Screams of Revolution: Political Statements in American Horror Films
1 Screams of Revolution: Political Statements in American Horror Films by Rachel Victoria Richmond What is it that makes a film terrifying? Is it the shock of seeing the unspeakable? Orcould it be that within the monsters, killers, and ghouls of horror films, we see ourselves staringback with manic eyes? In the wide discussion of film, the horror genre is often brushed aside formore artistic works and widely considered to be a genre created solely for entertainment and notresonance. However, since the first films were released, directors have used the horror genre toaddress political and social problems in a non-obtrusive way. As film critic Terrence Raffertyargued in his article “Secret Sharers,” horror films are about subtext and “metaphors that attacklike viruses and produce a fever of associations in our minds” (Nelson 381). John S. Nelson, aprofessor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, supports Rafferty’s claim. In “HorrorFilms Face Political Evils in Everyday Life,” he notes that “the gist of horror is facing evils ineveryday life” (Nelson 382). According to Nelson, horror films act as a “primer for politicalaction” (Nelson 382), with the main characters battling a seemingly unbeatable force thatthreatens to overpower and destroy them. In dealing with such absolutes as life and death andgood and evil, the only option is rebellion. In Cinema Politica, Michael Ryan and DouglasKellner delve further into the importance of the horror film. While horror films express the fearsof being overwhelmed by a great evil as Nelson argues, they add that the horror film “provides avehicle for social critiques too radical for mainstream Hollywood production” (Kellner and Ryan169). It is in this capacity that the horror film finds its strength and purpose during the last half ofthe 20th century. Great political and social upheavals marked the 20th century as one of the mostturbulent periods in history. Wars, genocide, assassinations, and the ever-present fear of nuclear
2annihilation cast a dark gloom over America. Using the medium of horror films, directorscommented on the policies of the American government, especially during times of war, and onAmerica’s place as the world’s foremost superpower. The 1950s through the 1970s was theperiod in which American horror film underwent a transformation from a genre grounded in theGothic tradition of vampires, ghouls, and effete aristocracy to a boundless universe thatencompassed everything from foreign aliens to homegrown serial killers, all with strong politicalsubtext. In his essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Robin Wood contends thathorror films in the 1930s are always set in a foreign country. Frankenstein (1931), Dracula(1931), and King Kong (1933) are all set in gloomy European countries or exotic unchartedislands. Wood argues that the horror films of the 1930s (those rooted in the Gothic) project theidea that “horror exists, but is un-American” (Wood 85). He contends that horror becomes “acountry of the mind” (Wood 85), a place that can be stumbled upon, visited, and ultimately,escaped from. Americans can inhabit this world but their foray into terror is limited to onespecific place. In these films, America is seen as the bastion of civility, while the outside worldis dangerous and untamed – as in I Walked with a Zombie or King Kong. To return to Wood’sargument, the horror found in these places is strongly un-American. It is something that must betamed or defeated by the American protagonist in the name of American ideals. Such imperialistsubtext mirrors the American sentiment about foreign affairs at the time. Post-World War II,America was seen as the savior nation by countries around the world. And it was about this pointwhen American foreign policy changed from isolationism to a more thoughtful form ofinterventionism. However, the Cold War soon reverted American foreign policy back. Communism and
3the specter of nuclear war forced American foreign policy back into isolationism. At the sametime, horror films of the 1950s fused with science fiction to create the “creature feature.” Andunlike the horror films of the 1940s and before, these films were set in America (or as a form ofAmerican territory such as a base on another planet) with the protagonists under siege from alienlife forms or mutated creatures. In “Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film,”Isabel Cristina Pinedo notes that the 1950s films “locate the monster in a contemporaryAmerican city, sometimes a small town, thus drawing the danger closer to home, but they retainthe exotic in the monster’s prehistoric or outer space origins” (Prince 89). Much like the threat ofnuclear attack, the threat to America comes from outside of America. The films of the 1950s also contended with the turmoil inside of the country with the fearof Communist spies and unjust trials. According to Brian Neve in Film and Politics inAmerica, “the country was in the grip of something like a national panic over the internationaland domestic threat of communism” (Neve 171). Meanwhile, the House Committee on Un-American Activities started the hearings on Hollywood in an attempt to weed out filmmakerswho were sympathetic to the Communist cause. The fear of being blacklisted in Hollywoodcaused many filmmakers to take their critiques of American policy to genres such as horror andscience fiction, where most thought the films were a cheap and easy way to make a profit off ofthe American people. The popularity of the creature feature meant that filmmakers could createmarketable films that fulfilled studio demands while at the same time take a political stand. InRational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s, Mark Jancovich argues that thesefilms “portrayed a world of stark choices, a Cold War world in which there was no room forneutrality” (Jancovich 15). One was either in support of American ideals or against them. Thecreature features had defined moral judgments and distinctions between friend and foe. Two of
