Reading, of all things, an article at Cracked.com called: “6 Mind-Blowing Ways Zombies and Vampires Explain America,” I got stirred up enough to finally address an issue I’d long pondered. Namely, The Politics of Horror Movies.
Every so often, one of the major media outlets will notice the popularity of contemporary horror movies and will try and attach some kind of political or social significance to their success. This usually turns out the be the sort of glib association that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The Cracked article is typical; it puts forward the notion that vampire movies are successful when Democrats are in office because conservatives are afraid of sex and foreigners and zombies are popular when Republicans are in power because liberals fear mindlessness and conformity.
This premise is easily disrupted by a few simple points. A) Conservatives fear the mindlessness and conformity of political correctness as much as liberals fear consumerism and neo-fascist conformity. B) Vampire movies are generally conservative, since the sexually liberated undead almost always wind up defeated and sent back to hell and vampirism most closely resembles a sexually transmitted disease. C) Box office success for horror movies tend to be the result of clever advertising, quality product, built-in audiences (Twilight), or fortunate timing. Any “trend” in the genre is driven almost exclusively by the exploitative, imitative nature of the business.
This is not to say that horror movies exist in a vacuum. But most of the failed attempts to politicize horror movies are due to confusion between The Social versus The Political.
Politics is about the distribution of power in a society. By that definition, there are very few political horror movies. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Day of the Dead (1985) maybe, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), absolutely.
What most critics label as political is actually social. The decaying family, the dissolution of civil society, the relationship of the sexes, the weakening of parental authority, and the predatory nature of sex are all social issues – problems with how people relate to each other within a society. Night of the Living Dead (1968) reflects the violent, racially charged era of the Vietnam Era, when society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) extended that devolution to the nuclear family. The Exorcist (1975) betrays parents’ fear and ambivalence about their own children. Cloverfield (2008) is a meditation on post-9/11 anxieties. Etc.
Here, horror is a powerful medium, since great horror is built on psychological tension. The vast majority of horror movies, however, are intimate and personal in their scale. They focus on a small group of individuals under assault. This is the classic form of the slasher movie, and even epic, apocalyptic zombie movies revolve around a small group of survivors. Threats to the social fabric isolate and alienate individuals and make them more vulnerable, thus making them perfect horror movie foils.
Horror movies have been continuously successful since at least 1957, often independent of their times, many are timeless classics. This is what bothers me about these “trend” articles, they overlook the enduring popularity of the genre. This is due entirely to the snobbery of America’s cultural elites, most of whom refuse to take horror seriously as art. The longstanding relegation of horror to a cultural ghetto, now that’s political.