Jason Middleton on American horror films

Q&A with Labor of Fear editor Jason Middleton on Why Work and American Horror Films Remain Intertwined

In the new book Labors of Fear, edited by Jason Middleton, top and emerging media scholars analyze the concept of work in Hollywood horror films. Their essays track depictions of labor in the genre including questionable scientific experiments, caregiving, and more. In this Q&A, Middleton responds to the question “Why are work and American horror films so intertwined?” His answers connect the genre’s history to recent films’ explorations of familial responsibilities and financial pressure. Here, Middleton explores the horror genre’s engagement with themes of professional ethics, class, failure, and gendered work. The book’s contributors deepen this discussion by bringing recent films into the conversation.

How have the elements of capitalism that get represented and twisted in horror films changed across the industry’s history?

The main form of work represented in classic horror cinema is, by far, mad science. But iconic characters of this era, like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Jack Griffin (the Invisible Man) are never shown doing any quotidian lab work or research such as seeking a cure for illness. Rather, their work is consistently framed as ill-conceived scientific overreach, as “playing God.” They seek to bring life to the dead, or to fundamentally transform the human body or psyche in fantastical ways. Their efforts are framed as narcissistic and antisocial at best, and generally progress toward the pathological and the destructive.

Other central characters in classic horror are rarely shown working at all. Female love interests and fiancées exist primarily in terms of their relation to the male lead. The aristocratic patriarchs who seek to secure the young scientists’ positions as patrilinear successors do not perform everyday work, but instead occupy elite social roles like wealthy landowner (Baron von Frankenstein) or military commander (Dr. Jekyll’s fiancée’s father). By making mad science the privileged example of work itself, the classic horror film casts a dark shadow over work as a category. It is either invisible, or it becomes visible in dangerous and monstrous forms.

Is this trope still active within the genre? How have depictions of work changed?

In classic horror, mad scientists fail to adhere to social and ethical standards of their profession, and, in turn, fail to realize their own megalomaniacal ambitions. The modern horror film proliferates the forms of work and labor it represents, but it carries over from classic horror’s mad science a fundamental ambivalence about work. In the modern horror film, workers fail at, and are failed by, work itself. Dispossessed blue collar workers assault middle-class tourists in rural horror films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The efforts of middle-class men like Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby and Jack Torrance in The Shining to develop careers in creative work (acting, writing) fuel their descents into evil and madness. From real-estate development (Poltergeist) to logging (Prophecy), capitalist enterprise in the horror genre consistently brings unintended and destructive effects.

So, one major reason why work and horror are intertwined is that fear is a byproduct of failure or the threat of failure, and all forms of work contain within them the fearsome prospect of failing.

What makes horror an appealing genre through which to engage with capitalist systems of work and labor?

Both work under capitalism and horror movies are about survival. And, as I pointed out above, failure is a central prospect that links work and horror in the genre. Mad scientists as well as more everyday workers fail in their goals. Human characters fail to survive the onslaught of the monster or killer. Monsters (usually) fail, in the end, to destroy society.

In many of the recent horror films analyzed in Labors of Fear, characters live with the daily anxieties and dread produced by forms of economic precarity and a largely disappeared middle class. That is, for these characters, the threat of failure hangs even more heavily over all their lived experiences. Economic stability feels like it is slipping away from middle-class white characters in films like The Babadook and It Follows; Black characters’ entry to previously inaccessible class status is threatened and tenuous in films like Us, Lakeview Terrace, and The Intruder. Even the intellectual labor of the Black academic in Midsommar is made tenuous by the threat of plagiarism by an untalented white colleague. The emotional work of trying to sustain heterosexual relationships is oppressive and destructive for the women protagonists of The Swerve and Midsommar.

One essay in Labors of Fear considers how George Romero’s final film, Survival of the Dead, signals a transition in Romero’s work from a concern with the survival of small groups after the zombie apocalypse to broader questions of cumulative trauma and species survival. In other words, Romero is no longer exploring whether humanity can survive the zombies, but whether the planet itself can survive humanity. But most of the films discussed in Labors of Fear depict late-stage capitalism rather than the post-apocalypse that may lie in store. For the characters in these films, surviving a monster or killer is deeply intertwined with daily acts of surviving toxic masculinity, anti-Black racism, and precarious employment.

Labors of Fear includes sections on gendered labor and racialized labor. How have recent horror films represented these labor experiences? What do they reveal about them or the systems that require them?

The daily experiences of precarity I outlined above disproportionately affect women and people of color. As Robin Means Coleman and other scholars have pointed out, at the creative level, the genre has grown significantly more inclusive of a diverse range of voices. In part due to this broadening of perspectives, much recent horror cinema has compellingly shifted away from the Othering of women and people of color in the genre’s constructions of monstrosity. Instead, it has portrayed the work of surviving—and, in some cases, resisting—the monstrous violence of white patriarchal capitalism.

In our section on “Domestic, Gendered, and Emotional Labor,” Labors of Fear takes as its starting point the fact that the conventional female characters of horror are united by their performance of some kind of caregiving labor, becoming monstrous when they endanger children or heroic when they protect them. In myriad ways, women in horror have conventionally served as vehicles for male anxieties. The essays in our book shift the focus to how genre conventions have more recently been critically deployed to convey the lived horrors of women’s caregiving work itself. Lisa Coulthard, for example, introduces the concept of the “sonic gothic” in the feminist horror films The Babadook and The Swerve: an aural means of immersing the viewer in the female protagonists’ experiences of the draining impact of routine domestic labor, financial pressures, and troubled and ungrateful family members.

The book’s section on “Race and Racialized Labor” focuses, in particular, on the intersection of race and economic inequality: how economic stagnation, downward mobility, and class gatekeeping unequally—and often fearsomely—affect people of color. For example, Mikal Gaines analyzes how the recent cycle of what he terms “buppie horror” (Black yuppie horror) films reverse the conventional positions of assailant and victim in domestic horror narratives such as the home invasion. In doing so, these films expose the tenuousness of the American dream for the Black middle class.