Why Aren’t We Killing the Poor? Social class in horror films

I’m doing a lot of reading for my dissertation on horror films and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) recently came up.  It’s been a while since I first saw it, and re-watching it prompted some thoughts about it and other films by Wes Craven.

In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) the final showdown involves Freddy chasing Nancy Thompson all over the house.  Back in the 80’s, Nancy’s house was probably considered upscale.

The house used for A Nightmare on Elm Street

Cut to Craven’s Scream: everyone’s house is huge! All three houses featured in the film (Casey’s, Sydney’s, Stuart’s*) are multi-level mini-mansions that seem double to triple the size of Nancy Thompson’s in 1984.  The dramatic increase in home sizes between the “normal” settings of Nightmare and Scream mirrors the modern capitalistic/consumerism inability to be content, constantly pursuing bigger possessions and greater consumption.

Why does this matter?  Because the theme of each film is normalcy interrupted by killers. But how many people live in these types of houses–massive, elaborate abodes that accommodate only three people?  These homes are not normal; they are upper middle class.  And if you look at supposedly “normal” settings in Hollywood films you’ll find this aesthetic all over the place.

But why?  Because it automatically makes you like the protagonist. We like new, clean things and when we see our main gal/guy in this setting we connect with it (we’re supposed to anyway).  Their life and surroundings may not accurately mirror our own reality, but we identify with the dream image of ourselves.  We want the nice house, we want the new car, we want our lives to be nice and new, and the physical makeup of the film reflect these life fantasies most of us carry.

If we watched a horror film about poor white trash encountering Freddy Krueger, it might be harder to connect to the protagonist because we’re wondering why they live in squalor thanks to the American mythos of Horatio Alger and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra.

Neve Campbell (left) playing female lead, Sydney Prescott, in Scream

Further, poverty is usually portrayed on screen as either a strong character or a main element of the story; poverty can’t just be taken for granted, it always has to explain itself (just like poor people in the U.S.)  But with these horror films it’s all about dichotomies, so you portray “normalcy” (upper middle class living) vs the nightmare.  Having a setting within a dark and dirty ghetto (black, white, Vietnamese, your choice) would make it more difficult to showcase the scariness of the nightmare.

In essence, Hollywood settings encourage an identification with the (upper) middle class dream and bourgeois culture in general. A likable protagonist (i.e., they are attractive, not the killer, and overall nice to other characters) is placed in an affluent setting, and we are automatically on their side and therefore, on the side of the aforementioned political undertones.

Rounding out my thoughts is this: Why should I care about an affluent white community experiencing the occasional trauma brought on by a cheating spouse (motivation of the main killer in Scream)?  Because in the real world, the poor and non-whites exist within a state of regular trauma, due in part to the same capitalist system re-asserted at the end of Scream (normalcy [capitalism/consumerism] is restored when killers are killed).

I thought Craven was all anti-middle class with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.  I guess age chilled him out.

*Casey: Drew Barrymore, Sydney: Neve Campbell, Stuart: Matthew Lillard


9 responses to “Why Aren’t We Killing the Poor? Social class in horror films

  1. I really like this article. The insight is dead on and could very well be true. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Keep it coming, Rembrandt 😛

  2. I’m going to add some thoughts to this. I’m sure there’s always going to be an exception to the rules, and I’m aware of one movie in particular. If you haven’t checked out “The People Under the Stairs” I definitely recommend looking into it. The story is the exact opposite of well to-do, white community, where the main character is a child from a ghetto, who under noble reasons, tries to aid two men in robbing the landlord, and finds himself trapped inside the house with horrific characters. The story even has broken the stereotype of female teen victim by having a young boy as the lead.

    Even Dawn of the Dead (original) opened the story in a ghetto, where families were hiding and unintentionally spreading the diseased dead. Outside of that, there’s also this “convoy of victims” type horror, like in The Thing, 30 Days of Night, or Night of the Living Dead. But before I start ranting into that, I’m going to keep focus on your example from Scream.

    I believe that you scratch a very good surface here. There are a lot of horror victims who happen to come from well off families. Most of the Elm Streets, the Jason’s, Last House on the Left, the films with the Cabin in the woods, the detective-type searching into a story realizing he/she bit more off than could be chewed, even the Japanese horror films, as far as my recollection, all had characters of middle class or higher status.

