Social Commentary in Horror

Having already established that science fiction often contains elements of social commentary, I wish to explore whether the same is true of horror. I had this idea about a week ago and in preparation felt I ought to write a few book reviews of my favourite horror novels.

To be perfectly honest I can’t think of a great many horror novels or films that really attempt to explore the same sort of issues that hard science fiction or social science fiction attempt. Those that do tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The primary aim of horror is, after all, to terrify. Science fiction has no such primary goal.

There are examples of social commentary in horror. Let me start with James Herbert’s The Rats and its first sequel Lair.

James Herbert had a tough childhood having been brought up in a run down area of London that had not been rebuilt after the blitz. In such a world, rats would be everywhere and he admits that his childhood experiences was a strong influence on the novel. What is most interesting about The Rats is the general feeling that the government doesn’t care. After all, in the early part of the novel, the attacks only take place in this squalid estate. Out of sight out of mind, the underclasses of society are being left to their own devices. But then it becomes too late when the rats over-run London.

The first sequel Lair is set in the 1980s. The Iron Lady is Prime Minister and the prevailing attitude is “Me, me, me, me, me! Money, money, money!” This is reflected in the denial of the authorities that run the park where the rats are discovered. “We can’t have a rat problem, we’ve got a business to run! We’ll lose lots of money if we close!” This same state of mind also clouds the judgement of the Mayor of Amity Island in Jaws who is so concerned with the local economy on 4th July weekend that he pretends the shark problem does not exist.

There is no social commentary in the final part of the trilogy Domain. It is about the rise of the rats after a nuclear war and the human survivors struggling to exist. However if any reader has their own theory, feel free to offer it.

Frankenstein I have discussed before though I am more inclined now to classify it as science fiction rather than horror. Though the creature kills many people, the theme of the novel is not really to scare the reader but to present the question of which man is the greater monster. Arguably, there is a case to be made for a theme of warning of the dangers of science without thought for morality; this could also be said for Jekyll and Hyde.

I Am Legend entertains a similar question of monsters. Robert Neville is the last man alive in a world of vampires (the real blood sucking kind, not the po-faced sparkle-in-the-sunshine emo types). Unwilling or unable to distinguish between the zombie-like “dead” vampires and the still largely human “alive” vampires, Neville has reduced them to lab rats for his potential cure and kills others indiscriminately. They test him too, sending one of their own to understand his mind and attempt to dissuade him from his actions. As the only human trying to kill or cure vampirism of a vampire population that doesn’t want to be killed or cured, who then is the monster?

Many more books and films play on the simplest human failings. Stephen King’s Needful Things is an exploration of human selfishness and greed, and arguably materialism and how far we would go to protect our luxuries. The townspeople have been corrupted by the elaborate fantasy created by a malevolent entity but the message is there: this is what we do for earthly possessions.

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Also by Stephen King, The Mist is about a group of people trapped in a supermarket with thick fog blanketing the land outside. In this fog are deadly creatures from another world that can and do kill; hence the people inside cannot leave. The true horror though takes place inside the supermarket as the trapped people turn on each other; a religious cult springs up and the occupants divide into two factions. The recent film version directed by Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead, Shawshank Redemption) made more of the danger of the creatures by having them attack the supermarket several times and making it necessary for people to venture outside. For me, this greater focus on the creatures and the danger outside enhanced the dangers of being inside. No one version is weaker than the other for the slightly different approach and compliment each other well.

Then of course we come to the most notable, the slightly tongue in cheek Dawn of the Dead from the 1970s. Largely believed to be a critique of consumerism as zombies wander aimlessly around the mall, a group of people rob a bank when money is useless and people accumulate material goods for the sake of it, stuff with no outward value and largely useless in the post-apocalyptic world.

Above there are many examples of social commentary in horror so it seems that despite the primary aim of the genre being to terrify the reader/viewer, we can explore current social issues through that medium. I stand by my earlier statement that these are exceptions rather than the rule.

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4 thoughts on “Social Commentary in Horror

  1. Kristen

    I can’t disagree with you more. Putting aside gore-for-gore’s-sake subgenres like ‘splatterpunk’ (which should no more represent the average horror story than tentacle rape comics should represent sci-fi), horror almost has to include social commentary. To get under our skin, horror has to touch on what really unnerves us.

    For example, put “Dracula” in context: England’s growing population of Eastern European immigrants, increasingly vocal suffragettes and feminists, and homosexuality being something of an open secret. Who is “Dracula” meant to frighten?

    (There’s a reason Dracula’s been made a romantic hero in film adaptations, and why women have embraced vampires in fiction!)

    Zombie tales often comment on mob mentality, the dehumanizing of the individual and the evils of power. Atomic age science fiction, much of which was horror wearing space suits, often reflected the political climate of paranoia regarding Communism, fear of man playing God, and so on.

    If you find the Other and identify the story’s ideal audience, you can start to tug loose the threads of social commentary.

    1. mgm75

      To be fair I never said there never was social commentary in horror; I said that there were far fewer examples of it. Dracula certainly is an example of it for the reasons you stated (and some others, the spread of STIs such as syphilis too – Dracula is a menacing villain and a master of seduction, not a romantic figure). But I stand by my comment that it is the exception rather than the rule. I have read most of the work of James Herbert and Stephen King and there are only a handful of examples in their work). I’ve also read Clive Barker (a handful) and Dean Koontz (just one novel and I have no interest in reading more).

      But back to Dracula… You are however ignoring the context of the time Dracula was written. It may not frighten anybody now but, as a relatively new genre at the time of writing, its impact would have been greater. In the 21st century we have become more immune to it. As another example, films that my grandparents might have found terrifying, we may chuckle at now. Do you find The Devil Rides Out scary? I don’t, my parents did. Today it seems tame (even as one of the better horror films from that period).

      As for zombies, I deliberately skimmed over the subject because I knew that in the near future I would do a post on the sub-genre. I wanted to wait until I had read Zombie Apocalypse! (which I now have). Over the last couple of days I have started to put it together. Please do come back and check.

  2. I grew up in the same part of East London as James Herbert, Bethnal Green. His parents had a vegetable stall in the local market in Bethnal Green road. I did not know James Herbert personally as we were both kids, being more or less the same age, and we made our own way.I have read most of his books, amongst them the rat trilogy which interested me most of all and I might know where he got the idea from.
    Our part of London was very near the docks and was a target of the German aircraft in WW2. Many buildings were destroyed, only the cellars remaining from various factories and workshops. At the end of Bethnal Green Road there was bombed buildings and the rebuilding only took place after I left London around 1966.
    Rats are the kings of survival and they built their home in their desolate cellars. I would walk along the Bethnal Green road on my way to grammar school (in Spitalfields market, near Bishopsgate) and the rats would “come out to play”. There must have been hundreds of them swarming in the remaining ruins. One morning my dad was on his way home from night work and saw them. I had never said anything at home, as I knew mum was terrified of anything that squeaked on four legs. I told dad they had always been there. Usually there were a lot of people watching their antics standing behind a lower wall to watch at a safe distance.
    I am sure this was also known by James Herbert, being a local boy, and perhaps the idea of the rats crystallised from his boyhood experiences, who knows.

    1. I think you’re right. I did recall reading years after my first reading of The Rats that his experiences growing up in that area of London, particularly seeing the rats in the area, inspired him to write his first novel.

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