Maybe it isn't an accident that Halloween and national U.S. elections fall in such close proximity. Fear is a powerful driving force for both. It certainly isn't an accident that politics tend to leak into horror films, which often mine the political zeitgeist to learn what kind of scares are selling at any given moment. In fact, horror films are usually a better gauge of what's making the country anxious than opinion polls are. As with politicians, there are horror films for virtually every political stripe, as we explore in this guide to how to combine two types of fear this Electioneen (or is that Hallowelection?) season.
Horror Films For Left-Wingers:
The situation: An older married couple hears that their son has been killed in Vietnam, but when they pray hard for the news to be false, the boy returns. With a thirst for human blood.
The politics: Rather than being the elephant in the room, the Vietnam War becomes the rampaging zombie who terrorizes Middle America. Yes, that's right: In 1974, director Bob Clark made a movie that took the bold stance of being against the war.
Key moment: Tired of being an inconvenient truth, the undead soldier digs his own grave and buries himself. Talk about passive-aggressive! That setup is echoed in…
Masters Of Horror: Homecoming (2005)
The situation: The scores of American soldiers killed in the current war return from the dead to vote out the liars who put them in harm's way.
The politics: Since George Romero pioneered the genre, zombie movies have repeatedly been used for left-wing allegory, but Joe Dante's political sentiments are so blunt that the film barely counts as allegory (or horror) at all. The zombies here aren't hungry for brains, they're conscientious, docile lobbyists for change; if anything, the shotgun-wielding Ann Coulter-type played by Thea Gill represents the real threat to humanity.
Key moment: There's no more sobering image than the mounted coffins of dead soldiers, lined up in neat rows with the American flag draped over them. Dante recreates this image in an airplane hangar, only to have the soldiers angrily smash through their coffins, not quite ready to rest in peace.
Land Of The Dead (2005)
The situation: And speaking of Romero's zombies, in the dystopian future of his fourth zombie film, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. And also attacked by zombies. Evil businessman Dennis Hopper tries to keep his city's zombie problems at bay by secluding himself in a high-tech, expensively fortified skyscraper, but when betrayed working-class mercenary John Leguizamo goes bucking for revenge, Hopper has to deal with an angry, oppressed underclass and a rapidly evolving zombie population.
The politics: Even if Hopper didn't make for such a direct Bush/Cheney stand-in, Land Of The Dead's depiction of a grim world where the gulf between the super-rich and the super-poor makes class warfare inevitable would make this one of the most overtly political horror films of the past decade.
Key moment: In 2005, the Bush administration's tough-talking words popped up in the mouths of all manner of cinematic evildoers (see also Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith), including self-professed real-life Republican Hopper, who channels Dubya (or at least squirmy mouthpiece Scott McClellan) when he insists that he doesn't negotiate with terrorists.
Eyes Without A Face (1960)
The situation: Of course, the gap between rich and poor is nothing new for horror films. In this French classic, an experimental plastic surgeon seeks out beautiful women to kill and skin so he can stitch their faces onto his disfigured daughter. Hey, the rich are different from you and me.
The politics: Pick your cause, lefties! While class warriors can nod ruefully at the movie's depiction of aristocratic arrogance, feminists can rally around its critique of the beauty myth, and even vegetarians can find parallels between the grotesque scenes of human butchery and the daily business of any slaughterhouse. (Though it'll help if they watch Georges Franju's slaughterhouse documentary Blood Of The Beasts, handily included on the DVD.)
Key moment: A rich dude gets gobbled up by his own pack of trained dogs. Which raises a question: Do the rich taste different from you and me? If anyone has the answer, it's the protagonist of…
American Psycho (1999)
The situation: In the height of the '80s, an evil über-yuppie (Christian Bale) amuses himself with hookers, a rigorous exercise routine, incisive analyses of Huey Lewis and Genesis albums, and mass murder. But is it all just in his warped mind?
The politics: Like Vampire's Kiss, American Psycho suggests that the poisonous self-absorption and blithe indifference to the suffering of others that characterizes young Republicans, conservative yuppies, and the Reagan right could easily lead to blood-soaked killing sprees.
Key moment: Bale experiences a moment of stark professional and personal panic when he worries that his business card (and sleek business-card holder) doesn't measure up to those of his peers.
They Live (1988)
The situation: In another film set during the tail-end of the Reagan era, unemployed tough guy "Rowdy" Roddy Piper acquires a pair of fantastical sunglasses which reveal that the yuppie ruling class are actually sinister aliens controlling the world through subliminal messages.
The politics: John Carpenter's sly horror-thriller takes welcome shots at yuppies, Reagan-era conformity, and product placement, subliminal advertising's creepy conjoined twin. Who knew a movie starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper could be so deliciously subversive?
Key moment: Piper's class-consciousness gets an instant upgrade when he puts on the sunglasses and notices that instead of the usual dead presidents, his money reads "This Is Your God." Subtle!
