Ever since movies began, one of the reasons we go in the dark is to get the creeps. Thrillers, horror movies, supernatural creatures, the devil and his minions, aliens, natural disasters, enemies domestic and foreign.
That being the case, movies and other eruptions of pop culture can also be viewed as a window into our subconscious fears, a kind of Rorschach of the zeitgeist. What we find scary in reel life probably reflects what we find scary in real life, though possibly transmuted somewhat through the magic of movies.
In the 1930s everybody was afraid of not getting their next meal, of the collapse of civilization, the rise of chaos, the ruination of their hopes and dreams. So there was an abundant supply of heartless bankers and bloated plutocrats preying on regular people, not to mention gangsters. But there we find an interesting bifurcation. Some are ruthless psychos culminating in “White Heat,” but others — especially the bank robbers — are populist heroes. That continues to the present.
It is probably no accident that another kind of bloodsucker was also in its heyday during the depression, vampires who also preyed on innocents and drained them of their life. As war approached, dark alien forces began to appear more often. “The War of he Worlds” on the radio had people running amok in the streets. Many listeners thought the invasion was not by Martians but by the real Axis of evil. Japanese and Nazi villains often appeared not just in war movies, but were made more dreadful as spies and infiltrators in films like “All Through the Night,” “Across the Pacific,” “Sealed Cargo” and “Saboteur.”
Bt the 1950s the big fear was the bomb and its fallout. Soon the screen teemed with atomic mutant creatures — giant ants, moths, spiders. There was even “The Magnetic Monster” and minerals gone bad in “The Monolith Monster.” Many of these creatures reflected a fear that we had tampered with nature and it was now going to tamper with us.
But there was also, the godless, soulless communist menace to contend with. A few really bad movies addressed this directly, but many more films seem to have employed proxies for the communist menace — aliens from outer space, zombies and pod people as in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” who were really out to snatch our minds and free will.
It is amusing to note, however, that some people regarded these suburbanites without souls as surrogates for the organization man, corporate not communists drones, including director Don Siegel who said he looked around Hollywood and realized most of the people he knew were pod people.
In the 1970s when cities were failing, the economy teetering, drugs and crimes rampant it is hardly surprising that gangster movies made a comeback, but this time there was little faith in civic action. The police were incompetent if not corrupt and the only hope was lone avengers or vigilantes, poisonous versions of The Lone Ranger or Robin Hood. Thus, “Taxi Driver,” “Death Wish,” “Dirty Harry” and on and on.
It my be a mark of how terrifying our own times are that a visit to the multiplex can turn up endless variations on all these themes. An A-list star like Denzel Washington has repeatedly leant his gravitas to films in which he has stood up violently for the powerless little guy against forces of corruption, evil and bureaucracy. Most recently in “The Equalizer,” but also “John Q.,” “Man on Fire” et al.
Denzel is not alone. Liam Neeson has made a career out of dispensing bloody justice as have Bruce Willis and a number of lesser lights. Geriatric crowds of them now turn up in trash like “Red” and “The Expendables.” In a throwback to the ‘30s there is a strong populist streak in all these revenge fantasies. Sometimes the villains are outsiders, organized crime and terrorists but often the government is complicit. “The Dark Knight” version of Batman, TV’s “The Blacklist” and “Person of Interest” and on and on.
Then there are the new batch of pandemic creep shows including “12 Monkeys,” “28 Days Later,” “Outbreak,” “Helix”, “The Happening,” “Children of Men,” “Blindness.” But just as overgrown bugs were often proxies for communists in the 1950s, today’s pathogens, walking dead, zombies often look a lot like proxies for Islamic extremists seeking to infect the body politic. “Homeland” is only “Outbreak” with a turban.
In a sense almost all of these genres are exercises in xenophobia, playing on our fear of infection by post-modernity and globalization in one way or another. Our safe island continent is no longer a fortress but is connected to trouble. Bugs jet in to plague us, evil is just across “The Bridge.” “Contagion” seeps in from Asia. Underemployed Russian soldiers or oligarchs are behind loose nukes in “The Peacemaker,” eco-disaster in “The Saint,” vicious crime in “Eastern Promises” and many more. Not to mention black and hispanic drug lords and actual Arab extremists with WMD in “True Lies” and many others. And almost always, the FBI, CIA, NSA, White House are in bed with the bad guys.
Often the scariest of all these paranoid fantasies are set in the safest place of all, the small, heartland American town where we ought to be safest — “Shadow of a Doubt,” the original version of Bodysnatchers as well as so many Twilight Zone episodes, “Signs,” “The Crazies,” “The Leftovers.” Help.
No matter where you live, strangeness and evil and “the other” are coming to get you. Threats are all over TV from Fox News to “The Strain.” What’s a person to do? Go to the movies, of course, and scream.