Posted on December 28, 2015

Formless Horrors: John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)

Dawn Keetley

John Carpenter’s first three horror films—Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and The Thing (1982)—are not only exceptional films, but, taken together, they constitute a kind of trilogy in their similar exploitation of the horror of formlessness.

Halloween may be the film least self-evidently about formlessness (its monster is “human,” after all), but I would suggest that Michael Myers actually stands in defiance of all categories. He is called the “bogeyman” more than once, including at the climax of the film, when a traumatized Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) stammers out to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence)—“It was the bogeyman.” Kendall Phillips has astutely pointed out that the bogeyman occupies a position “at the boundaries of notions of cultural normalcy”—and that he “embodies the chaos that exists on the other side of these cultural boundaries.”[i] True to form (or, rather, true to formlessness), Michael-as-bogeyman is often portrayed at boundaries—at intersections, on the other side of a road, in doorways, at windows.

1. Michael drives by Loomis

Michael Myers is also a force of formlessness in his utter blankness (figured by his white mask) and his defiance of psychiatric definition. Loomis describes how he abandoned trying to understand Michael, gave up trying to get behind his “blank, pale, emotionless face”—and he insists in calling him “it,” saying “This isn’t a man.”

The Thing is perhaps most self-evidently about the horrors of formlessness. In what I think is one of the most insightful essays written on horror film, Stephen Prince argues that horror films are defined by their terrifying “unmapped areas bordering the familiar configurations of the social world,” and that the Thing is monster par excellence, occupying “a disturbing, unclear intermediate place.”[ii] Indeed, as a shape-shifter, The Thing is able to take on any form, including human, embodying radical formlessness.

The Fog, released two years before The Thing, features a monster that similarly hovers in “unmapped areas” and, like the parasitic Thing, breaches all kinds of boundaries.

2. The Fog, the fog is sweeping inland

What’s particularly interesting about The Fog, though, is that the formlessness of the fog itself lies in stark contrast to the ways in which the characters in the film go to all kinds of lengths to try to fix boundaries to exclude the unwanted. In its being centrally about the process of exclusion (and its failure), The Fog is a virtual primer on the structure and ideology of the horror film, which is all about formlessness disrupting a form that strives to keep it at bay.

3. The Fog, fog engulfing the lighthouse

The basic plot of The Fog reaches back one hundred years to the founding of Antonio Bay. A colony of lepers lived nearby on Tanzier Island, and their leader, Blake, asked to move the colony to the mainland, a mile or so north of the young town. They were prepared to pay well for the privilege of moving off their isolated island. The six people who became the founders of Antonio Bay agreed to Blake’s request but then reneged, sinking the ship that was carrying the lepers, killing them all, and stealing Blake’s money. Antonio Bay was thus founded on an act of betrayal, theft, and murder. The film is set on the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay’s founding—and as the eerie fog rolls in, it comes along with dark shapes wielding hooks who seem bent on exacting their revenge for the actions of the murderous founding fathers.

4. The Fog, the lepers emerge from the fog, from ship

The plot of The Fog is centrally dependent on two figures that historically mark absolute exclusion: the leper colony and the ship. Michel Foucault begins Madness and Civilization with the leper—or, more particularly, with the mass effort to exclude lepers, to isolate them in discrete colonies, in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, when leprosy ravaged Europe. While the disease eventually waned and the leper vanished, Foucault argues that the “structures” and “formulas of exclusion” remained, repeated with different groups of people (the poor, criminals, the insane). One principal way in which exclusion was continued was through the “ship of fools”—a ship bound nowhere carrying the insane who had been driven out of “civilized” towns. According to Foucault, then, the leper colony founded the notion of a “rigorous division which is social exclusion” and it then got continued in the ship floating beyond the boundaries of the community. Indeed, this exclusion of some unwanted other, whether it was the leper or the madman, was central, Foucault insists, to the “spiritual reintegration” of the community itself.[iii]

I spent some time explaining Foucault’s argument—about the leper colony and the ship of fools as practices of exclusion and a means of the “spiritual reintegration” of community—because this theory is so beautifully at work in The Fog. (I never cease to be amazed at how social theories get dramatized in popular film, especially horror film!) Antonio Bay is literally founded on the exclusion of both the leper colony and the wandering ship, inhabited by those who are searching for but denied a place in the community. The ship of lepers that dominates the plot of The Fog dramatically illustrates what had to be excluded for the town to come into being. The film shows how “civilization” is grounded in exclusion, in other words.

5. The Fog, leper and priest

The money stolen from Blake, moreover, founded Antonio Bay’s church—disclosing specifically how communities are “spiritually reintegrated” by excluding others. And, not surprising, the lepers return to the church for their revenge.

6. The Fog, hands burst through windows3

The Fog is a horror film (happily), and so the boundaries set up to guard “normality” are always breached: the “good” people of Antonio Bay try to keep the lepers away but the fog with its monstrous revenants rolls over the sea, over the shore, over the town. The fog is horrifying because it stands for the crashing down of boundaries, of all attempts at order and exclusion. The murdered lepers, shrouded in fog, surge onto the land, into the town, into houses, and they eviscerate the bodies of their victims—breaching even that most inviolate boundary. They are literally the return of what was suppressed and excluded—and they are carried by the fog, embodiment of a formlessness that destroys order and thwarts every attempt at exclusion.

You can stream The Fog on Amazon:


[i] Kendall R. Phillips, Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), p. 133.

[ii] Stephen Prince, “Dread, Taboo, and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film,” in The Horror Film, ed. Stephen Prince (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2004), pp. 122, 125.

[iii] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage, 1988), pp. 3-8.

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