Monsters: A Symbolic Threat to the American Dream
*Though the definition of “monster” is unclear, for our purposes we will use the word to include any horrifying, supernatural antagonists within the horror genre.
Ever since the beginnings of the horror genre, monsters in all of their terrifying forms have served to symbolize a threat against society and its way of living. In the novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley warns the audience of the abuse of modern science and the dangers of playing God. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) represents an unleashed sexuality otherwise repressed during the Victorian era. These novels, among others, paved the way for future symbolic monsters within the mediums of both literature and film. According to Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, Barry Keith Grant quotes Robin Woods saying of the horror genre: “they are ‘our collective nightmares… in which normality is threatened by a monster'”. Grant goes on to say “the horror film expresses cultural and ideological contradictions that otherwise we deny.”
American authors and directors, similarly to Shelley and Stoker, have used monsters and horror to symbolize contemporary social and political concerns. These symbols serve either as a critique on or a threat to the American Dream. These threats vary from personal to societal depending on the story, but micro or macro, these threats symbolize a decline in the American way of life.
Rosemary’s Baby (novel)
Rosemary’s Baby was written in 1967 by Ira Levin. In short, the novel is about a young married woman (Rosemary) who, after moving into a new apartment in Manhattan with her husband, meets a strange older couple next door then gets pregnant. By the end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), Rosemary discovers that the father of her child is Satan and that the neighbors and her husband Guy were in on it.
In Rosemary’s Baby, the “monster” is Satan and his followers. However, some people view the premise of Rosemary’s Baby as a satirical comment on the “by any means necessary” drive of young professionals and a subsequent threat against traditional families. In the novel, Rosemary’s husband Guy is so intent on being successful in his career as an actor that he makes a pact with their satanist neighbors to injure a fellow actor in order to secure a part in a play. The flip side of the pact is that his wife will be impregnated with the Antichrist. He is set up as being obsessed with fame and fortune at the beginning of the novel with his lying to their former landlord to get out of their lease and an obsession over a pimple. Rosemary simply wants to start a family and is willing to overlook the possibility that Guy is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, even quite literally the worst he could do – make a deal with the devil.
In this way, the novel offers a cynical point of view of young professionals moving away from valuing a family to selling their souls in order to get ahead.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (film)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released in 1956 and was directed by Don Siegel. The film tells the story of the small town of Santa Mira in which citizens are being replaced by emotionless alien pod people who “work for a collectivist mentality that threatens to undermine America” [Grant].
The protagonist, Miles Bennell manages to escape being turned into a “pod person” and is able to alert the proper authorities – the FBI and the President.
The symbolism is clearly a reaction to creeping conformity in the 1950s as well as the threat of communism. At the height of the second red scare (1947-1957), Americans were afraid to deviate from social norms for fear of being labeled as communist. On the film, Grant says “the film makes the mundane seem menacing”. The now replaced Uncle Ira “goes through the banal motions of mowing the lawn and chatting idly about the weather”. Toward the end of the film, the crowd of pod people descend upon “dissenters” much like the House Un-American Activities Committee spearheaded by Joseph McCarthy that had a few years earlier investigated possible communist spies within the United States.
Night of the Living Dead (film)
Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968 and was directed by George A. Romero. Independently produced, the film was able to defy traditional horror movie conventions. Firstly, the death and destruction begins at the beginning of the film – and in broad daylight nonetheless. Not only that, but our protagonist is a black male who [SPOILER ALERT] ends up being mistaken for the undead and is shot and killed by a member of a vigilante group ridding the town of zombies. The plot is the is the first of its kind – everything’s fine until some zombies show up, then everyone hides somewhere, starts turning on each other, gets picked off one by one, until only one remains.
Similarly to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, uses zombies to symbolize contemporary social and political issues. In this case, the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement. In the film, the military and scientists confer over a solution to the problem, but “here the authorities are bumbling, evasive and confused as the news camera vainly pursues them for information”. In other words, countless number of people are dying and the authorities are too incompetent to stop it. The same could be said (and was) about the Vietnam War. By October 1 when the film was released, the Tet Offensive and the Massacre at Hue had occurred, Walter Cronkite called the war “lost” and there was talk of instituting a draft.
1968 also saw violent racial tensions toward the end of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in April and lynchings, bombings, and murders were happening all over the south with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. A bit troubling, the members of the vigilante group who mistake our hero (Ben) for a zombie are typically “redneck”. They, in a sense, deem Ben no different from the threatening monsters. “Because the hero is black, the final montage of still images of Ben’s body being thrown on a large pyre, his body handled with meathooks, suggests news photos of beatings and lynchings in the American south at the height of the Civil Rights movement” [Grant].
The Mist (film)
The Mist is a 2007 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, written in 1980. It was directed by Frank Darabont and tells the story of a large group of people stuck inside of a grocery store in a small town in Maine after a mysterious mist containing deadly monsters descends upon the town.
As with Frankenstein, the monsters represent the dangers of playing God. When military scientists engage in top secret experiments involving alternate dimensions, a hole is ripped between our dimension and others, causing other monster dimensions to spill into ours. After escaping the grocery store, now a hub of religious fervor threatening the life of his son, David (the hero) and others escape in a car. It isn’t until [SPOILER ALERT] David sacrifices the others in the car, including his son, that the military suddenly comes to the rescue. This suggests that the powers that be not only put normal citizens at risk, but then can’t undo the damage that is caused, destroying an American dream of living an idyllic happy life (in a quaint and friendly small town in Maine).
The film is also a critique on the socialization of everyday citizens, that when it really comes down to it, many folks revert back to savagery when they are faced with a devastating force they don’t understand. In other words, the American dream of living peacefully with one another is flimsy. The savagery represented in the film is the justification of the supernatural as “Gods wrath” against sinners. The height of the civil devolution is when most of the citizens within the grocery store have been taken in by the religious talk of one woman and are convinced that the only way they can be saved from the monsters outside is to make a human sacrifice – David’s son.
One can argue that many of these symbolic monsters were not intended as such by the authors of horror novels and films, but it is undeniable that at the core of the terror behind horror is the realism of the settings and circumstances surrounding the monsters. Horror plays on our deepest darkest fears by showing us a world that we know, then destroying it. “[Wood] sees the genre as an articulation of the Freudian notion of the return of the repressed… ‘the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses'” [Grant]. The horror genre points out the fragility of the American Dreams of the nuclear family, a strong government that we can rely on, and trusting and peacefully living in a society with our neighbors.