The 13th Floor

Ten Classic Horror Movies With Powerful Socio-Political Undertones

With the release of THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, we’re about to return to one of the more challenging and unsettling horror franchises to deal with the concept of class warfare in a very literal sense. Where the first film presented the horrific downside of the false utopia presented by the New Founding Fathers, the second installment PURGE: ANARCHY revealed the true intentions behind Purge Night: not as a safety valve for our inner demons, but a means to eradicate the less-privileged factions of society by turning them against one another. ELECTION YEAR takes that realization to the next level — with presidential candidates making the issue central to their campaigns.

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As an art form designed for mass consumption, it’s no surprise that motion pictures often tackle hot-button social and political issues — war, crime, corruption, economic upheaval, issues of race, class and gender inequality, and much more. But the horror genre is unique among all of cinema, in that it allows us to face down fictional fears which stand in for the very real challenges and terrors we so often face in our day-to-day existence — such as keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table, concerns about health, safety, freedom and privacy for ourselves and our loved ones. To illustrate this, I’ve selected ten classic horror films that express these fears most effectively (at least to me), either overtly or as metaphor.

Bear in mind that this list is in no way comprehensive; there are hundreds of horror movies out there which use the conventions of the genre to touch on social, political and economic issues, as well as similarly-themed films that better fit the category of science fiction (John Carpenter’s superb THEY LIVE, for example) and therefore didn’t make the cut. But these ten titles stand out for me as some of the most enduring horror-themed cinematic statements on modern society; not only do they reflect the fears which dominated the era in which they were made, but they often continue to resonate in similar ways with audiences today.

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INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956/1978)

Every horror fan not only loves one or both of the classic film adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, but has their own pet theories about the story’s subtext. Don Siegel’s 1956 film adaptation, in its depiction of spreading paranoia and loss of self-identity, has been interpreted from two opposing perspectives: 1) as a reaction to the perceived fear of communism in the ’50s, and 2) as a criticism of the “witch hunts” perpetrated by politicians like Senator Joe McCarthy against alleged communist conspiracies and other so-called “Un-American Activities.” Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version is less overtly political, but taps into the sudden explosion of the New Age movement of the ‘70s, as well as the popularity of UFO abduction tales and alien conspiracy theories, which were gaining ground in mass media during that decade.

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Legendary director George A. Romero is noteworthy for bringing a strong social and political subtext into his films — not by being overtly preachy, but by organically channeling the fears, obsessions and concerns of the day into intense, personal and uncompromising stories. The first feature from Romero and his crew is not only one of his best, but one of the most influential and groundbreaking horror movies ever made. While much ink has been spent on the way racial tensions of the ‘60s informed the story, Romero openly states that casting black actor Duane Jones in the principal role was purely a pragmatic choice: Jones was, in Romero’s words, the most qualified actor he knew. Nevertheless, the director does view the film as a product of its time, and the incredibly downbeat ending reflects Americans’ fears of an uncertain future.

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LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)

The inherent ugliness of Wes Craven’s feature debut is a necessary evil; while George Romero took a more organic approach to addressing social issues in his films, Craven — a student of Psychology with a master’s degree in Philosophy — was interested in reflecting the more overt horrors of the world of 1972: the carnage and inhumanity of war was being introduced into American living rooms for the first time, while the cultural revolution of the ‘60s had spiraled into anarchy and chaos, represented by the Manson Family murders of 1969. In Craven’s hands, this horror was perfectly embodied in the psychotic exploits of Krug Stilo (David Hess) and his fellow criminals, whose grisly acts of sadism and murder seem beyond even their own ability to control.

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THE EXORCIST (1973)

Nothing terrifies a parent more than seeing their child go through a nightmarish transformation — whether it’s due to an illness, or merely running with the wrong crowd. With the ’60s behind us, America’s illusion of innocence had dissolved, and it seemed we had nowhere to focus our fears outside of ourselves, our families and even our own offspring. Maybe that’s why William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller — and William Friedkin’s legendary film adaptation — resonated so deeply with audiences. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is initially overcome with fear that her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) may be suffering from a serious illness… until she is faced with the terrifying realization that Regan’s condition — which causes her to spit both verbal and literal bile at every adult in sight — is the result of demonic possession. I wonder how many people suspected their own kids might be possessed by something more devilish than the usual adolescent rebellion…

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DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

