Political Horror 101: Reclaiming the culture we love for the world we want to see

By Johanna Isaacson

I was recently asked an impossible-to-answer question: what five films would you recommend to a social-justice minded person as an introduction to horror? Luckily, my friend who was planning to interview me for their podcast allowed me to push the number up to the more reasonable but still absurd number of ten. I took a stab at the daunting project and here are the chronologically ordered results. I found that selecting films for their political clarity narrowed things down a bit, so I wouldn’t say that these are the most interesting horror films out there on all counts, but they are great examples of the genre’s mode of overt political engagement. At the same time, they’re all also quite good by any measure! 

1. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur 1942)

The film opens with the protagonist, Irena, sketching a caged black panther at a zoo. A nearby all-American engineer, Ollie, becomes fascinated by Irena and the two begin an intimate acquaintance. Although she seeks a relationship with her tall, blond beau, Irena is haunted by a curse that has followed her from her small town in Serbia to her new life in the US. A history of slavery and oppression had turned her hometown’s inhabitants to witchcraft and devil worship, and those who escaped execution continued their demonic practices in secret, possibly living as cat-human hybrids. Possessed by the past, Irena carries a portentous energy wherever she goes and is incapable of heteronormative sex and romance. Instead, she becomes a queer, animalistic shadow that darkens the otherwise sunny lives and dispositions of Ollie and Alice, the cheerful woman who is his more suitable mate. When Irena is unable to emerge from her shadowy, queer, “foreign,” shroud, a psychiatrist attempts to first pathologize her fears and then “cure” her through rape. This overt attack clarifies that all the other attempts to wrench Irena into normality are rooted in American obliviousness, violence, and entitlement rather than empathy. With noirish style, Cat People creates a sympathetic monster who might repel some, but for the radical viewer she claws away at myths that serve to mask oppression and repression. By the end of the film, we must acknowledge that the American Dream is only gained through sacrificing those who are forced to lurk in darkness.

2. The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes 1975)

A classic of second wave feminism, The Stepford Wives represents “the problem with no name” that Betty Friedan diagnosed as besetting isolated, circumscribed housewives, as a matter of life and death. When creative, outspoken Joanna moves from the city to the suburb of Stepford, she gains a larger house and a seemingly safer life, but in the process, she loses herself. Here, women’s fears of subsumption into the role of wife and mother are made concrete as Joanna begins to unravel a plot by the local “men’s group.” These men plan to recreate their wives as the perfect, obedient mates to which the real women they live with refuse to conform. What they lose in vocabulary these women will gain in breast size; what they lose in independence they will gain in sexual availability; what they lose in creativity they will gain in housekeeping skills. The Stepford Wives is truly a patriarchal nightmare, the template for decades of feminist horror films to come. 

3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman 1978)

When the utopian, leftist dreams of the sixties crashed against a wall of authoritarian reaction in the seventies, no place was safe from an encroaching conservative conformity. Even San Francisco, “the left coast,” couldn’t withstand a fascistic undercurrent as US culture drifted ever-further rightward. In the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers an array of well-meaning Bay Area types attempt to hold onto their ideals and lives, but none can withstand a coordinated takeover of “pod people,” gelatinous plant-beings whose seeds have drifted to earth from outer space, and who can replicate and destroy unwitting victims as they sleep. The pod people recognize passion and idealism as threats to their mindless quest for power and will stop at nothing to turn those still trying to live artistic, ethical, and emotionally rich lives to cold blooded husks. Compelling performances by Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy as well as Michael Chapman’s frenetic, paranoid cinematography viscerally brings to life a world where our bodies may live on but our hopes for a livable world are disintegrating. 

