The tense political environment right now has me thinking a lot about my identity as an American. I was born and raised here. I’m fairly patriotic. I studied the law and our nation’s history in part to better understand the rules that underlie our Americanness.
And when I think of myself as an American, I think about our rights and the defense of our liberties. I think of working together with those who have different viewpoints. I think of respect and tolerance because Americans are supposed to hold those values in esteem. I also think, “It’s easy to be American when things are going well.”
What happens if this all falls apart?
We Americans treasure our autonomy. Look at the Bill of Rights. Look at the Constitution. These are the rules by which the government protects our rights and with which the people limit the government. We have all said we agree to abide by this rulebook to preserve everyone’s pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (within reason). Do we mean it?
As has been made clear time and time again, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes our authority figures let us down. Sometimes they mess up bad and people get hurt. Sometimes we turn against our fellow Americans when we should band together. It’s hard to be sure if a threat exists, or what or who it is.
As I’ve been reflecting on the current political environment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the following political horror movies. It’s no secret that many horror movies explore themes regarding contentious political issues, like racism, feminism, abortion, class conflict, and war. I chose these political horror movies for their particular aim in using horror to explore the ways in which group dynamics play out, how leaders rise and fall, and how power changes people for better or worse. In short, the following American horror films address governance and our American group identity in ways that are scarily relevant.
Most of the political horror movies on this list ask these same questions, particularly after times of unrest and turmoil. After all our talk about doing the right thing, will the right bad situation make liars of us all?
2000 Maniacs (1964)
In this movie, an entire southern town traps and murders six unlucky yankee teenagers in revenge for the deaths of 2000 Confederate soldiers, slain by Union forces 100 years earlier. Obviously, that description invokes the tension borne by the American Civil War, but consider as well the political context in which this film was released.
The early 1960s saw a huge shift in the Civil Rights movement, with marches, sit-ins, and Supreme Court cases that struck down various elements of institutionalized racism. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. In November 1962, President Kennedy used Executive Order 11063 to ban discrimination in federal housing practices. The Civil Rights Act was working its way through Congress in 1963. On June 11, 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace physically blocked the integration of two black students into the University of Alabama and President Kennedy called in the National Guard to remove him.
Obviously, racist southerners did not take too kindly to the use of Federal force to win another war, this time for civil rights. We’ve all seen the pictures of angry white people screaming and throwing things at students. We’ve seen pictures of white officers beating black demonstrators in the streets. And yet this stereotype of southern hospitality and charm persists.
With all this in mind, 2000 Maniacs asks some chilling questions: What if the caricature of uncivilized the southern redneck was not only real, but way worse than you ever imagined? What if that charming southern hospitality masks a deep brutality? What if the weird hokey customs were more sinister than you ever thought? And what if your fear that southerners harbor a not-so secret resentment and hatred towards people who threaten their way of life? What if they never let go of the fact that someone more powerful forced them to give up their way of life?
I’m not saying all Southerners are like this. But enough people are, in all regions of the country. And those people who resisted Federal enforcement of basic civil rights for African Americans didn’t go anywhere. A lot of them are still here, hiding behind a smile and a folksy accent.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Really, I could have used any George A. Romero zombie film for this list, but I think that Night of the Living Dead is one of his best and most subversive films. This film deals explicitly with threats from within the community and from within the family unit. Neighbor turns against neighbor. Brother turns against sister. Daughter turns against parents. The dead turn against the living. All of those nice, conservative 1950s ideals about family and community are dashed.
The film’s claustrophobic farmhouse setting reflects the cultural and socio-political upheaval of the 1960s, coming off the red-scare of the 1950s, and with added pressure from the hugely unpopular Vietnam War. Everyone in the film is on edge. Everyone has their own ideas of how to fix things and fears things will only get worse. All the infighting serves only to distract from the greater threat of communism and war and “subversive elements”…I mean…. zombies.