The fact that George Romero gets two entries on this list is a testament to the timeliness of his themes — not to mention his absolute skill at carrying them off without compromising plot or character. Overtly or not, Romero addressed the social upheaval of the ‘60s in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — but by the late ‘70s, he realized that anarchy and chaos was no longer the monster. Instead, its opposite — apathy and mindless conformity — had become the real threat. Presented with the concept of indoor shopping malls where every consumer need could be satisfied, Romero places the mall at the center of the action; where the farmhouse setting of NIGHT magnified the feeling of paranoia, the luxury-packed mall of DAWN provides our survivors with so many idle comforts that their basic human nature — including the will to survive — quickly erodes away. Now that malls are ubiquitous across the country, the metaphor is more fitting than ever: just look online for images juxtaposing the zombies from this film with pictures of Black Friday shopping mobs for a chilling example.

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SOCIETY (1989)

While it never achieved the same level of cult status as 1985’s RE-ANIMATOR, producer Brian Yuzna’s first go-round in the director’s chair deserves a closer look (and it’s getting one, thanks to a deluxe 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release) for its shocking and controversial approach to class divisions — which depicts the country-club set as literally a separate species from those from more humble backgrounds. While the ’80s hair and fashions depicted in the film have dated badly, SOCIETY’s premise couldn’t be more timely if it had been produced this year: the idea of the “one percent” enjoying unlimited prosperity through the exploitation — and ultimately the destruction — of the working class is depicted here as a race of incestuous, all-consuming monsters slowly and steadily closing in on their vulnerable and unsuspecting prey.

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CANDYMAN (1992)

Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” (from his Books of Blood series) may have been set in England, but its tale of two mirrored worlds — one impoverished, the other prosperous — is brilliantly translated to Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing development. After Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a graduate student of sociology, discovers that an infamous urban legend is linked to a racially-motivated killing in the 19th century, the reincarnated Candyman (Tony Todd) chooses Helen as the bridge between his world and hers. The story also bridges two separate halves of Chicago society: the impoverished, mainly black residents of a federal housing project — gripped in fear by a series of grisly unsolved murders — and the primarily white upper-class tenants of an identically-designed but upscale apartment block on the opposite side of Cabrini Green. CANDYMAN is one of the classiest examples of how urban legends reflect the very real fears faced by modern society.

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AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)

Bret Easton Ellis’s highly controversial novel was once deemed unfilmable, due to its narrator’s horrifically graphic descriptions of torture and murder. But director Mary Harron wisely delved deeper into the psyche of title character, Patrick Bateman, to get to the book’s scathing satire of ‘80s materialism and the “Greed is Good” mentality that pervaded the Reagan era. Bateman’s upward mobility and obsession with owning the best of everything disguises the fact that there is nothing remotely human behind that impeccably-dressed, chiseled and squeaky-clean facade. It’s not hard to make the symbolic connection between the superficial ego-centrism that marked the ideal young urban professional of the ’80s and the pathological narcissism of a textbook psychopath. The notion that one of these all-too-similar types was actually considered an admirable person is truly terrifying.

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HOSTEL (2005)

In the post-9/11 landscape, in the thick of wars in the Middle East, a growing fear of outsiders began to spread through American culture, and this xenophobic mood began to infect our entertainment as well. Playing on these fears, director Eli Roth envisions the snuff underground network known as “Elite Hunting Club” as a kind of metaphorical boogeyman, so he could take a bloody jab at some Americans’ ignorance toward other cultures and traditions (the protagonists are depicted as generally unlikable lunks, whose eagerness to party and get laid leads them straight to their eventual doom). He also depicts the environment of post-Soviet Eastern Europe as a morally bankrupt example of capitalism run wild: literally anything can be had for the right price, including the opportunity to commit murder with impunity.

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THE MIST (2007)

Like Romero’s DEAD films, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella depicts an unexplained apocalyptic scenario primarily through the eyes a handful of people confined within a single location for the bulk of the film — a supermarket, in this case. But the key difference that makes THE MIST socially significant is the cross-section of society sequestered within that market: when presented with the possibility that the world is coming to an end, the group splits into separate factions — the most dangerous of which is led by religious fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who believes that only true believers should be allowed to survive. The monsters pounding on the store windows begin to seem preferable by comparison — especially when Carmody’s end-times hysteria convinces nearly all the survivors to rally to her cause.

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