Home / Book Review/Interview: Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture by Annalee Newitz

Book Review/Interview: Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture by Annalee Newitz

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If you can read only one non-fiction horror genre book this year, first I strongly suggest you examine your priorities. Second, I highly recommend you pick up Annalee Newitz's Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. I warn you, you will need to really think while reading this book, but that is one of the pleasures of discovering fresh insights into the inner workings of what makes horror go bump in the night.

Mind you, I didn't say you will need to agree with everything Ms. Newitz posits in this exhaustive examination of sociological and economic forces on the cinematic realizations of the undead (zombies), the indifferent (serial killers), and the insane (mad doctors). But if you disagree, you better be prepared to argue why as well as she does.

"I'm a zombie, you're a zombie, we're all zombies too." Repeat these words over and over again to the tune of Dr. Pepper playing in your head. Now you're ready.

Can3If you work in a corporate office, you will understand Ms. Newitz' ideas. If you have to work in a dull gray cubicle for a pittance  begrudgingly allotted to you while CEOs walk away with your retirement fund, you will understand her reasoning.

If you've gone through the demeaning and demoralizing experience ironically called the performance review (given by the company-is-my-life divorced drone alienated from his kids, who will gladly stab you in the back to make a sawbuck or to move on up the shaky corporate ladder), you will nod your head in agreement with her arguments.

For that dog biscuit we roll over and play dead every day in order to survive the dullness, the inanity, the humiliation of our daily work life. Well, at least most of us – those who are low on the corporate success ladder. While we get the golden shaft, those higher up the ladder get golden parachutes. So is it any wonder the monsters we see on the golden screen are the products of our collective economic misery or that they pursue their psychotic and body count careers with such workmanlike aplomb?

Ms. Newitz's discussion spares no contemporary horror icon. From serial killers and mad doctors to the annoying undead, robots, and mass media monsters — all are fodder for her unwavering gaze. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you will agree or disagree, but one thing you won't be able to do is put the book down easily, or read it just once.

Oddly enough, I found the most fascinating chapter to be the first: "Serial Killers: Murder Can be Work." Perhaps this is due to my brief foray into Forensic Psychology and having to wear a clip-on tie when spending time in the most agitated ward in a mental facility. But do not miss her discussion of Lovecraft, colonialism, and DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation in the chapter on the undead, in which she examines the social and cultural fears that run like a stygian river deep underneath Lovecraft's mythos.

Serial killers make interesting monsters on screen due to their downright ordinariness. Their outward jejuneness belies an insatiable evil within and that makes them perfect monsters (no makeup needed) that scare us mostly because they take their jobs so seriously and work around the clock to perfect their skills.

Like perfect little corporate entities, they consume the egos around them, and usually a limb or two also, as they become the perfect consumers. Neat, tidy disposal of the bodies; neat, tidy, little fleshy keepsakes zip-locked and tupperwared away in the fridge. They go about their business of death without any moral stirrings or feelings for the damage done. Sound like any US corporations you know?

Within this chilling chapter, Ms. Newitz analyzes and compares the likes of Lucas, Dahmer, and the new age serial killer — the terrorist — against their cinematic equivalents and the economic dynamics that keep them working. Against the backdrop of naturalism and The Red Badge of Courage, to Norman Mailer's obsession with Gilmore, and Karl Marx's belief that "capital is dead labor," this chapter is scintillating.

Along the way, there are numerous references to films and fiction that will percolate the horror-life of any jaded genre fan. But before you go sailing down the Amazon to get a copy, here are a few questions I asked Ms. Newitz regarding her new book.

In Pretend We're Dead, you place capitalism in an important role as a primary influence on horror icons. Let me ask two questions here: Why? And what horror icons do you think would have been created without capitalism's influence?

I chose to focus on capitalism because I kept seeing images and themes in horror movies that dealt with money, professional status, and violence between people from different class backgrounds.

I think the idea of "economic horror" really gelled for me when I was watching the Fredric March version of Jekyll and Hyde from 1931. Here was this guy who was trying to be a good doctor, a professional middle-class doctor, and yet he couldn't stop turning into this monster who was clearly intended to be scary in large part because he was lower class.

Hyde in this film looks rather hairy and toothy, but the main thing that makes him appalling is that he goes to cheap saloons and watches burlesque acts and becomes obsessed with a working girl, Ivy. The struggle between Jekyll and Hyde in this film is between two men of different classes.

Once I saw this, I began to see other kinds of monsters spawned by capitalism: slave-class cyborgs like RoboCop; ghosts of the ghetto like Bones; human batteries in the Matrix. Monster stories work because they express the dark side of ourselves and our cultures.

Capitalism is a powerful social force that divides us, destroys lives (think market crash), and pushes us to do unpleasant things against our will (like work awful jobs) in order to survive. It's not surprising that it inspires horror movies.

