For every terror that lies in wait in the woods – lurking with dripping fangs and razor claws – is there a corresponding menace to be found in the human-made world? I would argue so; after all, who among us hasn’t in the course of shopping or working looked around and noted the ironic inhumanity of a human-manufactured shopping experience? Discomfort with capitalism is as old as capitalism itself, and doesn’t always take the form of a Marxian critique or a suggested public policy change – no, it often emerges in art. In punk rock, in performance art, and – of course – in horror.
Once upon a time, I had a job at a record store in a downtown mall in the city where I live. Each day, I’d ride the train in to work and read on the ride. Often, I’d burn through paperback horror novels, which, thanks to a mall employee discount, I could obtain on the cheap (I polished off most of Clive Barker’s catalog this way). At one point, while taking a class on political ideology and wound up reading anarchist and Marxist critiques of capitalism on my journey in to punch the clock and on my breaks. It was both disorienting and orienting at the same time – reorienting, I suppose you’d call it. A reexamination of what my day-to-day life was by the light of a radically unforgiving and consuming flame. There were things of great and terrible value I that learned in that class. One of them was the concept of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; the prison-concept and forerunner of the modern surveillance state, an institution in which prisoners are both eternally observed and unable to see those observing them. The idea is that each prisoner internalizes their warden, and becomes their own captor – a metaphor that was decidedly not lost on many of the critics of capitalism that I read on my way to the mall.
My thoughts returned to those bygone train rides recently while I was reading Grady Hendrix’s excellent Horrorstör, a 2014 horror-satire set in a supernaturally beset IKEA-spoof (called ORSK in the novel). I was thrilled to encounter my old friend the Panopticon in the pages of Horrorstör, along with descriptions of both the human and inhuman elements of retail that I recognized immediately. Hendrix precisely describes the recycled air, corpse-lights, and general sensory bombardment of the designed retail environment. While the details of his book are more IKEA-specific than my retail experience, Hendrix’s emphasis on the human elements of his tale brought me right up close and made me care about the entire cast – the wage slaves, dead-enders, middle management, all of them. In this, the humanized aspect of Hendrix’s story is our cast of characters, and is contrasted sharply with the dehumanized built environment, which we discover is a prison built on the ghost of a prison – as Marxian a vision of big retail as one could ask for.
I think that Horrorstör is an extremely clever update of a theme that was, perhaps, best explored by a previous generation in George Romero’s masterful Dawn of the Dead (which was subjected to a decent if imperfect remake by Zack Snyder and James Gunn in 2004). Dawn of the Dead was, of course, Romero’s macrocosmic answer to the microcosm he presented in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Whereas Night addressed issues of race and Cold War paranoia, Dawn was aimed explicitly at consumer culture and capitalism. Like Horrorstör, it transpires entirely in a designed environment that has been rendered hostile. Our cast is carried from the supposedly neutral world of commerce to the red altar of carnage, into the cold light of the uncanny, a light by which we are presented with the terrifying truth that the store – the mall – was never really neutral to begin with.
A built environment need not be physical, either – not necessarily. One built social environment in particular has invited consideration by creators of horror: the corporation, that arrangement that has, since its humble beginnings, taken on the foundational importance – the throne of primacy – once occupied in some places by the Holy Roman Empire, or the Mayans. The corporation is all around us, providing for our human needs and attempting to answer our human questions in a profoundly inhuman – -some would argue anti-human – way. This has been addressed widely in horror – for example, in films as diverse as Severance (a blood-soaked, chav-tastic 2006 British-German romp through workplace retreats), 2017 SXSW Steven Yeun gem Mayhem, and my favorite example: The Cabin in the Woods, which is usually celebrated for its fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of horror tropes but is just as much a fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of corporate dehumanization, both literal and figurative.
All of these considerations of built environments and our response to them emphasize the alienation of good, essentially human people from their surroundings, which suddenly take on a hostile or threatening cast. Bret Easton Elis is another kettle of fish entirely. Ellis’ American Psycho is generally accepted as modern horror canon, but Ellis’ other work sometimes escapes the notice of fans of the fiendish, or at least is less often considered in this specific light. 1998’s Glamorama, for example, qualifies as horror-satire as much as thriller-satire – and one that lampoons the built environments (both physical and social) of celebrity with visceral verve and viciousness. My favorite example of the Bret Easton Ellis approach to horror can be found in his 1994 short story collection The Informers, the best of which – “The Secrets of Summer” – should be studied carefully by any writer of short horror fiction for its lean, mean approach to sociopathy and the lessons that monsters can teach us about one another. Monsters are the key (but aren’t they always?); in Ellis’ work, the dehumanized – and dehumanizing – elements of the story are the characters themselves. Rather than set a cast we care about against a backdrop that seeks to do them harm, we meet a cast of wolves, snakes, and jackals – soulless predators all. But in the land of the monsters, is anyone really a monster? Or is “monster” a word necessarily born of comparison, of boundaries that must first exist to then be crossed? What if those boundaries never existed in the first place? In this way, Ellis offers us a truly transgressive vision of capitalist horror wherein we see not the contest between our dollars and our souls – but the bare, fleshless fact that it was never really a contest to begin with.
There are too many approaches to this question to list all of them here. But you don’t need me to list them all – now that I’ve got your gears turning, what are your favorite examples of a terrifying built environment, or of dehumanized humans in an unnatural social arrangement (is it, perhaps, Chopping Mall, arguably the worst movie of 1986)? Leave them in the comments or at me to let me know!