4the most iconic of these films are The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Invasion of theBody Snatchers (1956). The Thing from Another World (1951) centers a U.S. Air Force crew that discovers analien life form that crash-landed on Earth 50,000 years ago. The crew uncovers the alien andmoves it back to their base site, unaware that the alien feeds on human blood. The crew, cut offfrom the rest of civilization, must defeat the alien before it kills them and finds its way into thelarger population. The film’s themes of paranoia, invasion, and isolation define the Cold Warera. And in the end, it is the military with the use of American ingenuity that defeats the alienlife form. The Thing can be read as an anti-Communist story in which the alien, that wants tobreed and conquer the planet, is much like the Soviets that threaten the American way of life.Kendall R. Phillips writes in Projected Fears, “The Thing is driven not by passion or sentimentbut by the desire to expand and conquer” (Phillips 55) in the same way as both Communism andCapitalism. The terror of the film comes from the question of if this alien was the last of its kind.Director Howard Hawks links the idea of future alien invasions to nuclear attacks from foreign(Communist) countries. The Thing’s iconic last lines echo the 1950s “Duck and Cover”warnings. “Watch the skies, everywhere,” says one of the crewmembers, “Keep looking. Keepwatching the skies!” Five years after the release of The Thing from Another World, director Don Siegelunleashed his paranoia masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film follows a smalltown doctor who uncovers an alien invasion in which townspeople are being replaced byidentical replications grown from giant alien pods. The “Pod People” look and act like regularhuman beings but lack emotion. The aliens’ ultimate goal is to kill and replace the humanpopulation. One of the most interesting parts of Invasion is the reaction that humans have to the
5Pod People. The hushed whispers about who could be an alien and the concerns made by familymembers about strange behavior sounds eerily like the backroom conversations taking placeacross America. The fear that a neighbor could be a Communist sympathizer drove many tolodge complaints with the police. Soon the American camaraderie that carried the nation throughWorld War II was thrown away for suspicion and fear of coworkers, friends, and even familymembers. Interestingly, Invasion leaves room for interpretation. On one hand, Communism is seenas the institution that must be feared (the loss of autonomy of the Pod People) but McCarthyistparanoia is also taken to task. In Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, Adam Roberts wrote: Indeed [the film] can be read both as right-wing McCarthyite Communists from an Alien place are infiltrating our American towns and wiping scaremongering— out their American values, and the worst of it is they look exactly like Americans—and as left-wing liberal satire on the ideological climate of conformism that McCarthyism produced, where the lack of emotion of the podpeople corresponds to the ethical blind eyes turned by Americans to the persecutions of their fellows by over-zealous McCarthyites. (Roberts 80)The question then becomes, what separates us from them? The depersonalization in Invasionoffers an interesting counterpoint to The Thing. In The Thing, the humans are distinctly separatefrom the aliens. However in Invasion, there is the possibility of someone becoming the thingthey fear overnight. The ambiguity in Invasion shows a slow trend towards the postmodernhorror film standard of moral and political ambiguity that would arise in the late 1960s alongsideanother American crisis – the Vietnam War. The xenophobic horror films of the 1950s focused on the dangers coming from outside
6America. What once was contained in other countries in the movies of the 1930s and 1940sthreatened to invade America during the 1950s. However, in these two decades, America wasstill seen as the perfect society that must be defended or defected to. The pro-American horrorfilms relied heavily on the idea that the government would protect the people from aliens,monsters, and rogue scientists. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ends with the protagonist (Dr.Miles Bennell) in a hospital after he has explained the alien invasion to a psychologist. No onebelieves him until a man is brought into the hospital after a car accident. The psychologistdiscovers that another vehicle in the crash was transporting the pods in Dr. Bennell’s story andthe psychologist calls the FBI in order to stop the spread of the pods. There is nothing to assumethat the invasion was stopped but the studio wanted the audience to walk away feeling that theU.S. government once again protected the people from the outside threat (Jancovich 74).However, this implicit trust in the power of the U.S. government would implode in the late1960s. The 1960s began as a time of national rebirth. Slowly, the United States gaineda “renewed interest in domestic issues” (Neve 211), racism was being openly addressed withcivil rights rulings, and under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy, the country seemedready to move beyond the fears of the past. With the American rebirth came the hippiecounterculture that “rejected materialism, […] militarism, rationality, and Western religions andcreeds” (Becker 44) yet embraced “a love of humanity” and pacifism (Becker 45). Yet the worldin which both the average American and counterculture existed (albeit on the fringe) would fallapart on November 22, 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. In the years to follow,Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. would also be murdered. Under thedirection of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vietnam War would spin out of control, resulting in