    And I agree with your point about how the poor really do have to explain themselves. The character in the horror film is already going to be a victim, and their likability contributes an emotional investment from the audience so we will readily root for them to not turn into fresh meat. Poverty is unfavorable to be in, so if a person is in poverty based on their own actions or inability to control their fate, there is less empathy, especially if the audience comes from a society that believes a person just has to be idealistic, a go-getter to get what they want.

    I had a friend who said he believed horror (mainly 1980s slasher horror) was about the repressed, sexual infatuation of serial killers. He pointed out that characters such as Jason or Freddy were birthed from the Ted Bundy days, and those lonely monsters represented a male’s sexual frustration with the female sex. It’s why they mainly attacked pretty, teenaged, and most important, sexually active girls. It has only strayed from this concept when horror began to shift by embracing and displaying violence over sex with such films as Saw, Ghost Ship, etc. Don’t know how much I agree with him, but thought he made an interesting argument.

    I was wondering, though, if there’s something to be said about horror being about victims taking their luxuries for granted. Being in comfort is perhaps the closest resemblance to everyone’s life, but the characters never readily acknowledge being in a place of prosperity. It takes being victimized, hunted, killed for them to truly come to recognize the core values, after everything comforting has been stripped away. But I think I’ve used up my brain cells for the moment. I’m going to put this to a close.

    • Your last paragraph about it representing appreciation for what we have still falls in line with showcasing the (upper) middle class lifestyle, throwing it into flux, and restoring it. Your sentiment of appreciation is especially interesting in this regard because doesn’t that read as justification for their prosperity? They get through this chaos and they’ve “earned” their wealthy tranquility?

      Or is being thrown into flux the equivalent of lower-class slumming, where the middle class can all feel the uncertainty and chaos that the poor feel everyday? In my original draft I mentioned that those who laugh (I include myself here) are laughing because of their place in poverty versus the upper middle class horror/drama unfolding before them. Most people are going to be scared, but others are picking it apart because of a lack of identification. Their reality does not match with the screen.

      I have not seen “The People Under the Stairs,” so I’ll have to check that out. By your description it sounds like my theory holds: “Stairs” is another early Wes Craven film that was all about burning the middle class, only to mellow out (or bought by Hollywood)

  3. Intriguing. It seems like there might be an interesting connection b/w the style of suburban development in the 90s (esp. McMansions) and some of the themes in Scream, like the kids’ ironic, pop culture-savvy and the emphasis on how the news reporter fabricates stories. Might be complicated by the fact that it’s supposed to take place in a “small town” and there seem to be an endless amount of wooded areas around.

  4. This is one of the most intriguing and trenchant insights I have read in quite a while.

  5. This is a very interesting thread. My visual approach to horror has been intrigued recently by the lack of villain that is able to sustain relevance for a series of sequels.I have started writing my own screen play that is solely based on the birth of a new super villain (i.e. Freddy, Jason, Etc.). When story boarding some visuals I stumbled upon this thread and immediately watched Scream 1. When watching I remembered watching it in the theatre as a young boy and directly relating myself to the people on the screen. The desired self image of ourselves plays a big role in this genre. The point was made earlier about how we need to be broken down to realize how lucky we really are. The movie Disturbia came to mind this is not one of Wes’s films but it pools this entire topic together. The movie is A. called Disturbia; the title portrays the self image of the people in the film. B.the neighborhood that the movie is shot in is full of $500,000 Tudors and Craftsman’s when the mother of the protagonist has lost her husband and hardly works. I think this basic concept does not only play to our imagined image of ourselves but it also plays into comfort. When I said when watching the first Scream film as a child I felt as if I were in the same financial and social class as the people in the movie but when I revisited this movie sitting in the comfort of my own home I realized the size of these homes, this is not average America. The comfort factor set in when I realized that I was sitting in a room that I had furnished myself I was happy where I was and was able to easily revert back to the child that had watched this move years ago.

  6. Pingback: White collar workers feel the pain in “The Company Men” | The Filmsmith

  7. Big houses are more fun to watch people get chased around in. A movie with jason in a 1 room apartment with a group of teenagers dosnt last very long.

  8. Pingback: Scream 4 a justified sequel | The Filmsmith

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