Hell To Page: HALLOWEEN - THE MAD HOUSE
Back in 1997, when production was just gearing up on Halloween H20 and the franchise was subsequently in the middle of its resurrection, Boulevard Books published three Young Adult Halloween novels furthering the murderous exploits of Michael Myers. Like the upcoming Blumhouse film, these novels were set in a universe where only the first Halloween was clearly in continuity, though these novels were more ambiguous than that movie appears to be. Each of these three books was written by Kelly O’Rourke and while the novels did not keep continuity with the bulk of the film series, they did keep firm continuity with each other. Each of the books is set in and around Haddonfield on three consecutive years. Despite sharing the same author and the same overall ‘90s YA style, each of the three books has a fundamentally different hook.
The first book, The Scream Factory, finally thrusts Michael Myers into the world of local haunted attractions, as he picks off unsuspecting teens during the annual Haunted House, an approach similar to what the upcoming Hell Fest appears to be doing. The second, The Old Myers Place, is the most traditional Halloween story of the bunch. It details a teenage girl who has just moved into the Myers house—bound to happen, I suppose, as the Strodes have been trying to sell that place forever—and thus finds herself Michael’s new target.
The Mad House is the third book in the series and definitely the one that’s most different in its approach. While I was aware of all three novels as a kid, The Old Myers Place was the only one I got as it was coming out and thus the only one that I grew up with. I got my hands on a copy of The Mad House much later in life and wasn’t quite sure exactly what to make of it. But reading it the other night in the dead quiet of 3am, I have to be honest, this book fires on all cylinders.
Now, you’d be expecting a lot from a 1990s YA Halloween book and ultimately, all of the things you expect are there. It’s got that hybrid mix of teen melodrama that affected every book series from The Babysitter’s Club to Fear Street. We’ve got our heroine, Christine, who has aspirations of journalism and joins up with would-be director, Eddie, on his ambitious new project: he wants to film a ghost hunting documentary at the long-abandoned Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. This is interesting for several reasons. First and foremost, the idea of a ghost hunting documentary actually really works given that Halloween has always been defined by a wealth of morbid local history. Michael Myers is a ghost story who just happens to be flesh and blood. The hook here is great, because this is taking an already established classic horror setup of a paranormal investigation and is simply injecting Michael into the middle of it.
Then there’s the fact that Smith’s Grove is closed. This is where we start to really step back from the continuity of the sequels as the most recent movie at the time, The Curse of Michael Myers, had set its entire third act at the sanitarium, which was clearly still operating well—even if it was under the direction of an evil druid cult. Nonetheless, the approach here makes sense. Michael’s escape from Smith’s Grove had to have been a colossal clusterfuck, especially given Loomis’ long track record of insisting that they take further safety precautions that they obviously never took. It’s not outside the realm of reason to think that that event was something they never bounced back from. Abandoned mental hospitals always make for impactful settings in horror. They’re overgrown and broken down, looking like a cross between a bombed out school and a decaying prison. They’re both massive and heavily secured, so that in addition to the fear of the seclusion and isolation, there’s also the worry that you might not be able to find your way out if you really need to. Coupling that notion with the specific setting of Smith’s Grove, though, makes for an extra layer of creepiness as it becomes that much creepier considering its personal connection to Michael Myers.
For all intents and purposes, Michael’s fifteen years in Smith’s Grove are his Jesus years. Just as we jump from him as a boy to him as a grown man without any information as to what happened in between, we see Michael kill his sister as a child and in the very next scene we see him escape as a grown man. The TV cut of Halloween expands on this somewhat with scenes just after the boy’s admittance to Smith’s Grove and just before and after his escape, but that’s it. The novelization does greatly expand on Michael’s time in Smith’s Grove, but that’s it. The Mad House isn’t just an investigation into what might have happened during the time Michael was a patient, but what else went on at the hospital that probably wouldn’t fly with the medical board. In the context of their ghost hunting documentary, Michael Myers isn’t even the thing they’re there to find—which makes sense, as he is still a very real presence in Haddonfield, having committed several murders across the span of the previous two books—instead, they’re trying to capture footage of a ghost that’s said to haunt the property of the abandoned sanitarium, a doctor who committed all sorts of bizarre and unethical experiments on his patients.
