Politics may make your skin crawl, and thinking of Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi may make you scream, but politics and horror films have a pretty interesting connection. Much of it is subtle, but considering the notable overlap between Halloween season and Campaign season, we thought it would be a fun and timely topic for the Explainer to discuss. So lets “Bone up.”
- Horror Films Love Bad Economic Times
The first thing about horror films is that they tend to get popular during economic down times, and then are franchised through economic boom times. Generally, when the economy is down, people have a preternatural inclination to be scared– for their livelihoods, for their loved ones and for the futures. Horror films offer something of a cathartic release from that. If you are scared about the crazed killer chasing their victims, you tend to forget for awhile your own problems. Most importantly, for studios, they are relatively cheap to make, allowing them to downsize their budgets and still make money, and in some cases a lot of money.
The first boom in horror films coincided with the market crash in the late 20s, and early 30s. This is when your King Kong, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula first achieved success. They were so successful, that as the market turned around they were franchised with sequels, cross-overs and even forays into comedies (Abbot and Costello meet…). This era phased out late in the ’30s as color films and more highbrow fare became popular (Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, etc). With the ramp up to WWII, people wanted less horror (the horrors of dealing with war are plenty) and more patriotism.
The ’30s were far from the only example. During the early ’70s recession, films with an occult angle such as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were popular. In the middle of the late 70s/early ’80s recession, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween initially scared audiences and then slowly became farce as recession turned into an ’80s boom and they churned out cheesier sequels. After 9/11, Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring were huge successes; in terms of return on investment, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, made for only a few thousand dollars each, both grossed over $100 million at the box office and are considered two of the most profitable films of all time.
2) What Scares You about the Times You Live In
The second big thing about horror films and politics is that the films tend to project worries about the times people live in. For instance, during the 1950s, there were actually two major themes in horror films: the red scare and atomic energy. Films like “The Thing from Outer Space” (remade as “the Thing” in 1982) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (remade numerous times) were actually paranoid allegories of McCarthyism. Anyone could be an alien, just like anyone could be a communist. This paranoia crept into films in the early 1960’s with Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate (which was more overt about it’s red scare propaganda). In regard to atomic energy, it was above the knowledge of general Americans at the time so many films played on people’s fears of the unknown. Many cheap horror films were set up with an atomic accident or radioactive waste, resulting in weird defects, or mutations of some kind. Godzilla, Ants! and a host of other mutant [insert animal here] films fall into this latter group.
Since the start of the great recession there has been one theme that has been extremely prevalent; dystopia. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and eventual bailout of Wall Street lead many Americans to feel detached from power, that perhaps the world wasn’t what they thought it was. In addition, social factors at play often lead to much uncertainty and even outright demagoguery. These social factors form the underpinning of stories like The Hunger Games, Divergent and the rest of the teen oriented fare of late, but it also forms the basis for the highest rated show of the past 8 years, The Walking Dead. Likewise, movies like I am Legend, World War Z, A Quiet Place and The Purge play on these very same themes. Since Trump’s election, themes inclusive of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have become standard fare and are regularly cited as social commentary, with people dressed as the latter becoming a common sight at many women’s protests particularly.
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