This article includes spoilers for Halloween Kills.
Content Warning: this editorial contains conversations about suicide.
Halloween Kills is nothing if not a bold, chaotic bloodbath. Michael Myers slips into his most ruthless form, stacking up gruesome kills and a body count that rivals any Jason Voorhees flick. It’s a throwback slasher coated in themes of residual trauma, mob mentality, and surprisingly the gross mistreatment of those with mental illness by the hands of ignorance and group think. Several on screen kills pack quite the wallop 一 but the most heartbreaking scene in the film doesn’t even involve Michael Myers.
As we’re reminded time and again: human beings are the real monsters.
While The Shape carves up bodies around Haddonfield, a subplot involving a Tommy Doyle-led lynch mob and Mr. Lance Tovoli (Ross Bacon, who sadly passed away earlier this year), a bit player in Halloween 2018, depicts the sheer cruelty of human nature. Following his escape from the same bus crash, in transit from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, Tovoli wanders aimlessly through town, hoping to find someone, anyone, with an ounce of compassion. But the townsfolk are already so consumed by their own fear and paranoia that he’s mistaken for Michael Myers. After stealing a car and crashing into a building, Tovoli makes his way on foot to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital 一 walking right into the lion’s den.
There, Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) gives an impassioned speech. “Listen, folks, the Boogeyman is at large, and he has no choice but to emerge. He’s an apex predator. When he surfaces, there will be no pause, no empathy,” he barks. The crowd closes ranks, and it is their grief, panic, and long-standing trauma that gets exploited. “Evil dies tonight!” Tommy then screeches. A terror-stricken bystander repeats the mantra, and it quickly spreads like poison. Former Sheriff Charles Brackett, now a hospital security guard, buys into this delusion, obviously stemming from the murder of his daughter Annie in 1978.
Tovoli soon arrives, winding through the hallways with a lumbered step. “Help me!” he cries through the dividing glass wall, deep pain and confusion glistening in his reflection. His pleas fall on deaf ears, of course, and he becomes the target of the town’s pent-up aggression. Earlier in the evening, news reports were plastered with both Tovoli’s and Myers’ photos, suggesting that even when faced with facts, people react by emotion. Tommy lets his own childhood trauma cloud his judgement, and when an angry spectator claims, “It’s Michael!,” all hell breaks loose.
Tovoli runs for his life up to the sixth floor, the horde hot on his heels. Moments before they can pounce, Karen, in her most well-intentioned way, attempts to console him. “I’m not going to hurt you. I know you’re scared. They’re scared, too. I’m not going to let them hurt you,” she promises. She inches closer, takes his hand, and leads him off to an enclosed corridor, where she can lock both entrances and stand as a sort of guard. But it’s all for naught. The throng of fury-fueled townspeople have only one thing on their mind: murder.
Tovoli’s delusions of persecution, a term frequent in numerous mental health illnesses and disorders, tangle with the very real reality of being railroaded as a serial killer. His face distorts in heartbreaking terror, and he quickly crumbles into tears. “Evil dies tonight!” rings out like a death knell. In his mind, he perhaps imagines himself the true Evil and the only way to end any further suffering, for himself and others, is to leap to his death. He rips a fire extinguisher off the wall and hurls its metallic bottom against the window pane; each blow acts as an exclamation point, heightening the emotional elasticity before it snaps altogether.
The glass shatters, and Tovoli ventures out onto the ledge, the cool night air hitting his face. The scene almost stands still, and for a fraction of a second, you think he could be saved after all. But the moment collapses when the mob barges through the door, and Tovoli lets his body slip from that sixth floor window. Everything he once was, is, and could be tumbles and crashes into the concrete. His mangled, bloody body twitches, eliciting shrieks and gasps from the crowd.
In less than five minutes, Halloween Kills captures the brutal tragedy of those who live with mental illness. Tovoli isn’t the first, and he most certainly won’t be the last, to die at the hands of the mental health system. Society has failed him, and we all are equally monstrous voyeurs, peering into others’ lives through social media and claiming we’re hyper-sensitive to mental health issues without actually doing anything to help.
Tovoli is a statistic.
Beneath the surface, the film also comments on the storied history of mental health institutions and the many wild treatments enforced on patients. Tovoli, who twirls a sun umbrella and has an affinity for shoelaces, is emblematic of a much larger problem that dates back 7,000 years when techniques like trephination (removing a portion of the skull) and bloodletting (rooted in Greek culture) were used to alleviate mental illness. It was believed mental disorders/illnesses were closely linked to contamination in bodily fluids. Later, in the 17th century, mental health institutions, or more egregiously known as insane asylums, became the norm and were often littered with inhumane procedures (including hydrotherapy, shock therapy, and use of straight jackets and other constraints), and unsanitary living conditions.
