When Ryan Murphy recently announced that Season 7 of American Horror Story was inspired by the recent US presidential election, many fans were intrigued—but many were not. A common lament was that folks were sick of politics, which is absolutely understandable after the extended negativity Americans have recently endured. But others asserted that politics has no place in the horror genre; that horror movie viewing is a form of escapism and fantasy; that horror and real-life politics are completely unrelated and the two should never mix.
I couldn’t disagree with this sentiment more.
While Trump/Clinton Fatigue is undeniable, politics has always been an integral component of horror. Once we separate ourselves from the static of presidential politics, it becomes apparent. While few horror movies or shows announce their political intentions up front (like Murphy did), many are obviously thinly veiled metaphors for serious sociopolitical issues. The great thing about horror is that you can appreciate a good thriller with or without taking political subtext into account.
Related Article: Will There Be Trump and Clinton Characters in “AHS” Season 7?
Still don’t believe me? I’d be willing to wager that many of your favorites, and many of the most enduring and iconic genre films, are deeply political. Have a list at 15 examples below and let me know what you think in the Comments section. What’s your opinion regarding the relationship between horror and politics?
The Purge Franchise (2013-2018, Directed by James DeMonaco)
The Purge Review
The Purge: Election Year Review
Official Synopsis: The Purge is a series of American dystopian action horror films written and directed by James DeMonaco. It currently consists of three films: The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016). It is based on a future dystopic America where every year there is a 12-hour period during which all crime, including murder, is legal.
Sociopolitical: I’m putting all three Purge films in one spot, since politics is the thread that bind them. They explore authoritarian government policies, classism, and the politics of fear. The Purge franchise is one of the most blatantly political horror movie series ever conceived. Looks for a 4th Chapter in The Purge franchise in July 2018.
Candyman (1992, Directed by Bernard Rose)
Official Synopsis: Bernard Rose followed his moody fantasy-thriller Paperhouse (1988) with this modern horror tale, based on Clive Barker‘s short story The Forbidden. Compiling a thesis on urban legends, University of Illinois in Chicago graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) becomes aware of the prevalent superstition surrounding the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd)–a hook-wielding phantom who will appear if his name is recited five times into a mirror–among the tenants of Chicago’s Cabrini Green project.
Sociopolitical: Candyman explores classism and poverty, the segregation of the poor, and the apparent lack of interest police in the 1980s had in solving urban/black-on-black crime. The film also explores inter-racial relationships.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, Directed by George A. Romero)
Official Synopsis: The dead come back to life and eat the living. Several people barricade themselves inside a rural house in an attempt to survive the night. Outside are hordes of relentless, shambling zombies who can only be killed by a blow to the head.
Sociopolitical: While Night of the Living Dead doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve, the main character Ben (played by Duane Jones), an African-American, battles racism within the context of a larger horror. The ending of the film, which was released in the immediate aftermath of the Civil rights Movement, was devastatingly political—and pessimistic.
Get Out (2017, Directed by Jordan Peele)
Official Synopsis: Now that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate with Missy and Dean. At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he never could have imagined.
Sociopolitical: Writer/Director Jordan Peele has stated that he was partially inspired by the 2016 election; he’s also cited Night of the Living Dead as a major influence. The film explores racism, interracial relationships, and enduring racial stereotypes.
They Live (1988, Directed by John Carpenter)
Official Synopsis: A homeless drifter discovers a reason for the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor: a conspiracy by non-human aliens who have infiltrated American society in the guise of wealthy yuppies. With the help of special sunglasses that reveal the aliens’ true faces and their subliminal messages (“marry and reproduce,” “submit to authority”), our hero tries to stop the invasion. This satire of Reaganomics and the “greed is good” era also has one of the funniest (and longest) fight scenes in American cinema.
Sociopolitical: John Carpenter was talking about media manipulation decades before terms like “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts” were part of our popular vernacular. The film exposes an elite ruling class that lulls the masses into a state of compliance by promoting obedience and rampant consumerism.
The Host (2006, Directed by as Joon Ho Bong)
Official Synopsis: A monster emerges from Seoul’s Han River and focuses its attention on attacking people. One victim’s loving family does what it can to rescue her from its clutches.
Sociopolitical: Like the Godzilla films, which clearly influenced it, The Host uses a giant monster as a metaphor for environmental devastation; a manifestation of mankind’s abuse of the Earth and her resources. Joon Ho Bong’s next film, Snowpiercer, was also extremely political, tackling both environmental issues and classism.
Dawn of the Dead (1978, Directed by George A. Romero)
Official Synopsis: As hordes of zombies swarm over the U.S., the terrified populace tries everything in their power to escape the attack of the undead, but neither cities nor the countryside prove safe. In Pennsylvania, radio-station employee Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend, Francine (Gaylen Ross), escape in the station helicopter, accompanied by two renegade SWAT members, Roger and Pete. The group retreats to the haven of an enclosed shopping center to make what could be humanity’s last stand.
Sociopolitical: Coming a decade after its predecessor, Dawn of The Dead is just as political as Night. This time, a consumer-driven society is the target for biting satire, as Romero essential reveals that the Zombie Apocalypse already arrived and we just missed it. Ultimately, it’s just as pessimistic as Romero’s first.
