Subway Horror Cinema and Infrastructural Brutalism

by Michael Truscello

“It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.” — H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

“Could you help an old altar boy, Father? I’m a Catholic.” – an unhoused man in the subway says to Father Karras in The Exorcist (1973)

Recently, The New York Times ran a story headlined “A Nightmare of Blood and Steel.” It was an article about a subway train derailment in New York City 30 years ago that killed 5 and injured 200, shutting down the subway system for almost a week. The train’s operator was drunk and was convicted of second-degree manslaughter. It was the worst NYC subway disaster since 1918, when 100 people were killed in the deadliest NYC subway accident.

Subway systems have their share of nonfiction horrors: in October 2016, the mayor of Mexico City helped distribute 500,000 plastic whistles to women, to curb sexual harassment in the subway; in March 1995, members of a Japanese doomsday cult released sarin on multiple lines of the Tokyo Metro, killing 12 people and seriously injuring 50 others; in July 2005, three bombs detonated in the London Underground, killing 52 people and injuring over 700 others. In this brief essay, however, I would like to examine the Subway Horror subgenre of film in the context of what I have elsewhere called “infrastructural brutalism.”[i]

By infrastructural brutalism, I mean the current economic and ecological order in which global capitalism has committed record resources to industrial infrastructure simultaneous with the emergence of the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the planet. Infrastructural brutalism manifests in an aggregation of industrial trajectories producing cancerous bodies, polluted lungs, atrophied muscles, and depressed and anxious brains. Infrastructure is typically framed in terms of capitalist circulation and the myth of progress, so rarely is much consideration given to the necropolitics of infrastructure, the ways in which infrastructure determines “who may live and who must die.”[ii]

As a genre of film, Horror obviously lends itself to a discussion of the necropolitical. No other genre is so expressly interested in the myriad forms that death takes, and the fear produced by the representations of death and dying. If infrastructural brutalism is concerned with the distribution of death and life from infrastructure megaprojects, then Subway Horror is concerned, in this discussion, with the necro-aesthetics and necropolitical implications of underground transportation infrastructure. Why is the subway sometimes portrayed as a horrifying place, if its ostensible purpose is the benign transportation of humans underground?

The earliest cinematic representation of the subway is a short film called “Interior New York Subway” (1905),[iii]filmed by D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer, Billy Blitzer. This short captures the inherent relationship between cinema and the railroad (this time underground), by “tracking” a subway train at a somewhat stable distance past a few stops and into the darkness of the subterranean city.[iv] No other form of industrial infrastructure inhabits such a synonymous material trajectory with cinema as the railroad.

The subway can be considered an example of one of Carol Clover’s Terrible Places, “most often a house or tunnel, in which the victims sooner or later find themselves.”[v] For example, one of the most famous moments of gore happens in the cold open of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), in which 54 teenagers join hands on a platform in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, and jump in front of an arriving subway train. The horror derives not so much from the location of an underground tunnel but from the scale of the suicides and the quotidian quality of the location. The passengers inside the train witness waves of blood and body parts against the windows, while the people waiting on the platform are doused in blood. The shock of having an urban routine violently interrupted transforms the subway from a banal instrument of travel into a deadly weapon. Later in the film, a mass suicide involves students jumping from the roof of a school, another quotidian space made horrific by cult behaviour, a deadly détournement.

 Subway Horror shares many generic affinities with films such as The Descent (2005) and As Above, So Below(2014), films that feature horror in conjunction with caves and catacombs; but Subway Horror explicitly engages the underground in terms of modern industrial infrastructure. Perhaps in part because of Elon Musk’s promotion of underground tunnels (“loops”), there appears to be a renewed interest in underground space. Robert Macfarlane’s award-winning 2019 book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, for example, reminds readers of the ancient cultural connections between the “underland” and pervasive fears of predators or myths about spaces for metaphysical punishment. A film such as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990) capitalizes on this type of subsurface imaginary by utilizing the subway as a modern symbol for the soul in limbo; near the beginning of the film, the titular Jacob rides home on the subway from his job at the post office, unaware that he is dead and adrift between heaven and hell. The film’s screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, claims the idea for Jacob’s Ladder began with a nightmare he experienced of being imprisoned in a subway car.

“Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose,” Macfarlane writes, “and that which we love and wish to save.”[vi] Underground space therefore connects the infrastructure of the modern city with “our memories, myths and metaphors.”[vii] Macfarlane sees in geological deep time a potential for intellectual despair, but also the possibility for reimagining life above-ground:

“For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather   of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.”[viii]

While the underland is traditionally associated with a fear of damnation in religious mythology, the potential exists to see the buried past as an impetus for a slower existence imbued with a distributed sense of agency. The darkened tunnels of so many horror films “might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelation rather than deprivation.”[ix]

Also published in 2019, Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet traces geological and cultural associations using a more ethnographic approach. Hunt explores underground cities, nuclear bunkers, and abandoned subway stations. For Hunt, the underground is not only a place but “a feeling: something forbidden, unspoken, or otherwise beyond the known and ordinary.”[x] Perhaps more than half of the world’s caves remain undiscovered,[xi] an appealing metaphor of the mysteries of both the natural world and human consciousness. Hunt often invokes evolutionary associations with the underground, such as the way in which a “cave threshold” inspires “a reflexive premonition of our eventual death—which is to say, we brush up against the one thing natural selection has designed us to avoid.”[xii] Horror scholars would no doubt agree with this association, but at the same time, especially considering Subway Horror, one wonders how much of an impact these evolutionary traits have in the context of a cave that has been refashioned as a “modern” tunnel with conveniences and a train that travels at high speeds. Hunt leans heavily on evolutionary psychology of this kind, describing the “dark zone journey” as “humankind’s oldest continuous cultural practice, with archeological evidence going back hundreds of thousands of years, before our species even existed.”[xiii] Like Macfarlane, Hunt also foregrounds the apparent paradox of the underworld: “We go underground to die, but also to be reborn, to emerge from the womb of the earth; we dread the underground, and yet it is our first refuge in times of danger; it conceals priceless treasures, alongside toxic waste; the underground is the realm of repressed memory and of luminous revelation.”[xiv]

In dramatic films, the subway is often presented as the primary space in which different socioeconomic classes meet. The subway is the scene of class anxiety, especially from the perspective of bourgeois characters. In the 1967 film The Incident, which features Martin Sheen in his first feature film role, two toughs (Sheen and Tony Musante) terrorize the 14 passengers of a subway car in New York City. The subway provides a claustrophobic setting for the ruffians to provoke a cross-section of the social order, from an elderly Jewish couple to a couple of soldiers to a Black couple and a displaced man who remains passed out for the duration of the trip. The Incident anticipates New York City’s decay and conflict of the 1970s, in which the underground supplies the mise-en-scène for classist and racist resentment. By 1975, city budget cuts prompted the New York police and fire departments to distribute a pamphlet with the headline, “Welcome to Fear City.” The loss of manufacturing jobs in the city, and the move of substantial capital to the suburbs, depleted municipal coffers and ushered in a sense of fear and dread. As Michael Cisco writes, “This was the dystopian New York City of Little Murders (1971), Mean Streets (1973), Soylant Green (1973), Death Wish (1974), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), God Told Me To (1976), and Taxi Driver (1976).”[xv]

Death Wish is the most reactionary of these films. Its most famous scene, later imitated by real-life racist vigilante Bernard Goetz, portrays Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) as an architect on a mission of vengeance after the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter. Kersey finds himself confronted by two white men on the subway. These are the updated versions of Martin Sheen and Tony Musante. One man draws a knife on Kersey, so he shoots the assailant and his partner. Death Wish provided a fascistic template for future vigilante films of the Reagan Era; and much like Jaws (1975) would engender a fear of the ocean, Death Wish captured white bourgeois moral panic attached to public spaces in New York City, especially the subway, which would again become the setting for a clash of classes in Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors (1979).

 The dramatic films discussed above, and the Subway Horror films considered below, contain examples of what Adam O’Brien calls the “infrastructural set piece,” the “inevitable tension that arises when films play off the diffuse, circulatory nature of infrastructure against locally concentrated events.”[xvi] Whether it is the cult followers waiting for the arrival of a train in Suicide Club, or the vigilante waiting to get mugged on a train car in Death Wish, the cinematic engagement with subway infrastructure marks “a shift towards a less narratively economical mode of storytelling,”[xvii] a scene in which there is a “suspension or disruption of dramatic engagement.”[xviii] O’Brien uses the film Unstoppable(2010) to illustrate the infrastructural set piece, what he describes as “a different kind of film—in which the railroad claims our attention as something not reducible to a transporter of people.”[xix] Subway Horror, similarly, transforms infrastructure from a benign locale for networked transportation into a horrifying space and actant, akin to what O’Brien describes as “cinema’s channelling of networks into sequences of felt intensity.”[xx]

The Sound (2017), featuring Rose McGowan and Christopher Lloyd, contains elements of what could have been a much better horror film: an allegedly haunted abandoned subway line; a protagonist tormented by childhood trauma; the invocation of a scientific bridge between the supernatural and the material, in the form of “infrasound” or low-frequency sounds outside the range of audibility. But the result, shot in Toronto and featuring the real abandoned Lower Bay subway station, combines psychosomatic horror with a backstory about a subway line built on a 19th-century cemetery for the poor that never engages the viewer in anything remotely scary or interesting. Still, the film’s “infrastructural set piece” evokes a real horror. To build a subway line through a “potter’s field,” the underground residue of the poor and unclaimed, evokes an explicitly class-based infrastructural violence, the kind one often finds in the construction of large dams, pipelines, and railroads. The necropolitics of infrastructure disproportionately condemn the poor.