Additionally, one of the most subversive parts of Night of the Living Dead is the fact that Duane Jones, a black actor, was cast in the lead role of tough, smart, and cool-under-pressure Ben. Not only did he prove to be the film’s most competent character, but he also thrashed a white patriarch for being an insufferable douchebag who wouldn’t admit that Ben was the natural leader. Ben earned his role as the leader of the group and lives longer than anyone else in the group. This casting choice was hugely important to representations of black people and forced audiences to question their own attitudes. Romero’s decision, intentional or accidental, was a ballsy stroke of genius.
The Omen (1976)
The Omen, like many horror films in the 1970s, was born of the cultural and political tension of the early 1970s. There was much distrust among the American people due to the tumultuous environment created by America’s own leaders and authority figures. While the situation is much more complicated than that, and it’s another discussion about whether or not that’s fair, the fact is that many Americans felt extremely resentful of those in power. It’s not too far a stretch to see how this attitude would inform The Omen a movie where a perfectly pleasant, rich, powerful ambassador and his nice wife become the adopted parents of the literal antichrist, a creepy little boy who ends up in the custody of the President.
In The Omen, evil appears in the least expected form and completely fools the political elite. No one realizes the gravity of the situation until it’s too late. For this reason, the film is notable, since most horror films involve victims who are average, normal Americans. Not only had our political elites endangered the nation’s global standing with the Vietnam War and compromised our values with the Watergate scandal, now they had ushered the Antichrist into the world. They elites were the ones who messed up, naïvely assuming their position and privilege would protect them and nothing bad would ever happen to them. They were not as smart as they thought, and we would all pay for their mistakes.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The original The Hills Have Eyes is a classic of 1970s low-budget horror and one of Wes Craven’s first big films. Craven’s film took aim at our beliefs about members of marginalized society, the socio-economic tensions of American life, and most of all, the fragility of our own “civilized” nature.
The Hills Have Eyes is a story about two families caught in a violent, zero-sum game. One family is modeled on ideas of a wholesome American family while the other is the exact opposite. One family realizes violence is the only thing that will save them while the other uses violence and cannibalism to survive. The surviving family members succumb to brutality and questionable acts, just like the other family does. Both sides are desperate and angry and savagery ensues.
The slide into barbarism is a theme that appears often in Craven’s films. In this instance, The Hills Have Eyes and other films from this period were his way of criticizing the Vietnam War. More pointedly, however, were his criticisms about the American reaction to violence in Vietnam. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Craven said:
“I felt like America as a whole country – myself was becoming immune to violence. We were watching it – I literally was watching people dying on my television screen while I was eating dinner, you know, and several times caught myself, you know, with mouthfuls of food and nausea coming over me with – what? You know, this is horrible. I mean, this is really horrible.”
While he didn’t explicitly decry war, Craven had deep concerns about the effect of war and violence on the population, and was able to (ironically) use horror to warn against it. He wanted us to recognize what we are all capable of, should we become desperate and angry enough.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of my favorite horror remakes ever. The original 1956 version dealt with Americans’ fears of the “red scare” and an impending Soviet invasion. The 1978 version picks up where the original left off, combining Cold War fears with fresh anxieties about the Watergate Scandal and Vietnam, the effect of which were so shocking and existentially damaging that I’m not sure we will ever fully recover as a nation.
As in the original, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers told the story of an alien race that comes to earth to quickly and quietly invade, replacing our loved ones and authority figures with creepy, sinister copies. There is no one to trust and nowhere to hide. The worst part is that the infected human beings aren’t transformed into mindless zombies. The aliens steal thoughts and memories, stepping into the bodies of humans, and feeding their own greed and consumption. In this way, the film hits on everything from growing paranoia and loss of faith in our elected officials, suspicious about our neighbors, and American consumerism.
And even though the aliens assure their victims that they will have the same memories and thoughts, that they can “have the same life,” the message of compliance struck nerves all across America. What is a smooth, trouble-free life if you are not really free? Another question lingers—What if we wouldn’t really mind all that much, despite our confessed dedication to liberty?
