A top 10 list of scary flicks with deep political and social meaning
Horror movies are generally thought of as entertainment fodder. People love thrills and scares, but many horror films have deep political underpinnings to them that many audiences miss. Horror films tend to revolve around political themes, even if subtly.
A lot of horror film directors (and writers) are very political. Directors such as John Carpenter, George Romero, Wes Craven (to name a few) are in fact very political individuals. Stephen King, the great horror novelist, is also well known to infuse political issues into his stories. For these men, scary stories and horror are analogies to the things that mankind fears.
John Carpenter often describes there being two distinct ideas of horror. There is the horror from the outside, the “monsters” that lurk in the dark. The “monsters” are the things beyond the dark that embodies the evils that must be destroyed. This is the idea of horror most people find attractive.
Then there is the second kind of horror, the inner horror. The real monsters are not out there in the darkness, but instead are within us. We are the monsters, and mankind has to deal with the understanding that everything we fear lurks within every human heart.
The idea of politics in horror films are played out well in a list of films I have gathered. Bloomberg recently published its own shortlist of political horror movies, a couple of which I will use in my list due to importance.
#1: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
Not an overtly political horror film, though one that gives great insight into the “horror” that Carpenter refers to. Rather than the “monster” being some external beast or evil, the monster is a seemingly harmless young man. The character of Norman Bates also could serve as an archetype for sexual repression. Being that a young man’s sexuality has been such a taboo and often forbidden subject in “moral” America, we see the consequences perhaps in this repression through the psychotic Norman Bates who dawns his mother’s attire and murders women over his sexual repressions.
#2: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Perhaps one of Romeo’s best use of the zombie in film, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead is full of political and social allegories. Building off of his themes from his earlier film, Night of the Living Dead, Romero used the zombie apocalypse as an allegory of American consumerism.
While some feel the zombie analogy was a nod to the Cold War, I see it more as a critique of American consumer culture. The zombies have no individual identities, and clamor instead to consume everything before them without regard for environment or afterthought.
Zombies are mindless consumers, which in the end threatens individuality. This message is made more overt by the fact the film takes place in a shopping mall. While Americans love to think of themselves as rugged individuals, most cannot escape the conformity of capitalist culture, which demands that they consume, consume, consume!
#3: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby, based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin, was a film that always unnerved me. After watching it a few times, there are a couple of political angles that the story-line takes. Most overtly, the film challenges the “old world” horror of the monster from the darkness, and focuses on the idea of whether “God is Dead.” The film explores the depths of American “morality” by exposing that even our most loved neighbors are in fact agents of the devil.
This analogy goes back to the horror within, and how any person, no matter how clean on the outside, can be as maniacal as the worst stereotyped killer. The film also has a subtle feminist angle, as Rosemary, even though knowing something is wrong with her baby, is ignored by her male peers. Even her own husband, the one who is supposed to care the most, sells her away to Satan in order to profit off of “The American Dream.”
#4: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Perhaps Carpenter’s best film (in my opinion), this remake of the 1950’s film “The Thing from Another World” has terrified my imagination since I first saw it on VHS in 2002. Carpenter’s film deals with a very powerful issue, that still resonates today: who can you trust? This was a fear during the Cold War, as red scares often had Americans wondering whether their neighbors were in fact communist agents.
Today this could play into America’s fears of radical Islam. The Thing explores this concept, as an alien being frozen for thousands of years in Antarctic ice is revived and able to take the form of other creatures and multiply itself within other organisms. No one can tell immediately who is “the thing” and who isn’t, leading the Antarctic research team to break down and turn against each other. The Thing dives into the harsh political reality of trust, and exactly who do you trust and why? Is the “enemy” on the outside, or is it secretly hiding within us?
#5: Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979)
No other horror film does a better job than The Amityville Horror in exposing the darkness behind the walls of the American home. Home ownership has always been one of the most mythologized aspects of the American Dream. Owning a large house with a white picket fence has often been used as a popular marker of success in America. What The Amityville Horror does is strip away at the inside of the American home, and reveal that human evil cannot be hidden silently behind the walls of a pretty house.
While the film is overtly a ghost story, (and is based on the true events of the Defoe Murders and the story of George and Kathy Lutz), the movie conveys the message that home is not always where the heart is. In fact, owning a home is rife with its own terror.
#6: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985)
Among the most obscure horror films on the list is the 1985 film “The Stuff.” This film revolves around a parasitic organism sold as a popular snack food to unwitting Americans. The organism (The Stuff) takes over the mind of the humans that eat it, which eventually consumes them from the inside-out. This film is most overtly aimed at the American food industry, and warns about the dangers of not knowing what is in the food you eat.