The sacrifices of the working class in the construction of the subway feature prominently in the 1972 film Death Line, which stars Donald Pleasance as Inspector Calhoun, whose involvement in a missing person case leads to the discovery of people who have lived beneath the London Underground since a 19th century cave-in during its construction. Massive infrastructure projects almost inevitably involve extensive exploitation of labor and worker deaths. For centuries, infrastructure involved the use of forced labor. The railroads in the southern US, for example, enabled the efficient movement of enslaved people, who also could be used as collateral for loans to build more railroads. The enslaved labor from the Soviet gulags built many of the canals and highways constructed under Stalin. During World War II, the Nazis forced an estimated 10,000 laborers from at least 37 labor camps to begin building the Reichsautobahn. As in the case of Death Line, Subway Horror occasionally returns contemporary spectators to the necropolis on which modernity precariously sits.

Christopher Smith’s Creep (2004), which stars Franka Potente, also uses the London Underground as a milieu for class struggle and genre scares. Early in the film, Kate (Potente) encounters an unhoused man sitting beside an ATM. When he asks for change, she replies with snark and leaves without helping him. Later, Kate finds herself without exact change to buy a pass for the subway, so she buys a pass from an unhoused woman. Kate becomes trapped in the subway after hours, and, after being chased by a rapist, she encounters and befriends the unhoused woman, Mandy, and her partner, Jimmy. Jimmy relates to Kate, in not-so-subtle terms, the message of the film: “Homeless people don’t go missing. Homeless people are missing.” In the closing moments of the film, with Kate filling the role of Final Girl after surviving the cannibal who lurked adjacent to the subway, Kate is mistaken for an unhoused person. She laughs, cries, then stares into the camera. What lies beneath every capitalist society are lives deprived of the necessities of life. As Craig Willse argues, “living without housing is systemically produced and must be understood as the active taking away of shelter, as the social making of house-less lives…. Housing [in the United States] draws from already existing racial subordinations and entrenches and intensifies the death-making effects of those racisms….”[xxi] To make people homeless, poor, and precarious, capitalism combines speculative market mechanisms with “anti-black racism, the everydayness of police occupation, and the transformation of urban space into consumption enclaves.”[xxii]

Marebito (2004) parlays the promise of abandoned underground tunnels and passageways, this time from WWII-era Tokyo, into the premise for an urban myth about the lost knowledge of pre-modern societies. Videographer Masuoka films a bizarre suicide in the subway system: a man stabs himself in the eye while apparently terrified by something invisible. Masuoka experiences disorientation as he descends into the abandoned tunnels beneath Tokyo, much like Rose McGowan’s Kelly in The Sound. What Masuoka finds beneath the subway is an assortment of occult theories about a Hollow Earth and Mountains of Madness. Marebito, the film Takashi Shimizu shot between production of Ju-on (2002) and The Grudge (2004), flaunts its influences, and uses familiar occult mythology for a story about the knowledge concealed by modernity, Lovecraftian terror mixed with postmodern instability. Masuoka eventually provides the film’s thesis: “I think humans are a degenerated species. I believe that our ancestors were more perceptive than us. They could see creatures from a different dimension…sneaking into our dimension.” Through his adventures beneath the subway system, Masuoka discovers a naked, mute woman and brings her back to his apartment. There, he eventually discovers that she needs to consume blood to survive, and he becomes a serial killer to feed her need. Masuoka’s pursuit of the suicidal man’s terror brings him into conflict with an alien being and primal violence. As another character in the film reveals: “The feeling we know as terror is actually ancient wisdom that’s sealed in our subconscious mind.” This trip on the subway includes an archaic stop in the Uncanny.

