Horror Film—The Decline of Capitalism Through the Lens

In an article on World War I, Lenin once remarked that, “Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end.” In discussing the early development of capitalism in his classic, Capital, Marx said that upon its arrival in history “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” In the same book, Marx stated that, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” In the very same chapter, Marx compares the capitalists’ drive for surplus labor to a “werewolf’s hunger.”

Armed with a Marxist understanding of society and a knowledge of the enormous potential for a better world, these individuals saw capitalism for what it was—a horror. Their identification of age-old folklore and Victorian era tales of vampires, werewolves, and boogeymen with the crimes, injustices, and enormous waste of capitalism is not surprising—it is a feeling unconsciously shared by millions and reflected in the popularity of the horror genre since the very beginning of cinema.

Whatever the intentions behind the production of these films, they have inevitably tended to act as a mirror reflecting the anxieties and fears of the time. The films that connected most with viewers were invariably those that seemed most familiar and relatable, no matter how fantastical the story was on the surface. Because of this it is no accident that you can trace various points of the last century of capitalism’s prolonged death agony through the most popular horror films.

The horror to end all horrors

The earliest film studios produced horror, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of World War I that the genre really resonated with viewers. World War I represented a historical turning point in the development of capitalism. While capitalism had developed the means of production to enormous levels unimagined in pre-capitalist society, it had begun to reach its limits by the turn of the century. The major imperialist powers had exhausted their national markets and desperately sought new markets to exploit. Major powers like Britain and France had already largely divided up the colonial world leaving German capitalism with little option other than to attack its continental neighbors.

This was the beginning of the “war to end all wars,” a real-life horror that left a profound impact on subsequent human development. Capitalism had concretely proven to the whole world that it was no longer an ascendant system, but a system of crisis that threatened to drag all of humanity down with it. The war led to the destruction of huge swathes of Europe; the death of more than 16 million people, nearly half of whom were civilians; and left millions of soldiers emotionally and physically scarred by the slaughter.

In Russia, the war had ended on the basis of a successful workers’ revolution led by the Bolshevik Party. In Germany, the revolution of 1918, while bringing the war to a halt, ultimately failed in its historic objective of establishing a workers’ government that could begin the construction of a new society and save the Russian Revolution from isolation. The following years in Germany saw an explosion in filmmaking, including in the horror genre.

nosferatuThe landmark German expressionist films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) tapped into the psychology of unease and insecurity in postwar Germany. Revolutionary upheavals and counterrevolutionary setbacks combined with economic crises to characterize this period in German history. Between the creeping vampire killing scores in their sleep (Nosferatu) and the sleepwalker manipulated to commit murder at the behest of a mad doctor (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the films highlighted the feeling of many German workers that they had been duped and cowed by the German ruling class—and even their own leaders in the Social Democratic Party—into participating in a reactionary slaughter.

OttoDixThe psychological and physical damage the war caused the participants is also graphically illustrated by the artist Otto Dix, who published a collection of 50 etchings entitled Der Krieg (The War). Seeing the brutalities of war firsthand left many soldiers struggling to adjust to “life as normal” on their return from the front. This found its expression in a number of horror films from the 1920s which focused on monsters that were wrestling with their own inner demons. In 1920 alone, two adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were produced in the US and another German adaptation titled The Head of Janus was directed by F.W. Murnau, the same director as Nosferatu.

The decade produced other films that depicted physically disfigured and psychologically tortured characters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both portrayed by Lon Chaney, one of the first stars of horror film.

The Great Depression

The stock market crash on October 24, 1929 ushered in the deepest crisis world capitalism had yet seen. The ensuing hardship felt by millions of workers led to widespread cynicism and a deep questioning of society. In the United States, Hollywood played no small role in attempting to bolster confidence in capitalist society, “No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot, and political turmoil in other countries,” said Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association head William Hays. But the popularity of horror films at the time still reflected a bleak outlook that was characteristic of the American psychology prior to the mid-1930s fightback of labor. It also ushered horror into the commercial mainstream which saw the production of many sequels.

belalugosidraculaMany of the films of the 1930s continued where the films of the 1920s left off. Werewolf of London (1935) followed in the footsteps of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula (1931) harkened back to Nosferatu. Even White Zombie (1932), which was the first notable zombie film, was in many ways an echo of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Bela Lugosi, star of Dracula and White Zombie, got his start acting in Hungary where he participated in the 1919 Hungarian Revolution. For his radicalism he was forced to flee in the period of counterrevolution and made his way to Hollywood where he launched his career as a boogeyman throughout the 1930s and 40s, alongside Boris Karloff.

