On Halloween night, once the trick-or-treaters are sleeping off their sugar highs, older revelers will cue up seasonally appropriate entertainment. Of the thousands of spine-tingling titles to choose from, there are some classic (and lesser known) standouts that are distinctly political.
For some, the term “political horror” might conjure images of specific candidates, but lots of horror tales are in fact allegories for contemporary anxieties. This was even true before film existed, said Steven Bruhm, managing editor of the journal Horror Stories and an English professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
“The Gothic novel, in its heyday, was among other things a direct comment on the French Revolution and the reign of terror,” Bruhm said.
Genre films often find their punch by appealing to viewers’ preexisting fears, many of which are informed by the political landscape of the time.
“You can get a sense of the shift in ideology or convention that explains what’s going on in the movie,” Bruhm said.
Of course, not all horror movies attempt this. Fewer still manage to do it particularly gracefully. But there are plenty of good choices that, in addition to delivering chills, might strike up a good conversation over candy corn. Here are five of them. Note that some (generally mild) spoilers lie ahead.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
“Night of the Living Dead,” like many horror and science fiction films of the era, addressed Cold War fears. The zombies are the product of toxic radiation, a clear nod to fears of nuclear war.
"There is a sense that the zombie there is an allegory for the communist," Bruhm said. "The zombie has no identity, no individuality."
Directed by George Romero, "Night of the Living Dead" was a commercial success, a classic example of the independent, low-budget film that becomes a box-office hit.
The film is also notable for its time because its hero is a black man, played by Duane Jones.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Viewers who are put off by director Roman Polanski can take some solace in the fact that most of the credit for the feminist messages in “Rosemary’s Baby” belongs to novelist Ira Levin. The script stays pretty true to the source material, so those who don’t want to even grudgingly appreciate the filmmaking can focus on the story.
It chronicles a young woman and a pregnancy that feels wrong from the start. The movie came out eight years after the first oral contraceptive was approved by the FDA and five years before Roe v. Wade, when women were still fighting for agency over their own bodies and, therefore, their futures.
In a particularly anguishing scene, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary knows something’s wrong and seeks help from a doctor. The doctor calls her husband instead of believing her story.
“The Mia Farrow character is kind of this bewildered, out-of-control ingénue,” Bruhm said. “Meanwhile, her husband, who is trying to get ahead in the world and live the American dream, has sold her to the devil.”
3. The Omen (1976)
Unlike the other examples listed here, there’s not a whole lot of allegory to “The Omen,” in which an American diplomat’s adopted son turns out to be the devil. In the sequels, that son shares his father’s political aspirations and becomes an elected official, embodying a convenient vessel through which to bring about the End of Days.
In the '70s, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal fueled mistrust of government, adding to a general malaise. The (widely viewed as sub-par) 2006 remake tried to hammer this point in harder, opening with images from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
4. Candyman (1992)
On the surface, Bernard Rose's “Candyman” is about urban legends. But it’s also about urban decay. A young grad student (Virginia Madsen) decides to track an urban legend to its source, taking her to the infamous–and now razed–Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago.
Disregarding several warnings, the heroine waltzes into Cabrini-Green and discovers untold horrors that have been festering for years, a supernatural legacy of the history of slavery in America. This type of narrative is another classic, Bruhm said.
“There are critics who have argued that the Gothic in America is fundamentally centered on the question of race, the history of slavery and the haunting of the white American by the history of slavery” he said.
5. The Mist (2007)
The Guardianwent so far as to say that “The Mist,” directed by Frank Darabont, “may one day be seen as America's definitive post-9/11 movie”–never mind that it's based on a Stephen King novella written more than two decades before that event.
The movie portrays a group trapped in a supermarket by a mysterious fog that cloaks lurking terrors. It's not so much the disaster that invites the 9/11 comparisons as the response to the disaster.
The movie explores the different ways people react to a terrifying new reality. Some, as one character says, will blindly "follow anyone who promises a solution." Even those who try to rise to the occasion generally don't do a particularly good job, making "The Mist" something of a disaster film outlier.