Pop 666: Santa Mira
“Something evil had taken possession of the town”
The fictional town of Santa Mira first appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), where it was the site of an unusual alien invasion. Plant spores fell from space, grew into grotesque pods, then opened to reveal not seeds but human beings, duplicates in fact of people from the very same town. These Pod People (a term was popularised by the film) are like their original in every way, genetically identical down to their memories, however, they are entirely devoid of feeling, a condition that comes in handy when the clone dispenses with their progenitor.
Welcome to Santa Mira
The novel that the film is based on — The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney — was set in a real place: Mill Valley, California just north of San Fransisco. Director Don Siegel wanted to film there but it proved to be too expensive for the film’s initial $350,000 budget. The solution was to invent a town, use multiple locations to shoot it, and so Santa Mira was founded. Santa is a Spanish word meaning ‘female saint’ and is of course a popular and well-worn prefix for Californian towns. Mira is a more unique choice. It means to ‘look’, and the name could be read as Saint Vision. This sounds fairly innocuous on its own but in the context of this film it takes on an ominous note. Look. What do you see? Everything looks the same on the surface but there is something sinister underneath. As it turns out, everyone is looking but no-one is seeing, or at least they’re not until it’s too late.
Santa Mira is a composite of places, primarily in and around Los Angeles. The main location used was Sierra Madre, a city in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley and a popular filming location for horror films including Return of the Living Dead Part II, The Fog, Twin Peaks, and more recently, Bird Box. Other locations used to create Santa Mira included Chatsworth, Glendale, Los Feliz, Bronson, and Beachwood Canyons. Some interiors were shot at Allied Artists studio on the east side of Hollywood. A full breakdown of the locations is available here.
Return to Santa Mira
Several decades later, in 1982, the town of Santa Mira was brought back from the dead and used as the location for Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
It’s well known that Halloween III: Season of the Witch is an outlier in the now eleven films long Halloween franchise, breaking with the unkillable story of unkillable psycho Michael Myers hunting down would-be victim Laurie Strode. Halloween creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill were reluctant to come back for a third time—after a particularly unpleasant experience on the sequel—and only agreed to participate in the film on the condition that the franchise would be transformed into an anthology series, along the lines of The Twilight Zone.
British writer Nigel Kneale, best known for creating the Quatermass series, was brought on to pen an original story for the film. Kneale wanted to tone down the gore and present a story whose horror was in “deception, psychological shocks rather than physical ones”. Producer Dino De Laurentiis had other plans and gave the directive to add violence. While Kneale’s basic outline remains largely the same in the finished film (which should explain the supernatural Stonehenge plot) the dialogue was entirely rewritten by director Tommy Lee Wallace and the nasty factor was dialed up. Apparently it was Wallace’s idea to set the film in Santa Mira, as a direct homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In Kneale’s original script, the factory town was another fictional place to be called Sun Hills.
Filming again took place in and around Los Angeles, including some of the spots used in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, such as Sierra Madre. As it turns out, both Halloween and Halloween II had also been filmed there, effectively creating a geographical connection between the three films. As a side note, another connection between the first two Halloween films and the third is that the original Michael Myers mask and the masks featured in Halloween III: Season of the Witch were all made by Don Post.
The majority of the filming took place in the small coastal town of Loleta—formerly known as Swauger’s Station—in Humboldt County, California, a place whose only other cinematic claim to fame is a single episode of The X-Files. The building used for the nefarious Silver Shamrock Novelties Factory where so much of the action takes place was actually Loleta’s Familiar Foods, a former milk bottling plant.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch also fills in some details about the town, during a scene where central characters Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) are driving there and discussing its history:
“Santa Mira. Founded in 1887. A farming community that grew up around a large dairy. After World War II, a wealthy Irishman, Conal Cochran converted it into a toy factory … Silver Shamrock Novelties … now given over to the manufacture and sale of Halloween masks. Largest in the world. Proud community, predominantly Irish”.
Place without a Postcard
Whether or not Halloween III: Season of the Witch intended for their Santa Mira to be the exact same one featured in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or just tip of the hat is unknown, but let’s assume they are the same. They easily could be. The timing lines up well: 1956 is only ten years after World War II and 28 years is plenty of time to build up a successful novelty business like Silver Shamrock, especially for an already wealthy owner. Let’s consider then that these two films are then about Santa Mira (and small towns in general), with each story being an entry point to particular moments in time.
The protagonists of both films are doctors, whose circumstances are almost perfect mirror opposites. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wholesome Santa Mira local Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is beset upon by the community, desperate for his help, all the while he himself is trying to reconnect with a childhood sweetheart. In Halloween III: Season of the Witch, outsider Dr. Dan Challis is an alcoholic, divorced and estranged from his family, who must force himself into the community to resolve their increasingly dire situation. Invasion of the Body Snatchers draws us into a Santa Mira that is coming apart, dissolving, with the breakdown of familial relationships and the closing of once-thriving local enterprise. It is seemingly the end of an era, full of paranoia and suspicion. What if the Pod People actually symbolise the changing fortunes and culture of this place? After all, one of the first scenes in the town features a woman bemoaning the closure of her formerly successful small business. The invasion is a soft one, barely perceptible, the sort of social change that is hard to identify let alone stop.
When we pick up the story decades later in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the town essentially belongs to a wealthy industrialist, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), whose factory has put the place on the map and given the residents their livelihoods — but at what cost? As it turns out, the townspeople of Santa Mira pinned their hopes on a man who, in the end, did not have their best interests at heart. A familiar story the world over. It would be interesting to pick this cinematic thread up again now and look at Santa Mira in the age of Walmart and Amazon, using automation, hegemony, and inequality as the sources of horror, which would directly continue the themes of replacement, possession, and the perils of small-town life.
Come Back Soon
Santa Mira is also mentioned in numerous other films, including Memoirs of an Invisible Man (a John Carpenter film!) and throughout the Sharknado series. Director Anthony C. Ferrante has stated that Santa Maria (mentioned variously as a place, an airline, etc.) is a deliberate nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
It has also been referenced in television shows as diverse as Doctor Who, Airwolf, and animated series Ben Ten, as well as numerous novels, including The Dark Tower by Stephen King and Phantoms by Dean Koontz.
When Invasion of the Body Snatchers was (brilliantly) remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978, the action was brought back to San Fransisco, in fact, specifically in San Fransisco. The Halloween anthology project sadly failed and six years later Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers was released returning the action once again to Haddonfield, Illinois, another fictional American small town where bad things happen.
Pop 666 is an occasional series that looks at places in horror films.