4. Society (Brian Yuzna 1989)

Back in the eighties many of us were theorizing that people like Trump—pompous, insatiable elitists who lived to display their wealth and power and crushed anyone who got in their way—were something less and more than human. In Society, protagonist Bill finds this is true when his obscenely rich family reveals their true colors as sharp-dressed aliens who participate in something called “the shunting” behind closed doors, a revolting ritual in which the rich fuse together to literally feed off the poor. Society, which could be written off as a fun but didactic caricature of the wealthy, becomes glorious body horror in the hands of Japanese special effects artist Screaming Mad George who dreams up and executes the most raucously grotesque images imaginable. As the elite of Beverly Hills dissolve into a gooey, writhing mound of undifferentiated flesh, no orifice is spared from hideous and hilarious violation, as we see when Bill runs from a slimy fusion of his mother and sister who are attempting to seduce him, only to encounter his father’s face laughing at him from between prominent butt cheeks. Half Dali painting, half dirty joke, all scathing satire, this film offers the burgeoning class warrior horror fan all the gory, politicized, surrealism they might not have known they needed. 

5. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven 1991)

Cards on the table, as a Gen Xer the shape of my trauma has been carved by the scalpel of eighties conservatism and vacuousness. So, unsurprisingly, I’m going to broadcast my love for The People Under the Stairs from the rooftops. This film, like many on this list, reverses the idea that the pristine suburbs are imperiled by some shadowy “other,” and rather shows a white, wealthy, individualistic, conformist, middle-class, heteronormative couple to be the true monsters. In fact, every racist, classist, normative trope of horror is overturned in this film where we root for the Black home-invaders along with the wraiths that haunt the walls and basement of a family home. The real monsters are “Mommy” and “Daddy,” an incestuous couple modeled after Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Gentrifying sadists dressed as the perfect fifties couple, they are a condensation of the ways racialized capitalism and heteronormative family values intersect. It is up to our plucky hero, Fool, to liberate the mutilated children locked in Mommy and Daddy’s house as well as the resources they, as greedy landlords, have stolen from his neighborhood. Made in an era that blamed racialized “crackheads” and “super predators” for all society’s ills, this campy horror comedy shows us where the true terrors lie. 

6. Wild Zero (Tetsuo Takeuchi 1999)

Before I began writing about horror, the focus of my research was the politics of DiY culture and punk rock. While some might see this change of interests as a radical swerve, I see my current obsession as a continuation of my former pursuits. Both punk and horror, when done right, are uncompromising cultural expressions of utopian politics, paeans to the spontaneous, insurrectionary energies of the young and the disenfranchised. Wild Zero is one of the most explicit instances of this intersection between punk and horror. At the heart of this horror comedy is the insurgent power of rock’n’roll, gender subversion, and zombies. Like much anthemic culture, the film even has a slogan: “love has no borders, nationalities, or gender” along with, of course, “rock’n’roll will never die!” These truths become the mission of protagonist Ace as he devoutly follows punk band Guitar Wolf, finding love and fighting zombies along the way. With extravagant splatter, raging punk shows, and tender trans romance (though some of the handling of this narration might be a bit dated), this film is a must-see intro to the genre. 

7. American Psycho (Mary Harron 2000) 

Move over Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger—Patrick Bateman may be an even more iconic eighties-period monster. Though we all shiver at a good uncanny mask and the occasional set of knife claws, nothing is quite so unnerving as the expensive perfection of the dead-eyed yuppie. In American Psycho the sculpted investment banker Patrick Bateman is not only terrifying for his soullessness, his misogyny, and his insatiable quest to inflict pain and death, but for his absolute immunity to consequences. When buckets of blood can’t fill Bateman’s fundamental emptiness, he practically tries to get caught. But the choppy seas of life that drown so many are ever-buoyant for a rich, good-looking, white man. When a woman at a nightclub asks Bateman “So, what do you do?” he answers honestly, “I’m in murders and executions actually.” He runs down the street screaming his crimes to whoever will listen. And yet, he is still welcomed to compare business cards at the country club the next day. As if this class-war plot and Christian Bale’s Brechtian performance weren’t cutting enough, Bateman’s caustically ironic soliloquys on the topic of corporate eighties pop songs, such as Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to be Square,” are not to be missed. At the time of its release American Psycho was called misogynist by some, but a second look at this woman-directed horror comedy shows it to be a knife sharp satire of rapacious eighties masculinity and materialism. 

