Escape the election fright fest with these spooky political thrillers
The impending 2020 presidential election is enough of a political fright fest. I don’t need extra spookies this Halloween, because I’m scared plenty already thanks. That being said, there’s some evidence that horror stories help relieve our anxiety, in a strange way. Basically, dosing your brain with small amounts of “good stress,” where you know you’re not in any real danger, helps bolster your resilience to life’s real struggles.
Well, lucky for us possibly doomed Americans, there’s a veritable plethora of politically charged horror stories in the pop culture canon. You know, so we can all watch aliens infiltrate humanity and farm us for capitalism and then feel better about having Frankenstein’s monster as commander-in-chief. Or something like that.
Anyhow, scary stories have always been an effective way for humans to explore their darkest fears. And in our harrowing times — where politics, economics, systemic inequality, and racism play a role in everyone’s lives, and marginalized folks have the most to fear — it’s no surprise, really, that lots of the greatest horror tales confront the powers that govern our lives.
If you’re looking to tune out Trump (and pass the time while we wait for the election results to be tallied), here’s an assortment of politically-charged horror stories to keep you titillated.
Lovecraft Country (2016 novel, 2020 TV series)
Much like how HBO’s Watchmen limited series was an extension of the comics from the 1980s, the network’s Lovecraft Country is a continuation of the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The dark fantasy explores the conjunction between notorious racist author H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction and IRL inequality in America at the height of Jim Crow.
The Werewolf of Washington (1973 film)
This film from 1973 looks absolutely bonkers, but sometimes life calls for a ridiculous monster movie. This one is about the White House press secretary, who gets bitten by a wolf while on a diplomatic trip to Hungary. (He thinks the attack was the work of communists.) Lo and behold, he becomes a werewolf and dead people start appearing all over Washington, D.C.
Tales from the Hood (1995 film)
Before there was Black Mirror, there was Tales from the Hood to freak us out with its supernatural twist on real-life horrors like police brutality, child abuse, and masked racists. The framing story is that three men are trying to buy some drugs from a mysterious funeral director (the iconic Clarence Williams III). As they fetch the goods from inside the mortuary, he tells them about the fates of various stiffs on his slabs. Spooky stuff — executive produced by Spike Lee, no less!
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014 novel)
In a wartime spin on Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein, Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi’s novel is about a man who walks the streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, collecting body parts. He’s trying to stitch them together to form a new corpse, in order to give them a proper burial per the government. But when the patchwork body disappears and a wave of gruesome murders sweeps the city, it appears he’s created an insatiable monster.
Get Out (2017 film)
Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut — a creepy, witty thriller about a Black man visiting his white girlfriend’s family, only to discover they’re not as enlightened as they might pretend — effectively kicked down the door for similarly socially-critical scary content. See also: Peele’s 2019 film Us, which examined extreme inequality.
The Manchurian Candidate (1959 novel, 1962 and 2004 films)
Perhaps the most well-known political thriller of all time, The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the most enduring — about an affluent young man brainwashed by communists (always communists!) and turned into an at-will assassin for the KGB. I recently learned the book is way dirtier than either film adaptation, if that’s something you’re into.
Democracy by Joan Didion (1984 novel)
This little-known work of fiction by famous chronicler of real life, Joan Didion, centers on an heiress from Hawaii ensnared in a love triangle with her husband, a U.S. Senator, and her lover, a C.I.A. agent and war profiteer. It’s set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and early tests of atomic weapons in the Pacific and chews on gnarly topics like colonialism. Plus there’s murder in Honolulu!
Jaws (1975 film)
As we pointed out back on Independence Day, Jaws has a weird amount in common with pandemic politics. Steven Spielberg’s much-loved shark thriller is about people getting chewed up by a bloodthirsty fish, true. But it’s also about a government blatantly ignoring a deadly problem at the peril of its citizens. Chilling.
American Horror Story: Cult (2017 TV series)
For its seventh season, FX’s spooky anthology series centered on the horrific aftermath of Donald Trump becoming president. American Horror Story: Cult pitted sadistic members of a clown mask-wearing cult against the residents of a Michigan suburb — including Sarah Paulson and her adorable wife and kids. We hate to see it.
They Live (1988 film)
In the not-too-distant future, severe income inequality has led to rampant homelessness. Our protagonist struggles to make ends meet, stringing together construction jobs and residing in a shanty town. But then he stumbles on a magic pair of sunglasses and discovers that the world is secretly full of coded messages planted by extraterrestrial capitalists, who disguise themselves as humans just to economically exploit us. You know times are freaky when the aliens aren’t here to abduct us — they want to advertise to us!