Next month, Madness Heart Press will release American Cult, an anthology of distinctly American horror, which includes my short story, “stuffed.” To celebrate, this is the second installment in a three-part examination of horror that has been molded by the American experience; a few humble words in appreciation of the Purge. (In case you missed part one, you can read it here).The Purge canon – so far, four films and one season of a USA series, with another on the way – is completely the creature of James DeMonaco. DeMonaco wrote all four movies, directed the first three, and worked as one of the writers on the TV series as well. I mention this because it’s notable for a big horror franchise like the Purge cinematic universe (the films have, thus far, grossed about $450 million) to be so much the product of one person’s unique vision. If the richness and variety of the themes and characters offered by these films is any indication, the horror industry should take note – and, perhaps, offer creators more control over their creations.
The Purge, for the uninitiated, imagines a dystopian America in which a fascist political organization called the New Founding Fathers of America has seized control during a period of economic upheaval, tremendous income inequality and social instability. The NFFA – whose platform is equal parts social Darwinism and religious fundamentalism – claim to have a solution for America’s ills; the Purge, an annual event wherein from 7 PM to 7 AM, all crime, including murder, is legal, all emergency services are suspended, and all hell is allowed to break loose. The theory behind this policy is that if citizens are allowed to vent their criminal impulses, they won’t break the law for the other 364 days of the year. And it works – or so the NFFA’s publicly released crime statistics and economic data seem to say.
It’s a terrific premise, and I love a good premise. In the wrong hands, a premise becomes a gimmick, a trick that distracts from wobbly dialogue or wooden characters. DeMonaco’s Purge franchise avoids turning the titular night of terror into such a gimmick. His street-level view of the unintended (and, as it turns out, quite intended) consequences of the NFFA’s plan stays fast-paced and nimble, his characters are interesting, complicated people with realistic motives, and his films – in particular, The Purge: Anarchy – contain moments of chilling and surreal beauty.
At first glance, DeMonaco’s work might seem like a politically retrograde – even reactionary – statement; an endorsement of violence, vigilantism, and guns-a-blazin’, white-hat-versus-black-hat nonsense. But he presents stories that subtly play on real and very American issues of class, race, and the conflict between liberty and justice. Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary and military leader, once said that “the United States appear to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” Purge Night is “misery in the name of liberty” taken to its logical extent; license to do whatever – to more or less whomever – one wishes, with consequences supposedly removed by the sanction of the state. Whether there are really no repercussions for one’s behavior if there are no legal repercussions is one of the questions that the films explore.
A clear thread throughout Purge canon is that the night in question presents a distinctly different reality for those with power and money compared to those without. DeMonaco presents us with a world in which the rich pay top dollar for (sometimes) willing victims, creating a nightmare market where life is quite concretely given a monetary value, and the libertine class is allowed to let their very worst impulses run free. In the meat grinder of a truly free market, the humanity is stripped from victim and tormenter alike.
Speaking of dollars and death, we can’t discuss America – or horror – without discussing guns, can we? The fetishization of weapons is a recurring motif in DeMonaco’s fever-dream carnival of destruction. Whatever your opinion of gun culture, it’s hard to argue against the idea that in the United States, the love of firepower has been taken to a ghoulish extreme. The world of the Purge takes the love of murder gadgetry and self-defense even further; those who can afford it stock up on AR-15s and custom security set-ups, while those who can’t arm themselves with whatever they can and board up their houses. Some roving gangs of murderers are armed with little more than machetes and malice; others with suspiciously military-looking hardware. To be sure, there might be more to some of those gangs – the masked ones with jackboots and night-vision – than the NFFA wants the public to know.
Generally, I hate a conspiracy or “false flag” narrative as much as I love a good premise. DeMonaco’s vision of the NFFA regime, however, we have an exception to that rule. American horror – and the cult of America – is often about power, about who wields control. It’s a common misconception that the opposite of fascism is chaos. In reality, the emergence of totalitarian control often relies on chaos, or at least a carefully choreographed imitation of chaos, to muddy the waters of political change or disguise the crimes of a new regime. It’s a twist unique to this fair land that the terror of total powerlessness – total abdication of rights, of the security of one’s own bodily autonomy – should come masked with flowery words about liberty. It’s no accident that certain events in the first season of the Purge TV show (I won’t spoil anything) reference the slave block in a way that reminds us that even the horrors of the Purge, which seem so hyperreal and exaggerated, actually pale in comparison to the sins that stain the American past.
Total misery in the name of limitless liberty – would you make the trade?
Have we all started to make that bargain already?
As the New Founding Fathers of America say at the beginning of each annual night of cruelty and brutality; “Blessed be America. A nation reborn.”