FrankensteinFrankenstein (1931), starring Karloff, and Island of Lost Souls (1932), starring Lugosi, zeroed in on the horrors that humanity itself could conjure up. Loosely following Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein, the film depicted a monster who was brought to life by a crazed doctor, abandoned, and rejected by the world he sought acceptance in. Upon its release, unemployment in the United States had nearly doubled in one year. Additionally, the phenomenon of vast numbers of immigrant workers in search of a livelihood added to the widespread feeling of rejection and alienation.

In Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the doctor is transforming animals into humans, but they are incomplete, half human and half animal. Tapping into the insecurities of the working class in the early half of the decade, Dr. Moreau’s creatures experience the emotional and cognitive complexity of humans, but are treated as animals for mere experimentation. The film ends with the death of Dr. Moreau at the hands of his tortured subjects.

Another film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), expressed the class antagonisms of the time in a much more overt way, depicting a Russian aristocrat who enjoys hunting human beings for sport. The film poignantly ends with the aristocrat being mauled by his own hunting dogs as the protagonists make their getaway.

By 1934, the American working class was regaining energy and confidence. Three general strikes (San Francisco, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Toledo, OH) ushered in a new period of labor’s rebirth in the form of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The mood of doom and gloom had been replaced with a mood of defiant fightback and this may explain Hollywood’s shift towards campiness and commercialization in the horror genre that lasted through subsequent decades.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944) epitomize what was to eventually become a trademark of the horror genre: sequels, remakes, and spinoffs of lesser quality. Other films like The Cat and the Canary (1939) and Zombies on Broadway (1945) introduced comedy to the genre at a time when very real horrors and atrocities were once again being experienced on a worldwide scale in the form of World War II.

Horror in the nuclear age

While maintaining much of the campiness and commercialization of the 1940s, many of the horror films of the 1950s turned towards science fiction, dealing with fears about the effects of radiation, prehistoric monsters, scientific experiments gone awry, and invaders from outer space.

godzillaGodzilla (1954), which was produced in Japan, reflects the psychological impact of the dropping of the atom bomb and the carpet bombing of many Japanese cities. The prehistoric monster Godzilla is resurrected by nuclear testing in the Pacific and wreaks havoc, rampaging through Tokyo. Perhaps nowhere else could the idea of an entire city being destroyed overnight be more profoundly understood than in Japan—the film was produced less than a decade after the criminal atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which leveled both cities and obliterated nearly a quarter of a million people. Tapping into the fears of nuclear war, the film was an international hit and ignited a series of sequels and other similar “big monster” films like Them! (1954) and Tarantula! (1955).

The Thing from Another World (1951) was one of the first films to deal with alien invaders, a theme that was to become common as the space race ramped up. Later, The Blob (1958) depicted an alien creature that interrupts and eventually engulfs a typical 1950s suburban town.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) alien plant spores have rained down on suburban America, creating clones of people that are devoid of emotion. It was interpreted by some on the political right to represent the soulless conformity that existed in the Stalinist Soviet Union but many on the left saw in it the soulless conformity that was all-consuming in McCarthy-era United States.

Supernatural horrors

As the postwar boom reached its peak in the 1960s, there was a shift towards the supernatural in horror film. Many of the films began to deal with ghosts, witches, satanic cults, and demonic possessions. The middle of the 1960s was the historic height of religious belief in the United States as belief in god was propagandized to differentiate the country from the “godless” Soviet Union.

psychoshowerAlmost preempting the youth movements of the late-1960s, many of the films also begin to highlight intergenerational conflict, a theme that has continued ever since. Psycho (1960) is perhaps the quintessential example of this. The film begins as a typical Hitchcock thriller, with a woman stealing a large sum of money from her employer and heading for California. On the way she meets Norman, the young, sensitive, but awkward keeper of the Bates Motel. Norman’s mother—who is later revealed to be dead and to live on exclusively in Norman’s mind—is abusive and extremely jealous of anyone who might steal his attention away from her.

The Haunting (1963) features a young woman who joins a team of paranormal investigators at an old haunted house after the death of her long-ill mother, whom she submissively spent most of her life caring for—echoing the character of Norman Bates.

Alfred Hitchcock tried his hand at horror again in 1963’s The Birds. The film sets an unsettling mood with its complete lack of music. It is also notable as one of the first films to deal with inexplicable happenings that seem to imply worldwide apocalyptic consequences, versus the overt “irradiated monster rampaging through the city” theme of the 1950s.

A small group barricading themselves in a home against the terrors outside, as depicted in The Birds, was certainly an inspiration for George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Many themes are at play in this film that highlight the political polarization of the time. In a nod to the civil rights movement, the main protagonist is a decisive and strong black man, Ben, who is often at odds with a patriarchal white man, Harry, on how to defend themselves against the zombies outside. The film was produced just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ben’s death—not at the hands of zombies but at the hands of police who mistake him for one—seems to pay tribute to this.