The other really interesting thing about this book at first glance is that it is the only Halloween book, and I think possibly the only official Halloween tie-in of any kind, to not actually be set on Halloween. O’Rourke likely wanted to switch gears a little bit after the previous two books, setting this one toward the end of August, right before the end of summer break. That allows it the opportunity to stand on its own, but also provides the characters with the incentive of wanting to make something of their summer before being thrust back into the miserable high school environment.
In The Mad House, you still get exactly the kind of angsty teenage melodrama you’d find in any YA book at the time. Eddie, for example, has a huge crush on Christine and is doing his best not to show it when he sees how genuinely interested she appears to be in his movie. But Eddie’s best friend, Maggie, is extremely jealous even though Eddie has made it clear to her that they’ll never be anything but friends, so she’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that this potential romance doesn’t actually begin to blossom. Christine also brings along her friend Julie and Julie’s boyfriend, Brandon, a dumb jock to make sure that the cast isn’t made up of solely film nerds and at least one couple manages to sneak off to have sex. While Brandon is largely unlikable, it’s actually nice to see a dude genuinely hanging out with the people he pays to do his homework for him during the school year.
The teen relationships and heightened emotional drama might be the weakest aspects of the book, but they’re exactly what you’d find in any Fear Street novel of the time as well. It’s a stylistic thing that’s important to this kind of book, so it would almost be weird not to have them. If anything, these goofy, cheesy teenage hormonal arcs are actually really smart because they are completely disarming. When you’re deep in a paragraph on who wants to kiss who, you become wholly unprepared for how intense this book actually gets.
That’s something that carries through each of Kelly O’Rourke’s Halloween novels and is the high mark of the series, for sure. While these were marketed toward teen and pre-teen readers, they’re actually incredibly gory books. I have no idea how she got away with that, but all these years later I am still so, so glad that she did. These are the things that truly make The Mad House the perfect template for a new Halloween sequel, along with its inherently eerie setting. There are actually some really strong set pieces and “oh shit” moments in the book.
One of the first of them is simply the recounting of the local history, something that is necessary to both slashers and paranormal movies alike, so it only makes sense to give a scene like that in this kind of hybrid genre piece. When breaking down a history of the hospital, recounting the story of the bizarre experiments conducted in secret by one of the doctor’s, they also speculate that Michael himself might have been subject to these experiments, even intriguingly referring to this place where he spent so much of his life as “the only home he ever knew.” There are other strong moments in which two characters realize—a little too late—that someone must have locked the gate after they came in, meaning both that someone else is in the hospital with them and that they can’t get out until morning.
But the biggest highlight and most twisted scene comes when a character is strapped into an old, rusty electroshock therapy table just after Michael has cut the power, so that when the rest of the characters find the generator and turn the power back on, they are actually the ones who trigger the electrocution that kills her, putting the death on their hands. It’s a perversely intelligent moment for Michael in a book that otherwise offers a much more animalistic portrayal of the killer. This is Michael Myers completely out of his element, unprepared, and because of that he seems a little more feral and the deaths even feel a little more mean-spirited. At one point, the characters even try to trick him in a very similar way to how Ginny tricks Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2, but it doesn’t work. There’s always something a little more cunning about Michael and, for the most part, O’Rourke manages to tap into that fairly well.
With the relative lack of Loomis in the three Halloween novels, one can almost start to construe that the character has been entirely replaced by a much more sinister doctor. But that’s definitely not the case. Like the other books, there are still vague references to Loomis and most importantly here, it’s made clear that these experiments on the patients were done without the hospital’s knowledge and that Loomis himself had no idea that Michael had been subjected to any of these experiments. When it’s revealed that the mad doctor who’s ghost they’ve come to track isn’t even dead, but actually alive inside the sanitarium, he becomes the first Loomis stand-in character in any of the O’Rourke books, though unlike Loomis he is motivated primarily by guilt for the effects his old experiments might have had on patients like Michael.
Halloween: The Mad House might be the best of the YA Halloween novels. At the very least, from its premise to its setting to the fact that it doesn’t take place on Halloween, it is definitely the most different. And yet, despite that, it still feels like Halloween and still honors the legacy of the franchise while taking it in a different direction. That’s what the best franchise sequels do, and while it’s full of cheesy ‘90s charm, this Are You Afraid of the Dark? approach to Michael Myers works really well. If, by some miracle, you can find it for a decent price, snatch it up quickly. Even though these books do find themselves lowering in price from time to time, they never do it for long, and all three of these are definitely worth it.