Andrew Messer, Writing Consultant
There was a conversation I had with Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of our community of writing consultants, where he told me that all spy movies are literacy narratives. Well, that got me thinking, truly thinking—and this may very well have been the first time I had a truly deep thought in months, coming fresh off of summer break at the time—about what other stories are technically literacy narratives. Some other types of action movies, sure. Superheroes? It’s possible to make that argument. However, fate would grant me a serendipitous revelation just as it was time to write up a blog post of my own. What better day to talk about the literacy of horror movies than today, Halloween? And better yet, is there a more apt movie to talk about than John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)? I think not.
We find literacy in Carpenter’s film in a variety of ways, most notably in the question of why Michael Myers wears his signature mask. There are a myriad of answers, and one of them is that he is trying to hide. The movie begins with Michael hiding from his sister before he, well… you know what happens. Michael isn’t just hiding his face though: he is hiding his ability to be read. He withholds from both the viewer and the other characters of the film the ability to be read and understood. It takes great effort, strife, horror, as well as some sleuthing for the characters to finally track down Michael from his old home to the killings he gets up to throughout the film. It takes a great deal of intellectual and psychological literacy for the doctor to track Michael across Haddonfield to his showdown with Laurie Strode.
Now, you might be wondering—I know I sure was—what has this to do at all with writing or writing center work. Great question! All of these aspects of literacy shown in Halloween started to remind me of something oddly familiar—the writing process itself. Fellow horror buffs may recall, but in the script for Carpenter’s film, Myers is referred to as the Shape; I think this is an apt metaphor for beginning the writing process, for what is the beginning of a draft but a vague shape? The Shape of drafting can be many things: procrastination, intimidation, a confusing prompt or topic, or even something as scary as a new or unfamiliar genre. The Shape finds a way to haunt all of us when we start the drafting process, and it tries to turn us into Bob if we let it.
Starting a paper is much like the events of this film: scary and disjointed without a lot to keep the threads together. Sometimes the meaning and message remains masked, if you’ll excuse the pun. Sometimes it can be something you feel like running from, avoiding it until the last minute. Sometimes you must be Laurie Strode and—metaphorically, of course—stab at your paper wildly with a knitting needle until something comes out loosely approximating what you are trying to accomplish. Either way, the Shape must be confronted to move forward, and often that is done by looking back on what you have accomplished in the past. Relying on your knowledge and the skills in literacy and writing that you have developed over many years of being a thoughtful and insightful human being.
And insightful you are. You are a writer and a reader all-in-one, and just like Laurie you will figure out what the Shape is. Though you may not always unmask it in the end, and sometimes when you think you have finished a draft the Shape will haunt you still. Yet again, just like Laurie, you are not alone. If need be, let the Writing Center be your Loomis: let us help you uncover the Shape of your writing because there is no need to face it alone. Writing, much like surviving a slasher, is a collaborative process—oftentimes taking much more planning and effort to overcome than previously thought possible. But we are here, and we know the Shape just as you do.
This all makes it seem so horrifying, and perhaps this analogy might scare you away from ever writing again. However, dear reader, if you are anything like me, then you will understand that pit in your stomach when you start to write something new. The Shape looming oppressively near you, watching from the corner and remaining masked and hidden from view. Yet, you must remember to always carry the will of Laurie Strode inside you. Clutch tightly to that knitting needle, cower for a moment if you need to, but in the end we all must face the Shape, and more often than not, we win in the end.
Happy Halloween, and happy writing!
Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, 1978.