They Live (1988)
They Live is such an 80s movie, and I’m not just talking about just the clothes and the Wayfarer knock-offs and the mullets. (Lord, the mullets!) No, the specter of President Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics looms large. While some Americans may remember Reagan’s America as stable and profitable, loads of other Americans never saw the benefits of Reagan’s tax cuts, let alone the jobs that were supposed to be magically created as a result of trickle-down economics. Not to mention Reagan’s apathy to the AIDS crisis or how his repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 led to a dramatic increase in violent crimes perpetrated by mentally ill individuals.
They Live pits a working-class everyman against a race of aliens that have successfully infiltrated and brainwashed America. They have seized power and seek to further solidify their position at the expense of the powerless. To make matters worse, a select few humans help the aliens, eager to be rewarded in the impending new world order. It’s not hard to see this film as an indictment of 80s conservatives or yuppie culture.
But I digress. Director John Carpenter has admitted that They Live was about “giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.” Specifically, Carpenter took aim at the materialism, consumerism, and the smothering influence of the so-called “moral majority” of 1980s America. I wrote a whole post about it here. Carpenter’s point, of course, is that those people are telling you what to buy and how to buy it and what to consume and when to reproduce probably do not have your best interests at heart.
After all, healthy skepticism is very American.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
While I admit it’s not Wes Craven’s best film by any metric, I’m surprised this movie isn’t more well-known based on its political satire. Craven wasn’t even subtle: he called out the institutions maintaining the socio-economic status quo and those who benefitted from them. He fired shots. He emptied the whole clip. And he did that by savagely lampooning Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
In The People Under the Stairs, the main villains are “Daddy” and “Mommy” Robeson, an incestuous brother-and-sister pair that take advantage of their impoverished black tenants, abduct and abuse children, scream about their moral superiority, lie to the cops and are generally f*cking terrifying. Not-Ronald-Reagan and Not-Nancy-Reagan also keep a horde of maimed, crazed people, all white, in their basement. They are all the children who “were bad” and who had to be punished by Daddy. It’s completely messed up. And that’s not even touching the scene where Daddy runs around in a Pulp-Fiction-esque gimp suit, wielding a shot gun, trying to kill the black child protagonist of the film.
There’s even a scene where Daddy kills Leroy, who is black, and feeds his body to the horde of starving white people in the basement. I could not help but think of this Martin Luther King Jr. quote, an association I’m sure was intentional:
“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”
Because when push comes to shove, is it really that much better to be imprisoned in a basement and fed human flesh? Aren’t Daddy and Mommy Robeson the ones we should focus on?
The Village (2004)
It’s human nature to grieve and withdraw from the outside world when the going gets tough. As Americans, we have this image of how “resilient” and “strong” we are. To a degree, it’s true. We are a persistent, tenacious lot. (I am proud of that to a very American degree, come at me bro.) But we aren’t bulletproof. We’re not superhuman. We are vulnerable and no degree of stability or illusion of safety changes that. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to manipulate you and you should be wary. Sometimes, Americans forget this and we react badly when tragedy strikes.
Cue The Village, which explored themes of political and social isolation in the wake of 9/11. The film tackles that misconception that nothing bad can happen to us on our own soil, that we can take drastic precautions to “secure” safety. We’ve done this before—rounded up Japanese people in internment camps, turned away boats full of Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, increased surveillance post 9/11. While such efforts don’t work to keep out real threats, we tend to neglect this lesson. It didn’t stop the village elders from doing their best to implement their drastic precautions. That hasn’t stopped some of our political leaders from doing the same over the course of American history.
It’s a pity this film wasn’t better, because it could have been an instant classic, relevant not just for the atmosphere of fear post-9/11, but for our history in general.
The Mist (2007)
What better movie to talk about complicated group dynamics and the resulting power struggles than The Mist? Forget the bad CGI and questionable acting from some of the cast, because the Mist is at its best when it lets Marcia Gay Harden go off the rails, whipping half the town into a religious frenzy and terrifying the rest.
