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In the New ‘Halloween,’ a Parable About Jewish Survival

Be prepared, believe in evil, and carry a big gun

Liel Leibovitz
October 25, 2018
Photo: Universal
Nick Castle as Michael Myers in Halloween.Photo: Universal
Photo: Universal
Nick Castle as Michael Myers in Halloween.Photo: Universal

At some point in the new Halloween, David Gordon Green’s reboot of the iconic horror franchise, a middle-aged daughter and her wild-haired mother are standing in the daughter’s kitchen, talking about the meaning of life. It’s the sort of room that looks like it belongs in a West Elm catalogue, inviting and airy, and the daughter’s worldview fits right in with the well-lit panels. “The world is not a dark and evil place,” she tells her mother. “It’s full of love and understanding and I’m not letting your psychotic rants confuse me or convince me otherwise.”

The mother begs to differ. She is Laurie Strode, played, as ever, by the singular Jamie Lee Curtis, who has spent the last 40 years, not to mention four of the series’ 10 previous films, on the run from Michael Myers, the masked menace who is to the kitchen knife what Itzhak Perlman is to the Stradivarius. This newest installment finds Laurie holed up in her compound in the woods, stockpiling paranoia and firearms as she waits for Myers to come a-calling. This being Halloween, he does, escaping his maximum security mental institution for one more stab at the one woman he can never quite kill.

With as many dark jokes as jump scares—one teenager, for example, wonders out loud why everyone is so obsessed with Myers, whose body count to that point, five victims total, makes him pale in comparison with today’s more accomplished school shooters—the film is a thrill that deserves an audience far wider than the usual horror heads. Jews are likely to find Halloween particularly poignant, as the story it tells is, in many ways, our own.

For those of us who came of age sometime between the debut of MTV and the OJ Simpson trial, the Jewish history we’d always heard about, that millennia-old story of suffering and sorrow, seemed to have come to a happy ending. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians was within reach, anti-Semitism a specter of the past, and the future boundless and bright. From time to time, you’d come across some rumpled old fool who thundered at you and threatened that the old hatreds are eternal, and that the enemies of the Jews never truly go away, but these wrinkled Cassandras were easy to dismiss. They were, we young swells told each other while sipping lattes and planning trips to Paris or Tokyo, sour remnants of the Old World, unfortunate enough to come of age before the world became big and sweet and inviting.

In short, too many of us, too often, behaved like Karen Strode, Laurie’s large-hearted daughter. Like her, we convinced ourselves that our elders’ warnings were psychotic rants designed merely to confuse and frustrate us.

And then came the monsters.

What else would you call contemptible animals like Amjad and Hakim Awad? Late one night in the spring of 2011, the two Palestinian teenagers entered the home of the Fogel family in Itamar. Eleven-year-old Yoav, awakened by the noise, asked them what they were doing in his home; they told him not to be afraid, then took him to the next room, slashed his throat, and stabbed him in the chest. They stabbed Yoav’s younger brother, 4-year-old Elad, to death, before slaughtering the boys’ parents, Ehud and Ruth, in their beds. On their way out, they disemboweled 3-month-old Hadas as she cried helplessly in her crib.

They’re not alone. The beast who beat and defenestrated Sarah Halimi in Paris in 2017; the savage who opened fire in the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, killing three; those who bludgeoned Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, or executed Kim Levengrond Yehezkel as she begged for her life and spoke of her infant son, or battered Lipa Schwartz as he walked to synagogue—they are the bogeymen our parents warned us about, the ones we foolishly refused to believe were really out to get us.

In the original Halloween, a psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, delivers a now-famous speech attempting to explain Michael Myers’ bloodlust. The killer, he says, possesses “no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong … I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.” Most people in Haddonfield, Illinois, where the movies take place, reject this diagnosis, arguing that some root cause must exist to explain Myers’ murderous rage. The latest movie begins with two cosmopolitan podcast producers sauntering into town, convinced that they could crack the mystery and deliver some perfectly plausible backstory that would present Myers as what they wholeheartedly believe him to be, a complex and deeply flawed and traumatized human being deserving of our empathy. If you’ve watched even a single horror film, you know exactly how things turn out for the pair.

That’s because there’s nothing about the sort of hate that animates Michael Myers or the Awads that reasonable people can understand. Their actions defy reason. They are, as Dr. Loomis so eloquently put it all those years ago, purely and simply evil. You can try and explain their violence by talking about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or American imperialism, or any other historical process you may think you understand. None of it matters: The monsters aren’t discerning. Generations of misguided academics comforted themselves by reading the Halloween franchise as a principled criticism of the patriarchy, noting that Michael Myers reserved the tip of his knife exclusively for young and promiscuous women. The new film departs from this tradition, allowing Myers to slaughter indiscriminately. That’s because Gordon Green and his co-writer, Danny McBride, understand that Myers isn’t a grad student who spends his free time reading Judith Butler and thinking about the male gaze; he’s a murderous maniac, and those tend to kill without care or cause. They kill because they’re evil, and if you don’t believe in evil, you’re never going to understand these brutes, let alone stop them.

Karen Stroud learns that lesson the hard way. By the time the new movie enters its rollicking third act, she joins both her mother and her teenage daughter, Allyson, in fighting Myers the only way you can fight evil—with big guns. A firm believer in reconciliation and transformation and negotiation, she ends up in a panic room with a 12-gauge. We did, too: With violence against Jews everywhere on the rise, with terrorism growing more gruesome, and with the institutions designed to safeguard civil society too often insistent, like Haddonfield’s best and brightest, that the killers can somehow be converted, we realized—or, at least, most of us did—that if we want to survive, we have to take action.

All of which makes the story of Jewish life in the last 20 years, like the new Halloween, reasonably upbeat. Sure, Michael Myers will likely return—he’s been killed before, and somehow made it back to town for each new installment, celebrating his favorite holiday with his favorite sharp utensil—but that’s not what really matters. What matters is the film’s final image: Three generations of Stroud women are sitting in the back seat of a car, driving away to safety. Allyson, the youngest, is clutching a big knife. She harbors no illusions about life. She will not allow herself to become a victim. When the bogeyman next shows up, she’ll be ready.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.