Texas has much to be proud of: the Alamo, NASA, Rick Perry’s hair. It is also home to the most famous film massacre of all time: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Made on a shoestring budget outside of Austin in the early ’70s, the film captured the macabre and pessimistic fears of a Watergate-sick nation. Leatherface and his family’s tendency toward torture and cannibalism offered a bizarre reflection of corrupt American politicians and greed-driven industrialists feasting on their own country. Plus, the movie was freaky scary, maybe the scariest thing to happen in Texas until George W. Bush hired Karl Rove.
Horror movies are often a sloppy celebration of schlock gore, hampered by wooden performances and worn-out plots, but they can teach us so much. Whatever the decade, the horror movie is a warped mirror of the cultural and political trends of its time. Like any good nightmare, a horror movie reveals our fears, often subconscious, and occasionally warns us of the true dangers before us. Forget The New York Times or political magazines (current company excepted). If you want to know what’s happening in America, check out the slashers, the screamers, the tell-all monster flicks.
In the early decades of the last century, America, along with the rest of the world, was dizzy with advances in technology: airplanes, automobiles, instant coffee. It seemed we could create anything—whether we should or not. Our fears found their way to the screen in the horror classic Frankenstein (1931). Dr. Frankenstein is the most modern of scientific minds—you can tell from all the sparky things and spinning whatnoodles in his lab. He ignores medieval villagers in mid-riot yelling, “Slow down! Don’t mess with that secrets-of-life-and-death shit until you know what you’re doing!” Dr. Frankenstein can create life and, by God, he will. But he has no idea how to care for the life he creates. His neglected, mistreated experiment becomes a murdering monster.
Appropriately, the era of such classic horror movies ended when America dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. The world had a new monster. We should have listened to the peasants.
The films following World War II filtered some of this real-life horror into thrillers like Them! (1954) and The Giant Claw (1957). In these movies, atomic energy doesn’t destroy thousands in a blink. But it does make things grow really big: ants, rats, attractive women. The screaming masses responded just as we responded to the actual spread of atomic technology across the globe. We called upon the ever-resourceful American military. The philosophy that fueled the arms race is right there in the movies: The best way to prevent atomic horrors was to produce more bombs. Build a monster to fight the monster you just built.
The scariest thing about the ’50s was Communist infiltration. Half the world was filled with sly pinkos devising some fiendish plan to rob us of freedom, rock ’n’ roll and hamburgers. Alien invaders in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) captured our fears. Outsiders want in. Martians, mole-men, robots—doesn’t matter, they’re all basically commies. They might look like us, move like us, but peek into their cold eyes, and you’ll see the emotionless, soulless monster who believes in equal health care for all citizens and perhaps better funding for libraries. Don’t fret. These films show how spunky, freedom-loving Americans, with the help of the military, shoo the aliens back to whatever Eastern European planet they came from.
In the late ’70s, a new breed of monster-men made the scene. John Carpenter gave us Halloween (1978), and the modern slasher genre was born. We all know—even those of us who, unlike myself, dated in high school—that these films all have the same basic plot. Teenagers have sex. Walking evil kills them, often with creative flair. Virgin somehow survives. Sequel. Sometimes several.
These deceptively simple plots told us something about America as we galloped into the ‘80s. The most frightening thing about Halloween is its setting: not a gothic castle or an abandoned backwoods cabin, it’s Haddonfield, small-town suburbia. It looks safe. The houses are big. The lawns are well-groomed. But the feeling of security is an illusion. In one scene, Jamie Lee Curtis is running from Michael Myers through the quiet suburban streets. She bangs on a neighbor’s door, screaming for help. A porch light comes on. Help is here! Someone peeks through the curtains. Then the eyes disappear, the porch light is switched off, and Jamie Lee has to fend for herself. The safety of the American suburbs is a lie. Your neighbor is happy to smile and wave as long as you’re quiet and polite and keep your distance. The moment you’re in trouble, the light goes off, the door is locked and you’re on your own.
Remember the tagline for Halloween? “The night he comes home.” Michael is a suburbanite. Like any good resident of suburbia, he wears a mask. Many of us walk the sidewalks with a façade not unlike Michael’s mask: white, clean and all too often hiding either apathy or, worse, smoldering rage. In this masked environment, everyone is indistinguishable from everyone else. Several times in the Halloween films, the wrong person is mistaken for Michael Myers, and more than once killed in the mix-up. In a community filled with blank-faced suburbanites in cookie-cutter homes, anyone can be Michael Myers.
It didn’t stop with suburbia. In the slew of slasher movies following Halloween, every safe harbor of American culture was dismantled. Any fun-loving retreat became the latest locale for attractive, sexually active teenagers to take a bloodbath: happy-go-lucky summer camps in the Friday the 13th (1980) and Sleepaway Camp (1983) films, fun-loving sorority houses in Hell Night (1981) and Killer Party (1986). Even our sweet dreams offer no safety in the Nightmare on Elm Street films.
Like our atomic monsters from the ‘50s, Michael, Jason, and Freddy are our own creations: the mental patient we didn’t care for; the boy we let drown through negligence; the criminal that vigilante parents burned to death in a boiler room. It’s not a defense of the murderers; it’s an explanation. Anyone who knows anything about horror movies knows that we can never save ourselves from the monster without understanding the monster’s origin.
In the age of terrorism, it’s become less clear what is scarier: the threat or the government’s responses. As the Bush administration instituted torture as an interrogation tool, a new sub-genre of horror arose—torture porn. Films like Hostel (2005) and The Collector (2009) (and I might include The Passion of the Christ (2004)) gave us disturbing images of torture as entertainment while CNN gave us similar images as news. Like the haunting dream of a guilty man, we wrestled with our nation’s crimes in the celluloid cultural subconscious. The most successful of these torture films has been Saw and its sequels. In these films Jigsaw, a puppet master of sorts, tortures people, but in the belief that the ordeal is for the victim’s own good. He’s a moral monster, the wisest character of the films and, in many ways, the hero. It’s rumored that Donald Rumsfeld owns the entire series on Blu-ray.
Over the last decade it’s become difficult to tell who the monster is. All too often we are the invaders, we are the torturers, we are the ones who terrorize. We no longer need an alien force or lab-manufactured monster. All we need is ourselves. Of course, it’s not any one of us. It’s our country.
Perhaps this explains the resurgence of the zombie film. The horror of zombies is all in their numbers. You can’t blame any single zombie for the chaos of Dawn of the Dead (2004) or Zombieland (2009), just as you can’t blame any single American for the crimes committed in our nation’s name. Any one of us is just another harmless, fun-loving, pleasure-seeking American. Like zombies, we don’t move that fast or think that fast. We spend our time loitering, every now and then pausing for a quick bite. Like zombies, one or two of us can be annoying, especially when vacationing in Europe, but no real threat. But take us as a mass, as a mindless herd of flesh-eaters driven on by base hunger, and we spell worldwide doom. The next time you half-laugh, half-scream at a midnight horror screening, take heed. The acting may seem stiff, the plots broad, and the special effects overblown. But the message is real. Watch out! It’s never just a movie.
Owen Egerton is an actor, author and screenwriter living in Austin, Texas. His most recent novel is The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God.