Originally published in 2016 for the Terror Test episodes on The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy, and The Purge: Election Year.
The Purge Will Be Televised. The Revolution Lost Its Corporate Sponsors.
I wasn’t excited about watching The Purge. I figured it would be an extended home invasion movie played out as a joyride. To some degree it is, but it also isn’t. I enjoyed its connections to dystopian visions like “The Lottery” and The Hunger Games, and I was struck by how much it reminded me of George Romero’s films and his style of social critique. It even reminded me of how Romero’s films often aren’t perfect, often aren’t great, and sometimes not even good, yet analytically fecund. My urge before watching the movie had been to do a listicle of some of my favorite short story dystopias, but that felt too easy. And given our current cultural and political climate, I wanted to see how Romero’s style of social criticism had been defined and compare it to James DeMonaco’s style to see if my instinct held up under scrutiny. I ended up reading Christopher Paul Wagenheim’s dissertation From Night to Dawn: The Cultural Criticism of George A. Romero. Wagenheim’s main thesis is that Romero’s critiques of gender, race, and consumerism are part of a larger psychosocial criticism and analysis of hegemony, or the dominance of one group or network in a society. The first two Dead films, according to Wagenheim, offer “vivid models of systems of cultural hegemony under extreme stress” and he compares Romero’s work to that of Marshall McLuhan, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, three important psychosocial writers after World War II. My goal here is to draw out comparisons in terms of social and cultural criticism between Romero’s films and The Purge.
If you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Dawn of the Dead (1978), you should do that now. The Purge is worth viewing, but if you haven’t seen it and don’t mind spoilers, continue reading. The basic premise of the film is that the United States has stabilized itself after a series of catastrophes by allowing one night a year for the Purge, a time when there are basically no laws. What we come to understand is that while there is economic stability, the poor are the majority of victims during Purge events. The film is about the Sandin family, who as elites should be protected, but instead become targets during the Purge.
Paul Wells’s The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch attempts to describe what horror films do for fans. For Wells, as quoted in Wagenheim, “the history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century. In the way that fairytales, folktales and gothic romances articulated the fears of the ‘old’ world, the contemporary horror film has defined and illustrated the phobias of a ‘new’ world characterized by a rationale of industrial, technological and economic determinism.” Given that Wagenheim is writing in 2010, I think he would extend this idea into the twenty-first century.
More specifically, after a survey of psychoanalytical criticism, Wagenheim sees two frequent interpretations of zombies and zombie films. They are “metaphors for humans and humanity, and zombie films serve as sociocultural mirrors reflecting the fears of the time in which they were produced. It happens that a lot of these fears that are being mirrored are fears concerning dominant hegemonic structures. Being one of the zombie horde is not so dissimilar from being a member of a dominant hegemony: both involve running around and instinctually consuming.”
To my mind, these general and specific concerns are also features of The Purge. For contemporary Americans the general issues of race, terror, economics, and power are front-and-center these days and are clearly subjects of the film. More specifically I see the Purgers as something akin to Romero’s zombies. Most obviously fears of terror and random violence are echoed here. As Wagenheim describes though, being part of the zombie horde is not dissimilar from being a member of the dominant hegemony, as we see in the film with the Purgers who show up at the Sandins’ home. Given the film’s economic and psychological premises, the Purgers “consume” others in order to not be consumed, but also to maintain their status and ability to economically consume. A plot point in the film pivots on the success of the Sandins and how others perceive that success. Here, consumption is a type of obliteration and as the Polite Leader says, “We have gotten gussied up in our most terrifying guises, as we do every year, ready to violate, annihilate, and cleanse our souls.” Wagenheim quotes critics Joshua Gunn and Shaun Treat who write that, “Romero’s living dead located evil within the repressed impulses of a flawed humanity rather than in some tyrannical agent or supernatural beyond.” That sounds like the Purgers to me, infected with status and belief in the Purge, or even something like the rage virus in 28 Days Later.
Wagenheim describes the cultural hegemonic pattern of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead as having four stages: (1) zombies rise up and overwhelm mankind, (2) hegemonic structures collapse under the weight of the epidemic, (3) a diverse group of characters try to survive the epidemic together in the absence of dominant hegemonic structures, and (4) dominant hegemonic structures attempt to reassert control.
As a quick example, take Dawn of the Dead. We see mankind becoming overwhelmed by zombie hordes through the newsroom that is falling into chaos and the violent SWAT infiltration of a housing project in which zombies and the poor are killed. By the time our characters get to the mall, there seems to have been a full collapse of hegemonic structures. The characters begin to sweep the mall and fortify it as a dwelling. The bikers who then raid the mall represent the attempt of hegemonic structures to reassert control, only revealing the true dominant hegemony is now the zombies. They fail, but two lead characters get away as the mall succumbs to the mass of undead.
