Odds are that Karl Marx would have enjoyed horror movies.
The German revolutionary and author of The Communist Manifesto died almost 40 years before the release of Nosferatu, the first commercially successful horror movie. But as a harsh critic of capitalism and colonialism, Marx was familiar with his fair share of real life horrors perpetrated by the capitalist class on working and oppressed people. 100 years before Night of the Living Dead, Marx was already likening capitalist oppression to the undead: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
About a century later, Malcolm X would echo these sentiments and say, “Show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.” For Malcolm X and other freedom fighters throughout history, the system of imperialism faced by African Americans and other oppressed people was a real-life house of horrors full of violence and exploitation, literally sucking the life out of its victims. It’s precisely this reflection of the real conditions of oppression around us, especially in the U.S., that make horror films so interesting for activists and revolutionaries.
All movies reflect the culture, politics and conditions around them, but horror films in particular reflect our collective fears as a society - and sometimes the fears that our rulers want us to have. For instance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is only remembered now as an early slasher film. But in 1974 when it was released, the story was a terrifyingly exaggerated reflection of people’s real concerns: five young hippie kids go looking for gasoline after their car breaks down in Texas - a very common problem given the gas shortages from the 1973 oil embargo - and get terrorized by a family of unemployed meatpackers, who turned to maniacal violence only after losing their jobs to technology and outsourcing by the 1%.
Sometimes horror films reflect the genuinely terrifying outlook of the right wing. The wave of slasher flicks in the 1980s reflected the rise of Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right, who violently imposed their vision of trickle-down economics and ‘family values’ on women, poor and working people and the youth. Similarly, The Exorcist (1973) was a thinly-veiled reactionary statement against single working mothers and the threat that science posed to conservative religious orthodoxy.
The post-9/11 period featured horror films eerily reflective of the things people saw on the news, whether it was terrorists on video tapes (The Ring), exploding buildings in Manhattan (Cloverfield), torture (Saw, Hostel), or right-wing religious fanatics (The Mist).
Today, it’s no surprise that the most successful horror films since the 2008 economic crisis all dealt with insecurity about people’s homes - whether its bankers haunted by the victims of foreclosures in Drag Me To Hell or traditional haunted house flicks like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Sinister and The Conjuring.
A few horror films particularly reflect what Malcolm X called “the American nightmare” of exploitation and oppression. Social justice activists can use these films as a jumping-off point for conversations about the very real horrific imperialist system that we face today. For activists looking for a couple of scary but socially-conscious movies for Halloween 2013, I present the top five most progressive horror movies:
5. The Purge (2013)
It didn’t seem right not putting a recent horror flick on this list, and The Purge holds its own with the rest of the list. Written like an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the film takes place in a dystopian future U.S. where a fascist group called the New Founding Fathers seized state power in a coup and implemented an annual, 12-hour event called “the purge.” During the purge, all criminal activity - including murder - becomes legal, which allows the rich to literally hunt down the poor or hide away in expensive defense fortresses that only they can afford. The Purge follows the lives of a wealthy family that gets attacked by a fascist gang of racist vigilantes after they give refuge to an African American man during the night. In the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the outrageous Zimmerman verdict, The Purge has some genuinely scary and disturbing moments that make us reflect on the real police and vigilante violence inflicted on African Americans, Latinos and other oppressed nationalities every day.
4. Tales From the Hood (1995)
Tales From the Hood was Spike Lee’s entry into the horror genre and although it’s not necessarily the scariest film because of its occasionally tongue-in-cheek humor, it stands out as one of the most anti-racist horror films ever made. Tales From the Hood is told as an anthology, the premise being that three gang members are told four stories by a funeral home owner named Mr. Simms. The stories range from the ghost of a civil rights activist haunting the police officers who murdered him to the souls of dead slaves exacting revenge on a Ku Klux Klan politician, who converts an old slave plantation into his office. The most striking part of the film is that although some of the horror elements are over the top, like the use of ghosts, none of the disturbing stories are unrealistic. Police or racist vigilantes murder African Americans every 36 hours, and many of the politicians in office today have extensive connections to fascist groups like the Klan. Tales From the Hood had a poor theatrical run, but it’s made a comeback on Netflix and deserves a Halloween viewing by activists in the US.
3. George Romero’s Dead Series (1968, 1978, 1985, 2005)
I cheated a little with this entry by rolling four films into one, but I can’t preference one of Romero’s four classic zombie films over the others. Night of the Living Dead (1968) feels very dated and hardly scary anymore, but activists will still find its commentary on racism and national oppression powerful today. The not-so-subtle Dawn of the Dead (1978) is an extended critique of rampant consumerism and Day of the Dead (1985) asks the audience to consider whether the U.S. military is a greater threat to humanity than the undead ‘enemies’ they claim to fight. Land of the Dead brings it all together in a zombie-filled class war that also comments on the U.S.’s destructive immigration policies. Some of the films are scarier than others, but all four are required viewing for activist horror fans.
2. Candyman (1992)
Set predominantly in a Chicago public housing project, Candyman on its face is about an urban legend involving a hook-handed killer who appears when you say his name five times into a mirror. In actuality, this underrated early 90s classic harshly criticizes white liberal racism and academia’s fixation on studying - but never solving - poverty and national oppression. Candyman, seemingly the villain of the film, is actually the victim of racist violence by a lynch mob. The real villains are the middle and upper class academics, whose discrimination and condescension towards poor people in the community actually exacerbates their oppression. Terrifying and surprisingly nuanced, Candyman is a horror movie staple for any social justice advocate.
1. Alien (1979)
Alien is the most progressive horror film I’ve ever seen, hands down. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece features truckers and miners in space who get sent on a suicide mission by their corporate employers to retrieve a deadly alien. The most oppressed workers are African Americans and women and they’re also the people who survive the longest. The film features Sigourney Weaver as Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, a strong female fighter who essentially organizes her co-workers to revolt against the company’s plan to capture the titular alien. Set more than 100 years in the future, the concerns of the workers on board the Nostromo echo those of Wal-Mart cashiers, UPS part-timers and fast-food workers in the U.S. today - poverty wages, wage theft, and in the case of the Nostromo Crew, incredibly unsafe working conditions. Alien still holds up as a genuinely scary film, but the real draw for activists is its fairly explicit anti-capitalist, pro-worker message.