guest post by Charles Reis
Horror movies are pop culture staples in America and much of the rest of the industrialized world, too. While many people regard them merely as entertainment vessels or, worse, mindless pieces of cinematic garbage filled with blood, guts and exploitative sexuality, some horror movies actually have powerful sociopolitical narratives and messages at their core. Usually such movies are necessarily subtle in their messaging, but others are more overt in their propagandistic intent. Here are ten horror movies with hidden activist agendas:
10. The Slumber Party Massacre: Sexism
Half-dressed girls? Check! Psycho killer on the lose? Check! Blood and nudity? Check! All this adds up to a typical slasher formula that makes up this 1982 campfest. Sounds like mindless trash cinema, but you be surprised that it is a subtle feminist parody of sexism in horror films.
Directed by a woman (Amy Holden Jones) and penned by feminist writer Rita Mae Brown, the movie has many details that serves as a critique against sexism. One detail is the killer’s weapon,a drill, a Freudian representation of the male penis. When he kills these women, in a way he is raping them. He is only stopped when the heroin chops the drill with a machete, metaphorically castrates him (which is why the killer over-reacts when the drill is chopped). As one feminist website writes “through its witty and clever humor, the movie deconstructs the prevailing sexism and masculinity in the slasher genre.”
9. Prophecy (1979): Environmental Pollution
One common theme in horror movies is man vs. nature, especially when nature fights back due to humankind’s disrespect towards it. This 1979 monster film showcases what happens when humanity pollutes nature: it creates an ugly killer bear!
The plot has a logging company using mercury as a cheap fungicide that pollutes the local water system. This pollution creates mutant animals in the forest of Maine, such as an oversized salmon. The mutant bear is also a byproduct for the company’s carelessness, and the creature acts as nature’s rage, with the Native American tribe in the film believing the bear is a vengeful spirit of the forest.
8. Saw VI: Health Care
The Saw movies are filled with elaborate traps and enough scenes of graphic violence to give any seasoned gorehounds a cheap thrill. Regardless, all the movies had some form of deep meaning, and the sixth entry presents a strong political message criticizing the heath care system. Much like the gore, this message is drilled right into your brain. During the movie, Jigsaw makes a speech on health care that sounds like a rallying cry for Obamacare.
Additionally, William, a health insurance executive, is subjected to various test that are related to the inner workings of the health insurance industry. One has William forced to choose to save one person, either an older woman with poor health (therefore, expensive to provide care for) but with many loved ones, or a young healthy man (cheaper to provide care for) who is a loner. The idea is that health insurance companies base their care on money, not what is best for the people.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Homosexuality
Freddy Krueger is one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Generally in the film franchise, he represents your worst nightmares and fears, and in the 1985 sequel, Freddy represents something that many unenlightened people fear the most: being gay!
The basic plot has a teenager named Jesse becoming possessed by Freddy. During the movie, there are several homoerotic situations, including a scene where Jesse comes across his gym teacher in an S&M bar. Later, Jesse turns into Freddy and ties up the teacher naked in the shower before slapping the teacher’s butt with towels.
In essence, Jesse’s struggle against Freddy is a metaphor for the agony of a young man denying his own sexuality. For some people in parts of the world, that is an everyday horror.
6. Last House on the Left (1972): Vietnam
Pushing the boundaries of good taste has been a staple in horror for years. The original Last House on the Left is an exploitation classic created by the master of horror himself, Wes Craven. Featuring a basic plot about two teenage girls kidnaped by a group of criminals, the movie gives the viewers a treat of “family friendly” scenes that include rape and torture. But the film was influenced by a greater horror: the Vietnam War.
An example of this influence is the movie is filmed to look gritty and resemble a documentary, similar to that of news coverage of the war. The mixture of humor and violence also evokes the Vietnam era, as television of the time would show a comedy variety show one moment and violent news footage the next. Craven has said that the script “was really a reaction on my part to the violence around us, specifically to the Vietnam war.”
5. Cannibal Holocaust: The News Media
Rape, gore, and actual on-screen animal cruelty has made this Italian gorefest a cult hit. The violence is so strong in the movie was banned in several countries and criminal charges were filed against the director. What is often overlooked is that the true villains of the movie are not the cannibals but the news media. The media is depicted as caring only about ratings, and as using violence and sex to boost their ratings. If no such news exists, the media will invent it.
The director, Ruggero Deodato, commented that he was influenced to write the script while watching the news with his son, “Every night on TV there were very strong images of people being killed or maimed. Not only killings but also some fabrications.”
4. Carrie (1976): Bullying
High school can be a real horror movie for many young people, and leave it to Stephen King to bring that nightmare to life. The classic Brian De Palma film features the title character (played by Sissy Spacek) becoming a target of bullying for a group of mean-spirited girls. The shy outcast is degraded relentlessly and it all leads up to the climax where a prank finally causes Carrie to snap and kill her classmates.
The only difference between the film and actual events is that Carrie uses supernatural powers rather than guns. The movie portrays bullying with no grey areas: the bullied victims are truly innocent while those who bully have few redeeming qualities.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Pro-Vegetarian
After watching this slasher classic, do you have a craving for hamburgers? No? Well, that is the point. While Chainsaw Massacre brought us another horror icon in Leatherface, it also brought us a pro-vegetarian message. When a group of teenagers pick up a strange hitchhiker, there is a grizzly conversation about how slaughterhouses kill cattle, ending with one of the woman commenting that people shouldn’t kill animals for food.
Furthermore, as the family of cannibals attack these teenagers, they treat their victims the same way human society treats animals: placing them on hooks, in a freezer, using their skin for clothing, and eating them. The pro-vegetarian message is so strong that it is even listed on the PETA website as promoting a vegetarian lifestyle.
2. The Fly (1986): Disease & Aging
Horror remakes often suck, but David Cronenberg’s The Fly is one of the few that outshine the original. The main character of Seth (Jeff Goldblum) goes through a gruesome transformation from man to giant fly. The transformation process is filled with grotesque imagery that involves body parts falling off. But it all serves as a metaphor for disease and aging.
Many diseases, like cancer, can lead to physical wasting away, much the same way Seth’s body does in an extreme manner. The physical effect of disease and aging upon person’s body can be psychologically traumatic, and Seth’s mental breakdown emphasis this. While some saw the film as a metaphor for AIDS, Cronenberg says his intent was “much more universal to me: aging and death–something all of us have to deal with.”
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978): Consumerism
There could be an entire list of horror films with deep meaning consisting of only zombie flicks. The godfather of the zombie genre, George A. Romero, often hides messages in his films, such as racism (Night of the Living Dead), failure of corrupt power (Day of the Dead), and post-9/11 fears (Land of the Dead). His greatest zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, is no exception.
While it touches on violence and racism, the main focus of this zombie apocalypse is consumerism. One idea is that consumerism will trap you. For most of the film, the four survivors barricade themselves in a mall. Despite having everything within their grasp, the character of Fran comments “It’s so bright and neatly wrapped you don’t see that it’s a prison too.” Though they initial enjoy all the luxury the mall has to offer, the characters are still miserable in the end.
The zombies themselves act as a metaphor for how consumerism and capitalism brainwash people. In the film, they are attracted to the mall, despite not having human flesh to eat there. They are seen walking around the mall endlessly in a daze. In other words, what you see on Black Friday. The character of Stephen sums it up best when he says the mall was an important place to the zombies when they were alive and it was their instinct to come here.