The horror genre is full of books and movies that involve politics or that make a political statement, including Dawn of the Dead, They Live, and The Dead Zone. This affinity between horror and politics comes as no surprise to political commentator Ana Marie Cox.
“Horror is almost inherently political,” Cox says in Episode 320 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s one of the reasons I love it. Tell me what you’re afraid of and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Those parallels have become even more apparent in the current climate thanks to shows like American Horror Story: Cult, which uses footage of President Trump’s election night victory to unsettle viewers. That move, though, was one fantasy author Sam J. Miller thinks was a step too far.
“I thought the political-ness of it was so hamfisted and so on-the-nose that it wasn’t doing anything interesting or new,” he says. “It was just kind of reveling in the horror of our moment and rubbing our noses in it, as if we didn’t get enough of that every day.”
Cox also notes that we’re starting to see more real-life connections between the worlds of horror and politics. “The person who was the Blumhouse publicity person wound up going to work for Jared Kushner,” she says. “He left recently, and when the White House becomes too much of a shit show even for someone who’s used to promoting The Purge, maybe there’s a problem.”
Horror author Grady Hendrix feels that today’s horror writers have some catching up to do, given the extent to which real-life terrors have outpaced fictional ones.
“I feel like horror has really not engaged in a direct way with the changing vocabulary of the world around us,” he says. “To me, these days the language of horror is swatting, and black sites, and false flag operations, and and MKUltra and all this. And you don’t see that a lot in horror.”
Listen to the complete interview with Ana Marie Cox, Sam J. Miller, and Grady Hendrix in Episode 320 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Sam J. Miller on zombies:
“The thing that I love about zombies is I feel like they’re the only real monster of the major movie monster categories that doesn’t come from Western folklore or a Western author’s imagination. … Zombies are a Haitian folklore creature that sort of represents a re-imagining of slavery—this image of somebody’s free will being lost, and being commanded by another. To me I think the proper context for Night of the Living Dead isn’t so much Vietnam—although that’s a factor—as the civil rights movement. What these movies often are about is the end of somebody’s world, and usually it’s the end of white supremacy. It’s the idea that suddenly people are fighting back and everything has been called into question.”
Grady Hendrix on The Purge:
“The Purge is basically the same story as Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ It’s this idea that for society to be healthy, they have to perform a sacrifice. That’s The Wicker Man. That’s a really old horror trope, that people have to get their bloodlust out, and then everybody’s really happy, and the corn is thick and ripe, and we’ll have a great harvest, and there’ll be no crime, and unemployment will drop way down. I mean, what’s the difference between low unemployment numbers and a good corn harvest? It’s a little temporal shifting. I agree that the Purge movies aren’t as smart as they think they are, but they’re really, really interesting.”
Ana Marie Cox on right-wing horror:
“I have a weird fascination with right-wing figures who try to write fiction about the stuff that they believe. Like I’ve read all of Glenn Beck‘s novels, which are all basically just dramatizations of what he actually believes. They’re terrible, and it’s because he’s just writing down a slightly more elaborate version of the stuff that you can hear on conservative, right-wing talk radio all the time. You know, the United Nations is taking us over, Agenda 21—which sounds like it’s supposed to be about golf courses, but really is about FEMA concentration camps. It makes terrible horror. He’s like, ‘I find this idea of the United Nations taking over the US very scary, so I’m going to write a book that shows people how scary it is.’ But it’s not scary.”
“One thing that did actually have a really big influence on me was watching the movie of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. There’s this scene where the president—who’s Martin Sheen—they bring the nuclear button in to him, and he gives this big crazy religious/apocalyptic speech and presses the button, initiating worldwide nuclear war, moments before his aides run in and say, ‘It’s not necessary. We’ve worked out a peace settlement.’ And that has always just been very, very haunting to me, and has always stuck in my mind so much, and it did really—at least for me—make me much less likely to support a candidate who I could imagine in a scene like that.”