Sometimes the Severed Head Rolls Left

By creating a window into what scares us all, horror movies give us a way of examining society’s dirty underbelly — without it realizing it’s showing us its fleshy parts.

The movie poster for Night of the Living Dead (1968).

In an age in which it is impossible to keep up with the endless cycles of denunciation and rehabilitation on Twitter, internalized political guilt is the other side of the moral outrage coin. And come Halloween horror-movie season, we’re forced to confront (or repress) our feelings about the blood-splattered images on their screen.

To all of the people with a conscience out there who have ever been gripped by an irrepressible giddiness while evaluating whether a kill sequence was any good or not, only to later snap to your senses and find your shirt covered in the sticky red muck of shame, you are seen. I, like so many others, suffer from this affliction and feel the inner turmoil that comes from delighting in mounting body counts and secretly rooting for every mass murderer in a mask in every schlocky 1980s slasher.

We all know that this carnivalistic revelry in guts and gore borders on the objectionable. And yet we can’t look away.

Does this embrace of slasher films and gory blockbusters make us bad leftists? Of course not. There is much that we can learn from understanding what makes modern horror movies tick, and plenty we can even defend.

First, though, we must concede that the horror-skeptics and finger-wagging moralists are on to something with their criticisms of the genre. The severed heads occasionally roll left, but horror often reflects (and at worst forthrightly endorses) our culture’s most vile and reactionary aspects.

But there is a more important reason to pay attention to horror: there is no such thing as a politically neutral nightmare; and those of us interested in changing the world need to learn from them.

Because horror movies’ ability to function requires them to plumb the depth of a society’s deepest fears, the throbbing heart buried beneath the floorboards can offer us insights into society’s subconscious.

As China Miéville puts it in his sixth thesis on monsters,

Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. All our moments are monstrous moments.

From their literary birth down to the present, monsters of all sorts have always screamed for audiences to recognize that they mean something. And we have rushed to answer their pleas. Just listen to the chatter in the hallways after even the most shallow big budget creature feature and this becomes obvious.

(“But what does that nightmare clown represent? No Godzilla is not about nuclear war, it is clearly about climate catastrophe. What the hell was the deal with those rabbits?”)

The genre is radically democratic in the way it spills its stinking guts all over the screen and asks us to sift through the entrails. When we peel back the flesh on what grants a given story the ability to make us scream, we invariably find more than just our personal traumas staring back at us.

What Our Monsters Say About Our Moments

Every successful work of horror, film or fiction, relies on its ability to tap into deeply ingrained societal anxieties and uses them to conjure the nightmares that lurk just below the surface of our conscious minds. This is why everyone walks away with something to say about them. Everyone who has ever been scared by a horror movie has felt the urge to understand those fears, and thus has been pulled into the process of giving the monsters their power. These horrible forms that stalk whenever reason slumbers can teach us about ourselves and our society.

So our natural first step is to decode the political anxieties beneath some of Hollywood’s most famous horror films. Though we should tread carefully here. While every 9/11shaped wound and every phallustongued xenomorph begs to be analyzed, total domestication of the ineffable is impossible. The creature’s toothy maw might be a metaphor for the dangers of sex, but we forget at our own peril that it is also filled with razor sharp fangs. We need to respect our query, in addition to being enthralled by it, lest we lose a finger or two.

Cinema as a form developed into something more than a mere carnival trick at the turn of the twentieth century, but really took off during the interwar years. Horror movies — specifically monster movies — were there from the very beginning, and were central to winning the medium a mass appeal.

Nosferatu, one of the most famous films of the era in any genre, was released in 1922, and it wasn’t long before its cloaked villain, Count Orlok, was joined by a menagerie of other now-classic entities. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and The Mummy all became household names in the thirties and forties. The appeal of the creature features in which they starred was immediate and spoke to Depression-era audiences on two levels.

First, they were all big-budget spectacles starring the most widely known actors of their time. Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff were basically the Christian Bale and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson of their day, and Universal Studios spared no expense when it came to special effects.

These movies offered viewers more than a spectacle: they also gave a metaphoric route toward confronting their mundane but paralyzing fears of unemployment, the creeping threat of fascism, and the looming shadow of war. For the seventy to ninety minutes that they sat in those crowded theaters scared out of their minds, audiences didn’t have to think about the real world, even though it was staring back at them from behind all the makeup.