It goes back to consumer culture again. The film attacks the indulgence of American capitalism and how Americans will buy and consume the hottest thing on the market, without even realizing what they are doing to themselves and their community. The film is certainly not academy award material, but it is an interesting critique of American consumerism for those of us interested in pulp-fiction.
#7: Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972)
One of the most gruesome films on the list, also happens to be among the most relevant to American culture. The main theme of this film is violence. The film deals with a group of suburban people who torture, rape, and subsequently murder a young woman. Revenge is then wreaked upon them by an angry father. The film’s idea of violence stands in contrast to American concepts of “justified” violence.
Americans love the “eye for an eye” approach to justice. When someone kills your loved one, you have to kill them back and make them suffer as you have. Last House on the Left poses a problem to this idea. The film raises the question of “justified” violence, and whether violence cancels out violence. When America reacted after 9/11, violent revenge was all anyone would contemplate. They hit us, so we hit them.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq was justified out of desire for bloody revenge. Yet, Wes Craven raises the issue of whether countering violence with violence solves anything. If someone from across the street kills your daughter, does killing that person and his daughter in revenge make you a better person? Or does that make you just as violent as those who acted against you?
#8: Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)
One of sci-fi and horror’s most overtly feminist pieces is Ridley Scott’s classic film “Alien.” The film’s central theme seems to be sexuality. Aside from the fact the hero and main character is the strong and dynamic Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), the aliens themselves are analogies to the fears of male sexuality. The alien reproduces by subverting the human re-productive cycle. For men, Alien is one of the scariest films of all time.
The alien face-huggers penetrate the humans (mainly males) which then forces them to birth the full creatures from their chests. The film explores the fear of the dominant woman, and man’s fear of sexual penetration. The men are the ones who are vulnerable in the film, and it is often they who have to grapple with the fear of being sexually violated. The film is a unique take on male fears of sexuality, and the only one who is able to overcome these issues is a woman, not a man.
# 9 Marry Harron’s American Psycho (2000)
This film is perhaps the best example of the perversions of the American Dream. Based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, the film explores the depths of the depraved Patrick Bateman, a Wall-Street broker by day and deranged serial killer by night. The film explores the vanity of America’s corporate class, and how some are able to overlook the most heinous acts in favor of rather trivial issues.
While murdering and torturing innocent people, Bateman is more concerned about not getting blood on his expensive suits or making sure his face is not damaged after hours of cleaning it to perfection. Much like corporate tycoons today who find themselves more concerned about their profit margins then whether people have jobs or communities have clean water to drink. American Psycho shows that the American Dream is not necessarily available just to those “who work hard.”
Those who often find success in the American Dream are people who are either privileged or are willing to do the worst things imaginable to stay on top. Being a “success” in America often requires the suffering of another, and the indifference of America’s elite are showcase examples of this.
#10 Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007)
This film perhaps is the best horror film to represent the post 9/11 attitude. Based on a novella of the same name by Stephen King, The Mist deals with a small New England town being taken over by a mysterious mist that opens ways for monstrosities from other worlds to wreak havoc. Many lock themselves in a supermarket, afraid and unaware of what to do.
These fearful townsfolk are then offered choices between following the words of maniacal zealots or face the monsters outside. Fear is the main theme here, especially how humans cope with these fears differently. People tend to gravitate towards those who offer answers to the problems being faced, even if those answers are grossly insane. George Bush was able to invade Iraq because it offered a solution to our need for action after 9/11, even though the invasion made no logical sense. It doesn’t have to make sense in afterthought.
The Nazi’s offered a solution to the ills of Germany, kill all the Jews. As insane as the idea is, it offered an answer to the country’s ills, which was appealing to many Germans. People can justify the most heinous acts out of fear, and will blindly follow anyone who claims they can combat the horrors that rest out in the darkness. FDR was right in that fear itself is man’s greatest social and emotional issue.
These films are just a shortlist of the many politically-themed horror flicks. These are among my favorite, especially for the broad themes that Americans still face today. Horror films and fiction are more than just entertainment fodder. Many important messages lay within them. While many do not appreciate horror films because of its violence and use of shock value, I ask the question then: does violence inherently shock you? If not, what makes a film about a psycho-killer any less relevant than a film about soldiers in war? Is one form of killing okay to display and the other isn’t? If so, why?
These films have political and social meaning. People react differently to them based on their fears, which will never die away. As the writer H.P. Lovecraft once said;
“Fear is the oldest and most powerful emotion of mankind. The oldest and most powerful type of fear, is fear of the unknown.”