A desolate castle rising out of a jagged hilltop, surrounded on all sides by dense forest. A full moon in the inky, starless sky above. Here there be monsters, make no mistake. In this sunken place, there lives a stalking, ghoulish creature, with sallow skin and narrow eyes; the eyes of a killer. One who feeds on the blood and the lifeforce of the helpless innocents who stray into his lair. This creature is old. It cannot be killed, it does not rest, and it is always, always hungry. The creature goes by many names in many languages and all who know it come to fear it in time. We call it: Capitalism.
Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula, based on a popular stage play with its roots in Bram Stoker’s original novel, gave us the definitive cinematic definition of what a vampire is. Nosferatu may have been first, but Bela Lugosi’s classic portrayal of the Transylvanian terror remains the cultural touchstone; the blueprint for all on screen vampires that followed, Twilight excluded. Lugosi’s Count is tall, gaunt and above all, aristocratic. He glides regally up narrow staircases and drifts silently into lavish drawing rooms and remains immaculately well turned-out for someone who lives (and dines) alone. Even his voice, heavily accented with a sort of all-purpose Eastern European drawl, is school-masterly in its slow, measured tone. Dracula is seen to be almost unknowable as a character, his age lost to time, his conquests too great to mention, his victims, countless.
“Marx states, ‘capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor’ and elsewhere, ‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, through every pore, with blood and dirt’. Is it any wonder that banks are so often analogised as leeches or that billionaires are viewed as unethical by default?”
What Dracula, and indeed vampires in general, share with the monster I described above is that they require the blood of the people, usually peasants, villagers or otherwise common, innocent persons to sustain themselves. In Capital, Marx states, ‘capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor’ and elsewhere, ‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, through every pore, with blood and dirt’. Is it any wonder that banks are so often analogised as leeches or that billionaires are viewed as unethical by default? Just as Dracula gains his power from drinking the blood of his victims, the richest in our society do not become this way by chance, but by design, a pact, if you will, that permits them to suck from the veins of their employees their own elixir of life: capital.
It isn’t just vampires who we might view as a kind of ideological short hand in horror cinema, however. Take George Romero’s 1968 ‘all-Zom-no-Com’ classic Night of the Living Dead. The Zombie flick has managed to be many things over the years; horror, comedy, romance, and I’m working on the musical as we speak. Night of the Living Dead is no exception. Its political themes have variously been interpreted as a commentary on racial inequality at the time (largely supported by the casting of Duane Jones in a leading role) to the undead horde being a critique of mindless, consumerist culture. Then there’s Wes Craven’s violent, stomach churning exploration of violence that is Last House on the Left. Inspired by news footage of Vietnam, the film has a stark attitude towards violence, that being the atrocities committed by Krug Stillo and his thugs only begets the horrific actions of the murdered girl’s grieving, revenge driven parents. The film has a fascinating history, it was deemed so offensive to public tastes that, at one theatre, a crowd broke into the projection box and burned the celluloid in protest and was banned or cut in a number of countries. Naturally, it was a huge success.
Surprisingly, this trend even continues into the most iconic Horror sub-genre of all: the Slasher. As horror’s villains went from being supernatural to domesticated (but no less liable to cut your head off) the focus shifted to an evil that lived next door. Stephen King remains the king of this kind of scare but, sticking with films over books, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a harrowing thrill ride that uses the real-life bogey man of Ed Gein as the inspiration for the murderous Leatherface. Ed Gein remains an interesting case because, as the public were fond of saying at the time of his arrest in 1957, he looked much like anyone you might meet in your local high street. In his book Splatter Capital, Mark Steven reasons that Leatherface and his cannibalistic family are ‘brutalised by circumstance and now biting back with a vengeance’, those circumstances being the economic recession of 1974 in which the film takes place, giving a rational motive to the unspeakable acts of violence that we witness on screen.
Lastly, let us turn briefly to Jaws which, as I and a certain Dr Kermode are keen to point out, is not actually a film about a shark. Much like the other films we’ve looked at, Jaws remains impossible to pin down politically. The shark itself has been seen to represent the ultimate in unknowable evil, the wrath of nature on an ignorant society a la Hitchock’s The Birds, and the threat of foreign invasion on the American idyll of Amity Island. The shark is all these things and none of them. Politics and horror are inseparable because one fuels the other and vice versa. Society’s scapegoats fuel our nightmares and as that fear grows it begins to impact our law-making. Every monster, psychopath, ghost and poltergeist on screen is a reflection of our own anxieties and fears and what they can become if we do not fight them. Craven says it best, ‘to avoid fainting, keep repeating: “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie”… It’s only a movie?