Religion and politics go hand in hand. America is no different, despite that pesky Establishment Clause. The Salem Witch Trials, justifications for slavery and Jim Crow, blue laws, the Reagan-era moral majority, arguments against teaching evolution and sex education in classrooms—this is our thing, and we’re pretty good at it.
And so of course this exact thing would happen in The Mist, where all sorts of strange and horrifying monsters besiege a small Maine town. In the best part of the movie, when the townspeople learn that their own government conducted top secret experiments and unleashed their collective nightmare, the zealotry becomes hysteria. The familiar toxic infighting and religious justification erupts and the townspeople turn on each other. The majority of the are utterly convinced God is on their side, so much so they sacrifice a man to appease Him and prove to the non-believers that they’re right. Being right is most important.
In a film filled with chilling ideas, the most chilling show easily the townspeople fell into mania. They were all “regular” and “rational” people, until the mist arrived.
The Crazies (2010)
I know this is a remake of another political horror film The Crazies (1973), directed by George A. Romero. That version is good too, but I like the remake better. To me, it’s the more relevant film in the age of drones and government surveillance.
As with many “zombie” movies, The Crazies has two villains – the hyper-aggressive infected and the militarized quarantine force. In comparing the two movies, I was intrigued by how the remake portrayed the army. In the 1973 version, the film’s narrative is split between the townspeople grappling with the outbreak and the army trying to contain the leak. The army isn’t portrayed as all-powerful. The film makes a point to show you how much they messed up and how difficult it is to contain the situation. Given the historical contest, it’s easy to see this depiction as analogous to attitudes many Americans held about the military post-Vietnam.
But in the remake, the narrative cuts out the army’s side of the story relegating them to faceless, intimidating authoritarians. This makes the army’s presence all the more sinister and frightening. Without warning, soldiers descend upon the town, commandeer resources, round up citizens, and execute people without any kind of due process. All in the name of containing some kind of top secret toxin. Not only are these events deeply unjust, they reflect a deeply held human fear of those in power, the same fear many Americans have.
Specifically, The Crazies remake reflects a national mistrust and fear of military intervention. We hear and watch stories of military raids on both domestic and foreign soil. Our police have become dramatically militarized post-9/11. As we’ve struggled with our national security in the wake of the attacks, there has been a surge in conspiracy theories and a mistrust. Deep down, we’re afraid of the police and the military, afraid of how they might be used against us. What happens when we’re on the wrong side during a martial law situation and our constitutional rights are no longer in effect? If the government sees us as disposable?
The Purge Series (2013 – 2016)
This is an obvious pick, but very appropriate one.
I’ll be honest with you, these movies aren’t as smart as they want to be, but they’re also not a bad as people claim. They delve deeper into disturbing and uncomfortable territory than many horror films, let alone films that confront similar themes. What I’ve always liked about The Purge movies is how unafraid it is to point out hypocrisy. It’s done in a ham-fisted way most of the time, but yeah, these movies go there and that’s important. Armed with incendiary symbolism and a diverse cast, the Purge series is committed to throwing hard questions about race and class at the audience with striking albeit contrived plot points.
It’s astonishing that The Purge cast a black man as the victim of a gang of snooty white kids, at the mercy of a wealthy white family who profits off the annual Purge. It’s audacious that The Purge: Anarchy depicts a sick, aged black man sacrificing himself to a rich white family because it was the only way to set up a nest egg for his family. And, holy shit, The Purge: Election Year depicts a bunch of powerful white men murdering a drug addict in a church before preparing to “sacrifice” a troublemaking female presidential candidate on the altar.
Shots fired, am I right?
These are powerful, provocative images that strike a lot of nerves. These movies wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t hit upon the truth, however rendered, and for that reason alone The Purge series deserves a closer look, cheesiness and all.
Do you know of any other insightful political horror films? Let me know in the comments!