Alongside anti-Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights movement, the women’s rights movement was raising issues such as reproductive rights and domestic violence—themes that were dealt with in a number of films over the following decades. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) deals with a young housewife who is impregnated through a Satanic ritual organized by her neighbors to bear the spawn of Satan. She lives through her pregnancy alienated, fearful, at the whims of others, and tortured by pain and poor health. The film is notable for compelling the audience to identify with the plight of the female protagonist.

Following in a similar vein, Carrie (1976) depicts a lonely, outcast adolescent girl who is picked on by her schoolmates and abused by her Christian fundamentalist mother. She later discovers that she has telekinetic powers and uses them to exact revenge on her tormentors. It is also notable for getting the audience to identify with the problems of an adolescent girl.

TheExorcistOther notable films of the 1970s include The Omen (1976), the story of a young boy who is revealed to be the Antichrist and who ends up being adopted by the President of the United States and The Exorcist (1973), a story of a young girl possessed by a demon. The Exorcist was supported by Fordham University (a Jesuit school) as it bolstered the church’s superstitious teachings. The university allowed them to film on campus and to use a basement as a set, and a number of real priests even acted in the film.

The end of the postwar boom

By 1973 the postwar boom had reached its limits, ushering in a two year-long recession that was felt over much of the world. In the United States it was characterized by the return of high unemployment, stagflation, and the clawing back of gains made by the labor movement throughout the postwar period.

The mid-70s recession made its mark felt in a number of films of the later 1970s, particular George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which four people take shelter in an abandoned indoor shopping mall where all their needs are within reach. Shopping malls were a new phenomenon at the time, reflecting capitalism’s new dependence on credit and consumerism to artificially keep the economy alive.

TexasChainsawMassacreIn 1974, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released and began to introduce a number of ideas that were to later be adopted by the slasher films of the 1980s. The film—which, like Psycho years earlier, was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein—focuses on a group of young hippies visiting rural Texas from the city. Among them is the main character’s younger brother, Franklin, who is wheelchair-bound and viewed by the other characters as a burden. It has been interpreted by many that Franklin was intended to represent the maimed soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War.

On their way they meet an unsettling hitchhiker who explains to them the superiority of killing cows with a sledge hammer, versus the machinery that took his job away from him. It is later revealed that he is just one member of an entire family of sadistic murderers who presumably all used to work at a nearby slaughterhouse. One by one the hippies all meet their gruesome end, except for the “final girl,” a motif that was to become characteristic of many horror films from the 1980s onward.

Tobe Hooper followed up with 1982’s Poltergeist, which depicts a suburban family’s simple life being rudely interrupted by the abduction of their young daughter by a poltergeist that has come to haunt their home. The reason is later revealed: the greedy real-estate developer that the stereotypical yuppie father works for had built their neighborhood on a graveyard—moving the headstones but leaving the coffins.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) shows a new police chief on the fictional island of Amity Beach dealing with a killer great white shark that has killed a series of locals. The tensions between characters like Hooper, the independently wealthy shark biologist, and Quint, a rough-and-tumble shark hunter, highlight class tensions of the time.

theshiningStanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), another adaptation of a Stephen King novel, is brilliant in its timelessness. The film shows a family that has moved into a haunted hotel where the father, Jack, plans to write a novel. As inexplicable specters haunt the family, memories of the father’s domestic violence and alcoholism are conjured up.

The Shining is viewed by some to be an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans at the hands of European settlers. References to the hotel’s construction during Native American attacks, the mother’s choice of clothing, and a seemingly off the cuff remark—the white man’s burden”—seems to indicate this possibility, especially when Stanley Kubrick’s renowned perfectionism is taken into account.

Italian horror

The postwar period also saw the rise of the horror genre in Italy, where political turbulence characterized a near decade-long pre-revolutionary period. Directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento produced films that were representative of the giallo (yellow) genre, which melded murder mystery with oftentimes supernatural elements. Others produced more overtly political films. Notable is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which depicts the horrific exploitation and torture of young peasant children under the Nazi-occupied Salò regime in the latter part of World War II.

In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato released Cannibal Holocaust, which seems to be a critique of imperialism. The film tells the story of a documentary film crew froym New York which goes to the Amazon jungle to film a war between cannibal tribes. It is later revealed that the war was consciously provoked by the film crew, who brutally murdered a member of one of the tribes to spark the conflict. Deodato was subsequently arrested and put on trial for producing a snuff film—as erroneous rumors had spread that the film depicted actual murders!


The late 1970s and early 80s saw the rise of the slasher genre in the United States, which followed in the footsteps of the giallo films of Italy and earlier American films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Fridaythe13thJohn Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), the late Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and even Alien (1979) and Terminator (1984) represent the quintessential films of the slasher genre. Each of these films also includes the “final girl” motif, in which the lone remaining (female) protagonist finally does the killer in.

