The Point is to be Noticed: On the Music for Halloween (1978)

October 31, 2023 · Review-essay

⚠️ Spoiler alert! This article contains information about the plot of the 1978 film, Halloween 🎃

drawing of a pumpkin

The Order of Things

The work of musical composition is in trying to keep things in order. There are various ways of expressing this, most of which use words like ‘control’, ‘structure’ or perhaps ‘form’. Still, the question arises as regards what it is, exactly, that is being kept in order.

Surely the answer is, ‘notes’, for it’s by no means unreasonable to expect notes in a musical composition. But there is plenty of ordering going on in technologically mediated (i.e. ‘electronic’, to name one variety) music today, which has very little to do with notes, at least in the sense of ‘middle C’.

This isn’t really a question of whether or not the music is ‘tonal’ or ‘harmonic’. Paradoxically, tonal music doesn’t really need to have much in the presentation of tones, assuming that we distinguish between tones and sonorities (broadly, notes and accumulations of notes, i.e. ‘chords’). Put another way, tonal music is more than a matter of tones. And here lies the caveat.

What constitutes the thing under control in musical composition today is effectively determined by context. This is particularly the case since the emancipation of things like noise in modern musicianship. So the ordering of clearly defined ‘notes’ where it is encountered as a compositional act is all the more striking.

A series of perspicuous notes such as we hear in John Carpenter’s title music for his 1978 classic, Halloween, allows our attention to attune to individually concatenated-yet-discontinuous events in sound. We get drawn in and start to expect either: i) a continuation of those individual events until time immemorial; or, ii) (as shall become notably significant for the festivities of Halloween) the non-continuation of these events, i.e. a kind of note-death.

Simply put, repeated singularities beget a sense of the familiar. And the creative, compositional non-provision of similarity furnishes the uncanny. It is in the possibility of the latter that the gates to a score for a horror film are flung wide open.

An Unexpected Blip

The famous, five-beat title music first accompanies the persistent zooming of the camera as a glowing pumpkin moves closer to the viewer. In Western cultures, five-beat music is often parsed as 3 + 2 or 2 + 3 beats, the either/or making jaunty, combinatoric games a fun possibility.

Carpenter gives us ten short pulses in his famous opening sequence, which are wrapped inside a 5/4 bar (‘five-four bar’). This means that there is a continuous, yet slower ‘beat’ of five counts (one beat = two short pulses) for each rendition of the sequence.

The first thing I want to identify is that these short pulses are nominally identical in duration. I say ‘nominally’ simply to carry the plausibility that any live, human-controlled performance might well introduce small irregularities in duration, as a matter of course.

Another thing to identify is that each pulse is given one of three different pitches (i.e. different notes). The way that these pitches are allocated is very significant in establishing a ‘rhythm’.

We can think of this as ten pulses which share three notes. Three is not a divisor of ten, so some pitches are going to be played more than others. This is critical, partly for rhythmic reasons as mentioned, but partly also for the hierarchy it creates.

Of the three notes, the highest is played only once, just before the end of the sequence. In music terms, it is a D natural. The placing of this note is such that it creates a kind of spike or ‘transient’, just before the conclusion of the phrase.

The key thing here is that of the ten pulses, the distribution of the three different notes is as follows: F sharp has six pulses; C sharp has three pulses; D has one pulse, just before the end of the sequence.

An Unexpected Blip

In electronic music practice, a blip or sudden increase of energy at the very start of a sound is known as a transient. This audio phenomenon is what gives instruments their particular character.

We can summarise two things that relate to the concept of a transient. First, sudden changes go a long way in music in carrying meaning. Second, sudden changes challenge similarity. We might say that they diversify content and establish difference.

The sudden change in pitch or D-natural ‘blip’ in Carpenter’s opening gambit, is the curious positioning of the third of those distributed notes, just before the whole five-beat sequence is repeated.

As I shall suggest, it’s possible to read quite a bit into this transient discontinuity. This is of course because horror films are in the business of establishing, in retrospect, the predictability and precariousness of the same-old-same-old, precisely because of some unexpected and striking event.

Eventually, the Point is to be Noticed

Whatever level of significance is applied to this transient discontinuity, it functions as a kind of musical ‘accent’. It is placed in such a way as to be clearly audible. The D natural is higher than its surrounding notes. It marks a kind of territory and articulates a musical ‘event’. Like a jack-o’-lantern, it may give rise to feelings.

Accents are by definition different from their surroundings. Higher is generally better, but there are limits. Too high and there’s no real accentuation–the different note becomes a kind of ‘noise’ or something a listener might disregard as a superfluous ‘artefact’.

A well-placed event in musical composition (a melody, chord, crash, whoosh-noise, silent moment etc) is something to be noticed. The composer’s job is to organize things in a way that clarifies what is to be noticed, though not necessarily in order make the process of noticing easy or trivial. The listener must always do work.