With her 1887 book, 10 Days in an Asylum, journalist Nellie Bly chronicles her 10-day undercover stint inside Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, which she describes as “a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there, it is impossible to get out.” Initially, Bly plotted to take on the role as “insane,” meaning to act and speak as if she were 一 but upon arrival, she determined to talk and act “just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.”
Her story, originally an assignment for the newspaper New York World, yielded grim findings on the reality of institutional care, including lack of entrance tests of mental capacity to reusing bath water for all committed patients. A fellow patient named Mrs. Cotter once described to Bly a beating and torture she endured when she broke certain protocols. “For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it,” she reported. “Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”
Another patient, Miss Tillie Mayard, suffered grand delusions, firmly believing Bly was, in fact, trying to impersonate her and take over her life. “She thought that I was trying to pass myself off for her, and that all the people who called to see Nellie Brown were friends in search of her, but that I, by some means, was trying to deceive them into the belief that I was the girl.”
Such mental deterioration originated from nothing short of an appalling kind of existence. In fact, many patients who were committed involuntarily by friends or family exhibited few or no initial signs of incapacity. In a 1998 report, from the National Association of Consumer/Survivor Mental Health Administrators, one individual suggested that “if one was not a trauma survivor before entering the mental health system, one is sure to become one once labelled and locked up. In other words, no matter what theory an intervention is based on, unless the coercive culture of psychiatry is radically altered, many persons will continue to be traumatized, whether or not this such experience is repetitious of their pasts.”
The horrors inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum were not exclusive to this establishment. The exploitation of mental illness polluted the entire mental health system. Among the most notorious hospitals, Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (1864-1994) claimed thousands of lives and later became the home of the West Virginia Lobotomy project in the 1950s. Derelict conditions were common traits in numerous other establishments, as well, including Byberry Mental Hospital, Danvers State Hospital, Pennhurst Insane Asylum (exposed in an investigative piece called “Suffer the Little Children” by reporter Bill Baldini), and Athens Lunatic Asylum.
Countless additional reports and books have been released over the decades, from Julius Chambers’ 1876 book A Mad World and Its Inhabitants to Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, the latter which explores the Rosenhan Experiment, an experiment conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan in 1973.
Another essential reading comes from Clifford Whittingham Beers, a once promising graduate from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, who details in his 1908 autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, “seven hundred and ninety-eight days of depression” and his confinement in both private and state hospitals. He describes the unnamed private establishment as a “little settlement of woe” where very few “competent attendants consent to work there.” Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse were everyday occurrences. “Their unconscious lack of consideration for my comfort and peace of mind was torture,” he writes. In describing one attendant’s behavior, he says, “Vitriol could not have seared my flesh more deeply than the venom of this human viper stung my soul!”
Later in his book, Beers confides that he continued struggling with suicidal thoughts during his treatment. Delusions of persecution drove him to plan his death on a near daily basis, he says. “The sooner I could die and be forgotten, the better for all with whom I had ever come in contact. To continue to live was simply to be the treacherous tool of unscrupulous detectives, eager to exterminate my innocent relatives and friends, if so their fame could be made secure in the annals of their craft.”
This passage in particular speaks directly to Tovoli’s role in Halloween Kills. The establishments that were supposed to help him 一 healthcare and the police 一 failed Tovoli at every single opportunity. “I shrank from death; but I preferred to die by my own hand and take the blame for it, rather than be executed,” Beers admits. In turn, Tivolo took it upon himself to bear the weight of life and his anxiety-ridden mind.
While mental health institutions went under a severe overhaul in the mid- to late 1900s, known as deinstitutionalization, it led to a mental health crisis, as NPR explored in a 2017 report. We are still reeling from such crimes against humanity, and as a collective, society continues handling mental health discussions with a razor-sharp stigma. In the aforementioned National Association of Consumer/Survivor Mental Health Administrators piece, this excerpt feels integral to Tivoli’s story, as well: “People who have experienced trauma and abuse perpetrated by the very system which purports to help them may have a hard time believing that this same system is now willing and able to assist them in overcoming the effects of trauma.”
The real tragedy in Halloween Kills is not the countless victims slaughtered by Michael Myers. It is that, yet again, someone cries out for help, actively seeks medical assistance, and suffers for simply existing. Mr. Tovoli didn’t have to die the way that he did, but his fictional life and death should serve as a shining morality tale. Tovoli’s very last words (“Help me!”) will forever haunt my dreams.