Well, that’s the last month of the year and the last year of the decade. As the strains of Auld Lang Syne drift through the air, let us see what December brought us in horror culture…
Some old ghosts came back to visit as the long nights of winter drew in. A couple of classic tales of the supernatural were dusted off for our screens around Christmastime, with Steven Knight penning a miniseries of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (starring Guy Pearce) and the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand returning with Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of “Martin’s Close” by M. R. James (starring Peter Capaldi).
I managed to miss both of them — although I did catch Black Christmas in cinemas. This film spurred quite a bit of debate even before it came out — partly because of its irrelevance to the 1974 film of the same name (despite it being ostensibly a remake) and partly because of its feminist themes. It was not especially well-received by critics, scoring only 40% at Rotten Tomatoes.
For my part, I found it to be rather hit-or-miss. It was one third traditional slasher, one third intersectional feminist tract, and one third feature-length Buffy episode; whenever one of these aspects was working, at least one of the other two tended to suffer.
On the book front, one title that sparked debate this month was A Children’s Book of Demons by Aaron Leighton. The book isn’t new — it came out back in July — but for one reason or another it appears to have passed largely without comment until late November, when right-wing blog Activist Mommy ran a scare story on it (I’ve already commented on an earlier scare story from the blog, which used misleading photographs to make it look as though police officers with sniper rifles were protecting drag queens). The story was then picked up by Doug Mainwairing of LifeSiteNews early this month, who quoted professional exorcist Father Chad Ripperger: “It is a sign of the degeneration of our society that making use of demons is considered acceptable… Books such as these ought to be avoided by parents and children, as they pose a possible opening to demons’ influence in their lives, which will only end in affliction and suffering.” Ripperger is also on record as saying that demons sometimes try to bribe people with Mountain Dew.
Regrettably, the book appears to have already gone out of print, and copies are going for fairly chunky sums online. This is too bad, as the book was poised to become something of a cult hit, with the negative reaction from commentators of the religious right being followed by a wave of favourable reviewers who found the whole affair something of a jape.
Another controversy that resulted in a large amount of scoffing came when journalist Noah Berlatsky suggested that John Carpenter’s 1989 alien invasion satire They Live had an antisemitic undercurrent. Berlatsky made this point in his We Are The Mutants piece “‘A Matter of Good Breeding’: The Shape-Shifting Elite in Brian Yuzna’s ‘Society’”. This essay, which is based around the (entirely reasonable) point that radical and reactionary monster movies often use the same tropes to push their messages, mentions They Live in passing:
In the movie, John Nada (Roddy Piper), a virtuous, optimistic, working-class protagonist, discovers that cadaverous aliens are living among us, controlling us with television messages that turn us into obedient, consuming drones. The movie is widely considered a critique of Reagan-era neoliberalism, and it is that. But it’s also a story about the virtues of genocide. A white guy discovers aliens who don’t look like him living in his town, and his first impulse is to murder them. Foreign shape-shifting immigrants, like vampires, are a standard anti-Semitic stand-in for Jews, and They Live can be read as a fascist conspiracy theory, in which brave working Americans finally recognize their racial oppressors, and respond with righteous cleansing violence.
A few days later Berlatsky commented on Twitter that They Live “is kind of an antisemitic dogwhistles [sic]” and, after an ensuing debate, posted a short piece on Patreon devoted to this reading. “Carpenter intended the film as a critique of Reagan’s 80s capitalism”, he acknowledges; but “[u]nfortunately, embodying the evil in shape shifting assimilating alien invaders makes the bad guys look less like a homegrown capitalist class and more like antisemitic imagery of parasitic Jews. Carpenter is broadcasting messages he doesn’t understand.”
“In that context, you can see They Live itself as a subliminal meaning hidden within a surface image. But in this case the glasses, by assuring you that you are seeing the anticapitalist truth, actually blind you to the antisemitic skull leering underneath.”
Berlatsky’s argument went down extremely badly: following the response on Twitter, I saw commentators from across the political spectrum hurling figurative fruit at him. The affair strikes me as an interesting example of how a sensible argument can become twisted and distorted first by the demands of controversy-hungry pop culture journalism, and then by the black-and-white nature of social media debates.
Berlatsky was perfectly correct in noting that propaganda and satire frequently use similar images and tropes to make drastically different points, so that — for example — one writer’s attack on yuppie culture might have similarities to another writer’s attack on Jews. But in making this point through a repeated attack on this particular 1980s sci-fi comedy, Berlatsky achieved attention at the cost of weakening his argument. Jess Nevenis wrote a good Twitter thread on the topic, accusing Berlatsky of twisting the text to fit his thesis in the name of “performative wokemanship”.
The 2010s are at a close, and if you want help catching up on the horrors of the past ten years, then there’s no shortage of “best of the decade” lists: Katie Goh of Vice has chosen her top thirty horror films; Christopher Shultz of Lit Reactor has assembled a list of his ten favourite horror novels; and Sci-Fi & Scary contributor GracieKat shares her picks for the best horror games of the decade, to give just three examples.
On the other hand, perhaps you’re looking forward to what the future holds. Well, the 2020s beckon, and I’ll see you next year…