has been heavily edited, to make more sense, than when I first wrote it.