Certainly there are monsters that don't represent our fears about capitalism. I just saw The Descent, which was a decent little monster movie about human/mole Lovecraftian creatures who eat a bunch of spelunkers.

If I had to say what kinds of real-life fears were being worked out in that movie, they would have to do with gender and sexuality (two common issues that haunt monster flicks) — all the spelunkers are female, and the main conflict is that one woman had an affair with the other's husband the day he died. There's a lot of squeezing into wet holes and women fighting each other in pools of  chunky blood, as well as battling these ghostly pseudo-men. Not much about capitalism at all.

In your Wikipedia biography, it mentions you wrote your dissertation on "images of monsters, psychopaths, and capitalism." What makes a techno-geek such as yourself interested in such things?

Films in the imaginative genres like horror, science fiction and fantasy are essentially the cultural sphere of techno-geek life. I think the spirit of invention that pushes somebody to build a cool new hardware device or discover a new genetic mechanism is the same thing that fuels narrative invention.

One could argue that horror and science fiction are the uneasy conscience of real science. They're a place for exploring the possible consequences of what we want for ourselves in real life. In horror film, we can speculate about what it would be like to build sentient robots, while in many labs around the world people are actually trying to do it. There's a reciprocal relationship between those two activities, and I want to pay attention to both of them.

With corporate and technological identity influencing one's personal life and self-image more and more (e.g., iPodders), what effect will this have on the direction of future horror films in their distribution, and more importantly, their content?

Obviously making and distributing independent film is going to become easier and cheaper, and I look forward to a rebirth of the Z-grade horror film. I'd love to see a YouTube-generation Herschell Gordon Lewis or Frank Hennenlotter. The world would be a better place with more people like Frank Hennenlotter out there making cheap, amazing horror movies — or simply bringing back forgotten gems on DVD as Hennenlotter has been doing with Something Weird Video over the years.

As for how content will change, I think we're already seeing it. There are movies like The Ring  — about the horror of the mass-duplication of video content. More recently there's the gawdawful flick Pulse — about the horror of Evil Wifi Technology From The Internets. Both are reflections of a new era in techno-horror. I can't wait for the first iPod horror film. The new Doctor Who series has already done some episodes about how the Cybermen control people via Bluetooth headsets, which I thought was genius.

Let's do a little word association test. Tell me the horror-related word, film, or image that comes to mind when I mention the following:

Cubicle: land of the Cenobytes in Hellraiser
Business: the "corporation" in Alien
Editor: Annie from Misery
Technology: the rotted, organic game consoles in eXistenZ
Sales Person: Body Snatchers from the awesome 1978 version of the film (with Leonard Nimoy!)
Business Meeting: zombie army in Night of the Living Dead
Manager: Hannibal Lecter
Associate: nurse who kills herself for Damian in The Omen
Tech support person: robot slaves in Westworld
CEO: head vampires in either the Blade movies or the Underworld movies

Do you see the increasingly insecure social climate created by terrorism as a factor in your equation of capitalism and horror?

Absolutely, and I talk about this in various places in my book. In the US right now, terrorism often translates itself into more long-standing fears about people of color and ethnic groups who are outcasts in mainstream US culture.

I definitely think the resurgence in zombie movies fits into this — not only is the zombie a figure borrowed from Afro-Carribean culture, but often you'll notice that in zombie movies there's some ancient curse connected to, say, Egypt or someplace in the Middle East that has caused the zombie action to erupt.

If you want to look for the politics in monster movies, a big tipoff is usually where the monsters originate. It's interesting that The Exorcist — made during another Middle Eastern crisis — starts with a curse in the Middle East. Then there's the old "Native burial ground" idea.

And now that black filmmakers have been producing their own excellent horror flicks for a while (oh how I love From Hell and Tales from the Hood), you're getting a different perspective, where the monsters are actually coming from white middle-class culture to prey on people in ghettos. So be on the lookout for more horror movies that have racial/nationalist overtones.
What question would you love to be asked, but haven't been asked yet? And what's the answer?

I've been asked excellent questions. One question I didn't want to be asked was: "Why did you talk about The Man with Two Brains in this book?" Then Ed Champion asked me that for his lit podcast on Return of the Reluctant. The answer was really just that I liked the movie a lot and I have a section about brain movies and I threw it in. I had no good reason. I kept hemming and hawing and trying to invent a good reason it was in the book and there really wasn't one.

Finally, where do you see technology taking us ten years from now?

More people making fantastic indie horror and science fiction movies and putting them online for free under Creative Commons licenses! Oh wait — that's just my wish, not my prediction.

Annalee Newitz writes about technology, science, and pop culture at Techsploitation.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!