Then in the 1950s, the radioactive fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki mutated or made giant everything from leeches to women, while aliens (i.e. communists) infiltrated bucolic communities in lots all over Hollywood to put law-abiding white Americans into pods.

Hitchcock sowed the seeds that would become the slasher subgenre with Psycho in 1960, becoming a sensation in part because of the way it tapped into the rampant sexual repression of the moment (and all moments in America, really).

Norman Bates as a figure offered viewers the opportunity to simultaneously indulge their own voyeurism while also maintaining a safe enough distance to condemn the ways he acts on those impulses. We, of course, would never so much as fantasize about the things he does on screen.

Where things get more interesting is in the late sixties and early seventies, when the political winds of those decades begin blowing through horror. With the war in Vietnam raging in the background of every news broadcast, and images of police unleashing dogs on civil rights protesters beamed into every TV screen, a new crop of young, talented, and explicitly political directors took to the horror genre to revolt against the casualized violence of American society.

The revolution onscreen in 1968 with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, in which a group of humans take shelter from hordes of reanimated corpses, only to discover that their own insecurities and prejudices are more dangerous than the ghouls pursuing them. This point is driven home when a group of police and other well-armed men promptly shoot the protagonist at the end of the movie, drag him over the threshold using meat hooks, and then throw his body onto a funeral pyre alight with piles of recently dispatched zombies.

That the protagonist, Ben, was played by Duane Jones, a black actor, makes this final sequence feel hauntingly like a lynching — there’s no way to look at it and not see images of the Klan and other far-right vigilantes — and lends itself to a reading of the movie as a blistering critique of racism.

The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s first film, took a much more literal approach to the same set of problems in 1972. In the first half of the movie, a teenage girl and her friend are brutally gang raped and murdered by a group of recently escaped convicts. Craven dispenses with the sterilizing gauze of symbolism and implied violence, deciding instead to have the camera force audiences to watch every grisly detail. Then, in the second half, the perpetrators — whose obvious sadism and morally degenerate behavior we just witnessed first-hand — are themselves subjected to equally degrading and torturous acts of violence at the hands of one of the murdered girl’s completely unremarkable middle-class parents.

If ever there were righteousness to be found in revenge, surely this circumstance qualifies, but with Craven at the helm the blood debt of bereaved parents is shown to be just as disturbing as the acts of the supposed sociopaths. As he has explained in interviews, Craven was horrified by the fact that American society could be bombarded nightly with images of napalm-drenched Vietnamese villages without batting an eyelash, and so decided to test the limits of their desensitization.

While it was a commercial success (it cost $90,000 to make and grossed over three million), the movie was maybe a little too effective at forcing society to stare at the hideous visage on the other side of the mirror, and it turned Craven into something of a pariah for the better part of a decade.

The third important director with a leftwing bent from this era is John Carpenter. He started the 1980s early aesthetically in 1978 with arguably the greatest slasher movie of all time, Halloween. This masterpiece helped define horror in the Reagan era. It started the career of America’s favorite scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. It reintroduced an element of the fantastic to the genre by making Michael Myer’s expressionless, chalk-white-mask-wearing form more force of nature than human. And it picked idyllic suburban streets as its killing field of choice.

The massive success of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street only a short while after Halloween finished carving out an extremely lucrative mold from which clones are still cast to this day:

Teenagers in Peril

+ Otherworldly and/or preternatural but human-shaped monsters

+ a random sampling of five to ten established tropes

= a commercially viable horror film.

Audiences seem to care very little that the knock offs (and sequels and reboots) have close to zero substance.

As in society more broadly at the time, there’s a deep conservatism that reigns in most of the offerings from the 1980s. Every Sorority House Massacre and House on Sorority Row (note the theme) was mostly a cleverly disguised excuse to cut up women — preferably scantily clad women. And they all substituted moralism for a plot, sharing a barely hidden subtext of reaction against the supposed excesses of feminism gone mad. The basic takeaway was that always and everywhere, “having extra-marital sex guarantees you’ll be murdered” (though Slumber Party Massacre was something of an exception).