7immense American casualties, a draft, and no strategy. In “A Point of Little Hope: Hippie HorrorFilms and the Politics of Ambivalence,” Matt Becker argues that the “possibility of significantprogressive social change [was] undercut by immense social traumas” (Becker 43) thus resultingin “political powerlessness and political disengagement” (Becker 43). Members of the pacifistcounterculture grew bitter and angry with the state of the nation and their lack of power tochange it. Soon extremist groups such as The Weather Underground responded to the politicalproblems with violence, as America was doing overseas in Vietnam. The repressed anger felt bythe counterculture and harsh critiques of America’s bloody war became apparent in thecontemporary horror films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left(1972). George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ushered in the era of the contemporary horrorfilm, a more uncompromising and complex style than had been seen before. Gone were the cleardistinctions between right and wrong, “us and them,” or America and the outside world. As thenew wave of horror films would show, America could breed its own evil. Romero’s Night of theLiving Dead depicts a zombie attack on an isolated farmhouse in which a group of survivorsfight to stay alive. Night stands out for its extensive use of gore and the realistic way in whichviolence is represented. Shot mostly handheld, the “almost-documentary style of filming in Nightmade the horror all the more graphic and immediate” (Phillips 82). Everything in the film wasshot on location with the setting stark and minimal as to give the audience no distance from thefilm. Romero removed the humor from the film and imbued the characters with realistic faultsand reactions. Night of the Living Dead shows a world thrown into complete chaos, where not even thegovernment can save the people. Romero broke from the idea of the government as the savior (as
8in the 1950s) and instead had all military and law enforcement in the same state of shock andconfusion as the survivors trapped in the farmhouse. The failure of the government to help thepeople from the attack mirrors the sentiment of the late 1960s. At one point in the film,the “hero,” Ben states that the government will “tell [them] what to do.” Yet help never comes.Instead, “military and scientific officials seem more interested in bickering about explanations[…] than providing for the survival of the citizenry” (Phillips 97). With the governmentineffective, the survivors must rely on themselves to fend off the horrors that lurk outside thefarmhouse. In the entire film, the only rational person is Ben – the film’s default hero and the onlyAfrican-American character. It is Ben who keeps the other survivors safe and it is Ben who is thelast man standing at the end of the film. The final sequence in Night of the Living Dead is fraughtwith controversy over Romero’s intended meaning. Ben, the autonomous survivor and intelligentcenter of the film, is shot dead by a roving band of men (reminiscent of a southern lynch mob)who are under the direct order of a local sheriff. Ben’s body is dragged out of the farmhouse andonto a bonfire where he becomes indistinguishable from those he was fighting against. Manyread racial significance into this final scene (it is difficult not to when it is shown in grainy blackand white photographs, much like those taken by the Ku Klux Klan during their murderoussprees) yet nothing is made of Ben’s race the entire film and Romero has argued that Ben wasnever written with a race in mind. In the end, the posse that kills Ben tries to reestablishthe “social order that has been destroyed” (Wood 116) during the zombie siege. The posserepresents a new power structure that kills out of duty “without remorse or hesitation” (Phillips98) to preserve a certain way of life. However, Romero leaves the audience asking the questionof the future intentions of the posse, who threaten both the zombies and the survivors and if they
9can hold this new structure together. The zombies in Romero’s Night move beyond the simple ghouls of earlier horror films.Instead, the zombies are frightening because they are us, we are the monsters. Romero depictsthe zombies as normal people and thus equates normality with monstrosity (Kellner and Ryan180). Finally, it would seem that the horror film had made the leap from the outside invader torealizing that humanity itself can be capable of monstrous acts. Tobe Hooper, director of theseminal horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, said of this late-1960s revelation, “It becamereally clear what was going on in the world, that the real monster is man […] and the realproblem at that particular time was people against people” (Becker 51). In Night, the survivorsbattle not only the zombies but also each other for power and control. This strife serves as amicrocosm of the cultural war raging in the late-1960s and for America’s war in Vietnam anda “full-scale criticism of American values” (Phillips 83). And as with other horror films of thistime, Romero ends Night of the Living Dead on a pessimistic note. With Ben (the voice ofreason) dead and the posse roaming the land, there seems to be no end to the chaos and the realhorror is “that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all” (Becker 42). Matt Becker contends in his essay “A Point of Little Hope” that the “extreme violence,pessimism, and general horror” of films such as Night of the Living Dead and The Last House onthe Left stood in “stark opposition to the hippie ideals of love, optimism, peace and pacifism”(Becker 51). The love of all mankind that was the key belief of the hippie movement soured intothe fear of their fellow man. The pacifist beliefs many groups held turned extreme and it seemsas though violence was the only answer, thus turning the counterculture into a mirror of theAmerican government with its policies of war. The horror films of the late 1960s and 1970sturned the idea of American moral superiority on its head. Wes Craven, the director of Last
