Like science fiction, horror is a genre that derives its unreality from real aspects of our moderns lives. Whereas the best science fiction uses invented technology and far future settings to highlight our present social problems, the most terrifying horror films mine the depths of human psychology and make real the nebulous frights that skitter through our brains late at night. The antagonists in horror films are twisted manifestations of our own deep-seated anxieties regarding sexuality, loneliness, parental figures, strangers, child birth, et cetera. The masked slasher executing promiscuous teens one after another, the alien thing that gestates inside your body before bursting out and consuming your loved ones, the faceless hordes battering down your hastily-erected defenses: these things scare us, and ultimately bring us catharsis, because we identify with their gestalt and not their specifics.
The very best horror films mix this internal anxiety with an externalized reality to create not only terror but self-reflection. Instead of seeing an other in the villains on-screen, we see something that terrifies because, to our own growing horror, we identify with it. In my own little nod to the spookiest season, I would like to explore how four such films reflect not only personal anxiety but also a particular cultural anxiety with which we all are familiar. So I present to you four films that draw their horror from consumer capitalism. (Warning: One of these might not be a horror movie per se, and another might not be a good movie.)
When George Romero invented the zombie genre in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, the United States waded neck-deep in Cold War fear. Romero drew on this anxiety when he created the living dead, a horde of brainless, cannibalistic, yet ultimately quite human-looking enemies who, like the Soviet soldiers they presaged, kept coming no matter how many you killed. While the film is more than merely a Cold War allegory, the living dead themselves represent, at least in part, the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the resulting collapse of American society.
A decade later, Romero returned to the subject matter with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. This time, instead of holing up in a farmhouse and enacting the country’s racial tensions in miniature, his foursome of protagonists find a shopping mall overrun with the walking dead and decide to clear it out and live there themselves. The setting would turn out to be inspired, as it opened up a whole new source of anxiety for Romero to exploit: the consumer urge. Many of the film’s scenes center around an army of zombies stumbling like somnambulistic shoppers through the wide aisles of that consumer paradise, drawing a parallel that would be shallow were it not that the humans take visible glee in pillaging the many stores to which they now have unfettered access. With all of their material needs met, the survivors methodically clear the living dead from their little slice of suburban capitalism and take the whole place for themselves.
But all their fur coats and fancy firearms are not enough to make the survivors whole. Their excess gives way to despair, over the impending death of one of their number via zombie bite as well as the loss of the society that once existed within and outside of their walls. Their little apartment, furnished to the brim with state of the art consumer goods, begins to feel like a prison, the mall itself a memorial for an extinct race. When the zombies reenter the mall in the film’s third act, along with a gang of atavistically consumeristic bikers, the mall feels whole again, despite being bathed in blood and gore. For consumerism is an empty act without a community to share it with.
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If Dawn of the Dead externalized consumerism, John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live shows just how internalized it truly is. It tells the story of a hobo (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who arrives in LA and discovers a pair of sunglasses which, when worn, reveal that an alien species is slowly taking over humanity from within. These ghoul-faced invaders pose as members of the upper class and have pasted subliminal messages such as “BUY”, “CONFORM”, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”, and, of course, “OBEY” beneath advertising and the text of magazines. These invaders subjugate humanity by means of capitalism, specifically consumerism, and the fact that people will not believe this until seeing through the sunglasses themselves is evidence of the plan’s diabolical genius. The elegance of the conceit is that everyone who sees the truth of the situation is poor and therefore, under the prevailing capitalist paradigm, not to be trusted. Would you believe a homeless man in sunglasses running around yelling about an alien takeover?
Another film that derives its horror from the mindless acceptance of consumer values is Halloween III: The Season of the Witch. This infamous film, the only one in the series not to feature Michael Meyers, revolves around the plot by a toy manufacturer to trick as many children as possible into buying his Silver Shamrock masks and wearing them while watching a particular commercial on Halloween night, at which point their bodies will be turned into masses of bugs and poisonous snakes. Here, consumerism is literally used to kill: Cochran, the evil mask magnate-cum-warlock, plans to recreate the great Samhain sacrifices of his Celtic ancestors, which he calls “a way of controlling our environment.” Like in They Live, consumerism is used as a means of control, as Cochran lures children to the “horror-thon” with promises of a “big giveaway” afterwards. And, like in Carpenter's film, no one will believe our protagonist when he tells them that something as innocuous as a store-bought Halloween mask could be evil.
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In modern America, nothing represents consumerism quite like Christmas. The winter solstice holiday has become such a consumerist lynchpin that whole sectors of our economy build their business models around the bump in sales that it yearly rings in. And for the first third of Joe Dante’s 1984 film Gremlins, quaint little Kingston Falls seems to be just another American small town living through an economic dip: there might be fewer presents under the tree this year, but God forbid there aren’t any! Yet all around the town there are little hints of consumerism betraying its adherents, from Mr. Pelzter’s malfunctioning inventions to the unreliability of cheap, foreign manufacturing (it’s no coincidence that the local factory has shuttered its doors) to the iron cruelty of local real estate magnate Mrs. Deagle. If you’re thinking of Bedford Falls, you’re on the right track.
Enter Gizmo the Mogwai, a cute, Furby-looking fellow with a mellifluous singing voice. The Mogwai are the ultimate consumer good, so cuddly and adorable that you can’t help yourself but want to buy one for your child or yourself. When Mr. Peltzer sees Gizmo he’s compelled to spend money he barely has to buy him for his son Billy, and everyone who sees the little guy or any of his fuzzy progeny asks where they can get one. Even Billy is enthralled by the little guy, bending to his every whim with adorable maternalism.
Like all modern products, Gizmo comes with a set of rules that the end-user must follow precisely lest they face dire consequences. In this case, the Mogwai reproduce endlessly when exposed to water and turn into demonic gremlins when fed after midnight. If Mogwai are the perfect consumer good, gremlins are inverted consumers, voracious little fiends who want nothing more than to kill, steal, break things, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. And, like all Americans, they love nothing more than watching a movie and eating Milk Duds. Even their weakness, direct sunlight, is a nod to the building-bound life of the modern worker/consumer, who arrives at the office before the sun is in the sky and leaves once it has set. To kill the gremlins, Billy Peltzer has to burn down the town's movie theater, that great monument to American consumerism, and the final showdown takes place in a department store, where Billy fights the lead gremlin in a protracted duel using various makeshift weapons taken from the shelves. In the end, the only way to defeat the gremlins is not through ordered consumption, but through anarchy.