American Capitalism: The Implications of Class, and Race, in Horror

The study of intersectionality has long been an avenue for engaging the effects of a framed society, or an ideology, on race, gender, and class. But only recently has the focus shifted towards a cultural understanding of what the term’s broader implications mean for certain disenfranchised voices. Then, in the context of cinema, it can be understood that any genre can be—and is—used as a space to manifest a disturbing reality about the way an ideological framework, one such as capitalism, affects identity. Horror, as a genre of film, posits filmmakers to reveal the cruelty of a situation, especially regarding social issues, and provides a safe space in which audiences are invited to spectate and digest information simultaneously. In the examination of social issues in horror films, many will find that the important themes are present beyond the surface. A viewer must be willing to see through the blood and the gore, to look over the pile of bones, and pick apart the skin to analyze the role in which intersectionality has in the scope of horror as a genre, and cinema as a discourse.

Today, wealth inequality has plagued the general American population. This is especially true for minority communities. According to the Pew Research Center, wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines since The Great Recession from 2007-2009. In 2014, the median white household had 13 times the median wealth than black households. A staggering static, and one that resembles other minority communities; Hispanics, for instance, have a similar statistic. White households hold 10 times more wealth than that of their Hispanic counterparts.  And there are considerable decreases in the net worth of households within these communities over the course of the recovery period. It is now worse for these communities. Meanwhile most white households decreased some in net worth, and then slowly started to climb again.

As a genre, the horror film is notable for critiquing American capitalism. An ongoing and problematic issue with the vast catalogue of classical horror, however, is that the typical protagonists and majority characters are white, which capitalism favors in American society; mostly due to the institutional racism inscribed in the fabric of the nation. Despite this, there are horror texts that demonstrate how class affects white characters, which I will examine momentarily. But even a film as highly acclaimed as the late George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is, on some level, problematic from an intersectional standpoint. Romero claimed that: “Consciously, I resisted writing new dialogue cause [the main character] happened to be black. We just shot the script. Perhaps, Night of the Living Dead is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.”

Still from Night of the Living Dead

This decision subsequently ignores Ben’s race within the text, especially important in the examination of a collapsing society at the hands of a zombie apocalypse. American capitalism favors whiteness, so what happens to everyone else when its skeleton fails? Though many critics have pointed out that Night of the Living Dead highlights elements of black rage, which can be found so prevalently in horror (see Bernard Rose’s Candyman, 1992). Giving a potential black spectator, and certainly other disenfranchised people, some agency is signifiant—much like what Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Revenge (2018) do for women. But, at the very least, it does elicit a conversation about the way in which a film is supposed to handle race. Should it factor into the overall story and dialogue? Jones made sure that the dialogue written for the character of Ben didn’t remain in its constant state (pre-shoot), one where the character was uneducated; instead, choosing to level the playing field with all the characters, regardless of race.

Jordan Peele’s hit directorial debut Get Out (2017), a modern horror-thriller, is a prime example of an intersectional critique, in terms of both race and class. In an infamous sequence, on their way to meet Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend are pulled over by the police. With the looming threat from a certified power structure, Peele exercises restraint by subverting the expectation of the spectator and refusing to act upon the common perception of a situation where a white police officer projects their stereotypical views, and authority, on a black citizen. The officer asks Chris for his driver’s license, which he happily complies to, but significantly, the police officer does not ask for the white female’s license. Arguably, then it is only through her white female privilege that a catastrophe is averted. Her sinister ulterior motives eventually surface, critiquing how white privilege cannot be the catalyst for change. Even though Chris avoids an almost certain interrogation, his fate eventually catches up to him.

Sneaking outside for a quick cigarette, Chris is caught by Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) who proceeds to question him, precisely how an invasive authority (i.e. a police officer) treats him. She asks about his mother, who died coming home from work. Chris explains that he was watching TV and that he kept watching even after she didn’t show up. This scene emphasizes the daily life of working class of America who often seek refuge by unplugging from reality. He says that he didn’t call anyone because, “…it would make it real.” Therefore, he just continued digesting pointless information used to divert attention from real, substantive issues; issues that he is unprepared for at his young age. His mother was working late into the evening, as per the flashback sequence, suggesting that she didn’t have a nine-to-five job and that she had to fight harder than the average white worker to simply live and provide for her family. This, obviously, is very stark compared to how Rose’s life had been growing up. A modern house, in a predominately white neighborhood, with pseudo-liberal parents who considered a single vote for an African American politician as a means of activism for disenfranchised communities.

Still from Get Out

The notion of trusting Rose, and having that perception later shattered, enhances the discourse surrounding “point-of-view” (and the reliability of narrative) and critiques the cliché that whiteness (especially in cinema), alone, can fix or cure institutional racism that capitalism exacerbates. That’s not to say, however, that white, working class Americans aren’t affected by the same pitfalls of late-stage capitalism. Issues that the middle-class, and even lower-class, Americans deal with are addressed in horror as well. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), while laying some groundwork for the modern slasher film, also examined the horrors of everyday life in America during the 70s, at the height of the Vietnam War.