Many of these films also stereotypically depict young adults being killed by lone, often masked killers for their alcohol or drug use, or for engaging in premarital sex. While many have pointed to a possible conservative agenda behind the production of these films, these could just as easily be viewed as having been created to appeal to young adults of the time, who felt the pressure of their overbearing parents in the Ronald Reagan’s America—a continuation of the intergenerational conflict touched on earlier.

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) can be viewed as a near inversion of the slasher genre, with a male as the main protagonist battling against his friends—largely female—who, one by one, come to be possessed by an evil force. It was also one of the first films to introduce the “cabin in the woods” motif.

A unique film of the early-90s was Candyman (1992) which deals with a student studying an urban legend popular in Chicago’s housing projects—the Candyman, who was lynched by a racist mob and whose spirit still lives on if you say his name three times while looking in a mirror. The film draws a clear distinction between the living conditions of the student—who lives in a luxury apartment building which is revealed to be a renovated former-housing project—and the people who live in the Cabrini-Green housing project where poverty and crime are ever-present.

The rest of the 1980s into the 90s was characterized by a series of sequels, reflecting Hollywood’s increasing unwillingness to invest in new ideas. One exceptionally good example was John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) which was a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s The Thing diverges from the original in that the alien is no longer embodied in one monster, but is something that can transform itself to look like any number of the crew members at an Antarctic research base. The alienation and distrust that tear the characters apart is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the film along with the gruesome special effects.

RoddyPiperThe same period brought classic genre-bending horror films like 1987’s The Lost Boys, Ghostbusters (1984), and The Frighteners (1996) among others. They Live! (1988), also directed by John Carpenter, was intended as a critique of the consumerism and conservatism of the Reagan era. The film is famous for an extremely long fight scene between Keith David and the late Roddy Piper, whose character is trying to convince his friend that the world is run by aliens who can only be seen using special sunglasses.

In 1996, the master of horror, Wes Craven returned with Scream, a slasher film that was self-referential of the genre, where the killers played on many of the motifs of earlier slasher films. 2006’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon brought this self-referencing yet another step. It depicted a killer who is followed by a documentary film crew in a world where killers like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers are real and have become celebrities. This idea was taken to an even higher level in 2012’s Cabin in the Woods, which cleverly references tropes present in much of the horror genre.

The 2000s continued to produce extremely commercialized movies that were more often than not derivative of previous horror films. However, a few innovations in the genre are worth mentioning. 2002’s 28 Days Later relaunched the popularity of zombie films, which have come to dominate the horror and apocalyptic genres, which has been dealt with in another article.

Saw (2004) and its subsequent sequels—which seem to have been inspired by 1997’s Se7en—hammered away at the idea of a killer who places his victims in horrifying positions, offers them the choice to kill or be killed, or to risk horrible disfigurement in order to survive. This is not unlike the dog-eat-dog morality that capitalism promotes!

Hostel (2005) tells the story of two friends who travel to post-Soviet era Eastern Europe and wind up in a dungeon in which wealthy businessmen pay to torture and mutilate people for their entertainment. Pontypool (2008) eerily depicts an inexplicable case of mass hysteria, not unlike a zombie outbreak, from the point of view of a radio station in rural Canada.

In recent years there seems to have been a small renaissance of well-made horror films, like the Let the Right One In (2008), House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011), Sinister (2012), It Follows (2014), The Babadook (2014), and others. It remains to be seen which films will come to define the decade in years to come.

Overcoming horror

The horror film genre has become a part of modern folklore. In pre-capitalist society, mythological tales of ghosts, specters, demons, and gods—both good and bad—were used as explanations for forces of nature that could not be explained and that humanity had no control over.

Avalanches, forest fires, floods, droughts, volcanos, plagues, and more were catastrophes that challenged humanity. It is the labor process by which we reshape our environment to overcome these elemental forces that defines us as a species. However, we live in a society in decline, in which the very forces that hold the most sway over the fate of humanity are out of our control. What can be more horrifying?

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

This quote from the Communist Manifesto sums up the crossroads humanity finds itself at. While capitalism has developed the means of production to a level that can provide a comfortable life for all and has given us the tools to conquer nearly any obstacle nature can throw at us, we are (for now) stuck in a situation where the booms and slumps of the stock markets determine the fate of billions of people. The only way to overcome this contradiction is through the revolutionary transformation of society, with the organized working class at the helm, taking conscious, democratic control over the tremendous forces we, as a species, have created.

This would lead to a flowering of human science, technique, and culture on an unimaginable scale, giving us the tools to build a society free from the anxieties, insecurities, and horrors that psychologically maim and scar millions of people. A society in which we are free from the blind forces that affect our lives would likely result in the decline of a genre that will almost certainly come to characterize class society on the whole and the final stages of capitalism’s decline in particular.

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