Modern Monsters

The early to mid-nineties gave us the postmodern turn where our monsters lashed out at themselves. Wes Craven once again led the way with Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare, in which Freddie Krueger starts stalking Robert Englund (who played Freddie in the movies) and killing people close to Craven himself. Since people apparently didn’t get the joke, Craven doubled down on this premise a few years later with Scream. Both movies are still among the best meta-horror out there, and struck a chord with a generation overly comfortable seeing their fears on a screen and reminded viewers that the stories we make up can be among the most terrifying things we ever confront.

The Blair Witch Project tilted things back in the direction of hauntings, spawning a craze for Japanese- and Korean-inspired ghost stories — The Ring, The Grudge — and for the whole found footage genre at the end of the millennium. In most of these films, vengeful spirits feed off of the desperation of people clinging to a sense of normalcy as their whole world falls apart.

This lurch toward the supernatural was temporarily interrupted by 9/11 and the Iraq War leaking into the collective unconscious and bursting out the other side in the form of torture porn. Horror in the early aughts became a mostly undistorted reflection of everything happening in the “war on terror.” If The Last House on the Left and the 1970s cinematic revolt against the Vietnam War was about presenting people with violence in such a way that they couldn’t avoid it, torture porn was essentially a celebration of the violence the US military was using to put America back on top (let’s gut some stupid European tourists!). As is always the case with macho posturing, it was also the cultural return of the repressed as The Greatest Nation In The World got hurt by uncivilized religious fanatics and had unprocessed feelings about it.

A strand of rah-rah patriotism can be found in most of these films, from Hostel to Wolf Creek, but the subgenre has also become an easy target for the Left. But it can do more than just spin yarns made up of nationalism’s morbid revenge fantasies. Annalee Newitz, former editor of i09, makes a counter-point to the near monolithic view of the subgenre with their review of The Human Centipede.

Centipede is torture porn par excellence — it is literally a film that does nothing more than contemplate “what would happen if you sewed the mouth of a human to the ass of another human” (to which it replies with horribly graphic imagery you can’t ever unsee). In Newtiz’s view the movie should be read as a ground-breaking body horror that is invaluable for thinking about gender and identity, among other things. One can disagree with their take, but the piece is an object lesson in the way that even the most debased and reactionary genre-form can contain political multitudes.

In addition to spawning the unfortunate career of Eli Roth, the 2000s also resurrected zombies and vampires in a huge way. Plenty of others have talked about the shambling flesh eaters and their sometimes-shimmery-skinned, fanged cousins.

Our last major landmark comes in 2013 with James Wan’s The Conjuring. Like Craven before him, Wan was responsible for bringing a subgenre into the world — his directorial debut Saw inspired torture porn — and for then burying its still-breathing body. In so doing, he effectively paved the way for our current Golden Era of Horror.

Those of us who like our culture served up with plenty of puncture wounds and gnashing teeth should feel even more at home in the current moment where, both on the fringes and in the mainstream, horror’s politics are decisively anti-moralist. The best of this recent crop — It Follows, The Babadook, and Hereditary — deal in honest terms with trauma in various barely disguised symbolic forms, and usually without condescending to us by settling for puerile escapes from impossible dilemmas.

Sewing It All Together

Of course, every Frankenstein selects certain severed limbs over others when choosing the pieces for their creature, and the above is just one pattern for sewing together horror’s political history. The fact that it’s possible to mash together different sets of appendages and partially decomposed organs to build a meaner, more right-wing account of what the genre says about us at any given moment is part of the reason we should, at the very least, pay attention to what monsters are stalking through theaters. Popular culture is a site of struggle, and even if it is hardly the most important battleground, we should no more abandon it to liberals (or worse) than we should concede any other terrain.

Horror, by creating a window into what scares us all, provides a way of looking over society’s dirty underbelly without it realizing it’s showing us its fleshy parts. Fear, being a primal emotion, is one that people often don’t consciously understand, and actively try to hide or deny when they do. By observing what horror is popular in a given moment, we can keep our finger on the pulse of what ideas (and social groups) are being made monstrous.

Alternatively, you can just forego the elaborate ideological contortions and close readings of the season’s films and watch whichever butcher knife-wielding psychos or bloodsucking monsters you want. You aren’t a bad person for enjoying a reactionary gore-soaked slasher.