8. Land of the Dead (George Romero 2005)

Unlike some sub-genres of horror, zombie movies share with science fiction the ability to provide social context to monstrosities. In zombie movies, where undead walkers rove the streets rather than haunt houses, we often witness not only the apocalyptic future but the world that created it. I wouldn’t say that Land of the Dead is the best zombie movie (that honor goes to the trilogy that preceded it: Night of the Living DeadDawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead). However, Land of the Dead is the most politically explicit of Romero’s oeuvre, debuting twenty years after the first three. Here, by revealing future zombies to be an awakening proletariat, Romero retroactively enrichens our political readings of his previous films. With this addition to the franchise, we are introduced to a post-zombie-apocalypse exaggeration of our own world of radical inequality, a neo-feudal version of Pittsburgh lorded over by obscenely rich oligarch Paul Kaufman. In this fully militarized society, the rich live in a luxury high-rise building while the poor are condemned to what Mike Davis has called “the planet of slums.” These voiceless masses are controlled by the fear of exposure to the even more degraded “other,” abject zombies excluded from the barricaded city. The character to follow is Big Daddy, a zombie who slowly gains political as well as cognitive consciousness. This emergence of the most wretched of the earth leads to a revolt through which we learn, yet again, that the battle we must wage is not a war of all against all but a class war against those who terrorize us and keep us divided. 

9. Get Out (Jordan Peele 2017)

This list of political horror owes a tribute to Jordan Peele who popularized the phrase “social thriller” to describe “thriller/horror movies where the ultimate villain is society.” Some have criticized the term as elitist, claiming that it separates horror films into elevated and denigrated categories. But the genius of Get Out is that it shows how the horror genre as a whole is richly equipped to deal with social issues. Get Out is a loving homage to horror that has come before it, with a special connection to The Stepford Wives but really to innumerable gothic films, zombie films, slasher films, and more, most of which would not be considered “elevated” by any measure. With a focus on gothic tropes such as madness, isolation, live burial, doubling, and sleep-like states, Get Out clarifies how these forms of terror are intrinsically connected to US racism. The film follows Chris Washington as he is lured to his white girlfriend’s family home, and, as in The Stepford Wives, this seemingly safe, idyllic place turns out to be a terrifying snare set by the entitled to trap the vulnerable. The film cannily chooses a liberal family as its villains, showing how the rhetoric around race cleverly adapts to historical change, but that white supremacy lives on in transformed guises. With its Stepford servants, its terrifying “sunken place,” and its menacing body snatchers, Get Out can be read as a manifesto in defense of horror. Here is a genre, the film implies, that can reckon with an enduring history of racialized violence that will otherwise be ignored, repressed, and disavowed.

10. Candyman (Nia DaCosta 2021)

The story of Anthony McCoy, a Black artist who gradually turns into a monster called the Candyman, is framed by the destruction of the Cabrini Green Towers that housed thousands of Chicago’s Black, working class residents, who were consequently scattered and expelled from the gentrifying city. Anthony survived the purge as a token Black artist in the city’s latest stage of cleansed development, but he is cursed with the legacy of Daniel Robitaille, the original Candyman who was murdered for the “sin” of falling in love with a white woman. When Anthony is stung by a bee, the agent of Robitaille’s gruesome death after he was smeared with honey by his attackers, he is pierced by history. As the newest incarnation of the Candyman, Anthony will lose his place in the city’s public facing legends of meritocracy and class-mobility but gain his footing in the subterranean legacy of political retribution. If his community is yet again denied the sweetness of life, then he will instead become the agent of their sweet revenge. The Candyman will repossess the grounds of Cabrini-Green from gentrifiers and cops alike, if not for the living, then for the dead. 

I hope these ten movies will introduce the curious to the rich and storied world of politicized horror, a genre whose “true subject,” argues the queer, Marxist film critic Robin Wood, “is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses.” As I contend in my recent book, Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror, watching and discussing films through a critical lens, rather than reading reviews in the mainstream press, is a means to reclaim the culture we love for the world we want to see.

Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror from Common Notions Press and The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books. She has published widely in academic and popular journals including, with Annie McClanahan, the entry for “Marxism and Horror” in The Sage Handbook of Marxism (2022). She runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.

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