The Shining (1980, Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Official Synopsis: Frustrated writer Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker at the ominous, mountain-locked Overlook Hotel so that he can write in peace. When he arrives there with his wife and son, they learn that the previous caretaker had gone mad. Slowly Jack becomes possessed by the evil, demonic presence in the hotel.
Sociopolitical: While some believe Kubrick’s masterpiece is just a horror movie, many fans and critics will argue that The Shining is perhaps the most politically subversive movie ever made. Many see allusions to the Holocaust and the American Indian genocide, calling the film a statement on society’s collective guilt.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Directed by Philip Kaufman)
Official Synopsis: In San Francisco, a group of people discover the human race is being replaced one by one, with clones devoid of emotion.
Sociopolitical: Like the 1962 film it’s based on, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a metaphor for communism, a manifestation of Cold War anxieties. The fears, and politics, explored within seem just as relevant today in our age of lone wolf terrorists and sleeper cells.
Hostel (2005, Directed by Eli Roth)
Official Synopsis: Three backpackers head to a Slovak city that promises to meet their hedonistic expectations, with no idea of the hell that awaits them.
Sociopolitical: Think a film about douchey Americans who get what’s coming can’t possibly be political? Think again. Hostel is warning to anyone who would exploit another culture for some fast and loose debauchery—no matter how seductive. The movie’s characters are manipulated by a collective of elites who torture and kill the poor for nothing more than entertainment. Now that’s politics!
Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)
Official Synopsis: Possibly the best horror film ever made, this brilliant adaptation of Ira Levin’s best-selling novel is the story of a loving young New York City couple who are expecting their first child. Like most first-time mothers, Rosemary experiences confusion and fear. Her husband, an ambitious but unsuccessful actor, makes a pact with the devil that promises to send his career skyward. Director Roman Polanski elicits uniformly extraordinary performance from the all-star cast. Ruth Gordon won an Oscar® for her performance as an oversolicitous next-door neighbor in this classic chiller.
Sociopolitical: Rosemary’s Baby is an expose of female suppression in 20th Century America, wherein the main character has no control over her reproductive capabilities; she has no access to resources beyond those provided by her husband, and her fears are attributed to mental instability. She’s a textbook victim of “gaslighting”, even though that term was not yet invented (or understood) when the film was made. Rosemary is reduced to a piece of property, like a mare.
VideoReviewdrome (1983, Directed by David Cronenberg)
Official Synopsis: Hardcore pornography, sadomasochism, mind control, and living televisions all play crucial roles in Videodrome, one of director David Cronenberg‘s explorations of dangerous sexuality and technological obsession. The morally questionable hero of the tale is one Max Renn (James Woods), a television executive searching for an intense new program for his sex-oriented network. He ultimately discovers an underground program called Videodrome, which appears to broadcast pornographic snuff films of actual murders.
Sociopolitical: Decades ago, David Cronenberg predicted the overwhelming (and often horrifying) impacts of technology like a prophet—even before the Internet was available. Videodrome images a blurring of reality caused by excessive media consumption, where a person’s darkest fantasies can be explored. It also foreshadows 21st Century techno-epidemics like voyeurism and sex addiction.
Teeth (2008, Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein)
Official Synopsis: High school student Dawn works hard at suppressing her budding sexuality by being the local chastity group’s most active participant. Her task is made even more difficult by her bad boy stepbrother Brad’s increasingly provocative behavior at home. A stranger to her own body, innocent Dawn discovers she has a toothed vagina when she becomes the object of violence. As she struggles to comprehend her anatomical uniqueness, Dawn experiences both the pitfalls and the power of being a living example of the vagina dentata myth.
Sociopolitical: Teeth explores fear of emerging female sexuality, and it’s incredibly timely with current scrutiny of a perceived rape culture. It also discusses double standards regarding male and female sexuality, as well as unrealistic societal pressures placed on young women to remain virginal. It’s an incredibly empowering, if cringe-inducing, horror experience.
American Psycho (2000, Directed by Mary Harron)
Official Synopsis: Patrick Bateman is young, white, beautiful, ivy leagued, and indistinguishable from his Wall Street colleagues. Shielded by conformity, privilege, and wealth, Bateman is also the ultimate serial killer, roaming freely and fearlessly. His murderous impulses are fueled by zealous materialism and piercing envy when he discovers someone else has acquired more than he has.
Sociopolitical: The message of American Psycho seems to be: If you’re rich, white, and male, then you can get away with anything. It’s also an amazing time capsule of 1980’s era consumerism, one that skewers the decade’s attitudes towards beauty, sex, and art.
Starship Troopers (1997, Directed by Paul Verhoeven)
Official Synopsis: Paul Verhoeven has fashioned a visually spectacular, morbidly funny comic book adventure that seems to merge the fresh-faced youths of the Archie Comics with the save-the-planet mandate of “Buck Rogers”.
Related Article: Straight Outta Klendathu: “Starship Troopers” Remake is Coming!
Sociopolitical: Starship Troopers is based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, which was released during (and in response to) the Viet Nam War, specifically the conflict’s portrayal in the media. The film is a metaphor for the dehumanization of wartime enemies, and the glamorization of war.