A homeless man falling asleep on a businessman riding the subway is the kind of image many would associate with gritty realism, a portrait of the class divide on public transit, but Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train (2008)pursues a Lovecraftian form of ancient monstrosity for which the subway is only a conduit. Like Marebito, the central character in The Midnight Meat Train is a photographer (Leon, played by Bradley Cooper). Leon takes pictures of street life, until one day he encounters a potential sexual assault in the subway system. He intervenes, only to discover the next day that the woman he saved has disappeared. Leon’s curiosity exposes the existence of a Subway Butcher, who murders passengers to feed an ancient race of creatures who preceded the construction of the subway, so they don’t go to the surface for food. This extremely gory adaptation of a Clive Barker short story frames modern infrastructure as a veil rather than a solution for primeval violence. 

Some forms of Subway Horror are less concerned with the supernatural or the primeval. The first film Sean S. Cunningham directed after Friday the 13th, for example, was based on a Mary Higgins Clark novel and uses the tunnels beneath Grand Central Station as the maze in which a killer hides two captives he intends to ransom and then murder. A Stranger is Watching (1982), starring Rip Torn and Kate Mulgrew, manages to generate some interesting moments of uncertainty as the captives escape and are chased through the tunnels beneath Grand Central, occasionally encountering the destitute inhabitants of this space. An unhoused woman sacrifices her life to help the woman and young girl escape captivity. An unhoused man demands money before offering to help the two captives find their way to the surface. While primarily a middling thriller and not a sociological study of precarity, A Stranger is Watching manages to contrast the alienation of the hegemonic social order with para-social or extra-social encounters, by posing meetings between the captive TV personality (played by Mulgrew) and random strangers in the subway spaces.

Sometimes, Subway Horror uses the subway simply for a minimalist setting without the added political or allegorical implications. In End of the Line (2007), the subway functions primarily as a random confined space or Terrible Place in which to stage pursuit scenarios, while also facilitating the obvious pun of the title. The film opens with a young woman committing suicide in front of a subway train. Later, a religious doomsday cult is ordered to begin a murder spree. While the film invites the possibility of actual demons haunting the subway system, End of the Line never achieves the kind of aesthetic transcendence that might make one care to resolve its ambiguities.

Some of the tropes in Subway Horror recur—the cannibal living underground, the subway tunnel as a Terrible Place, the moral panic over public spaces, the frequent social-realist invocation of suicide—but one of the most dominant expressions in these films involves the horror of different socioeconomic classes encountering each other in a quotidian space that arguably was designed to make such encounters less common. During the French Revolution, the sewers were seen by the bourgeoisie as a possible location for insurrection. Into the nineteenth century, “sewers remained a dangerous, because unsupervised, locale from which to undermine the state.”[xxiii] To this day, the infrastructural brutalism of the “underland” or the “underground” haunts the bourgeois imagination. What lies beneath all capitalist societies is the promise of revolution.

Michael Truscello is an associate professor in English and General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. He is the author of Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure (MIT Press, 2020) and co-editor with Ajamu Nangwaya of Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance (AK Press, 2017). His recent publications on petrocultures have appeared as chapters in Petrocultures: Oil, Culture, Politics(McGill-Queen’s UP, 2017), Interrogating the Anthropocene: Ecology, Aesthetics, Pedagogy, and the Future in Question(Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and Fueling Culture (Fordham UP, 2017). He directed the film Capitalism Is The Crisis: Radical Politics in the Age of Austerity (2011). He acknowledges that he lives and works on Treaty 7 territory, the ancestral and traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy: Kainai, Piikani and Siksika as well as the Tsuu T’ina First Nation and Stoney Nakoda First Nation. 

[i] Michael Truscello, Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2020.

[ii] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11.

[iii] See also, “A Brief History of Subway Cinema,” Bowery Boys, January 5, 2017.

[iv] For more of the history of the railroad and cinema, see Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

[v] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 30.

[vi] Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. 8.

[vii] MacFarlane, 13.

[viii] MacFarlane, 15.

[ix] MacFarlane, 17.

[x] Will Hunt, Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. New York: Random House, 2019. 4.

[xi] Hunt, 5.

[xii] Hunt, 27.

[xiii] Hunt, 28.

[xiv] Hunt, 30.

[xv] Michael Cisco, “’Hello from the Sewers of N.Y.C.’ – T.E.D. Klein’s ‘Children of the Kingdom,’” in Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror PhilosophyVolume Two: The Horror Boom, 1979-1992, S.J. Bagley, ed. Bolton, ON: 340. 

[xvi] Adam O’Brien, “Energy and Eventhood: The Infrastructural Set Piece,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 11.1 (2019): 2.

[xvii] O’Brien, 2.

[xviii] O’Brien, 2.

[xix] O’Brien, 4.

[xx] O’Brien, 5.

[xxi] Craig Willse, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 2.

[xxii] Ibid., 12.

[xxiii] Donald Reid, Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. 19.


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