This pattern can be read into The Purge. The Purge event itself is a time of anarchy and chaos, that overwhelms mankind, particularly the underclasses. The hegemonic structural collapse in The Purge is seen when Charlie Sandin takes in The Stranger, which leads to the threat on the Sandins, who should be protected as an elite family. The diverse group attempting to survive is the Sandins and The Stranger. The representatives of the dominant hegemony that attempts to reassert itself are the neighbors, led by Grace Ferrin, who then turn on the Sandins so they can also purge. With help from The Stranger, the neighbors are held back and Mary Sandin calls for no more killing, even giving grace to Grace. However, at the end of the film we hear newscasts about the record-setting purge, which leaves us knowing that this event will happen the next year. Similarly, we know that the zombie horde has not been stopped at the end of Dawn of the Dead. In the endings of both films, the safety of the lead characters is in question, rather than obviously stated. One of most terrifying aspects is that the Purge is sanctioned by the dominant hegemony and we are therefore never really able to escape it.
Wagenheim writes that each Dead film “calls attention to racial inequality and purports that such inequality may try to be corrected through violent action in a time of chaos.” The Sandins’ trouble begins when The Stranger, an African American, kills a Purger and then is allowed in the house by Charlie, the youngest of the family. One of the things that angers the Polite Leader of the Purgers outside the Sandins’ home is that “the dirty, homeless pig” fought back. Even before this, Charlie asks his family why they don’t Purge and they seem to half-heartedly say that they don’t feel the need, though we see moments of anger, though it seems motivated mostly by fear and the need to protect their family rather than social or racial elitism. That itself is against the dominant hegemony supporting the Purge and which is played out more elaborately in Mary’s “cease-fire.”
Though I haven’t seen the sequels, I believe that The Stranger’s narrative is connected to violence used to correct inequality. Though described as homeless, he appears to be ex-military, which also allows the Purge to become metaphorically entwined with the difficulties soldiers are having re-entering civilian life, with many turning either to violence directed inward, suicide, or some turning to violence directed outward in mass shooting events.
One of the more heavy-handed moments of the film is when The Stranger decides to sacrifice himself for the Sandins. The Christ imagery seems disingenuous, though it appears to want to provide more sympathy for the character, as if the audience needs any more reason to root for him. Then again, maybe some of us do. Regardless, there is an element of him representing the sacrifice of the military that I find more poignant. It’s easy to discuss monoliths like “military-industrial complexes,” but given multiple perspectives, sometimes we need a human face put on these ideas. Given our current cultural and political climate, there is a need to humanize what we criticize. Seeing the human in not only those we love, but also in those we disagree with. I find a disturbing lack of the extension of humanity in what passes for discourse today.
This sacrifice, an exchange of life, echoes Wagenheim’s analysis of Erich Fromm’s critique of hegemonic powers. Quoted in Wagenheim, Fromm discusses the alienating effects of capitalism and mass consumption and writes that the individual is “experiencing oneself as a commodity, and one’s value not as use value but as exchange value.” Initially, The Stranger has no individual or use value, but only value as exchange. His death for the right to Purge. His death for the lives of the Sandin family. Previously, it seems that as a soldier he had exchanged his own freedoms to protect others, including, it would seem, their right to kill him in a Purge. This begins to alter as the Sandin family decides to revolt against the Purgers. Interestingly, the characters in the Dead movies are able to do this of their own volition. For example, Fran, in Dawn, demands to learn how to protect herself by developing shooting and piloting skills. The Stranger, as a metaphor of inequalities in social systems, is only allowed to do this through the heads of the Sandin family.
This outlook is as bleak as the ending. It’s a record-setting Purge after all. While we don’t know what the future holds for the Sandin family or the Stranger, we do know that the Purge will be back. In Night of the Living Dead, Ben, an African American, makes it through the whole night only to be killed by a white militia that is reinstating the dominant hegemony of that film. Bleak, but hopefully experiencing this kind of darkness through film, we don’t have to experience it ourselves. (We can purge it, if you will.) Let that hopelessness be a warning, rather than a prediction.
Or are we beyond hope? Are we bound to the animal within and to the social structures that feed it? Wagenheim states that, “Horror films critique the methods and mechanisms that instill certain behaviors or social tropes.” He quotes from Robin Wood, who writes that the horror genre, “is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression.” As I mentioned with Ben, we see the restoration of the dominant hegemony. We see it in Dawn, even though we get less a happy ending, than a reprieve for two lead characters who symbolize the oppressed. In The Purge, we get something similar. While leading characters live, we know the Purge is going to happen again. Marcuse, quoted in Wagenheim, writes that “under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty [The right to Purge?] can be made into a powerful instrument of domination.” Wagenheim adds that “If the populace truly believes that the actions of the majority are not only legitimate but also acted upon with free will then liberty is nothing but a guise for complete control. What Marcuse is detailing is cultural hegemony.”
With the return of hegemonic structures, the promise of the Purge, there is also a bleak foreshadowing of the economy of ideas at the end of the film. The news reports of the “success” of the Purge could be about the film itself. In other words, the bleak nature of the end and the critical arguments about the movie being shallow liberal Hollywood proselytizing are true, but they are just a cover for what’s really at stake: the marketplace. For the success of The Purge and the fate of our characters, we are promised the horrifying possibility of a sequel, and even more terrifying, a franchise.