Joe Gamp’s article published by Dazed in 2017 discusses the meaning of the text:

… it was a brutal depiction of social unrest and violence in America, and signified the end of the innocent, utopian ideal. The teenagers represented a soon to be undermined mindset, with Leatherface the unstoppable, advantaged force that would destroy them. He wore a human mask, which viewers would of course presume was the face of another young victim. (Gamp)

I’d argue that Leatherface himself is a biproduct of a failed system. Fundamentally, capitalism relies on a completely “free market,” but this of course isn’t the case in America; a mixed economy is insured by an invisible class system in Amercia. When a market fails, much like the traditional slaughterhouses, what happens to those workers, many of whom have spent their whole life in that industry? The necessity to obtain a higher, more capable technology, and produce products on a mass level while lowering costs, is what kills both creativity and structure; structure that the human mind requires for stability. This is ultimately why the bizarre and dysfunctional family depicted in Texas Chainsaw Massacre continue to kill animals (humans in this instance), and deeply rejects youth—as a sign of the constantly evolving market, where old values and traditions are disrupted.

Still from Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Looking ahead a few years, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) perpetuates a similar narrative: that the labor-intensive society can—and will—make one go mad. Notably, Jack (Jack Nicholson) is rarely framed while working. He accepts a position as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, in hopes that he will have more time to focus on his writing, but even his writing process is shown very little. As he slowly goes mad, the audience doesn’t get many clues as to why this happens to him other than intense isolation and the grand, empty halls filled with distant voices of the past. But one clue the viewer does have access to, a key piece of text: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” which can be seen in the countless pages Jack wrote on his typewriter. In a hallucination, Jack attends the hotel bar and talks with the ghostly apparition of Lloyd. He asks for a drink and then exclaims that it is the “white mans burden.” This line has myriad interpretations.

For one, it could just be that white men (or perhaps male writers) typically turn to alcohol to cope, much as Chris watched TV as a kid to escape reality. After all, Jack has a history of drinking and abusing his wife and kid. But it could have ties to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote (arguably) of U.S. colonialism, namely white superiority, and how it was the “burden” of whites to rule over the other, barbaric races of society. After all, the Overlook Hotel is built on top of a Native American burial ground and appropriates the materials of that culture as decorations. Is Jack referencing the fact that he must uphold everything because of his privilege as a white, heteronormative male? Certainly, he acknowledges that he has privilege. And it is the white household that holds most of the wealth, even today. Although the most interesting facet of The Shining is that the only people with “the shine” in the film are a child (representing innocence) and a person of color. Could it be that these two are the most grounded—uncorrupted of the societal norms, and therefore able to tap into delicate psychic powers?

That may be the case for The Shining. But something more recent such as Borgman (2013), a postmodern Dutch black comedy directed by Alex van Warmerdam, takes the critique of the status quo a bit further, albeit, this time with an upper-class, white Dutch family. Much like Jack, Marina (Hadewych Minis) recognizes her position relative to society. At one point after Camiel (Jan Bijvoet) has already corrupted their foundation, she tells her husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval): “We have it so good…and the fortunate must be punished.” Again, the use of alcohol resurfaces, but this time the characters are not always clamoring for it. Both Richard and Marina are hesitant to consume because it may affect their emotional state, and they would rather be clear-minded. That simple notion expresses their desire to fundamentally change as people, yet they are unable to step outside of their comfort zone and break from the plastic life they have been living.

Still from Borgman

They, too, are guilty of allowing the children to be indoctrinated by a false-escape (through television). A theme present in both The Shining and Get Out, with Danny and Chris always watching television as a means to disconnect from reality. So as much as Camiel Borgman is, in many ways, an antagonist—or a monster—he does something that the parents are unable to do: change the way the children view the world around them. While it may not be for the betterment of society, what Richard and Marina teach them isn’t necessarily just, either, by basically upholding the status quo. And within the text, issues of race and class are subtlety touched-upon. After Camiel kills the gardener, Marina is tasked with hiring another. This is one way to let Borgman live among the family without Richard raising an eyebrow. During the interview process, Borgman pays minorities to inquire about the position, fully aware that Richard will turn down every single one. Warmerdam slightly critiques the issue of education in relation to the workforce in the very same scene, when a person who claims to not have a diploma is turned down (even though they are just as qualified).

Each of these texts reveal the horror of a capitalistic society. One where minorities are disproportionally mistreated, where the working class are exploited for cheap labor so the rich can get richer, and where youth are subjected to following the cultural norms of the previous generations. Horror films reveal America’s class and race system favors whiteness and beyond that, male whiteness. But it’s important to call attention to these issues through the scope of intersectionality. To expose how it affects class, race, and gender. Horror is one of many genres that can address these issues. However, it is the only genre that has the freedom of expression to explore these topics in a horrific way, to shock its audience in ways the other genres simply cannot. Whether it be through the surrealism of Borgman, the mystical intrigue of The Shining, or the magical realism displayed in Get Out, horror can be used as a playground for prominent voices to critique the status quo of American culture, or any society for that matter.

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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