Politics as Horror, Horror as Art: Part 1
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An activist friend of mine launched into an enthusiastically passionate diatribe after seeing 28 Days Later, expressing that the film was an analogy for the current social-political climate. She had been met with a blank stare afterward and was asked: “You aren’t really politically analyzing a horror film, are you?”

It wasn't a coincidence, of course. Screenwriter Alex Garland blatantly intended these themes to be inherent in the film—just as with his earlier script, The Beach, he had set out to explore society’s ills—yet my friend couldn’t help but second-guess her analysis when questioned. “I must really be over-thinking this stuff,” she had concluded.

Our conversation after the fact brought a number of questions to mind: Why are the political themes woven into the horror genre so easy to miss? Is thematic content always intended, or is it more often revealed after a film has been released? If the content is unintended, is this a less effective means of delivering the message? How many columns will it take to answer these questions?

In the horror documentary The American Nightmare, the genre classics of the sixties and seventies are explored to show how they reflected the political turmoil of these decades. Titled with a double entendre allusion to a Malcolm X quote: “I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American Nightmare,” it sets out to investigate the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, and the horror culture that emerged from it. Featuring an all-star line-up of modern masters of the macabre: Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw fame, Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes), John Halloween Carpenter, George of the Living Dead Romero, and special effects genius Tom Savini. Throughout interviews, they express that they had not set out with overt politics in mind when filming. As artists, they interpreted the world around them, and these productions were the result of those interpretations.

This was shocking!

I had always just assumed that these themes were intended. Night of the Living Dead with its biting anti-racist commentary. Texas Chainsaw, Last House on the Left, and The Hills Have Eyes, with their brutal dismantling of the nuclear family mythos and commentary on the Vietnam War. All of these themes have become inseparable associations with such films so many decades after their release.

To hear Romero explain that Duane Jones, the actor who played protagonist Ben in the original Night was simply the best person they could find for the part was staggering; that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the film’s foremost intention was bewildering. While still shots of lynch mobs juxtaposed with end credit images of zombie hunting poses seem to tell a different story—these images clearly parallel—they may not have been strictly conscious, but yet they’ve become implicit in the work.

In all cases, whether it’s Craven reliving the shooting of four students at Kent State between savage splices of Last House or Savini peering through his camera lens at the tragedies he witnessed in the jungles of Vietnam paired with carnage from Day of the Dead, their creations are intimately personal. Each is a work of art, illustrating the period and personal demons in which it was composed—perhaps made all the more powerful by the fact that these themes infected their creativity subliminally. That they were implicitly woven into their content made them so effective.

It would take five columns to answer my questions, but I was off to a solid start. To get a clearer understanding, I would have to explore beyond the documentary into the darkest reaches of the genre—or at least the silliest…

For more of Josh's series, be sure to read:
Part 2 and Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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