The visual ‘language’ of the opening titles of Halloween is very clear through its slow-burn zooming. We may focus on the pumpkin precisely to risk being beguiled by a strange-looking fruit. The zooming creates tension with our conventional, perhaps learned, tendency to dart off and catch a glimpse of the titles. Who made this film, we enquire? ‘Look, here!’, says the orange beacon; ‘ignore the real’.

Somehow, that transient D natural connects with the pumpkin. It is also to be noticed. In two-dimensional film, the pumpkin is circular, much like the dot of an exclamation mark or a musical note on a stave. Points are fundaments of visual design, like lines and planes. Notes are, potentially at least, the building blocks of music.

In the school yard scene, a boy carries a pumpkin and moves towards us in a kind of re-enacted title sequence. The pumpkin is the focus of visual attention, as it grows larger as it grows near. The viewer’s eye quite likely tracks this orange circle. It seems to have a ‘life’ of it own, as it moves towards us around the screen.

Proxy for a Mask

I want to do a bit more work with this looking/eye-tracking idea and suggest i) that the pumpkin is a visual proxy or stand-in for Myers’s white mask; and ii) that the transient D natural stands in for the pumpkin (and therefore, for the mask).

We could add more links to this chain of points-to-be-noticed/mask-stand-ins. Consider the moment when Laurie steps outside the house to investigate the disturbance across the road. The framing of the shot puts the pumpkin in distant view. Initially, we don’t see the flame of the encased candle. This is plausible. For those initial milliseconds of the wide shot, it is presumably hidden behind the pumpkin flesh.

So when the tiny flame finally appears, it is as if the pumpkin is itself articulated by its own beacon of illumination. ‘This way’, it seems to say. D natural = pumpkin = flame = mask. All roads lead to Rome. It’s a little like the moment Jay Gatsby sees the green light, across the Long Island Sound.

Numerous instances of this ‘point-as-eye-tracker’ occur throughout the movie, in both visual and (analogous) sonic domains. While Michael is standing outside the house, watching Annie through the window, he knocks a hanging basket to the ground. Image and sound function as one the moment this semispherical object generates a sonic exclamation point. Here, a noisy crash sound makes a call for attention, and therefore, for silence.

Given this point-based (transient D natural, circles/semispheres etc) creation of tension, there is a notable, musical development when Annie shouts ‘speed kills’ at a car passing by, which (unbeknown to her) is being driven by Myers. The car screeches to a halt at the sound of the word ‘kills’ (another kind of exclamation point and ‘silencing’ technique). Immediately, the music engages an upward shift by the same ‘distance’ as the D natural appears ‘above’ its neighbouring pulses in the opening sequence, thus echoing the function of the original ‘disturbance’ amongst those ten notes of the title music.

An Unheard Presence

Another thing to note about the opening title sequence is the general sense of musical ‘motion’. The constant pulsation of short notes gives a sense of a continuous presence. Interestingly, a second ‘layer’ of music is audible, which is made of pulses of half the duration (i.e. twice as fast) as the main, pulsing layer. This secondary layer is a series of clicks––a kind of shadow layer ‘beneath’ the primary layer.

There’s a moment in the later sections of the film when we see shadows moving across the bedroom wall of the Wallace house. We hear the sound of Michael’s breathing and a reprise of the opening title theme (replete with shadow-click layer). This sonic composite fuses with the dusky light-play, the secondary pulses filling in gaps of silence like the negative space created by the shadows.

It’s at this point in the film’s soundtrack that the function of lower/bass sounds becomes significant. This is particularly true where these sounds have a chordal or drone-like quality. Myers ascends the staircase and soon after we hear some descending chords. The frequency ‘distance’ between bass, piano material and high, pulsing theme increases. The sense of isolation this creates is telling, given our increasing sense of Lynda’s confinement.

We hear low, piano octaves that sound more ‘realistic’ or ‘acoustic’. They are both very different in their timbre and separated in their (pitch or frequency) distance from the synthetic, unreal repetitions of the continuous pulsations. This musical distance echoes the physical separation between Bob and Lynda, who are now on different floors of the house. But also, it enacts the separation between Laurie and Lynda, given that the former thinks Annie is on the end of the phone and refraining from talking, when it is in fact Myers.

Thus the music constructs its own cosmos, where characters (musical, scripted) become planets that lose their gravitational pull towards each other and instead find themselves increasingly isolated, floating away from each other’s domain. We accept the terror of their individuation precisely because we have been trained to accept the close-knit, gravitational pull of their friendships in the early sections of the film.

And so the protagonists drift apart as Myers interrupts their world-making. Laurie’s foray into the Wallace house, her ascent of the staircase and pondering of the door that rests ajar in the darkness, has the quality of an odyssey. Indeed, there’s a very interesting detail in the lighting: the ray of light cast by the filtering of the bedroom door is punctuated with tiny, perpendicular lines. These articulations have the quality of the transient note and the clicks that fit beneath the primary pulsations. They make a decorative illumination that aptly matches not just the textural layering of the music but also the presentation of Myers and his mask, the radical point-source of the jack-o’-lantern. 🎃