10House on the Left, realized that “Americans weren’t always the good guys and that things thatwe could do, could be horrendous and evil, or dark, impossible to explain” (Becker 49). Cravencalled his film “a howl of anger and pain” (Becker 58) against the actions being taken by theU.S. government in Vietnam. The Last House on the Left is Craven’s take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, inwhich a young girl is murdered and her father takes revenge on the killers. In Craven’s version,two best friends are brutalize, tortured, and murdered by a gang of psychopaths who then take upresidence in one of the victim’s homes. The parents of the murdered girl eventually find out thatthe people staying in their house are the killers and they exact bloody revenge on them inretaliation. The parents are average Americans who live in the suburbs, the girls are burgeoningchildren of the hippie movement, and the killers seem to be castaways from the New Leftmoment. In Shocking Representation, Adam Lowenstein argues that Last House “emphasizes thecontinuity between its depictions of brutality and the ordinariness of everyday life” (Lowenstein118). Craven said that he patterned his filming style after that of the newsreel footage fromVietnam because it “seemed to have a lot more immediacy and truth to it than anything else”(Becker 55). Last House has the moral ambiguity that is a trademark of the postmodern horror film. Inthe film, the parents can be seen as both victims and perpetrators. Because of the violence thathas wrecked their lives, the only way they know how to respond is with violence. Craven offersa very powerful reasoning behind the chaos prevalent during the late 1960s. By bringing theviolence of Vietnam home to American suburbs, audiences could see up close what the U.S.government was doing to others across the world. In Last House on the Left, the murder of theflower children (Mari and Phyllis) signified the death of the hippie movement by the radical
11New Left movement seen in extremist groups like The Weather Underground. In the end, thereis no satisfactory resolution to be gained from Last House. There are no heroes to be found in theparents for their revenge and the evil they sought to dispatch has fused within themselves. Due to the success of the postmodern horror film in the 1970s, the genre moved fromsomething seen as being on the fringe of filmmaking to the forefront. Soon horror moviesbecame widely marketable through the shock value of blood and gore. However, the messagebehind those horrific images was lost and the smart political subtext of the postmodern horrorfilm seemed to recede back to the periphery. Both Wes Craven and George Romero continued onmaking films yet only Romero has stuck to the formula that served him best. His Living Deadseries remains one of the most popular in all of film and he has influenced generations of newhorror film directors who wish to imbue their films with more substance. Romero, along withother horror film directors between the 1950s and 1970s, shaped the way that audiences not onlyviewed the potential of horror film but also how they viewed America itself. Robin Woodcontends that the horror film has succeeded in carrying political messages because the genreitself is about repression and the American people repress their fears of the outside world. AdamLowenstein agrees with Wood’s argument and adds that horror films succeed because ofa "shocking collision of film, spectator, and history where registers of bodily space and historicaltime are disrupted, confronted, and intertwined. [...] The films horrific images, sounds, andnarrative combine with visceral spectator affect (terror, disgust, sympathy, sadness) to embodyissues that characterize the historical trauma" (Lowenstein 2). With the world again teetering onthe edge of chaos, horror films are returning to the revolutionary narratives that propelled it tothe forefront in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s with new filmmakers empowered by world events andnew national traumas.
12 Works Cited:1. Becker, Matt. “A Point of Little Hope: Hippie Horror Films and the Politics of Ambivalence.”Velvet Light Trap. 57. 1 (2006): 42-59.2. Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester: ManchesterUniversity Press, 1996.3. Lowenstein, Adam. Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and theModern Horror Film. Film and culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.4. Nelson, John. “Horror Films Face Political Evils in Everyday Life.” Political Communication.22. 3 (2005): 381-3865. Neve, Brian. Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1992.6. Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, Conn:Praeger Publishers, 2005.7. Prince, Stephen. The Horror Film. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,2004.8. Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2006.9. Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology ofContemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1988.10. Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press,1986.