The People Under The Stairs (1991)
The situation: In a ghoulish former funeral home, a wealthy, evil, incestuous brother-and-sister landlord team (Twin Peaks' Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) who bear an unmistakable resemblance to Nancy and Ronald Reagan keep a freakish gaggle of abused, kidnapped boys (and one very unlucky girl) hostage while hoarding the money they've made as slumlords.
The politics: In addition to standing in for a president that demonized "welfare queens" and did his best to remove the social safety net, McGill represents every callous, parasitic businessman who ever exploited African-Americans for profit without giving anything back to the community.
Key moment: The first time McGill calls sister/lover Robie "mommy" (Ronald Reagan's creepy pet name for Nancy), the film's unsubtle allegorical aspects are made even more overt.
Body Snatchers (1993)
The situation: Aliens are rapidly replicating the bodies of an army base's residents, then killing off the originals, leaving anyone not yet "converted" running scared.
The politics: Abel Ferrara's take on the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers scenario is in many ways the leanest and meanest version—it ties the insidious evil of conformity to the concept of military hierarchy. Because who can really tell the difference between a pod person and an officer?
Key moment: The new kids in town face down their alien stepmother Meg Tilly, who tells them that escape is pointless, because "there's no one like you left." This is more or less how every Democrat has felt on the last several election days.
Horror Films For Right-Wingers:
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
The situation: Same story, different decade. And this time, it's the conservatives feeling the squeeze. Aliens are rapidly replicating the bodies of San Franciscans, then killing off the originals, leaving anyone not yet "converted" running scared.
The politics: Don Siegel's 1956 version has been read as both anti-communist and anti-anti-communist, but Philip Kaufman's 1978 film has a clearer satirical take, slyly skewering the passivity of West Coast New-Agers. An I'm Okay, You're Okay culture only allows the pod people to propagate quicker.
Key moment: Self-help guru—and ruthless alien—Leonard Nimoy informs wise-to-the-conspiracy Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland that they're "trapped by old concepts" and need to wake up to a world where there's "no need for hate… or love." But there was plenty of love, or at least scary, dangerous sex, in the decade to come.
The slasher film (1980-present)
The situation: A group of horny teenagers head into the woods for a weekend of drinking and debauchery, but they're killed off one at a time by a superhuman psycho-killer, often wearing a mask and/or a dark trench coat
The politics: Reacting against the progressive sexual politics of the '60s and '70s, Reagan-era slasher films like Friday The 13th and their ilk were notable for their puritanical attitudes about teenage sexuality, and were particularly vicious toward promiscuous females. The only characters that survive these movies tend to be the ones who keep their clothes on.
Key moment: A couple goes skinny-dipping or starts in on some heavy petting, leaving themselves vulnerable to a bloody hacking. Repeat for 10 years.
The Last House On The Left (1972)
The situation: In a modern-day updating of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, the parents of a murdered girl get the opportunity to torture members of the cult that raped and killed her.
The politics: The dead girl brought some of anguish on herself by going into the city to see a demonic rock 'n' roll band, then trying to score marijuana from a dirty hippie cult. Honey, don't trust anyone under 30.
Key moment: The parents realize who their houseguests are when they see their daughter's peace-symbol necklace hanging around the neck of one of the longhairs. Not groovy.
The Exorcist (1973)
The situation: Other films found the devil within. Preteen sweetie Linda Blair gets possessed by The Devil—capital "T," capital "D"—and after mom Ellen Burstyn exhausts the learned opinions of egghead scientists and touchy-feely psychiatrists, she calls in a couple of God's Catholic soldiers to clean house.
The politics: In the immortal words of The Louvin Brothers, "Satan is real," which is good news for Christian fundamentalists eager to see the clash of good and evil in non-metaphorical terms. And don't think it's an accident that the movie is about an ineffectual single mother, or that the story is set in Georgetown, a liberal elitist enclave in that den of sin, Washington D.C.
Key moment: The priests literally go medieval on Blair's ass, scarring her skin with splashes of holy water. Their God is an awesome God. And one not to be doubted, as proved by a later exercise in exorcism.
The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)
The situation: Loosely inspired by the most notorious demon-possession case on record, the film mixes horror with courtroom drama as it looks into the case of a priest charged with negligent homicide for allowing a "possessed" young woman to die under his care.
The politics: At a time when "intelligent design" is making headway against the teaching of evolution in public schools, Emily Rose sets up a rigged Scopes Monkey Trial-like scenario in which science fails to account for what the defendants argue is a religious phenomenon. Once again, Clarence Darrow takes the loss.
Key moment: Initially skeptical of her client's claims—that is, until demons start to pay her nightly visits—defense attorney Laura Linney argues that the facts shouldn't determine the outcome of the case, because they eliminate other possibilities. The motions of prosecutor Campbell Scott ("Objection! Silliness!") are overruled.
Here's something left-wingers and right-wingers should be able to unite on. Know what's scarier than any horror movie? Declining voter turnout, and an electorate increasingly put in power by a tiny fraction of the populace. So don't forget to get out there and vote this year.